Ecologist works biodiversity data hub to protect Ireland’s flora and fauna

21 Jun 2013

Ecologist Dr Eugenie Regan

Ireland’s biodiversity is in decline – why does it matter? Claire O’Connell talks to Dr Eugenie Regan about getting a measure of flora and fauna and the need to protect what we have.

Creatures that creep, scuttle and buzz aren’t always everyone’s favourites, but the likes of worms and insects do a serious amount of work on our behalf to keep soils fertile and plants pollinated. And that’s before we even consider the other animals, plants, fungi and micro-organisms that influence our food, water, air and even our economy. So when ecologist Dr Eugenie Regan points out that as many as one-quarter to one-third of species in Ireland could be heading for extinction, it’s time to sit up.

Habitat loss and climate change are taking their toll on the abundance of species and populations in Ireland, according to Regan, who works with the National Biodiversity Data Centre, a kind of ‘central statistics office’ for biodiversity that gathers information about the plants and animals of Ireland.

“We are a hub for biodiversity data,” she explains. “NGOs, Government organisations and the general public hold a lot of information on Ireland’s biodiversity and they submit their data into us. Then we disseminate the data through an online public portal and mapping system and by feeding data into other initiatives, as well.”

Drawn to ecology 

Regan has a long-standing interest in biodiversity and the environment – she studied environmental science at NUI Galway and initially had her sights on wind energy, but ecology proved more attractive, and for her PhD, which was funded by IRCSET (now the Irish Research Council), she studied the ecology of turloughs, or temporary lakes in the west of Ireland. An Environmental Protection Agency-sponsored Fulbright award saw her extend her studies to wetlands in the US at the Southeastern Louisiana University, and then she moved to Trinity College Dublin, where her EPA-funded post-doctoral work looked at insect biodiversity in relatively isolated habitats, this time calcareous grasslands.   

“These turloughs and grasslands are like islands of habitats nestled within a much more intensive agricultural landscape in Ireland,” explains Regan. “And I was finding that as these ‘islands’ were getting smaller and more distant from each other, they were showing less biodiversity.”

Taking stock of biodiversity

In 2007, she moved to Waterford to help start the National Biodiversity Data Centre, which is funded through the Heritage Council and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, and that’s where she now deals with biodiversity data coming in from all over Ireland. Information sources include EPA surveys, members of the public logging sightings of animals, such as foxes, and also the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme, which asks people to record data online about the butterflies they spot.  

The result is a ‘one-stop-shop’ where people can look at biodiversity data mapped around Ireland and drill down for details, explains Regan. “Before if a planning permission came in and a planner had to assess are there any rare or legally protected species in this area, it would have been almost impossible to have found that information out,” she offers as an example. “But now people can know that something rare is there or a legally protected species and the plan is that would trigger further surveys.”

But there’s a darker message, too: when projects at the centre analysed the data, they found downward trends. “Biodiversity in Ireland is decreasing,” says Regan. “And we estimate that across the board between between one-third and one-quarter are under threat of extinction.”

Habitat loss is the big issue, she notes. “It could be as obvious as a site being bulldozed, or it could be more subtle changes, such as grasslands changing to scrub,” explains Regan, adding that climate change can also affect species, such as pests and disease vectors. 

The cost of failing to address or adapt to the changes could be stark, she notes. “We completely overlook that we are part of the landscape – the food, air and water we need all come from the environment. And it’s a fragile web in some ways – you can take certain things out but when you take too many things out it starts to break down.”

Global and local

Regan will shortly be bringing her expertise to global biodiversity when she joins the United Nations World Conservation Monitoring Centre in Cambridge in the UK, where she will be analysing bioindicator species that can be a sentinel of ecological change.  

Meanwhile, she points out that at a local level, there are steps that people can take to help conserve biodiversity: “Don’t mow the lawn, if you leave it you get flowers, which are then there for the pollinators,” she suggests. “And cut down on pesticides and herbicides and lots of heavy domestic cleaners – our water courses are definitely being influenced.”

Such simple steps could bump up the numbers and help address the slide down the biodiversity charts, she explains, adding that the time to act is now. “Ireland’s biodiversity is essential to our lives, it is declining and we need to something about it.”

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s year-long campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication