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

One year of Coding Club

CodingClub_logo2This November, we are celebrating Coding Club’s first birthday – one year full of workshops, lots of code and many moments of joy as we finally figure out how to get our code to work and improve our quantitative skills together! It’s been such an exciting year, and we are thrilled to see many new faces joining us, as well as familiar faces returning workshop after workshop.

We have developed 19 tutorials for our website on topics such as mixed effects models, using Markdown, and following a coding etiquette. We went to Aberdeen to co-lead a workshop with Francesca from the University of Aberdeen, and we also made it to the University of Edinburgh Impact awards! But most of all, we are lucky to have many keen people, from different career stages and different disciplines, join us as we get better at coding by either coming to our workshops in Edinburgh or completing the tutorials online!


It’s wonderful to have a supportive community where we can ask all of the R questions that pop into our minds, a place where we can all be learners and teachers, and help each other learn how to organise data, run models, make beautiful graphs and more!

Coding Club’s 1st year highlights:

1. That time that famous statistician Ben Bolker said that our mixed model tutorial written by Gabi Hajduk was not bad.

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2. That time that Hadley Wickham liked our cookies on twitter!

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Twitter fame for our trending tweet!

3. The fact that our popularity has grown from Ecology and Environmental Science students at the University of Edinburgh to political economists in Denmark and beyond!


A map of the visitors to our website!

We’ve been handing out stickers after our various coding challenges at our workshops. Although of course the real prize is getting the training to be as quantitative as one wants, the hexagon-shaped stickers and cookies are a fun bonus! We celebrated Coding Club’s birthday with a jolly meal, where we handed out our new Coding Club t-shirts to the coordinating team, and the nerdiest merchandise we have so far, the Coding Club measuring tapes! Though of course we love code, we do also need to actually collect the data we analyse. Gergana broke all of the little measuring tapes we had out in the Arctic (lots of active layer depth measurements!), so we needed new ones, and what’s better than a measuring tape – a measuring tape with the Coding Club logo!

One of the best parts of our workshops is seeing students put their new skills into practice on their own data! It’s so nice to see people come back and show us the graphs they’ve made, the Markdown reports they’ve produced!

We were also very excited to be invited to present at the signing of the University of Edinburgh’s Student Partnership agreement. The event was a great chance for us to share our experience with Coding Club and learn about other student-staff collaboration initiatives within the university.

We are so happy that our team includes undergraduates, postgraduates and staff, and we are excited for what the next year will bring for Coding Club! You can check out the Coding Club tutorials on our website, and you can follow our coding adventures on Twitter or you could even join the team!

Effect Size

If you are only going to eat one coding cookie make it the effect size cookie, as the most important statistical result is always the effect size (and it’s error)!

By Gergana and Isla

Qikiqtaruk perspectives by ranger Edward McLeod

Edward McLeod is a park ranger on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island from Aklavik, NWT.  Here he shares his perspectives on working as a park ranger and the collaboration between the rangers and researchers here on the island.

Working on the land

I started working as a Yukon Parks ranger on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island Territorial Park in 2008, so I guess next year I will have been on the island for 10 years. I always wanted a job out on the land, working outside, and I love being here. When I was younger, I used to spend my entire summers out in the bush – I love the bush life. I came to Qikiqtaruk and Shingle Point many times as a kid – I grew up here, and it was wonderful to be able to play around on the coast and see all the animals, as well as learn about hunting and fishing. I saw what was probably the first cruise ship coming to Qikiqtaruk.


Coastal erosion near Pauline Cove this summer. Check out http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/yukon-herschel-island-erosion-1.4253948 for the CBC article about it!

I remember there used to be more ground than there is now – coastal erosion has taken away big chunks of land, and beaches have appeared and disappeared through the years. Travelling the coast has always been a significant part of my life, and a key element of travelling is being able to adapt to change. There would be three-four boats travelling together, and sometimes we would get stuck in places for weeks – we have to make sure we have enough food, and know how to use landmarks to navigate once it is safe to move on. I’ve always heard you used to be able to predict the weather by looking at the clouds, but nowadays it changes so quickly, we always have to be prepared for everything. But, I’ve never gotten really lost on Qikiqtaruk, or in the Mackenzie Delta, I know these places like the back of my hand. Still, once I got caught in a storm and I had to sleep outside between my snowmobile and toboggan, with everything I carried wrapped in a tarp. It was a good thing I had a cozy muskox hind to sleep on to keep me warm. Before I made the shelter, I was going in circles for hours, and thankfully I was carrying a spot device, so my brother and two uncles noticed I was going in circles, and came and brought me back home to Aklavik before the storm got worse.

