Quaint titles and memorable lines in ecology and entomology

I am always struck when reading the old entomological and ecological literature by how much the style of our writing has changed over the last 100 years or so, and not necessarily for the better ;-) I am not advocating a return to the writing style of the Victorian 3-volume novel but do think that we might try to be a bit less dry when reporting our science in mainstream journals. With the establishment of on-line publishing perhaps there will be less emphasis on word limits from Editors and publishers, but then on the other hand, we are all busy people and the number of papers published seems to be increasing at an exponential rate.

Here for your edification is a title from the mid-Victorian period; penned by John Curtis an English entomologist

Curtis, J. (1845) Observations on the natural history and economy of various insects etc., affecting the corn-crops, including the parasitic enemies of the wheat midge, the thrips, wheat louse, wheat bug and also the little worm called Vibrio. Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society, 6, 493-518.

NPG P120(36); John Curtis by Maull & Polyblank

John Curtis  1791-1862  (Photograph from Wikipedia)

 

There are also some great sentences in this paper that give you an insight into the character of the man and the conditions under which he worked, which we do not get in modern papers.

“I had hoped, during the past summer, to make some progress in the further development of the economy of the Wheat-midge; but although the little orange larvae were abundant in some wheat-fields in August in this neighbourhood, owing to the wet and cold season I presume, I did not discover a single midge on the wing, and the larvae appear to have all died as usual”

Later on writing about aphids; I couldn’t possibly not mention aphids ;-)

“The corn-crops do not escape the visitations of this extensive tribe: indeed, what crop does?”

 

And from that great entomologist A R Wallace writing in 1865 on species distribution, Wallace, A.R. (1855) On the law which has regulated the introduction of new species. Journal of Natural History, 16, 184-196.

“Fully to enter into such a subject would occupy much space, and it is only in consequence of some views having been lately promulgated, he believes in a wrong direction, that he now ventures to present his ideas to the public, with only such obvious illustrations of the arguments and results as occur to him in a place far removed from all means of reference and exact information”

Obviously a man of great probity and conviction.

 

We all know of Darwin’s story, (Darwin, 1929), about having to put a beetle into his mouth having gone collecting beetles without suitable containers but how many of us know about this side of his character, also from the same source,

A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if a pretty woman all the better

It is a great little book and well worth reading.

Darwin, F. (1929) Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Watts & Co., London

 

Norman McIndoo, the inventor of the insect olfactometer writes in his 1926 paper, McIndoo, N.E. (1926) An insect olfactometer. Journal of Economic Entomology, 19, 545-571

“To the writer a potato plant has a characteristic smell, although not as strong as those from some other plants. When enclosed in the plant chamber, its odors are perhaps emanated along with the water vapour, which judged from the condensed portion, was considerable.”

 

And here in a relatively modern paper, from that intrepid entomologist Philip Darlington, P.J. (1970) Carabidae on tropical islands, especially the West Indies. Biotropica, 2, 7-15

Mr Hlvac’s (1969) paper should be consulted for further details and discussion. But a very great deal still remains to be done on Scarites in Puerto Rico. Here obviously is another opportunity for exciting ecologic work, to be done under exceptional circumstances of comfort and convenience

Non-entomologists will no doubt be familiar with Darlington from his classic species-area work on Caribbean herpetofauna.

 

So dear readers, which are your favourite memorable sentences and titles from the scientific literature?  Please let me know.

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Where have all the insects gone? Perhaps they were deterred by Editorial Board composition!

In a recent Animal Ecology in Focus blog post, the Executive Editor of Journal of Animal Ecology, Ken Wilson, made a spirited response to my well documented Twitter comments about the lack of insect papers in the journal and also highlighted by me in the recent JAE Virtual issue which I compiled to celebrate National Insect Week 2014. Ken had been somewhat sceptical about my claims but when he analysed the data he found, much to my gratification ;-) that I was correct; the number of insect papers published by Journal of Animal Ecology, has indeed fallen steeply since the 1970s, and this was true for two of the other journals from the British Ecological Society’s (BES) portfolio, Journal of Applied Ecology and Functional Ecology.

