Colour matters

Colour change is a surprisingly widespread feature in the animal kingdom. Rapid colour change occurs in both invertebrates and vertebrates. The feature has been observed in crustaceans, insects, cephalopods, amphibians, reptiles and fish.

There are two main methods for changing colour: morphological and physiological colour change. Morphological colour change is based on changes in the number and quality of pigmentophores, whereas physiological colour change is based on changes in the number of organella within the pigmentophores. Melanophores are the most common pigmentophores to have melanosomes. Physiological colour change is much faster than morphological colour change. It can happen in microseconds. Physiological colour change is regulated by the neuromuscular system in cephalopods and by the neuroendocrine system in other classes. Environmental factors, such as background, lighting conditions, temperature and moisture, along with behaviour and stress can trigger physiological colour change.

Animals capable of changing colour usually have more than one colour-change strategy. Environment, the number of predators, predator species and the presence of individuals of the same species influence the colour-change strategy. For example, the daisy parrotfish (or bullethead parrotfish, Chlorurus sordidus) has three different colourations: individuals have stripes, are all black or have an eye-dot on the tail. The purpose of the eye-dot is to frighten predators, whereas the all-black daisy parrotfish tries to blend in with its background and the striped daisy parrotfish tries to bluff or dazzle its predators. The occurrence of these colourations is influenced by environmental background, the body size of the daisy parrotfish and its social relationships. On the other hand, the common cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis) chooses its strategy by whether a predator hunts using vision or chemical signals (watch how the common cuttlefish changes its colour). Chameleons (Chamaeleonidae), however, change their colour according to the environmental background rather than to mimic or to frighten.

The common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) can change its colour. © Sari Holopainen

Temperature affects the melanocyte-stimulating hormone (MSH) in many colour-changing animals such as fish, amphibians, reptiles and crustaceans. MSH is in charge of dispersing melanin. Changing to a dark or light colour helps an animal to either reflect or absorb heat. On the other hand, changing colour can concurrently predispose the animal to predation, because the animal is unable to blend in with its environment. The colour change of over 25 desert reptile species has been proven to depend on both environmental temperature and body temperature regulation. When it gets very warm (over +40°C) reptiles change to a lighter colour despite their background being somewhat dark. The reptiles usually still escape from predation because predators are inactive at such high temperatures. In proportion, when it gets cooler reptiles become darker than their environment, especially if they are near to cover.


Wetlands, the Earth’s kidneys

Wetlands are one of the world’s most important ecosystems. They are referred to as the “Earth’s kidneys” and that comparison could not be more accurate. Wetlands truly are as important to the planet as kidneys are to humans, with one exception: humans can survive with only one kidney, but the Earth cannot.

Kidneys are in charge of humans’ fluid balance. If we are dehydrated, our kidneys try to preserve as much water in our bodies as possible, and when we have excess water our bodies, our kidneys work to discharge the extra water. Wetlands work in the same way. They mitigate both floods and droughts by absorbing and recharging water.

A wetland photographed from a drone. © Antti Nykänen

In addition to fluid balance, kidneys are also responsible for removing unnecessary and hazardous substances, such as waste products and medical substances. In resemblance to our kidneys, wetlands purify our natural waters. They filter and remove nutrients and pollutants from our rain and floodwaters. Extra nutrients will sink to the bottom of the wetland and hence are available for wetland vegetation. Kidneys purify 1750 litres of blood every day, but the water purification ability of global wetlands is 30-fold. Wetlands purify 30 cubic litres of water daily.

Unfortunately, the world has lost approximately half of its wetlands, and Europe alone has destroyed and altered two-thirds of its wetlands. We need strong actions to retain the Earth’s functioning.

The value of wetlands is essential in urban environments, where nutrient and pollutant levels are manyfold compared to more natural environments. Urban wetlands should be seen as important and cheap tools to purify our stormwaters, along with maintaining biodiversity within cities.

A Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) chick at a wetland in Finland. © Mia Vehkaoja

Luckily, the Ramsar Convention has acknowledged the importance of urban wetlands and themed this year’s World Wetland Day as “Wetlands for a Sustainable Urban Future”. Happy World Wetland Day 2018! Let’s appreciate the Earth’s vital organs.