A ranger’s skillset

To be a ranger, you need traditional bush skills – hauling water and wood, making a fire, travelling with a snowmobile. If something goes wrong, you have to know how to take care of it without much help from the outside world. Having an education is also important, as we keep records including a daily journal, wildlife records and fill in data collection sheets for the Ecological Monitoring Programme. A good sense of humour is also key, especially when you spend such a big portion of your time with just one other person – the other ranger with whom you share your shift. We have to make our own life here on the island – you have to be easy going and go with what life throws at you.

During the winter months, I teach traditional bush skills in my community and beyond. There’s the Elders and Youth Programme as well, but it’s not enough for people simply to know about these opportunities – they have to take them up. My daughter is gaining bush skills, and I hope she keeps developing them. It’s important that youth are taught traditional bush skills.  Perhaps my daughter will follow in my footsteps and be a ranger out here on the island one day herself!


Monitoring plant phenology plots on Qikiqtaruk

Ecological Monitoring Programme on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island

I was excited to find out that ecological monitoring is part of my job as a ranger, and to learn more about the plants and animals on Qikiqtaruk! But there are so many other ranger duties as well, so we have to learn how to balance everything. I started with surveying the plant plots, we now call the area Phenology Ridge, because there are three transects, one each for arctic willow, mountain avens and cottongrass.  This is where we record plant phenology – the timing of certain life events like the first opening of the leaves and flowers, the first yellowing leaves. I was surprised to find out how long some of this monitoring takes – for example during peak season we go to the cottongrass plots and count all the flowers, as well as measure the width of the tussocks, the ten largest and the ten smallest leaves. This monitoring has been taking place for 18 years, making it one of the longest running phenology records across the Arctic.


Muskox walking along the beach

We also conduct permafrost measurements, as well as bird surveys and wildlife monitoring, which came to me naturally. We record the population numbers, behaviour and travelling patterns of the different wildlife species present on the island. Qikiqtaruk has the second largest black guillemot colony in the Western Arctic, and we collaborate with Cameron Eckert, Yukon Parks Biologist, to count the eggs, chicks and adults. We also ID the birds that are ringed and recaptured, which gives us an insight into survival rates and population changes of these birds.


Black guillemot (Cepphus grylle) swimming near the Mission House

Contributions of the Ecological Monitoring Programme

I really enjoy working in close collaboration with the researchers and I especially value knowing why we are collecting the data and what is done with them. My first job on Qikiqtaruk was as a research assistant on the ArcticWOLVES project during the International Polar Year. I know that participating in research and understanding its findings can help motivate people to finish school and become more qualified for jobs. When I go back to my community, people ask me what the researchers are doing on Qikiqtaruk – that’s why I appreciate everything I have learned from our collaboration, because I get to pass on the knowledge.

I get updates from the researchers, including Team Shrub and the crew from the Alfred Wegener Institute, through presentations, reports and one to one chats. I also like following Team Shrub and the Permafrost Researchers through social media, such as Facebook, which keeps me up to date even during the winter months when we are all off the island. I think social media really helps with communicating research findings, but people also need to request the information and say what format is most convenient for them – not everyone in the communities use social media that much, so communicating science in different ways is important.


A mass of drift ice with about 300 Ringed Seals and a few Bearded Seals brought this Polar Bear to Qikiqtaruk on 13 June 2015. Photo by C. Eckert

I love the collaboration between the rangers and researchers and I am excited to see how it develops in the future. Perhaps we can do more to connect researchers with people travelling in winter and spring.  Usually researchers cannot be here during that time, so people travelling like me could collect valuable data that would not be available otherwise. It might also be worthwhile to extend the range of the surveys conducted in this region to include things like monitoring berries for example, which are a valuable resource to the Inuvialuit. Qikiqtaruk is definitely the right place for ecological monitoring and I hope we can continue to build on the collaboration between the park rangers and scientists and better involve the people of Aklavik.

By Edward McLeod


You can read another guest blog post by Yukon Parks Ranger Ricky Joe here – Changes on Qikiqtaruk: Perspectives by ranger Ricky Joe.

