Exciting peaty post doc opportunity

Dr Katy Roucoux and team (members of the UK TPWG) at the University of St. Andrews are advertising a post doc position to work on the following project:

Valuing intact tropical peatlands’: a project that aims to improve our understanding the socio-cultural and economic value of peatlands in Amazonia

The Research Fellow will have an opportunity to work with an established interdisciplinary team based in the School of Geography and Sustainable Development at the University of St Andrews, UK, and colleagues at the Instituto de Investigationes de la Amazonia Peruana (IIAP), Iquitos, Peru. Please follow the link above for more details, or email Katy (khr@st-andrews.ac.uk) for more information if required.

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The new offices at St Andrews do have a roof!


Peat @ the EGU

Several of the UK TPWG members attended the European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly in Vienna last week, and Sarah Cook has kindly provided a brief summary of this exciting, and pleasingly peaty event.

Last month I attended the European Geosciences Union in Vienna, Austria. The conference was a buzz of scientific minds with over 14,000 participants in attendance from over 107 different countries! This was my first time at the EGU, which was both exiting but also overwhelming at times, with over 649 sessions running throughout the week, 4,000+ talks and 11,000+ posters, deciding how to spend each day was a challenge in itself! Luckily, the EGU app came in really handy allowing me to create my own personalized timetable, whilst helping reduce paper consumption. Furthermore, the venue came stock pilled with coffee outlets and even its own beer garden to ensure a much needed recharge between sessions.

Still “Welcome” in Europe!

One of my favorite sessions was ‘Peatlands and wetlands in the tropics and beyond’ co-conveyed by our very own Ian Lawson. The session attracted significant interest and covered topics from greenhouse gas emissions and eco-hydrology to the responsible management of tropical peatlands. It was great to see so much enthusiasm for tropical peat research from all breadths of the scientific community. I was also fortunate enough to present a poster on my PhD research, on the Friday afternoon, and had some great feedback and comments.

A new presentation format, which I had never come across before, was PICO’s (Presenting Interactive Content). This gave speakers a 2-minute opportunity to advertise their research, after which people could visit their PICO stand to ask more questions and interact with the slides further. The venue was also host to outreach talks and debates including ‘Women in geoscience’ and ‘Is open science the way to go?’ However, while the conference offered a non-stop array of sessions to attend I did try to see more than just the conference center and explore the beautiful city. All in all I had a great first experience at the EGU and can’t wait to go back again!






Protecting Peru’s peatlands

In an article published this month in the journal Conservation Biology members of the UKTPWG and colleagues identify and map threats to the recently-described intact peatlands of the Pastaza-Marañón Foreland Basin in north-east Peru. They highlight the need to protect these peatlands to avoid future degradation, and identify several key pathways for conservation.

The Mauritia flexuosa palm at the site of Quistococha

The authors found that, in their case study area, the main threat to peatland health is the expansion of commercial agriculture linked to the development of new transport infrastructure, which makes it easier for companies to access remote areas.

Although some of the peatlands in the PMFB were found to fall within existing legally protected areas such as national parks, this protection is patchy, often weak, and not focused on protecting the most carbon-rich areas.

The article argues that conservation efforts should be focused in the first instance on the most carbon-rich peatlands, such as those north of the Marañón which currently lie entirely outside of the legally protected areas.

The paper’s authors are based in the School of Geography and Sustainable Development at the University of St Andrews (Roucoux, Lawson), the University of Leeds (Baker), University of Edinburgh (Mitchard), University of Reading (Kelly), Instituto de Investigacion de la Amazonía Peruana (del Castillo Torres, Honorio Coronado), Carnegie Institution for Science, Washington DC (Draper), Arizona State University (Lahteenoja), George Mason University (Gilmore), and the Field Museum, Chicago (Vriesendorp).

Link to the accepted manuscript: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cobi.12925/full

An Interdisciplinary Project: Fish and the Importance of Fish(ing) to Human Communities in Sabangau, Indonesia

In this fortnight’s blog-post, Sara Thornton, a member of the UK TPWG and PhD student at the University of Leicester, gives us the low-down on her doctoral research, looking at fish diversity and much more, in the Sabangau peatlands of Indonesian Borneo.  Her important work is also captured by a set of beautiful photographs that she took whilst on fieldwork (see the press release images).