Traffic flattens billions of frogs every year

Amphibians are run over by cars more often than other vertebrates. Per road kilometer, an average 250 amphibian individuals die every year because of traffic. According to this calculation, over 113.5 million frogs die annually on the Finnish road network (454 000 km). In Brazil, one of the world’s amphibian hot spots, traffic annually kills 9 420 frogs on each road kilometer. This means a total of over 16 billion frogs lost due to traffic.


Roads built near wetlands are the most significant cause of frog mortality on all continents, but particularly in Europe. No relief is in sight for this problem, because traffic amounts are increasing every year throughout the world.


Fast-moving frog species are somewhat fortunate because their traffic mortality is quite low on roads with little traffic (24–40 cars per hour). Up to 94% of fast-moving frogs survive when crossing a road. Slow-moving species, such as the common toad (Bufo bufo), are not that lucky. Only half of common toads survive to the other side of a road. On busier roads (60 cars in an hour) over 90% of common toads are run over by a car.

A dead common toad (Bufo bufo) hit by a car. © Mia Vehkaoja

Amphibians suffer from both direct and indirect negative effects of road networks and traffic. Mortality is a direct cause, whereas isolation is an indirect cause. Amphibians migrate according to seasons: during spring to their breeding grounds and during autumn to their wintering grounds. These migrations make amphibians vulnerable to traffic mortality. Season migrations occur particularly in the temperate zone, such as in Europe, where traffic has become the greatest threat to amphibian survival in certain places.


The traffic mortality of frogs decreases population sizes and reduces migration, which lead to a decreasing gene flow between populations and the disappearance of genetic diversity. Smaller populations are at greater risk of going extinct.


Historically thousands of kilometers of roads have been built through wetlands, which leads to the disappearance, isolation and depletion of wetland habitats. Roads also influence the cycle and function of water systems. Road construction has drained and polluted wetlands all over the world.


Conservation actions should concentrate not only on restricting road construction laws and regulations, but on preventing frogs from accessing roads by installing culverts and fences. According to a French study, the combination of culverts and fences is the most efficient way for saving frogs from traffic mortality. But this is just one study, and unfortunately we still know too little about which methods are best for amphibian conservation.


Four reasons why beaver wetlands are paradise for pin lichens

Beaver activity enhances the occurrence and diversity of pin lichens (Caliciales). Both the number of species and individuals is much higher in beaver-created wetlands than in other types of boreal forest landscapes. There are four reasons behind this:

1. High amounts of deadwood. Pin lichens grow on both living trees and deadwood. Decorticated deadwood in particular is preferred by pin lichens. Beaver-induced flooding kills trees in the riparian zone and produces high amounts of decorticated snags.

Pin lichen on decorticated stump. © Mia Vehkaoja

2. Diversity of deadwood types. Beaver activity produces snags, logs and stumps. Snags are created by the flood, whereas logs and stumps are also produced by beaver gnawing. The diversity of deadwood tree species is also wide, containing both deciduous and coniferous tree species. The diversity of deadwood types maintains a high diversity of pin lichen species.

3. High humidity conditions. High humidity conditions are favorable for many pin lichen species. Old-growth forests are usually the only places in the boreal forest belt that contain high humidity conditions. There the shading of trees creates a beneficial microclimate for pin lichens. Lighting, on the other hand, becomes a limiting factor for pin lichens in old-growth forests. Most snags in beaver wetlands stand in water, where steady and continuously humid conditions are maintained on the deadwood surface.

Snags produced by a beaver flood in Evo (southern Finland). © Mia Vehkaoja

4. Sufficient lighting conditions. Because most of the deadwood in beaver wetlands stands in water, it is concurrently in a very open and sunny environment. Many boreal pin lichens are believed to be cheimophotophytic (cheimoon=winter), meaning that they are able to maintain photosynthesis also during winter at very low temperatures. The algae member of pin lichens requires enough light for photosynthesis. Open beaver wetlands make photosynthesis possible for pin lichens during both summer and winter. Snow also enhances light availability during winter.

More information: Vehkaoja, M., Nummi, P., Rikkinen, J. 2016: Beavers promote calicioid diversity in boreal forest landscapes. Biodiversity and Conservation. 26 (3): 579-591.


