Fungi and other soil organisms are key in preserving biodiversity

Fungi are often seen as fruiting bodies, or toadstools (© Camila Duarte)

Largely invisible and often overseen, fungi and other microscopic organisms are highly abundant in soils across the world, and play a fundamental in maintaining the biodiversity and nutrient balances in their ecosystem.

Fungi, although visible in the form of fruiting bodies, or toadstools, during certain times, are largely invisible, existing as microbial threads in the soil. It is estimated that there are some 3.8 million species of fungi, only a fraction of which have been formally described and identified. These organisms are incredibly abundant in soils around the world, an are a key component of biological nutrient cycling, as they break down organic matter, releasing key nutrients and compounds from dead bodies. Fungi are found in a variety of areas such as rainforest, woodland, grasslands and even rocky substrates (in the form of lichens) but are most abundant in open areas such as grasslands and Savannah, where they are important in helping poorer soil uptake nutrients.

Fungi exist mainly as a bundle of microbial threads called a mycelium (© Nigel Cattlin)

In the Amazon rainforest for example, fungi are surprisingly abundant and varied. For example, a teaspoon of rainforest soil is estimated to contain around 1800 species of microscopic organisms (according to a study carried out by Dr Camila Duarte of Germany), at least 400 of which are fungi. These fungi are so diverse and they occupy a variety of niches in the forest, such as lichen (a symbiotic relationship between fungi and microscopic plants), some living commensally in the roots of plants and some as plant pathogens and parasites. Each and every one of these plays a significant role on the forest floor, breaking down organic matter and releasing nutrients back into the soil, to be used by plants and animals.

In this sense, the sheer diversity of fungi in the soil means that it is essential to consider this hidden diversity in conservation efforts, particularly in such fragile ecosystems as the Amazon rainforests. Due to their inconspicuous nature fungi are often overlooked in biological surveys, but they are key for nutrient cycling and also act as carbon sinks, absorbing carbon dioxide from dead organisms.

An abundance of fungal species are found in the soils of the Amazon rainforest (© Nathalia Segato)


Some species are also edible, and are a source of medicine, indeed fungal compounds are being considered as new antibiotic sources in the light of antibiotic resistance. On the other hand, some fungi are considerable pests to crops, while others are disease-causing pathogens which cause disease in humans and animals. There is much to learn about soil fungal diversity, in order to incorporate these organisms into conservation efforts, and to help maintain biodiversity.

Isle of Wight Pterosaur fossil hailed as UK first

A fossil recently discovered on the Isle of Wight has been revealed as a first of its kind to be found in the UK. The fossil belonged to an ancient flying reptile which would have soared through the skies of southern England 100 million years ago.


The fossilised jaw fragment was found by an amateur fossil hunter on Sandown beach, Isle of Wight. The delicate fossil was identified as a tapejarid (a type of medium-sized crested pterosaur) by scientists at the university of Portsmouth, recognisable by the characteristic shape of the jaw and minute holes in the jaw, which experts think were used to detect prey. The fossil has been donated to the IoW dinosaur museum for future display.

The fossilised jawbone of this animal was discovered on Sandown beach, IoW (credit: Portsmouth University)

So, what did this animal look like? These pterosaurs were small to medium sized and lived around 100 million years ago, during the cretaceous period. With more curved wings than other species, they are well known for the large bony crests on their heads. It is very likely that these crests would have been highly colourful in real life, almost twice the size of the skull, and probably used to communicate and attract partners, much like many bird species such as pheasants and birds of paradise. There has been much debate concerning the diet of these animals, but it is thought that they fed on plant material, especially considering that flowering plants were diversifying around the time these creatures appeared.

The crest of Tapejarids was likely very colourful and used in courtship (credit: national geographic society)

The fossil is a key finding for our understanding of these creatures; before the discovery of this specimen, the tapejarids were only known from Brazil, Morocco and China, and this find not only demonstrates a very wide distribution of these pterosaurs, but also showcases the diversity of mesozoic species on the island and surrounding area.

