Blog Entry from Alexandra Mystikou

This is my third visit to the Falkland Islands. This time I am based at SAERI (Stanley) for two months working on taxonomic issues of seaweed species from the Falkland Islands and South Georgia.

In the past our team (Professors Frithjof Kuepper and Pieter van West from the University of Aberdeen, Dr Aldo Asensi from the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, Alexandra Mystikou, who is a joint PhD student between the University of Aberdeen and the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute, and Melina Marcou from the Dept. of Fisheries and Marine Research, Cyprus) has conducted four expeditions around the Falkland Islands sampling live isolates of macroalgae (seaweeds). Our investigations focus on the molecular taxonomy, ecology and physiology of macroalgae of the Antarctic and Subantarctic regions. During our expeditions we preserve samples of seaweeds for molecular identification, create herbarium specimens and keep cultures of live isolates.

I joined SAERI in October 2012 as a PhD student, co-supervised by Prof. Frithjof Kuepper, Prof. Pieter van West (University of Aberdeen) and Dr Paul Brickle (South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute). My research explores the seaweed biodiversity around the Antarctic Convergence in the South Atlantic and is jointly funded with a scholarship from the University of Aberdeen and the Falkland Islands Government.

The seaweed biodiversity around the Falklands remains only partially explored. Since the pioneering work of Skottsberg in the early 20th century, few phycologists have visited the islands. More specifically, there are significant gaps in the understanding of the Falklands’ deep-water brown algal flora – mainly due to the reason that none of the earlier explorers have dived here.

The two previous expeditions exceeded our expectations as two likely new species of brown epiphytes on the two kelp genus that occur at the Falkland Islands (Macrocystis and Lessonia) have been discovered. Furthermore, three new records of species that potentially have not been recorded before were made. Another significant finding was the rediscovery of Cladochroa chnoosporiformis which had not been seen anywhere in the world for around 100 years.

Witnessed by many in the Falkland Islands is the “red sand” on various beaches, the cause of which has remained a bit of a mystery. After microscopic observations we hypothesize that this might be due to a mass proliferation of a unicellular red alga (e.g. of the group Porphyridiophyceae). In our explorations, we managed to cover large areas both in East and West Falkland, sampling seaweeds by scuba diving.

In another line of research we explore the ecology of the seaweed communities around the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. In order to identify the seaweed species that form the studied communities we are using PhotoQuad™ software, which is a custom software for advanced image processing of 2D photographic quadrat samples, dedicated to ecological applications (Trygonis & Sini, 2012). The two areas from the Falklands that have been selected are the Jason Islands at the north-western extremity of West Falkland and Beauchêne Island, the southernmost point of the Falkland Islands. These areas have been selected because of their peculiar geographical position, in order to compare the structure of their seaweed communities. The Antarctic Circumpolar Current splits into two main northward streams skirting the Falkland Islands from west and east (Arkhipkin et al., 2013). As a result, there are variations between the productivity and the temperature between the two areas which cause variability between the species composition of the two studied sites.

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100 random points at PhotoQuad of South Georgian underwater quadrat photo (Photo credit: SMSG)

The structure of a community of species points out the ecological status of an area. We are comparing the number of single species per genus and per family between the three studied areas (Jason Islands, Beauchêne Island and South Georgia) where the temperature and the productivity are affected differently by the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. The evolutionary relationships among coexisting species may provide further indicators of the ecology of the habitat. Taxonomic distinctness of a community can be studied by a combination of phylogeny and community structure.
In the present study we are investigating the phylogenetic structure of the community assemblages by identifying 100 and 200 random points per underwater quadrate image (approximately 300 images per area) and then comparing the genus/species and species /family numbers between the three studied areas. The quadrat photos have been taken at different depths for each area. We are hoping that the outcome from this study will contribute to the knowledge about the ecology of the seaweed habitats of the Falkland Islands and South Georgia and help us understand better the drivers that lead the communities to structure differently.