Drones conquer biological research

For centuries, biologists have been known for their good fieldwork competence and persistence in data collection. But new technology has now arrived to weaken the strong constitution of biologists, though fortunately not our persistence.

Drones a.k.a. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (= UAV) have been a hot topic for a while now. Previously talk has mainly concentrated on how drones can be used to deliver mail or pizza, or even used for military purposes. But recently researchers have also begun acknowledging the possibilities that drones offer.

Drones or UAVs are remote-controlled or autopiloted to fly a certain route. © Mia Vehkaoja

Drones or UAVs are remote-controlled or autopiloted to fly a certain route. © Mia Vehkaoja

Drones are, as their more professional name implies, unmanned light aircrafts that usually resemble either planes or helicopters. They are either remote-controlled or can be programmed to automatically fly a predetermined route. UAVs can be used to collect aerial photographs and videos, from which orthophotos and terrain and 3D models can be produced. The National Land Survey of Finland uses laser scanning photos that deliver an accuracy of 50 cm, whereas aerial photographs from drones can provide an accuracy of 1–10 cm. With such accuracies we can almost identify and count individual plant specimens.

An aerial photograph of a beaver wetland taken with a drone. © Antti Nykänen

An aerial photograph of a beaver wetland taken with a drone. © Antti Nykänen

Drone orthophotos make it possible for example to calculate the vegetation and open water cover percentages of a water system, and define the vegetation categories of an area. UAV-produced photos open up new horizons for defining vegetation classes. These classes have previously been categorized pretty roughly e.g. tree stand, bushes and brushwood. But now we can identify vegetation to the family or even genus level.

An orthophoto produced from the aerial photos taken with a drone. © Antti Nykänen

An orthophoto produced from the aerial photos taken with a drone. © Antti Nykänen

UAVs can also be utilized in game animal calculations. For example, they are an easier and faster way to calculate the ducks or geese in a certain area. On the other hand, they also make it possible to observe the nests of raptors from the air, which is considerably safer and faster (no tree-climbing involved) for the researcher, and a stress-free method for the bird. Heat cameras can additionally be attached onto the drone, making it possible to calculate the mammals, such as deer, in dense canopy landscapes. USA and Germany have already used drones to calculate mammal populations. UAVs are best suited for at least hare-sized animals.

Drones are here to stay and their use in research will increase and diversify in the future.  Researchers just need to hold on to their seats and let their imaginations fly.


The beaver – our wetland rescuer

The beavers (Castor canadensis and Castor fiber) have recovered from near extinction, and come to the rescue of wetland biodiversity. Two major processes drive boreal wetland loss: the near extinction of beavers, and extensive draining (if we exclude the effects of the ever-expanding human population). Beaver dams have produced over 500 square kilometers of wetlands in Europe during the past 70 years.


The wetland creation of beavers begins with the flood. As floodwaters rise into the surrounding forest, soil and vegetation are washed into the water system. The amount of organic carbon increases in the wetland during the first three impoundment years, after which they gradually begin reverting back to initial levels. The increase in organic carbon facilitates the entire wetland food web in stages, beginning with plankton and invertebrates, and ending in frogs, birds and mammals.

The previous shoreline is very evident from an aerial photograph. Also the beaver flooded area shows clearly. © Antti Nykänen

The previous shoreline is very evident from an aerial photograph. Also the beaver flooded area shows clearly. © Antti Nykänen

Beaver-created wetlands truly become frog paradises. The wide shallow water area creates suitable spawning and rearing places. The shallow water warms up rapidly, and accelerates hatching and tadpole development. Beaver-created wetlands also ensure ample nutrition. The organic carbon increase raises the amounts of tadpole nutrition (plankton and protozoans) in the wetland, along with the nutriment of adult frogs (invertebrates). Furthermore, the abundant vegetation creates hiding places against predators for both tadpoles and adult frogs.

