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The world's their fish finger

By jg533 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 12, 2020.

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The world's their fish finger
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The world's their

fish finger

Smothered in ketchup or squished into a sandwich, there’s one tasty convenience food that’s hard to resist. With over 1.5 million of them eaten every day in Britain, fish fingers are one of the nation’s favourite foods. Now two Cambridge researchers believe that a twist on this 1950’s creation might help address the challenge of sustainably feeding our global population.

David Willer and Dr David Aldridge are on a mission to work out how to look after our planet and people’s health at the same time. Zoologists in the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute, they want to demonstrate that bivalve shellfish – oysters, scallops, mussels and clams – can be a source of affordable, sustainable and nutritious food.

“In the developed world, over two billion people eat too many calories but not enough nutrients to stay healthy,” says Willer, “and a billion people in the developing world don’t have access to enough food. We believe bivalves are the answer!”

Better for the planet

“This is about providing people with food that is environmentally sustainable but also nutrient dense,” says Willer. “We know that meat and fish have a greater environmental impact than plant-based foods. But the environmental footprint of bivalve aquaculture is even lower than many arable crops in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, land and freshwater use.”

Bivalves sit right at the bottom of the food chain. They are filter feeders, and eat whatever is suspended in the water, which is usually either decaying organic matter or algae. This is in stark contrast to salmon farming, which takes five kilos of wild fish for every kilo of salmon produced. Willer says that if just 25% of this ‘carnivorous fish’ aquaculture was replaced with an equivalent quantity of protein from bivalve aquaculture, 16.3 million tonnes of CO2 emissions could be saved annually – equivalent to half the annual emissions of New Zealand.

Bivalves offer other environmental benefits too. Farming them has many benefits on marine ecosystems including the provision of nursery habitats for fish, coastal protection, and helping to clean up waterways by filtering out nuisance algae and suspended sediments.  

Room to grow

Across the world there is a huge area of coastline suitable for growing bivalve shellfish – an estimated 1,500,000 square kilometres, equivalent to over six times the total area of the United Kingdom. Willer says that developing just one percent of this could produce enough bivalves to fulfil the protein requirements of over one billion people.

“The regions of the world where there’s a lot of available coastline include places where people need extra sources of protein in their diets, such as the west coast of Africa, and Asia,” says Willer. In developing countries like these, where populations are growing, there are high levels of malnutrition because people are not getting the key nutrients and the energy they need from traditional diets.

Bivalves have a higher protein content (per kcal) than beef. They are high in many key nutrients that humans need, including vitamin A, iodine and zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids. A small quantity eaten regularly is a far more efficient way of getting required levels of these nutrients compared with eating a large variety of plant crops, all of which require land and resources to produce.

The safety issue

The challenge for the researchers is to increase the productivity of bivalve farming, while at the same time raising safety standards. Their work focuses on oysters and other bivalves at the hatchery stage, where they are grown for a year before being put into open sea – on ropes or in cages – to grow to full size.

“At the moment, bivalve hatcheries are very small scale and pretty basic,” says Willer. “Farmers grow algae to feed the oysters in big tanks using lots of light and energy. The tanks get contaminated all the time, so a lot of the feed is bad quality or gets wasted. This is the main cause of bacterial disease in shellfish. For a farmer working alone, it’s a difficult venture.”

One of the reasons why some people won’t eat mussels, oysters and other bivalves is fear of food poisoning – of which there have been some high profile cases, including a recent gastroenteritis epidemic in Brittany. Oysters in particular tend to be eaten raw, so anything harmful within them – most commonly norovirus – is not killed before they’re consumed by humans.

Taking control

Willer and Aldridge’s solution is to change the bivalve feed. They have developed a specially formulated diet for the shellfish that enables farmers to take better control of their hatcheries.

“We call it a ‘microencapsulated BioBullet’,” says Aldridge. “It contains algae, just like the algae being used in the hatcheries now, except ours is grown on a commercial scale and then powdered down and sterilised. As well as preventing the introduction of diseases into hatcheries, our new method is about 100 times more efficient than the current one in terms of energy use, carbon emissions and cost.”

The fact that the algae is sourced from the waste streams of other aquaculture systems gives this method an additional environmentally friendly credential. The approach has attracted funding from European Institute of Innovation and Technology’s Food programme (EIT Food) – an initiative working to make the food system more sustainable, healthy and trusted.

Microencapsulation involves putting the powdered algae inside a type of miniature eggshell made from vegetable oil, and adding a coating to make it buoyant and palatable. Other nutrients can be added as required, to alter the nutritional value or even palatability to the shellfish and ultimately the dietary benefits to human consumers.

This creates the potential to address particular nutrient deficiencies in a consumer population. Any nutrient or vitamin is far more easily absorbed by the body when it is integrated into a protein and fat source, rather than being in supplement form.

When bivalves are harvested they are held in tanks for a week before being sent to market. Clean water is run through the tanks to flush out the contents of their guts. At this stage, anything fed to the shellfish will remain in their gut cavity and be eaten by the consumer.

“The additives are where things get really interesting,” says Willer. “One of the unique things about shellfish is that when you eat one, you eat the entire organism – including the gut. The microencapsulated diet allows either a flavouring or nutrient to be delivered at the final stage of shellfish production so it stays within the bivalve when it’s harvested.”

Oyster hatchery. Credit: University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science on Flickr

Oyster hatchery. Credit: University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science on Flickr

Oyster hatchery. Credit: University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science on Flickr

The microencapsulated BioBullets. Credit: David Willer.

The microencapsulated BioBullets. Credit: David Willer.

Magnification of the microencapsulated BioBullets. Each particle is less than 100µm in diameter.

Magnification of the microencapsulated BioBullets. Each particle is less than 100µm in diameter.

Oyster in a clean water tank. Credit: Oregon State University on Flickr.

Oyster in a clean water tank. Credit: Oregon State University on Flickr.

Commercial development

Willer and Aldridge have been collaborating closely with a shellfish company in Whitstable, Kent – a town defined by the oysters it has produced since Roman times – to develop their microencapsulated diet into a saleable product. In addition, Aldridge and another team member, Dr Camilla Campanati, have tested products in commercial settings in Spain, achieving remarkable results.

“Mediterranean mussel spat reared on our BioBullets grew just as fast and survived just as well as mussels fed with the leading commercial alternative, an algal concentrate,” says Aldridge, “but our products cost ten times less than this alternative and are much easier to handle and store.” The results of an independent consumer panel are very encouraging too: mussels fed on BioBullets were deemed just as tasty and attractive as mussels produced by conventional methods.

“It’s surprising how little research has been done on this,” says Willer. “A few people tried to make a type of microencapsulated feed in the 1980s but it didn’t work, partly because the technology wasn’t available. We hope that with the recent successful trials of our new forms of microencapsulated diets, and continued refinement, it won’t be long before the concept goes mainstream and drives the expansion of the bivalve industry on a huge scale.”

The final hurdle

There is just one last challenge to overcome before bivalves could help to feed the world. “They’re not actually a food many people tend to like,” admits Willer, “and I think that’s probably one of the biggest challenges. We can increase the production of a very sustainable food, but if no-one eats it, it’s pointless.”

Diets have changed a lot since the 19th century when oysters in Britain were cheap and eaten in large quantities, mostly by the poorest in society. Today, oysters and other bivalve shellfish are perceived as luxury foods in the Western world – but only by those who relish the salty, slippery sensation of slurping them down.

Rather than trying to convince the rest of us to change our dietary preferences, Willer and Aldridge are looking at novel ways to make bivalves more palatable – essentially by disguising them. One idea is to swap out fish – which is often sourced unsustainably – for processed clam meat in a new form of ‘bivalve fishfinger.”

“Climate change is an impending pressure, and this pressure extends to our food supply,” says Aldridge. “We need to make fairly rapid changes to people’s diets, and trying to encourage huge cultural shifts just isn’t going to work. I think modifying things people are familiar with is the best way to make bivalves into a more acceptable product.” Microencapsulated diets really could be the start of a revolution. 

This research is funded by a BBSRC studentship to David Willer, the EIT Food Project MIDSA to David Aldridge, and BioBullets Ltd.

