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Meet the AQUACROSS team: Andrea Funk

December 13, 2017
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Dr Andrea Funk on an ecological survey of the Danube River. Image: Andrea Funk

This week we continue our series of interviews with researchers from the AQUACROSS project. AQUACROSS is an EU-funded project which seeks to advance the application of ecosystem-based management for aquatic ecosystems, to help support the EU 2020 Biodiversity Strategy and other international conservation targets.

Dr Andrea Funk is an expert in wetland ecology, with a special focus on  biodiversity, and the restoration and conservation of river-floodplain systems. Her current research focuses on meta-community dynamics in floodplain networks, and species-distribution modelling with an emphasis on floodplain restoration.

We spoke to Andrea to find out more about her work, inspirations and aspirations in freshwater ecology.

What is your focus of your work in AQUACROSS, and why?

My work focuses on the coordination and implementation of the AQUACROSS assessment framework for the Danube basin. More specifically, my focus is on the river-floodplain system along the navigable stretch of the Danube River where we explore trade-offs and synergies of biodiversity targets (especially related to protected areas), ecosystem services (like recreation or tourism) and multiple human activities (like navigation or energy production) related to hydro-morphological alterations based on statistical models.

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Riparian silver birch woodland on the Danube floodplain. Image: Andrea Funk

Why is your work important?

Floodplains are key elements for biodiversity protection. They are biodiversity hotspots, they provide a multitude of ecosystem functions and services, but, in turn are also hotspots of multiple human activities. Contributing to our understanding of these highly complex systems provides a basis for a strategic and more integrated management approach, as well as restoration planning.

What are the key challenges for freshwater management in Europe?

Biodiversity is declining rapidly, this is particularly acute for freshwater systems. Freshwaters host rich communities of life including many sensitive and endemic species. In turn, freshwater ecosystems are threatened due to multiple human activities which are also conflicting with multiple ecosystem services and ecosystem functions those systems provide. A main challenge is to balance all these different interests toward a sustainable protection of biodiversity.

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Sunset over the Danube. Image: Andrea Funk

Tell us about a memorable experience in your career.

I’m used to having those memorable experiences quite frequently – scientific life is always full of surprises.

What inspired you to become a scientist?

I was always fascinated by water, mud (or call it aquatic sediments) and the life in it.

What are your plans and ambitions for your future scientific work?

With my modelling focus I hope that I can further contribute to the understanding of complex systems and therefore the conservation and restoration of biodiversity hotspots.

Find out more about the AQUACROSS project.

Brass, Three Down: multiple pressures on Arctic Charr populations in Lake Windermere

December 5, 2017

Lake Windermere is the largest natural lake in England. Plummeting to a depth of around 64 metres, its waters support one of Britain’s largest populations of Arctic charr. Charr are cold-water fish, most commonly found in sub-Arctic regions, and their presence in Windermere is often described as a ‘relic’ of the last ice age, as sea-run populations were trapped in the lake when glaciers retreated from the area around 12,000 years ago.

Arctic charr populations in Windermere live on the southern edge of the species’ habitat niche. As a result, they are the least resilient of the salmonid species to warming lake waters due to climate change. There are two distinct populations of charr in Windermere, which live in the deep basins to the north and south of the lake, separated by a shallower ridge.

Populations of charr in both basins have declined in the last 20 years, largely as a result of warmer lake waters which hold less oxygen, eutrophication from agricultural and waste water pollution, and the introduction of invasive species such as roach, which compete with charr for zooplankton prey.

A new film – available to watch in full above – called Brass, Three Down casts a poetic and meditative eye over the place of Arctic charr in the communities local to Windermere, and the multiple pressures their populations face. The film follows a local fishermen, who fishes for charr using traditional techniques (the types of lures used give the film its name), a potter who makes the ceramic pots used traditionally to preserve the fish, and a local chef using charr in his Michelin starred restaurant.

Produced by Henry Iddon and Richard BerryBrass, Three Down also features Dr Ian Winfield from the Centre for Hydrology and Ecology, who are carrying out long-term ecological studies on charr populations in the lake, to inform conservation and restoration strategies.

Brass, Three Down on Vimeo.

