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Meet the MARS Team: Tano Gutiérrez

June 8, 2015
Saline stream

A saline stream in Sicily. Image: Tano Gutiérrez


TanoThis 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.

You can read more about Tano’s past work and publications on his University of Murcia webpage, and follow him on twitter here.

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).

Spain survey 1

Surveying a Spanish stream. Image: Tano Gutiérrez

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?

Morocco survey

Tano working with a team on freshwaters in Morocco. Image: Tano Gutiérrez

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.

ecomandanga 1

Finding ways to inspire people with nature and science through radio: the Ecomandaga team. Image: Tano Gutiérrez

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!

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