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Exploring how climate change is altering life in the tundra

The Plants of Qikiqtaruk. Part 1: The Shrubs

On a cold and distant island the stars of our science are sleepingBuried under a thick winter blanket, Qikiqtaruk in winter is exactly what many people imagine when I say I work in the Arctic: awash with snowdrifts, locked in sea ice, home for polar bears and not a huge amount else.


Qiqiktaruk in winter

Yet here on Team Shrub we study plants. Come the summer sun, green tendrils of life emerge from the snow and the hardy, beautiful and fascinating plant life of the tundra begins to grow. Diverse in the manner of tropical rainforests it may not be, but these cold lands are nonetheless brimming with more life than you might think, featuring old favourites that adorn the hills of Scotland to wacky monstrosities that seem to spring out of some primeval past.

In this series we will be exploring some of our favourite species from our most northern field site, starting with our namesake: the shrubs.

The Shrubs

What makes a shrub? Such has been the dinnertime conversation at many a Scottish Feast. In short: short. Woody. Multi-stemmed. Sometimes evergreen, sometimes deciduous, always beautiful.

The willows

Qikiqtaruk is home to a grand total of nine willow species. Not bad for an isolated Arctic island. The Salix genus dominates much of the upper shin-high canopy, though you can find yourself wading through some of the bigger fellows. Bjorn even reaches chest height. Deciduous, green-leaved, the willows add a certain magic to the tundra as their fluffy seed spirals in the air on a breezy day, while bright red catkins dot the tundra floor underfoot.

Salix pulchra

Possibly our favourite shrub on the island. This beautiful willow surely lives up to its name: long ruby stems and startling emerald-bright diamond leaves, giving Salix pulchra its common name, diamond-leaf willow. On Qikiqtaruk Salix pulchra grows mostly along the ground in large, clonal mats that creep between tussocks of cottongrass and shelter small white Stellaria flowers. It’s one to watch though, as further south this willow can reach well over head height. Here, where the weather is sheltered and nutrients seep from the permafrost, Salix pulchra grows faster, bigger, redder, standing out from its neighbours atop the palsas, while on the hilltops we have already seen a tripling in its canopy height since we first started recording in 1999.


Salix pulchra leaves catching the sunlight. The beautiful willow is a Western Arctic specialist found across tussock tundra and mountain landscapes of the Yukon and Alaska.

Salix richardsonii

One of the giants of Qikiqtaruk, Salix richardsonii, or Richardson’s willow, is the most common tall shrub on the island. It grows mostly in wetter, sheltered areas such as river floodplains, where nutrients flow freely and life is as easy as it gets in this bastion of land in the Arctic ocean. Forming a dense, shrubby canopy of bright green leaves, Salix richardsonii nonetheless has a rather grizzled visage, giving it our nickname ‘Old Man Willow’. Twisted branches and flaking orange-brown bark, flecked with white specks of age or hardship. Fat, hairy stipules easily mark it apart from other willows. A canopy bully, Salix richardsonii is now dominating areas where it can grow, rapidly expanding in many parts of the island as the climate warms.


Encroaching Salix richardsoni is taking over the Ice Creek watershed on Qikiqtaruk. This is one of the tallest willows on the island and elsewhere in the Arctic where in can dominate tundra landscapes with dense, metres tall and sometimes impenetrable thickets of willows.

Salix arctica

This small willow is a remarkable example of the success and resilience of plants in these cold lands. Salix arctica, the Arctic willow, has the most northernmost geographic range of any woody plant, reaching all the way to the north coast of Greenland at 83 degrees north. A ground-hugging, prostrate woody shrub, it spreads woody limbs akimbo, stretching out in all directions along the top of the permafrost. Thin stems become roots, become stems again and it advances clonally, covering much of the surface until it is impossible to tell where one plant begins and another ends. Even if the main “trunk” is destroyed or decays, the plant will not die: an attempt at immortality. Unlike many of the other dwarf willows, Salix arctica eschews the small leaves and catkins of its fellow family members, and sticks to the strategy of the taller shrubs that bigger is better. Big, fat leaves emerge from the brittle stems, which giant fluffy catkins can strike up from the ground surface several times taller than the rest of the plant. Unusually, on Qikiqtaruk even the leaves and stems of Salix arctica strike upwards for the sky, possibly a hybridisation of one kind or another, and can stretch up even as much as 20cm from the soil.


Salix arctica the Arctic willow with flowers blooming in spring. This is one of the most widely distributed plants across the tundra biome found from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado to the very tip of Greenland.

Salix reticulata

Just like Salix arctica, this dwarf willow hugs the floor with brittle stems and clonal creeping growth in all directions. The thick, leathery leaves of this plant give it its common name: net-leaved willow, which are criss-crossed and pocked with deep grooves. Once fallen in winter, these hardy leaves last, resisting decomposition and creating a crunching carpet underfoot.


The waxy leaves of the net-leaved willow, Salix reticulata. Like with Salix arctica, this is a very widely distributed willow found in much of the Arctic, the Alps and even in Scotland!

Salix polaris and Salix phlebophylla

The smallest of Qikiqtaruk’s willows, these two species take you down onto hands and knees to appreciate their tiny round leaves and stalk-like stems. Hugging the ground in dense mats, often on the drier sections of hillsides or edges of tussocks, I often have trouble telling these apart from leaves alone. Yet catch them right in the season, and the red catkins of the polar willow (Salix polaris) stand out as one of the brightest flashes of red on the tundra, flecks of delicate colour, blood-rich, that in a matter of days dissolve into white and wind.

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The bright red catkins, fluffy white seeds and verdant green leaves of Salix polaris often remind Isla of the colours of Christmas!

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The tiny 2 – 4 mm long leaves of Salix phlebophylla covering the ground in a mat. Named for the skeleton leaves it ‘leaves’ behind year after year, this is one of the smallest willows in the world!

Salix glauca and Salix niphoclada

Two of the rarer tall shrubs on Qikiqtaruk, grey willow (Salix glauca) and snow willow (Salix niphoclada) can be a challenge to find, but occasionally stand out on the hillside where some seed has found its way to establishing. The grey-tinged haze of glauca willows sets them apart from the rest, while the sometimes rose-tinged stems and somewhat brighter leaves of niphoclada can cause us headaches when we search for Salix pulchra to sample. These two willows with green leaves covered in fine grey hairs and stems with a blue-green and waxy look to them can be indistinguishable when they have no visible catkins, which is much of the time, so they are often clumped together in our analyses.