Multiple stressor effects on fish assemblages in the Austrian Alps

December 1, 2017
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The Drava River at Villach, Austria. Image: Andrey | Flickr Creative Commons

The rivers and stream ecosystems of the mountainous European Alps are under increasing stress as a result of human activities. So-called ’hydromorphological’ alterations – those which change the hydrological regime (or flow) and morphological character (or shape) – are particularly common on Alpine rivers and streams.

Such hydromorphological pressures are often caused by the construction of hydropower plants – which harness the power of fast-flowing streams to generate renewable energy – and flood protection measures along river and stream channels. In addition to alterations to water flows and aquatic habitat, hydromorphological pressures (or stressors) can cause alterations to habitat connectivity for migratory species and – indirectly – to water quality.

Scientists are increasingly documenting the numerous negative ecological impacts of these stressors in Alpine rivers and streams – particularly on fish populations. However, knowledge of stressor impacts remains incomplete, particularly when multiple stressors act in combination.

In this context, a new study investigates the ecological impacts of multiple stressor combinations on fish populations in two river basins in the Austrian Alps – the Drava and the Mura. The open-access study, published in Science of the Total Environment, was supported by the MARS and AQUACROSS projects.

“The river ecosystems of the European Alps are highly under stress through various human activities which are affecting the physico-chemical conditions of running waters and are strongly influencing and impacting their morphological character, hydrological regime and as a consequence, inhabiting aquatic biota and the overall ecological integrity,” explains lead author Rafaela Schinegger, a researcher at the Institute of Hydrobiology and Aquatic Ecosystem Management at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna (BOKU).

“This is particularly true for many rivers and streams in the European Alps, which constitute the ‘water towers’ of Europe, providing numerous aquatic ecosystem services to their inhabitants and the areas beyond”.

“By analysing an extensive dataset from the 2nd River Basin Management Plan of the EU WFD implementation in Austria, we found a general trend of decreasing ecological integrity with increasing number of stressors and maximum stressor in two Alpine river basins of Southern Austria – the Drava and Mura rivers. Fish metrics based on age structure, fish region index and biological status responded best to single stressors and/or their combinations”, says Schinegger.

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A small hydroelectric dam in the Austrian Alps. Such projects can cause multiple stressors on the river ecosystem. Image: Michael Thomas | Flickr Creative Commons

The research team identified seven different stressor categories of single stress or multiple stressor combinations, with up to four stressors acting together at a single site. Just under two-thirds (62%) of stressor-affected ecosystems were impacted by multiple stressor combinations.

Over two-thirds (69%) of the 2590 water bodies investigated across the Drava and Mura basins were impacted by significant human stressors. Connectivity disruptions were the most common stressor found in the basins (1213 water bodies: 47% total), followed by morphological alterations (578 water bodies: 22%), and water abstraction (413 water bodies: 16%).

This analysis provides invaluable information for water managers in the Austrian Alps seeking to prioritise their efforts to mitigate the effects of multiple stressors in rivers and streams. It shows that increases in stressor occurrence reduces overall ecosystem integrity, and that fish assemblages may be negatively affected by such multiple stressor combinations. In terms of biological response, fish metrics based on age structure, fish region index and biological status responded most to single stressors and/or their combinations.

“The knowledge gained in this work provides a basis for advanced investigations in Alpine river basins and beyond, supports WFD implementation and helps prioritizing further actions towards multi-stressor restoration and management.”

One significant finding made by the study is that 37% of headwaters in Austria’s river basins are still in a very good or good ecological state. The authors argue that there is a pressing need for environmental policy and management to protect these headwater reaches from human pressures, particularly from hydropower construction.

Schinegger, R et al (2017) “Configuration of multiple human stressors and their impacts on fish assemblages in Alpine river basins of Austria”, Science of the Total Environment, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2017.10.283 


Meet the AQUACROSS team: Fiona Culhane

November 24, 2017
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Dr. Fiona Culhane

Last week, Manuel Lago introduced the EU-funded AQUACROSS project in a blog post which called for a greater focus on gender equality in environmental science and policy-making.

This week, we begin the first of a series of interviews with AQUACROSS researchers by speaking to Dr Fiona Culhane from the University of Liverpool in England. Fiona introduces us to her research, and her motivations for studying aquatic environments.

Freshwater Blog: What is your focus of your work in AQUACROSS, and why?