Fieldwork prep in Inuvik

After Kluane, the next stop on our journey northwards was Inuvik, and in particular the Aurora Research Institute, where there were many boxes waiting for us – all the equipment that had arrived from Edinburgh earlier. We have been in Inuvik for several days now and the piles of boxes have grown and grown – drones and drone parts, research equipment and food and gear for 2 months on Qikiqtaruk Herschel Island! We may or may not have bought all the wraps in Inuvik, and the local stocks of Ziploc bags have taken a serious hit.


Us and many boxes!

We lucked out on being in Inuvik when there was an airshow on – the flying was really impressive and the event had a lovely community feeling to it. With music and beautiful figures up in the air, everyone was smiling and taking it all in. The final act felt special – it was a father and son duo who demonstrated impressive skills and one could tell they are having fun up in the air. I certainly have no aircraft piloting career in front of me (even normal planes make me dizzy!), but I was inspired to see people doing what they love, regardless of what the “thing” is.


Father and son pilot duo at the Inuvik Airshow!

Our departure to Qikiqtaruk got delayed as the island and water around it are still icy, which gave us extra time to learn more about life in Inuvik. We read the local newspaper, and were particularly entertained by the “Whatsit” quiz. I sent in my guess for this week’s game (a violin?), and I might win an unknown prize! Though on seconds thoughts I wish I had put down a fiddle, not a violin.


Ah, too bad I wasn’t here for the May 18th quiz, I love lemons!

We also went to the Inuvik Visitors Centre and then the AEETCT – the Arctic Energy and Emerging Technologies Conference and Tradeshow! We enjoyed talking with the different trades representatives and learning more about industry, environment & their interplay in an Arctic context. Will felt particularly well-welcomed – the staff was indeed very friendly. Andy’s highlight of the tradeshow was chatting with the North West Territories government scientists – knowledge-exchange in action!

I continued my tradition of visiting a garden everywhere I go around the world – in Kluane the garden was of course the common garden, and here in Inuvik, I went to the lovely community garden greenhouse. It felt like a home many miles away from my home and garden – we even order some of our seeds from the same company. I am always intrigued to see what brings people together in different places around the world – growing food is a common theme! Gardening, be it in the common garden or in a fruit and veg garden has brought joy to many of us on Team Shrub!

Aside from seeing how gardening contributes to building communities, it’s been wonderful to see how science and research can achieve that as well – during our time preparing and packing at the Aurora Research Institute, we have met people from all sorts of disciplines – it’s inspiring to know that though we may come from different places and our fields might diverge, we do come together in what we most love doing – unraveling exciting aspects of the world around us!

By Gergana

The start of our fieldwork adventure

Beautiful snow-capped mountains, many shrubs, bald eagles soaring (too far) over us and ground squirrels rushing back to their burrows as we walk over to our field sites – it’s fieldwork season!

We have started our exciting fieldwork adventure in the Canadian Arctic! Flying over from Edinburgh and Paris, part of our team met up at Vancouver airport to begin our journey north, where later we will be joined by Jeff and Isla. Our first stop was Whitehorse, where we picked up a new drone and everything we need to set up phenocams in the common garden… except the phenocams, which got delayed, so the rest of the field crew will bring them over later. We did manage to install one phenocam, graciously lent to us by a fellow researcher, which brings me to one of my first impressions of Kluane – there is a lovely sense of community and stunning views  all around – an inspiring place for ecologists!

It was my first time seeing the common garden – the garden was established in 2013 to test for local adaptation in growth form in tundra willows across climate and latitudinal gradients. Since 2013, the garden has seen many field assistants take care of it, and of course, there was the pump saga from last year! There were some impressive looking shrubs, which looked extra majestic with the beautiful mountains behind them. We measured plant traits (you can read more about the Tundra Trait Team here) – leaf length and stem elongation, in particular. While we were measuring away, some of the local wildlife visited us – the taller shrubs make a nice landing post for grey jays!

Afterwards, fieldwork got crafty – we set up posts for phenocams, which will take a photo every hour during the growing season, giving us a visual insight into shrub life over the summer. One phenocam is already taking photos, and the rest of the posts are ready, ribbons out of flagging tape and all, for the other phenocams once they arrive!

Our first week of fieldwork also included the first drone flight of the season, which gave us a lovely perspective of the common garden from above. We are now waiting for our flight up to Inuvik – Team Drone is moving northwards towards our final destination – Herschel Island. We have left Kluane with fond memories of beautiful landscapes, exciting wildlife encounters and last but certainly not least, memories of keen ecologists and kind and helpful research station managers!