Salix glauca

Less majestic than Salix glauca in other parts of the Arctic, here on Qikiqtaruk this willow can only eek out an existence in the warmest microclimates of south-facing slopes.

Salix alaxensis

Finally, the Goliath of Arctic willows. Salix alaxensis grows tall and often somewhat spindly up on Qikiqtaruk, almost buddleia-like, as if it wants to reach the sun and doesn’t care how it gets there. The leaves are grey-green, but a bright, fluffy white underneath – lannate, densely villous or tomentose if you will. Did you know there are over 20 botanical terms for being hairy! Certainly easy to identify. We have only recently discovered Salix alaxensis, the Alaskan willow, on Qikiqtaruk, though since individuals are already well established, thus it must have been evading detection for many decades.


Isla with a particularly tall Salix alaxensis found on Qikiqtaruk in the summer of 2016 on a particularly buggy walk back from the retrogressive thaw slumps along the coast.

The birches

Betula nana and Betula glandulosa

If you spend much of your time tramping about the high hilltops of Scotland you may already be familiar with dwarf birch. Small, thickety and brittle, the dense brown stems of Betula nana or Betula glandulosa have snagged many a bootlace and tripped many a toe. Still, I love the Betulas for their leaves alone, some of the most perfect forms on the tundra. On Qikiqtaruk, Betula nana holds sway on flatter patches of hilltop; a low growing shrub that announces its presence as a darker green blur on the landscape, or from the waft of crushed Labrador tea underfoot, which tends to grow alongside birch. Unlike many other tundra sites, where Betula has run rampant as the climate warms, it so far seems to be losing out to the willows here, though in some places the dense, spotted branches form an impenetrable tangle across whole swathes of tundra. As for the difference between nana and glandulosa, the latter is taller, larger leaved, greater noduled. Or not, as the case may be – perhaps they are one species after all, marked apart not by genetics but simply variation.


A very dwarf birch, Betula nana/glandulosa – is it one species or two? – nestled amongst compatriots including Rhododendron tomentosum and Vaccinium vitis-idea (see below).

Tundra tea

Rhododendron tomentosum

A hero of the Arctic smellscape, Rhododendron tomentosum is another favourite of ours. The shrub itself is part beautiful: white flowering baubles full of rich scent, rusted felt underside of leaves, and part ugly: the ash-black branches spindly, frail and commonly dead, dark leaves often matted and speckled, a formless shape creeping amongst better rivals. But altogether outstanding are the leaves themselves. Rhododendron tomentosum, marsh Labrador tea, may not quite have the glamour of its more grandiose and much less marshy southern cousin, but its leaves still bear the scent of a thousand tundra days; that unmistakable and uncapturable spice of terpene and midnight chlorophyll. This is a shrub that makes trait work bearable, and often one that prompts a pocket full of leaves for the walk home.



We are crazy about the fragrant smell of Labrador tea (Rhododendron tomentosum), Ledum (its old name), I got to get some!

The berry bearers

Arctostaphylos rubra (Arctous rubra)

One for the photo albums. A. rubra, or bearberry, is certainly one of the more iconic tundra shrubs due to its bright, Rudolph-red leaves that can stain the bare tundra at certain times of year. Another prostrate-growing shrub, the ovate, vein-y leaves can bear a resemblance to the leather coins of Salix reticulata when green, though are stretched and less waxy. It is when the winter begins to draw in that Arctostaphylos rubra sets itself apart as the leaves turn, and formerly invisible patches of bearberry shine out. Red too, the berries that hide in amongst the leaves: a food source for humans and wildlife alike, though their diuretic properties also lend themselves to herbal medicines and may explain the preponderance of stained bear poo littering the tundra in autumn. A closely related species, Arctous alpina, looks almost identical except for the red berries that turn black when ripe.


The bright red leaves of Arctostaphylos rubra in the autumn intermixed with some Vaccinium uliginosum.

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Arctous alpina the black berries of alpine or ‘black’ bearberry.

Vaccinium vitis-idea and Vaccinium uliginosum

Another set of plants that will be well known to hillwalkers, the Vaccinium genus is the main fruit bearer for local people and hungry researchers. The smallest, Vaccinium vitis-idea (Ligonberry, cranberry, cowberry – you name it!), carpets the surface with tiny, glossy leaves and even glossier red berries where cover is sparse and soils fairly dry. In places the leaves can turn to a deep, merlot red, or still drip with pink-white cowbell flowers. Harder to find on Qikiqtaruk, Vaccinium uliginosum (blueberry, bilberry etc.) rise higher from the undergrowth where soils are wetter, their berries blue, stems tough brown-green and leaves thinner and more leathery.


Vaccinium vitis-idaea (and Empetrum nigrum). These Arctic cranberries make a delicious pie and jam if you have the patience to pick enough!

Rubus chamaemorus

Cloudberry, baked apple, or knotberry in England and averin in Scotland is best known on Qikiqtaruk as aqpik. This is one of the most prized of berries in this part of the world and when perfectly ripe is a delicious topping to pancakes, makes an excellent jam or is the perfect snack when stopping across the tundra. Quick to turn from unripe to rotten, finding your patch of cloudberries in season on Qikiqtaruk can be a challenge.  It is rare out there, preferring the wetter habitats on the edges of ponds or in ice-wedge terrain.


The delicate salmon pink berries of ripe aqpik or cloudberry.

Empetrum nigrum

A heathery-looking dwarf shrub that is equally at home in the Scottish Highlands, on mountaintops around the northern hemisphere, under conifer canopies of the boreal forest, and in vast swathes of tundra. Also a clonal shrub, Empetrum nigrum can form dense mats stretching uninterruptedly for meters, or even tens of meters. Its super-power is allelopathy: the leaves contain toxic chemicals which, when leached into the ground after the rain, hinder germination or growth of other plant species. Fun fact: the wood smells delicious when boiled in water (don’t ask, and probably don’t drink).