Beaver-created wetlands are perfect rearing places for frogs. The warm water accelerates hatching and the abundant aquatic vegetation gives cover against predators. © Mia Vehkaoja

Beaver-created wetlands are perfect rearing places for frogs. The warm water accelerates hatching and the abundant aquatic vegetation gives cover against predators. © Mia Vehkaoja

The flood and beaver foraging kill trees in the riparian zone. Deadwood is currently considered a vanishing resource. Finnish forests have an average 10 cubic meters of deadwood per hectare, whereas beavers produce over seven times more of the substrate into a landscape. Beaver-produced deadwood is additionally very versatile. Wind, fire and other natural disturbances mainly create two types of deadwood: coarse snags and downed logs. Beavers, on the other hand, produce both snags and downed logs of varying width, along with moderately rare deciduous deadwood. The more diverse the deadwood assortment is, the richer the deadwood-dependent species composition that develops in the landscape.

Beaver-created wetlands produce  especially standing deadwood. © Mia Vehkaoja

Beaver-created wetlands produce especially standing deadwood. © Mia Vehkaoja

Deadwood-dependent species are one of the most endangered species groups in the world. The group includes e.g. lichens, beetles and fungi. Currently there are 400 000 to a million deadwood-dependent species in the world. Over 7000 of these inhabit Finland. Pin lichens are lichens that often prefer snags as their living environment. Beaver actions produce large amounts of snags, which lead to diverse pin lichen communities. Snags standing in water provide suitable living conditions for pin lichens; a constant supply of water is available from the moist wood, and the supply of light is additionally limitless in the open and sunny beaver wetlands.


The return of beavers has helped the survival of many wetland and deadwood-associated species in Finland, Europe and North America. Only 1000 beavers inhabited Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. Now over a million beavers live in Europe. I argue that this increase has been a crucial factor benefitting the survival and recovery of wetland biodiversity. Finland and the other EU member states still have plenty of work to do to achieve the goals of the EU Water Framework Directive. Both the chemical conditions and the biodiversity of wetlands / inland waters affect the biological condition and quality of wetlands.


The whole research published here


Pin lichens — the tiny color blots on deadwood

Have you ever entered a forest and seen a person hugging a tree, peering up along the trunk? From this day onwards you can breathe freely again, because you have just encountered a pin lichen biologist at work, and not some bizarre tree-hugging ritual.

Pin lichen biologist peering up along the trunk. © Stella Thompson

Pin lichen biologist peering up along the trunk. © Stella Thompson

Pin lichens, or more formally known as Calicioids, are a diverse and monophyletic lichen group, which usually inhabits deadwood. As their name suggests, they resemble pins. They are tiny, approximately between one millimeter and five centimeters in size. The best way to observe them is to peer up along the trunk of a tree. The spores accumulate into a mazaedium (a cup-shaped part of the fungi), from which they can cling onto the hairs and feathers of animals, or passively disperse otherwise. The spores can be recognized as soot-like dust on your fingers.

Pin lichens growing on deadwood. This species Mycocalicium subtile can be identified with often paler infested area than the surrounding wood. © Mia Vehkaoja

Pin lichens growing on deadwood. This species Mycocalicium subtile can be identified with often paler infested area than the surrounding wood. © Mia Vehkaoja

Although it is relative easy to observe pin lichens with the bare eye, species identification is usually conducted using a loupe or microscope. Further observation opens an entire new world of colors. The algae parts of many pin lichen species are brightly colored in yellow, green, or red. On other species, the stalk of the fungal part forming the actual pin structure can also be quite colorful: white, green, yellow, or brown.

Rust-stained pin lichen (Chaenotheca ferruginea) thrives on conifers, and it is quite widely distributed in temperate to cool temperate areas of the Northern Hemisphere. © Mia Vehkaoja

Rust-stained pin lichen (Chaenotheca ferruginea) thrives on conifers, and it is quite widely distributed in temperate to cool temperate areas of the Northern Hemisphere. © Mia Vehkaoja

There are approximately 70 different pin lichen species in Finland, but unfortunately they are a very deficiently studied group. Some species are parasites. They sponge on e.g other pin lichen species or mosses. Even pin lichen fossils have been found within amber. Using these fossils we are able to model the tree structures of forests that grew over a million years ago. This tiny, yet fascinating, species group deserves to receive more attention. Furthermore, observing them is relatively easy, because they don’t move and make a run for it. All you need is a pair of sharp eyes.