30 million reasons you will be missed

30 million reasons you will be missed

30 million reasons you will be missed

Pioneer field biologist, entomologist, and mentor, Terry Erwin passes away at age 79
Erwin supervising the trees at work, the Tiputini Research Station, Ecuador, 2013. PHOTO CREDIT: Beulah Garner

The world lost a brilliant mind last week when Terry L. Erwin passed away on May 11, 2020, at the age of 79. Many among us in the scientific community feel this great loss, for you did not need to have personally known, or even have met Erwin to recognize the name or appreciate the significance of his work.

    Erwin not only published prolifically on beetle systematics – describing four tribes, 22 genera, and 439 species of Carabidae – but also tremendously influenced the way many think about biodiversity.

    “He brought alive for many the far-off world and the mysteries therein of the neotropics,” said Beulah Garner, Senior Curator at the Natural History Museum in London, and Erwin’s colleague and friend of nine years. “I think it was the first time anyone, through their scientific exploration, had made a place and a fauna at once seem magical, touchable, and quantifiable.”

    Erwin was serving as a research entomologist and curator of Coleoptera at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History at the time of his death. He was a pioneer in neotropical conservation biology and canopy research, having developed the study of tree canopy insects into an academic discipline as early as 1974.

    Notably, in his small paper in 1982 that examined canopy beetles and host plant relationships to understand the number of species present in an acre of Panamanian forest, Erwin dramatically expanded our conception of terrestrial insect diversity.

    Graphical abstract of Erwin’s 1982 paper IMAGE CREDIT: Michelle Lynn D’Souza

    As a young graduate student interested in using DNA barcoding to evaluate insect diversity in Central America and to assess global diversity estimates, Erwin’s work was a guidepost for my own research. His 1982 publication was particularly iconic. Ironically, it was in the last ‘throwaway’ paragraph (as he described it) – suggesting the presence of 30 million arthropod species, at the time estimated to be around one-and-a half million – that he sparked a global debate about the number of species on the planet.

    Even years later, he was enduring in his defense of the ‘30 million’ estimate, according to Garner. His holistic approach to field biology, with Carabidae at its core, enabled him to understand the relatedness of species as well as the mechanisms that drive such incredible diversity so clearly. “Even higher [than 30 million] he would say! And, having been in the field with him, with his meticulous observations of the microverse, his pioneering investigations into the forest canopy, I absolutely believe him,” said Garner. “These were not assumptions from a dataset, a modelling outcome, these were from direct in-field observations: a true naturalist.” While his estimate has been debated, refuted, and revised to approximately seven million arthropod species, the discussion remains active today.

    A true naturalist at home in the jungles of Yasuni National Park, Ecuador, 2018.
    PHOTO CREDIT: Beulah Garner

    While always having been interested in DNA-based techniques, it was not until much later in Erwin’s career that he used it in his own work. Heavily involved in the field of systematics, he was among the first of those in the early 1980s that experienced its infusion with the beginnings of gene sequencing. While in its own right revolutionary, sequencing technology was just another tool to study the natural world, one that would eventually be replaced by the tricorder, Erwin explained to Dr. Bilgenur Baloglu, then a Ph.D. student at the National University of Singapore studying chironomid diversity, in an interview during the International Congress of Entomology in Florida in 2016. He was referring to DNA barcoding and the beginnings of Drs. Paul Hebert and Dan Janzen’s tests with Costa Rican moths.

    As noted by Dr. Scott Miller, science committee member of the International Barcode of Life Consortium (iBOL) and deputy undersecretary at the Smithsonian Institution, Erwin was always enthusiastic about collaborations between iBOL and the Smithsonian to barcode insect genera, such as that currently funded by the Global Genome Initiative (GGI). He is the main reason that Carabid beetles were one of the first families covered under the project, contributing substantially to the species barcoded and deposited on the Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLD), according to Miller. He also collaborated with Dr. Carlos Garcia-Robledo and others at the Smithsonian on a series of papers on insect-host plant relationships, among many others, that used DNA barcoding to identify the gut contents of insect herbivores as well as egg and larval plant associations to reconstruct species interactions in tropical networks.