By Gergana

Drone Research Workshop

Recent advances in drone technologies are offering exciting new perspectives for ecology and environmental sciences – for Team Shrub, drone research is an essential part of our work to understand how global change alters plant communities and ecosystem processes. We love hearing about how people from different disciplines are using drones to advance their research, and the visit of our fellow Team Shrub member Jeff Kerby was the perfect occasion to organise an afternoon full of drone science!

Kicking off our drone afternoon was Jeff’s Global Change Seminar talk, titled “Phenology in a changing Arctic: From individuals to landscapes”. Jeff’s talk demonstrated the value of long-term ecological monitoring of both plant phenology and large herbivores. By studying how plant and herbivore communities vary through time, Jeff is offering insight into how changing environmental conditions reflect on how those communities are expressing their phenology across the landscape. As the level of asynchrony between plants and herbivores increases, caribou calf production decreases. For muskox, however, there was a less clear pattern.

It was particularly interesting to think about the trade-offs that occur as a result of the effect of global change drivers on life histories – if plants emerge too early, there are higher chances they will encounter bad weather conditions which may compromise their growth; on the flip side, those early emerging plants will have a longer growing season. Thinking about foraging ecology, opportunistic animals can track “greening signals”, but what is causing greening across the landscape to begin with? Snowmelt, thawing degree days and temperature could all be linked with the changes in plant communities we are observing. An exciting question then becomes whether the greening is propagating at a herbivore-relevant scale.

When trying to disentangle the mechanistic drivers of phenology changes on a biome scale, it becomes a challenge to tie dynamics across time and space – how can we link patterns in satellite observations and on the ground measurements? Does the scale at which we are observing these changes bias our observations? This is where timelapse cameras and drones come (fly) in! “Computer vision” can offer further insight – for example, we can use computer vision to count flowers in drone-acquired imagery.

Building up on Jeff’s great talk, we then found out about  a wide range of drone-facilitated research, as part of our Drone Research Workshop. Here at the School of GeoSciences, we benefit from the excellent NERC recognised Airborne GeoSciences facility.

In line with the Arctic-oriented start of our drone afternoon, Isla presented about the ShrubTundra Project, which aims to quantify the role of climate as a driver of tundra shrub expansion and tundra greening. An exciting development for drone researchers is the establishment of the Drone Ecology Network – a network of high-latitude ecologists using drones to answer ecological questions. The network will share methods, techniques and expertise to improve the collection of drone remotely-sensed data in tundra ecosystems and to enhance the comparison of data in future.

Jeff told us about another fantastic initiative – Conservation Drones, which seeks to share knowledge of building and using low-cost unmanned aerial vehicles for conservation-related applications with conservation workers and researchers worldwide, especially those in developing countries.


We were thrilled to find out more about Andy‘s exciting recent participation in a workshop in Brazil, as part of a long-term experiment aiming to understand drought effects in tropical rainforests.


Simon Gibson-Poole demonstrated a great diversity of drone applications – from monitoring the spread of Giant Hogweed to using drones in agricultural trials and disease management.

IMG_1025  IMG_1023

Lizzie Dingle‘s talk took us to Nepal where she used drones to map river channels in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains. Lizzie also gave us very useful insight into what some of the challenges of drone fieldwork are, particularly in remote fieldsites.

Paige dePolo used drones in her Master’s research to collect bedding plane scale photogrammetric datasets for dinosaur footprints located on intertidal platforms on the Isle of Skye.

Zhaoliang Hou talked about his plan  to test the possibility of UAV mapping in hilled areas.

Next up, Team Shrub’s honours student Arabella gave an excellent presentation about the patterns of tundra greenness and soil moisture. Arabella discussed how she assessed the correspondence between soil moisture distribution and vegetation greenness using drone data with different spatial grain.


Our last talk of the afternoon took us to the Scottish Borders, where Kathryn Murphy used drone imagery and 3D modelling in the study of an overlooked archaeological site.

Visiting our “Arctic from Above” exhibition was an inspirational ending to our drone-filled day – Jeff got to see his exhibited work in person, and we all enjoyed going back to our photos of Arctic fieldsites and wildlife.



Coding Club goes to Aberdeen and the Impact Awards

It’s been almost a year since we first started pondering the idea of a positive and supportive environment where we can all advance our skills in statistics and programming. We had a vision for a place where we can learn without the pressure of formal assessment, and with the ability to tailor our skills to our needs. For the last few months we have been organising weekly workshops and publishing the materials online on our website, and we are so happy to see Coding Club go from a vision to a real initiative! I, along with Team Shrub alumni John and a great group of PhD students, among which Sandra and Haydn, have been leading workshops on topics such as version control using GitHub, data visualisation, efficient data manipulation, and mixed effects modelling. The workshops are open for everyone to attend, from undergraduates to academic staff, and we are thrilled to have shared our enthusiasm (and sometimes frustration) for coding with people from different disciplines, including ecology, environmental science, geography, and biology.