Additional photo credits (top to bottom): Fish fingers (anon); Clams by Andrew Yee on Flickr; Mussels by fancyday on Pixabay; Coastline in Senegal by Peter Harrison on Flickr; Whitstable by Mariuz Kluzniak on Flickr and by Judith on Flickr; Mussels by G. Morel on Flickr; Plate of oysters by Jameson Fink on Flickr; Oysters by Jean Louis Tosque on Pixabay.

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Smothered in ketchup or squished into a sandwich, there’s one tasty convenience food that’s hard to resist. Now two Cambridge researchers believe that a twist on the classic fish finger might help address the challenge of sustainably feeding our global population.

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Watching TV helps birds make better food choices

By jg533 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Feb 20, 2020.

Great tit and blue tit. Credit: Nataba, Adobe Stock images

Seeing the ‘disgust response’ in others helps them recognise distasteful prey by their conspicuous markings without having to taste them, and this can potentially increase both the birds’ and their prey’s survival rate. 

The study, published in the Journal of Animal Ecology, showed that blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) learned best by watching their own species, whereas great tits (Parus major) learned just as well from great tits and blue tits. In addition to learning directly from trial and error, birds can decrease the likelihood of bad experiences - and potential poisoning - by watching others. Such social transmission of information about novel prey could have significant effects on prey evolution, and help explain why different bird species flock together.

“Blue tits and great tits forage together and have a similar diet, but they may differ in their hesitation to try novel food. By watching others, they can learn quickly and safely which prey are best to eat. This can reduce the time and energy they invest in trying different prey, and also help them avoid the ill effects of eating toxic prey,” said Liisa Hämäläinen, formerly a PhD student in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology (now at Macquarie University, Sydney) and first author of the report.

This is the first study to show that blue tits are just as good as great tits at learning by observing others. Previously, scientists thought great tits were better, but had only looked at learning about tasty foods. This new work shows that using social information to avoid bad outcomes is especially important in nature. 

Many insect species, such as ladybirds, firebugs and tiger moths have developed conspicuous markings and bitter-tasting chemical defences to deter predators. But before birds learn to associate the markings with a disgusting taste, these species are at high risk of being eaten because they stand out. 

“Conspicuous warning colours are an effective anti-predator defence for insects, but only after predators have learnt to associate the warning signal with a disgusting taste,” said Hämäläinen. “Before that, these insects are an easy target for naive, uneducated predators.” 

Blue tits and great tits forage together in the wild, so have many opportunities to learn from each other. If prey avoidance behaviour spreads quickly through predator populations, this could benefit the ongoing survival of the prey species significantly, and help drive its evolution.

The researchers showed each bird a video of another bird’s response as it ate a disgusting prey item. The TV bird’s disgust response to unpalatable food - including vigorous beak wiping and head shaking - provided information for the watching bird. The use of video allowed complete control of the information each bird saw.

The ‘prey’ shown on TV consisted of small pieces of almond flakes glued inside a white paper packet. In some of the packets, the almond flakes had been soaked in a bitter-tasting solution. Two black symbols printed on the outsides of the packets indicated palatability: tasty ‘prey’ had a cross symbol that blended into the background, and disgusting ‘prey’ had a conspicuous square symbol.

The TV-watching birds were then presented with the different novel ‘prey’ that was either tasty or disgusting, to see if they had learned from the birds on the TV. Both blue tits and great tits ate fewer of the disgusting ‘prey’ packets after watching the bird on TV showing a disgust response to those packets.

Birds, and all other predators, have to work out whether a potential food is worth eating in terms of benefits – such as nutrient content, and costs – such as the level of toxic defence chemicals. Watching others can influence their food preferences and help them learn to avoid unpalatable foods.

“In our previous work using great tits as a ‘model predator’, we found that if one bird sees another being repulsed by a new type of prey, then both birds learn to avoid it in the future. By extending the research we now see that different bird species can learn from each other too,” said Dr Rose Thorogood, previously at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology and now at the University of Helsinki’s HiLIFE Institute of Life Science in Finland, who led the research. “This increases the potential audience that can learn by watching others, and helps to drive the evolution of the prey species.”

This research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council UK and the Finnish Cultural Foundation.

Reference
Hämäläinen, L. et al, ‘Social learning within and across predator species reduces attacks on novel aposematic prey’, Jan 2020, Journal of Animal Ecology. DOI: 10.1111/1365-2656.13180 

By watching videos of each other eating, blue tits and great tits can learn to avoid foods that taste disgusting and are potentially toxic, a new study has found.

By watching others, blue tits and great tits can learn quickly and safely which prey are best to eat.
Liisa Hämäläinen
Great tit and blue tit. Credit: Nataba, Adobe Stock images

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Vomiting bumblebees show that sweeter is not necessarily better

By jg533 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Jan 22, 2020.

Bumblebees drink nectar from flowers, then offload it in their nest – by vomiting –  for use by other bees in the colony. The sugar within nectar makes it appealing, and the more sugar within the nectar, the more energy it contains. But nectar also gets more thick and sticky as the sugar content rises, and this makes it more difficult for bees to drink and regurgitate –  requiring more time and energy. 

Published today in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, the study looked at the mechanics of both nectar drinking and regurgitation in one of the most common bumblebees in the UK, Bombus terrestris. It found that the best concentration of nectar for bumblebees in terms of overall energy gain is lower than might be expected. Nectar that is low in sugar is easy for bees to drink and very easy to vomit back up. As nectar gets more sugary, it gradually takes bees longer to drink, but swiftly becomes much more difficult to vomit. 

“Bumblebees must strike a balance between choosing a nectar that is energy-rich, but isn’t too time-consuming to drink and offload. Nectar sugar concentration affects the speed of the bees’ foraging trips, so it influences their foraging decisions,” said Dr Jonathan Pattrick, first author of this study, formerly a PhD student based jointly in the University of Cambridge’s departments of Plant Sciences and Zoology and now a post-doctoral researcher in the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology. 

While it has long been known that nectar with a higher sugar concentration takes bees longer to drink, its effect on nectar regurgitation has not previously received much attention. This new information will help scientists make better predictions about which types of nectar bumblebees and other pollinators should like best, and consequently the kinds of flowers and plants they are most likely to visit. This will inform crop breeders in producing the most appealing flowers for better crop pollination and higher yields. 

To conduct the research, bees were allowed to forage on sugar solutions of three different concentrations in the Department of Plant Science’s Bee Lab. While doing this, the bees were also timed and weighed. When the bees returned to their ‘nest’, the researchers watched them through a Perspex lid, timing how long it took for the bees to vomit up the nectar they had collected.

“For low strength nectar, bees had a quick vomit that only lasted a few seconds, then were back out and foraging again,” said Pattrick, “but for really thick nectar they took ages to vomit, sometimes straining for nearly a minute.” 

For any given nectar concentration, bees regurgitate the nectar quicker than they initially drink it. But as nectar sugar concentration –  and therefore stickiness –  goes up, the rate of regurgitation decreases faster than the rate of drinking. “It’s hard to drink a thick, sticky liquid, but imagine trying to spit it out again through a straw – that would be even harder,” said Pattrick. “At a certain sugar concentration, the energy gain versus energy loss is optimised for nectar feeders.”

The perfect nectar sugar concentration for the highest energy intake depends on the species drinking it, because different species feed in different ways. Bumblebees and honeybees feed by dipping their tongue repeatedly into the nectar, but regurgitate by forcing the nectar back up through a tube – just like when humans are sick. Other species such as Orchid Bees suck nectar up instead of lapping it, so struggle even more when nectar is highly concentrated. This influences nectar preference and the plants visited by different species.

Current crop breeding is focused on enhancing traits like yield and disease resistance, rather than considering pollinator preference. The new results improve predictions of the perfect nectar concentration for making the most efficient use of pollinating bumblebees.

Nectar is produced by flowers to attract pollinators, and a source of food for many species of insect, bird and mammal. The levels of the sugars sucrose, glucose and fructose within the nectar vary depending on the plant producing it.

“Studies have shown that numbers of some pollinators are going down, but there are more and more people in the world to feed. We need to make better use of the pollinators we have,” said Professor Beverley Glover in Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences and Director of Cambridge University Botanic Garden, who led the study. “This research will help us understand the types of flowers and plants the bees are most likely to visit, which will inform crop breeding to make the best use of the available pollinators.”

