Tomorrow's Biodiversity

Introduction

Tomorrow’s Biodiversity is an FSC project funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation for five years (2013-2017 inclusive). It is helping us to identify important gaps in identification and monitoring skills, as well as barriers to filling those gaps, and developing/trialing solutions with new training, resources (e.g. new AIDGAP keys or electronic resources) or other interventions. The project officer - Rich Burkmar - started work on the project in February 2013.Sphagnum pulchrum - copyright Martin Godfrey

The first two years focused identifying gaps and barriers and framing the delivery phase. The delivery phase (2015-2017 inclusive) is developing 'exemplar' projects which can address some of the gaps and trial new ways of working that can overcome some of the barriers. The project will enable the Field Studies Council to develop new resources and training for taxa and/or habitats that are currently under-resourced but which have the potential to make a valuable contribution to our understanding of how biodiversity fares over the coming decades in the face of rapid environmental change.

Research and consultation phase outputs & conclusions

Some of the outputs of the research and consultation phase are listed below:

The review of the drivers of biodiversity loss confirmed that they are manifold, dynamic and largely unpredictable. It concluded: “The drivers of biodiversity loss are wide-ranging and complex and they interact in ways which we are only just beginning to appreciate, much less understand. Furthermore, the effects of these drivers on biodiversity operate through complex, and relatively poorly understood, ecological processes. The Tomorrow’s Biodiversity Project should not address itself to unpicking the detail of the links between the complex web of drivers and the response of biodiversity, but rather to observing and recording the effects of drivers on biodiversity to facilitate better understanding and mitigation.

The review of ‘indicators’ of biodiversity change highlighted huge gaps in taxonomic coverage amongst existing indicators and concluded: “FSC and the Tomorrow’s Biodiversity Project cannot directly influence the development of national and UK indicators, but we can target resources on the development of operational indicators that have potential to make a contribution and we can prioritise work in those areas for which few operational indicators currently contribute.

The Tomorrow's Biodiversity research phase did not produce any strong evidence to highlight particular groups of organisms that can address gaps in surveillance & monitoring linked to specific drivers of biodiversity change. On the contrary, it suggested that the gaps are so large, and the drivers so poorly understood and unpredictable, that almost any under-resourced taxonomic group could make a valuable contribution to surveillance & monitoring if supported by new identification resources, training and special interest groups.

This idea was also strongly supported by the results of the Tomorrow's Biodiversity consultation in 2014, in which 99 people affiliated with more than 100 organisations were consulted over a series of workshops and meetings. Very few people firmly identified particular groups of organisms as potential new indicators of biodiversity change and no groups received overwhelming support (although some, such as worms, springtails and mosses were suggested more often than others). The great majority of consultees were more interested in achieving a significant expansion of the suite of indicators of biodiversity change across the board, identifying barriers to realising this wide representation and suggesting possible solutions.

The following learning points from the research & consultation phase of the project have a significant influence on the delivery phase:

  • The biosphere is a complex system in which drivers of biodiversity change interact in poorly understood and unpredictable ways. While it is possible to identify many of the current major drivers of biodiversity loss, and some of those that will become increasingly important over the next few years, it is not possible to predict with any confidence which will be most significant or to untangle the effects of interactions between them.
  • To hedge against the general lack of understanding of drivers of biodiversity change and the functional links between drivers and the response of groups of organisms, we should promote the development of a broad range of indicators, and potential indicators, of biodiversity change, increasing the breadth of the surveillance & monitoring network, its resilience and its ability to adapt to conditions as they evolve.

In light of these learning points from research & consultation phase of Tomorrow’s Biodiversity, it is clear that we cannot make a selection of indicator species/assemblages based solely on the identification of critical groups of organisms most likely to be affected by, largely unpredictable, future biodiversity change. The delivery phase of Tomorrow’s Biodiversity should work with groups of organisms that have been identified as having the potential to contribute towards biodiversity surveillance & monitoring, but it is more important that most of the outcomes of the delivery phase – products and learning points – have wide utility across many groups or organisms.