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The bright leaves and black berries of Empetrum nigrum

The dwarf evergreens

Dryas integrifolia

The spear shaped leaves of the mountain avens is to me another iconic shape of the tundra. Whether forming into a sharp coniferous tip, or padded out into the more billowy, deciduous-tree form of Dryas octopetala, these OS map symbols of leaves are unrecognisable wherever they grow. But for many, Dryas integrifolia is best known for its flowers – the perfect white circles that polka-dot the tundra floor – and for the twisted filaments that are the phoenix seedhead, catching the sunrays and diffracting light and themselves across the tundra air.


The bright white flowers of Dryas integrifolia.

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Twisting filaments of Dryas integrifolia as the flowers set seed at the end of the summer.

Cassiope tetragona

Growing amongst the rocks and along the dry hillsides, the weeping white bells of Arctic bell heather are another distinctive site at the height of a tundra summer. A relative of the glorious purple heather of the Scottish hills, Cassiope tetragona is similarly small and woody, minute spear-shaped leaves wrapped tight into the stem, forming scaly round limbs. As the season turns, these stems gradually shift from green to orange-brown, giving the tundra an almost burnt look, flowers rusting away to leave the brittle seed heads proud to the wind.


Cassiope tetragona with four flower heads as per it’s name is one of the longest lived of tundra shrubs, with individuals being found that can be dated back to over 200 years.

Bonus: The uncategorised

Silene acaulis

If you’ve reached this far, well done for getting to the end. As a special bonus, I’ve included Silene acaulis, better known as moss campion. There is some confusion here as to whether Silene acaulis is best classed as a shrub or a forb. Silene as a genus refers to the campions, delicate flowers of field and rocks, all pink and white and herbaceous green leaves. Yet the harsher climates to which Silene acaulis has adapted produces a hardy, cushion-like shrub, past leaves compressed into woody stems. For myself, I class this bright plant as a forb, yet since I have seen it classed otherwise so under some schemes, it is worth a brief mention here.


The resilient and secretive Silene acaulis

Beyond confusion of classification, Silene acaulis is by no means one to be relegated to the bottom of any list. It grows where often nothing else will, building a bivouac out of its own sharp leaves against the elements. Within this thick shell, the plant can grow to engulf surrounding rocks occasionally supporting other tiny plants as they grow through chinks in its armour. Most spectacular are the pink-purple flowers, which at the height of the summer dot these minuscule mountains like dewdrops, or like pins in a pin-cushion. Silene acaulis is rare on Qikiqtaruk – the soft, undulating landscape means there are few surfaces too harsh for competitors. But I have seen one once, in passing, making a mental note to come back to sample it later. I have never found one since.


A rare find for Qikiqtaruk, a bit of Silene acaulis, spotted by Isla in the summer of 2017.

By Haydn, Sandra and Isla

Our Google Earth Engine adventure

We love big bold questions. Synthesising data over large spatial and temporal scales and bringing together information from different sources to support our findings. Along the way, we have our trusty SuperShrub (our mini-supercomputer), but there are some things even SuperShrub can’t handle, or can’t do in the most efficient way. So how can one extract NDVI, land cover, climate data and more over thousands and thousands of kilometers and across many, many days, months and years? Why with the Google Earth Engine!


Hanging out at the Google Academy in London – where life is a beach!

Last week, Isla, Jakob, Sam and Gergana headed to London to attend a training workshop led by Noel Gorelick and Nick Clinton. A rainy morning in London with travel delays for some and generally long train rides for all wasn’t a particularly promising start, but it turns out we were off to the beach. We escaped the cold and rain at the Google Academy, where there was a strong beach theme, with colourful beach balls, giant beach chairs and even sand and faux sea grass in the corners of the room. With dreams of working with MODIS, Landsat, Hansen data and more, we were ready to tackle JavaScript and see how we can use the Earth Engine to expand our research horizons. And what did we learn??? Read on to find out.


They even have inflatable unicorns at the Google Academy!

The Earth Engine is fast. Very fast!

Gergana: Being able to quickly access and extract land use information for thousands of locations around the world is a key part of my PhD research on the drivers of biodiversity change. I had heard the Earth Engine is fast, and I knew that one of the datasets I am working with, the Hansen et al. Forest Cover Database, is accessible through the engine, but I am also stubborn and I love R! So many a day were spent trying to push R and SuperShrub to their limits… and well, the code never finished running, as I stopped it after a week of waiting! That is why I was pretty excited to see the Hansen database mentioned in the presentation prior to the workshop, and I couldn’t wait to try extracting information. I adapted some of the code we learned in the workshop and a bit of code I found online, and what do you know, 42 seconds (only 42 seconds!) later, I had a csv with thousands of rows specifying the forest loss and gain in 2001-2014 for the areas I was interested in. Amazing!


A zoomed in view of forest cover change based on the Hansen et al. database. Red is loss, purple is loss and gain and blue is gain.

The Earth Engine is flexible!

Isla: In a one-day workshop, we covered a lot of ground – from pixel classification, spectral unmixing to phenology analyses. We had a chance to explore the greening of our focal field site Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island all the way up to the greening of the Arctic! We knew that the Earth Engine was a powerful platform, as some of us had dabbled before, but it is great to finally get a better understanding of what the possibilities are. The Earth Engine could be a game changer for earth observation. Below you can see MODIS NDVI trends for our focal research site all the way up to the Western Arctic at 1 km resolution, all calculated in under 10 minutes.  You can see pixels with active coastal erosion and permafrost thaw slumping getting browner and the less disturbed tundra vegetation getting greener at the local scale and the patterns of greening and browning in the Western Arctic region.

Greening Arctic

The greening of the Arctic from Qikiqtaruk to the entire Western Arctic calculated using the Google Earth Engine. Green pixels are sites where the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) is increasing (robust regression), brown pixels are where the NDVI is decreasing. You can see browning pixels in areas influenced by active coastal erosion and permafrost thaw slumping at the local scale plot and greening pixels where we have evidence of tundra vegetation change. And at the larger scale you can see the strong greening pattern in the Western Arctic near our field site.

Taking time out of our usual routine to learn new things is important.

