Our last last day on Qikiqtaruk. Maybe.

Today is the 19th August – our fifth “last day” on Qikiqtaruk. Weather rules over life in the Arctic, and especially travel. Any planning is to be taken with a generous shake of salt as sunshine quickly turns into rain, fog rolls in and strong winds blow across the island. Our scheduled departure was on the 15th August – a stormy day that made the landing of the Twin Otter plane that was to take us to Inuvik impossible. Since that first last day, we have been living in a strange mix of being in the moment and planning ahead, stuck in the limbo of Arctic unpredictability.

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Pauline Cove, where we were based during our time on Qikiqtaruk, and where we spend all of our days waiting for the plane. The calm waters quickly turned to stormy waves as darker and darker clouds rolled in. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

Now, five days later, I am sitting by the fire in Community House, once again awaiting news on whether or not our plane is coming. The sunshine days on Qikiqtaruk seem to be long gone, but today the weather is the best it has been in days. Dark, gloomy and rainy with the occasional snowflake, but still calm and relatively clear. Alas, that is not the situation in Inuvik, from where our plane is departing, and where fog has once again put a pause on our departure. It seems like today our departure is the most likely it’s been so far. My bags are packed, our field gear is put away in the warehouse, the floor is drying after our supposed final mop. These days of waiting, of not knowing whether or not we will leave, have given us extra time to take in the island, to wrap up extra field tasks, get crafty and reflect on our time here.

To check out Isla’s take on our final days on Qikiqtaruk in 2019, check out her blog post about what it’s like to be weathered in here.

As the chill in the air grew stronger and stronger, the wood stove became our gathering place. From a drone lab to a hair salon, art and craft studio to just a place to warm up and talk, this room took many roles during our summer on Qikiqtaruk. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

15th August Thursday

On our first last day, we woke up to a radio message from the rangers – “Polar bear, polar bear across the bay!”. We rushed outside in our pajamas to take a look at the polar bear in the distance. A young male, we thought, that walked up and down the hills and along the beach. As the bear approached a peregrine nest, the raptors went up in the air and angrily circled around the bear. Later on, a pair of gulls displayed the same behaviour. We watched the bear from a distance for a while and then hid away from the winds. We knew we are bound to be staying here for longer than we planned, but the exciting wildlife made up for any alterations in our plans.

In tune with life back at camp following a slower pace, the polar bear spent most of its time huddled up between tussocks, with the occasional stroll up and down the hills that muddled up the bear’s white fur. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

16th August Friday

On our second last day, we knew that there were no available planes and thus we slept in and took our time finishing packing and tidying up. The smell of delicious cookies filled up the house and we each took to whatever activities we enjoy but often don’t find the time for during the more active part of the field season. As blank pages turned into paintings, wood took the shape of a bowhead and we signed our 2019 plaque, the day quickly progressed. Every once in a while, we would go outside to check the hills and see what the polar bear is up to. And on one of those checks, we saw a bear-looking animal but much darker than the polar bear we had been observing during the day. A large grizzly bear had come up on the horizon of the same hills where the polar bear was. The polar bear was lying among the tundra tussocks and eventually the grizzly walked away in the other direction without much action, but it was still exciting to see two different bear species at the same time.

Every year the walls and shelves in the buildings on Qikiqtaruk gain new plaques – pieces of wood and another materials found on the island, each signed with people’s names. For the 2019 Team Shrub plaque, we combined a piece of wood we thought looked like a whale with gagoon (birch bark, the best fire starter around here!) with a macrame-style shrub. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

17th August Saturday

On our third last day, we again took in the island, paused to reflect and adjusted to life in waiting. A big storm was once again raging across the island. The days were beginning to merge. We are not quite sure exactly what happened, but we do know that we did not see a polar bear.

18th August Sunday

On our fourth last day, we woke up early and after a look outside and no news of the plane, went back to bed. Painting, reading, word games with the youth from the Elders and Youth Program and wildlife sightings occupied most of our day. Winter felt particularly close that day, as the rain and wind chilled our bodies and made us run towards the fire after each venture outside. But for those that braved the outside world, a magical sight awaited. Four bowhead whales spent hours feeding close to shore in the cove – just where we usually run into the cold water after being in the sauna. That was the closest I have ever been to bowhead whales. I saw the bow-shaped markings giving them their name, their bodies curving as they rode the waves. We were all freezing, but the experience was more than worth it. Seeing the whales so up close and for quite a while as they went back and forth across the cove was a sight that resonated with everyone on the island. Whenever I turned my head away from the relentless wind, I saw people gazing at the whales and taking in the experience of being meters away from bowhead whales on a cold gloomy day in the Arctic.

19th August Monday

On our fifth last day, we woke up the earliest we have so far. Once again we packed and cleaned but there is still no sense of urgency in the air. Fog has descended across Inuvik and the plane is on standby. Time is both standing still, as we move back and forth from the kitchen to the fire and drink tea after tea, but it is also moving fast as each day of delay pushes our next destination and our lives beyond the island further into the future. We will continue waiting and at some point, thought it might not be today, we will rush to the airstrip, we will close our bags for real and leave Qikiqtaruk. It has been a summer wonderfully rich in discovery, wildlife encounters and emotions, and I am grateful for the chance to be here. As we have learned over the years, Qikiqtaruk can be a difficult place to leave, we have after all been trying for five days. But aside from the physical departure from the island, it is also hard for the experiences gathered here to leave my mind. And I know that in the months and years to come, I will often think back to my arctic summers.