This research was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Reference
Pattrick, J.G. et al. ‘The mechanics of nectar offloading in the bumblebee Bombus terrestris and implications for optimal concentrations during nectar foraging.’ Interface, Jan 2020. DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2019.0632

Animal pollinators support the production of three-quarters of the world’s food crops, and many flowers produce nectar to reward the pollinators. A new study using bumblebees has found that the sweetest nectar is not necessarily the best: too much sugar slows down the bees. The results will inform breeding efforts to make crops more attractive to pollinators, boosting yields to feed our growing global population.

With really thick nectar the bees took ages to vomit, sometimes straining for nearly a minute
Jonathan Pattrick
Bumblebee, Bombus terrestris
Improving flowers to help feed the world

A rising world population means we’ll need more food in the coming years. But much of our food relies on insect pollination, and insects are in decline around the world. Can we make flowers better at being pollinated, to help solve this problem?

 

This film was funded by EIT Food, as part of the #AnnualFoodAgenda project.

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The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

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The 'P' word

By lw355 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Jan 16, 2020.

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The 'P' word
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The 'P' word


It's time for blue-sky thinking plus practical measures in the battle to reduce plastic waste.

In Tokyo, a householder consults her 60-page ‘Garbage Separation and Disposal’ system to check whether it's a recycle day for plastic bottles or for all other plastic packaging.

In a coastal village in Kenya, an order has been received for 2,000 bricks made from waste plastic and earth.

On a chemistry bench in Cambridge, bubbles of hydrogen form and rise around a thumbnail-sized square of plastic cut from a water bottle.

All around the world there are instances where we are getting things right with plastic – recycling, recovering, re-using – and instances where we are getting things very wrong.

Our awareness of just how wrong is riding the crest of a plastic-polluted wave: every year, more than 8 million tonnes of plastic waste ends up in the world’s oceans. Environmental agencies have predicted that if these trends continue, our oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050.

Plastic has become a malevolent symbol of our wasteful society. But it's also one of the most successful materials ever invented: it’s cheap, durable, flexible, waterproof, versatile and lightweight. It’s fundamental to almost every aspect of our lives and it's a resource that we are wasting, says Professor Erwin Reisner.

“As a chemist I look at plastic and I see an extremely useful material that is rich in chemicals and energy – a material that shouldn’t end up in landfills and pollute the environment. Plastic is an example of how we must find ways to use resources without irreversibly changing the planet for future generations.”

Reisner leads Cambridge University's new Cambridge Creative Circular Plastics Centre (CirPlas). Funded by UK Research and Innovation, it aims to eliminate plastic waste by combining blue-sky thinking with practical measures, connecting expertise across the disciplines, and collaborating with industry and local government.

In doing so, their research reaches from the Tokyo householder to the Kenyan brickmaker to the Cambridge chemist, and yet further still.

Plastic bottle in the ocean

How do we keep track of plastic?

Ask anyone what they know about plastic and they might tell you about the need to ban single-use materials, or that it’s essential for healthcare, or that it’s lighter and more fuel efficient than packaging alternatives.

“What no-one will tell you is how any of this relates to how much and what type of plastic we use, how long those products are in service, and what happens to them afterwards. The fact is – no-one knows,” says Dr Andre Serrenho.

It seems a simple enough set of questions but the data is complex and held by many different bodies. And so, as part of CirPlas, he and Dr Jonathan Cullen in the Department of Engineering are creating a map of the flow of plastic in the UK economy by amassing all of this data in one place.

Meanwhile, engineer Dr Ronan Daly is exploring digitally enabled solutions to label and track plastic, and zoologist Dr David Aldridge is using sensing technologies to measure how much microplastic is entering the food chain.

“All of these studies will take us closer to answering something we’ve never been able to answer before,” adds Serrenho. “Plastic helps us live safer, more convenient lives but how much is enough plastic and how much is too much?”

Zero waste from industry

One area where plastic has transformed modern-day living is in food safety. Of the 5 million tonnes of plastic used each year by the UK, 37% is used for packaging, of which almost three-quarters is for soft drinks. The challenges presented by waste from this packaging cannot be ignored, least of all by the industries that depend on it.

“What’s needed now is collective and informed action from individuals, government and business to shift us back in the right direction,” says Beverley Cornaby.

Last year, she and colleagues at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership worked with 10 of the UK’s largest bottled drinks companies to understand what this collective action might look like. The result was an ambitious roadmap for zero plastic packaging waste from the industry being sent to landfill or escaping into the natural landscape by 2030.

“One of the areas we identified was around design. Businesses can sometimes move faster than government policy and so making changes to their own products can provide quicker fixes,” she adds.

“We’ve worked with companies to understand how to reconsider their approach to using plastic packaging. We’re now looking at alternative packaging choices and what the relative impact might be on carbon emissions, and water and land use.”

Manufacture of plastic drinking bottles

Plastic rematerialised

It seems that our need for plastic is here to stay, and so Cambridge researchers are exploring how we re-use it – as well as developing alternatives to take its place.

Taylor Uekert, working with Dr Erwin Reisner in the Department of Chemistry, has developed a technology called photoreforming that turns plastic waste into hydrogen fuel, using only water, a photocatalyst and sunlight. The technology is still very new but already the researchers have produced enough hydrogen from polyester fibres to power a phone for 40 seconds.

Dr Aazara Oumayyah Pankan is also exploring electricity generation from waste plastic – this time using biology. She’s testing microorganisms from environments like toxic waste dumps for their ability to decompose plastic. Working with Dr Adrian Fisher in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, she aims for these ‘plastic composters’ to provide off-grid power for rural communities.

In Kenya, a coastal community has started converting waste plastic into bricks, using a method developed by a student-led team from Cambridge’s Department of Engineering and prototyped by the Kenyan community. They have just received an order for 2,000 bricks for a local school.

Physicist Professor Jeremy Baumberg is using plastic waste as the raw materials for low-cost 3D printers. His team’s approach is to design printable scientific instruments like microscopes for resource-poor countries to turn low-value waste into high-value locally manufactured components.

Meanwhile, biochemist Professor Paul Dupree and materials scientist Professor James Elliott have set out to design a completely new class of materials based on modified plant fibres that have some of the good properties of plastic and yet are easy to recycle or decompose naturally.

Case study: The solution catalyser

Bringing the right people together to solve a major global environmental problem like waste is essential.

With this in mind, Dr Curie Park from the Institute for Manufacturing took her emergent circular economy process for creating the right mix of people to Thailand, funded by a Global Challenges Research Fund Impact Acceleration Award.

“Thailand uses a staggering amount of single-use plastics every day, but its waste management system lags far behind its economic advances,” she explains. “We saw first-hand the marine waste at a coastal village, where plastic debris floats from the rivers and is washed up as current changes seasonally.

“Everyone recognised the problem, which seemed too big for any one individual to tackle. But there had been regular beach cleaning activities and some of this collected plastic could be turned into viable products locally.

“We brought together a construction company, an environmental NGO, university students, a local windsurfing world champion turned beach cleaning heroine, municipal officers, local primary schools and start-ups, and applied our innovation process.

“Giving everyone a chance to share their views, providing stimuli and sharing what’s happening in other communities ignited a creative momentum to come up with novel solutions. We ended up with 56 ideas for using the waste as a raw material – paddleboards, compost bins, roof tiles – seven of which are in the commercialisation pipeline by the construction company and the local start-ups.”

Curie Park and the local beach cleaning group in Thailand

Curie Park and the local beach cleaning group in Thailand

Curie Park and the local beach cleaning group in Thailand

Words to live by

Put simply, plastic is incredibly useful – and it's being wasted.

“There’s a word in Japanese that conveys a feeling of regret when something useful is wasted. It’s mottainai,” says anthropologist Dr Brigitte Steger, from the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. As part of CirPlas, Steger and her team look at cultural attitudes to plastic and waste globally. Her own research focuses on Japan.

“The Japanese are very good citizens in terms of sorting and recycling but they also use a huge amount of plastic – and they don’t regard single-use plastic with mottainai,” she says.

In Tokyo, the 'Garbage Separation and Disposal' advice extends to 60 pages. “One woman being rehoused after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster told me she would only move to an area where she was familiar with the complexities of the recycling system,” says Steger.