    Miller first began working with Erwin in 1986 at the Smithsonian Institution as a postdoctoral fellow. Together they had a vision that became the Biodiversity in Latin America Tropics (BIOLAT), a program based around standardized sampling, something that may seem logical now, but was novel in fields like entomology at the time, according to Miller. Since then, a lot of other organizations have tried similar standardized programs but have struggled under the weight of the taxonomic impediment.  “When seen against this background, iBOL initiatives such as the Global Malaise Program or BioAlfa are truly amazing,” said Miller. “It is most unfortunate that DNA barcoding was not available when Terry started canopy fogging!”

    Erwin canopy fogging at 4 a.m. at the Onkone Gare camp, Yasuni National Park, Ecuador, 2018.
    PHOTO CREDIT: Beulah Garner

    From planning BIOLAT, to consulting for Biosphere 2 (the subject of the documentary ‘Spaceship Earth’), to the initial canopy fogging endeavour in Papua New Guinea (PNG) that eventually led to the Binatang Research Center and the PNG insect ecology program, Erwin encouraged, guided, and inspired Miller’s endeavours for years.

    Terry understood the importance of nurturing the next generation of talent, and especially the importance of diversifying the [scientific] pipeline.

    Dr. Scott Miller

    Science committee member of the International Barcode of Life Consortium (iBOL) and deputy undersecretary at the Smithsonian Institution

    “Terry understood the importance of nurturing the next generation of talent, and especially the importance of diversifying the [scientific] pipeline,” says Miller. “Terry was always eager to provide opportunities for young scientists, especially women, and people from developing countries.” While working together at the Smithsonian, Miller recounts how Erwin always hosted interns and fellows, bringing them to meetings and conferences, and trying to connect them to future opportunities.

    Erwin had the greatest spirit of academic generosity, quick to provide advice, a reference from his encyclopedic library, or specimens for one’s own research, according to Garner. Erwin nurtured a passion for discovery in many students and inspired it in even more biologists. As he told Bilgenur back in 2016, you do not become a biologist if you are out for money, but you do it for the joy of being out in the field. “For me, the bottom line is if you like fieldwork, be a biologist. It’s the best place to be,” said Erwin in her interview. “If you are out in the rainforest, every single day, actually maybe every hour, there’s a tremendous discovery. And that’s what’s really rewarding – discovery.”

    Erwin hunting Carabidae near the Tiputini Research Station, Ecuador, 2013.
    PHOTO CREDIT: Beulah Garner

    In the field, Garner recounts, Erwin would wake early, sit by the Tiputini river with black coffee and binoculars, and study the jungle whilst it woke. “Canopy fogging is a race to finish before the dawn and Terry was indefatigable,” said Garner. “It’s 4 a.m. in the primary jungles of South America, you’re setting up your traps, and Terry is right beside you, overseeing operations as if the rainforest were his orchestra and he the conductor.” In the evening after supper with head torch and aspirator, it would be time to go on a Carabidae hunt.

    It’s 4 a.m. in the primary jungles of South America, you’re setting up your traps, and Terry is right beside you, overseeing operations, as if the rainforest were his orchestra and he the conductor.

    Beulah Garner

    Senior Curator at the Natural History Museum, London

    He was fearless, saving Garner from a pack of marauding peccaries in Ecuador, as well as rescuing her from bivouacking army ants as they surrounded their camp in the dead of night. “He was and is the reason I endeavour to be a good field biologist,” said Garner. “His compassion and consideration and genuine every-day awe for the natural world is a method to live and work by.”

    Beulah Garner (left) and Terry Erwin (right) inspecting the flight intercept traps, Tiputini Research Station, Ecuador, 2013. PHOTO CREDIT: Dr. Kelly Swing

    Erwin very much valued the natural world, possessing an astute understanding of it that unfortunately, he takes with him. He feared having species reduced to just a sequence and believed that the rich natural history and the awe that the living world inspires in us needed to be accounted for as well, sentiments that led him to catalyze the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) in 2004, according to Nana Naisbitt, EOL co-catalyst, founder of Chalkboard, and Erwin’s dear friend of 22 years. The EOL makes knowledge about life on Earth globally accessible and has had a long-standing collaboration with BOLD.