Ten hours later, I am once again by the fire. As the day unfolded, we kept hearing about the fog at Shingle Point and that was the fog that ultimately pushed our flight once again. We filled our day with painting polar bears, writing letters and chatting with the rest of us here on the island. Moments ago, snow was falling from the skies in large snowflakes and the hills have quickly turned white. Though the snow is now almost all melted, the snowfall once again reminded us that summer is over and winter is quickly approaching. Though I’ve enjoyed many snowfalls around the world, this brief but intense snowfall on the island felt special. All my arctic experiences have been in the summer, and the white hills were a glimpse into what the island would look like after we are gone. It is now time to unzip my bags, take my sleeping bag out and settle in for another night on Qikiqtaruk.

We went to bed knowing that there are a few snowflakes falling outside, but we didn’t quite expect to wake up to an island fully covered in white. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

20th August Tuesday

On our sixth last day on Qikiqtaruk, the snow returned early in the morning. The hills were completely blanketed by snow. The whole island shined brightly, the sun beams reflecting off the white surface. I went around Pauline Cove for a brief walk, but there was no haste in my steps. “We’re not going anywhere today.”, I had heard earlier. So having taken in the winter scenes, I went back to sleep. Three hours later, I emerged from my sleeping bag to make a cup of tea. Through the kitchen window, I saw someone pushing a wheel barrow full of boxes towards the airstrip. Could there be a plane coming after all? Stepping outside, the surrounding soundscape reminded me of spring. The sun was as blazing as it’s ever been this week and the sound of dripping water surrounded me. The snow was quickly disappearing and the familiar green tones of the tundra were coming back.

A scene of winter wonder emerged as more and more snow fell to the ground, turning everything white as far as the eye could see. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

“The plane is leaving Inuvik!”, someone yelled from afar. It seemed unreal. It was day six of our prolonged departure from Qikiqtaruk and we were used to the plane not coming. And now it was on the way. The haste returned to our steps as we put away the cups from the tea we didn’t make and completed our final packing. With over five days of leaving preparations under our belt, we knew exactly what we need to do and very soon we were ready. A Twin Otter plane circled over the airstrip. And it landed. The first plane was for the people from the Elders and Youth program. It would fly back to Inuvik, refuel and then come back to pick us up on its second trip to Qikiqtaruk.

One last look at Qikiqtaruk for 2019 as the Twin Otter took to the air. All of the rangers waved goodbye and in just over an hour, we were in Inuvik. Photo by Gergana Daskalova

It was a beautiful and emotional final day on Qikiqtaruk. A day that goes to show how quickly things can change in the Arctic. The afternoon was so different from the morning. We bid goodbye to the rangers, the people we met over our time on the island, and to Qikiqtaruk. As we boarded the Twin Otter and Qikiqtaruk’s outline grew smaller and smaller in the distance, I knew that wherever I go next, I will always remember my Arctic summer.

Words, photos and video by Gergana Daskalova


Enter the world of willows. Journey to the south-west corner of the Yukon, to a land of glorious landscapes, shrubs and magic, where willows from the south and north live side by side… to a place that never existed (prior to 2014), to a time that is now (with a small blog posting delay). It is a world where a courageous team plants willows, living out an adventure that tests how shrubs grow in a warmer climate.

**Inspired by the 1988 movie “Willow”.**

An epic journey

A journey across altitudes and latitudes – from the shores of Kluane Lake up to the plateau above it and Pika Camp; from Qikiqtaruk to Inuvik to Whitehorse to Kluane again. The journeys have been long, but they’ve been fruitful. What’s left behind is a garden full of willows with different origins. Now, they share a common new home, but their journey is far from over.

A time when a willow (or over 100) could tip the balance between environmental and genetic constraints

How do willows respond to increases in temperature? If a willow from the north is propagated in the south and starts experiencing the warmer climate there, it is freed of the environmental constraints of the harsher northern climate. But if it’s genes that determine how much a willow grows, the change in climate might have little effect. So which way does the balance tip? And like in most good movies, is there a twist that nobody saw coming? Stay tuned for more as we piece together the common garden discoveries we’ve made so far.

A time for unlikely heroes

The heroes of this story are many, and it’s their combined work that has made the common garden what it is today. From many of Earth’s corners, people have come to the common garden and worked away – preparing the beds, moving soil and sand, planting, weeding, measuring, recording observations, the list goes on and on!

A time when courage could be found where you least expect it

Along the shore of Kluane Lake as we carry buckets and buckets of water under the blistering sun. In the floodplain on Qikiqtaruk as we collect willow cuttings drenched by the rain. Up in the mountains where each step takes us potentially one step closer to finding an arctic willow specimen from which we can take a cutting to propagate in the garden. Along the path from Outpost Camp to the garden as we walk there wondering what the garden will look like. But really, when one most needs courage is when downloading data off HOBO temperature data loggers. Just when you’ve figured one data logger out, you move onto the next to find that it’s a slightly different model, needing different tools to open it up, different batteries and a different type of cable. After the great HOBO trials of 2017, this year we were ready with all the tools, batteries, cables and courage we imagined we could possibly need. There were trials, moments when the goal seemed unreachable, but just in the nick of time, on our last day in Kluane, we managed to install the right software for the special HOBO cable and we got the data! Courageous!

Not a time when good humans risked their lives

All risk assessment forms were filled on time, with all safety protocols carried out and of course, the best heroes are the ones with expedition-level first aid training.

If a willow dies not all hope for the future is lost

Sadness ensues when a willow succumbs to drought, heat, disease or fails to establish in its new home. Soothing the pain are all the other willows that continue holding onto life in the common garden. And when it comes to an experiment, there is value in death as well. As Haydn pointed out earlier in the summer after hearing about the drought in Kluane, regardless of the balance between life and death in the garden, there are still many great discoveries ahead.

The “Isla Myers-Smith” bed – if you look closely you can see all the dead branches, but there are lots of new shoots as well.