Team Shrub recently met to discuss our New Year’s resolutions, and one of our general life goals – “to keep learning new things” – was pretty high up on that list. It’s not always easy to make time for new things in our busy lives, but sometimes it is just something that you have to make happen. Even if it involves taking many trains and feeling motion sick on every single one! As much as we love coordinating Coding Club and teaching students quantitative skills at the University of Edinburgh, it’s also nice to be the one being trained and getting to attend a coding workshop from time to time!

So, for Team Shrub, harnessing the power of the Earth Engine might allow us to expand our horizons from scaling from plots to landscapes to the entire tundra biome and to quantifying the drivers of biodiversity change around the planet.  And now that the training is over, we can’t wait do dig in deeper and explore our earth observation research questions in a whole new way.

By Gergana and Isla

5 (More) Steps to Becoming an Awesome Field Assistant

Being a field assistant for the first time isn’t always easy. Following on from Izzy’s recent post, here are five more great tips from Cameron on how to be an awesome field assistant (and to have an awesome time).

1. Apply for funding

Being a field assistant costs money. In many cases you might be employed by an organisation, research group or researcher to carry out the role, in which case they will be covering your costs. However, you may be required to (or want to) provide funds yourself. But don’t fret! There are plenty of funding opportunities hidden out there for the proactive field assistant to find. Most funding requires you to submit a proposal outlining what you will be working on and how much you think it will cost. Once you have drawn up a proposal for one funding application it is easy to tailor it for others. Keep an eye on the submission deadlines and apply to as many funds as possible. In my experience, funds for undergraduates aren’t very competitive, so make use of them!

Information for funds available for University of Edinburgh Students can be found here. 


Cameron fishing for funds

2. Take good equipment

When you are setting up experiments in a snowstorm, or climbing mountains before breakfast, you quickly learn to appreciate the value of good equipment. However, if you haven’t been in the field before it can be hard to figure out what sort of stuff to bring with you. For me, the most important bits of kit are good waterproofs, a decent backpack, and an excellent pair of walking boots (we had a pair fall apart this summer). If you are going to spend a lot of time in the field you should treat yourself to some nice gear. It’s totally worth the investment and good quality stuff can really improve your comfort and safety. Why not add the cost of a beautiful jacket and boots into your funding application (for health and safety reasons, of course)?

3. Ask lots of questions

“Why are we digging up old tea bags from the ground and what’s the deal with all of these dead leaves?”

Take the opportunity to learn as much as you can from the people you are working with. Asking questions and figuring out why you are doing a task can really help you get more out of your time in the field and cement knowledge learned in the classroom. You will also likely be working with people further on in their career than you. If you are thinking about a career in academia, take this chance to pick their brains about all aspects of academic life.


Haydn showing us the ways of the shrub

4. Take the bad with the good

 Hopefully you will experience many great things during your time as a field assistant but you might also experience some pretty bad lows. The work can be gruelling and the days long. A healthy mentality is key to enduring the bad moments and enjoying the good. Make sure to talk to your team if you are having difficulties, and look after yourself. It really is worth it at the end.


Conquer your mind and you can conquer the tundra

5. Let yourself be enchanted…

Fieldwork can take you to some truly special locations. We get to explore hidden valleys, shadowy forests, and secret little places far from any path. Please take some time, in-between sampling and recording data, to fully appreciate the wonderful environment and people around you. Not only does this add to your overall experience, it can also turn you into a passionate advocate for these incredible areas. Tell the stories of these places anyway you can, be it on Facebook, in prose, or down the pub. The more people know about your field site, the less likely it will fade into obscurity and be lost.


Soaking up the view

By Cameron

Team Shrub – 2017 in Review

It was a big year for Team Shrub in 2017.

Like an Arctic willow in the tundra sunshine, we soaked up the beautiful rays of knowledge and delved further into the active layer of understanding. We grew taller and bushier as new members joined the team, and branched out into new areas of research. We bore fluffy research paper catkins, for our ideas and findings to be spread on the breeze of scientific discovery, and we put down new roots, to support, work with and learn from others in the future. And, of course, we had a thoroughly enjoyable time doing it all.

So as we look forward to all that 2018 brings, we are taking some time to revisit the year gone by, our favourite blog posts, and just how far we came in 2017.

Looking ahead: After a politically turbulent 2016, who could know what 2017 would hold? We spent the start of the year looking ahead with some trepidation, some anticipation and a good dose of excitement.

Decomposition in the cold. We kicked of a busy year as Haydn and Isla headed on a tour of Denmark and Sweden to attend the Oikos symposium on Decomposition in Cold Biomes (https://globalsoilbiodiversity.org/content/oikos-satellite-symposium). It was appropriate as the temperatures had dropped that week and it was quite snowy and chilly in beautiful Lund, Sweden as we chatted about cold-weather decomposition while cosy inside.


Taking a tea break in Umeä

To Aberdeen. In March, it was our first Team Shrub trip to Aberdeen. We had a beach coding holiday and attended the Scottish Ecology, Environment and Conservation conference with Gergana, Haydn and Sandra presenting. We teamed up with Francesca Mancini from the Aberdeen Study Group to lead a coding workshop on efficiently analysing and visualising big-ish data in ecology.


Jumping for joy at the thought of more coding!

Glimpses of our future? By April, we had a wee glimpse into what 2017 might have in store for us through a traditional Bulgarian pastry dish with our fortunes inside!

Tundra Greening and Browning. Also in April, After a lab trip to Durham, Haydn’s home town, to talk permafrost for a day at Durham University. Andy and Isla went to the home of the Crucible, the land of snooker, the (real) region of Robin Hood, and the heartland of the only English football team named after a day of the week. (Also the home of the Arctic Monkeys – who incidentally haven’t spent much time in the Arctic). If you haven’t guessed yet, we went to the town of Sheffield for the ‘Arctic Browning Workshop’. The Arctic is warming and satellites have shown a fair bit of greening, but recent evidence suggests a decrease in the rates of increasing greenness at high latitudes and some browning events. The theme of the workshop was exploring that Arctic browning and what might be causing it.

A trip to the Highlands. Also in April and before the field season, Team Shrub headed to the highlands to show our visiting scholar Jeff Kerby and our summer drone pilot Will Palmer the beautiful countryside in our own backyard.