Advice to householders in Tokyo on waste separation for recycling

Advice to householders in Tokyo on waste separation for recycling

“We need to understand what practical and moral needs plastic fulfils to know what can be done to shift behaviour towards living more sustainably. Moreover, policymakers define solutions in response to how problems are defined. We need to clarify these.”

What if we could shift our 'take, make, throw-away' plastic world towards 'recycle, recover, re-use'?

“Today’s cradle-to- grave economy sees around 80% of plastic landfilled, incinerated or lost into the natural environment,” says economist Dr Khaled Soufani. “It is argued by some that we are using resources 50% faster than can be replenished. It has also been said that by 2030 we will require the natural resources sources of two Earths, and by 2050, three.”

Soufani leads the Circular Economy Centre in Cambridge Judge Business School. He and Steger are contributing to CirPlas by asking how individuals, communities, companies and public bodies approach their use and recycling of plastic.

“What we need,” says Soufani, “is a circular economy with re-use of products and recycling of embedded materials into new products for as long as possible.”

Film: Khaled Soufani talks about moving towards a more sustainable future via the circular economy

Circularity by design

Cambridgeshire-based packaging company Charpak believes it is the first in the UK to adopt a ‘localised circular economy’ in which local plastic waste is collected, re-processed and re-manufactured into new packaging.

The company has been chosen by Soufani’s team as a case study to look at the viability of a circular business model. The translation of the circular economy in business models that eliminate plastic is relatively unexplored and so there's little guidance for practitioners who would like to adopt such a model.  The researchers are addressing this gap by mapping how Charpak has approached the circular economy and by estimating the impact of their efforts.

Worker at Charpak

Worker at Charpak

Worker at Charpak

“Before any company will look at embedding circularity, they are going to ask a very simple question: how will it impact on me financially? Communities, companies and governing bodies need to see practical business cases and models in action,” adds Soufani.

“Minimising plastic leaking into our environment is a responsibility we take very seriously, so we must ensure plastic becomes a resource and not waste,” says Charpak Managing Director Paul Smith. “Why transport essential plastics resources nationwide, or overseas, and risk ocean plastics when the plastic resource is required for manufacture and re-manufacture within the UK? We want to be part of the solution.”

Soufani agrees, adding: “We need to shift from a culture of mass consumption and waste towards renewability, dematerialisation and reduced resource loss.

Our need to reduce, remake and recycle is a continuous journey towards circularity that will define our relationship with the planet forever.
Khaled Soufani

Image credits:
Sky girl:
Karina Tess
Water bottle in the ocean, Indonesia:
Brian Yurasits
Plastic in a field:
Masha Kotliarenko
Manufacture of plastic drinking bottles:
Jonathan Chng

Summary: 

How do we shift our 'take, make, throw-away' plastic world towards 'recycle, recover, re-use'? It's time for blue-sky thinking plus practical measures in the battle to reduce plastic waste. 

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Suction cups that don't fall off

By jg533 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Dec 17, 2019.

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Suction cups that don't fall off
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Suction cups
that don't fall off

Insects in torrential rivers
may inspire engineering solutions

The aquatic larvae of the net-winged midge have the unique ability to move around at ease on rocks in torrential rivers using super-strong suction organs. Powerful modern imaging techniques have now revealed the structure of these organs in intricate detail, providing an insight into how they work so reliably. The findings, reported in the journal BMC Zoology, may inform the development of better man-made suction cups that perform well on a variety of surfaces.

The larvae have the ability to quickly detach and reattach to underwater rocks in torrential alpine rivers that can flow as fast as three metres per second. Their highly specialised suction organs are so strong that only forces over 600 times their body weight can detach them. Being in such fast flowing water puts them out of harm’s way, since competitors or predators are unlikely to survive in this challenging environment.

“The force of the river water where the larvae live is absolutely enormous, and they use their suction organs to attach themselves with incredible strength. If they let go they’re instantly swept away,” said Victor Kang, a PhD student in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology and first author of the paper. “They aren’t bothered at all by the extreme water speeds – we see them feeding and moving around in all directions.”

Suction organ imaged using laser scanning confocal microscopy

Net-winged midge larva uses its powerful suction organs to crawl on a rock surface beneath a fast-flowing alpine stream.

Net-winged midge larva uses its powerful suction organs to crawl on a rock surface beneath a fast-flowing alpine stream.

The researchers found that a central piston, controlled by specific muscles, is used to create the suction and enable each larva to form a very tight seal with the surface of the rock. A dense array of tiny hairs come into contact with the rock surface, helping to keep the larva in place. When it needs to move, other muscles control a tiny slit on the suction disc, pulling the disc open to allow the suction organ to detach. This is the first time such an active detachment mechanism has been seen in any biological system.

Slit on the suction disc - a unique feature that allows the net-winged midge larvae to rapidly detach and move around.

Slit on the suction disc - a unique feature that allows the net-winged midge larvae to rapidly detach and move around.

The work focused on two species of the larvae – Liponeura cinerascens and Liponeura cordata – found in the fastest flowing parts of alpine rivers near Innsbruck, Austria. Despite only wading into the river up to their knees, the researchers found it difficult to stay upright. The larvae they found there were grazing on the underwater rocks, apparently oblivious to the torrents bearing down on them.

“These natural structures have been optimised through millions of years of evolution. We want to learn from them to create better engineered products,” said Dr Walter Federle, an expert in Comparative Biomechanics at the University of Cambridge who led the study.

L. cinerascens larva

L. cinerascens larva

L. cinerascens larva

By collaborating with colleagues at the Institute of New Materials, Saarbrücken, Germany, the researchers are using their findings to develop ‘bio-inspired’ suction cups. Current artificial suction cups only work well on smooth, clean surfaces, like a car windscreen or inside a clean-room facility. The aquatic net-winged midge larvae live on rough, dirty surfaces yet can walk around with ease. Such highly reliable controlled attachment and detachment has many potential industrial applications.

“By understanding how the larvae’s suction organs work, we now envisage a whole host of exciting uses for engineered suction cups,” said Federle. “There could be medical applications, for example allowing surgeons to move around delicate tissues, or industrial applications like berry picking machines, where suction cups could pick the fruit without crushing them.”

The aquatic larvae of net-winged midges have fascinated insect specialists for over a century. Their suction organs have the highest attachment strength ever recorded in insects. Using scanning electron microscopy, confocal laser scanning microscopy, and X-ray computed micro-tomography (micro-CT), this study has revealed the internal structure of the suction organs in three dimensions and provided new insights into their function.


Reference: Kang, V. et al, 'Morphology of powerful suction organs from blepharicerid larvae living in raging torrents.' BMC Zoology (2019). DOI:10.1101/666537

Additional photo captions: Second image - suction organ imaged using laser scanning confocal microscopy; below - fast flowing alpine stream, a typical habitat for the net-winged midge larvae. All images by Victor Kang.

Summary: 

The aquatic larvae of the net-winged midge have the unique ability to move around at ease on rocks in torrential rivers using super-strong suction organs. Powerful modern imaging techniques have now revealed the structure of these organs in intricate detail, providing an insight into how they work so reliably. 

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Women in STEM: Sophia Cooke

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Dec 12, 2019.

My PhD is on the impact of road traffic on bird populations in Great Britain. I first came to Cambridge as an undergraduate; where I studied Natural Sciences and specialised in Zoology. I then worked as a research assistant in Cambridge before going on to do a Master’s in Wildlife Conservation at the University of Reading. In 2015, I returned to Cambridge to start my PhD with the Zoology Department.

I divide my time between Cambridge and Galápagos. While my PhD is based largely in Cambridge and focuses on the impacts of roads, I also run a project in Galápagos. I visited the islands in 2015 after completing my Master’s degree and became interested in an introduced bird species, the Smooth-billed Ani. I decided to set up a project with them and have been running it ever since, in collaboration with the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galápagos National Park. Our aims are to quantify the impact this bird is having on native fauna and ecosystems, to analyse whether control or eradication is needed; and to consider how either of these might best be achieved.

I feel particularly lucky to be part of the David Attenborough Building. For my PhD, I work with the University and several NGOs, all of which have an office in the same building. I am constantly running up and down the stairs to ask people questions. It is wonderful to be part of such a collaborative environment. 

