Cat caught red-pawed

It’s interesting because in Dublin it seems like the semi-feral cats own the land the houses are on and people just occasionally put out food for them, but no one actually owns a cat, as far as I can tell. The whole city could probably be divided up by cat territories, if only we could read their scents. Of course, as we know, outdoor cats have been well-shown to be vicious predators, killing literally billions of animals each year by one estimate.

All of that is just a lead up to this cat I caught (by camera) in Ghent, belly deep in this box, which on first passing I had assumed to be some sort of nest box for birds. Anyone recognize it? Maybe it was even meant for the cat somehow.

Anyway, he started guiltily when he noticed me, then decided he wasn’t in the least bit ashamed of his actions and hammed it up for the camera.

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Yeah, I ate your little birds, what about it?
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Are invasive species bad? Also “Long live the weeds”, by Theodore Roethke

I’ve attended a lot of conferences this autumn (3 down, 2 to go!). When I registered for all these conferences, I didn’t have a job lined up for next year, so I was feeling a little desperate. Now that I have a job lined up, I just get to enjoy everyone’s amazing research. Seriously…if you think about how much work goes into every talk and poster, and then multiply it by the number of talks and posters, it’s actually mind-boggling how much work these conferences represent.

Anyway, I spent a week at an invasion biology conference and one of the ongoing debates I find especially interesting is the dichotomy between the ecologists focused on eradication of invasives and quantifying their negative impacts (with the perspective or underlying assumption that they are purely bad) vs the ecologists who are starting to explore the potential beneficial aspects of species invasion and the implications. There almost seemed to be a gulf between these two groups, at least at this conference. Someone would give a talk about potential benefits of an invasive species, and would get some snarky questions on whether it’s even possible for invasive species to have benefits, or whether they are by definition negative.

Obviously, you can quibble about definitions, but that is just boring (to me). Invasive, non-native, alien, resident, naturalised, weed…all of these words can be bandied about, but what I’m really interested in is the *inherent* underlying assumption of the scientist.

Is it possible that this underlying assumption inherently biases the outcomes of our studies? After all, all species probably have mutualistic interactions (it’s probably hard to survive without *some* mutualists), which could be labeled as a “positive” interaction. Then again, it’s also impossible to exist without negative interactions! Even the most innocuous plant competes with others for limited resources, right? I’ve discussed species with two faces on here before…

Naturally, if you’re looking for the negative impacts of an invader, you look for a negative interaction: competition, predation, pathogens…and if you’re looking for the benefits of an invader, you look for positive interactions: pollination, ecosystem services, biodiversity…

I first became interested in invasive species in college, when I decided I would read all of the “classics” of ecology, and the first book I read was Charles Elton’s 1958 “The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants”, basically a handbook of all the negative impacts invasive species have. I started volunteering for invasive plant removal days.

I remember one day in particular where I, with 8 other people, spent 8 hours clearing a patch of forest of Garlic Mustard, stuffing it into black bags so that the seeds wouldn’t survive to disperse. At the end of the day, I looked up beyond the boundary of the area we cleared, and saw a sea of green Garlic Mustard waving gently in a breeze. In that moment, I thought maybe our approach, which I nicknamed “Brute Force and Ignorance”, would not be that effective.

When I started grad school, I set out to study the impacts of invasive species, Charles Elton’s book fresh in my mind. But for the first literature review I performed on invasive species impacts, I stumbled on this paper by Sax and Gaines (2003). Invasive species don’t necessarily decrease species richness, it argued, sometimes they increase species richness!

Indeed, the harder I tried to build an argument about how invasive species are universally bad, the more exceptions to the rule I found. Our lab was focused on an invasive thistle, and I went to the field to study its impacts on the insect community. I was totally naive and had no previous experience with insects, but even I could see that this invasive species was absolutely crawling with insects. In fact, they absolutely loved it!

Over the course of the next few years, my research only reinforced the idea that this invasive weed was actually a huge benefit for pollinators in agricultural systems, where very few native species could withstand the agricultural intensity (plus, bees love thistles).

So it’s interesting to see other ecologists on this journey of exploration from the perspective of invasives being all negative, to becoming curious about their positive impacts as well. I have a friend who tells me that the whole field of “invasion biology” is bogus, but I think that’s extreme. We’ve learned a lot from studying invasive species after all!

But I think we need a more nuanced perspective before deciding whether a species is “good” or “bad”, and before using its original range as a label that automatically makes it look like a problem. I’ve seen some strange behaviours, almost to the level of obsession, regarding the eradication of species that probably can never truly be eradicated (eg our garlic mustard). There’s a story I’ve heard a number of times of an Australian bay (Cullen Bay) where an invasive mussel was detected in 1999. The government activated an emergency response and dumped “187 tonnes of liquid sodium hypochlorite and 7.5 tonnes of copper sulphate…to the three marinas over two weeks.” sauce

The first time I heard this story (which is usually told as a way to show how effective rapid response can be in preventing invasion), I thought it was an impresive and effective display. But the more I hear about it, the more I wonder if it is a harsh reaction to what may ultimately be an inevitable invasion anyway…after all those chemicals didn’t *just* kill the invasive species. They killed everything in the bay. And yes, the native species can recolonize, but what if they were already holding on by a thread, hit hard by nutrient runoff, pathogens, and climate change? Black striped mussels are one of those species considered to have pretty much exclusively negative impacts, both from economic and ecological perspectives. But…our world is changing and sometimes I wonder if our illusion of control over it leads to more problems than it solves.

