Tuesday 16 February 2021

The importance of wildlife records

During my first undergraduate lecture (15.5 years ago!), the lecturer asked us to define the subject 'ecology'. Most responses were something like 'the study of animal interactions with their given habitats'. After correctly identifying which of us had specifically signed up for Zoology, she reminded us of all the other living kingdoms which also form the backbone of ecosystems, including the higher and lower plants, fungi, bacteria and other groups of primarily microscopic organisms.

A breakdown of the species group records for Gatwick Airport's species database (2020)

To be honest, this bunch of fresher students were probably only thinking about animals with backbones. Human interest tends to skew toward big and charismatic life forms, but really its the small and most abundant stuff which forms the bases of functioning ecosystems. The chart above reflects this in a way, with around 50% of Gatwick's species records made up of invertebrates, 30% of the higher and lower plants, 12% are fungi and slime-moulds, then whatever else makes up the rest (microscopic organisms sadly not yet included here).

Floristically rich habitats (like the River Mole floodplain near Brockley Wood) support large communities of invertebrates, fungi and other organisms.

Ecosystems are rarely static and are vulnerable to all sorts of pressures; we can use wildlife records as a measure of the current health and condition of a given habitat. A pan-species list (the term invented by Mark Telfer) is a comprehensive inventory of species occurring within a given geographical area, helping us to build an accurate picture of that ecosystem. With help from the Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre (SxBRC), we have finally collated a list of (almost) every species ever recorded at Gatwick!

The first 20 or so species in our database (sorted by scientific name)

Sussex-based ecologist Graeme Lyons forged the path with this work; again with the SxBRC, he completed the mammoth task of compiling pan-species lists for the entire Sussex Wildlife Trust reserve network (no mean feat with over 10,000 species)! He left this 'master list' as a sort of legacy to Sussex WT, before moving on to pastures new (busy creating lists for other sites I'm sure). 

For comparison, the SxBRC has confirmed around 2,400 species have been recorded to date at Gatwick, but the reality is that I've checked off 1,853 so far in our master pan-species spreadsheet and most records here are only up to 2018... so I'm already 500 species out of date! Once I have cleared this backlog, it will be very interesting to see the rate of new species additions to the airport list each year.  

All species are treated equally, whether abundant or rare, such as a common lichen we might see on the same tree every day, or the one-off sighting of a Leisler's Bat. They are included so long as they are native or naturalised in the wild and have been identified to the species level as accurately as possible (in some cases even via DNA barcoding techniques). 

The brilliance of our list is that it can be filtered and sorted any which way.

From  A ...

Abax parallelepipedus -  a type of Carabid (ground) beetle

To  Z ....

Zygiella x-notata
Missing Sector Orb Weaver © Graeme Lyons

From our earliest official species record at Gatwick in April 1962...

Skylark Alauda arvensis (RSPB)

To our latest new species (which would very much like to snack on our earliest) in October 2020.

Merlin Falco columbarius (RSPB)

Gatwick's pan-species list is the result of a huge group effort, with the biological records dating back to the 1960's and contributed to by a large community of wildlife professionals and enthusiasts. The master spreadsheet comprises several columns, such as the year a species was first recorded, the year it was most recently seen, an example of the location, plus any conservation designations it might have.

The earliest 15 or so species to be recorded at Gatwick were plants, birds, dragonflies 
and a scavenging beetle from an old Knacker's Yard

This helps me to identify gaps in the database (of common or rare species we might have overlooked), as well as the things which might have disappeared, or most recently arrived. Just by searching for a key species, I see it is missing from the list, so there's more recent invertebrate data still to incorporate, along with historic data from previous ecology reports (some of which are being scanned and entered manually by SxBRC).

A few of the benefits of keeping a pan-species master spreadsheet for the airport:

  • Pulling together old and new information for every single species, such as when it was first recorded, when it was last recorded, the sites on which it has occurred, any conservation designations it has or previously had and a precise location where it might be found.
  • Filtering by conservation designation helps us to identify our most rare and vulnerable species - below I can see that 25 of our moths have some sort of status for their conservation, but I also see that we have only entered moth records up to 2018, so there are probably more to add.

  • Gaps in our monitoring: 300 species of fungi demonstrates a high recording effort (mostly all down to Nick Aplin of Sussex Fungi Group!), but 11 species of lichen is not much and we haven't a single species record for algae.
  • Species lost: 6 bird species haven’t been recorded since 1997, at least 4 of which had previously been breeding here. By cross-checking with the bird conservation organisations, we can see these particular species have been declining nationally.  
  • Identifying useful surveys: at least 138 invertebrate species were picked up from the water quality monitoring reports by a third-party consultant, regularly undertaken since 2011. 
  • Data flow issues: by sending copies of our list to individual wildlife recording schemes, they can indicate where they are waiting on relevant data from us.
  • Highlighting importance of partnership work: without the huge database of records collected and centralised by the Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre, a comprehensive list would not be possible. They ensure that the wider data is kept safe, reaching the relevant wildlife recording schemes and conservation organisations.  
Many thanks again to Lois, Clare, Bob and all the staff and volunteers at the Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre for your help and feedback. Also a huge thank you to everyone who submits wildlife records - every little helps and over the years the understanding of our habitats gets better and better.

1 comment :

  1. It's a really interesting blog and nice to see the collaboration thank you