This week we feature another interview in our ‘Meet the MARS Team‘ series. We talk to Tano Gutiérrez, who works on the interactions and effects of multiple freshwater stressors at the Catchment Research Group at Cardiff University.
1. What is your focus of your work in MARS, and why?
The MARS project analyses how rivers, lakes and estuaries are affected by the interaction of human-induced stressors at three spatial scales (water body, catchment and continent). My main contribution to MARS is to compile and analyse the biological and environmental data from the Welsh catchments.
Cardiff University’s Catchment Research Group (led by Steve Ormerod and Isabelle Durance) have been collecting data in Wales from the early 1980s through to the present day, creating a comprehensive database ideal for studying the interaction of stressors across time and space. This dataset includes rivers that experienced acidification during the last century, but whose chemical conditions are now almost recovered; and those subject to intensive farming and climate change in various different combinations. This includes biodiversity data on aquatic macroinvertebrates (aquatic insects, molluscs and crustaceans), fish (e.g. Atlantic salmon and trout) and river birds (e.g. European dipper).
I am also helping to create a common framework to analyse the effects of stressors interactions in the rivers, lakes and estuaries of the different 16 European catchments included in this task. The outcomes of these analyses will help us to detect which stressor combinations are most damaging to the ecological status of European rivers. Further challenges include the development of biomonitoring tools which can detect the presence of such stressor interactions and their consequences for freshwater ecosystem services (for example, clean water, commercial fish or recreational values).
2. Why is your work important?
European countries currently assess aquatic ecosystems using biomonitoring tools that only determine the ‘health’ (or ecological status) of a site: either ‘good’ or ‘poor’. However, when we detect a problem in a freshwater environment, we should also seek to find out what is causing the ecological damage and predict any potential ecological or human welfare consequences. To use a human example, when we visit a doctor, we expect to be informed about the cause of our disease, the potential consequences, and of course then the treatment.
Our work in MARS project is critical to develop biomonitoring tools which can help us understand the causes and consequences of stress on freshwater ecosystems. In particular, I’m interested in using trait-based approaches to address these questions. Trait-based tools use the biological features of organisms, like body size, life stories, locomotion, trophic position, as opposed to taxonomic-based metrics, which use species, genus, family richness or composition. Trait-based approaches show clear advantages over conventional taxonomic methods for predicting biological changes in response to environmental conditions, such as predicting links between environmental change and ecosystem function, and reflecting evolutionary processes of adaptation to environmental conditions.
Let’s imagine some examples. Aquatic animals with higher physical exposure to dissolved chemicals (those with tegument or gill respiration) are more sensitive to aquatic pollutants compared to those which breathe air. Thus, increased dissolved pesticide concentrations are expected to affect organisms which breathe aquatically more profoundly. Large organisms need more energy to survive as a proportion of their body size, compared to smaller life forms. A sudden increase in required energy use – for example due to increased water temperature as a result of climate change – is therefore expected to disproportionately affect larger organisms. As such, finding unusually low proportions of aquatic breathing or large organisms in a freshwater ecosystem may be the result of dissolved pollutants or climate change. We can also detect an interaction between stressors when observing low proportions of aquatic breathing and large organisms. This is a way to implement ecological theory into biomonitoring that is relevant and useful for the MARS project.
3. What are the key challenges for freshwater management in Europe?
A major challenge is to integrate conceptual advances in ecology with practice. For example, widely applied practices in ecosystem management (particularly in assessment and restoration) are often rooted in ecological theory developed many years ago. Another challenge is to use the large databases of biological and environmental data generated through initiatives like the Water Framework Directive. These huge sets of data may allow scientists to look for general ecological spatial patterns or to assess biodiversity change over time, both which can be useful for ecosystem management.
Scientists should also be allowed and encouraged to do science outreach. I don’t think that scientists have time enough to disseminate and share their results with environmental managers and the public, a process of communication which can bring real research impact. Rather, the focus is usually only on publishing numerous papers in scientific journals. We should rethink how to measure and assess research impact, by considering how scientists are able to let their knowledge productively flow into society.