This adds an ‘exemplar’ dimension to the delivery phase in which many of the projects we develop will attempt to showcase particular approaches to enabling surveillance & monitoring that are eminently transferable across organism groups.

Exemplar projects for the delivery phase

Some of the exemplar projects being taken forward by Tomorrow's Biodiversity in 2015 are listed below. This list is not exhaustive. Other possible projects - as yet unlisted - are under consideration and we will consider others as opportunities arise.

Soil Mesofauna project

Soil organisms (e.g. Springtails) were often identified in the research & consultation phase of the project as a worthy focus of more attention. The core of this proposed exemplar project would be to ensure the continuation of the NE/FSC soil mesofauna training series and to look at ways of supporting the learners – particularly in relation to becoming active soil biodiversity recorders – beyond the classroom. There is also scope within this project to develop and trial new resources for identification; for example soil mites are extremely poorly served in terms of good accessible identification resources (ID resources focal area). The project also has the potential to integrate developing DNA techniques.

Earthworms project

Earthworms have been strongly identified as a group that could make a useful contribution to surveillance, particularly as indicators of soil health. This project is to work with the Earthworm Society of Britain (ESB) to support the development of the society and promote the uptake of earthworm recording and surveillance. We can use the relationship beteen FSC and ESB to explore new models for working with a small national recording scheme, helping to provide training and, potentially, identification resources in new media. The society is quite unusual amongst small recording societies in that it actively promotes a recording protocol and promoting this is another area of interest for Tomorrow's Biodiversity.

Bryophytes project

The British Bryological Society (BBS) is keen to explore a new model of working with FSC to deliver training programmes for bryophyte identification and recording (partnerships focal area).

The traditional model that FSC uses to deliver taxonomic training relies mostly on relationships with individual associate tutors running standalone courses. With a willing partner, such as the BBS, we could explore a different model for delivering training that develops a stronger relationship with a recording scheme utilising both their taxonomic expertise and their wider training & education strategy and helping to deliver that using our network of field centres and training facilities.

Bryophytes were identified as a taxonomic group that would make a good focus for a Tomorrow’s Biodiversity exemplar project. A project of this kind would also be a good vehicle for exploring issues around the pyramid of engagement since a central theme is considering individual training courses as part of an integrated wider programme of training aimed at progressing learners up the skills and engagement pyramids.

National Plant Monitoring Scheme project

This project would aim to support the work of the national organisations responsible for running the new National Plant Monitoring Scheme (NPMS). The NPMS has been developed from Plantlife’s Wildflower Count scheme with the support of the Botanical Society of the Britain & Ireland (BSBI), the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC). The NPMS was trialled in 2014 and will be rolled out formally in 2015. In 2015, the FSC Tomorrow's Biodiversity project will be supporting the NPMS by working with Hayley New - the NPMS Volunteer Coordinator for England and Wales - to facilitate some of the NPMS training proramme at FSC field centres.

Working with the NPMS would allow us to explore the idea of directly supporting a survey & monitoring protocol – one of the major focal areas identified during the research and consultation stage of Tomorrow's Biodiversity. Although vascular plants are not themselves under-recorded or under-resourced, they are poorly represented in terms of surveillance & monitoring at the headline indicator level. The NPMS aims to address this and the Tomorrow's Biodiversity project could make a major contribution by helping to facilitate NPMS training.

Spider project

This project, based on a partnership with the Shropshire Spider Group (SSG), will explore the utility of providing high levels of support to a local recording group. This would build upon and continue the good work of other recent FSC projects, especially Invertebrate Challenge.

Three factors make the Shropshire Spider Group (SSG) an obvious choice for this project:

  1. The group is very new with currently few members.
  1. The group is led by a very committed and capable volunteer and county recorder for spiders (and treasurer of the British Arachnological Society) who has a history of working with FSC via Pete Boardman's Invertebrate Challenge project.
  1. Spiders and Harvestmen are the Tomorrow's Biodiversity Project Officer's area of taxonomic expertise.

We aim to work in partnership with the SSG to develop a stronger group and, in so doing, strengthen spider and harvestman recording in Shropshire. Because we have good access to expertise, we can explore the utility of providing very high levels of technical support and mentoring to a local group without very high cost to the Tomorrow's Bioidversity project.

