Have you ever seen a gull drumming its feet up and down on the grass, a hive of honeybees perform their peculiar ‘waggle dance’ or two squirrels flicking their tails at one another as if in conversation, and wondered why? If you have ever been curious about anything around you in the natural world then you will have been thinking about the sorts of things that intrigue animal behaviour scientists all the time. Being curious about a behaviour shown by animals and simply wondering why it exists is an example of ‘blue skies science’. Blue skies science is often called curiosity-driven science where researchers seek to understand the world around them by asking exploratory questions with no predefined goal. Given this lack of ‘real-world’ application you may be forgiven for thinking “what is the point of blue skies research?”
This question has been asked many times but it is more relevant now than ever before. Given the current change we are experiencing; record-breaking global temperatures, microplastics being found in remote marine life and the threat that in the next few decades, 40% of the world’s insect species may become extinct, we are more aware than ever that we need to protect our planet and the life that calls it home. Scientists are, right now, working on conservation management strategies to protect vital habitats for threatened species,  investigating ways we can recycle more plastics or develop new, biodegradable ones and developing renewable energies that are cheaper and more accessible for you and me to install in our homes, and this is the type of research that we need.
In previous years you may say that we’ve had the luxury of time. In previous years, we could put effort into studying the behaviour of ant colonies in the soil or discovering the ecology of rare bird species that live in inaccessible locations in tropical climes. But now, the planet we call home is hurtling towards a devastating loss of species and habitats, which will have a huge impact on the function of our ecosystems and thus, our survival. So when we have been given a deadline of 12 years in which to avert real catastrophe, do we really have time to be undertaking blue skies research?
I believe the answer to this question is a very strong and determined YES! And I will attempt to convince you why.
I am in the third year of my PhD and my career so far can mostly be described as blue skies research. I have investigated whether shore crabs can change colour to match their background, have designed experiments to ask if jackdaws can count and most recently have tested the ability of great tits to show self-control when faced with different food choices. These experiments have no direct application to conservation of species or habitats and so, really, what is the point in carrying out research such as I have done for the past four years?
Firstly, there are often unforeseen benefits that come from ‘blue skies’ research which, due to the very nature of the lack of a predefined goal, are impossible to identify beforehand. John Tyndall’s demonstration in 1869 of why the sky is blue led to significant medical advances, providing strong evidence for many important discoveries being curiosity- rather than goal-driven, which paved the way for many of our research processes today. Of course it is not very-ground breaking if I find out that great tits really like to eat caterpillars of the small white butterfly, and indeed a lot of research may not end with staggering forward leaps for science, but the work done is still valuable to conservation.
Secondly, effective conservation of habitats and species is not possible without awareness of what we are trying to conserve. We need curiosity-driven ‘blue skies’ research to broaden our knowledge of ecology and behaviour so we can understand how animals use and fit into their environments. Only then can we plan management strategies that will really make a difference.
Thirdly, engaging people in conservation and inspiring action in their own lives requires them to have an interest of what it is we are trying to protect. There are some really amazing behaviours and fascinating life cycles of animals on our planet which many of us are not even aware exist! ‘Blue skies’ research reveals the many wonders of the natural world, which then inspires people to protect it.
I am very lucky that my degree in zoology allowed me to become aware of scientific research going on throughout my university and beyond, on all sorts of topics. Everything I learned only solidified my view that the natural world is absolutely fascinating. Did you know that individual dolphins make distinct signature whistles that they use to announce their presence? Or that there is a species of decorator crab which covers itself in poisonous algae to prevent it being eaten by predators? There are even birds in Australia which appear to change the shape of their whole body to make them more desirable to mate with! From all these wonderful phenomena (and a host of others) I was inspired to do a masters and then apply for my PhD. Every day I read about cool experiments, am involved in discovering new links between an animal’s behaviour and its environment and I listen to my peers talk about their interesting work. Through my passion for my research I can communicate to others how amazing nature is, inspire them to be fascinated by our planet, and maybe then they’ll begin to ask how they can help in the fight for nature.
Being involved in the discovery of fascinating animal behaviours strengthens my view that our planet is teeming with wonder and reinforces my desire to keep it that way. As well as inspiring others through my research, I can do my bit in my personal life to contribute to the health of our natural world. Reducing the amount of plastic I use, buying environmentally-friendly products, changing my diet and lobbying my government to reduce carbon emissions can all help. I can work towards a sustainable lifestyle and can inspire others to think about how to reduce their own impact on the planet.
“Never before in history have we been so divorced from nature”Sir David Attenborough
In 12 years, vast areas of habitat are predicted to be lost, many species are expected to decline to population sizes that will be hard to recover and we will lose the amazing diversity of forms and behaviours that we know about. We have become so estranged from nature and have begun to see effects of this on our mental health and well-being. Earlier this month in the Radio Times (1st April) the very brilliant and inspirational Sir David Attenborough has said “never before in history have we been so divorced from nature”. We need nature more than it needs us and we must all play our part to make sure we keep the only home we will ever have. I believe that ‘blue skies’ research is a necessary part of this process, although whether you agree or not I hope you will play your part in protecting our earth.
If the next time you see a busy hive of honeybees, a gull ‘dancing’ in the park or squirrels chatting with their tails, you think about using fewer chemicals on your vegetable patch or reducing the amount of single-use plastic you buy, I shall have done my job. The natural world is fascinating, inspiring and absolutely essential for the human species. I wouldn’t want to be studying anything else.
Jenny Coomes is a third year PhD student based at University College Cork in Ireland. She spent 7 months in the Molecular Ecology and Evolution Cardiff (MEEC) lab at Cardiff University from September 2018 investigating the diet of a well-known garden bird species, the great tit. She aims to link intelligence to the diet of the birds to find out why some individuals survive better in the wild than others. Jenny is passionate about the natural world and our place in it and spends a majority of her time immersed in the rainy woodlands of County Cork, Ireland.
 Kamal, S., Grodzinska-Jurczak, M., Brown, G., (2013). Conservation on private land: a review of global strategies with a proposed classification system. J. Environ. Plann. Man. 58:4. 576-597. https://doi.org/10.1080/09640568.2013.875463
 Dominguez-Tejo, E., Metternicht G., Johnston, E., Hedge, L., (2016). Marine Spatial Planning advancing the Ecosystem-Based Approach to coastal zone management: A review. Mar. Policy. 72. 115-130. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2016.06.023
 Newnature.co.uk. Issue two: https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/15ec9b_93bae14c4cf44b439946a9660d99db57.pdf
 In early March I joined a protest march with Extinction Rebellion who are a socio-political movement standing against climate change, biodiversity loss and ecological collapse (www.rebellion.earth). If haven’t heard about them by now, where have you been?!
 Kidner D., Depression and the natural world: towards a critical ecology of psychological distress. http://irep.ntu.ac.uk/id/eprint/13567/1/185371_3072%20Kidner%20Publisher.pdf