A time of great adventure

Will the 2018 willows we brought from Qikiqtaruk and high up on the Kluane Plateau make it in the common garden? Now, a mere stick hints to all the potential shrubbiness of the new willows, but what is now a stick, can be a thriving shrub next year. Will that indeed be the case? How will our willows fare with the approaching winter? Only time can tell. All the best stories leave you hanging for at least 10 months, right?

From Team Shrub and the shrubs of Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island, Kluane Plateau and Pika Valley, comes the Common Garden. Stay tuned for scientific discoveries!

Text by Gergana
Video footage: Noah Bell, Isla Myers-Smith & Gergana Daskalova
Video editting: Gergana Daskalova

From the ground to the sky: fieldwork in Kluane

Roaming the common garden

Over the last five years, the common garden in Kluane has allowed us to collect data on the growth of different willow species from across Canada. This experiment enables us to better understand how plants grow in a warmer climate. Over the start of this summer, which has been particularly hot in Kluane, we have continued smothering our plants with love by fertilizing and watering them so they would allow us to take all sorts of measurements on them – including phenology, new growth, leaf length and canopy height.

At the moment, one Salix richardsonii individual is the tallest plant in the garden at 156 cm, which makes it the king or queen of the (Arctic) jungle! We will be back in August though so there is still time for other plants to have a go at dethroning it. A close-up view of our willows is spectacular, but I have to say that looking up every once in a while from callipers and measuring tapes and seeing the majestic mountains surrounding Kluane lake does not get old – this is truly is a magical place.

By Mariana

Climbing up mountains

Behind our experiment at the shores of Kluane Lake rise the mountains that gives us a chance to step, in just a few hours, into the tundra. Aside from the abundance of shrubs, grasses and beautiful alpine flowers that are our primary attraction to these climes, we have also over the last few years been helping Anna Hargreaves to examine patterns of herbivory. Laying out seeds and cages, we keep an eye out for critters and flutters, picking and scratching, and most often of all, the scraping of teeth and piles of poo that signify a small mammal has found our caches. This year we have added fake caterpillars to expand the repertoire of munching mementos. All went well with putting out the seeds, though it turned out the fake caterpillars were hard to work with in the summer heat! But we managed. Either way, the birds didn’t seem overly keen – only one, maybe three, caterpillars got pecked. Whatever the task, it hardly matters once atop the mountains: the views are reliably beautiful!

To find out more:

Hargreaves, A., Suarez, E., Mehltreter, K., Myers-Smith, I., Vanderplank, S.E., Slinn, H.L., Vargas-Rodriguez, Y.L., Haeussler, S., David, S., Munoz, J. and Almazan-Nunoz, R.C., 2018. Seed predation increases from the Arctic to the Equator and from high to low elevations. bioRxiv, p.304634.

By Gergana (and Haydn)

Flying drones

Drones! We still have them, none have broken yet. The main task of our test flights while in Kluane was adding the Sequoia multi-spec sensor to the DJI Phantom 4 Pro (editor’s note: for non-drone folks I think that means ‘added a cool camera to a mini helicopter’). The flights were a success with slight glitches that have been corrected by now. The only casualty during our flight operations were my ankles which were not properly protected from the mosquitoes during the first flight at dusk. If anything it was a proper introduction to the bugs that we’ll face while on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island. Once all flights were completed, we carried five gallon buckets from the lake to water the community garden through herds of black flies.

Yes, I was sore the next morning.

By Noah

Exploring – from the ground to the sky!

In between measuring leaves, counting seeds and flying drones, we also got to explore the icefields near Kluane – a magical experience! Our favourites included the super high mountains, the rich turquoise colour of the little pools among the ice, and just the all around grandeur of the place. Majestical, as the movie Hunt for the Wilderpeople would put it.

We continued the Team Shrub tradition of a barefoot icefield run – refreshingly brisque! It was quite the contrast to feel the heat of the sun and the chill of the ice at the same time.

We are now off to Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island for the next, longer stretch of our field season! In less than two hours, us and many boxes are scheduled to depart for Qikiqtaruk. Oh the adventure that lies ahead…we can’t wait!

By Gergana, Mariana and Noah

The International Tundra Experiment Meeting 2018

At over 65 sites around the world, 100s of international researchers with several long-term monitoring protocols and one common aim are working to understanding how the tundra biome is changing.

The ITEX (International Tundra Experiment) network brings together researchers studying the responses of Arctic and alpine plants and ecosystems to global change, with a particular focus on climate change. This synthesis of observations across the tundra has improved our knowledge of the changing tundra plant communities (Elmendorf et al. 2012a, 2015), their responses to experimental warming (Elmendorf et al. 2012b) and the changes to and climate sensitivity of the phenology – timing of leafing out and flower of tundra plant species (Oberbauer et al. 2013, Prevéy et al. 2017). Here, we give you a taster of the research findings that Team Shrub presented at the meeting.

Earlier in April, the 2018 ITEX meeting in Stirling brought together many of the researchers part of the ITEX network to share key findings of their work on how tundra ecosystems are changing and what that might mean for the planet. The meeting kicked off with a field trip to the Scottish hills near Dollar. Through rain, wind and sunshine, our hike reminded us of the days we’ve spend in the Arctic. Amidst the grasses and mosses, there was another flashback to our Arctic days – Eriophorum vaginatum! Growing in the wetter parts of the hills, we found quite a few cottongrass tussocks, an exciting sight for us tundra flora enthusiasts!

In the woodlands in Dollar, spring was in full swing – singing wood warblers, beds of wild garlic and primroses in bloom. In typical scientist fashion, we made many stops along the way to talk about the different species we encountered.

We made it to the top of the hill, took in the nice view and pondered the landscape around us and how it came to be. How far did the natural treeline used go in Scotland and how have these landscapes changed through time? Has Scotland always looked a bit like the treeless tundra biome?

Our group photo from the top of the hill

Next up it was time for some science.  Here is a brief summary of the team shrub presentations at the conference.