A family of fishers checking their catch on the Sabangau River. Photo by Sara Thornton

A family of fishers checking their catch on the Sabangau River. Photo by Sara Thornton

My PhD takes an interdisciplinary approach to understand the socio-ecological system of the Sabangau, Indonesian Borneo. In particular, I focus on the relationships between human fishing communities, nonhuman fish communities and other nonhuman aspects of the ecosystem (including abiotic aspects and spiritual nonhuman beings) and how these relationships lead to certain emergent properties (e.g. resilience). I also consider human perceptions of environmental change, and how fire, dams, human population growth and fishing diversification/intensification impact fishing and human livelihoods. To do this, I used the following methods:

  1. Surveys of fish communities and water quality in the Sabangau River and the Sabangau Forest
  2. Questionnaires, interviews and focus groups in two local communities: Kereng Bangkirai (situated near to the intact Sabangau peat-swamp forest) and Taruna Jaya (situated in an area of severely degraded peatland)
An unedited photo showing fishermen fishing on the Sabangau River during the catastrophic haze from forest and peatland fires in 2015. Photo by Sara Thornton

An unedited photo showing fishermen fishing on the Sabangau River during the haze from the forest and peatland fires in 2015. Photo by Sara Thornton.

Some notable results included:

  • A final fish species list of 54 species! Making Sabangau a notable area for peat-swamp forest fish diversity
With my research assistants, we trapped over 60,000 fish over a year of monthly fish surveys. Here one assistant measures the Standard Length of a Belontia hasselti. Photo by Sara Thorn

With my research assistants, we trapped over 60,000 fish over a year of monthly surveys. Here one assistant measures the Standard Length of a Belontia hasselti

  • With the water quality data (e.g. pH, water temperature, dissolved oxygen levels) I am able to recommend improvements for future fish sampling
  • The fish and water quality data provides a baseline for future monitoring
  • Fish was considered in both locations to be the most important nonhuman forest species to people’s lives. This is not surprising considering the economic importance that fish has locally, and that it is one of the main sources of protein:
    • I found the average annual fish consumption in Sabangau is nearly three times the global average!
Learning to make a traditional fish trap (Dudin on left and Sara on right), photo by Julie Lasne

Learning to make a traditional wire trap, tampirai, used for the fish surveys (Dudin on left and Sara on right). Photo by Julie Lasne.

  • The human communities expressed important cultural values, aesthetic and experiential values when discussing many of the nonhuman forest species (e.g. fish, orangutans, gibbons, hornbills). There were strong spiritual beliefs related to fish and the river in the Sabangau area
    • This included taboos related to eating or cooking certain fish species, the presence of various river and forest spiritual beings and the use of offerings to improve fish catches
    • These cultural perspectives are vital to include in considerations of values associated with ecosystems and biodiversity
    • Spiritual beliefs can play an important role in determining how some people in Sabangau relate to the river, to fish and thereby the ‘environment’

Lastly, while fish may not be the most charismatic of peat-swamp forest species like great-apes or felids, they provide one of the clearest faunal links between people, livelihoods and their ‘environment’ in the Sabangau. In areas with high dependence on fish for livelihoods, fish research and conservation projects could be a great opportunity to increase the relevance of environmental research to local communities and thereby potentially increasing local support for conservation projects.

The new TOC-loss-ometer!

This week, Sarah Cook, a member of the UK TPWG and PhD student at the University of Leicester, published an exciting paper documenting a new, low cost and easy-to-use methodology for measuring DOC losses from tropical peatlands.  Here she describes this important work.