Study reveals tropical rainforests covered much of Antarctica 90 million years ago, during time of the Dinosaurs

Study reveals tropical rainforests covered much of Antarctica 90 million years ago, during time of the Dinosaurs

Antarctica is arguably one of the most barren, extreme environments on the planet, with only one permanent terrestrial resident – the Emperor penguin. However, wind the clock back 90 million years, and the continent was far from a frozen wasteland. New evidence has suggested that this icy continent was largely covered in tropical swamp forest, during the time of the Dinosaurs.


The cretaceous period, which spanned from approximately 145 to 66 million years ago, was a very warm period in earth’s history, with an almost worldwide greenhouse climate, and an abundance of vegetation and tropical forests. Antarctica at this time was mostly covered in a swampy, tropical forest and there were no glaciers at the south pole.

An artist’s impression of the ancient swamp forests of Antarctica (© James McKay)


Scientists at the Alfred Wegener institute, Germany, made this discovery by analysing sediment cores drilled from the seafloor in West Antarctica. These cores show a glimpse of the past environment in Antarctica, with sediments nearer to the bottom of the core representing older geological time. At three metres down on the core, representing the late cretaceous period, the sediment composition changed drastically, composed mainly of a coal-like material, soil, roots and pollen. The team identified over 65 types of plant material, indicating the presence of an ancient conifer forest.

The ancient Antarctic forests would have been dominated by cycad plants such as this one (© J. Dazley)


So, what exactly lived in these forests? The forests would have likely been very similar in plant structure to some of the forests in modern-day New Zealand, dominated by towering tree ferns, cycads and coniferous trees. At this time in history, flowering plants had only recently evolved so were likely rare in these forests. Biogeochemical evidence from the sediment cores also revealed that microscopic photosynthetic life such as algae and cyanobacteria were common in warm lakes and rivers.

Australovenator was one of several carnivorous dinosaurs to roam prehistoric Antarctica (© L. Xing)


These forests were dominated by a variety of dinosaur species, which filled many of the ecological roles of forest ecosystems today. There were giant herbivorous dinosaurs such as the long necked Austrosaurus, and Muttaburrasaurus, a close relative of the Iguanadon, whose remains are commonly found on the Isle of Wight. There were also carnivorous dinosaurs such as Cryolophosaurus and Australovenator, and the tiny herbivorous Leaellynasaura, which likely lived in small groups in the forest. Primitive mammals shared the forests with the dinosaurs; they were furry, egg laying species which were likely similar to modern echidnas and platypus. It is also known that the river networks around these forests were home to a giant salamander-like amphibian called Koolasuchus, belonging to an ancient lineage of animals over 250 million years old.

The giant amphibian Koolasuchus was one of the last surviving of it’s kind, and probably fed on smaller dinosaurs (© BBC)


The discovery of these polar forests is not only an exciting advance for palaeontology, but also shows us how key carbon dioxide levels are in the shaping of an environment. It is known that the tropical climate during the cretaceous period could have only been possible if carbon dioxide levels were much higher than today, so this discovery could give an insight into the future environmental implications of increased carbon dioxide levels in the near future.

Great Hammerhead Shark

It’s #MarineMonday and we would like you to meet our marine friend.

“Colour me in so I can swim!

Hello! I am a Great Hammerhead Shark! Many people are afraid of me and my other friend species, but did you know you are more likely to injure yourself taking a selfie that being around me? I am the largest of all the other hammerhead species! I hace some questions for you:

  1. Where do I live?
  2. What do I eat?
  3. How long can I grow up to?”

Tarsier

Today is #TerrestrialTuesday! Terrestrial simply means anything that lives on land, so today we would like you to meet our tree friend.

“Colour me in so I can climb!