Species Pool Protocol

Gergana presented the key findings of the long-term monitoring on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island, among which were increased vegetation cover, less bare ground and a deeper active layer. It was particularly exciting to share the results of the ITEX species pool protocol – Gergana’s absolute favourite protocol! We had a great time during the summer walking around the long-term vegetation plots and recording the different species found across the landscape. Knowing more about the regional species pool can help us predict how local biodiversity trends might change in the future. For example, there are two plant species, Saxifraga nelsoniana and Parrya nudicaulis, that were found within five meters of the vegetation plot, yet they have never been recorded inside it so far.

Haydn presented all about tundra traits and what they are telling us about the rates of change in decomposition with vegetation change in the tundra biome.  His take-home message was community-level estimates of tundra decomposition haven’t changed much over time and future change will likely be slow. Anne presented about the changes or lack there off in species and functional diversity over three decades of tundra monitoring. And in some ways it is a similar story – even though there are strong spatial patterns in species diversity from the warm to the cold reaches of the tundra biome, functional diversity doesn’t change as much and species diversity isn’t changing rapidly over time.

Sam presented a poster on his undergraduate dissertation about the amount of carbon stored in the above-ground biomass on Qikiqtaruk. And, Mariana presented a poster about the rates of shrub encroachment across two very different biomes that are experiencing similar changes – the tundra and savanna. It was a lively poster session with lots of interesting discussions that continued on over a delicious fish supper in the down of Bridge of Allan.

The next day, Isla summarized the evidence for the detection and attribution of tundra vegetation change to climate change including: phenology change, vegetation change, climate sensitivity of shrub growth, a warming of the combined thermal niches of plant communities and community-level plant trait change. Taken together, these data syntheses provide compelling evidence for the detection and attribution of tundra vegetation change to climate warming, but the evidence also points to variability in plant responses and the importance of other controlling factors such as soil moisture, topographic context, herbivory and permafrost thaw. Isla also presented on behalf of Jeff Kerby and shared the initial results of the High Latitude Drone Ecology Network and discussed how drones can help us to understand the ecological context and representativeness of long-term ecological monitoring studies like the ITEX network.

Sandra told us all about her findings that temperatures rather than growing season length best explained variation in shrub growth. Her research also suggests that the interpretation of growth ring data is more complex that we first thought with growth rings likely representing an integration of plant responses to climate and other biological factors from both above and below ground. In the same session, Janet made an impassioned plea for tundra ecologists to make their data public emphasizing the power of open and available data and the resulting data syntheses with a focus on the results of the plant phenology syntheses that she has been leading.

And finally, Jakob presented his work on the drivers of tundra phenology changes, looking  at snowmelt, temperature and sea-ice. It turns out that snow melt, followed by temperature, best explains variation in plant phenology with localized sea ice not being a significant predictor.  Jakob’s excellent talk won best student talk!  Congrats Jakob!

The final day of the conference after a Scottish ceilidh dance focused on discussions of what will be next for the ITEX network. What questions should the tundra ecology community tackle in the coming years? How can we integrate new technology into the existing tundra monitoring protocols? What is the future change we can expect to observe in the rapidly warming tundra biome? Stay tuned for the next ITEX conference in a couple of years to find out more about the next stage of tundra ecology research and data synthesis!

By Gergana and Isla

Conference adventures – the Scottish Ecology, Environment and Conservation Conference 2018

The first light was tentatively breaking through the Edinburgh clouds as we braved the early morning and ran towards the train station. Four people, one mission – catch an early morning trend to St Andrews to attend the 2018 Scottish Ecology, Environment and Conservation Conference! With unexpected delays and ticket machines not working, it was quite the achievement that we did actually make it in time. Team Shrub was at last year’s edition of the conference, which was great fun, so I was excited to take part again this year.

What made this conference extra special for me was that I got to share the experience with an enthusiastic and knowledgeable group of 4th year undergraduate students from the Ecology and Environmental Sciences programme here in Edinburgh. Struan, Jack and Fiona all took the Conservation Science course last semester and were very keen to learn more! It’s so exciting to share the research journey with students and then get to see them present the findings!

Struan presented his findings on how paths in Cairngorms National Park affect bird diversity – he did a great job at outlining the motivation behind the study, which was a great reminder for us to think about not only what we did, but also why we did it. Something to ponder at each stage of your analysis, from the very first formulation of research questions to writing up the results!

Struan presenting his honours research on the effects of paths on bird diversity in the Cairngorms

I really enjoyed the SEECC 2018 conference. It was the first science conference I had attended and I found listening to what other people have been researching a very interesting experience, particularly as there was some research which overlapped with my own. My favourite part of the conference was the presentation I did on my dissertation which really gave me a flavour of what presenting your own scientific work is like.

Struan Johnson, 4th year Ecological and Environmental Sciences student

It was also my first time sharing some of the preliminary findings of my PhD! Exciting times. A nice coincidence was that the IPBES meetings were happening at the same time, so my post-conference reward for myself was going through the regional summaries for biodiversity change and its drivers.

Next up, Jack presented his dissertation project, which investigated the links between wellbeing and environmental threats in Tanzania’s Wildlife Management Areas. Jack was a great speaker on quite the difficult topic!

Jack presenting the findings of his honours dissertation on how wildlife management areas influence human well-being

I thought the conference was very well run, full of interesting and insightful topics and the people presenting were very passionate. It was really nice being able to discuss a wide range of ecological issues with people with in depth knowledge and an encouraging platform for even an undergraduate student to present their work.

Jack Cunningham, 4th year Ecological and Environmental Sciences student

Post-conference waffles and ice cream – a great ending to a jam-packed day of science!