My research is focused on investigating fluvial organic carbon (TOC) losses from tropical peatland oil palm plantations, within Southeast Asia. However, when I first started developing my research methodology I found limited guidance for analysing tropical TOC water samples. Tropical work is often undertaken in remote field sites with limited on-site laboratory facilities (if any), with any flat stable surface (i.e. the dinner table, car boot and concrete floors) quickly becoming a state of the art workbench. In addition, temperature also plays a significant role, with the hot sticky heat quickly degrading anything remotely organic. In my case this could mean the breakdown, and loss, of significant proportions of organic carbon from my water samples. This also meant the need to ship large, heavy and expensive boxes of samples back to the UK for analysis on specialised analytical equipment.


Collection of fluvial organic carbon from an oil palm plantation drainage channel.

This prompted us to develop better guidance for tropical researchers for TOC analysis, and lead to the publication of a water storage paper (https://doi.org/10.19189/MaP.2016.OMB.249) in 2016 and a recent paper in Water Research (February, 2017; http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.watres.2017.02.059). In this most recent paper we investigated the suitability of UV-visible spectrometry to determine dissolved organic carbon (DOC) concentrations in tropical water samples, building on an original methodology developed by (Carter et al.2012; http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.watres.2012.05.021) on temperate peat. Overall UV-visible spectroscopy (using both a single and two-wavelength approach) was able to accurately predict tropical DOC concentrations. This offers research groups working in remote field locations the ability to rapidly analyse water samples post-collection, negating the need to store degradable samples for lengthy periods of time, helping improve spatial and temporal DOC measurements. In addition, the equipment required for this analysis can be set up at a field base, valuable for researchers in remote locations with limited access to specialised (and often expensive) analytical equipment. This in turn can help reduce the number of samples that need to be shipped back, further helping to reduce research costs. Full details of both papers can be found at:




Graphical abstract from the Water Research paper, showing an example of a plantation drainage channel and predictive ability of the UV model.

Panamanian peats

In order to understand and appreciate the breadth and importance of the fieldwork carried out by members of the UK Tropical Peatland Working Group, we welcome posts on this blog from anyone with a story to tell.  Here, Nick Girkin, a PhD student from the University of Nottingham, describes the fieldwork he carried out last year in the relatively understudied peatlands of Panama.

In January 2016 I started the second stage of my fieldwork in San San Pond Sak wetland in Bocas del Toro Province, Panama. During my first visit in 2015 I trialled a range of fieldwork techniques investigating how below-ground plant inputs, particularly plant roots and root release of exudates and oxygen, can regulate surface greenhouse gas emissions and the extent to which this differs between plants of contrasting physiologies (i.e. palms vs broadleaved evergreen trees). This time I had developed a range of experimental approaches including plans for in situ mesocosms to exclude roots and root inputs, phloem labelling with natural abundance and 13C labels and a 13CO2 labelling experiment. The results of this work are important in terms of broadening our understanding of how regulation of greenhouse gas emissions may differ between different plant groups, with implications across forested peatland ecosystems.


Access to San San Pond Sak Wetland

The site itself is dominated by two plant species: Campnosperma panamensis, a broadleaved evergreen tree, and Raphia taedigera, a palm, and I aimed to assess whether differences in greenhouse gas fluxes between these species previously observed could be linked to differences in below ground release of root exudates, oxygen and decaying root material.

During both field campaigns I was based at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute research station on Isla Colon, a short boat ride away from my field sites on the mainland. On sampling days I, together with Erick Brown my field guide, would take a boat across the short stretch of the Caribbean to reach the wetland, before a short 1 km trek through the swamp forest to the field sites. The first week was particularly long and laborious, involving clearing a trail to the field site, making and then installing mesocosms into the soil. The average day of fieldwork involved collecting surface gas samples from the mesocosms and measuring a range of soil properties known to regulate gas fluxes (e.g. the height of the water table). CO2 and CH4 fluxes from these sites broadly match those measured in South East Asian Peatlands (400 – 800 mg CO2 m2 h-1 and 0.1 – 2 mg CH4 m2 h-1).

Work at the station involved tending to transplanted Campnosperma, Raphia and Symphonia globulifera saplings which towards the end of my fieldwork I labelled with 13CO2 with the aim of tracing recent photoassimilates into plant tissues, the soil microbial community and the production of CH4 through microbial use of plant derived carbon.