Traits. In June, Haydn, Anne and Isla headed the deep South of the UK to almost tropical temperatures at the University of Exeter. We were at the New Phytologist 39th Symposium on Trait covariation. Whether in the symposium sessions or out on Dartmoor, we had a great time pondering plant traits from the tropics to the tundra.


Team Shrub strike out across the Highlands.

Traits. In June, Haydn, Anne and Isla headed the deep South of the UK to almost tropical temperatures at the University of Exeter. We were at the New Phytologist 39th Symposium on Trait covariation. Whether in the symposium sessions or out on Dartmoor, we had a great time pondering plant traits from the tropics to the tundra.

The Field Season. Suddenly it was the field season. Team Shrub divided into two teams: Team Drone and Team Kluane to concurrently conduct our data collection on either end of the Yukon. From drones, tea bags, phenology, stories, sounds, smells, feasts, birding, to reunions many adventures were had and a ton of data was collected. We managed to capture over 100,000 images or more than two TB of data with our drones, to dig out over 300 tea bags from the ground, and to fill several field books or iPad spreadsheets with numbers and notes. It was a productive period and we are still working away on processing the data.


Team Shrub together at last!

New beginnings. This September marked the start of Mariana’s and Gergana’s PhD research. Mariana is modelling how plant species distributions will shift under climate change at two extreme biomes – the tundra and the savannah. Gergana is quantifying the effects of land use change on global and local patterns of species richness, abundance and composition. Sam, Claudia and Matt have joined Team Shrub for their honours dissertations. The data presents will soon be rolling as new student projects come together and our first three Team Shrub PhD students finalise their dissertations over the coming months.


First day of being a PhD student for Mariana and Gergana!

Coding. Coding Club celebrated its first birthday! Coding is a big part of our work on Team Shrub, we use coding in our research, teaching, our lives in general… where would we be without it. Perhaps a bit less constantly frustrated, but also without those moments of glory when everything runs error free! We even made up a fictional journal for the Conservation Science course that Isla organises and Gergana and Mariana are tutors on. You can find out more about AQMCS (Advanced quantitative methods in conservation science) here – Same data – different results? ConSci 2017 introduces AQMCS!

Conservation in the Cairngorms. In early October, members of Team Shrub took our annual pilgrimage up to the highlands of Scotland for the weekend fieldtrip on the Conservation Science course. With all sorts of weather, mountains, drones, delicious cake and an epic music jam, fun was had by all!


Learning about conservation in a majestic landscape

Biodiversity, the New North and the science/policy interface. Also in the month of October, along with keen undergraduates from the Conservation Science course, we went along to the Spotlight on Scotland’s Biodiversity conference. For the undergraduates involved, it was their first ever conference. It was pretty inspiring to see the next generation of conservation scientists getting the opportunity to talk with the Scottish experts in the field. A few weeks later in November, we headed to the “Scotland and the New North” policy forum, where Isla got to hold the door for Nicola Sturgeon! A new focus looking Northward for Scotland could mean new things for Team Shrub research in future.


What will Scotland’s new focus northward mean for Team Shrub?

Also in November, Mariana attended two  policy-related events: the EEB Changing Landscapes conference in Edinburgh and the BES “Understanding science policy in Scotland“ workshop in Stirling. The first was a high-level event where major conservation organisations discussed the future of nature in Europe; while the second zoomed into Scotland to understand how science can feed into the policy-making process.

Writing. In November, Team Shrub had our first official writing retreat. We have been talking about having a writing retreat for years and finally things came together with a chance to focus on our writing goals, away from distractions. We were so inspired that we are planning on having a residential writing retreat sometime in the Spring of 2018 – where we can go from one day of super high productivity to hopefully a long weekend.

Dual Conferences. In December, Team Shrub headed to two big conferences happening at the same time! You can read about our parallel conferences experiences here. At Ecology Across Borders in Ghent, Belgium, Anne, Mariana and Gergana joined over 1500 ecologists to take in lots of exciting science, go to workshops, meet new people or catch up with old friends. Gergana and Anne gave talks, in sessions happening at the same time!

At Ecology Across Borders, we also led a Coding Club workshop, titled “Transferring quantitative skills among ecologists”. We shared our approach to teaching coding to keen participants from the conference. All of our workshop materials are online: Transferring quantitative skills among scientistsYou can also check out the Coding Club website to find all of our tutorials as well as information on how you can join our team and organise workshops at your home institution.

The other half of Team Shrub, Isla, Sandra, Haydn, Jakob, Andy and Jeff went to Quebec in Canada for the penultimate ArcticNet meeting – Arctic Change 2017. You can check out the daily round-up blog posts about the conference here – day 1day 2, day 3 and days 4 and 5. A pinnacle moment for Team Shrub was Haydn and Jakob winning the top two prizes from the conference elevator pitch contest!

Rejections. When we drafted our goals for 2017, we also set out our rejection goals. The idea behind rejection goals is that if we never get rejected, then maybe we aren’t aiming high enough. We decided to collectively aim for 50 rejections. So how did we do? We counted 23 rejections out of our goal of 50. Now perhaps we didn’t manage to count every single rejection this year, some of them we would rather just forget, but can we count the fact that we didn’t achieve our rejections as one additional fail?  Then technically we are at 24 out of 50?


Team Drone on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island in the Northern Yukon.


Team Kluane at Outpost Station in the Southern Yukon.

Outreach. At Our Dynamic Earth, we shared the excitement of using drones for science. At the Edinburgh Science Festival, we explored art as a way to communicate science. We put together the photography exhibit “Arctic from Above” and developed collaborations with Simon SloanArchie Crofton to explore how art and data interface and ASCUS looking at tundra shrubs as time machines. Then at Curiosity forest, part of Explorathon 2017, we used drone simulators and cool dendrochronology samples to learn about how to study Arctic change.


There were also many jolly meals and trips to the pub. Many heated debates as we discussed science in lab meeting or over lunch. There were many moments of coding frustration followed by a sense of achievement as we worked through our scientific goals.

Team Shrub Lab Meeting 2

One of many lab meetings!

So those were some of the Adventures for Team Shrub in 2017.

