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Thursday, 16 December 2021

A new invasive species invading homes at Xmas

It's winter, when professional ecologists use the down-time to refresh and update our knowledge. This Christmas a new and invidious invasive species is invading our homes and spreading rapidly, so here I present an important guide to the ecology of this worrying species. I am of course speaking about the Lindt chocolate teddy-bear.

This dangerous invasive is native to the Zurich area of Switzerland, but, like Chinese mitten crabs, skunk cabbage and white-clawed crayfish, human actions have brought them to this country and they are spreading rapidly...dangerously so.

It has been said that we are never more than 6 feet away from a rat. Whilst this is an urban myth, it is possible that Lindt chcololate teddy populations may be growing to the point where it may be true of them. Every day my wife Rona has to spend time searching the house, removing many teddies from their hiding places around the house. Individually they may be cute, but in large numbers their thousand-yard stare becomes alarming and threatening, especially as nobody knows exactly what they are plotting.

What is particularly worrying is the large gaps in our understanding of chocolate teddy ecology. For example, we know little about their diet and where they gain the resources required to support their unusually rapid reproduction. However, there have been sightings of packs of teddies slaying Lindt chocolate reindeer and feasting on them.

The social structure of a teddy colony is complex and unusual, with possible parallels to ant or wasp colonies. As well as being found as individuals, teddies are sometimes found in groups.

There have been very occasional sightings of large accumulations of teddies engaging in mass communication of some kind, with giant queen teddies at the centre of the colony. It is believed that these mass meetings lead to mass dispersal, with teddies hiding around the house, watching and waiting for something. 

More concerning is rare examples of teddies building fortresses from boxes of chocolates.

At present it is not known what is happening in the following picture, but it is possible that some form of sacrifice forms part of teddy social behaviour, with unknown but rather concerning purpose.

It's easy to dismiss Lindt chocolate teddy-bears as being a seasonal and harmless invasive species and particularly tasty and it is true to say that their main predator is my chocaholic wife Rona. However they do seem to breed very rapidly at this time of year and social media does indicate signficiant prublic concern about them.

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Saturday, 4 December 2021

Early career ecologists - making progress in winter

Winter, hibernation season for ecologists? Not quite, but it's definitely the time to slow down, write reports, catch up on admin. and take back some of those extra hours we all work during the summer. But what if you're an early career ecologist, who either doesn't have a full-time job yet or whose seasonal role has now ended. How best can you best fill the winter months? Hopefully you've managed to earn enough in the summer to keep you going, but how best to prepare yourself for the next season?

I suspect you'll be spending an inordinate amount of time hunting the job sites, sending out CVs, crafting cover letters (a truly satanic task, if ever there was one) and praying that you'll get the job you know you deserve. Whoah! Stop that negative thought NOW - you DO deserve it. Winter is also peak the peak season for depression. 

Earlier in the year I posted some suggestions for ways to enhance your field skills and improve you chances in the job market (Field skills for early career ecologists and Early career ecologists and hamster-powered scootering). So what can you do to enhance your employability when the weather is wet and grubby and all the interesting wildlife is hibernating (I'm a bat specialist, so that may be a slightly biased view)? 

Here's a thought - how are your bryophyte ID skills? Many moons ago I recall standing, huddled together in the rain with a group of fellow-sufferers whilst Nick Hodgetts bounded enthusiastically around an embankment, showing us different bryophyte species (Nick's a brilliant tutor by the way, and I can recommend the courses he leads). The fact is that bryophytes are often at their best when wet and some species are especially useful for habitat indication. I wrote a post about a few commoner bryophytes a few years back (Right-diddly-wotsit-squirrelly) Since then the British Bryological Society have completed their superlative field guide and I'm happy to say it's very user-friendly and a great addition to your christmas list.

A former member of my survey team got his first break into what has subsequently been a successful career in professional ecology, when he turned up to an interview and was handed a bag full of plant material and asked what he could ID from it. The first thing he noticed was Polytrichum commune - a large and striking moorland moss which, as luck would have it, I'd pointed out to him during an especially boring transect the evening before. Lucky or what? So don't neglect bryophytes! They have a charm all their own.

If you're a member of your local bat group now is the time to start asking about hibernation surveys. Be persistent and make sure they know how keen you are, because for many underground sites numbers need to be limited, to minimise disturbance. Data from these surveys feeds into the critically important National bat monitoring programme and, after having to shelve surveys last winter due to Covid it's really important to gather data this winter (though there's a new risk assessment process). You do, of course, need to accompany someone with an appropriate bat license and not just for legal reasons - underground sites are dangerous. There's more about bat hibernation surveys here: The great hibernaculum hunt and here: The great hibernaculum hunt revisited.

How are your GIS skills? When the weather is miserable, why not delve into QGIS, the free open-access GIS system which has become ever more popular over the past few years? GIS is a core skill for a lot of ecology work and if you're new to QGIS there are many free resources to help you work your way into QGIS. Take a look at The QGIS project.

Finally, winter weather isn't all bad news and there is nothing like freshly fallen snow for finding and identifying animal tracks - another very useful field skill. There are quite a few guides available, but my favourite is Preben Bang and Preben Dahlstrom's book, which has been in print since forever - I remember borrowing an early edition from the library when I was a teenager in the 1970s (the late 1970s, just to be clear!). Don't be put off by the Ray Mears celebrity gimmick on the current edition, it's a really good field guide and well worth hinting to Santa about.

One final thought - when you get that interview and you're sat there, suited and booted and quivering slightly with fear tell them about all the stuff you've done. Maybe it's a British thing, but far too many interviewees assume anything they've done probably isn't good enough and keep quiet about it unless there's a formal certificate or diploma. Take confidence in what you can achieve on your own and in what you have achieved. To prove my point, have a read of Ash Ronaldson's guest blog - Paid bat surveying is an actual, real thing - Ash's first season. Ash has just accepted a full-time job as an Assistant Ecologist. See?

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