The water vole: can we save ‘Ratty’?

By Merryl Gelling, post-doc researcher at WildCRU and Mammal Society Council member.

There can be no denying that the water vole, although physically fairly small, has the biggest ‘cute’ factor of all our UK mammals.  At first glance they may be confused with the brown rat, but once you look more closely it is impossible not to be won over by the water vole’s appealing face and overly large feet! A distinctive resident of our river banks for hundreds of years, the water vole has been immortalised as ‘Ratty’ from the Wind in the Willows.

Water voles are named to reflect their preferred habitat of river banks swathed in lush riparian vegetation, and also their ability to swim. Each vole inhabits a territory of approximately 70-130m of river bank, where they dig an extensive network of tunnels in which to rest and raise their young. Burrows usually have an underwater entrance to allow a quick escape route from terrestrial predators, and often the distinctive ‘plop’ as an animal jumps into the water is the first indication of their presence. In fact, water voles spend so much of their time at the interface between the banks and the water that their latin name has recently changed from Arvicola terrestris to Arvicola amphibious. Read more »

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Decorating the dolphin: why a marine mammal deserves the crown

Opinion piece by Billy Mills – Biology Week intern at the Royal Society of Biology.

While helping create the UK Mammal Poll, I noticed that many people seem to be unaware of the diversity of mammals that live in our seas. Twenty-five species of cetacean (whales, dolphins and porpoises) inhabit the waters in and around the British Isles, as do seven pinniped species (seals). Admittedly these figures include vagrants, but I’m sure you’ll agree that they make impressive reading nonetheless.

The bottlenose dolphin was chosen to fly the flag for this group of mammals, and what a fantastic standard bearer it is. These creatures encompass nearly everything that there is to love about marine mammals. They have torpedo-shaped bodies that allow them to move quickly and gracefully though the water. They are also curious and playful by nature. Famously friendly to humans, bottlenose dolphins are frequently receptive to physical contact with divers and are often observed riding the bow waves of ships. Read more »

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Securing the future of Scottish Wildcats

By Vicky Burns, Scottish Wildcat Action

Scottish wildcats are now critically endangered. Once a common sight throughout Britain, hunting, habitat loss and, more recently, introgressive hybridisation means there are now less than 300 left in the wild. The biggest threat is mating with our domestic cats, particularly feral cats living in the wild.

Scottish Wildcat Action launched in 2015 and unites over 20 partner organisations in the biggest ever project to save the species.

Dr Roo Campbell (below) has spent most of the last five years studying wildcats in the Scottish Highlands. He is responsible for a team of wildcat officers who carry out conservation work on the ground across several priority areas in Scotland: Morvern, Strathpeffer, Strathbogie, Strathavon, Northern Strathspey and the Angus Glens. Read more »

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Favourite UK Mammal – the ones that got away

Opinion piece by Fiona Mathews, Chair of the Mammal Society, and associate professor in mammalian biology at the University of Exeter.

The poll for the Favourite UK Mammal has a shortlist of just 10 species. Yet there are about 64 land mammals (including bats) in the UK, and another 37 marine species found in our waters. I say ‘about’ because the precise number depends on whether we include species that are not known to breed here; whether we include feral, but formerly domesticated, animals such as wild goats; and whether we include animals such as the beaver that have only recently been reintroduced. Clearly a list of 101 would have been overwhelming, but here are four of my own favourites that didn’t make the poll.

Bats are some of our most difficult animals to study, often being glimpsed only for a second in the failing light at dusk. Like hundreds of other volunteers, I spend a lot of my spare time monitoring them: their fascinating habits, and the very fact that we know so little about them, have kept me hooked for more than 20 years. Although there are 17 resident bat species – and I would happily write about any of them – I will tell you about just the Grey long-eared. Whilst its cousin, the Brown long-eared is common in lofts, barns and trees across the UK, there are only seven known colonies of Grey long-eared bats, all of them close to the coast in Southern England. Read more »

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Science and policymaking: reflections from a global meeting

By Alessandro Allegra, doctoral candidate in science and technology studies, UCL

Over the last two days of September 600 scientists, policymakers, and knowledge brokers from all over the world gathered in Brussels to discuss how to improve dialogue between science and policymaking.

The global conference, organised by the European Commission and the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA), started from a very simple premise: as science and technology inform our understanding of the world, and permeate all aspects of our lives, how do we ensure they are best embedded into effective policymaking?