I found it a thought-provoking day, and was interesting to hear about the variety of academic research across Scotland. I enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere, with everyone attending (speakers or not) very approachable and eager to talk about current research!

Fiona Stephen, 4th year Ecological and Environmental sciences student

For me, a trip to St Andrews is not complete without ice-cream or fudge donuts… or a combination of the two! We had a great time at the conference and had a very jolly and inspired day full of science!

By Gergana, Struan, Jack and Fiona

Coding Club in Ghent and a visit to the Forest and Nature Lab in Ghent

At the beginning of March, something strange happened here in Edinburgh – a snow storm! A proper blizzard and what very much looked and felt like real snow, real enough to cause a bit of traveling havoc! On my way to Ghent, it was Beast from the East – a standard snow storm really, but quite unusual for for the rainy Edinburgh winter. On my way back to Edinburgh, of course, came Beast from the East number two – a smaller snow storm, but still enough to make the ground go white. Though I had storms accompanying me all along the way, my journeys all went safely and even more excitingly, they were full to the brim with science!

Edinburgh snowscapes

Coding Club workshop for the EVENET network

Coding Club is growing! It’s quite exciting, and one of the best parts is learning about similar initiatives around the world – the joys and challenges of coding can definitely bring people together. At the Ecology Across Borders conference in Ghent last December, we organised a workshop on sharing quantitative skills among ecologists – seeing so many people keen to only get better at R, but also share their knowledge with others, was definitely one of the conference highlights for me. So imagine how exciting it was when I got the invite to go back to Ghent to lead a Coding Club workshop for EVENET – a network of ecologists from different institutions around Belgium.

The theme of the workshop was developing an efficient and reproducible workflow, so we squeezed in as much data manipulation, visualisation, modelling and then reporting using Markdown into a day-long workshop. If you’re keen to find out about the tidyverse collection of packages and how you can use them to streamline your research, you can check out the tutorial online:

GitHub, Tidyverse and Markdown – efficient data manipulation and visualisation and reproducible workflows

Red deer populations across space and time – check out the tutorial here https://ourcodingclub.github.io/2018/03/06/tidyverse.html

The Forest and Nature Lab at Ghent University

I’ve been dreaming of visiting a research group – it sounded like something I would really enjoy! I love exploring university campuses and research buildings, checking out the posters on the walls, “feeling the science in the air”, learning about new research and getting to hear different perspectives on my work as well. Visiting the Forest and Nature Lab at Ghent University was indeed a great experience – I shared the preliminary findings of one of my PhD chapters for the first time (how does forest cover influence biodiversity trends?), I learned about a lot of cool forest research and of course, I find land-use history fascinating, so I was very intrigued by the post-agricultural forests in Flanders and the effect of time since last agricultural activity.

You can check out some of the papers below to learn more about the effects of land-use legacy on forest communities:

Hermy & Verheyen (2007) Legacies of the past in the present-day forest biodiversity: a review of past land-use effects on forest plant species composition and diversity, Ecological Research.

Perring et al. (2018) Global environmental change effects on plant community composition trajectories depend upon management legacies, Global Change Biology.

A particularly inspirational moment was getting to walk around the research forest near Gontrode. A research forest! As much as I like coding away with a cup of tea, it’s nice to complement that with seeing real-life plants and animals. I think strong academic communities are so valuable, and in Ghent, I got a small glimpse of such a community! We are all busy and at any point in time, we could be doing many different things. I will definitely remember the feeling of walking around the research forests with a group of PhD students, each showing me some of their experiments and sharing their science.

I had lots of time for daydreaming on my way back to Edinburgh, and I have to say, 12 hour delays sure feel more poetic when 1) you have code running in the background, so you don’t feel totally inefficient, and 2) you are dreaming of future research directions and field research stations!

By Gergana

Our favourite Team Shrub blog posts from 2017

In 2017, we wrote 54 blog posts (including this one!). We’ve shared tales of fieldwork adventures in the Arctic, conferences, workshops, discussion groups and more.

We hope that through our words and photos we’ve provided a glimpse into life as a scientist and what the research journey involves. Indeed, things don’t always go to plan. But sometimes expectations are surpassed, or what initially seemed bad doesn’t turn out that bad after all.

It’s been a great year for Team Shrub (stay tuned for our blog post on our highlights from the year!), and as 2017 comes to a close we would like to reflect on those 54 blog posts and share our very favourites.

The votes are in. Here are the results, in no particular order: our ten favourite blog post of 2017!

Changes on Qikiqtaruk: Perspectives from Ranger Ricky Joe

Yukon Parks ranger Ricky Joe shares his perspectives on life in the Arctic, working on the land, and the changes he has observed on Qikiqtaruk.


Qikiqtaruk perspectives by ranger Edward McLeod

Yukon Parks ranger Edward McLeod shares his perspectives on working as a park ranger and the collaboration between the rangers and researchers here on the island.

Monitoring plant phenology plots on Qikiqtaruk

The Power of Stories

Fieldwork and stories tend to go hand in hand – funny stories liven up those moments when no field plan seems to work, and evenings after a day’s work can quickly go from quiet to lively chatter. Stories are how we communicate both our daily lives and our science.

Sharing stories and a meal on Qikiqtaruk

Deep in the shrubs – birding the willows on Herschel Island-Qikiqtaruk

It was little more than a flash in the willows, just for an instant and then vanishing, but one that stopped me in my tracks. Could that have been a hummingbird?

Yukon Parks Conservation Biologist Cameron Eckert shares fantastic stories of bird sightings on Qikiqtaruk. Cameron has studied the birds, wildlife, and ecosystems of the Yukon’s North Slope and Herschel Island for the past 25 years, and he works with Yukon Parks Rangers to coordinate the island’s ecological monitoring programme.