Maybe the differing perspectives voiced at this conference are the best thing that could happen…the absence of consensus drives science to be more rigorous, more complete. I certainly don’t know the answer to all this, but I think it’s worthwhile for us all to try and see the other perspective.

Long Live the Weeds

Long live the weeds that overwhelm

My narrow vegetable realm! –

The bitter rock, the barren soil

That force the son of man to toil;

All things unholy, marked by curse,

The ugly of the universe.

The rough, the wicked and the wild

That keep the spirit undefiled.

With these I match my little wit

And earn the right to stand or sit,

Hope, look, create, or drink and die:

These shape the creature that is I.

– Theodore Roethke

Photos from Ghent, Belgium

The answer to my quiz from earlier this week was Ghent, in Belgium! It was my first time in Belgium, although I was in Leiden, the Netherlands earlier this year and they are close in proximity.

Ghent was way calmer than Dublin, so it was a nice break from the stress, even though I was at a conference and they keep us working from dawn til dusk. Here are some photos.

Ghent, Belgium
Ghent, Belgium
Ghent, Belgium
Ghent, Belgium
Ghent, Belgium
Ghent, Belgium
We did a canal tour as part of the conference, which was fun
Ghent, Belgium
Ghent, Belgium
Ghent, Belgium
Ghent, Belgium
Ghent, Belgium
Ghent, Belgium
Ghent, Belgium
Ghent, Belgium
Ghent, Belgium
Ghent, Belgium
The guide told us Charles the fifth used to torture people in this castle and their screams used to echo around the neighbourhood, so the city almost tore it down, but decided to renovate it instead for tourism. Makes the castle look pretty ominous
Ghent, Belgium
According to our guide, the last original wooden facade in Ghent
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I kinda love this old wall that nature has reclaimed. Plenty of kayakers on the water
Ghent, Belgium
Ghent, Belgium
I love willows
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Ghent, Belgium
Ghent, Belgium
Ghent, Belgium
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Ghent, Belgium
Ghent, Belgium
Buddleja
Ghent, Belgium
Ghent, Belgium
Ghent, Belgium

Beautiful sunrise on take off

My house mate and I were discussing the other day the things that kept us going during our darkest times. For her, hope was the thing that kept her going, like Emily Dickinson’s poem “Hope” is the thing with feathers.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers – (314)
By Emily Dickinson
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

For me, it has always been wonder that kept me going in my darkest hours. Because no matter how bad things get for me, I can still be blown away by the beauty of this world. And it is such a beautiful world, for all its brutality and crudeness. There are such unbelievably breath-taking landscapes and organisms here. It’s one of the main places where I differ from my father; he always wanted to be the first man on Mars…I can’t ever imagine wanting to leave our wonderful, awe-inspiring home.

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This morning* I was reminded of this sense of wonder when on a flight to an academic conference. The flight was very early in the morning (I had to wake up at 2 am to get across the city in time to catch my 6 am flight), and the sunrise was unspectacular on the ground from the airport. A typical dull, grey, lifeless morning in Dublin. But as soon as we took off, things began to change…

airplane photos

First, the sky caught on fire: purples, reds, oranges, and pinks streaked across the low cloud cover and I went instantly from grumpy and bleary eyed to wide-eyed in amazement. I scrambled for my camera and tried to snap a few shots, but they don’t give it justice of course.

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Even the engine looked briefly beautiful

Then, as we rose through this first cloud layer, we were suddenly sandwiched between dreamy, gauzy slate grey and blue clouds above, with the clouds below looking like pink and purple cotton candy. My mind instantly went to the science fiction stories of my youth, where astronauts explored gas giants, strange creatures floating among the endless layers of cloud.

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Does not do it justice

Finally we emerged, higher still, above this layer, to a golden shining sun that lit the streaks of cloud and contrails above in blinding light, with a stunningly blue sky above.

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The whole thing only took a few minutes, but it reminded me just what an amazing world we live in, and what an incredible privilege it is to fly (even though I still get air sick).

airplane photos

To quote a good friend of mine, “It’s a beautiful world, yeah it is, yeah it is…”

*I wrote this weeks ago of course

Where in the world is SOIMF*?

*StandingOutInMyField

Hello, here is a belated travel quiz for you! Belated because I’m already back from this work trip, but just assume I’m behind on everything for now.

So the way it goes is 1 (imaginary internet) point for continent, 5 for country and 10 for city! TBH I would never get this but many of the readers are more traveled than I!

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A major clue if you’re a flag nerd
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A major clue if you’re a language buff!

Take a hike! (with me?): Slea head

Still catching up on hiking I did in Kerry with the fam. River and I ended up getting quite ahead of her parents, but we had a good time. Much nicer weather than the hike around Bray head, absolutely stunning…
Slea Head
Slea Head
Slea Head
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I think that’s Dingle over there
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I told her to make a “I just conquered this mountain” face and this is what I got
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Gorse and heather a perfect pair ❤
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Slea Head
Takin in the landscape
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Waiting for her mum to catch up
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Hard to see in my photo, but the hollow pit on the left hand side of the cliff there is where the pit of evil in Star Wars was filmed
Slea Head
Slea Head
Slea Head
Slea Head