Happy Tuesday everyone! I am a Tarsier and I am a primate. I got my name from the very long bones in my feet! I have HUGE eyes, perfect for my nocturnal lifestyle, which means I am only awake when it is dark outside. I only live in trees; it is very comfy for me! Some questions for you:


1. Which country do I live in?
2. What do I eat?
3. How big am I when I am fully grown?”

#homeschool#homeschoollife#education#homeschooling#onlineeducation#teaching#school#mondaymorning#teachingfromhome#stayathome#wildlifecraftclub

Axolotl

It’s #MarineMonday and we would like to introduce you to our marine friend.

“Colour me in so I can swim!

Hello! I’m an #Axolotl. There’s aren’t many of me left in the wild. I don’t really like water pollution where I live. I just love to swim and I’m very well adapted. I have a very cool skill: I can’t regrow my own limbs! I have some questions for you to find out…

•🏡 Where do I live?
• 🍽 What do I eat?
•💚 How can you help me and my friends?

As a bonus question, see if you can find pictures of what my babies look like!”

Answers will be revealed on Saturday!

#homeschool #homeschoollife #education #homeschooling #onlineeducation #teaching #school #mondaymorning #teachingfromhome #stayathome

International Women’s Day 2020

International Women’s Day 2020: Life and Environmental Science Researchers

Dr Catherine Gutmann Roberts is a postdoctoral researcher in fish migration ecology. Postdoc researching migration ecology and phenology across a range of taxa, but with a keen interest in freshwater and diadromous fishes. She is interested in all aspects of aquatic ecology and conservation, enjoys working with citizen scientists (anglers) to collect data and samples. She also has a passion for science communication and public engagement in research.

Victoria Dominguez Almela is assessing the ‘dispersal-enhancing’ traits of non-native fish species in their invasion range to quantify the importance of trait plasticity in driving natural rates of diffusion. Progress to date has included completion of swimming performance using flume tanks (as shown in the picture) and functional response experiments. Results are promising, but work is still in progress!

Professor Amanda Korstjens and her mother pictured here, who was 78 years young when she went to Indonesia on a Student Environment Research Team (SERT) training trip with Bournemouth University students. Her research topics include: I. How climate and human disturbance influence primate distribution patterns and survival; 2. Eco-tourism, conservation, disease transmission and human-wildlife conflicts; 3. The evolution of mating strategies and female sexual signals, esp. in red colobus monkeys. You can find all her brilliant research activities on the Landscape Ecology and Primatology (LEAP) website: https://go-leap.wixsite.com/home

Professor Anita Diaz and some of the Purbeck Wildlife Student Environment Research Team (SERT) are based at Bournemouth University. The SERT project helps research what habitat management most helps wildlife conservation on the Purbeck Heaths National Nature Reserve. It runs each year, mentored by Anita Diaz and working in close collaboration with the National Trust. They also collaborate with a range of other conservation organisations including the RSPB and Back from the Brink.

The Nature Volunteers website https://www.naturevolunteers.uk/  is a HEIF funded project that connects people wishing to volunteer to help nature with volunteering opportunities offered by conservation organisations all over the UK. It is also a research tool that helps us, and conservation organisations understand what people who are new to nature volunteering are looking for and what encourages their engagement. ​

Dr Alice Hall is a postdoctoral researcher working at Bournemouth University. She specializes in marine biology and ecological engineering. Her work focuses on building multifunctional structures which can perform their primary function and also provide suitable habitat for marine life.  She is currently working on an Interreg Atlantic Project called 3DPARE which is 3D printing concrete artificial reef units for use in the Atlantic region.

Katie Thompson is doctoral researcher in African Elephant conservation. Her research focuses on ecosystem level conservation environmental education and sustainable development. Ultimately, she aims to use this knowledge to facilitate improving long term management of wildlife and their natural habitats, through high impact research and outreach activities. 