The end of a chapter (and the drafting of many)

Perhaps it was when I was waving to someone with a rusty hammer across a dusty runway, dragging a sledge full of dead leaves. Or perhaps it was when digging sunflower seeds out of the snow at 6am, while listening out for birdcalls and watching for bears. Or maybe when burying teabags on a wet mountainside, hoping they didn’t blow away in the wind. Whenever it was, I came to the realisation that this mad adventure called a PhD is soon to be over.


Arctic Smellscapes

We have often asked you to imagine what it would be like to be here with us in the Arctic. Through words, photos and videos, we have tried to bring the Arctic closer to you. So close that if you just imagine, you may well see it. You could even hear it. If you ponder the many changes occurring on Qikiqtaruk Herschel Island, from changes in vegetation structure and community composition to changes in what our life is like here, and listen again, you could hear a change.

The Arctic – you can see it, you can hear it, and now, for a fuller experience, we present the Arctic smellscape of Qikiqtaruk, so you can smell it, too. 

We are crazy about the fragrant smell of Labrador tea

Who knew there is such a niche for describing how a place smells! The Team Shrub blog – an experience for all senses! It might have started off as a joke, but smellscapes are totally a thing now, and Arctic Smellscapes is one of the blog posts that most often comes up in our minds when we think about the summer of 2017!

Team Shrub at the Edinburgh Science Festival

The Edinburgh International Science Festival was the perfect occasion to bring together beautiful photos with cool artifacts from our fieldwork for an event under the theme of “Arctic from Above” – Team Shrub’s first exhibition!

New adventures in birding: Part 1 – Why shrubs are better than birds.

Shrubs are always there. They’re reliable little fellows, sitting quite peacefully on their little patch of soil. You can go up to a shrub, pat it on the head, give it a little hug… whatever floats your boat. Shrubs don’t care. You can come back the next day, the next day, the day after that, hey we come back year on year! Our favourite shrubs are still sticking around, stoically soaking up the sun and the storms and the deep snows of winter. Choose a shrub – they’re always there for you.


Arctic Soundscapes

If you close your eyes and imagine you are with us, the soundscape of Qikiqtaruk is as magical as the landscape! All the sounds here are so much more distinct because usually it is so quiet – even a gentle wing flap by the nearby pair of tundra swans resonates through the air. We have all enjoyed taking quiet walks after a day of fieldwork – a time to look, listen and take it all in.

Sea ice and fog along the Arctic coast with the British Mountains in the background.

Our final days on Qikiqtaruk for 2017

On the morning of our last day, everything came together.  Beautiful belugas accompanied us on our beach walk towards the data loggers on Collinson Head.  We had all the tools we required (well almost), we even managed to improvise a radiation shield out of wooden skewers and medical tape to fix the broken one on that pole.  And once we removed all the screws without dropping them in the pond below the logger box and plugged in the cable without getting it wet, the data were on our laptop in minutes! It is a great feeling to leave your field site knowing that you have accomplished all of your fieldwork goals.

A lovely meal in the sunshine on the last day before the rain and wind came!

Qikiqtaruk Book Club Part IV: Theory and high-level processes in the Arctic

Page after page, we have been pondering patterns and processes in community ecology under the sounds of gusting winds and heavy rain. From one storm to the next, when our field days were cut short, we could sit by the fire in the Community Building (the oldest building in the Yukon) and delve in deeper into Mark Vellend’s “The Theory of Ecological Communities”.

We thoroughly enjoyed reading “The Theory of Ecological Communities” whilst on fieldwork at our remote field site in the Canadian Arctic. There is particular charm in reading about a certain ecological process, be it high- or low-level, and then observing it in action moments later in the field.

The Theory of Ecological Communities
Isla’s copy of The Theory of Ecological Communities that looks like it has been eaten by a polar bear! But it was actually partially eaten by a dog. Clearly a book you can really chew on – some ecological theory you can bite into…

Highly commended (because there were a few ties in our top 10!):

Team Shrub’s Tips: CVs & Job Applications

And so we arrived, CV’s at the ready and slightly nervous, ready to discuss exactly what it takes to get your dream job. Here is a summary of our thoughts trying to encompass jobs from an undergraduate summer position, PhD or postdoc through to an academic job.


A fortune pastry for Team Shrub

What does the future hold for Team Shrub? Сладка баница (or sladka banitza) is a new year’s tradition in Bulgaria, it is a pastry that is both sweet and salty representing both the good and the bad in life and it contains pieces of paper cooked in with fortunes written on them! Sure, it isn’t quite the new year anymore, but it is a bit of a new beginning for Team Shrub with new students joining the lab for the summer’s field season or as dissertation students for next year.


Did our fortunes come true? Isla has certainly learned a few super efficient dplyr tricks along with some dplyr frustrations and there has been a tiny bit of deep machine learning on Team Shrub in 2017. Though perhaps we haven’t yet found our state of research zen nor has that big grant come through… We can tell you more in our Highlights of 2017 blog post! Until then, thank you for reading and engaging with our blog post, we have loved sharing our research and the journey towards it with you, and we look forward to another year of blogging!

By Gergana

Secrets, rumours and facts from two parallel conferences

From secrets through rumours to facts – science in a nutshell!

Team Shrub heading to two big conferences!

Our team recently attended two big conferences – Ecology Across Borders (check out our highlights so far) and ArcticNet (you can read our round-ups of day 1day 2, day 3 and days 4 and 5). Thousands of scientists coming together to share their findings and ponder new directions. Despite the ocean between us, it still feels like we are going through the conferences together – the magic of emails, blog posts and twitter! Sometimes it helps with my fear of missing out, sometimes it makes it worse.

Weather-wise, it’s not that much different thanks to the snow storm in Belgium, though it is colder in Quebec, and I imagine Canada knows how to deal with snow! Conference-wise, it feels like there are many ubiquitous aspects – the big rooms, full up to the brim with scientists, the slight madness of poster sessions, the snacks that get eaten by the time you find out they’ve appeared.