My work is incredibly varied. One big undertaking of mine in the past couple of years was to gather as much information as possible on the introduction and potential impacts of the Smooth-billed Ani in Galápagos for a review paper. As most of this was unpublished it involved visiting or contacting various libraries and universities and going through old archives. I found a lot of information that otherwise might have never surfaced, so it was very rewarding work. I have also undertaken fieldwork, designing and building traps to catch Anis and then analysing their diets. Meanwhile, my PhD research involves a huge amount of number-crunching and statistics, which I also really enjoy.

I think having confidence in yourself is really important. During my Master’s project, I spent two months in the Norfolk Broads, studying the impact of Marsh Harriers on Lapwings and other wading birds. This was the biggest research project I had done at that stage, and I knew I would have much less input from my supervisors than I did as an undergraduate. I remember arriving in the Norfolk Broads on the first day, unpacking in my little room with no wifi, knowing I would have hardly any contact with another person for the next two months. I knew the results I wanted to achieve and had a rough idea of how to do it but I felt quite out of my depth. I realised that I had to take control of my own work, trust my own abilities and not rely on supervisors as much as I was used to. Over those two months, I began to really build respect for my own ideas as well as those of others. I grew so much as a scientist and as a person and thoroughly enjoyed the whole project. If you can learn to have confidence in yourself and your abilities, everything becomes less intimidating.

Collaboration is key. I have really seen, over the last few years, how much of a difference good collaboration and communication can make. In research, there are usually many different ways of doing things, and being able to bounce ideas around and combine the knowledge and experience of multiple people can be hugely beneficial. I have learnt so much and met many brilliant scientists from collaborating on projects. The hardest part is preventing yourself from agreeing to the tens of new project ideas that come out of each existing one!

Sophia Cooke is a PhD candidate in the Department of Zoology, and a member of King's College. Here, she tells us about splitting her time between Cambridge and Galápagos, why working in the David Attenborough Building is so special, and how a little room in Norfolk with no wifi helped build her confidence as a researcher.  

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Ecosystems Overload

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Dec 10, 2019.

Shorthand Story: 
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Ecosystems Overload
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Ecosystems
Overload






We are laying waste to the biosphere. If we're serious about saving millions of species, then it's our own that must change how it thinks about, lives off and values the planet it inhabits.

Overwhelming.

That’s how a 15-year-old work experience student described the task facing her generation to Professor Bhaskar Vira – the task of preserving diverse life.  

We bequeath our children a mass extinction unlike anything the world has seen in 60 million years. A United Nations report in 2019 claimed a staggering one million species now face annihilation. “It’s easy to feel disempowered by the scale of the problem,” says Vira.  

The mosaic of ecosystems supporting life on Earth – each one of us included – is being exterminated at ferocious speed. Habitats that evolved over deep time are decimated within decades, and populist leaders overturn what little protection species are afforded.

Vira points out that relatively young people these days have experienced tangible biodiversity loss in their lifetime; the absence of butterflies they chased as a child. “The timescales are collapsing,” he says.   

If the headlines induce existential dread, then the exuberant bustle that greets visitors to the David Attenborough Building – known to its denizens as ‘the DAB’ – offers something of a salve. Welcome to the fight back.   

David Attenborough Building, New Museums Site. Credit: Sir Cam.

David Attenborough Building, New Museums Site. Credit: Sir Cam.

Named for the legendary naturalist and Cambridge alumnus whose films inspired its occupants, the building is home to the largest cluster of conservation organisations in the world. Part of the UK operations of nine charities and NGOs share the space with researchers from several University departments.

Vira currently heads up the University side of things, as Founding Director of the University’s Conservation Research Institute, where he works closely with Cambridge Conservation Initiative Director and founder Dr Mike Rands. Vira is a political economist by trade, and studies the ‘ecosystem services’ through which nature sustains humans.

“Conservation messaging can get stuck on cuddly animals,” he says. “But biodiversity provides us with basic sustenance through fisheries or through the bees that pollinate crops. It is richness of life that regenerates the soil and regulates water and flooding, not to mention the cultural and spiritual values that enrich our lives. These losses leave the planet a far more difficult place to inhabit.”

Vira's colleague Professor David Coomes uses remote sensing technologies to monitor carbon storage in tropical forests – a key ecosystem service that contributes to climate change abatement.

Coomes recalls taking kids to an exhibit at the Cambridge Science Festival where they crawled into giant flowers searching for nectar (sweets) and emerge covered in pollen (glitter). “You can teach very young children about ecosystem services and they get it,” he says.

Cambridge Science Festival. Credit: Sir Cam.

Cambridge Science Festival. Credit: Sir Cam.

Vira had his own ecological awakening as a boy in the Himalayas. “My classmates and I saw mountainsides dug up for limestone quarries. We heard of a local campaign – so we joined in, planting hundreds of trees.” The campaign went to India’s Supreme Court, who banned the quarrying, and Vira learned that “action must be taken”.

He still works in the region to understand how its communities value ecosystem services. “We are just beginning to comprehend the fragile link between snow-capped mountains and water supply, hydroelectricity, agriculture and the lives of one billion people nearby. It’s a simple question: where does your water come from, and what is that worth to you?”

Prof Bhaskar Vira talks about the need for conservation education and research, and some of the work taking place at Cambridge, during the launch of the University's new environmental initiative 'Cambridge Zero' in November 2019.

Earlier this year, social scientist and DAB resident Dr Chris Sandbrook published data from the largest survey of conservationists yet undertaken. Ascribing monetary value to nature emerged as one of the field’s most contentious issues, with some 61% believing economic arguments are risky.

Responses from 9,264 conservationists from around the world to the question: Economic arguments for conservation are risky because they can lead to unintended negative conservation outcomes

Responses from 9,264 conservationists from around the world to the question: Economic arguments for conservation are risky because they can lead to unintended negative conservation outcomes

However, many see it as a necessary tactic for persuading humanity to overhaul the systems driving destruction, and ‘natural capital’ is starting to permeate policy lingo. The UK government now believes the country’s pollinators are worth £680m in improved crop productivity.

The Treasury has commissioned the eminent Cambridge economist Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta to lead a major review of the link between biodiversity and economic growth to be released autumn 2020.

“My overarching aim is the reconstruction of economics to include nature as an ingredient,” says Dasgupta. “Vast intellectual energy is given to estimating Gross Domestic Product, but there is little quantitative data on human demand for natural goods and services – and the biosphere’s capacity to sustainably meet it.”

A basic example of the gaping hole in our accounting might see woodland destroyed to build a shopping centre. GDP records increase in produced capital but not depreciation of natural capital. National economies are judged to be thriving as their biological assets fall off a cliff.

Dasgupta takes his cue from Dickens when he argues that we live in the best and worst of times. Since 1950, life expectancy for the average person on Earth has increased by 25 years, and the average per capita wage has more than quadrupled. 

“If God gave me the option of being dropped into any point in history, I would still choose a time in the last 70 years,” says Dasgupta, who advised Pope Francis prior to the papal encyclical on the environment. “We have done so well in so many ways, but it has been at the expense of the future.”

He points out that if you take GDP to be a rough indicator of the extraction and pollution that accompanies production and consumption, there has been a more than 12-fold increase in our impact on the biosphere since 1950 – a year often designated as the start of the Anthropocene.

During this time, the planet’s population has leapt from 2.5 billion to 7.7 billion. A significant aspect of his work is the development of an economic demography rooted in nature, culminating in his 2019 book Time and the Generations. Dasgupta explored these ideas at the University's 'New Malthusianism' event in December 2018 (watch below).

In 2017 he published a paper with UN demographer Dr Aisha Dasgupta (his daughter) in the journal Population and Development Review, in which they attempted to calculate the number of people the biosphere can sustainably support with a degree of comfort. The conclusion was 3.5 billion, the population size of the late 1960s.        

“This is far from a definitive answer, and more a way to concentrate attention on the question,” says Dasgupta. “The numbers we used are crude, but there’s so little available. Ecosystem services are simply absent from most national statistics.”

Ballooning populations bring ever-greater demand for food. Expanding the footprint of farming – which already covers half of all agriculturally useable land on the planet – is now the most significant threat to endangered species, as ancient wilderness is converted to monoculture crops and cattle feedlots.

