This blog is guest-written by Ameyalli Rios Vázquez from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, a collaborator with the Museum on the Big Seaweed Search Mexico project.
After an amazing two years, the Big Seaweed Search Mexico collaboration is coming to an end. Previous blogs about this project described how the team in Mexico designed and delivered an inspiring programme of activity, for young people from Sisal, Yucatán, and Puerto Morelos, Quintana Roo to collaborate with professional researchers from Mexico and UK in this community science effort to monitor seaweed. The seeds we planted in the young people through this collaboration needed time and care to grow, but finally, they are bearing fruit.
We have seen with great joy how the three training workshops and ten collections of seaweed on the beach, carried out within the framework of this project, have inspired the participants beyond our plans, motivating them to learn on their own. In this blog, we share the experiences of two participants from Puerto Morelos who had the initiative to use seaweed from massive to make fertilizer and agar powder – a natural protein used as a vegetarian alternative to gelatin and thickening agent in cooking.
Making a science project with Sargassum
Jonnatan is an 18-year-old high school student at the COBACH Campus Puerto Morelos. He attended our first training workshop and, on behalf of the Stephen Hawking Science Club at his school, invited us to deliver the third workshop. He joined us to collect seaweed five times throughout the year, more than any other participant. At home he likes to keep his house tidy, help his mother with her work, play video games and watch movies and television series. He thinks that one of his qualities is being observant, and he would like to study Physical Therapy.
Following his participation, as a school project, Jonnatan developed a homemade fertilizer made from Sargassum. Although he has not yet been able to remove the heavy metals absorbed in the seaweed, he believes massive strandings could become a very important resource for Puerto Morelos.
Extracting homemade agar
Eder is a 14-year-old boy who studies at the Mario Molina Pasquel High School in Puerto Morelos. He took the second training workshop and collected seaweed on the beach on three occasions. In his spare time, he likes to hang out with his friends, walk through the local jungle, read and make homemade plant extracts. He likes to be in contact with nature and learn from it, which is why he has taken several courses and workshops on medicinal plants and fish. He would like to study Chemistry or Geology.
Knowing that agar is a compound used in industry to make various products and browsing the identification guide provided for this project, Eder learned that the red algae genus Gracilaria reaches the Yucatan Peninsula coasts and is used for agar production. On his own, he investigated how to extract it at home and took the opportunity to share with us his doubts and collect approximately 1kg of this species on the beach. Back home, he washed the fresh seaweed to remove the sand, let it drain, boiled it in water for half an hour, removed the seaweed and passed the water through a strainer to get the agar. He hoped to extract enough to make gummy sweets, but it was not possible.
Although he would like to continue extracting agar, Eder understands that Gracilaria is only abundant once a year so may not be a good use for seaweed in Puerto Morelos.
Eder and Jonnatan’s initiatives are examples of the power of community science to develop participants’ sense of agency to transform a local problem into a resource. We hope this sense of agency continues to grow and bear fruit in better coastal management practices, and increased capacity-building and collaboration.
The health of our planet depends on the existence of million species, the ecological networks in which they interact with one another, and the complex habitats they live in and modify. Humans are just one component of this living network and, therefore, we rely on nature for goods and services that underpin our societies, economies, health and wellbeing.
Land use change, intensive farming and hunting of wild animals all increase our exposure to parasites and pathogens. Museum collections provide vital insights into how and why these relationships are changing, and the implications these have for our health and the health of our planet.
To help us to communicate how researchers at the Museum are addressing the on-going planetary emergency, we have developed ten Research Themes. One of these themes is Biodiversity and Health which will aim to prioritise research into the intersection between biodiversity change and emerging diseases.
In my last blog, the team had just arrived back from our final workshop for the Big Seaweed Search Mexico partnership and I reported on day one. On day two, we headed to the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) campus just outside Mérida to explore how we could expand our work in the region. This is a big motivation for me personally – that our work could have a positive impact on the lives of local communities, so I was really excited for that!