What will 2018 hold? We already have some exciting things to share with you over the coming months, and many more in the pipeline. Hopefully we will also have some fantastically fluffy catkins this year: keep your eye on the breeze.

So from all on Team Shrub, a very happy new year and we look forward to sharing with you, working with you, and learning from you in the year to come.

By Gergana, Isla and Haydn

One day, 12 795 words: The Team Shrub Writing Retreat

12 795 words in one day! That is a dissertation right there pretty much. And members of Team Shrub wrote those words over a mere four hours of structured writing time. How did we do it? To find out more read on…

We have long loved the idea of a writing retreat – setting aside time to just write. No distractions, no emails, even no coding, just pure writing. It always feels hard to focus just on writing – little urgent tasks creep in and next thing you know, the day is over and that Word document is still blank. Writing retreats are a fun combination of peer pressure and peer support. Nothing like the sound of many people writing to make you realise that you really should be writing, too! We all have things we could be writing right now – a manuscript, an assignment, a thesis chapter, a blog post (a great distraction from what I really should be writing right now, but hey, this is still writing…). It’s great when we have a special occasion when all those things do get written – the Team Shrub writing retreat!

In November, Isla organised a writing retreat, right here in Edinburgh, so a convenient location for all of us. It was quite the fancy setting, with a particularly inspirational ceiling in our writing room!


The fancy setting of our writing retreat!

We started off the morning by laying out what we would like to achieve during the day and in the specific one hour writing sessions ahead of us. We shared our writing goals, Isla told us a bit about how writing retreats work, and with an alarm set off to ring in an hour’s time, we began writing! The break between the writing sessions gave us the chance to refuel with tea and coffee and chat about how our writing is going. And then another one hour of solid writing followed.

Next, we moved onto a delicious lunch in a nearby cafe, followed by a casual work session with even more delicious lattes, flat whites, mochas and such! Our cafe visit gave us the chance to chat about our writing projects, how they are progressing, and ponder over any questions we might have. We liked the combination of the more strict writing sessions in the writing room with the casual cafe session – the best of both worlds!

We also pondered what kind of writers we are and what our strategies for success at the writing retreat were. Do you edit as you write? Do you write everything that comes to mind and edit later? These questions, and many more, are covered in Stephen Heard’s great book “The Scientists’s Guide to Writing”. I particularly like the chapter on writing behaviour. I over-analyse to a fault, so if I give in to the temptation to really discuss or write about writing behaviour and writing strategies, I’d never write anything else! I may or may not be wondering whether there is a test online about writing personalities, but alas, I shall be strong and focus on this.

We wrapped our writing retreat feeling very accomplished. So how did we do it? Here are a few of the elements that came together to bring our writing successes, though of course, everyone is different and everyone writes in a different way.

  1. Make the time. Most of us could have been doing different things that Friday, some of which important, but with writing, often one really has to make the time to make it happen, which sometimes involves some tough decisions and prioritising writing over all the other tasks on our to do lists.
  2. Set specific goals. It’s hard to asses progress if you are not quite sure what you are aiming for, so being specific always helps. How many words would you like to write, or are there particular sections of your writing project that you would like to finish before the day wraps up?
  3. Share your goals. Here comes the peer pressure and support again. Sharing your goals makes them more real, which can motivate you to really achieve them, and knowing that someone else is watching and knows what you are meant to achieve, can provide a dose of healthy pressure to write.
  4. Track progress and adjust your goals as you go. At our writing retreat, we had one hour writing sessions, followed by a break where we could reflect on how we are progressing with our goals. Things don’t always go to plan, some things are easier, others harder than anticipated, and that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. On the contrary, being able to accurately asses your progress and adjust your goals is a great skill to hone.
  5. Just write. We had a few rules for our writing retreat, which I think helped us all focus more on just writing. We had to do our reading and note taking in advance, so that during the writing retreat, we focused on just writing.
  6. No internet, no phones. Sometimes writing retreats are purposefully in places with no internet, so that you don’t get stuck answering emails and constantly having to restart your writing process. In our case, we were right in Edinburgh, so the internet was there, so it was up to us to decide whether or not we turn it off. But the peer pressure was there to not check one’s phones during the writing blocks.
  7. Save, back up. Make sure you save often and that your work is backed up – it would be a shame for all that writing to go to waste! Isla had a complete computer melt down in one writing session with her reference software, but she managed to get things back on track and rewrite that paragraph that got deleted!
  8. Reward yourself. Writing retreats are intense and it’s always nice to have a little reward at the end. The satisfaction of having done something you’ve been postponing for ages, a nice hot drink, a delicious meal with the jolly company of your lab mates.
  9. Follow up on your writing projects. Especially if you are the kind of writer that leaves a lot highlighted text saying things like “insert reference, add link, double-check this is true”. Setting aside a full day or more to pure writing is great and it can be really efficient, but it’s also important to remember your writing projects and to try making the time to work on them in between all our other daily tasks.

We all thought the writing retreat was great, we wrote a lot, and we’ve said we should have writing retreats more often, so here’s to a happy and productive 2018 and more writing!

By Gergana

Arctic Change 2017 – Wednesday round-up


Another day of snow in Quebec City, another day of Arctic conferencing at Arctic Change 2017. Another packed plenary, hearing from Larry Hinzman on how we can and must adapt as not only the climate changes, but many other factors as well. We heard the fascinating, and certainly complex debate around the ownership and use of the northwest passage. Finally, we stood together to celebrate the work of Dr. Michel Allard, winner of this year’s Weston Family Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Northern Research.

Team Shrub was well represented in the first session of Monitoring, Modeling and Predicting Arctic Biodiversity. Isla made a convincing case for detection of various components of vegetation change and their attribution to warming. Jeff then demonstrated the scaling issues we have when going from ground-based to satellite observations – impressing the audience with drone footage at the same time.

In this session we also heard from Paul Grogan of Queens University with a fascinating talk on birch expansion driven by a decrease in herbivory rather than by increased temperatures. Last up was Pascale Ropars (who first taught me the art of digging shrubs up many years ago), presenting a whole-food-web approach to predicting biodiversity change in Northern Québec.