    As Naisbitt explained, Erwin was a profound mentor, one who changed the course of her life and the lives of many others through her work and her connection to him. He effectively snowballed Naisbitt’s career as a science champion, instrumental in her founding the Pinhead Institute, a science education non-profit and Smithsonian Affiliate. He was also key to many community outreach and mentorship programs while she worked as Executive Director of the Telluride Science Research Center, a job she got because of her work as the director of Pinhead. “It’s just impossible to say how many people he impacted,” said Naisbitt. “Terry liked to say that he plants seeds – ideas in students – and watches them grow. He planted countless seeds that grew strong and bright.”

    In Naisbitt’s assessment, Erwin was able to help so many people flourish because he possessed a phenomenal gift in the way he supported them and gave them confidence without being intrusive. “He connected me to the right people, then showed up for and supported me. Most times he would just sit there quietly in meetings and let me do the talking,” said Naisbitt. “His reputation and presence were enough – it conveyed the message, ‘I anoint this person’. In that way, he was so unbelievably respectful.”

    Naisbitt said that she had the impression Erwin believed he stood on the shoulders of giants. She described to me this image she had of him, of someone reaching down and pulling up younger scientists to stand on his shoulders. “And he did that so well. He did it over and over again, with immense generosity and without ego. And that is so rare.”

    His reputation and presence were enough – it conveyed the message, ‘I anoint this person’. In that way, he was so unbelievably respectful.

    Nana Naisbitt

    Founder of Chalkboard

    When Dr. Marlin Rice, back in a 2015 interview, asked Erwin how he would like others to remember him, his answer was simple – by what his students do. The influence a mentor has on their students and them on theirs, he described, is an unbroken chain that keeps connecting generations of thinkers. Erwin told Rice, “There’s this chain all the way from the great old-timers down through George [Ball – his Ph.D. mentor] and his students and what I’d like to do is to keep that chain going.”

    Indeed, Erwin’s brilliance, passion, and dedication for science extended those chains far beyond his students and colleagues, to countless others across space, like me. As the value of his research will certainly endure, those chains will also extend across time. Erwin was undoubtedly one of the rare ones among us whose influence has had, and will continue to have, an extraordinary reach.

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    Reflections on conducting fieldwork in Nunavut, Canada

    Reflections on conducting fieldwork in Nunavut, Canada

    Reflections on conducting fieldwork in Nunavut, Canada

    The opportunities and challenges of working in the Arctic as part of the Arctic BIOSCAN project

    By Crystal Sobel

    Carter Lear and Jaiden Maksagak (left to right) venturing across the tundra in search of insects

    PHOTO CREDIT: Andrea Dobrescu

    What do you think of when you hear the word ‘Arctic’? Do you picture snow and ice, freezing temperatures, vibrant communities, and animals like the polar bear and Arctic fox?

    Ice breaking apart on Ferguson Lake, Northwest of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut
    Photo credit: Crystal Sobel
    Polar Bear walking around Churchill, Manitoba during the Arctic summer
    Photo credit: Thanushi Eagalle

    Not everyone is able to experience first-hand the vast tundra or see people fishing for Arctic char as they travel down the river to the ocean. I hope to share my impressions as a visitor to the Arctic, through my fieldwork as a research technician for the Arctic BIOSCAN (ARCBIO) project.

    Beautiful sky views and summer flowers at Long Point, Victoria Island, Nunavut
    Photo credit: Crystal Sobel

    ARCBIO is a partnership between the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics (CBG) at the University of Guelph and Polar Knowledge Canada (POLAR) that aims to carry out biodiversity assessments in the Kitikmeot Region of Nunavut. Teams of researchers and technicians have been sent from the CBG to Nunavut for eight weeks spanning July and August in the summer to collect and catalogue plants and animals.

    I play a major role in the planning and logistics for ARCBIO’s field expedition which includes working out how to transport and assemble the equipment required to collect and catalog insects, plants, and small mammals for an entire field season involving more than 14 researchers.  Careful planning is crucial to order and organize the more than 70 different pieces of equipment — Malaise traps, sifters, nets, forceps, camera gear, labels, collecting bottles, etc. — as it all needs to be in place at our research sites in time for our arrival at the start of field season.