There is also a lack of understanding of the processes operating in rivers in comparison with terrestrial or marine ecosystems. Maybe it is easier to understand terrestrial ecosystems where you can watch ecosystems functioning in real-time; and where you can touch, smell and track changes more easily. Even in marine ecosystems you can dive and see what is happening. The temporal and spatial scales in which river ecosystems operate are challenging for humans.
In fact, freshwaters are still largely black boxes for scientific study, for two key reasons. First, the life in freshwaters operates at a scale too tiny (bacteria, diatoms, invertebrates – see the BioFresh Water Lives film above for an art-science interpretation of this) to be observed by humans. Second, the processes that may damage freshwaters operate on large spatial and temporal scales that are difficult understand and picture. For example, crops placed far from the river may contribute to increased levels of nutrients in rivers through diffuse pollution from fertilisers and pesticides. The problem arises in big river catchments where the pathways from crops to water bodies are complex. For instance, diffuse pollution may take 20 to 50 years to enter the river due to its slow movement through groundwater.
Finally, another important point is the preconception about economic growth and the trade-offs between human welfare and nature conservation. Put simply: we tend to equate success with wealth; and wealthy life requires damaging nature in one way or another. The problem is that scientists are not challenging this preconception. There is a high correlation between GDP per capita (or other wealth indicators such as the Human Development Index) and ecological footprint per capita. Recently, I heard about an index that measures the ratio between happiness and ecological footprint (Happy Planet Index). It’s seems more reasonable to measure efficiency in terms of how to achieve a happy society in a world with limited resources. Furthermore, the natural world is based in renewable energy and promotes diversity, so why don’t learn how to produce what we need in ways that mimic nature and natural processes?
4. Tell us about a memorable experience in your career.
The fieldwork I carried out for my PhD thesis was really amazing. I remember visiting really remote, pristine parts of Spain, working in beautiful arid landscapes. Sharing this time with my colleagues and supervisors was incredible. Also, I did also beautiful fieldwork in Morocco and Sicily. During these visits, I met really nice people and enjoyed great Moroccan and Sicilian food. The Sicilian survey was especially memorable. It was the first time I was in charge of everything: selecting sampling sites, coordinating people, finding the places, and so on. We were looking for a particular types of rivers: those exhibiting high levels of natural salinity. Using toponyms, lithology maps, species distribution data we selected a set of candidate sites and every visit was an adventure.
During my PhD period, I was also involved in a EU-funded educational project called Lessons from Nature. The project goal was to use nature as an inspiration to help transform the world. The principles of natural systems were key in developing the educational modules, using concepts such as: life is diverse, based in solar energy, waste becomes food, organism structures show multiple functions and so on. Students might, for example, compare how cities and natural ecosystems work. I would say that this project completely changed my view of thinking about nature, science and education. New paradigms like biomimicry and the circular economy are potential building blocks for a new sustainable world.
Last year, I had a small section in an online radio show called Ecomandanga (“having fun with nature”), which is dedicated to science outreach. Our team included ecologists (Felix Picazo and Dani Bruno) and a journalist (Elena García). Every week we summarised scientific news on biodiversity, health and sustainability, interviewed scientists and promoted local seasonal products and related traditional recipes. We had a reasonable impact, particularly on social networks. But the most important thing: we encouraged people to have fun with nature and science. Now we are planing Ecomandanga 2.0.
5. What inspired you to become a scientist?
My father was in charge of putting science in my life. He is a science secondary school teacher and an acknowledged science communicator. I remember that during my childhood we played many games where science was somehow involved. The fact is you had fun with those games: learning whilst playing. Also, during secondary school I had some really inspiring teachers who introduced me to the world of environmental science.
6. What are your plans and ambitions for your future scientific work?
All my scientific work so far has been focused on looking for general biodiversity patterns in response to stress. Food production is probably the most damaging global human activity due to its contribution to land use intensification and climate change. For this reason, at some point, it would be great to move towards working on how we can sustainably produce food using methods that mimic natural ecosystems and processes. For example, we know that biodiversity is positively related with the number of functions and services delivered by ecosystems (pollination, pest control, nutrient cycling, nitrogen fixation, erosion control and so on). However, industrial crops are generally produced in monospecific fields, covering billion of hectares globally.
