Halò! Ciamar a tha thru? (Hello! How are you?)
Gaelic is the ancestral language of the machair, a unique coastal ecosystem distinctive of northwest Scotland and the Republic of Ireland. The machair is not only unique from an ecological perspective; it has had profound cultural meaning for the hundreds of generations of traditional crofters (land holders who practice small-scale food production) it has supported.
In addition to being home to crofters, the machair is a refuge for several plants and animals on the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) priority species list, including the charismatic Great Yellow bumblebee (Bombus distinguendus). While partly a product of human management, the machair and its inhabitants are under threat by intensifying human influence. Together, changing agricultural practices and climate change are contributing to rising sea levels, storm surges and other climatic events that threaten this delicate ecosystem and the endangered plants and animals it supports.
Under the primary guidance of Dr. Fabio Manfredini, my project – ‘Importance and sustainability of endangered communities of bee pollinators in the machair, a changing coastal ecosystem’ – seeks to combine landscape ecology and insect physiology approaches to better understand the unique conditions of the machair and their role in promoting plant-pollinator relationships in endangered bumblebees including B. distinguendus. Together with historical climate records, I will use new data from field and laboratory experiments to develop predictive models for expected changes in the machair landscape and its vulnerable plants and animals under different climate scenarios. Guided by the expert knowledge of crofters and other community stakeholders, I hope these models will be useful in informing conservation strategies at the local and national levels with the aim of preserving this unique ecosystem for all that depend on it.
I don’t speak Gaelic, and I’ve never been to the machair. In fact, my research background is in an entirely different animal phylum and on a different continent. So, why this project? In 2010 I was in South Africa on a multi-institutional research project to map the genome of the vervet monkey (Chlorocebus aethiops) across its very wide distribution. This cat-sized monkey lives in close contact, and often conflict, with humans as it raids garbage bins, feeds on crops, invades dwellings for food and is just generally underfoot. I was immediately fascinated by the interactions between monkey and human communities in a shared landscape and undertook research on how anthropogenic pressure affects an aspect of vervet monkey physical fitness – gastrointestinal parasite prevalence and density – at increasing degrees of intensity (measured with the Human Influence Index).
While growing anthropogenic pressure has significant implications for many plant and animal groups, declining pollinator – particularly bee – numbers have spiked global concern. Through this project I am enthusiastic about revisiting questions of how changing human practices influence animal physiology and fitness in a high priority organism. Finally, I am excited to explore opportunities to form partnerships with crofters and other community stakeholders to translate evidence-based best practices for management of this fragile ecosystem into practical and culturally-relevant tools and resources.