The question of how to feed the world without costing the Earth goes to the heart of conservation. Many say farmers must share their fields with wildlife – reinstating hedgerows and ponds, reducing chemicals – even if output is curbed. The biologist Professor Andrew Balmford argues differently.

“Measures that lower farm yields mean ever more land has to be farmed to meet food demands,” he says. “Our evidence shows the least bad approach for biodiversity is to wring as much food as sustainably possible from the land we already farm, and in doing so spare more habitats from the cow and plough.”

One study led by Balmford suggests that if land spared in the UK through intensive farming was used for woods and wetland, the resulting sequestration of carbon could potentially offset almost all national emissions from farming by 2050 – alongside providing a massive boost to biodiversity.

How to meet UK government targets of 80% greenhouse gas reduction by 2050 for the British farming industry using land spared through high-yield farming.

How to meet UK government targets of 80% greenhouse gas reduction by 2050 for the British farming industry using land spared through high-yield farming.

"As conservationists, we can’t afford to be overly ideological"

Another study looked at agricultural sectors across four continents – from Asian rice to Latin American beef – and concluded that, per portion of food, high-yielding was often better than alternatives (e.g. organic farming) for environmental outcomes such as soil retention and nutrient pollution.

“As conservationists, we can’t afford to be overly ideological,” says Balmford. “We have to be agnostic and compare options based on what counts.” More recently he has been researching the European problem: a continent with such deep agricultural history that some species now rely on low-yield farmland.

“Some areas require a three-compartment approach, where concentrated farming buys space for both natural habitats and some very low-yielding farmland. But humanity cannot afford the space that nature needs unless conservation is allied to high-yield production.”

His group is building profiles of policies that can tie increased yields to habitat protection – mechanisms such as land-use zoning, reformed farm subsidies, and access to credit made conditional on strong environmental stewardship.

Watch Prof Andrew Balmford explain the ideas behind his work on land sparing in a film commissioned for the Department of Zoology's 150th Anniversary in 2016.

Some intensively farmed crops do contain opportunities to aid biodiversity without affecting yield. Oil palm, for example, is much maligned for its massive plantations that encroach on rainforests.

Dr Ed Turner points out that oil palm is far more productive than most other vegetable crops – “it needs five times less land than almost anything else to produce the same amount of vegetable oil” – making it a vital one for meeting food demand while sparing land.

He works with major growers in Sumatra to run experiments that help industry understand how much biodiversity can be injected into plantations while maintaining – and even increasing – yields. “It’s about managing crops with the right amount of untidiness.”

Turner and team found that boosting the range of understorey plants led to more predatory insects and leopard cats acting as pest control for crops. It also helped with soil nutrients, reducing the need for expensive herbicide. These are all ecosystem services at work. 

“We need to feed people in ways that are economically and ecologically sustainable, and oil palm can be part of that. Plantations must go on already degraded land, but those that exist can harness nature for the benefit of farmers and biodiversity.”

Leopard cat in a Malaysian oil palm plantation. Credit: Guo Qi.

Leopard cat in a Malaysian oil palm plantation. Credit: Guo Qi.

The central dilemma of food security stretches well beyond number of mouths. What each of us chooses to eat is part of the drumbeat that dictates natural devastation rates, and gargantuan tracts of wilderness are lost in the name of meat-heavy diets.

PhD researcher Emma Garnett would “love to be in the jungle counting butterflies. But I think we need to be studying people instead to protect nature. We’re causing the problems.” So she fulfilled a different wish familiar to academic reveries by experimenting on students.

Garnett – who is supervised by Balmford, Sandbrook and public health expert Professor Theresa Marteau – worked with several Cambridge colleges, gathering data and testing dining hall arrangements to see if she could ‘nudge’ undergraduates away from meat and toward vegetarian. “We’ve got to make the right choice easy,” she says.

The collegiate set-up in Cambridge enabled Garnett to conduct one of the largest studies on sustainable food choices. She found that upping vegetarian options cut meat consumption without denting sales – particularly among the most carnivorous – and identified the optimal positioning of dishes to bolster plant-based eating.

Two vegetarian options in the cafe of one of the Cambridge colleges which took part in Emma Garnett's research.

Two vegetarian options in the cafe of one of the Cambridge colleges which took part in Emma Garnett's research.

Inspiring the next generation of conservationists, “giving them the intellectual and applied skills to be effective agents for change”, is one of the most important things Cambridge can do, according to Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen Toope. 

Nestled underneath the DAB is the Museum of Zoology. PhD researcher Kate Howlett works with the Museum team to build a picture of biodiversity in UK schools, how it relates to kids’ mental health and physical health. “I'm also interested in whether actively involving children with research affects their engagement with science or nature,” she says.

Many DAB researchers guide undergraduates through their own investigations. For example, Imogen Cripps has stayed on after graduation to see her work on food pricing and ecological damage become her first publication. Every spring, the DAB hosts a student conference on conservation science.  

"We want to create a global community of conservation leaders who support each other"

But perhaps the essence of this future-building philosophy is the flagship Masters in Conservation Leadership. This one-year course, open to those with at least three years’ experience in the field, is hatching the pacemakers of biosphere preservation.

“Conservation has long been run mostly by biologists who find themselves in leadership roles, taking decisions on things like strategy, communication and lobbying without effective training in such areas,” says course leader Chris Sandbrook. “The Masters was created to fill that gap.”

Every partner organisation within the DAB helps to teach and train each cohort of carefully selected students, including placements and one-to-one mentoring. Since starting in 2010, the course has 144 alumni from over 70 nations. Most hail from the global south, returning home to promote conservation after their year-long dip in the DAB.

The first major gathering of the alumni network of the Cambridge Masters in Conservation Leadership, in 2018. Dr Chris Sandbrook stands to the left of Sir David Attenborough at the front of the picture. Credit: Sir Cam.

The first major gathering of the alumni network of the Cambridge Masters in Conservation Leadership, in 2018. Dr Chris Sandbrook stands to the left of Sir David Attenborough at the front of the picture. Credit: Sir Cam.

Alumni such as Odacy Davis, who became Deputy Commissioner for Guyana’s protected areas after leaving Cambridge in 2016. She is now developing conservation courses for the University of Guyana. Two-thirds of current Masters students receive on full or significant partial scholarships, and applicants from countries rich in biodiversity but poor financially are given priority.

Odacy Davis at the COP meeting in 2014.

Odacy Davis at the COP meeting in 2014.

For Sandbrook, this diverse group often feels like the soul of the DAB, “lifting up the rest of us”, and the course’s strength lies not only in lessons learnt from conservation heavyweights, but also from each other. “The first thing we do with a new cohort is take them to the Norfolk Broads for three days,” he says.

“We introduce them to a UK protected area, but also start a bonding process that lasts long after they leave us. We want to create a global community of conservation leaders who support each other, sharing stories of failure and success.” Last year, 121 course graduates returned to Cambridge for the first alumni conference.

Some of the Masters students on the Norfolk field trip in 2018. Credit: Rosalind Helfand.

Some of the Masters students on the Norfolk field trip in 2018. Credit: Rosalind Helfand.

A focus on climate change as the principal ecological emergency has encouraged thinking around technological fixes. But, while technology may help us find smarter ways to live, the species extinction crisis will not bow to a Deus ex machina.

Dasgupta argues that incentives for innovation work against nature, a free and seemingly limitless resource. Think of the bulldozers and fishing trawlers that brought us fast and cheap food and material while exhausting the biosphere.

To preserve the diversity of species we need to change the way our own thinks. It means changing how we operate our systems and institutions. It means recognising models for coexistence, rather than domination and exploitation. It means rethinking how we value nature. It means changing our approach to growing and eating food. And it means training and championing the future protectors of the planet. 


Snapshot: The human geographer

Dr Rachel Carmenta’s research takes her to an Amazonian ‘RESEX’ area, where people who have been there for generations are allowed to farm. “They have smallholdings to grow bitter manioc, they hunt and fish, and every interaction revolves around the landscape.”

Carmenta’s research project analyses the forest cover associated with different conservation and development interventions in the Amazon. Her focus is expanding performance measurements to capture the wellbeing of those living on the land.

“Identities, attachments and relational values are derived from interactions with place,” says Carmenta, from the UCCRI/Geography Department. “If you fish every day with cousins, and teach your children, it’s not just food but your social fabric.”