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 How many seaweed species can you spot in the picture? (Coraligenus habitat from South Georgia) (Photo credit: SMSG)

Many thanks to the Shallow Marine Surveys Group (SMSG) for collecting and offering kindly to me all the photographic quadrat samples from Jason Islands, Beauchene Island and South Georgia as well as Dr. Paul Brickle and Dr. Paul Brewin for the project (ecology of the seaweed communities around the Falkland Islands and South Georgia) support and guidance. I would like also to thank the South Atlantic Environmental Institute (SAERI) for accommodating and supporting always our research team.

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Tagging Southern Rockhopper penguins (Eudyptes. c chrysocome) in the Falkland Islands

by iLaria Marengo, Debs Davidson and Sarah Crofts

Rockhoppers penguins are the smallest of the crested penguins and are found around the Falkland Islands mainly on rocky coastline, preferably on cliffs sometimes with very steep slope gradients. From the sea, the penguins reach the rocky ledges, where the nests are made, through a series of “hops” hence the name “rockhoppers”. The penguins are characterised by yellow and evident eyebrows, red eyes, a crest and the males are bigger (average of 58 cm vs 45 cm) and heavier (max 3.5 vs max 3.0 kg in breeding season and 2kg when moulting) than the females. The rockhoppers display nest and partner fidelity whereby they tend to go back to the same nest year after year. They arrive in the Falklands in October and stay until April, when they leave to go back to sea in search of food.

Oil exploration in the sea surrounding the Falklands is revealing a high potential of hydrocarbons reserves which could lead to extraction in the near future. One of the main environmental issues with oil extraction is unwanted oil spills, with possible impacts to the seabirds and the whole marine and coastal environment, in general.   A project has been commissioned to SAERI by the Falkland Islands Offshore Hydrocarbons Environmental Forum to gather valuable data on the location of penguins and seals (higher predators) during the winter months to assess the potential for conflict between the activities carried out by the oil and gas industry and the activities of the animals (penguins, fur seals and sea lions). Essentially it is a matter of filling data gaps in our knowledge, because contrary to the summer, very little is known about where and what these animals do during the winter.

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The Project aims at tagging the rockhoppers with Global Location Sensor (GLS) devices before the penguins leave their nests and retrieve the animals and the devices in October, once the animals are back to their nests. The GLS tag (Migrate Technology, UK) has the dimension and weight of a “mentos mint” and is fastened loosely to the leg of the penguin with a couple of plastic laces. The tag records time and light level intensity which are used to estimate latitude and longitude once per day. Since light cycles are unique to each particular location on Earth it is possible to estimate the geographic position of the animals by knowing the time of sunrise and sunset and comparing the level of light intensity recorded during the day by the tag.

It is worth mentioning that GLS tags do not communicate the collected data wirelessly. The data are stored in the tag therefore the tagged birds need to be recaptured and the device read off of a computer for the data to be downloaded. This part of the procedures will be carried out in October 2014. A total of 100 GLS tags are going to be used for this part of the project, and most of these are being deployed on the rockhoppers, with a lesser amount of Magellanic penguins also being tagged. The capturing of the birds started on the 25th of March and will carry on throughout the month of April, since this is the season when the penguins are moulting and are ready to leave the nests.

The locations where penguins will be tagged in this winter (2014) regime are: Bleaker Island, Johnson’s Harbour, Cape Bougainville, and possibly Pebble Island. Magellanic penguins have been tagged at Bleaker Island and may also be tagged at Hadassa Bay just east of Stanley. Hence, we are really thankful to the landowners as their collaboration and help gave us the opportunity to reach the colonies and carry out the tagging operations. Similarly, the project benefited from the collaboration of Falkland Conservation (FC) and from expertise of its staff in capturing and tagging penguins. FC staff led the operation professionally and ensured that all went smoothly for both the penguins and the team. In addition, we are very grateful to Falkland Islands Government and Falkland Islands Petroleum Licensees Association for funding the GAP analyses programme which will carry on with more data investigation.