Fiona Culhane: The focus of my work in AQUACROSS is on the links between people and aquatic ecosystems, from an ecologist’s perspective. Through AQUACROSS, I am exploring how human activities and the impacts these have on aquatic ecosystems will ultimately affect our own well-being and the socio-economic system, via the ecosystem. Though my main focus is on marine environments, I am interested in looking at these effects at a large-scale, across the aquatic realms, and developing methods that can work in data poor situations.

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Cattle and donkeys grazing the edge of Lough Erne, Northern Ireland. Image: Fiona Culhane

Why is your work important?

In order to manage ecosystems sustainably, we need to understand the links in the system and the consequences of our own actions. If we put this in terms of our own well-being and the socio-economic system, we may better be able to highlight the trade-offs that occur with resource use so that we can make more informed decisions about how to protect the environment for future generations.

What are the key challenges for marine management in Europe?

Marine environments are large, highly connected ecosystems, where knowledge is often patchy or disparate. The challenge for management is to make decisions that take account of the connectivity and to do this with limited information.

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Marine ecosystem services are varied, and interlinked with those in freshwater and estuarine environments. Image composite: Fiona Culhane

Tell us about a memorable experience in your career.

When I started my first post-doc job at the University of Liverpool, I joined the team working on the ODEMM project. After years working alone on my PhD it was a big change. The group was highly collaborative and I realised how productive, inspiring and motivating it can be to work like that. It was a turning point for me because I recognised that was how I would like to continue working as a scientist in the future.

What inspired you to become an ecologist?

I have always loved nature and cared about the environment, most probably influenced by my mother as she is always pointing out different species of plants and animals to me. I was excited to get to secondary school, to finally be able to study science, which became one of my favourite subjects. As time went on, I saw that being a scientist could be a way to make a difference to the world. A job where I could travel and work outdoors was also really appealing to me.

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Looking out across the Firth of Clyde in Western Scotland. Image: Fiona Culhane

What are your plans and ambitions for your future scientific work?

As my career has progressed, I have seen that being an ecologist is not only about making a difference to the environment and biodiversity but also to people’s lives. I am very interested in the connection between the state of the ecosystem and the health and wellbeing of people. I am interested in developing methods that can work in data poor situations, such in the developing world, where the knowledge base is poor, but where people are most affected by changes to their ecosystems.

Find out more about Fiona’s work on the AQUACROSS website.

AQUACROSS interviews address gender equality in research

November 17, 2017

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By Manuel Lago, AQUACROSS coordinator

This is the first of a series of blog posts introducing AQUACROSS, an EU Horizon 2020 research and innovation project sponsored by DG Research.

About AQUACROSS

AQUACROSS seeks to advance the application of ecosystem-based management for aquatic ecosystems in an effort to support the EU 2020 Biodiversity Strategy and other international conservation targets. AQUACROSS aims to develop and test an assessment framework which considers the full array of interactions, including human activities, within aquatic ecosystems. The application of the framework is tested in eight case studies across Europe.

AQUACROSS is a truly transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary research effort. Work in the case studies is co-developed with local stakeholders, and need to address complex socio-ecological systems integrates numerous different research disciplines including marine and freshwater ecologists, environmental modellers and social scientists. The project has been running since June 2015 and it is expected to conclude at the end of 2018.

AQUACROSS interview series

We would like to thank the Freshwater Blog for giving us the opportunity to present AQUACROSS. Starting next week, a series of blog posts over the coming months will feature interviews with some of the researchers involved in the project with the aim of introducing different aspects of our work in more detail.

A total of 72 researchers from 16 different research institutions across Europe are involved in AQUACROSS. A selection of these researchers will introduce their diverse research topics and motivations in interviews on the blog.

AQUACROSS and gender equality

We would like to use this opportunity to contribute towards the movement of raising awareness for gender equality. In the field of scientific research, for example. the statistics are well-known. According to a 2015 EU report, only around a third of researchers in the EU, and 20% of the heads of higher education institutions in Europe, are female. This is despite the fact that (according to the same data), 59% of undergraduate degrees went to women, while 46% of PhD graduates are female.

In the field of ecology, where around 70% of the scientific articles are led by men, new evidence (see here and here) suggests that there exists a significant bias in favour of male-led research. So not only there are fewer female ecologists publishing fewer papers in relation to male colleagues; controversially, women’s research is also perceived by their peers as to be of lower quality, according to a recent article by Corey J. A. Bradshaw and Franck Courchamp. The clear message is that, despite widespread progress on the issue, further promotion of the work of female researchers is urgently needed.