A RESEX is ‘zoned’ land where small-scale traditional agriculture is permitted. The team is also working with people in buffers of “fortress-style” protected areas, as well as those who find themselves “surrounded by a sea of soy” when big agribusiness encroaches.

The local graveyard of a settlement in the Amazon is today surrounded by a sea of soy after small-scale farmers sold land to agri-business stakeholders.

The local graveyard of a settlement in the Amazon is today surrounded by a sea of soy after small-scale farmers sold land to agri-business stakeholders.

“We want to understand the impact of strict protection, intensive farming and integrated approaches on deforestation – but also how these interventions impact people’s relationship with the land.”

Carmenta also studies the social impacts of uncontrolled tropical wildfires. “The fires are a burden to people and nature, incurring lost crops, devastated landscapes, and impaired livelihoods and wellbeing. Recognising this humanitarian dimension is not only an ethical imperative, but could be part of a more emotive and powerful language for change towards fire-free futures.”


Image credits (in order, and unless otherwise listed):

  • Destruction in the Amazon. Joao Laet/AFP/Getty Images
  • David Attenborough abseiling down the 'green wall' during the opening of the building bearing his name. Credit: Sir Cam.
  • A logger in Fresno County, California, in 1972. Credit: US National Archives.  
  • A Philadelphia junkyard in 1973. Credit: US National Archives.
  • Amazon forest. Credit: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images
  • Sir David Attenborough with former Cambridge V-C Prof Alison Richard at the launch of the building bearing his name. Credit: Sir Cam.
  • Kid dressed as bee at 'plant power' event in the Cambridge Botanic Gardens. Credit: Sir Cam.
  • Rachel Carmenta. Credit: Nick Saffell
Summary: 

We are laying waste to the biosphere. If we're serious about saving millions of species, then it's our own that must change how it thinks about, lives off and values the planet it inhabits.

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A decade after the predators have gone, Galapagos Island finches are still being spooked

By jg533 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Nov 20, 2019.

Small ground finch Geospiza fuliginosa

The study found that the finches’ fearful responses – known as antipredator behaviour - were sustained through multiple generations after the threat was gone, which could have detrimental consequences for their survival.

The work by Dr Kiyoko Gotanda, a zoologist at the University of Cambridge, is one of the first studies to look at behavioural adaptations in a species following the eradication of invasive predators. The research focused on one species of Darwin’s iconic finches - the small ground finch, Geospiza fuliginosa. Given their estimated life span, today’s finches are not likely to be the same birds that had originally developed the response to defend themselves from predators.

“These surprising results suggest that whatever influences this fearful behaviour is more complicated than just the presence or absence of invasive predators,” said Gotanda, sole author of the paper.

The Galapagos Islands provide a natural stage to compare different predator situations. Some islands have never had invasive predators, others currently have predators like domestic cats and rats that arrived with humans, while others have had these predators in the past and they have now been eradicated.

Gotanda found that finches on islands with predators were wary, and flew away from an approaching researcher - imitating an approaching predator - at a much greater distance than the finches on pristine islands without predators. This increased antipredator behaviour has been maintained on islands where invasive predators have been successfully eradicated, even though eradication happened eight and thirteen years earlier.

“While the mechanism for the transmission of the fearful behaviour through the generations requires further study, this sustained response has consequences for evaluating conservation efforts,” said Gotanda. “The time and energy finches spend spooking themselves by fleeing when they are not in danger could be better spent looking for food, mating, laying eggs, and rearing their young.” 

Conservation management of species of concern on islands often involves getting rid of invasive predators. Understanding how species adapt their behaviour once predators have been eradicated – and how quickly this occurs - could better inform efforts to support the recovery of a target species. Understanding the effects of human influence such as the introduction of invasive predators could help predict how species respond to rapidly changing environments.

Gotanda also looked at the effect of urbanisation on finch behaviour and found - as is generally seen in towns and cities - the birds were less fearful as they became used to the presence of humans. On some islands the urban finches were even bolder than those on islands that had never seen invasive predators at all. This could make them vulnerable to threats like these predators, which are present in urban areas on the Galapagos. This suggests that the effects of urbanisation on species are strong enough to counteract adaptations to other human influences such as invasive predators. 

When Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands during his Voyage of the Beagle in 1835, he could famously get close enough to throw his hat over the birds. The animals were so unused to humans that they did not see Darwin – a potential predator - as a threat. Since then, the arrival of both humans and invasive predators such as cats and rats on many of the islands drove the birds to develop fear, and fly away at the sight of danger. Subsequent eradication efforts have been necessary to protect the iconic finches.

This research was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship).

Reference
Gotanda, K.M. “Human influences on antipredator behaviour in Darwin’s finches.” Journal of Animal Ecology (2019). DOI: 10.1111/1365-2656.13127

On some of the Galapagos Islands where human-introduced predators of Darwin’s finches were eradicated over a decade ago, the finches are still acting as though they are in danger, according to research published today in the Journal of Animal Ecology

The time and energy finches spend spooking themselves by fleeing when they are not in danger could be better spent looking for food, mating, laying eggs, and rearing their young.
Kiyoko Gotanda
Small ground finch Geospiza fuliginosa
Researcher Profile: Dr Kiyoko Gotanda

Dr Kiyoko Gotanda is passionate about asking questions and working out how to answer them. She describes the Galapagos Islands as a ‘magical place’, with iconic species that do not exist anywhere else on Earth - such as Darwin's finches and marine iguanas. Her recent research on the Islands involved getting up each day at 4:45am.

“The finches are most active at dawn, so we had to have the mist nets set up to catch them before the sun rose,” she says. “We closed the nets around 10 or 11am, when it gets too hot to handle the finches, and returned later in the afternoon to do more work such as running trials to observe how the finches behave.”

Gotanda’s research aims to understand and predict how wild animals will respond to human influences such as urbanisation, domestication, and the introduction of invasive species. 

“Humans are changing our environment so rapidly that wildlife must respond and adapt, or potentially run the risk of going extinct,” she says. “I hope my research will lead to us being able to mitigate the negative effects humans can have.” 

Before research, Gotanda had a career as a ballet dancer with the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. When she retired from dancing, she took an undergraduate degree in biology and volunteered in research labs. She went on to do her PhD and is now a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Behavioural Ecology group of the University’s Department of Zoology.

Being awarded her Fellowship at Cambridge was an exciting prospect. “It was a new country, new university, new supervisor, and new colleagues,” she says, and she has never looked back. “It's been an absolute joy being able to work at Cambridge - it has allowed me to interact and work with some amazing researchers, and provided fantastic opportunities I would not have elsewhere. The exchanges I've had here have really helped me to grow and develop as a scientist.”

 

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The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

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Extent of human encroachment into world’s protected areas revealed

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Oct 28, 2019.

A study of human activity within thousands of conservation spaces in over 150 countries suggests that – on average across the world – protected areas are not reducing the “anthropogenic pressure” on our most precious natural habitats.

Protected areas are vital to preserving diverse life on Earth, as well as mitigating climate change by conserving carbon-sequestering vegetation, say Cambridge scientists. They argue that the findings show the effects of chronic underfunding and a lack of involvement of local communities.

“Rapidly establishing new protected areas to meet global targets without providing sufficient investment and resourcing on the ground is unlikely to halt the unfolding extinction crisis,” said lead author Dr Jonas Geldmann from the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute.  

The research, published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is by far the largest analysis of its kind to date. Scientists used satellite evidence of night lights and agriculture, as well as census and crop yield data, to assess levels of human encroachment in 12,315 protected areas between 1995 and 2010.

The scientists matched every satellite "pixel" (64 square kilometres) of each protected area to a local pixel of commensurate soil type, elevation, and so on – but without conservation status. This allowed researchers to gauge the effect of protected areas when compared to an “appropriate sample” of unprotected land.

The majority of protected areas in every global region had suffered increases in human pressure. However, across the Northern Hemisphere and Australia, protection had – on average – proved effective at slowing human encroachment when compared with unprotected habitats.

In regions such as South America, Sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia, home to the world’s richest biodiversity as well as some of its poorest communities, pressure from damaging human activity inside protected areas was “significantly higher” on average than in matched areas across fifteen years of data.

