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Profile (3)

Dr Andrew Brownlow, SAC Veterinary Services…

Profile (3)

Dr Andrew Brownlow

Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme, SAC Veterinary Services


Brownlow graduated as a veterinary surgeon from Edinburgh Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Medicine in 2000 and after a brief spell in general practice, went to East Africa to research endemic vector-borne diseases. After gaining his PhD in Veterinary Epidemiology, he witnessed his first sperm whale necropsy in Inverness and immediately saw the potential for using marine strandings as a way to learn from, and communicate about, the marine environment.

Head of the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme since 2009, Brownlow says: “I am a strong advocate for improving the communication of science to the public and applying citizen science principles to our own marine monitoring research.

My current research interests include assessing the cumulative effects of disease, physiology and environmental stressors on wild populations and quantifying the representativeness of opportunistically collected surveillance data.”

Public awareness

Brownlow's work essentially involves “dragging dead marine animals off the beach and trying to work out what happened to them.” Discovery of a stranded marine mammal invariably captures public attention, he says, and often leads to speculation that the incident is linked to human activities – as well as concern about what the stranding indicates about the health of our oceans.

Sometimes, strandings can provide insights into the threats and pressures experienced at a population, species or even ecosystem level. “But,” he adds, “because there is so much public interest in the fate of these charismatic species, we try to communicate wider and potentially more cryptic issues of marine biodiversity conservation to students, volunteers and the wider public.”

The opportunity to collaborate with so many people has also enabled Brownlow to study the effect of certain human activities such as noise and persistent organic pollutants on marine mammals. “Trying to keep your science good and relevant is similar to undertaking a whale post-mortem,” he says. “It can be a much more complex and messy problem than it first appears, and success requires knowledge, teamwork, bomb-proof logistics, and more than a modicum of good luck.”

Communication key

For Brownlow, it’s important to keep people engaged with environmental issues, to change behaviour and keep up the political pressure. “There is a risk people become disengaged or feel the problems are too big or too complex for individual action to make any difference,” he explains. “We also need to remember to celebrate our conservation successes, not just be harbingers of ecological doom.”

Wish list

Top of Brownlow's wish list for the future is a powerful, cheap, light, safe and easily recyclable battery for storing electricity. He also thinks that by addressing energy poverty, we would also generate benefits in many other fields such as health care and education.

“Climate change obviously bothers me, and the problem is we are not always great at recognising cause and effect, particularly not at a large scale,” says Brownlow. “Increasing volatility in climate patterns, and the likely disastrous effects this will have in already vulnerable communities such as sub-Saharan Africa, will likely precipitate larger human migrations. Unless this is well managed, the racial, political and religious conflicts this may bring about could push environmental and ecological agendas much further down the list of priorities. The century after the end of WW2 will probably be seen as the most profligate period in human civilisation, when we squandered many natural resources and lost much of our biological, ecological and anthropological heritage.”

Endangered species?

According to Brownlow, it’s hard to weigh the pros and cons of saving one species versus another – or ecological utility versus flagship status. “I don’t think I would actually choose to save only one species,” he says. “I think that misses the point of ecological viability. So, if I can, I’d like to slightly cheat, and elect to save coral – all of them, including our own deepwater cold corals.”

Brownlow also describes biodiversity as “fractal” – because it has the same shape, patterns and gradients regardless of scale. “And our survival is inexorably tied to that of our ecosystems,” he explains. “If ‘Spaceship Earth’ breaks down, it’s a cold dark night out there and a long walk to anywhere else.”

Biodiversity champion?

Like many of his colleagues, Brownlow grew up inspired by many brilliant naturalists and communicators such as David Attenborough, Gerald Durrell, Steve Irwin and Bill Oddie, but his “biodiversity champion” is the biologist Carl Jones, who worked so hard to save the Mauritius kestrel, pink pigeon and echo parakeet from almost certain extinction. Brownlow spent a summer working with Professor Jones on Mauritius and saw first-hand his intensive conservation management techniques in action.

“When I was there, the projects were well set up and run, but I loved the sheer bloody-mindedness of how Carl first went to the island in the seventies,” says Brownlow. “At that time, there were only five kestrels left and Carl’s captive breeding programmes, intensive monitoring and feeding of wild pairs brought the species back from the brink. But it was the fact he knew that saving a species was a long game, requiring sustainable habitat restoration as well as education, which I think was brilliant.”



"Profile (3)". Science Scotland (Issue Twenty-one)
Printed from on 05/07/20 11:36:09 PM

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