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Intense and happy GIS days in St Helena!

By iLaria Marengo

It took quite a long journey to reach St Helena (8 hours on the plane from Brize Norton, 11 days in Ascension, and 2 days on the RMS St Helena) but it was an extremely fruitful and worthwhile trip.

The purpose of travelling to the island was to meet the community of data “collectors and users” and introduce to them the concepts of open source GIS, metadata recording and data management. In brief, the goal was to officially start the Information Management Centre (IMS)/GIS data centre and provide the islanders training/knowledge and understanding of the open source software QGIS. In addition, time was dedicated to support Dr Judith Brown and her marine team in preparing the data for a series of analyses that will contribute to the mapping of St Helena’s marine biodiversity. The use and application of GIS as an analytical and mapping tool will be very beneficial for the Darwin project that Judith is leading and will help in delivering a marine management plan for the island.

As in the Falklands and Ascension island, in St Helena there is also a major need to standardise the procedures of data collection, storage and management. The absence of an integrated and harmonised data system translates in duplication and dispersion of data across the government departments; difficulties in sharing and accessing the data within the departments and between departments and the local National Trust; and, in the worst cases, loss of data.

On the contrary, the benefit from having the IMS/GIS data centre is that people will share a data system with the same structure across the islands, will be able to find relevant information easily and quickly thanks to an online metadata, will be familiar with the way data are stored and gathered, and will be in the position of carrying out studies and research across the islands of the south Atlantic region as the data, thanks to the standards and similar procedures, will be highly comparable.

The IMS/GIS data centre consider training and advising people on GIS concepts, data standards and procedures first priority. In St Helena 20 people from the government and the National Trust attended the QGIS course. Everybody worked on their own data: the complete beginners experimented with GIS applications and unveiled its functionalities as an analytical and mapping tool, while the intermediates challenged the open source software to test that it is as effective as a proprietary one. The result was greater than the expectations: in two weeks not only people started using QGIS and felt the tool less difficult than thought but, above all, understood that successful data collection starts from as soon as the project outcomes are defined and it is based on a careful design and thinking of the structure of the attribute table, the variables that will be measured and the tools to be used to quantify the variables.

In addition, more than 30 metadata were provided for correspondent datasets. This is the first big step that will cast light on the accessibility, availability, distribution and quality of the data across the island. All in all, the weeks in St Helena were fruitful in terms of work carried out, collaboration, knowledge and skills acquired by everybody.

After two intense and happy weeks of GIS, everybody could see some results either in forms of maps, or in terms of understanding basic data management principles, or by looking at the number of records of metadata compiled.

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The challenge now is to carry on, don’t loose the enthusiasm and keep in touch remotely and through the GIS Officer who is due to arrive in Jamestown in May. The passion, the effort and collaboration that people showed in St Helena are the right “fuel” for running and making the project a success!

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GIS Courses in Ascension and Falkland Islands

By iLaria Marengo

It took a couple of months to make it real but finally scientists and government and non-government officers in both islands had the opportunity to learn about GIS and the open source QGIS.  The course was organised by SAERI and delivered by Dr Katie Medcalf, Environment Director of Environment Systems Ltd. The audience was mixed not only because of the different professional background of the attendees but also because of the level of knowledge about GIS, which ranged from complete beginners to intermediate and advanced in GIS users.

It was therefore a challenge to deliver a course that could make everybody happy but at the end the results and feedback were very positive and it was a pleasure to listen and see enthusiastic people at the end of the course. Clare Cockwell, Protected Areas Project Officer at Falkland Conservation for instance said “Thanks again for a really good course. Having to stay strong today in order not to spend the day playing on QGIS” and many others commented that they “really enjoyed the course and found it useful

Essentially the main goal was to raise awareness of how GIS can contribute in supporting the analysis of spatial data (data with spatial reference). The course objectives were to provide the main concepts behind GIS and show some direct applications of GIS tools to data collected in Ascension and in the Falklands. The point was to teach people that data are not “just a table” but are much more. Geographic data is “spatial information” that can be seen in a spatial context and is likely to be in relationship (correlation) with other data that are collected in the same geographic area.