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A word cloud from the abstracts of some of the talks at Ecology Across Borders.
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A word cloud from the talk titles of some of the talks at Arctic Net.

At the Science Comedy Slam, part of the Ecology Across Borders conference in Belgium, Yvonne Buckley told us about her love of seeds, of which she has weighted many (thousands!), and what the process felt like. I loved her description of the scientific process – we go from secrets, the exciting unknown, to the rumours, our findings that we tentative believe in, but things are not quite clear yet, to the facts, the statements we’ve backed up with strong evidence.

Now that both Team EAB and Team ArcticNet have wrapped up their respective conference experience, we’d like to share some of our favourite secrets, rumours and facts.

Team ArcticNet excited for all the secrets, rumours and facts ahead!

Secrets. The major unknowns.

Ecology Across Borders

  • What is the most appropriate model to answer your question? In a time of many R packages and many different ways to design your models, which one is the best for your particular question? Laura Williamson compared generalized additive models (GAM) and hierarchical Bayesian spatial models (HBM) with Integrated Nested Laplace Approximation (INLA) to interpret aerial video survey data. The INLA models revealed finer patters in the distribution of harbour porpoises.
  • How does sub-individual variation compare with between-individual and between-species variation? And what does that mean for the scale at which we collect data and answer our research questions? We pondered that after Carlos Herrera‘s plenary talk about trait variance at the sub-individual level.
  • How have global change drivers re-shaped ecosystems around the world and what will their effects be in the future? How do global change drivers such as land use change and climate change interact? Do different taxa respond differently? Do the same taxa respond differently in different locations? What are the predictors of those responses? So many questions!


  • What happens below ground? When we’re dealing with the tundra, about 90% of biomass can be below ground. The unseen iceberg indeed! We heard many fascinating talks about vegetation change over the course of the conference, and yet for so many of us, the huge subsurface part of the tundra remains a mystery. Paul Grogan‘s talk on the mechanisms behind birch shrub expansion, with that fancy animation that his students made him add, really emphasized the point that it is time for all of us tundra ecologists to get out our shovels and do some below-ground ecology!
  • How do processes scale from individual plants flowering in different parts of tundra landscape up to the seasonal signal of greenness observable by satellites across the northern hemisphere? These were questions pondered across a variety of talks from Zoe Panchen and Cassandra Elphinstone‘s talks on plant phenology to Jakob’s talk about his drone phenology research and Jeff Kerby‘s talk on the High Latitude Drone Ecology Network. Team Shrub has been wondering how drone data can provide that key link to understand how patterns and processes such as plant pheonogy scale across tundra ecosystems. Perhaps we are entering a new age of spatial ecology where we finally have the data collection and analytical tools to ask the scaling questions that have been plaguing ecologists for decades!
  • What would happen if there was no coffee? This is something I wonder at many a conference.

Rumours. The hypotheses, the first results coming in.

Ecology Across Borders

  • Model structure and type of inference mattersLaura Williamson showed us how INLA models (spatial models based on Bayesian inference) can pinpoint where harbour porpoises occur in different months of the year, where they feed, and where they just hand out.
  • Areas of high conservation value and areas of high recreation value do not overlap –  Francesca Mancini investigates what are the implications for human and nature? Perhaps positive in terms of conservation areas not suffering degradation costs due to high visitation, but also negative for ecosystem services, as humans become more disengaged and disconnected with nature.
  • Just Google it… and then determine distribution of different species morphs, pick up on discrete variation in species traits and delimit species rangesGabriella Leighton uses Google images to do all of that! Comparisons with traditional field studies show good agreement between the two methods, opening the scope for wider uses of Google images in research.


  • What’s going on with the carbon cycle in the tundra? This could have been a secret, but we know more than enough to be making a few hypotheses here. Over the course of Arctic Change we heard a lot about sinks and sources of carbon in the tundra. It does contain more than twice as much of the stuff as is held in the atmosphere after all. But the fascinating thing for me is that there is still huge uncertainty over exactly what climate change might mean. Thawing permafrost and release of soil carbon, almost certainly. Faster decomposition, probably. What about greater productivity, storage in biomass? What about litter decomposition, will that be faster or slower as communities change? Over the various talks and posters we saw evidence for both sides, and quite a few wonderful, but certainly rumoured feedback loops including some of those feedbacks actually tested with real-world tundra data in Peter Lafleur and Elyn Humphreys’ poster entitled ‘Filling the Gaps in Shrub Tundra-Atmosphere Interactions in a Changing World’.
  • Can we predict precipitation? One thing that stuck with me after this conference was that moisture really matters! Whether it was Jackie Hung’s talk on nitrogen cycling in wetlands, Jennifer Baltzer’s research into what makes a spruce forest spruce, or Carl Barrette’s stark findings on loss of snow in Nunavik, water cropped up again and again. And yet we also heard how difficult it is to predict. So perhaps this is one of the most important rumours to confirm – not what has happened, but what will happen.
  • Did someone say that John England, winner of the 2017 Weston Family Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Northern Research, was drinking beer from a boot?? I never confirmed this rumour, but I have a feeling some of our team saw the evidence for themselves.

Facts. The evidence.