In this context, gender equality is one of the priorities of a “Reinforced European Research Area Partnership for Excellence and Growth” (ERA). The European Commission’s actions specifically call for the removal of barriers to the recruitment, retention and career progression of female researchers. Further specific actions also address issues of gender balance in decision-making and research programmes.

Under Horizon 2020, gender equality is a mainstreamed cross-cutting ambition promoting a more integrated approach to research and innovation. This means in practice that grant beneficiaries in H2020 projects are committed to promote equal opportunities and a balanced participation of women and men at all levels in research and innovation teams and in management structures. Specifically in AQUACROSS, gender balance translates into a proportion of 37 female and 35 male researchers working on the project.

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The AQUACROSS team.

The women featured in this AQUACROSS interview blog series will share their common passion for aquatic biodiversity and conservation, their motivations to advance scientific knowledge, and their stellar achievements on this path.

Ultimately, in outstanding research there are no genders. We as researchers share a passion for providing answers and transferring our science to others, with the pledge to leave behind a better world than the one we found. The featured interviews in this blog series will showcase the progress that these AQUACROSS researchers are carrying out towards this goal.

Watch this space for the first interview with Andrea Funk, published next week.

 

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Sketching another world: Stephen Thackeray’s aquatic art/science drawings

November 7, 2017
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An ostracod – a tiny crustacean with a bean-like shell. Image: Stephen Thackeray

At the start of last month, a succession of drawings of curious organic forms began appearing on our twitter feed. Penned by CEH and MARS freshwater scientist Stephen Thackeray as part of ‘Inktober‘, the images revealed a fascinating underwater world of often-microscopic aquatic life.

Keen to find out more about his interdisciplinary talents, we spoke to Stephen about his art/science practice.

Freshwater Blog: What is Inktober, and why did you decide to take part this year?

Stephen Thackeray: Inktober is an annual artistic challenge hosted on Twitter (see @inktober). Anyone can join in, and the goal is to do one ink drawing every day during the month of October. However, it is fine if you only want to commit to a drawing every other day, or a drawing per week. It’s all good! I joined in for the first time in 2016, having spotted references to the challenge via people who I follow.

I must admit, it took some courage to join in, but I ultimately found Inktober a great way of connecting with creative people, and feeling part of something bigger, collaborative and joyous. For someone who greatly admires creativity as a trait in others, this was very exciting. There are some amazing talents out there; check out the bold and exciting pieces by @bernoid, for instance. After enjoying 2016 so much, I was very keen to join in again in 2017 even though, at the time, I wasn’t sure I had 31 ideas in my head!

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Water boatman. Image: Stephen Thackeray

How long have you had a creative drawing practice, and how has it influenced (or been influenced by) your interest in the natural world?

Drawing was one of my favourite things to do as a child, and I have happy memories of scribbling away with felt tips with my cousins at that time. I took that interest through to a GCSE in Art, but I felt a little unnerved by the level of skill being shown by those students intending to take higher qualifications in the subject, and I decided not to follow that path.

Over time, much as I enjoy art, I simply fell out of the habit. I got back into drawing just a couple of years ago. I think this was partly triggered by hunting out natural history books, in second-hand bookshops, to look at the plates and images in them. I have always loved wildlife and it seemed a pretty straightforward decision that, if I was going to get back into drawing, I would do so by drawing wildlife.

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Zander and roach. Image: Stephen Thackeray

Tell us a little about your creative process: what do you choose to draw, how do you get a reference image, where do you draw, and what materials do you use?

So far, I have indulged my interest in freshwater wildlife. I’m especially drawn to the tiny and obscure, occupying little hidden worlds that many people may be totally unaware of. All the dramas and excitement of the Serengeti play out in miniature every day in your local lake, pond, canal or bird bath. I like the idea of bringing these tiny creatures, and their lives, into focus for others.

Usually, I search on the web and in books for reference images taken from lots of different angles. I then use these to draw my subject from a different perspective. I usually work by lamplight in the evenings, and have fairly basic kit: some inexpensive black fine liners and pencils (and my daughter’s felt tips, occasionally). I used to get frustrated that my style wasn’t precise or life-like enough – a bit “cartoony”- but now I think I’ve realised that this is how my work comes out, and that there is nothing wrong with that.