Reaching field sites in San San Pond Sak

Happy World Wetlands Day!

Today is a day to celebrate and spread the word about our world’s wonderful wetlands.

Taken from the World Wetlands Day website.

On this day 46 years ago, the Convention on Wetlands was adopted in the Iranian city of Ramsar.  Since then, the 2nd February has marked the signing of this Ramsar Convention: “an international treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources”.

Wetlands are increasingly acknowledged for their importance in controlling the quality and quantity of water flowing across landscapes, as reflected by the theme of this year’s World Wetlands Day: Wetlands for Disaster Risk Reduction.  They are also important for biodiversity conservation, for filtering pollutants from water supplies and of course our beloved peatlands are critical for sequestering and storing atmospheric carbon (in their intact form).

None of you peatland experts need to be told this though!  But there are many people out there who don’t understand how important bogs are.  Perhaps it’s time for a World Peatlands Day?

To celebrate the day and how peatland management has changed in the UK and Ireland over the last few generations, from predominantly extraction to conservation, here is a poem by Seamus Heaney:


Between my finger and my thumb   

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound   

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   

My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   

Bends low, comes up twenty years away   

Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   

Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   

Against the inside knee was levered firmly.

He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep

To scatter new potatoes that we picked,

Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.   

Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day

Than any other man on Toner’s bog.

Once I carried him milk in a bottle

Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up

To drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, going down and down

For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap

Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge

Through living roots awaken in my head.

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.


New peatlands mapped in the Congo Basin

By Lydia Cole

On Tuesday, a very exciting article was published in Nature, describing the vast area of peatland that has just been mapped and measured in the Congo Basin.  It’s even bigger than Wales, apparently.  It was discovered by members of our very own UK Tropical Peatland Working Group: Dr Greta Dargie and her former supervisor, Dr Simon Lewis, after many a long and hard hour spent traversing the unstable, humid and mosquito-ridden peatlands of the DRC and Republic of Congo.

The ‘finding’ of this peatland has elevated our most recent estimate of the magnitude of the peat carbon store across Africa by an incredible five times; vastly increasing our calculation of the total volume of tropical peatlands also.  Whilst it’s probably no news to local people that there’s a massive swamp in their back garden, it is unlikely that they, and evidently the global community, appreciated the real extent of this waterlogged forest and how much peat was hiding underneath.

Given the remote location of the Cuvette Centrale peatlands, the threat of industrial agriculture is unusually rare (unlike in Southeast Asia).  However this carbon store is not immune to the potential and pervasive impact of climate change, and specifically climatic drying, where evapotranspiration may exceed precipitation, as Professor Sue Page aptly explains.

Accompanying the scientific publication, there was a torrent of popular pieces published describing the importance of this revelation to the general public.  These included articles in The Guardian, The New York Times and the International Business Times.  And for a more detailed account from Simon, have a read of The Conservation.

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Simon Lewis and Greta Dargie in a Congolese peatland


Peat in the news


The problems in Southeast Asian peatlands are ongoing and will take years to solve, but efforts continue on the part of scientists and those working in agriculture to reduce emissions and limit burning. Yet controversy remains, with palm oil being a major source of income in the region, and with powerful lobbying forces attempting to argue that peatlands should not be made into totally protected areas. While Indonesia has taken some steps towards legislating to protect peatlands, with the government acting in the wake of the 2015 fires, the Malaysia government has unswervingly supported the palm oil industry. Following the 15th International Peat Congress in August, the first held in Southeast Asia, four scientists including our own Sue Page have written a letter which was published in Science on the 4th November. In it they reiterate arguments that using peatlands for agriculture is unsustainable:

“Peat fires are globally significant for their greenhouse gas emissions and threats to human health and regional economies. Peat oxidation leads to high CO2 emissions and land subsidence. As the land surface falls toward river and sea levels, it will be subject to periodic and eventually permanent flooding, limiting future agricultural production (5). Agricultural use of peatlands cannot, therefore, be considered sustainable from either environmental or socioeconomic perspectives.”

The full content of the letter by Wijedasa et al. can be read here