Ecology Across Borders

  • The drivers of the distribution of threatened species vary around the world – energy availability is most important but there is variation across space and taxa. Christine Howard
  • Sub-individual variation influences fitness through effects on fecundity and resource use. Carlos Herrera 
  • A synthesis of the effects of climate change on breeding phenology of seabirds reveals that populations respond differently through time, and location  influences how populations respond. On average, seabird populations worldwide have not adjusted their breeding phenology between 1952 and 2015. Katharine Keogan


  • The Arctic is rapidly changing with decreasing sea ice cover being documented in all different ways.  There were lots of different approaches to understanding the changing sea ice including using new Sentinel-1 SAR imagery to document the cover of different aged sea ice in Stefan Muckenhuber‘s talk, to understanding the melting first-year sea ice as a part of a UK-Canada collaboration lead by Jack Landy, to data collected by local people with their GPS or phones from the plenary by Joel Heath and Lucassie Arragutainaq, winner of the 2017 Inuit Recognition Award, on the Arctic Eider Society‘s Inuit knowledge wiki & social mapping platform called SIKU.
  • Put the people in the picture. Although we attended Arctic Change with our ecologist hats on (no really, very lovely grey Team Shrub hats!), the one thing we cannot ignore is the importance of people, and particularly those that live in Arctic regions. ArcticNet did a fantastic job of getting the voices and concerns of northerners heard, of putting northern interests at the centre of the research agenda, and for calling people out when needed. Good job.
  • Pictures of bears make people pay attention. Nice work Cameron Eckert and Jay Frandsen for your compelling presentations on using camera traps to understand wildlife abundance, travel routes and resource use.
Isla was super stoked to see an awesome poster by her one time undergrad dissertation PhD student supervisor Elyn Humphreys filling in the feedbacks from her 2011 review paper.

But really, the line between rumours and facts in science is often blurry – and facts might not always stay facts, as new evidence continues to come in. That might even bring us back to the secrets, but what ecologist doesn’t love a good secret or rumour.


By Gergana, Haydn and Isla

Ecology Across Borders: round-up so far

It is snowing in Ghent, too. Delayed or cancelled flights/trains have made travelling a challenge, but as the weather is settling at least a tiny bit, more and more people are arriving to the Ecology Across Borders in Ghent, Belgium. A snowman with a name badge greats those that managed to reach the conference venue. Outside, the cold wind pinches your skin and freezes your toes. Inside, the magic and excitement of science, plus a cup of tea or several, warms you up.


Team Shrub members are currently attending two big conferences – Ecology Across Borders (EAB) in Belgium and ArcticNet in Canada – one might say, we are almost on a conference tour. EAB is in full swing – two days into the conference, we are happy to report that conferences really can be a hub of science joy, discussion, criticism and ideas on how to take ecology further.

Here are our conference highlights so far.

  • Ecology Hackathon

On Monday, Gergana joined the full day Ecology Hackathon. Our goal was to make an R package to download and harmonise differed gridded datasets to facilitate their use in answering research questions. We have written code and drafted the key goals of our package, and are excited to continue building on this.


  • Speed review from the BES journal editors

The speed review session was a great opportunity to get feedback from the editors of some of the BES journals. The session was very useful and  it was great to meet some of the editors and talk about the winning elements of a manuscript.

  • GBIF stall in the exhibition hall

Gergana had a riveting discussion with Dmitry Schigel from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). Gergana is using GBIF data in her analysis of how rarity metrics (geographic range, mean population size and habitat specificity) affect population change, and it was fantastic to learn more about GBIF and how to best use GBIF data. We love open source data, and we are looking forward to continuing using GBIF – both in our research, and in teaching at Coding Club.


  • Catching up with people and meeting others for the first time

It’s exciting to see people you haven’t met with for a while, to chat about science and life, and share the conference experience. Equally, it is exciting to meet new people, to ponder a subject area you’ve never though about before, or to see your own area in a different light.

  • Taking it all in – three floors of people enthusiastic about science, a buzzing conference venue, beautiful photos spread around, and lots of inspiration – it is worth to stop running for a moment (though Gergana finds that hard!) to just breathe in the ecology magic.

For those of us that didn’t bring appropriate footwear and are walking around in socks, the conference very much feels like home! And what better home for an ecologist than one where we get to share and discuss our research, pick up new skills along the way and start new collaborations.

Today has been a particularly jam-packed day for Anne and Gergana, with a workshop and talks!

  • Workshop: Transferring quantitative skills among ecologists

Coding Club brings together people at different career stages to create a supportive environment for knowledge exchange and collective advancement of quantitative skills. We combine peer-to-peer workshops and online tutorials to promote statistical and programming fluency. In our EAB workshop, we used a tutorial on analysing big data in ecology to demonstrate how we can deliver quantitative training across academic institutions, after which we made our own tutorials and uploaded them to GitHub!

Interested in learning how to write coding tutorials and create a positive space for knowledge and skills exchange? All of our workshop materials are online:

Transferring quantitative skills among scientists


We were thrilled that many people attended and engaged with our workshop – it’s fantastic to meet more people keen to build a community around coding and quantitative training!

  • Talk: Does rarity influence population change in the UK and across global biomes? (Gergana Daskalova)

Species’ attributes such as rarity status, distribution and taxa are often assumed to predict population declines and extinction risk. However, empirical tests of the influence of rarity on population change across tax and biomes have yet to be undertaken, hindering proactive conservation. We combined open source data from the Living Planet Index, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility and the IUCN to examine (1) the effects of rarity on rates of vertebrate population change in the UK, (2) the variation in global vertebrate population trends across biomes, and (3) the relationship between detected population change, species’ conservation status, and study duration.

  • Talk: Consequences of environmental change in tundra ecosystems: lessons from the International Tundra Experiment (ITEX) (Anne Bjorkman)

Much of what we know about tundra change has been made possible by the International Tundra Experiment (ITEX), a circumpolar network of experimental warming and long-term monitoring sites established in 1990. This network uses a standard protocol to quantify changes in plant abundance, species composition, and phenology in response to experimental and natural warming. These datasets have contributed to several syntheses of tundra community, functional, and phenological change.

We are excited for what the next two days of EAB have in store for us, and of course, we can’t wait to hear more from Team ArcticNet!

By Gergana