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Daphnia and microplastics. Image: Stephen Thackeray

One of my favourite images from your Inktober series is the daphnia surrounded by an array of microplastics. Can drawing – and creative practices more generally – provide ways of visualising such emerging environmental issues, do you think? Can they be useful in supporting conservation and environmental policy, as a result?

I’d like to think so. As researchers, we use certain tried-and-tested media for communicating with each other about our science, such as published academic papers, reports and presentations. However, these outputs only reach our own academic network much of the time, and people can differ greatly in their learning and thinking styles (mine is very visual). Given all of this, I think that imagery and artistic interpretation of science has the potential to reach a much wider audience, and to resonate with more people. Perhaps artistic interpretation provides us with a powerful way of engaging people with science and emerging environmental issues.

There is some excellent science communication (#scicomm) on Twitter, with @HanaAyoob illustrating endangered species, @JuliaFpaintsbio drawing freshwater mussels on request for Inktober 2017, @ConnectedWaters and @murray_taryn introducing us to a multitude of fish species, and @jvcdelaney creating a scientific colouring book about microscopic life. I’ve found their efforts really imaginative and inspiring.

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The tadpole shrimp. Image: Stephen Thackeray

Interdisciplinary art/science collaborations are springing up all over the world – can you imagine bringing your creative practice into your ‘day job’ as an ecologist, or bringing ‘artists in residence’ to CEH?

I can see the potential synergies between art and science as, fundamentally, I believe that the latter has a strong creative element. Science is so often about using creativity to think about problems in new ways, or about how to combine existing knowledge in new ways. I would love to have a thread of creativity running through my own research career.

As a small start, I have set myself a new challenge; to draw a sketch for each new paper that I publish (#sketchmypaper on Twitter). I would love others to try this out too, to see how it might affect the visibility of our work. I’m intrigued by the idea of having an “artist in residence”, to help us find new ways of reaching out. In fact, I would love to see a workshop attended by scientists and artists, to see what interpretations of the latest research might fall out as a result.

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#sketchmypaper for a Nature Ecology & Evolution article on ecological resilience in lake ecosystems. Image: Stephen Thackeray

Follow Stephen on Twitter, and find out more about his research here.

New interactive map illustrates multiple pressures on European rivers

November 1, 2017

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In January 2014 the Global Freshwater Biodiversity Atlas was launched online. The Atlas aims to provide policy-makers, water managers and scientists with an open-access and interactive online gateway to key geographical information and spatial data on freshwater biodiversity across different scales. The Atlas is a resource for better, evidence-based decision-making in water policy, science and management.

A few weeks ago, a new map showing ‘Multiple Pressures on European Rivers‘ was published on the Atlas. The map was developed from research in the EU MARS project, and illustrates the relationships between multiple pressures (such as nutrient pollution, water abstraction and habitat alterations) and ecological status in rivers across Europe.

The research team argue that combined or single pressures do not cause a significant deterioration of ecological status, as long as they do not exceed threshold values. Their new European multi-pressure map illustrates the number of pressure indicators which exceed the threshold value for good ecological status in catchments across the continent. In short, it shows where pressures are causing environmental deterioration in European rivers.

The pressures are those that are ranked as the four most important affecting the ecological status of a river. In more than 60 % of the catchments included in this analysis, at least one pressure exceeded its threshold value. Pressures above threshold values for good ecological status were most commonly found in Mediterranean, Central European and Baltic catchments.

Morphological pressures were the most common cause of deteriorating ecological status (38% of catchments), followed by nutrient pressures (26%) and hydrological alterations (12%). Around 5% of European catchments had at least three significant pressures above threshold values acting in tandem. These were mostly in Central European and Baltic catchments.

The study and map provides useful information for river managers seeking to understand multiple pressure impacts and mitigation. In addition, it may help environmental policy-makers to take upcoming decisions on water management.

The Atlas is designed to develop in the future through collaborations with other research projects. The Atlas editors invite scientists to submit their freshwater-related spatial research results, which will then be further discussed in the editorial board and eventually published online in one of the Atlas chapters. Each map should be accompanied by a short summary article.

Publishing maps on the Global Freshwater Biodiversity Atlas is a highly useful way for scientists to increase the visibility and impact of their research.

View the Multiple Pressures on European Rivers map on the Global Freshwater Biodiversity Atlas here.

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