The researchers found a link between increased human encroachment on protected areas and nations with fewer roads and a lower rank on the Human Development Index. 

“Our study suggests that protected areas in more remote and wild parts of the tropics have experienced alarming increases in human pressure since 1995,” said Geldmann. “These places house a disproportionately high amount of the Earth’s biodiversity, and play an irreplaceable role in maintaining our most threatened species.”

Previous studies to compare protected and unprotected land have been limited to forests, and shown that protected areas reduce deforestation. The new research confirms that protected areas are more effective in places like the Amazon, but have struggled to safeguard many other habitats such as savannahs.

Rises in human activity were found to be particularly acute in the protected areas of East and Central Africa. In Sub-Saharan grasslands, for example, cropland inside protected areas had increased at almost double the rate seen in matched unprotected land. In African mangroves, pressure from agriculture had increased by around 13% more inside protected areas than outside.

While in the remote grassland habitats of South East Asia, agriculture had increased by 8% more in protected areas compared to similar non-protected areas. Likewise, some forested areas in South America, particularly outside the Amazon, saw agricultural encroachment increase around 10% more in protected areas.

“Our study shows that agriculture is the driving force behind threats to protected areas, particularity in the tropics,” said Geldmann. “Our data does not reveal the causes, but we suspect factors that play a major role include rapid population growth, lack of funding, and higher levels of corruption. Additionally, most unprotected land suitable for agriculture is already farmed.”

“We think that what we are seeing are the effects of establishing protected areas on paper, but not following through with the right funding, management and community engagement that is needed,” Geldmann said.

“Important ambitions to protect 17% of land by the end of this decade, expected to increase to 30% at a pivotal meeting next year in China, will not mean much if not accompanied by enough resources to ensure the preservation of precious habitats.”

The research team argue that protected area designation can sometimes undermine the rights of local communities, which in turn can end up encouraging over-exploitation and paving the way for opportunistic “outsiders”. Other studies have shown that supporting indigenous people to manage reserves themselves can reduce habitat loss.

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The University of Cambridge is building on its existing research and launching an ambitious new environment and climate change initiative. Cambridge Zero is not just about developing greener technologies. It will harness the full power of the University’s research and policy expertise, developing solutions that work for our lives, our society and our biosphere.

Largest study yet to compare protected with “matched” unprotected land finds “significantly higher” increases in human pressure – primarily through agriculture – in protected areas across the tropics.

Our study shows that agriculture is the driving force behind threats to protected areas, particularity in the tropics
Jonas Geldmann
Forest transition in Cameroon.

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An extra vegetarian option cuts meat consumption without denting food sales

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Oct 01, 2019.

Shorthand Story: 
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An extra vegetarian option cuts meat consumption without denting food sales
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An extra vegetarian option cuts meat consumption without denting food sales

A study of over 94,000 cafeteria meal choices has found that doubling the vegetarian options – from one in four to two in four – increased the proportion of plant-based purchases by between 40-80% without affecting overall food sales.

The results are from the first major study to look at whether tweaking food availability can “nudge” people towards better decision-making for both human health and preservation of the planet.

Scientists from the University of Cambridge's departments of Zoology, Geography and Public Health gathered over a year’s worth of mealtime sales data from three Cambridge college cafeterias. Two provided data on days with different menu set-ups, and a third college helped the researchers conduct a “choice architecture” experiment.

The research team found the biggest increases in plant-based dining among the most carnivorous quartile of customers: those who had consistently picked meat or fish prior to the addition of a second veggie option.

Moreover, the team detected no “rebound effect”. Opting for a vegetarian lunch did not make a compensatory meat-heavy dinner any more likely. The findings are published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Diets full of meat are leading drivers of species loss and climate change, say scientists. Livestock and aquacultures behind meat, fish, dairy and eggs are responsible for some 58% of the greenhouse gas created by global food, and take up 83% of farmland despite contributing just 18% of the world’s calorie intake.

Cattle raising in the Amazon forest. Credit: Bruno Kelly/Greenpeace.

Cattle raising in the Amazon forest. Credit: Bruno Kelly/Greenpeace.

“Shifting to a more plant-based diet is one of the most effective ways of reducing the environmental footprint of food,” said study lead author Emma Garnett, a conservationist and PhD candidate from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology. 

“Replacing some meat or fish with more vegetarian options might seem obvious, but as far as we know no one had tested it before. Solutions that seem obvious don’t always work, but it would appear that this one does.”

Co-author Theresa Marteau, Professor of Behaviour and Health at Cambridge, said: “Education is important but generally ineffective at changing diets. Meat taxes are unpopular. Altering the range of available options is more acceptable, and offers a powerful way to influence the health and sustainability of our diets.”

The researchers have contributed to food policy at the University of Cambridge, where the catering service has reduced meat options – including the removal of beef and lamb, the biggest contributors to meat-related greenhouse gas – and increased the range of vegetarian meals.

Earlier this year, University cafeterias (separate from the colleges) announced a 33% reduction in carbon emissions per kilogram of food purchased, and a 28% reduction in land use per kilogram of food purchased, as a result of the changes.

“Universities are increasingly at the forefront of providing plant-based options that are affordable and delicious, making it easier to choose a more sustainable diet,” said Garnett. “I think that’s what really has to change.”

A vegetarian burger being served in the Main Dining Hall of the University Centre at Cambridge.

A vegetarian burger being served in the Main Dining Hall of the University Centre at Cambridge.


“We’re not saying all cafeterias and restaurants should turn vegan overnight. But if food were the film industry, vegetarian meals need to land more starring roles, and meat dishes have got to stop hogging the limelight.”


A video from the 2017 launch of Cambridge's Sustainable Food Policy, which set out the University’s intentions to minimise the environmental impact of its catering operations. It includes interviews with some of those involved, such as researcher Emma Garnett.

The new study had an observational and experimental component. For the observational, two colleges provided data on weekday term-time meal selections at both lunch and dinner during 2017.

Meals were purchased using university cards topped up with credit, allowing researchers to analyse anonymised data that tracked what individual diners ate for each meal on every day.

This dataset contained 86,932 hot meals (excluding salads and sandwiches) and 2,140 repeat diners. The range varied between occasional days with no vegetarian or vegan dishes, to days where 75% of the options were veggie.

"One of the exciting things about this study is the scale of information on individual diners' choices,” said co-author Andrew Balmford, Professor of Conservation Science at Cambridge. “It allowed us to test for rebound effects, when customers compensate for less meat at lunch by eating more in the evening. We found little evidence of this.”

Researchers built statistical models to show that doubling the vegetarian offering, from a quarter to half of possible meals, increased the proportion of vegetarian sales by 62% in the first college, and 79% in the second college. (A real-terms increase of almost 15 percentage points in both colleges.)

Two vegetarian dishes on offer in the cafeteria of 'College C' - where researchers worked with the catering team to conduct a "choice experiment".

Two vegetarian dishes on offer in the cafeteria of 'College C' - where researchers worked with the catering team to conduct a "choice experiment".

Caterers at a third college worked with researchers to conduct an experiment during the autumn term of 2017: lunchtime menus that alternated fortnightly between one veggie option (control) and two (experiment). Doubling availability increased the proportion of vegetarian sales by 41%, or almost 8 percentage points.

Data from the summer term allowed researchers to assign 121 regular diners to a quartile based on their vegetarian meal consumption. “We discovered that changing the relative availability of vegetarian options had the strongest effect on those who usually eat more meat," said Balmford*.

Garnett argues that vegetarian options have been an “afterthought” on menus for too long. “Flexitarianism is on the rise. Our results show that caterers serving more plant-based options are not just responding to but also reshaping customer demand.”   

“Simple changes such as increasing the proportion of vegetarian options could be usefully scaled up, helping to mitigate climate change and biodiversity loss,” she said.  


* Least vegetarian quartile: likelihood of picking a veggie meal, going from 25% to 50% veg availability:
College A (observation): 6.2% to 18.1%
College B (observation): 2.3% to 8.2%
College C (experiment): 10.5% to 17.4%
(All data, including the names of the Cambridge colleges involved in the study, have been anonymised as part of the scientific research.)

Summary: 

First major study on “nudging” people towards sustainable diets shows replacing a meat or fish dish with another veggie option in college cafeterias dramatically increases herbivorous dining.

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