Inspired by the positive feedback from our workshops in Edinburgh, we were keen to make links with other people across Scotland that have undertaken similar statistics and programming initiatives. As I’m always curious to see how other people lead such workshops and wouldn’t want to miss a chance to learn something new, I attended the “Data Archiving and Coding Workshop” at the BES Annual Meeting in Liverpool last December. Great things happen at coding workshops, among which the start of exciting new collaborations! Sitting at my table was Francesca Mancini, a PhD student from the University of Aberdeen, who was about to start a coding study group in her department. When I found out that this year’s Scottish Ecology, Environment and Conservation Conference will take place in Aberdeen, I immediately thought of Francesca, and thanks to great work and enthusiasm from her and our Coding Club team in Edinburgh, we organised Coding Club’s first joint workshop that took place just before the opening of the conference.


With a room full of people keen to learn about efficient data manipulation and data visualisation, we set out to quantify population change based on the Living Planet Index database, and visualise species occurrence data from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility and Flickr. I have been fascinated with the creative use of social media data for conservation research ever since I heard Francesca’s talk in Liverpool, and I, along with the rest of the workshop attendees, were very keen to learn how to make density maps and examine how they differ depending on the data source – GBIF or Flickr. On the Edinburgh side of the workshop, we couldn’t resist an opportunity to share our love for tidy data and efficient workflows when tackling large datasets, like the LPI.


Although we are teaching at Coding Club, the workshops and preparation of the online tutorials have very much been a learning experience for us as well. Thanks to our interactions with the people who attend the Coding Club workshops, we are learning so many new things, and will continue to improve our work. Some of those improvements even happened “live” during the workshop, when my compulsive desire to put spaces around every plus sign got in the way of the code running smoothly!


I find it so inspirational when people come together to learn, especially when the material they are learning is often seen as scary and hard (and the dramatic R error messages sure don’t help!). We were very happy to meet new people from Aberdeen and are hoping to continue developing this collaboration through future joint workshops in both Edinburgh and Aberdeen.

Until then, you can find all of the materials from our workshop on the Coding Club website – “Working efficiently with large datasets.


Shortly after our joint workshop in Aberdeen, we attended the Impact Awards at the University of Edinburgh, where Coding Club was shortlisted in the “Best Student-Staff Collaboration” category. After hearing about many wonderful initiatives improving student learning and experience at university, we left the ceremony with even more inspiration and drive to continue building the academic environment we dream of. We also left with a trophy, as Coding Club was the winner in its category!


It was great to reflect on our Coding Club journey so far, and now we are very much looking forward to our future workshops and ideas on how to develop quantitative skills among students and staff. Whenever our own code doesn’t run (very often), and we see the same error messages that scare away our workshop attendees, we find motivation in the encouraging feedback of students and staff – we deeply appreciate the support we have received so far, and will continue developing Coding Club with much enthusiasm!


By Gergana

Theory, meta-analyses and stylised facts in ecology

What is a theory? Is ecology theory-poor and if yes, why? What are the paths to theory development in ecology? Meta-analyses? Data syntheses? Big data? Stylised facts? These are the questions we set out to discuss during  this week’s lab meeting. We extended an invitation to EdGE (the EdEN discussion Group for Ecology) to get more diverse perspectives, and shared our thoughts on these topics, largely inspired by Dynamic Ecology’s posts about stylised facts in ecology and why meta-analyses in ecology often don’t lead to theoretical insight. We also added in Marquet et al.’s 2014 paper “On Theory in Ecology” into our discussion, bringing forward many thoughts on the different types of theory in ecology, and whether theory in ecology is possible to begin with.

We defined theory as a hierarchical framework of postulates, based on a number of assumptions, and leading to a set of predictions. As we set out to do our research, we can use theory as the base on which you build your hypotheses – and if you find enough support for your hypotheses, in time they might grow into a theory, thus prompting more hypotheses – a self-propelling cycle of gathering empirical evidence and developing theory. But is the cycle broken, with empirical evidence (or its synthesis) becoming an endpoint that prompts little theoretical insight?


