The Life that Lives on Campus

by Hazel Herbst

Hazel Herbst, a summer intern on the Trinity College Dublin Biodiversity Audit reflects on her time spent working on the project.  

As another strange COVID summer has come to a close, it is time to unmask what we’ve been up to these past few months and draw some much needed attention to the natural side of Trinity College Dublin.

As living beings on this dynamic planet, we are highly reliant on the interconnected nature of our ecosystems. Meaning, we are dependent on both the physical and organismal world around us. Should the world around us change and cause certain organisms to become less abundant, a healthy level of biodiversity can ensure that these organisms’ activities are compensated for by others, allowing their essential functions in nature’s systems to remain fulfilled. As such, the diversity of life throughout the world aids in nature’s resilience. But biodiversity does not stop there.

Biodiversity helps boost ecosystem productivity as each species contributes to the maintenance of life, no matter how small their existence may seem. For example, pollinators such as birds, bats and bees benefit the production of 75% of our food crops. Biodiversity further supplies us with medicinal resources, oxygen, clean air, clean water and the regulation of climate and disease control. That’s not to mention the recreational and cultural services that our biodiverse ecosystems gift us for free! We are interacting with the world around us each and every day so it’s important we understand and appreciate the impact of biodiversity on our daily lives. Thus, the importance of biological diversity within Trinity College Dublin deserves more prioritization.

Trinity Biodiversity Audit set out … with the objectives of seeding new initiatives to enhance campus sustainability

It’s no big secret that our college has long been hailed for its historic relevance and academic excellence, but what is known of its biodiversity? In a time of biodiversity crisis where climate change and human intervention continuously threaten the existence of many plant and animal species, we must better acknowledge the variety of life surviving directly around us. For as we now know, a loss of biodiversity is a problem that affects us all.

A biodiversity audit is a way of recording and quantifying the biodiversity of a selected area by looking at and recording how well the grounds are providing habitats for various wildlife. Thus, an audit is an evidence-based approach to understanding the requirements and conservation needs of priority species. As for what inspired the commencement of the Trinity Biodiversity Audit, our team lead Dr. Jane Stout expresses that “there has long been interest in generating baseline biodiversity data for Trinity, with the first “Trees of Trinity College Dublin” book having been published by the Botany Department in 1993 (a 4th edition was then launched in 2019).” Furthermore, Jane instigated the first campus “Bio blitz” in 2013 along with subsequent efforts in both 2014 and 2017, a “Birds of Trinity” book was published in 2016 by the Zoological Society and in 2017 Jane was involved in the launch of a Campus Pollinator Plan. Then in 2020, alongside the biodiversity audit in the grounds of Áras an Uachtaráin, Jane had planned to start a similar project in Trinity before COVID ultimately intervened. However, Jane points out that “the success of and interest in the audit of Áras did inspire renewed efforts in Trinity in 2021” and she is “delighted that [they] were finally able to push on with the project.”

And so, a pilot Trinity Biodiversity Audit set out in May 2021 with the objectives of seeding new initiatives to enhance campus sustainability, to enable behaviours that will benefit the environment and life on campus and to enhance communication and education on sustainability amongst all. By developing a better understanding of Trinity’s biodiversity, a system and protocols can be developed that will allow for continued monitoring of the biodiversity of Trinity with reference to baseline biodiversity data.

However, a project of this size was no simple feat and required the collaborative work of many professionals from various fields and disciplines. For example, we had David Hackett from Estate and Facilities, Dr. Aoibheann Gaughran from the Botany and Zoology departments and Dr. Tony Williams, a landscape architect with knowledge of GIS mapping. Many more esteemed professionals from Trinity’s School of Natural Sciences were also involved, particularly in the sampling and identification of the animals and plants throughout campus, such as Collie Ennis (amphibians), Dr. Carla Harper (fungi), Dr. Steve Waldren and Professor Trevor Hodkinson (plants) and Dr. Martyn Linnie (insects). Additionally, there were three undergraduate students employed as interns as well as two undergraduate student volunteers partaking in the audit. With many interested parties working together, the addition of Dr. Ursula King as project coordinator was essential in handling the sheer amount of coordination and management that this audit required.

Under the guidance of Dr. Ursula King and Dr. Jane Stout, the Trinity Biodiversity Audit has had several successes over the summer months. Dr. Tony Williams and student intern Danielle Varley were able to create a pilot habitat mapping system for the Trinity main campus, student interns Kes Daly and Hazel Herbst and student volunteers Scott Bastow and Isabel Quinn tested and documented various protocols for the standardisation of invertebrate sampling on campus and helped with devising a system for processing, recording, and storing lab samples taken from the field. Moreover, thanks to the hard work and contributions from all those involved an initial baseline inventory of the taxonomic groups (mainly invertebrates) and an inventory of horticultural species on campus were recorded and mapped to location and habitat. Furthermore, the geographical location of all trees on campus were recorded and relationships with external taxonomic experts were established. The collaborative and interdisciplinary aspects of the Trinity Biodiversity audit were highly important as they allowed for a pooling of expertise to create awareness of the resources and current state of knowledge available to us. Thus, revealing where gaps may lie should the audit be continued and/or replicated by fellow universities. 

Our audit efforts … have highlighted the ways in which we can protect and hopefully enhance the biodiversity of Trinity College Dublin going forward

As we can see, this pilot audit provided us with a huge amount of data, protocols, mapping systems and collaborative relationship building and was a successful stepping stone in promoting biodiversity awareness and sustainability conversations amongst grounds staff, researchers, staff and students with many invaluable resources for future biodiversity work and environmental research on main campus and other Trinity properties resulting. 

Our audit efforts and successes over the summer months have highlighted the ways in which we can protect and hopefully enhance the biodiversity of Trinity College Dublin going forward. Hence, the next steps in these efforts, should funding allow, is for biodiversity auditing to be continually carried out by Trinity College Dublin for years to come, and for the College community to understand more about the natural world around it, and it’s critical importance. 

All in all, we hope we have instilled in you a knowledge and appreciation for the diversity you see around you. Perhaps, the Trinity Biodiversity Audit will become a topical conversation amongst those studying, working, and visiting the grounds of Trinity College to promote interest in the conservation and protection of the wonderful life that lives on our campus.

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