Under these conditions, crop fields have only a limited range of ecological functions (just the production of the target crop), which is compensated for by increasing the amount of energy and chemicals used in agriculture. For instance, we spend 10 kcal of energy (mainly coming from fossil fuels) for each kcal of target crop globally. Creating perennial, edible ecosystems in both agricultural and urban landscapes is key to reducing the amount of energy we use, preserving biodiversity and increasing the nutrient concentration in crops. A good example of urban food production following this scheme is the Biospheric Foundation in Salford (Manchester), where they transform neighbourhood and organic wastes into vegetables, mushrooms, eggs, chicken, fish and honey. Local communities benefit by being able to buy these local, organic products in a shop which is only 78 steps from the food is produced!
Dragonflies and damselflies (or Odonata as commonly termed) are some of the most fascinating and beautiful freshwater species in the world. Exhibiting a huge variety of eye-catching colours and with wings flecked with unique patterns, Odonate species live in most parts of the world, laying their eggs in and around bodies of water, and commonly seen flitting about reeds and lily pads on the fringes of lakes, rivers and wetlands.
In this context, a comprehensive new book documentaing the dragonflies and damselflies of tropical East Africa has recently been published, co-written by Klaas-Douwe ‘KD’ Dijkstra from the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in The Netherlands and Viola Clausnitzer at the Senckenberg Museum of Natural History in Germany. The product of fifteen years of fieldwork, research and writing, The Dragonflies and Damselflies of Eastern Africa is the first handbook of its extent and detail on tropical Odonata.
Extending from Sudan and Somalia to Zambia and Mozambique, including the entire eastern half of the Congo Basin, the book covers a third of Africa – about ten million square kilometres, an area comparable to China or the United States – but includes almost two-thirds of the continent’s Odonate species. More than 500 species are illustrated by 1120 original drawings and 360 colour photographs. Identification keys to adult males of all species set a new standard for recognising ‘the birdwatcher’s insects’ in Africa, detailed genus descriptions provide the most comprehensive account of their ecology and taxonomy so far, and all species have been given a vernacular English name for the first time.
Co-author KD Dijkstra suggests that the new book has important consequences for both freshwater science and conservation, “My hope is that appreciating the visual beauty and ecological sensitivity of dragonflies may increase mankind’s awareness of nature’s diversity and vulnerability. 90% of animal species can fly, which aside from a few birds and bats are all insects. 10% of these insect species inhabit freshwaters: less than 1% of the planet. Nonetheless, science and conservation are dominated by groups that are less mobile (amphibians, fish), more terrestrial (birds, butterflies), or largely neither aquatic nor aerial (mammals, reptiles). As well as being very popular and visible, dragons and damsels are highly mobile in response to shifts in temperature and precipitation (i.e. climate change).
New frontiers in research, protection and appreciation of nature can only be opened if data on emerging flagship groups like dragonflies is expanded and shared. The Eastern African handbook is the first of its extent and detail to appear on tropical Odonata. Yet often the first reaction I get is “this is great, when can we expect West Africa to be done?” Users don’t always realize how much work is needed and how hard this is to fund. Funders for conservation, science or biodiversity infrastructure all want to apply the existing knowledge pool, but few invest in expanding it. This is ironic, firstly because basic knowledge (beginning with the question “what species is that?”) is what interests the public most about nature; and secondly because finding and sharing what is out there should be our first priority when nature is disappearing before our eyes. I believe that taking strides forward in our understanding of natural history will rely more and more on public and private funding. If people are excited to know more about dragonflies, they should realize that ongoing research needs their support!”
Below is a video documenting KD’s fieldwork sampling dragonfly and damselfly populations in Upemba National Park, D.R. Congo.
