January 2, 2017


Yes, it has been a tough year for the world. We've lost iconic and talented artists and public figures, the UK has lost its min–, I mean, Europe, and the US has voted for a hate-mongering orange baffoon called fart to be their next president.

Much of the West despairs for the ideological murder that has occurred. When many of us thought things were getting better and we were all learning to accept each other, we've been hit in the face with a barage of hate. Europe swings to the right, the US follows suit. The warming global climate continues to melt icecaps and exacerbate poverty in Africa, ISIS continues to ravage the Middle East, refugees continue to flood into peaceful neighbouring countries – only to be met with reluctance and disdain.

However, the inundation of bad news and the intolerable coverage of the US presidential "race", means that many of us may have missed some of the good things that have happened this year.

We've dragged ourselves through 2016 and the world hasn't ended. So, though we are now well on our way into 2017, I think it's worth looking back at some of the good things that happened in 2016 – because hell, there were actually many. I've chosen a positive news story for each of the last 12 months. Feel free to add in more positive news stories in the comments, I am not even going to pretend that my selection is not biased by my views, opinions, priorities, or preferences.

December 29, 2016

Water Worlds

This post was originally published under the title "Water Worlds" in the December 2016 issue of The Biologist, the Royal Society of Biology's magazine. If you're a member of the RSB you can also view the article on their website here.

Tropical rainforests are known for being full of life. Whether you're captivated by the calls of colourful birds, mesmerised by hypnotically patterned cats, or fascinated by the apparently infinite variety of invertebrate life, you still have to acknowledge that what makes a rainforest are the plants. A forest is by definition a collection of trees, but there is a whole lot more to plant life in a rainforest. Coating every surface, including the trees themselves, are more plants. Some of these we would as surface-covering vegetation in temperate environments as well, like the mosses and liverworts that coat stone walls or the dandelions that poke their sunny faces out between cracks in the concrete. However, there are plants which in the rainforest we see making other plants their hosts that we are far more used to seeing with other life styles. Cacti and ferns, for instance, can be found growing on other plants, as well as aroids (think peace and Easter lillies), bromeliads and orchids.

November 20, 2016

Flowers under the sea

Past the sandy beaches and rocky shores, beneath the lapping of breaking waves, coasts around the world are (were) carpeted with green underwater meadows of seagrasses. Contrary to what you may be thinking, seagrasses are not a form of seaweed or even vaguely related, though they do often co-occur. Seagrasses are in fact angiosperms, flowering plants whose ancestors adapted to life in salt water back when dinosaurs roamed on land. Is anybody else picturing an plesiosaur gliding over a bed of seagrass? The ancestors of seagrasses took many biochemical and physical shifts in order to adapt to a wet and salty lifestyle. However, amazingly, an important feature that seagrasses have retained despite millions of years of evolution under the sea is their ability to flower.
Turtlegrass flowering shoot ©Dawn Witherington

December 14, 2015

Seagrass ecosystem services (Grass Roots Biology)

This post was originally published under the title "Grass Roots Biology" in the December 2015 issue of The Biologist, the Royal Society of Biology's magazine. If you're a member of the RSB you can also view the article on their website here. The images are not those used by the RSB nor are they mine, the copyright belongs to their credited owners and most are from ARKive.org.
Neptune grass (Posidonia oceanica) meadow in the Mediterranean © M. San Felix, from livescience.com

Grass Roots Biology

Home to myriad species and acting as massive carbon sinks, seagrass meadows are key marine habitats – but they are disappearing fast, reports Xaali O'Reilly Berkeley
The Biologist 62(6) p16-19

Seagrasses are a group of flowering plants adapted to live in salt water. They grow, flower and pollinate completely submerged in estuaries and along shallow coastal waters around the globe, both in temperate and tropical environments. Although they physically resemble grasses and grow in large expanses called meadows, the term seagrass actually refers to the ecological niche the plants occupy rather than a taxonomical group. There are four different families of seagrass, all thought to have adapted to their marine and estuarine lifestyles independently from one another. Together, they form the foundation of one of the most productive ecosystems on Earth and cover somewhere between 300,000 and 600,000 square kilometres of seabed. Yet many people have never heard of them.

September 13, 2015

Return of the Algarve tiger

As a child, I loved writing. From age seven I would write and illustrate short poems and stories for my younger siblings to enjoy (hopefully they enjoyed them...). When I was 12 years old, I started leaning towards a more factual side of writing and combined it with my cat obsession to start my own little feline-themed newsletter (I definitely called it a magazine at the time). I'd write about anything felid-related – from tips on adopting streets cats, to the ethics of cloning pets, to the ecology of wild feline species. It was researching for this newsletter that I first learned about the Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus). Initially I was drawn to this feline because it is the only "big cat" native to Spain, where I grew up.

© Programa de Conservación Ex-Situ del Lince Ibérico