Published on: 16 May 2014
Lewis's research was featured in Oxford's land management conference.
All creatures great and small – Lewis Bartlett’s research spans a wide spectrum, from the extinct Woolly Mammoth down to the humble honey bee.
In this researcher in focus the Environment and Sustainability Institute’s Research Support Officer Lewis discusses how human activity might have contributed to megafauna extinctions, why he has come to University of Exeter and why being a passionate beekeeper has influenced his research.
What is your current research about?
My current work looks at how we can improve and change the way we monitor the environment.
We’re getting the public involved in environmental monitoring; farmers, landowners and people who have an interest in finding out about what’s going on in their backyard are all feeding information into a much wider data set. This information could help monitor things like the light levels, light pollution and summer water tables across Cornwall; this would be a great thing to achieve over the next few months.
I’ll be moving to the honeybee project in September which will look at 100s if not 1,000s of colonies across an entire landscape. It would be great if this work made some big leaps in how we model disease evolution in bee populations. I’d really like to be in a position where we can confidently say; ‘if we manipulate this system, we can help prevent these diseases from becoming more deadly’.
By understanding these viruses we can start preventative measures to stop these widespread diseases that are driving a decline in pollinators. The drive to ensure Bee survival isn’t just about food security but also because of their cultural significance; we feel very attached to bumblebees and honey bees and I feel that if we were to lose them it would be a real cultural loss as well as a dangerous loss to agriculture. I’m a passionate beekeeper and have quite an interest in keeping a healthy bee population.
How did your research into megafauna start?
It started with my undergraduate project and over the past year I have done further work which led up to presenting my work at Oxford’s megafauna conference. The core of my research is about the debates in the research community as to what killed off these big animals; was it climate change or human intervention?
What sort of megafauna would most people be familiar with?
A lot of people are familiar with ice age megafauna – woolly mammoths and woolly rhinoceros but even earlier than that, in the warm period before the last ice age we had huge lions and hyenas, straight tusked elephants and hippopotamuses that covered Britain and Europe.
Australia had giant lizards and wombats and South America had some of the strangest megafauna; giant armadillos and giant ground sloths – which were the size of elephants.
How did human activity contribute to the extinction of these megafauna?
There are three big theories that encapsulate the human impact on megafauna. For some animals it is likely that humans predated them and that extinction was caused by hunting; for others, like sabre-toothed cats, it seems that humans displaced them geographically.
The third human effect involves early humans’ use of fire; there’s every chance that large areas of habitat were destroyed, drastically changing the landscape and causing megafauna extinctions.
What implications does the megafauna research that was presented at Oxford’s conference have for modern day land management and ecology?
There has been a lot of discussion about replacing these lost ecosystem functions and ‘rewilding’ areas of land. This research pushes conservation towards looking at ecosystem services, the ways in which the ecosystem benefits humankind; questions are already starting to be raised about what ecosystem services we’re lacking.
Some people are trying to reintroduce Indian water buffalo and Indian elephants to reserves in Russia but I don’t think we’ll see that in Britain. We don’t have any of these large animals in our landscape and we need to think about what value it would add if we introduced them to replace animals like the Aurochs - a type of large wild cattle, which are now extinct.
The debate in modern conservation is: “If something acts identically to an extinct creature, in an ecosystem, is it worthwhile reintroducing it?” There’s a lot of debate around this topic but my personal opinion is that just because something behaves like a mammoth and looks a bit like a mammoth it doesn’t make it a mammoth. Other people would argue that if it’s functionally the same then it is doing the same job for the ecosystem.
What attracted you about University of Exeter, how do you think it can support your research?
I think the quality of research here is outstanding; it’s difficult not to notice the high-profile groups that work here.
All universities need to show a lot more interest in things like science communication and getting stakeholders interested in the science that’s being done; Exeter puts a lot of effort into emphasising the gains in that field which is what attracted me.
The topics of research in Cornwall were another attraction; there’s a lot of focus on emerging diseases and pollinators which are subjects I’ve always been interested in, as well as large-scale monitoring programmes.