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Studying Ecology at higher education – Field Work in Year 1

By Holly Marshgreen

Anyone who is an aspiring Ecologist should expect to be braving the world outside the classroom, come rain or shine. While knowing your theory is paramount for any study of science, field work is also an incredibly important part of studying Ecology as it helps us understand how ecosystems function in reality. We often need to make broad observations of how systems are working holistically as well as collect data on specific things and perform statistical tests in order to confirm what an earth is actually going on out there. I chose to study Ecology as an undergraduate largely for the great balance between theory and practical work. If you’re someone who likes to put theory into practice and don’t mind getting a bit muddy, then studying Ecology may be something for you! Here is a brief overview of some of the fieldwork I completed for my first year of study.

The grounds at Preston Montford FSC Centre
Microscope image of a centipede from leaf litter survey

Preston Montford FSC Centre The importance of practical work during my degree was made clear to me on my first day when one of the first thing mentioned was that the class would be going on a fieldtrip to Wales. I had two weeks to get a pair of walking boots, a decent rain coat and some warm fleeces before we attended our week long trip at Preston Montford FSC Centre (I know it’s not quite in Wales but we crossed the border for lunch). I had my first taste of bird surveys, habitat surveys, leaf litter surveys, peat bogs and discovered how great moss is (I didn’t get too soggy either). It was also a great a way to bond with my new classmates; there is plenty of time for fun and socialising while you’re not working in the evenings.

Stanmer Park Stanmer Park is located just on the outskirts of the city of Brighton. During my second semester we visited the park weekly, conducted bird surveys, habitat surveys and mammal surveys, eventually mapping everything out on software called GIS Arc Map. It’s safe to say I know that park pretty well now.

Transects on the rocky shore of Ovingdean beach
A starfish from the rocky shore

Intertidal Habitats around East Sussex We’ve written reports on both rocky shore and estuarine habitats around the area of Brighton, collecting data from Ovingdean beach and the mudflats in Shoreham. The skills and knowledge I learnt here, such as taking transects, the theory of zonation and learning adaptations to the extreme changes in intertidal habitats, would all come in handy during a trip to Portugal in my second year. Watching all the unprepared biology students walk through mud in trendy white trainers was also very entertaining.

Behavioural observations of anemone fish
A very friendly mauri wrasse

The Aquarium Probably everyone’s favourite place to do practical work is the Sea Life centre near the pier in Brighton and we visit regularly. Here, we are often just observing the animals, noting their adaptations and behaviour. It’s a beautiful way to learn about animals, and you may even make friends with them like I did.

Lab Work Although not outside, doing practical work in the lab is also something I’ve become much more familiar with at university. I have had the opportunity to work with all sorts of creatures like Daphnia and Woodlice and you never know about how incredible and interesting these little guys are until you study them in detail through labs and report writing. Developing skills in microscopy is essential for lab work and it was surprising how many of us struggled with it at first. If you’re nervous about the practical element when it comes to studying Ecology, don’t fret! The whole point is to learn at university so that when you graduate you have the practical skills you need for working in the Ecological field.

For my second year of study, the practical skills I learnt in first year have really been put into practice. I have had the incredible opportunity to conduct fieldwork in marine and freshwater habitats in the south west of Portugal as well back on home turf doing electrofishing and invertebrate surveys and will soon be learning more about conservation and animal behaviour in South Africa.

If you think you may be interested in studying Ecology and Conservation at higher education, follow the link to find details of the course I study at the University of Brighton:


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