You can see more photographs from the trip here
Last week the European Environment Agency released their ‘State of Nature in the EU‘ report, which uses comprehensive data collected across the continent between 2008-2012 assess the status of and trends in biodiversity and natural habitats across Europe. Data on Europe’s species and habitats was collected by individual countries (or member states) as part of monitoring for the Birds Directive and the Habitat Directive – European environmental policies designed to help guide conservation, protected area management and environmental restoration across the continent (more information on these at the bottom of the post).
Hans Bruyninckx, the Executive Director of the European Environment Agency said, “This unique assessment is a first of its kind, building on extensive observation networks of experts and citizens alike. Despite some information gaps, it provides the most complete picture of Europe’s biodiversity to date. The results are mixed but clear. When implemented well, conservation measures work and improve the status of habitats and species on the ground. Such improvements remain limited and patchy, and unfortunately Europe’s biodiversity is still being eroded overall and the pressures continue”
The results of the study for freshwaters are largely unfavourable. Around half of the conservation status of river and lake habitats and species reported to the Habitats Directive are deemed ‘unfavourable-inadequate‘. It is worth noting that the habitats and species assessed by the Habitats Directive were already deemed rare, endangered or otherwise threatened. However, the picture is still not positive: around a third of these conservation statuses are in decline, suggesting that a significant proportion of Europe’s freshwater species and habitats face significant threats to their health and diversity.
Rivers and lakes were found to be most impacted by modifications to natural conditions (for example: river channel modification and fragmentation, water abstraction, draining of wetlands), water pollution and the impact of agriculture (e.g. fertiliser run-off). Changes to natural conditions were particularly damaging pressures for birds which live in freshwater habitats, presumably due to a reduction in available nesting and feeding sites.
Protected area designation was reported as the most popular conservation measure implemented by member states to mitigate the identified threats for both birds and wider habitats. For non-bird species – largely fish, invertebrates and amphibians – conservation measures were more diverse, including restoring hydrological regimes, legally protecting habitats and species, and improving water quality.
MARS project leader Daniel Hering commented on the findings, suggesting that whilst water quality in Europe is improving, any widespread improvements in freshwater biodiversity and habitat quality lag well behind:
“The negative assessment of river and lake conservation status is in line with the results of the Water Framework Directive monitoring. Both the assessment under the Habitats Directive and under the Water Framework Directive rate the status of lakes and rivers quite negatively.
The results are consistent but also quite surprising for many people who acknowledge the great improvement of water quality in recent decades. Strong pollution has vanished from European rivers and lakes – but biodiversity and ecosystem functions are still impoverished.
Freshwater ecosystems in most parts of Europe are still stressed, but the stressors are less visible than in former times. Eutrophication, pesticides, removal of riparian vegetation, water abstraction – all these stressors affect a large proportion of Europe’s waters. In former times the wastewater from households and industries were the main threat; nowadays, it is the way we practise agriculture.”
The Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive
The Birds Directive was set up in 1979, and aims to protect all wild birds with natural ranges inside Europe, and identifies 193 species which are in need of special conservation measures due variously to rarity, threat of extinction or loss of habitat. The Birds Directive also requires European member states to designate Special Protection Areas for the conservation of endangered bird species.
The Habitats Directive was set up in 1992 with the aim of ensuring the conservation of rare, threatened or endemic species of plants and animals across Europe. The Directive covers over 1,250 species and 233 habitat types across the continent, and requires member states to designate and manage Special Areas of Conservation and implement other management measures to restrict the taking, capturing or killing of important plant and animal species.
The Iberian Society of Ichthyology has recently launched the Freshwater Fish Database for Spain. Despite the large number of research and technical studies done on freshwater fishes on the Iberian Peninsula, the resulting data is highly dispersed and not available for public use, or for environmental management or research (a common problem for such data, as we wrote about for the Freshwater Information Platform launch recently)
In response to this difficulty in accessing data, the Society worked to compile information on Iberian freshwater fishes found in research centres, public administrations, and available on the internet in technical reports and scientific publications, among others. This ongoing work has created a database for general public use, a database for the use of environmental managers and an interactive web platform to facilitate access to this information.
The databases integrate information about fish species abundance, habitats, historical evolution, population trends, major threats, conservation actions, human impact (pollution, water extraction among others) and fishing intensity.