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Using QGIS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Using real examples and data brought in by the attendees was much appreciated and here below some of the results that we obtained.

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Coloured DEM of the Falkland Islands

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next is to keep on surfing the GIS wave by creating a GIS community and spirit in the islands, where people get directly involved in working and using GIS. The idea is to engage people in a sort of forum where they can exchange their experience and knowledge on GIS tools, they can post their “discoveries” about how to carry spatial analysis, and ask for help. In addition, the last initiative is to open one day a week a “GIS clinic” for problem solving.

Keep on watching this space for more interesting news and activities in the South Atlantic region!!!  

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Overseas Territories get together and enthusiastic about open source GIS!

By iLaria Marengo

Hello from the Falklands! I arrived just two weeks ago after a few interesting days spent in Gibraltar and Ascension Island where I met with other enthusiastic GIS specialists working for the other Overseas Territories (OTs).
Gibraltar hosted the first OTs meeting entirely dedicated to GIS on the 8th and the 9th of September, its application and its use as a decision support tool for environmental and planning studies. There were presentations on habitat mapping through the use and analysis of satellite images in Anguilla; on using GIS as a decision support systems for coastal environment, protected habitats, waste management and contingency planning in the Cayman Islands, Jersey and Gibraltar; and examples of public participatory GIS for marine spatial planning n the Shetland Islands. The event turned out to be a great opportunity for bringing together “GIS people” from the different OTs, from the Caribbean islands, to the South Atlantic region and the European OTs. The great interaction and rapport we were able to build through exchanging knowledge and experience revealed that, despite the different backgrounds, the GIS issues encountered by everyone were in fact fairly similar. We could all learn from everybody else’s work.
The use of open source GIS, and in particular QGIS, was under the spot light. Paolo Cavallini and Luigi Pirelli were demonstrating the functionalities of the latest release of QGIS (2.0 Dufour) and the possibility of developing it by writing Python scripts and sharing them with the broad community of QGIS users. We were all thrilled and we came back to our respective islands (territories) perhaps with more enthusiasm than that with which we arrived.
The good news for me did not end in Gibraltar. Invigorated by that experience I flew to Ascension to meet up with the Conservation Centre “gang”. Sam, Nicola, Jo and Natasha were extremely kind and hospitable and we were immediately tuned in to the same “GIS frequency”. It is amazing to see how much goes on in such a small and remote island such Ascension. The team is involved in many projects, for example research is carried out on green turtles, seabird monitoring, and cataloguing of endemic plants and heritage buildings/sites. We worked on how to facilitate the use of some of the databases already set up and available, and how to make them more user-friendly. The stop over in Ascension was educational and beneficial as we will be working more and more closely with each other for the realisation of the GIS data centre for the South Atlantic OTs.Land Crab Map

I carried on my trip to the Falklands thinking positively and looking forward to the start of the project with SAERI. After the first two weeks we have a draft design of the architecture of the GIS data centre and information system. It involves the use of a metadata catalogue, QGIS for data editing, analysis and mapping, a spatial database and a web GIS service…all open source. This is in its infancy so please watch out for the next blog as we hope to come back with big news! Last but not least mention…it is great to finally meet the SAERI gang and be down here in the gorgeous Falkland Islands!

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South Atlantic Information Management System and GIS Centre has kicked off!

