Catching up with life at SCENE

Each year, a small group of Masters students is based at the University’s field station, SCENE. While they must travel into Glasgow for classes, they get truly unique experiences, some of which are chronicled in our Behind the SCENE blog series. Now, after arriving in September as a new resident Masters student, Danielle Orrell sheds some light on the year’s activity at the University’s Loch Lomond field station.

Catching up with life at SCENE

Nestled between the heights of Ben Lomond and the secluded village of Balmaha sits the University of Glasgow’s research station, the Scottish Centre for Ecology and the Natural Environment (SCENE). While the prospect of non-existent phone signal or a long trip to the supermarket may not appeal to some, this is quickly offset by the many opportunities offered by living in on the edge of the Scottish Highlands. There are unique freshwater sampling experiences, great walks (Conic Hill and Ben Lomond, to name a few) and lochs accessible for scuba diving. This setting is the perfect location for those like me, who enjoy great views, trails and wildlife. SCENE is currently home to three MRes students: Lucy Winder, Brigid Bell, and me. Since moving here in September, we have been able to work with other researchers on their projects and have taken part in many activities including bird ringing in the local woodlands and investigating the species living within Loch Lomond.

One example of a unique opportunity was a visit from the Loch Lomond Fisheries Trust in January. We were able to help with the collection of powan (Coregonus lupeoides) eggs from the loch. Powan are a freshwater fish that is endemic to two lochs in Scotland: Loch Lomond and Loch Eck. These eggs were developed at SCENE to be taken to primary and secondary school classrooms as part of the Trust’s Lomond in the Classroom lesson series. The students will learn about the life history and biology of powan as they watch the eggs develop and hatch. Not only did this feature my main research interest—freshwater fish—but helping with this program also reflected my enthusiasm for communicating science to young people. This is a prime example of effective STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) communication, offering children interactive and positive learning experiences that can help them foster a keen interest in their environment and maybe even inspire future scientists.

There are few quiet days at SCENE due to regular visits from University of Glasgow students and visiting researchers. These groups are coming to learn skills commonly employed among ecologists, such as small mammal trapping, invertebrate sampling and electrofishing, a common method to sample fish populations.

In January, I was invited to join senior fish ecologist Dr Alistair Duguid from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) to learn about environmental DNA (eDNA). This is DNA that has been released into water by plants and animals in the form of hair, mucous, skin, faeces and gametes, or due to death, and there is huge potential for its use. Collecting eDNA allows scientists to understand which species can be found in specific bodies of water without the need for invasive or costly field sampling. Loch Lomond is one of a number of sites currently being studied by SEPA with the hope that this technique will shine a new light on the inhabitants of Scottish lochs. I gained some great local knowledge on aquatic life in Loch Lomond while seeing first hand DNA collection techniques.

Ready to start the day: eDNA sampling equipment on Loch Lomond. Photo by Danielle Orrell.

In recent weeks SCENE has been a flurry of activity. During the breeding season, Institute researchers from Dr Barbara Helm’s Birds and Clocks team moved to SCENE to conduct their studies in the surrounding woodland. In addition, new PhD student Edward Curley has begun his work on the critically endangered freshwater pearl mussel (Margaritifera margaritifera) using SCENE’s state of the art flume system. Resident MRes student Lucy Winder will continue with her work, analysing the data collected from the woodlands around SCENE. Over the winter, she investigated how great tits (Parus major) use their body temperature to cope with stressful winter conditions.

For my own project, I travelled away from the research station to Cromarty Firth in northern Scotland to study the behaviour of Atlantic salmon smolts in natural and impounded waters. The impounded lochs were created by large hydropower dams, and I am interested in seeing if these structures affect the young fish as they migrate downstream and out to sea.

Fieldwork is now underway, with our team—PhD student Isabel Moore, Dr Matthew Newton, Dr Hannele Honkanen, and me—having tagged juvenile fish for our different tracking projects in the Cromarty Firth and on the Isle of Skye on Scotland’s northeast coast. We have begun the process of pulling up the receivers in Cromarty; they contain movement data on our tagged fish and, once analysed, will provide an insight into how smolts are moving within the studied lochs.

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I am excited that our field season is currently underway—it’s been great exploring Scotland and learning more about freshwater ecology. I’m also looking forward to analysing and writing up my research in the coming months, pulling together all of the skills I’ve gained during the taught Masters modules. Over the last nine months I have enjoyed living and working at SCENE. I have had some amazing opportunities which have allowed me to explore the natural environment and pursue my own research interests.

Author Danielle Orrell holds a perch from Loch Achonachie. Photo provided by Danielle Orrell.

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