One of the main aims of this project is to explore integrated training programmes and moving people through the skills & engagement pyramid. We will be aiming to strengthen the SSG, increasing membership and raising the expertise of members so that they make a greater contribution to local and national recording and surveillance.  We will also explore the utility of locally tailored, tightly targeted identification resources and novel ways of delivering them. We also hope to explore the utility of standardised sampling protocols within the framework of a local distribution atlas.

Multi-access keys project

The research & consultation phases of Tomorrow’s Biodiversity highlighted the unfulfilled potential of computer-based multi-access keys for biological identification. It seems certain that recent technological advances in user-interface and hardware technology, such as mobile devices, have created an environment in which multi-access keys will, at last, start to realise some of their potential.

FSC was involved in the development of multi-access keys in their early days (publishing a computer-based multi-access key for British Carex sedges for IBM-compatible PCs and BBC microcomputers in the early 1990s) but has not maintained its interest in this area of development. A project supported by Tomorrow’s Biodiversity would be an opportune way for the FSC to re-open it's interest in this area of identification resource delivery.

Novel ID resources project

Novel computer-based identification resources go beyond multi-access keys. This project will enable the FSC to keep abreast of developments in this area and to experiment and innovate itself. Tomorrow’s Biodiversity has already started to support some innovative ID projects including:

  • ‘TaxonAid’ – a project to examine the production and utility of three dimensional images of curated insect specimens to aid biological identification. We arem working in with Dr Chris Hassall at Leeds University as well as a PhD student there – David Bodenham – and the entomologist Roger Key.
  • ‘Signs of Life’ – a project to produce a photographic guide to inshore benthic marine life (Franki Perry).
  • Seasearch ID and protocol training videos. We are supporting work, led by Paula Lightfoot of Seasearch, to produce a number of training videos in support of the Seasearch survey.

So far these projects have all been led by others with varying amounts of involvement and support from Tomorrow’s Biodiversity. But it is possible that we may take a more leading role in one or two initiatives in the delivery phase of Tomorrow’s Biodiversity.

Internet Communication Media project

This is a cross-cutting project that will facilitate most, if not all, of the others. Many of the other projects need the support of a website and other internet communication tools such as social media.

The Tom.bio project is already associated with a couple of social media groups – particularly a facebook group (FSC Biodiversity Fellows) that connects with a community initially developed for the Biodiversity Fellowship project. We have also started a facebook group for the Shropshire Spider Group. Personal Twitter accounts are sometimes use for messages relating to the Tomorrow’s Biodiversity project. None of these media are currently used in a very planned or strategic fashion. We have also started a YouTube Channel for Tomorrow’s Biodiversity which currently holds only tutorial videos for the Tomorrow’s Biodiversity plugin for QGIS.

We will develop and implement a web-based communications plan for the project based on blogging. This will act as a central internet communications hub around which we will use social media like facebook and Twitter and multi-media technologies such as Youtube. This will allow us to develop the networks and sign-posting focal areas.

As part of this project we will also trial some 'resource signposting', initially for identification resources, to provide better access for the biological recording community.

The QGIS project

An increasing number of ecologists and biological recorders are using this free GIS software to help them visualise, explore and analyse spatial data. QGIS is a freely available open-source Geographic Information System (GIS) which, thanks to a community of dedicated and talented developers and an active and vocal user community, matches the functionality and usability of commercial products like MapInfo and ArcGIS. The Tomorrow's Biodiversity project has produced a plugin to QGIS called the FSC Tom.bio Productivity Tools which streamlines many of the GIS tasks commonly required by biological recorders, such as looking at their own data alongside that from the NBN Gateway.

The outputs of this project directly support some of the other projects (e.g. the Spider project), but it is also an example, in its own right, of how FSC can provide products and training to biological recorders at the very top of the engagement pyramid.

Scratchpads developed and conceived by (alphabetical): Ed Baker, Katherine Bouton Alice Heaton Dimitris Koureas, Laurence Livermore, Dave Roberts, Simon Rycroft, Ben Scott, Vince Smith