    Flying to Nunavut from Ontario involves three flights over two days. But once you arrive, the land is truly a sight to behold. It is like no other place on Earth; its beauty magnified by the midnight sun and the countless tundra flowers covering the landscape.

    Tundra landscape in full bloom in July. Cambridge Bay, Nunavut
    Photo credit: Crystal Sobel

    In 2018 and 2019, my Arctic travels were focused in Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay), Nunavut whose location on Victoria Island along the Northwest Passage has made it a key port for passengers and research vessels. The Inuit have been residing in this region for over 4,000 years, naming the area Iqaluktuuttiaq meaning ‘good fishing place’ in Inuinnaqtun, the traditional language of the area, for its abundance in Arctic char.

    My colleagues and I worked at the magnificent new Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS). Run by POLAR staff, the station has several research and teaching spaces including a very impressive necropsy lab that has enough space to dissect whales. Dorm style lodgings are available for visiting researchers, with a facility building full of fieldwork equipment from ATVs to scuba gear to snowmobile suits.

    After arriving at a sampling site North of Long Point, Nunavut, we took in the incredibly vast view of the tundra
    Photo credit: Crystal Sobel
    ATV transport is the best way to get around on the rugged tundra terrain. Ovayok Territorial Park, Nunavut
    Photo credit:Alex Borisenko
    Mikko Pentinsaari and Alex Borisenko (left to right) are searching for insects in the leaf litter sample collected from the tundra back at the CHARS facility
    Photo credit: Crystal Sobel
    In addition, the CHARS staff are incredibly friendly and an indispensable resource for a successful field season providing logistical support to advice on field site selection. The POLAR staff were particularly instrumental in helping us collect aquatic samples.
    Researchers surveying the land for sampling sites on the Northside of Grenier Lake, Nunavut

    Photo credit: Crystal Sobel

    There are no docks to park your boat out on Grenier Lake, Nunavut
    Photo credit: Crystal Sobel
    Everyone is having a great time travelling along Grenier Lake in their survival suit gear
    Photo credit: POLAR staff
    Coming from Southern Ontario, I dressed in many layers of clothing including quick-dry field pants, gloves, short-sleeve shirt, long-sleeve shirt, sweater, windbreaker jacket and, when needed, a rain jacket and pants. And don’t forget a toque (I did!). A cozy hat is key to keeping your head and ears warm against the unrelenting wind coming off the Arctic Ocean. But perhaps the most important article of clothing is the very stylish bug net hat.
    Keeping the mosquitoes away with a stylish bug net hat!
    Photo credit: Crystal Sobel

    We were also very fortunate to have hired two youth in Cambridge Bay for our 2019 field season. Jaiden Maksagak and Carter Lear helped with insect monitoring by setting up traps, collecting samples, and recording data. Having a keen interest in the sciences, they were eager to gain experience by working with us.

    Carter Lear and Jaiden Maksagak (left to right) venturing across the tundra in search of insects
    Photo credit: Andrea Dobrescu
    Jaiden Maksagak attaches a collecting bottle to the Malaise trap, which passively collects flying insects
    Photo credit: Crystal Sobel
    Jaiden Maksagak (left), Andrea Dobrescu (bottom right) and Alana Tallman (top right) work together to set up an insect trap transect line with pitfall traps and samples of soil to be sifted through
    Photo credit: Crystal Sobel

    Our team also conducted field work in Kugluktuk for the 2019 summer field season. Kugluktuk, meaning ‘place of moving water’, is situated on the northern edge of the mainland of Canada and is the westernmost community in Nunavut. Here, we worked with two wildlife guides, Thomas Bolt and Dettrick Hokanak whom helped with monitoring for bear activity and site set up as well as with servicing of the insect traps.

    Thomas Bolt and Dettrick Hokanak (left to right) were our incredibly helpful guides in Kugluktuk, Nunavut
    Photo credit: Crystal Sobel

    In both Iqaluktuuttiaq and Kugluktuk, we sought guidance from Nunavut’s Hunters and Trappers Organization (HTO) who provided us with local wildlife guides, bear monitoring services, and recommended great science-minded youth from the community who worked with us as science rangers. We were grateful for the knowledge they shared with us and for the opportunity to share aspects of our research work with their communities on Nunavut Day.