By iLaria Marengo

Hello everyone! I am iLaria and this blog is the first of a series to keep you updated on the development of the South Atlantic Information Management System and GIS Centre. The first news, which I am delighted to provide you, is that the new SAERI programme has officially started! Although I am currently working in Aberdeen (Scotland) the first steps have been made and, to be honest, the initial weeks of the project are going to be full of interesting events. Nevertheless, before unveiling them, I would like to introduce briefly what the South Atlantic Information Management System, GIS Centre wants to achieve, and what my role is within SAERI.

As project manager and GIS specialist I will be responsible for the realisation of the South Atlantic Information Management System and GIS Centre whose aim is to make environmental data storage and management more efficient across the five South Atlantic UK OTs (Falkland Islands, South Georgia, Tristan da Cunha, Ascension, St Helena).

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The main idea is to realise a centre able to underpin environmental research in the South Atlantic by assembling baseline information, managing knowledge and establishing linkages amongst researchers to make sure that nobody is “reinventing the wheel” and that the outstanding scientific work already carried out in the South Atlantic region is enhanced further.

The objective is to establish an information management system based on open source and to include shared GIS capabilities, accessible to all the territories, partners and external data users. In fact, to be effective and useful the GIS data centre should become the reference point for scientists, NGOs, developers and Governmental departments looking for data (raw and processed) about the South Atlantic region. GIS facilities and a structured and solid database management is the type of service that the centre would like to provide. Hence, it is important to work in synergy and identify priorities and what the data users and partners in the project need.

In addition, the centre will focus its attention in training OT personnel across the region to ensure that GIS and data management skills are built up in the region and dependence on outside assistance is reduced.

To be successful, this ambitious project requires the co-operation not only with the other 4 South Atlantic Overseas Territories but also with eternal partners such as BAS (British Antarctic Survey), private consultants and universities.

From the 30th of September until the mid of October my agenda is filled with meetings which will take me to tour the UK. I will start in Aberystwyth meeting Katie Medcalf who is Environment Director at Environment Systems. I hope to gain some good ideas for our South Atlantic Information Management System and GIS Centre by taking Katie’s practical experience and knowledge in using and applying GIS and open sources for handling and managing data as a model.

Next destination after Wales is Southern England, precisely Cambridge and London, where I will meet up with researchers at BAS and private consultant Alan Mills, who has already provided useful advice for setting up a GIS in Ascension Islands. The last ètape of the UK tour is Canterbury, where at DICE I will meet Zoe Davies and Bob Smith. Their work is to realise a land cover map for the Falkland Islands with the funding of the Darwin Plus funding. SAERI will support Zoe by providing expertise in GIS spatial data analyses.

I will then move to Gibraltar, where with Paul Brickle, director of SAERI, I will represent the Falkland Islands and we will join the GIS specialists from the other UK OTs. The event is a good opportunity for me to share knowledge about GIS and data management; to learn from others’ working experience; to gather useful ideas to develop the project and understand possible issues.

As you can evince, there are many people and countries to seen before my arrival to the Falklands. The enthusiasm and desire to provide a useful and efficient service for the South Atlantic community, from the researchers to the conservationists and the governmental bodies, is extremely high. Now that the project has kicked off, for SAERI and me it is time to work passionately to achieve the goal.

Watch out for the next update!

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Tracking top predators in the South Atlantic

By Dr Alastair Baylis who was in the Falklands in February and March 2013

Marine mammals (e.g. cetaceans and pinnipeds) are top predators in the world’s oceans. They can have important effects on ecosystem structure and function, and serve as indicators of ecosystem health. Several marine mammal species breed at the Falkland Islands. However of particular concern is a precipitous decline in the number of southern sea lions (Otaria flavescens) – now the focus of multi-year study. In the 1930’s the Falkland Islands was home to the largest population of southern sea lions in the world (pup production estimated to be 80,000). Between the 1930’s and 1990’s the population declined by 97% (reasons unknown). Today pup production is estimated to be less than 2,800. Despite this dramatic decline and failure to recover, surprisingly little is known about the foraging ecology of sea lions at the Falkland Islands – information that is vital in order to identify any potential impediments to population recovery.

