Bringing the underground into the limelight.

Dr Andrea Britton is a plant and soil ecologist specialising in alpine ecosystems and the impacts of nitrogen deposition and climate change.

Her work encompasses a wide variety of projects, with key areas including investigating long-term change in Scottish plant communities through re-surveying of historical vegetation records, and investigating how nitrogen pollution affects biodiversity and ecosystem function in alpine habitats. Another recent focus has been exploiting new DNA technologies to explore soil biodiversity in Scottish alpine habitats.

Nitrogen matters

Andrea’s research into the impacts of nitrogen deposition in upland ecosystems has improved our understanding of how excess nitrogen affects biodiversity, ecosystem function and the provision of key ecosystem services such as carbon storage and clean water. “Lichens and bryophytes are important components of many Scottish alpine habitats,” she explains, “but many of them are very sensitive to nitrogen. Nitrogen pollution can reduce the diversity and abundance of these species, which can have knock-on consequences, reducing carbon storage and allowing more nitrogen to leach into surface waters, affecting species and ecosystems downstream.”

Crucially, Andrea has been able to define ‘critical loads’ of nitrogen – the amount of nitrogen which can be deposited on an ecosystem before detrimental changes start to occur. “Mapping critical loads and nitrogen deposition together can be used to work out which ecosystems are most at risk from nitrogen pollution, where the damaging effects of nitrogen deposition are likely to be worst, and where and by how much we need to reduce emissions to ensure they are not damaging the natural environment,” she says.

Standing up for soils

Most recently, Andrea has been working on projects that explore how soil biodiversity relates to above-ground biodiversity in alpine ecosystems. “Soils are amongst the most biodiverse habitats on earth – with fungi, bacteria and other micro and mesofauna – but because we can’t easily see what lives in them, and because many soil organisms can only be identified by specialist taxonomists, our knowledge of what lives where below ground lags well behind above-ground habitats,” she says, but technology is changing this. Using novel DNA techniques to identify soil organisms, and working with citizen scientists collecting samples from a wide range of alpine habitats, Andrea has been able to start building a picture of the distribution of alpine soil biodiversity across large areas. And of course, she emphasizes, “knowing what you have, and where it is, is an essential first step to being able to conserve biodiversity.”

Working with Plantlife Scotland as part of the Cairngorms Rare Plants and Wild Connections project has been “a very fruitful collaboration,” for this project, Andrea reports. “We are working together to connect the hill-walking community with the hidden biodiversity under their feet, and we hope to do more work engaging the general public in biodiversity science.”

Immersed in nature

“I’ve been interested in biology and nature since I was a child,” Andrea divulges. “I was an avid watcher of David Attenborough’s Life of Earth programmes!” Although she was interested in science, as the first in her family to go to university she admits, “I’m not sure I ever really set out to become a scientist. I didn’t really know anyone who was a scientist. Arriving at a career as an academic scientist was a gradual process of evolution that came from following my interests and always wanting to learn more.”

She studied Biology at York University, intending to specialise in molecular biology. “But I found that I enjoyed ecology much more and ended up graduating with a degree in Ecology, Conservation and Environment,” Andrea recalls. “After that I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do, but I wanted a break from learning, so went to the Bedfordshire Wildlife Trust, starting as a volunteer and then doing paid work. I had a great time getting involved in hands on conservation, management planning and public outreach, and found it very fulfilling.

“Getting long-term paid work in the conservation sector was hard, though,” she continues, “So when one of my university lecturers wrote to say a colleague at Liverpool University was looking for a PhD student, I decided to go for it. I didn’t get that PhD post, but I did get another with the same supervisor a few months later.” Her thesis was on the ecology of heathlands and, just as she was finishing up, a post came up at the Macaulay Institute (now the James Hutton Institute). “I got a very lucky break,” she says modestly, “landing me a post where I could develop my own science in an area that interested me. I decided to focus on mountain habitats, and the rest is history!”

A woman in a pink waterproof jacket and Fairisle-style woolly hat is studying organisms in a quadrat on a grassy hillside. Another person is just visible to the left of the frame, helping.
Dr Andrea Britton (right)

Since becoming a mother, Andrea has worked part-time, juggling career and family, but her love of the natural world continues to motivate her. “I really enjoy being outside, immersed in nature, and the mountains are where I feel most at home,” she enthuses. “I’ve been lucky enough to be able to explore pretty much the whole of Scotland, from Shetland to the Southern Uplands, in the course of my work. I love getting immersed in the small things that other people rarely notice, but which often have a key role in the way ecosystems work – be that bryophytes and lichens above ground, or the myriad of organisms hidden in the soil. You don’t need to travel to far-flung places to discover new and exciting things – you can do that right here in Scotland.”

Under our feet

Looking forward, she sees her focus heading increasingly underground. “In many cases it’s what’s going on in the soil that drives ecosystem processes,” she explains. “If we are going to solve some of the huge environmental challenges we currently face, then we really need to understand what’s happening under our feet.”

New tools and technologies are vital here – giving a new and unprecedented level of understanding of what Andrea describes as “the black box of soil processes.” In fact, she sees a technological revolution going on, with new techniques in everything from molecular biology to remote sensing. “It’s allowing us to look at species and ecosystems in new ways, over a whole range of scales – from individual plants to whole biomes,” she says. “No one scientist can be an expert in all of these things, so I think the key to innovation is working together to bring our combined skills to bear on complex ecological problems.”

Andrea is keen to share her love of biodiversity and sees that as a way to power positive change. “We need to get out of our ivory towers and engage with the public, show them just how important biodiversity is,” she says. “Nature underpins so many of the things we take for granted, from clean air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat and a stable environment to live in. Currently too many people think of biodiversity as something nice to have but not really connected with everyday life, and consequently it is often one of the first things to suffer when money is tight or awkward trade-offs need to be made. Ultimately, the state of our biodiversity depends on decisions made by people: if more people understand the real value of biodiversity, that we are a part of nature and cannot live without it, then we might see better decision-making and better outcomes for everyone.”

Dr Andrea Britton is a senior post-doctoral research scientist in the Ecological Sciences Group at the James Hutton Institute. Her work is supported by the Scottish Government, NatureScot and the Heritage Lottery Fund. Find out more here.

This post is part of a series showcasing Scotland’s innovative, high-impact research supporting biodiversity conservation, in partnership with Scottish Government and NatureScot. Read the rest of the series here.

Further reading 

Britton, A.J., et al. 2019. Impacts of nitrogen deposition on carbon and nitrogen cycling in alpine Racomitrium heath in the UK and prospects for recovery. Environmental Pollution 254(A): 112986.

Komatsu, K.J., et al. 2019. Global change effects on plant communities are magnified by time and the number of global change factors imposed. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 116(36): 17867—17873.

Payne, R.J., et al. 2020. Disparities between plant community responses to nitrogen deposition and critical loads in UK semi-natural habitats. Atmospheric Environment 239: 117478.

van Paassen, J.G., et al. 2020. Legacy effects of nitrogen and phosphorus additions on vegetation and carbon stocks of upland heaths. New Phytologist 228(1): 226—237. Avolio, M.L., et al. 2021. Determinants of community compositional change are equally affected by global change. Ecology Letters 24(9): 1892—1904.