    A Malaise trap, used to collect flying insects, contrasts with the beautiful tundra sky and landscape
    Photo credit: Crystal Sobel
    During the Nunavut Day celebrations, we were able to share the wonderful world of insects with children and adults. We set up displays in both communities that showcased the many shapes and sizes of insects, their life cycles as well as highlight which ones are beneficial to humans, and which ones are pests. I always enjoy seeing kids get wide-eyed with excitement when they see our insect displays.
    Local community members demonstrate the making of bannock, a traditional food from the region during Nunavut Day 2018, Cambridge Bay, Nunavut
    Photo credit: Crystal Sobel

    The kids enjoyed our giveaways which included informational pamphlets, bookmarks, postcards, buttons and other fun items about animals and how DNA barcoding works. I enjoyed learning a few words in Inuktitut from them, such as nuna for land, tuluaq for crow, and hikhik for ground squirrels. I believe that it’s very important to democratize science, involve local communities in research projects, and make data available to the public including the people making decisions that could impact ecosystems and their biodiversity. We need sensitive tools to understand how Arctic environments are changing and give us insights into what we can do to solve problems. DNA barcoding arctic diversity, this is what ARCBIO is all about.

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    BIOSCAN: tracking biodiversity on Earth

    BIOSCAN: tracking biodiversity on Earth

    BIOSCAN: tracking biodiversity on Earth

    iBOL’s new seven-year, $180 million global research program that aims to revolutionize our understanding of biodiversity and our capacity to manage it.
    January 20, 2019 By the International Barcode of Life Consoritum – ibol.org

    BIOSCAN is iBOL’s new seven-year, $180 million global research program that aims to revolutionize our understanding of biodiversity and our capacity to manage it. Involving scientists, research organizations, and citizens, BIOSCAN will explore three major research themes: Species Discovery, Species Interactions, Species Dynamics.

    iBOL (International Barcode of Life Consortium) involves researchers in 30+ nations who share a mission to transform biodiversity science through DNA-based approaches with DNA barcoding at its core. iBOL works in partnership with academic, government, and private sector organizations.

    For more information on BIOSCAN and iBOL visit: ibol.org

    Additional video footage provided by:

    Centre for Biodiversity Genomics, University of Guelph, Canada
    Hakai Institute, Canada

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    Also in BIOSCAN

    HOW A TROPICAL COUNTRY CAN DNA BARCODE ITSELF

    by Dan Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs | Oct 2, 2019

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    To BOLDly Go

    To BOLDly Go

    To BOLDly Go

    Catalog all of Earth's multicellular lifeforms—tens of millions of species—in one giant DNA library.

    November 14, 2019

    By Kat Pyne and Josh Silberg, Hakai Institute – hakai.org

    Space may be the final frontier, and yet we still have light years to go before we fully understand the rich diversity of life at home. The current mission? Catalog all of Earth’s multicellular lifeforms—tens of millions of species—in one giant DNA library. Imagine this: just as you would scan a cereal box’s barcode at the grocery store, the same thing could be done with any plant or animal’s DNA to find out its species. It may sound like science fiction, but scientists around the world are working toward that reality. Their goal? To create an international barcode of life! So just how are scientists stocking the library’s shelves? Come with us to British Columbia and California to find out!

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    Reconstructing the diet of an elusive wood grouse (western capercaillies) using metagenomics

    Reconstructing the diet of an elusive wood grouse (western capercaillies) using metagenomics

    Reconstructing the diet of an elusive wood grouse (western capercaillies) using metagenomics

    Environmental DNA provides a non-invasive and simple means of biomonitoring

    By Physilia Chua

    Spotted! A male capercaillie displaying its magnificent tail feathers

    PHOTO CREDIT: Per Gätzschmann

    Gone are the days when researchers needed to spend countless hours observing an animal in the wild to understand its behaviour and ecology. As we demonstrate with our study, valuable data can be gathered by simply examining faecal samples with powerful metagenomics approaches.

    The need for data that effectively informs biological conservation is intensifying as the rate of biodiversity loss increases. Traditionally, scientists have endured long hours in the field, often hiding uncomfortably in bushes or traversing dangerous and hard-to-reach places, all for the purpose of observing elusive animals.