I’ve just got back to my desk after a brilliant trip to Mexico – the highlight of my working year already. What a treat to be able to travel for work and connect with amazing people doing similar work and with similar interests across the globe!
The team hosted an inspiring and informative workshop in Mérida, Mexico, to conclude our Big Seaweed Search Mexico collaboration. This has been a two year partnership that saw the UK Big Seaweed Search project adapted to address the issue of massive seaweed influxes on Mexican beaches.
Our ground-breaking partnership with Amazon Web Services (AWS) is set to turbo-charge our community science programme. But what does this really mean and what’s changing? We sat down with Lucy Robinson (Citizen Science Manager) to ask all the important questions.
Emma Soh is a student studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London, and doing her work placement with the PREDICTS team at the Natural History Museum, focusing on communicating the science of biodiversity to policymakers. She shares how biodiversity indicators are important for communicating the state of nature and tracking global progress towards protecting it.
What are biodiversity indicators?
Biodiversity indicators are used to monitor, understand, and communicate changes in biodiversity – the variety of life – globally, nationally, or in particular sites. This can include changes in the state of species and ecosystems or the types of threats they are facing.
Biodiversity is highly complex, from the molecular scale of a gene to whole ecological communities, and all the interactions that occur in between. Having a single indicator to capture the state of the whole of biodiversity would be like grading a piece of music on how good it is based only on its melody! Therefore, scientists use more than one indicator, each monitoring a different component of biodiversity. An indicator can measure anything from how likely a species is to go extinct to the impacts of human activities on entire ecosystems.
Calculating and using different biodiversity indicators can give us a clearer picture of the state of biodiversity without being overwhelmed by the complexity of ecosystems or the massive amount of data surrounding them. Since indicators are based on different types of data and may use different data science techniques and processes, each indicator will have its own strengths and limitations. For example, some indicators measure biodiversity at the global-level, whereas others may focus on specific species or threats.
Each indicator tells a story about an aspect of biodiversity. It is therefore important to recognise how indicators are different from one another and what each indicator is measuring.
As Dr Neil Brummitt, leader of the Plants Under Pressure research team at the Museum, puts it, “Different indicators all [measure] slightly different things, but [they are] all informative…Drill down into the data: What is the geographical coverage? What is its taxonomic scope (i.e. the type of species included)? What timescale is it over? What is it that they’re doing?”.
Having a clear understanding of what each indicator is saying and using multiple indicators alongside one another can help us gain a more holistic picture of the state of biodiversity.
Why are biodiversity indicators important?
Indicators help us to understand ecosystems and appreciate the diversity of the natural world around us, as well as understand how biodiversity is changing in response to threats. From the impacts of global warming, to the loss of natural habitats for farming, biodiversity is facing an uncertain future that will inevitably affect us all – humans rely on biodiversity and nature for our survival.
Indicators can not only be used to monitor these threats and impacts on biodiversity, but they can also track changes over time and help us to plan for the future.
Indicators are especially important when we set out global goals and targets for biodiversity and conservation. Biodiversity indicators form an essential part of global monitoring frameworks, such as measuring progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and in the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework by the Convention on Biological Diversity, to be negotiated and finalised at the second part of the UN Biodiversity Conference COP15 in Montreal in December 2022.
Good targets need to be measurable, and that requires biodiversity indicators. Indicators can be used to track progress towards – or away from – global targets over time and inform global action. It is therefore important for policymakers to understand goals for biodiversity and how indicators can be used to monitor our progress.
Communicating research – indicators for change in the Museum
Scientists at the Museum work to understand and monitor the state of biodiversity, both by gathering biodiversity data and by improving biodiversity indicators. My science communication work placement is with the PREDICTS research team, working on communicating the science of biodiversity indicators to policymakers. The PREDICTS database contains biodiversity data from terrestrial ecosystems across the world, and researchers in the team use models to understand the impacts of human activities on biodiversity.
These impacts can be seen with the Biodiversity Intactness Index , which estimates the percentage of the original number of species that remain and their abundance in an area. Meanwhile, scientists in the Plants Under Pressure team are improving our understanding of plant biodiversity and threats to plants.
