The goal of our Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) Europe Section Blog is to share stories and relevant information about activities going on within our section and more broadly in the conservation community. Stories and articles shared on our blog should not be taken as an official position or statement of SCB or SCB Europe Section. Thank you for reading!

Friday, 3 June 2016

How expeditions can collect hard to reach data

Guest Blog Post by James Borrell

This year was the first time I had attended a Student Conference for Conservation Science (SCCS) event, and what struck me most was the sheer variety of questions, topics, study species and locations represented. It was clearly a struggle to shoehorn such (bio)diversity into just eight session titles, and this is a credit to the exciting field that we as students are embarking.

Yet one aspect that often passes unrecognised is the considerable logistical challenges involved in collecting data from some of the world’s most obscure and remote regions. For many, fieldwork can be amongst the most appealing aspects of conservation research – the chance to be out amongst nature. But from a science perspective it is valuable also, to immerse oneself in the environment and habitat of interest as the roles of seemingly unimportant features or patterns fall into place and inform future hypothesis.

Field expedition, Madagascar. Photo courtesy of James Borrell.

The age of grand expeditions from around the 16th through to early 20th century saw the world mapped, species described and the formidable task of cataloguing life begun. It was the only way to gather data too, because few field stations existed, model species were as yet unidentified (I like to picture wild Arabidopsis growing peacefully, blissfully unaware of its future importance), and long term field studies still in their infancy. Natural history museums became the great libraries of these exploits.

Photo courtesy of James Borrell.
But with the world becoming smaller and remote research technologies, such as drones and GIS becoming easier, it begs the question: is the age of biological expeditions over? I would gamble that it’s not, and here’s why.

Firstly, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that one of the most unexpected and valuable benefits of fieldwork, particularly for conservation biology, is in science communication. Few stories catch the imagination of the public more than real-life biological explorers reporting back from the wilderness, and in the context of biodiversity loss and global climate change this is only likely to increase in importance. This is surely something we need to do more.

To help develop this idea, and support the work of fellow conservationists who are out in the field for extended periods, I launched Discover Conservation, a platform showcasing conservation research around the world. With more than 50 interviews covering everything from the Indian purple frog to the black-capped petrel of Dominica, the response has been overwhelmingly positive and has even begun to generate grants for the next generation of biologists.

Photo courtesy of James Borrell.

Secondly, if conservation is to be successful into the next century, we may need wild spaces on a scale we have rarely considered. Eminent biologist E.O. Wilson recently called for half of the planet to be set aside as protected areas – Half Earth. One could imagine that an essential tool to respond to newly emerging biological questions in a landscape such as this would be through expeditions. Indeed, many pristine rainforest areas only survive today due to their inaccessibility. I recently led an expedition to Northern Madagascar, which entailed a five-day journey to simply reach the fringes of a forest fragment. Whilst an alternative location with better accessibility and facilities might have been easier, there is an ever-present risk of generalising findings from a handful of research stations.

Finally, expeditions boldly venture into the realm of citizen science and in turn can introduce a new demographic of individuals to the topic. In recent years, numerous organisations have begun enlisting the help of volunteers with extensive field experience. As one example, the organisation Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC) match adventurers and extreme sports persons with scientists whom need data from remote areas such as the tops of mountains or far out at sea. In the future, as society continues to utilise wilderness areas for enjoyment, collaborative expeditions open up a host of new possibilities.

Photo courtesy of James Borrell.

So whilst new technologies such as high throughput sequencing and satellite mapping enable novel approaches to conservation, lets not forget traditional fieldwork and expeditions which are essential for both engagement and to help us ask the right questions.

This is important especially for those of us based in Europe, whilst many of the most pressing conservation needs are elsewhere – and therein lies the value of bringing together conservation students from right around the world to talk, listen and drink coffee at the SCCS.


About the authorJames is a scientist, writer and speaker with a passion for adventurous conservation fieldwork and expeditions. 
James is currently studying for a PhD in conservation genetics at Queen Mary, University of London, with regular fieldwork in the Scottish Highlands and Finnish Lapland. 

Learn more about James' work on Twitter @James_Borrell and his webpage

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