    Searching for capercaillies in the midst of a snow storm in the Norwegian boreal forests
    Photo credit: Physilia Chua

    With the advent of next-generation sequencing (NGS) technologies – those that effectively provide large amounts of DNA sequence data – it is now possible to obtain a wealth of ecological information from just a single faecal sample. The ease of collecting such samples circumvents some of the challenges of studying animals otherwise hard to find.

    One such NGS approach is metagenomics shotgun sequencing (MSS), which determines the nucleotide composition of large amounts of random DNA molecules recovered from complex samples of DNA from various sources. This method makes it possible to simultaneously retrieve information about the host’s diet, microbiome, gut parasites, as well as the population structure of the species1. While it has vast potential for conservation biology, few studies have utilised MSS to reconstruct the diet of animals, and none have done so for herbivorous birds.

    A typical day out in the fields high above the Arctic Circle in Tromsø, Dividalen National Park, Norway
    Photo credit: Physilia Chua

    The western capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus), or wood grouse, is an emblematic species which can be found in the coniferous forest of Eurasia. Highly susceptible to the increased levels of habitat destruction and fragmentation, their declining population has placed them on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red-list throughout most of western and central Europe2. By studying the wood grouse’s diet, we could gain clues about the resources it requires and the other species it interacts with in its habitat, informing better conservation strategies. By observing the animal and morphologically identifying plant remains from their faecal samples, it was determined that the capercaillie’s diet consists of mostly pine needles in the winter, and Vaccinium species in the summer3.

    A pile of capercaillie scat
    Photo credit: Physilia Chua
    Capercaillie’s favourite food? Pine needles (left) and Vaccinium sp. (right)

    Photo credit: Physilia Chua

    However, preliminary results from our study show promising signs that the capercaillie’s diet is more diverse than once thought. Other than plants, we have also discovered parasitoid wasps and several species of mites, which could have been accidental ingestion while feeding or preening. And with the use of metagenomics, there is also the possibility of obtaining more detailed quantitative information about its diet that can be used to inform habitat management choices. Their gut microbiome, intestinal parasites, and population genetics are also currently being analysed. Unexpectedly, we were also able to detect the presence of plant-pathogenic fungus and nematodes from their faecal samples, providing some interesting ecological insights about the capercaillie’s habitat. Even though our research is still in its infancy, by using metagenomics shotgun sequencing on faecal samples, our initial study has already yielded a wealth of data. There is truly an untapped potential for its application in conservation biology and biomonitoring, which should be further explored.
    The road less travelled might lead to unexpected discoveries
    Photo credit: Physilia Chua

    AcknowledgementS:

    I thank my supervisors Kristine Bohmann, Sanne Boessenkool, and Inger Greve Alsos for their guidance in every step of this research, without whom this study would not have been possible. I am deeply grateful to Torbjørn Ekrem for his invaluable support both in and outside of fieldwork. I am indebted to my collaborators Kat Bruce and Alex Crampton-Platt for taking me into their team at NatureMetrics and making bioinformatics look so easy. Lastly, my sincere gratitude to the members of the eDNA group at the Section for Evolutionary Genomics, University of Copenhagen, and also to my fellow Plant.ID ESRs for keeping me in the right headspace. This project is part of the H2020 MSCA-ITN-ETN Plant.ID network and has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 765000.

    References:

    1. Srivathsan A, Sha JCM, Vogler A, Meier R (2015) Comparing the effectiveness of metagenomics and metabarcoding for diet analysis of a leaf-feeding monkey (Pygathrix nemaeus). Molecular Ecology Resources 15(2): 250–261. https://doi.org/10.1111/1755-0998.12302 2. Storch I (2000) Grouse: status survey and conservation action plan 2000-2004. IUCN/SSC Action Plans for the Conservation of Biological Diversity. Retrieved from http://www.iucn.org/dbtw-wpd/edocs/2000-031.pdf 3. Picozzi N, Moss R, Catt DC (1996) Capercaillie habitat, diet and management in a Sitka spruce plantation in central Scotland. International Journal of Agriculture and Forestry. 69(4): 373 – 388. https://doi.org/10.1093/forestry/69.4.373

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