Although no simple and straightforward answer to this questions exists, several important points were made during the two days of discussion that can contribute to a better understanding of the process of scientific advice to policymaking. Here I discuss a few that I found particularly interesting. Read more »

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Return of the native: the pine marten

By Jenny MacPherson, pine marten project manager, The Vincent Wildlife Trust

My first encounter with a pine marten in the wild was back when I was a first year zoology undergraduate. I was poised upwind of a badger sett with my binoculars, waiting for the badgers to emerge, when the most beautiful animal I’d ever seen crossed my field of view. It was a pine marten. It stopped, stood up on its hind legs and sniffed the air, revealing the characteristic apricot bib, and then went on its way. From that moment on I was hooked.

Since then I have been lucky enough to have many similar sightings of martens in Scotland but the thrill never gets old. When I mention pine martens, people often assume that I am talking about a bird, some forest dwelling relative of the house marten, however, pine martens are mammals. They belong in the same family as badgers (mustelidae) but, unlike their sociable cousins, cat-sized pine martens spend most of their time alone ranging over quite large, wooded territories that they defend against other martens. Read more »

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Soprano pipistrelle: A love song in the key of 55kHz

David Urry MRSB, science communicator at The Natural History Museum, explains why the soprano pipistrelle bat is his Favourite UK Mammal.

The soprano pipistrelle, one of three pipistrelle species in the UK, is named due to the frequency of its echolocation: slightly higher than the closely related common pipistrelle. Although a soprano by name, this bat has little time for serenades, instead using its ultra-high frequency call to accurately pin point, and then ambush, tiny insects in mid-air.

The soprano’s high frequency ‘clicks’ were the first bat calls I heard –  I won’t forget the excitement caused by the sudden staccato rasps emitted by my bat detector before a dark silhouette swooped into view. The silhouette arced through the sky at impressive speed and impossible angles, while my detector filled with near-constant clicks and calls, as though chirping in delight at the thrill of its dizzying pursuit.

Read more »

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Pollination and education in the Peaks

By Ida Griffiths – education officer for Pollinating the Peak at the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

Bumblebees are awesome! But perhaps, being the education officer for Pollinating the Peak – a new Heritage Lottery funded project from the Bumblebee Conservation Trust – I have to say that… However, it’s not just me, my colleagues and keen entomologists, but the general public think so too. In a recent public poll from the Royal Society of Biology, the iconic Buff-tailed bumblebee was crowned the Favourite UK Insect!

Bumblebees are placid creatures, happily bumbling around our gardens, grass verges, meadows and woodlands visiting flowers, lapping up their nectar and gathering pollen to feed to their larvae. And despite their (endearing) lack of grace, they are beautifully adapted to this lifestyle. Bumblebee tongues are long and intricately designed to poke into flowers to tap into the sweet nectar reward produced at the base of their corollas. All 25 of our UK bumblebee species have a different range of tongue lengths and are thus equipped to dine upon slightly different assortments of flowers. Read more »

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Giving the hedgehog a helping hand

Fay Vass, chief executive of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, discusses why the hedgehog is her Favourite UK Mammal and explains what you can do to help protect it.

The argument in favour of hedgehogs could be won simply on their cuteness. However, there is far more about this amazing mammal that could swing the vote. Hedgehogs are the UK’s only spiny mammal, and are therefore impossible to confuse with anything else; they are also a wonderful example for teaching ecology and conservation, and crucially they are in serious need of our help.

Threats to hedgehogs come mostly from us. We have altered our environment so dramatically that this once common animal risks drifting into memory. So we need all the exposure we can get to promote the hedgehog’s plight. We need people to become hedgehog champions through our Hedgehog Street campaign (run in partnership with the People’s Trust for Endangered Species). We need people to make holes in their garden fences so that hedgehogs can move through the environment. We need to ensure people start to garden with wildlife in mind – compost heaps, log piles, pollinator attracting plants – and to realise that what is good for hedgehogs is good for so much other wildlife too. Read more »

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New journal to grow awareness of emerging areas of life sciences

by Emma Pettengale, Portland Press

Biology Week is an annual celebration of life science with events all over the UK and beyond for everyone from children to professional scientists. The week helps to inspire future generations of biologists. With more and more opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations and chances to switch fields, regardless of whether you are a young student, early-career researcher or an experienced post-doc, you may have your interest piqued in a new area of the life sciences and want to find out more.

To support this growing need, a new journal is launching in early 2017. Owned jointly by the Royal Society of Biology and the Biochemical Society, Emerging Topics in Life Sciences is deliberately aimed at an interdisciplinary audience.  Each issue will focus on a single topic, giving an up-to-date, self-contained summary on the hottest emerging areas in the life sciences, such as antibiotics and the growing spread of resistance. Read more »

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