Oil Palm plantation. Credit Millie Hood

#BiodiversityWeek: Our Solutions are in Nature

The theme for International Day for Biological Diversity 2020 is ‘Our Solutions are in Nature’:

The theme for the day shows that biodiversity remains the answer to a number of sustainable development challenges that we all face. From nature-based solutions to climate, food and water security, and sustainable livelihoods, biodiversity remains the basis for a sustainable future.

Dr Ed Turner, Curator of Insects at the University Museum of Zoology, begins our #BiodiversityWeek by explaining the impacts of one particular tropical crop found across the tropics. That crop is oil palm. While it is found across on many continents, researchers from the Museum of Zoology focus on plantations in South East Asia.


Researchers: from forests to plantations

Conserving biodiversity within forests is very important. This is especially true of rainforests. They are the undisputed champions of biodiversity among the world’s ecosystems and contain far higher numbers of species on a per-area basis relative to other habitats.

However, we must also focus on conserving biodiversity within managed ecosystems, such as oil palm plantations.

William Foster, Emeritus Curator of Insects and member of the Insect Ecology Group, reminds us: “Humans were of course not the first species to invent agriculture: that honour belongs to the fungus-growing termites and leaf-cutter ants, who made this transition tens of millions of years ago…”

William asks “…how do we best emulate leaf-cutter ants and grow monocultures that will feed us and with which we can live in harmony?”

Read the full article here: In Praise of Crop Monocultures

Large female golden orb-weaver spider with small red male (Nephila sp.)
Credit Michael Pashkevich

One potential answer to William’s question is to maintain or even enhance levels of biodiversity within monoculture systems. This is helpful for both the inherent value of biodiversity, and also for the economically and ecologically important jobs (i.e. “ecosystem functions”) performed by species living within oil palm plantations, which can help oil palms grow and produce high yields.

Researchers urgently need to determine ways to protect and enhance biodiversity within oil palm plantations. This is where a collaborative project with the palm oil industry, the BEFTA Programme comes in.

By experimentally manipulating the amount of understory (ground level) vegetation within plantations it is possible to test its effect on a wide range of species and ecosystem processes. The aim of this work is to establish agriculture management practices that can be used to enhance both biodiversity and important ecosystem functions, such as pest control, in tropical agricultural landscapes.

Buttercup and daisy flowers in cattle field. Credit S Steele
Flowers in cattle field

Task: Research how farmers in your local area are helping to provide for a diverse range of plant and animal species?

e.g. ‘Google’ farm field borders.

Further reading (recommended for ages 16+):

William Foster (et al.) 2011, Establishing the evidence base for maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem function in the oil palm landscapes of South East Asia


Termites: the Original Farmers

Millie Hood, postdoctoral researcher, says:

Millie holding a termite queen. "Sausages like this produce all the workers in the mound, which can mean millions of eggs in her lifetime. Rather her than me."
Millie holding a termite queen. “Sausages like this produce all the workers in the mound, which can mean millions of eggs in her lifetime. Rather her than me.”

I’m interested in finding more biodiversity-friendly ways of farming, and for my PhD I studied this in oil palm plantations in Sumatra, Indonesia. Experience is a valuable thing, so where better to look for advice than the OG farmers themselves?

Surprisingly, this didn’t mean a trip to the Fertile Crescent; probably the earliest example of human agriculture. Instead, it involved a deep-dive into termite mounds. Termites are the original farmers, with fossil evidence that they’ve been at it for 31 MILLION years.

In fact, ants and beetles beat us to it too.

Termite farming centres around incredible engineering, fungus, and pseudofaeces (aka, fake poo). Foraging termites head out from their nest to eat woody material, which they later poo onto termite-built fungus combes in their mounds.

From this, a delicious fungus grows which the termites munch on. This is an oversimplification, as the process is in fact very complicated. The chambers need to be kept at the right temperature and humidity, and disinfected to stop disease. Achieving this is what makes these mounds arguably the most complex animal-built structures in the world.

Termite fawning aside, my aim was to find out what was living in these mounds alongside the farmers themselves.

A tarantula, with a second one lurking behind it, that we found in one of the termite mounds
A tarantula, with a second one lurking behind it, that we found in one of the termite mounds. Credit Millie Hood.

This disease-free, temperature-and-humidity-regulated space would probably be quite a nice nesting or resting site for other species in the plantation. And, if we could show that they are important sources of biodiversity, we could maybe discourage plantation owners from removing the mounds; a current practice in some oil palm plantations.

