Imperial College London

Sheep studies and community coalescence: News from the College


Sheep on a steep hill by the sea

Here’s a batch of fresh news and announcements from across Imperial.

From a decades-long study on sheep and their impacts on vegetation, to what happens when bacterial communities meet, here is some quick-read news from across the College.

Decades of sheep

Mick Crawley sampling vegetation on a cliff by the seaThe Soay sheep on the island of Hirta in the Outer Hebrides have been studied for more than 35 years. Since 1993, by a team led by Mick Crawley, from the Department of Life Sciences (Silwood Park) at Imperial has studied the interaction between plants and the sheep: how plant productivity affects sheep dynamics and how sheep grazing affects plant biomass and productivity.

The team found that plant primary productivity increased over the study period, associated with a signifiicant increase in sheep numbers. Other insights included the strong positive effect of sheep grazing on plant species richness.

Read the full paper in the Journal of Ecology.

Conservation games

Screenshots from the Wildeverse gameDigital games centred around conservation increase people’s knowledge and positive attitudes towards the environment, but don’t appear to encourage them to donate to conservation causes, shows a study led by Matilda Dunn from the Centre for Environmental Policy.

She and colleagues compared the results of playing the game ‘Wildeverse’ with watching a nature documentary, and found similar changes in attitude, but no corresponding increase in donations.

Matilda said: “One of the issues conservation outreach faces time and time again is the problem of ‘preaching to the converted’. By harnessing the persuasive and engaging powers of digital games, there is a potential for conservation outreach to increase awareness and motivation amongst the general public.

"However, as with many outreach interventions, it can be difficult to translate these attitudes into action and more research is needed to understand if and how digital games could bridge this gap.”

Read the full paper in People and Nature.

Peak oil demand

Old oil extractors‘Peak oil’, the predicted point at which demand for oil outstrips supply, has long been an accepted reality. However, a team from the Centre for Environmental Policy suggest that what might happen instead is ‘peak oil demand’ – that demand actually peters out before supply does.

While this would buck the trend of the past few decades, the drop in demand during the pandemic gave a glimpse of what this scenario may look like, and if the world gets serious about fighting climate change, peak oil demand may become a reality.

The team suggests how this possibility could be explored in order to prepare for a transition that could have huge impacts on societies, economies, and people.

Read the full paper in Energy Research & Social Science.

Community coalescence

Falling autumn leavesBacteria live in communities that can ‘coalescence’ with others, e.g. when people kiss or when a leaf falls to the ground. However, it is difficult to predict the outcomes of this coalescence, such as whether one community will ‘win out’, how stable the new community will be, and how well it will function.

Now, a team led by Imperial researchers have used mathematical modelling to study how the structure of one community affects its success when it encounters another.

They found that competitive interactions between microbes undermine their survival after coalescence, and vice versa. Furthermore, after a microbial community is exposed to repeated coalescence events, it drives the community to evolve towards becoming less competitive and more cooperative. This eventually makes the community more species-rich, productive, and resistant to invasions.

The insights could allow scientists to harness coalescence to design and regulate microbial communities for a range of biotechnological applications.

Read the full paper in PLoS Computational Biology.

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Hayley Dunning

Hayley Dunning
Communications Division

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Environment, News-in-brief, Global-challenges-Natural-world, Nature, Energy, Animal-research
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