Eager to redress knowledge gaps, a team of pinniped biologists lead by Dr Iain Staniland (BAS) and Dr Alastair Baylis (Deakin University, previously FC) successfully deployed 26 satellite tags on southern sea lions in 2011 and 2012. In 2013, working in collaboration with SAERI and FC, the team returned to the Falklands in order to deploy GPS units and dive loggers. These sophisticated devices collect fine scale location data and dive data – needed to better assess important at-sea areas for sea lions. With the help of Rachael Orben (UCSC Costa Lab) and Dr John Arnould (Deakin University) GPS units were successfully deployed and recovered (a first for Falklands sea lions), while valuable diet and genetic samples were also collected. In total 37 sea lions have now been tracked (adults and juveniles), and some initial results are presented in the figure below. The ambitious team is already planning the next season and hope to profile the foraging location and diet of sea lions from the largest breeding colonies on both East and West Falklands.
The research was generously supported by the Shackleton Scholarship Fund and a JNCC small projects grant, received through the Falkland Islands Government Environmental Planning Department. We extend our sincere thanks to SAERI, FIG EPD and FC for their invaluable support.

Photographed by Rachael Orben

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Melanie Mackenzie

I’m back in the Falklands for the second summer in a row, this time thanks to a Shackleton Scholarship Fund, and with the support of SAERI, SMSG and Museum Victoria – my usual workplace in Melbourne, Australia.

I was lucky enough to be delayed here for a few days last January on my way down to Antarctica on the James Clark Ross. As you can imagine, coming from a country known for its beaches and sunshine I was full of excitement at the prospect of the ‘unknown’ Antarctic which lay ahead… and not just at the thought of wearing the attractively padded BAS orange jumpsuit!

While waiting to join the scientific team for a benthic survey of the Weddell Sea, I was very fortunate to drop by FiPass where I met Paul Brickle of SAERI and Paul Brewin of SMSG/Fisheries, and was introduced to an active research lab and very interesting marine invertebrate collection.

And my particular interest you may ask? Well the enigmatic sea cucumber of course! Relatives of sea urchins and starfish, holothuroids are not only amazing little detritus-sifters, but some even brood-protect their young in pouches – and how can any self-respecting kangaroo-loving Aussie resist that?

I’m here for a month dividing my time between the lab at the Fisheries department (busily identifying sea cumbers) and office space at SAERI (where I’m assisting with collection management processes and an application for CITES institutional registration).

My ‘day job’ back in Australia is as a Marine Invertebrate Collection Manager in a natural history museum. While museum visitors marvel at our exhibition displays, many have no idea that behind the scenes is an extremely active research facility full of millions of specimens being studied by everyone from taxonomists and geneticists to students, engineers and artists. And while I spend my usual workday packing specimens, developing field guides, catching critters and generally looking after a jar-filled library of spineless specimens, I spend weekends and any spare time indulging in sea cucumber research.

Working with a small team of taxonomists lead by holothuroid-guru Mark O’Loughlin, we’ve identified thousands of sea cucumbers (including many new species) collected by teams from many different countries. We’ve also had the privilege of examining historic material from some early British-lead expeditions, including the Discovery material from 1925. And by the most pleasant of coincidences those very expedition reports are at long last being digitized thanks to Darwin sponsorship, by none other than the hard-working Dr Deborah (Debs) Davidson at SAERI. Enticed back to Stanley by the thought of working with sea cucumbers from the recent SAERI/SMSG shallow marine survey of South Georgia (the first comprehensive survey since the Discovery visit), I was also very excited to see that SAERI hold material from the Falklands and Ascension Islands…fingers-crossed I get a chance to see it all!

So I may only be here for a month, which is definitely not long enough to spend in the Falklands, but I plan to do as much as possible in the time I have, and look forward to seeing what the local waters may bring me.

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