We found a huge diversity of species nesting and resting in termite mounds. To our knowledge, we found the first documented examples of pythons (photographed) and cobras (not photographed – I’d rather back away quickly from a deadly king cobra) nesting in the mounds.

A Python brongersmai found in the mound. This big boy was nearly 2m long.
A Python brongersmai found in the mound. This big boy was nearly 2m long. Credit Millie Hood.

Naturally, we had some questions:

  • So why do the termites put up with these intruders?
  • Do they have a choice, or even realise that they’re there?
  • Maybe they like having them there, the snakes could scare away species that would otherwise eat the termites, such as rodents. Could this be a new kind of mutualistic relationship, where the termites and snakes are better off together?

The truth is, we don’t know. No one has studied it. It is another of many ecological unknowns in need of a biologist.

TASK: Have a go at answering the questions above. What kind of environment does a python need to thrive?

If you were a snake on a plantation, where would you lay your eggs?

Note: Excavating termite mounds is a destructive sampling method. However, as the plantation was due to be replanted when this study was carried out, no additional damage was caused. Replanting is a highly destructive process, and unfortunately the mounds would not have survived it.

Want to hear more about the snakes in termite mounds?
Find Millie Hood’s talk on “Why did the King Cobra cross the road?” at 57.27 in the video below:

Skip to 57.25: Dr Amelia Hood – Why did the King Cobra cross the road? To get to the termite mound

Further reading (recommended for ages 16+):

Hood et al. (2020) Termite mounds house a diversity of taxa in oil palm plantations irrespective of understory management


How does replanting impact arthropod communities?

Michael Pashkevich, PhD researcher at the Museum of Zoology says:

I’m an ecologist who wants to improve how we manage agricultural systems. One way to do this is by growing crops in ways that benefit biodiversity. I study arthropods, which include animals like insects and arachnids, and I’m most fascinated by spiders.

Give the video a watch to discover how a seemingly destructive replanting process impacts arthropod communities:

TASK: What benefits do the arthropods (i.e. insects and spiders) in your back garden or local green space provide to the landscape?

Describe this in a paragraph, an illustration or a graph.

Discover more about British spiders in Michael’s illustrative post:
Your friendly neighbourhood British Spiders


Water and Sky: Odonata

Sarah Luke, postdoctoral research associate, says:

Sarah Luke with collaborators in the field
Sarah Luke with research collaborators in the field. Credit Ed Turner

Dragonflies and damselflies (known collectively as Odonata), are charismatic and showy insects that are found in a wide variety of habitats.

Their larvae develop in water, whilst the adults rely on resources from the land, meaning that dragonflies and damselflies can be affected by a range of impacts. Studying Odonata can therefore point us to any, perhaps even unseen, environmental changes that are happening across landscapes (i.e. an ‘indicator’ species).

Odonata means ‘toothed jaws’, an excellent description of these effective predator’s eating aparatus. As both larvae and flying adults, dragonflies and damselflies are carnivorous, and prey on many other insects and invertebrates.

TASK: Keeping the needs of these animals in mind, what environmental factors may impact dragonfly and damselfly survival?

Demonstrate your thoughts with an illustrated diagram.

A deeper look into the dragonfly and damselfly communities in oil palm plantations provided interesting results.

Showing three plots with different leves of understory plant growth

As this investigation is part of the BEFTA Understory Vegetation Project (previously mentioned above); which aims to determine whether a greater complexity of understory plant growth has an impact on the species found (or not found) within plantations; observations were taken from a number of different sites among the palms.

Our results highlight that there are large numbers of dragonfly and damselfly species found within oil palm plantations, and that the understory vegetation complexity has a relatively small impact on dragonfly abundance (quantity). Rainfall, however, was found to be a very important factor in their success.

Thoughts: Their abundance could perhaps be increased further by maintaining or establishing waterbodies to provide more habitat for development of their larvae.

As Odonata are predators, there’s a chance this could bring pest control benefits, in addition to enhancing biodiversity within intensive agricultural landscapes.

Odonata in plantation, Sumatra. Credit Ed Turner
Odonata in plantation, Sumatra. Credit Ed Turner

TASK: Discuss with a friend or family member:

Why is it important for us to find species that can help with pest management in agricultural landscapes?

Discover more about dragonflies, the BEFTA projects and more of Sarah’s research here: Research story: A diversity of dragonflies in oil palm plantations

Further reading (recommended for ages 16+):

Luke et al. (2020b) Complexity within an oil palm monoculture: The effects of habitat variability and rainfall on adult dragonfly (Odonata) communities


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