Professor Genoveva Esteban’s research interests focus on biodiversity at the microbial level in order to understand and predict the functioning of aquatic systems by characterising microbial biodiversity at local and regional scales, and by defining the role played by microbes in the natural environment and food webs. Her research is two fold: (1) she leads a successful programme that aims to link science with conservation through research on `cryptic’ biodiversity in freshwater ecosystems; (2) characterisation at molecular and morphological levels of the rare aquatic microbial consortia that thrive in wet woodlands, some being new species to science. She is also a dynamic Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Ambassador.

Jessica Bone is a marine biologist and Research Assistant for the Marineff project and based at Bournemouth University (UK) where she also studied both my Bachelors and Masters degrees in marine ecology. She has enjoyed the interdisciplinary element of Marineff as it has given her the opportunity to learn more about engineering and materials science which has complemented my contributions in designing the Marineff pool. She is also responsible for the Marineff newsletter. Having grown up and studied on the south coast of the UK, she champions British marine wildlife and has a soft spot for the intertidal invertebrates. She is also a secretary for the Poole Harbour Study Group.

Family Science Fair 15 March 1pm-5pm

Important information!

IMPORTANT EVENT UPDATE:
Family Science Fair has been postponed until further notice. If you have any questions please contact us directly.

This year, admittance to the Family Science Fair on 15 March will be by ticket only.

Tickets are FREE and can be obtained by going to the Dorchester Tourist Information Centre in person to collect (this is located in the Dorchester Library, Charles Street, DT1 1EE).

There will be 2 time slots available – from 1pm-3pm and from 3pm-5pm.

Tickets will be available from 15 Feb on a first come first served basis – keep an eye on here for updates!

In addition, the bug and exotic animal handling activity with World-Life will also require a ticket – which can be obtained when you collect a ticket for the Family Science Fair.

Due to high demand for this event we sincerely ask that if you collect a ticket but then are unable to go, that you return it to the Tourist Information Centre or pass it onto someone who is able to attend.

You will need your ticket on the day, to be admitted to the Family Science Fair.

We look forward to seeing you on the day – and have some brilliant activities lined up for you!

PhD student publication:

Integrating an individual-based model with approximate Bayesian computation to predict the invasion of a freshwater fish provides insights into dispersal and range expansion dynamics

First author Victoria Dominguez Almela has successfully published a paper in the Biological Invasions Journal.

The full link to the journal can be found here:

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10530-020-02197-6

You can read the abstract here:

“Short-distance dispersal enables introduced alien species to colonise and invade local habitats following their initial introduction, but is often poorly understood for many freshwater taxa. Knowledge gaps in range expansion of alien species can be overcome using predictive approaches such as individual based models (IBMs), especially if predictions can be improved through fitting to empirical data, but this can be challenging for models having multiple parameters. We therefore estimated the parameters of a model implemented in the RangeShifter IBM platform by approximate Bayesian computation (ABC) in order to predict the further invasion of a lowland river (Great Ouse, England) by a small-bodied invasive fish (bitterling Rhodeus sericeus). Prior estimates for parameters were obtained from the literature and expert opinion. Model fitting was conducted using a time-series (1983 to 2018) of sampling data at fixed locations and revealed that for 5 of 11 model parameters, the posterior distributions differed markedly from prior assumptions. In particular, sub-adult maximum emigration probability was substantially higher in the posteriors than priors. Simulations of bitterling range expansion predicted that following detection in 1984, their early expansion involved a relatively high population growth rate that stabilised after 5 years. The pattern of bitterling patch occupancy was sigmoidal, with 20% of the catchment occupied after 20 years, increasing to 80% after 30 years. Predictions were then for 95% occupancy after 69 years. The development of this IBM thus successfully simulated the range expansion dynamics of this small-bodied invasive fish, with ABC improving the simulation precision. This combined methodology also highlighted that sub-adult dispersal was more likely to contribute to the rapid colonisation rate than expert opinion suggested. These results emphasise the importance of time-series data for refining IBM parameters generally and increasing our understanding of dispersal behaviour and range expansion dynamics specifically.”

Read more about Victoria’s research here: