A research project led by team member Andrew
With much of the research at Skalanes carried out on the rather conspicuous and abundant bird life strewn across the reserve, Iceland’s smaller organisms nestled within the stunted scrub vegetation may perhaps be left overlooked. This consequent knowledge gap is what primarily attracted me to explore a project in the field of invertebrates. The project I chose aims to investigate the potential effects of Alaskan lupin, an invasive non-native plant species, on Iceland’s invertebrate abundance and family level diversity.
The plant itself shares a complex history with Iceland; initially introduced to the country in an effort to reclaim much of Iceland’s deforested and eroded landscape it has since established itself in the wild and growth has spread out of control. Alaskan lupin’s hardy nature and nitrogen fixing abilities place it as a pioneer species and as such is usually one of the first plants to colonise an area of barren and nutrient poor land.
Attitudes towards the plants presence in Iceland vary, proponents of argue that efforts to eradicate would prove too costly and rather we should make the most of the plant’s soil stability and fertility bringing properties to aid in ecological succession and afforestation. Opposition points out that its invasive nature, with an absence natural predators, allows it to out-compete native vegetation and results in a loss of accompanying native species. The currently considered natural landscape of Iceland was however created largely through human deforestation activity over a thousand years ago, and thus could raise questions over what is considered natural or native in the first place.
Getting on a bit of a tangent here so anyway back to the point!
To achieve the aims of the project we carried out a series of sweep net transects randomly selected within patches of lupin and non-lupin native vegetation. This in itself proved challenging as selecting an area which both represented the wide variety of native vegetation at Skalanes and shared similar topographic characteristics to the patches of lupin to be compared required extensive deliberation.
Once the sites of both lupin and native vegetation patches were selected, random coordinates were taken from each to be used as transect starting points. At each coordinate point, random bearings were used to indicate the line of the 15m transect. We would then travel along the transect with a sweep net to collect all the invertebrates present.
The next and most fiddly task was to transfer the collected specimens from the net into a jar for further analysis at Skalanes’ brand new laboratory.
Here team members Andrew and Vanessa adopt the traditional net over head method for sucking up all the specimens with pooter whilst preventing them from flying away. In hindsight, we should have held the net up horizontal or slightly above our head as the flies have a tendency to fly upward, so holding the net as shown probably allowed a few to escape.
With the day’s samples collected, its time to go back to the lab for the perhaps more time intensive task of invertebrate identification!
A light microscope and torch were used in correspondence with a series of invertebrate keys to examine the key features of the invertebrates and to then place them in their respective families. This was an incredibly slow process as a lot of background reading and understanding of the invertebrates anatomy was required to follow the ID keys.
The majority of invertebrates collected were flies; largely midges, gnats, and flies of the Muscoidea superfamily. Other invertebrates included crab spiders, parasitic wasps, mites, and aphids.
Time constraints were perhaps the biggest problems that this project faced as with only 6 weeks in Iceland, there was quite a mad rush to identify the remaining specimens before we left! If I were to design a project similar to this looking forward, I would most definitely ensure that samples could be sent back to the UK for later identification, allowing more time to be allocated for sample collection.
The project itself has proved challenging and very time consuming but an incredibly insightful experience for all the team!
Work is far from over however and data analysis will ensue during the following months, so keep tuned for more updates to come!
Thank you for reading!!