Accurate information on species distribution is important in helping environmental managers develop monitoring plans and conservation strategies. Similarly, the historical information on species distribution will help in the scientific analysis of freshwater fish populations.
Contact project co-ordinator Filipe Ribero: email@example.com
This project was funded by the Fundacion da Biodiversidad, University of Navarra, Veso and SIBIC own funds.
A group of researchers from the Aquatic Ecology group at the University of Duisburg-Essen, including MARS scientists Christian Feld and Daniel Hering, recently visited the Upper Jordan Valley in Israel as part of a trip funded by the German-Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research and Development to begin work on assessing the multiple stresses that impact the region’s freshwaters.
The visit aimed to kick-off a new research project in collaboration with Dr. Gideon Gal and his group at the Kinneret Limnological Laboratory in Migdal, Israel. Together with Yaron Hershkovitz, an Israeli guest scientist at the University of Duisburg-Essen, the team started to identify suitable sites for fieldwork to study the pressures acting on the upper reaches of the River Jordan, before it meets Lake Kinneret (otherwise known as the Sea of Galilea). The fieldwork, which will run until June, focus on the health and diversity of aquatic invertebrates such as insects and molluscs as indicator species for the wider health of the freshwater ecosystem in response to stresses like pollution and drought (see an earlier blog on indicator species in Israel).
One major challenge for the team was to identify streams in the Jordan catchment that would not dry up completely in the hot early summer months, and so contain enough water to allow their ecological sampling to go ahead (we’ve written before about intermittent and temporary rivers here). Once identified, these streams were split in a typology similar to that used in the Water Framework Directive by their geology (largely limestone and basalt) and size.
MARS researcher Christian Feld explains more about the fieldwork and its outcomes:
“The sampling campaign in May aims to collect macroinvertebrate communities from nearly 50 different streams. For the first time, we will apply a standardised monitoring scheme in order to ensure the comparability of the results. This procedure is alike those developed to implement the Water Framework Directive in Europe. This will open the opportunity for us to consult monitoring results from other Mediterranean countries that are Member States of the European Union.
This also offers the opportunity for MARS to collaborate with the German-Israeli Foundation project, as the monitoring data analysed in both projects are similar. Thus, the GIF project directly contributes a 17th case study to the existing 16 case studies of the MARS project. On the other hand, the GIF project can benefit from the modelling methodology developed in MARS to identify and predict the effects of multiple stressors on freshwater ecology.”
We will continue to follow the progress of the team’s research and collaborations in Israel and update you with their results.
A selection of Christian’s fascinating photographs from the fieldtrip are below.
The GIF project (“Ecological status and ecosystem services of the Lake Kinneret catchment: setting the scene for the management of a multi-stressed region.”) is funded by the German-Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research and Development, contract No. G-1272-203.13/2014.
The MARS project (Managing Aquatic ecosystems and water resources under multiple stress) is funded by the European Union under the 7th Framework Programme, contract no. 603378.
Human-driven environmental pressures such as water pollution, intense land-use and climate change are increasingly threatening the health and diversity of European freshwater ecosystems. Over recent years, many European Union funded research projects have investigated the causes of these pressures and their effects on rivers, lakes and wetlands, and developed appropriate conservation and rehabilitation strategies. However, the scientific data generated by these projects is often difficult for water managers, policy makers, scientific communities and the general public to access from a huge number of scientific papers and research project websites.
In order to make this detailed and wide-ranging knowledge of freshwater ecosystems accessible to all, four European research institutes in Austria, Belgium and Germany have joined forces to launch the Freshwater Information Platform, an interactive website integrating results and original data stemming from finished, ongoing, and future freshwater research projects.
MARS scientist Astrid Schmidt-Kloiber from BOKU in Vienna outlined the potential of the Freshwater Information Platform as a valuable tool for conservation, stating that, “Freshwater environments are subject to numerous damaging pressures leading to a significant threat to their biodiversity. The Freshwater Information Platform helps freshwater scientists to overcome the challenging task to find scattered research resources, by pooling relevant information in one single place. This will help improve the understanding of freshwaters and provide a stronger voice for their conservation.”