We had a mix of undergraduates, PhD students and PIs in the room, and it was interesting to see how our thoughts varied based on our career stage. We started off with a quick quiz on 1) whether we had heard of the theories covered in the paper before, and 2) whether we had thought deeply about them. Here are the results!

How do we find out about theories in ecology to begin with? It was interesting to note that at least in the ecology curriculum here at the University of Edinburgh, most theories are taught pretty late (3rd and 4th year), and many don’t make it into the curriculum to begin with. How do we decide which theories are worth teaching about? Linking back to Marquet et al. 2014, should we be focusing on teaching the most efficient theories? Should we teach ecological theories in year 1?

From our experience, a lot of ecologists don’t like to think about theory too much – after all, ecology is so complex, are generalisations even possible? Some might say yes! We did, however, wonder what is the role of theory in ecology, if it seldom holds true across organisms, ecosystems, biomes. But then again, theories don’t need to be always right to be useful. Neutral theory, for example, can be thought of as a strawman idea that has spurred many interesting discussions (and research) on how reality differs from the simple pattern described by the theory.

We thought that while theories can be useful, a really strong emphasis on theory can bring you astray – stuck in mathematical equations and too far from the real world. According to the undergraduate participants in our discussion, theories are great for conceptualising ecological processes and thinking about how patterns can be generalised across time and space. We then discussed the difference between meta-analyses and data syntheses, with our group being predominantly being in preference of data syntheses – perhaps they are one of the paths towards the development of more ecological theory. Has that happened in the past? Yes! We used species-area curve relationships  that led to the development of the Island Biogeography theory as an example.

So why isn’t there more ecological theory? We thought of a simple answer – ecologists like to hang out outside. We briefly imagined what first year ecology students would say if when they showed up for the Field Ecology course, where you get to run up and down the Pentland Hills and collect data, we tell them that instead, we will be staying inside, thinking, doing lots of maths, and learning how to develop theory. Most of us went into ecology because we love the natural world and want to 1) learn more about it, and 2) experience it relatively often.  Fieldwork is the highlight of ecology for many of us (though for some of us it’s a tie between fieldwork and coding!), and that, together with all the noise in our data and the many complexities of our field, makes us less likely to engage deeply with theoretical work. Finally, most of us are not exposed to much math, especially at the start of our careers, which again makes it hard to think about how we can turn empirical evidence into theory.

Nevertheless, we are jealous of evolutionary biology, where theories abound! We talked about why that is, reaching the conclusion that theory prompts more theory – because in evolutionary biology there is one major unifying theory, other theories can quickly follow from that – a self-propagating cycle.

Are ecologists too critical? For every theory that tries to make its way, there most probably be someone who says that doesn’t apply to their study organism/system. We thought that we shouldn’t expect theories to always be true, instead we should use them as a stepping stone to build our future work.

Coming back to stylised facts, which may or may not lead to theory, we went around the room and each thought of a stylised fact from our field:

  • Plant growth is more temperature sensitive in wetter vs. drier sites (Soil moisture hypothesis, Myers-Smith et al. 2015Ackerman et al. 2016)
  • Biotic interactions shift from negative to positive with increasing environmental severity (Stress gradient hypothesis, Bertness and Callaway 1994)
  • Negative frequency dependence driven by higher trophic levels can maintain diversity (Paine 1966 and the Janzen–Connell hypothesis)
  • Phenology responses to global change drivers are stronger at lower throphic levels than higher (Thackeray et al. 2016).
  • Decomposition has a saturating relationship with temperature (e.g., Sierra et al. 2015).
  • Bigger and older trees are more prone to damage, increasing fungal infection rates (Basham 1958).
  • Plants with bigger foliar volume have more biomass (Greaves et al. 2015Cunliffe et al. 2016).
  • Remotely-sensed plant attributes can’t be accurately estimated at scales finer than the individual level (Cunliffe et al. in prep).
  • Big trees suffer more than little trees in rainforests experiencing drought (Rowland et al. 2015).
  • As the trait diversity of plant communities increases, so does the resource usage efficiency (Lasky et al. 2014).
  • Things that grow fast rot fast (Cornelissen et al. 2007).
  • The effect of agri-environment schemes is moderated by landscape complexity (e.g. Concepción et al. 2008).
  • The effectiveness of conservation interventions is proportionate to the ecological contrast they create (or their additionality) (e.g. Maron et al. 2013).

We finished our discussion where we started – at the definition of what stylised facts are, and whether there is one universal definition – thus showing that ecologists do care about generalisation!