After a delicious lunch (the food here!) which peaked with three helpings of profiteroles, it was time to go back to the second part of the Arctic Biodiversity session. Katriina O’Kane showed us how species move individually rather than as a community during succession at a glacier’s edge. Cory Wallace and Jennifer Baltzer from the Forest Ecology Research Group at Wilfrid-Laurier also took us on a tour of alder shrubs, topographic variation, and the factors controlling black spruce abundance.

Finally, eyes starting to itch and brains hurting from a day packed full of new knowledge, we heard from Caroline Coch on the role of small catchments for dissolved organic carbon inputs, and from Dustin Whalen on how drones are being used to map coastal erosion in the Arctic.

Haydn, Jakob and myself were still on duty by our posters in the evening. Between lively scientific discussions and running into old friends, the two hours flew by and our team set out hungrily in search of poutine. Unfortunately, my insider knowledge of Québec didn’t extend to knowing Ashton’s opening hours, so the door shut in our disappointed faces. We had to turn to (highly satisfying) falafels eaten on the street in -10 degrees C weather to get back to the conference centre in time for the first screening of Breaking Ice, a documentary that took us on the Canadian research ice-breaker the Amundsen.


I suspect Haydn, Jakob, Isla and Andy are in various stages of anticipation for their Thursday talks. Good luck all!

By Sandra

Arctic Change 2017 – Tuesday round-up: Blizzards, Biodiversity and Beluga Snot

The second day of Arctic Change 2017 hit town like the snow storm raging outside the Centre des congrès de Québec. Today the main hall was full, packed right to the edges, as we were welcomed by ArcticNet, Laval University and the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

After the welcome and official opening, Raleigh Seamster from Google Earth, and Joel Heath and Lucassie Arragutainaq from ArcticEider/SIKU demonstrated the power of remote sensing and its potential for community based environmental monitoring in the Arctic. The speakers clearly had to battle the inquisitiveness of researchers as hundreds reached straight for their laptops and phones to immediately check out these awesome tools! Louis Frontier, scientific director of ArcticNet, followed with a reminder that cutting carbon emissions remains paramount for tackling all issues around Climate Change. Anyone not from Norway or Paraguay might have left feeling a little bruised, but despite the world being only 5% of the way towards its renewable goals, there was still a sense of optimism. And indeed, the plenary closed with optimism in full swing with a touching short film on the Schools on Board project of the Canadian research icebreaker Amundsen and the potential future leaders of Arctic policy change.

Refreshed after heaps of pastries and coffee, the conference headed into the first topical sessions. Alas, we can barely scratch the surface of the vast array of talks on offer here. Justine Hudson method’s of assessing Hudson’s Bay’s beluga whale stress level using snot samples was much discussed on twitter and made an engaging talk with videos of curious belugas “donating” their snot to science. Memorable also were Benjamin Lange’s findings that multiyear sea-ice supports much more algae life than first year ice. We on Team Shrub appreciated hearing about Zoe Panchen’s research on tundra plant phenology showing that microclimate matters more than latitude or elevation for flowering in the Canadian High Arctic.  And Team Shrub was also a fan of Esther Frei’s work on plant trait change over time and her beautiful figures!  We also really liked pondering future fox housing using Florence Poulin’s new index of Arctic fox den vulnerability.

The scientific part of the day concluded with the first poster session, with legions of well designed posters (every conference should have such a great reward for poster awesomeness!) and an astonishing amount of great science. Ruminating in front of our fake log fire we remember Jeffery Saarela and Paul Sokoloff’s enthusiastic poster presentation – working with the Canadian’s Museum of Nature, they are sampling plants all across the Arctic islands to improve our understanding of high Arctic biodiversity. Also sticking out was Sarah Shakil’s poster on chemical composition of slump discharge on the Peal Plateau in the Yukon and Christine Anderson’s beautiful poster about her exciting proposed PhD research on shorebirds in a changing Arctic.

Now we are all tired from a long day of sciencing, talking at our posters, braving the still raging blizzard and running away from snow-spitting Quebecois snow ploughs on our way home to the apartment. After two exciting days, we’re looking forward the great Arctic science to come and take up Allen Pope’s challenge to kick him off the top of the twitter leader board. So keep your twitter ears pricked and see you tomorrow!


by Jakob and Team Shrub

p.s. You can also catch up here on what’s happening across the pond at the the Ecology Across Borders conference in Ghent.

Arctic Change 2017: Monday round-up

It is snowing in London. Roll on the inevitable British winter – the blocked roads, the cancelled flights, the closed schools and the queues at petrol stations. Outside our «charmant appartement» here in Québec City we look out on snow piling high on church towers, listen to the sound of crunching boots and catch our breath in the -15°C air. Winter may have arrived in La Belle Province, but the Arctic Change 2017 conference is in full swing.

We arrived this morning in the huge Centre des congrès de Québec to the chatter of Arctic researchers of all ages – from the long stockings and tartan skirts of schoolgirls to the suitcase wheeling suits of professors. Everything about a conference was soon underway. Bonding over velcro in the poster hall. Unexpected feedback in the plenary. A sudden lack of technical support at the critical moment. In a room full of excited scientists, none of it really matters.

Today was the ‘Student Day’, a chance to warm up after the main event kicks off tomorrow. The highlight for us by far was the student elevator pitches – one slide and one minute to sum up a research project. We were blown away by the quality and range of work underway across the Arctic, and the quality and range of talks! Ukelele songs and caribou cams, teabags and drones, Facebook, fishing, birdsong, belugas…the list goes on.

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One minute, one slide

The rest of the day unfolded in a series of meetings, workshops and panel discussions. We enjoyed learning about international collaboration, data management and policy making, among others. Most of all, we enjoyed the chance to catch up with old friends and make new ones (still looking for two months at sea anyone??), before retiring to the Arctic-themed pub quiz to end the day.

It’s now 10pm and the snow is still falling. Bring on tomorrow.


Enjoying snowy Québec!