The Freshwater Information Platform offers a forum for information exchange and open-access publishing of maps and data, and aims to stimulate cutting-edge research and collaborations in the field. The Platform provides a unique and comprehensive knowledge base for sustainable and evidence-based management of our threatened freshwater ecosystems and the resources they provide.
For Daniel Hering, leader of the MARS project at UDE in Germany, high-quality data is key: “The efficiency of freshwater ecosystem protection and restoration is largely driven by the quality of scientific data that it relies on. The identification of sensitive areas and species, the development of restoration measures and the prediction of climate change effects: all are complex scientific tasks requiring high-quality data. The Freshwater Information Platform is an extremely valuable resource in providing the evidence needed to guide successful and sustainable freshwater management and policy.”
Aaike De Wever from RBINS in Belgium echoes this sentiment, encouraging freshwater scientists to get involved, to share their data and to potentially spark new collaborations: “Through the Freshwater Biodiversity Data Portal – integrated in the Freshwater Information Platform – we encourage scientists to publish their data on species observations online. By bringing together a large number of freshwater datasets we want to support large-scale environmental analyses and modelling, which improves our understanding and capacity to manage freshwater environments.”
The Platform contains several complementary sections, either providing access to original data or summarising research results in an easily digestible way. All sections are composed as ‘living documents’ that will be continuously improved and updated.
The Freshwater Biodiversity Data Portal provides access to data on the distribution of freshwater organisms (such as fishes, insects and algae), both in Europe and worldwide, whilst the Global Freshwater Biodiversity Atlas provides a series of maps on freshwater biodiversity richness, threats to freshwaters (or ‘stressors’) and the effects of global change on freshwater ecosystems.
The Freshwater Species Traits Database integrates the knowledge on the ecology of around 20,000 species inhabiting European freshwater ecosystems, including information about where species live, what they feed on or how tolerant they are to pollution.
The Freshwater Metadata section provides an overview of hundreds of major data sources related to freshwater research and management and offers the option to publish such data in the Freshwater Metadata Journal. The Freshwater Information Platform also provides a collection of research tools, information about freshwater-related policies and relevant European and global networks relating to freshwater science and policy. In short, it provides an invaluable tool for anyone wanting to do freshwater research, conservation or policy.
Finally, this blog – publishing features, research highlights, interviews and podcasts on freshwater science, policy and conservation – is the final piece in the FIP jigsaw, helping communicate a variety of important research.
The last word on the Freshwater Information Platform comes from former BioFresh leader Klement Tockner at IGB in Germany: “We are fundamentally and in most cases irreversibly altering how the natural world functions. The consequences for the natural systems on which we depend are such that they may threaten our own survival. The Freshwater Information Platform provides a shared research infrastructure of global relevance that facilitates tracing the multifaceted consequences of accelerating environmental change for freshwater resources and biodiversity.”
You can access and explore the Freshwater Information Platform here.
University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (Vienna, Austria), BOKU
University of Duisburg-Essen, Aquatic Ecology (Germany), UDE
Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (Berlin, Germany), IGB
Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (Brussels, Belgium), RBINS
‘Water Lives…’, the freshwater science communication animation produced for the EU BioFresh project in 2012 has been selected for this year’s UK Green Film Festival and will be screened before the feature film H2OMX at cinemas across the UK between 3-10th May. Details of screenings can be found here.
‘Water Lives…’ was designed to draw attention to the important (yet largely invisible) life that underpins and sustains our freshwater ecosystems. The project brought artists and EU scientists together to collaborate and communicate the concept that freshwater is more than an inert resource: instead a living, dynamic system inhabited by beautiful, important organisms largely unseen by the naked eye. It was animated by Adam Proctor, with a soundtrack by Tommy Perman and haiku by John Barlow.
‘Water Lives…’ was produced by Rob St. John and Paul Jepson at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford as part of an interdisciplinary art-science project in collaboration with BioFresh scientists Rick Battarbee from University College London and Ana Filipa Filipe from the University of Barcelona alongside Alistair Seddon from the University of Oxford Zoology department.