One of their projects aims to get a clearer picture of extinction risk in plants. They do this by studying a representative set of plant species across all major taxonomic groups, leading the production of the Sampled Red List Index for Plants to track the overall extinction risk of plants. The two indices tell us about two different aspects of biodiversity, with the Biodiversity Intactness Index showing changes in the composition and abundance of species, while the Sampled Red List Index for Plants focuses on the global risk of plant extinction.
In the lead-up to COP15, as countries re-establish global goals for our planet’s biodiversity, making biodiversity research accessible to policymakers is crucial. This can be through providing channels and platforms for people involved in policy to explore indicators and be informed of biodiversity trends.
One of the Museum’s newest initiatives is the Biodiversity Trends Explorer, a free, interactive, online tool to track changes in the Biodiversity Intactness Index, showing change across time periods, different geographic regions, and even forecasting future changes under different trajectories of human development. Having the Biodiversity Trends Explorer as a platform to communicate biodiversity data in a visual and accessible manner represents a step towards making policymakers aware of the valuable work of scientists at the Museum, and how it can be used to understand the state of biodiversity and make more evidence-informed decisions.
The Museum has more plans for the Biodiversity Trends Explorer, and part of my placement has been to write website text in preparation for the addition of the Sampled Red List Index for Plants onto the platform.
Speaking to lots of people at the Museum, from scientists to staff members engaged with policy, has been an eye-opening experience, and has shown me the importance of providing channels for scientists and policymakers to share information, discuss issues, and to work together for the future of biodiversity.
The Museum is continuing to build its vision for policy-engagement through its new policy unit. Emma Woods, the new Director of Policy at the Museum, says “Ultimately, I want the Museum to be impactful and to add value, whether that be through building influential networks, translating evidence into something that will resonate with policymakers, or convening leaders across science, government and business to debate the big issues of our time.”
Biodiversity indicators and tools like the Biodiversity Trends Explorer are exciting means to communicate the science of biodiversity to policymakers and beyond, opening up future pathways of engagement and working towards a future for nature.
In this blog I want to tell you about the amazing work my colleague Ana is doing with our colleagues from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM): Ameyalli, Arely, Carmen and Erika.
For every community science programme we run at the Museum, we provide training and guidance to help people take part. This will be tailored according to the programme and audience. This means that training will sometimes be delivered in person, sometimes we produce written resources, and sometimes we develop video tutorials, for example.
In Mexico, our colleagues delivered training workshops in Sisal and Puerto Morelos in March and April respectively, and have recently returned from delivering workshops in the same locations, but in the rainy season.
Hola! It’s been a busy two months since I last blogged to introduce the Big Seaweed Search (BSS) in Mexico. Today I want to continue by describing the programme that the team has created for BSS in Mexico, highlighting some of the differences with the programme in the UK and discussing some of the compromises and trade-offs we made when adapting the project to a new country.
I’m Jess Wardlaw, Community Science Programme Developer at the Museum. I’m excited to be working together with my Museum colleagues, Juliet Brodie, Lucy Robinson and Ana Benavides Lahnstein, on a new international partnership project funded by the British Academy’s Knowledge Frontiers programme.
Alongside partners at the University of Greenwich’s Natural Resources Institute (NRI) and the Escuela Nacional de Estudios Superiores (ENES) from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), in Merida, Mexico, we are excited to be taking our Big Seaweed Search community science project to new shorelines…Mexico’s Caribbean and Yucatán coasts, which are part of the Yucatán Peninsula!
Although estimates of extinction rates vary significantly , anywhere from losing hundreds to hundreds of thousands of species each year, it is widely acknowledged that we are in the midst of a biodiversity crisis. Ensuring we deliver a wide range of conservation measures to protect species is key to halting this decline across all taxonomic groups. A growing area of research is focussing on biobanking as an effective way to deliver this. But what does this mean in practice, how does it work and why is it important?