If you want to meet any of Team Shrub or find out about our work, you can catch us at:


MON06 – I. Monitoring, Modeling and Predicting Arctic Biodiversity
(Wednesday, 10.30-12.00, Room 203)

10.45 – Isla Myers-Smith: Attribution of ecological change to warming across the tundra biome – a summary of recent data syntheses
11.15 – Jeff Kerby: Meso-scale Arctic ecology: Leveraging the High Latitude Drone Ecology Network (HiLDEN) to address longstanding knowledge gaps

MON05 – I. Arctic Remote Sensing: Improving Arctic Monitoring of Sea Ice, Snow, Glaciers and Permafrost for Wildlife Preservation
(Thursday, 10.30-12.00, Room 302 B)
10.45 – Jakob Assmann: Drone imagery reveals scale mismatch between satellite-observed tundra greenness and on-the-ground vegetation monitoring

ECO13. Arctic Tundra and Vegetation
(Thursday, 10.30-12.00, Room 303 A)
10.45 – Haydn Thomas: Changes in plant functional traits across a warming tundra biome: Linking vegetation change to ecosystem function

MON05 – II. Arctic Remote Sensing: Improving Arctic Monitoring of Sea Ice, Snow, Glaciers and Permafrost for Wildlife Preservation
(Thursday, 13.30-15.00, Room 302 B)
14.30 – Andrew Cunliffe: Monitoring Arctic changes with drones

ECO14 – II. Arctic Wildlife
(Thursday, 13.30-15.00, Room 301 B)
16.15 – Cameron Eckert: Identifying key wildlife movement corridors on Herschel Island-Qikiqtaruk Territorial Park

INT03. Arctic Cooperation in Action – the UK-Canada Arctic Partnership, 2017 Bursaries Programme: Aims, Results and Next steps
(Thursday, 15.30-17.00, Room 303 A)
16.45 – Isla Myers-Smith: Quantifying the drivers of rapid tundra vegetation change – increased productivity and permafrost thaw


156 – Sandra Angers-Blondin: Reading between the rings: How does competition affect the climate sensitivity of shrub growth?

158 – Haydn Thomas: Decomposition patterns across the tundra biome: Litter substrate explains more than environment.

159 – Jakob Assmann: Snow-melt and temperatures – but not sea ice – explain variation in tundra spring plant phenology on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island

5 Steps to Becoming an Awesome Field Assistant

Going into a field season for the first time can be a bit overwhelming. You’re about to spend a couple of months in a strange land, doing strange tasks with very strange people. You might feel like you’ve suddenly forgotten everything about science, or that you’re definitely not up to walking up that mountain. Do you have the right gear? The right attitude? Are you even the right person for the job?

To help you out, here are Izzy’s top five tips that will help you have the best and most productive field season.

1. Be prepared to work weird hours

In most cases you will be living on the same schedule as your supervisor. That means work will keep going until you’re finished. From late night trips to the lab or waking up to shrub talk, you never know when you might be needed. At first in can be overwhelming, but it’s a great way to engage with the material and experience. You also end up feeling really hardcore and proud of yourself after a long day!

2. Take advantage of every opportunity (sleep when you’re home)

Living in a new place with new people will definitely bring a lot of opportunities to take advantage of. Whether it be going on a hike or taking a tour of the nearby ice-fields, you can always find something new to try. I think saying yes to everything (within reason) is the best way to go about your field season. You will end up meeting a lot of new people and seeing a lot of new things along the way. I have to say, some key memories of my field season are things I have said yes to: going to a lecture with Charley Krebs and seeing my first grizzly bear on the way, and going on a tour of the ice-fields – absolutely amazing. Just say yes!

Related to that, you are only in this new place for a few months out of, quite possibly, your whole life. There’s no reason to go to bed while the northern lights are out – you can sleep when you’re home!


Feeling on top of the world (and a little bit cold)

3. Do things before you’re told & be confident in working independently

Often times the supervisor you’re working with has countless things to do that need to be delegated. If you really pay attention and engage with the tasks at hand, you’ll be able to help them along the way by clearing up any bits that may be left to do. Furthermore, being able to work independently will greatly improve your confidence way beyond the field. I know that for me, I was not a very confident worker and would often seek clarification more often than needed. Being in an isolated location might mean you don’t have the luxury of always asking for help, so you end up having to trust what you think is right. This is definitely frightening at first, but even after the field, I’ve noticed that I trust my knowledge a lot more. Being able to help organise tasks on your own is a great skill to work on and you’ll also be removing a bit of your mentor’s stress!


Izzy Rich (the common garden bed. Also the field assistant.)

4. Challenge yourself

Going to the field was undoubtedly one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life. I kept telling people “wow who knew I was such a city kid,” but it turns out I am. Being in a remote location, where sometimes I only saw one other person, was extremely shocking to me. It was an incredible learning experience to learn to be alone so intensely. Taking part in long hikes was another shock. Some people may say the hikes I did were not very long, but for me, I was genuinely climbing a mountain in reality and my mind. The emotional barrier of trying such drastically new things was hard to break, but everything you learn and the way you develop as a person when you challenge yourself is something that you will carry for the rest of your life.


Scaling literal and metaphorical mountains

5. Take a lot of pictures

Take a lot of pictures so it doesn’t all feel like a dream!

By Izzy

Team Shrub goes to Curiosity Forest at Explorathon 2017

At the end of September (this semester has flown by, hasn’t it?), Team Shrub took part in the Explorathon – a weekend celebrating research in Scotland in the wider context of  European Researchers’ Night. We transplanted our shrub knowledge from the Arctic to the Curiosity Forest, where the public got to experience our research from different angles: from above and inside out!



Alongside us in this inviting, cheerful woodland were our friends from GeoSciences showing fossils, molecular biologists encouraging you to take a “cell-fie” photograph of your own epithelial cells, and several other groups from the physical and social sciences showcasing their research in interactive ways that got young (and not-so-young) participants drawing, making blueprints, controlling lasers with their voices, and much more.

Our stall took people through the journey we make collecting and processing data to investigate vegetation change in the Arctic. Participants flew highly successful missions on our drone simulator, then were shown what the pictures our drones take look like. They were then invited to have a much closer look at the shrubs we see as dots on our aerial pictures, by handling wood samples and looking at thin sections through the microscope.


Before leaving, children were asked to find the ring corresponding to their date of birth on a giant print-out of a shrub stem section. Sadly I am too old to fit on this shrub!


This wee Arctic shrub was much older than most of our visitors!

Thanks to Lisa and the Explorathon Team for having us!

By Sandra