Fig 1 JAE

Figure 1. Trends in the number of citations per taxon in Journal of Animal Ecology (reproduced from Ken’s post).

Ken also looked at Ecology, published by the Ecological Society of America and Oikos, published by The Nordic Society Oikos. In both cases he found that insects and other invertebrates had held their own over the last forty years.

Fig 2 JAE

Figure 2. Trends in the number of citations per taxon in Ecology (data for the period 1978-1990 are excluded due to poor data quality). (again reproduced from Ken’s post)

Ken refutes any claim of editorial bias, acceptance rates for insect papers are similar to those for vertebrate papers, and hypothesizes that the reason insect and invertebrate papers have declined in the BES journals is due to the subject areas favoured by the journal i.e. demography, evolutionary ecology, spatial ecology and disease ecology; fields that in the UK are dominated by vertebrate ecologists and/or the rapidly decreasing number of entomologists employed by UK universities. This may be a contributing factor, but entomologists in the UK and worldwide also work in these fields, so it cannot be the whole story. He urges the entomological community to submit more papers to the journal in order to redress the balance.

Interestingly enough, the response among the Twitter community seemed to show that most entomologists did not perceive Journal of Animal Ecology as being insect friendly and in some cases it was seen not just as a vertebrate journal, but as an ornithological one, echoing a comment made by Jeremy Fox over at the Dynamic Ecology blogThese data are consistent with the rumor I heard back when I was a postdoc, that JAE got so many bird-related submissions that they had to work hard to avoid turning into an ornithology journal.”

So what has changed since the 1970s? Back when I was a PhD student, ecological entomologists had no hesitation in submitting their papers to Journal of Animal Ecology, Oecologia and Oikos, or if their work was applied, then Journal of Applied Ecology was a first choice venue, with Annals of Applied Biology also considered a logical place to submit entomological papers. Looking back at the papers published from my PhD work, I find that I published one in Journal of Animal Ecology (Wellings et al, 1980), one in Journal of Applied Ecology (Leather et al, 1984 (back in the early 1980s Journal of Applied Ecology could take over a year to make a decision), and three in Oecologia (Leather et al, 1983a,b; Ward et al., 1984). Of my other more applied work, three were published in the Annals of Applied Biology and the rest in specialised entomological journals, (five in Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, and three in the Journal of Applied Entomology).

So why did entomologists have no hesitation in sending their papers to Journal of Animal Ecology and Journal of Applied Ecology in the 1970s. A quick look at the Editorial Boards of the two journals, admittedly much smaller than those of today, shows us that in 1977 (when I started my PhD), Roy Taylor (entomologist) and Malcolm Elliott (fresh water ecologist) were editors of the former, with and editorial board consisting of T B Bagenal (fish), R A Kempton (statistics), Mike Hassell (entomologist), John Krebs (birds), John Lawton (entomologist), A D McIntyre (marine invertebrates) and John Whittaker (entomologist); Journal of Applied Ecology jointly edited by entomologist, Tom Coaker and botanist R W Snaydon, had a slightly larger board, eleven in total, five botanists, two more entomologists, an invertebrate ecologist, an environmental physicist and two vertebrate ecologists. So for both these journals, vertebrate ecologists were in the minority.

Moving on to 2014, what is the current composition of the two boards? Journal of Animal Ecology, is dominated by vertebrate ecologists, 62%, with only 25% being invertebrate specialists. Journal of Applied Ecology is also dominated by vertebrate ecologists, 48%, with 28% being plant scientists of various hues and only 21% being invertebrate ecologists. Now let’s have a look at the two journals where there has been no change in the proportion of invertebrate papers published; Ecology is remarkably balanced, although invertebrates are under-represented; 27% plants, 27% vertebrates, 26% invertebrates, 9% microbial. Oikos has an even better board composition, 41% being invertebrate ecologists, 29% plant ecologist and a mere, although still over-represented, 17% being vertebrate ecologists.

In summary, although I am sure that there is no explicit bias against invertebrates by the Editors of either Journal of Animal Ecology or Journal of Applied Ecology, the very fact that their Editorial Boards are dominated by vertebrate ecologists acts as an attractant to vertebrate ecologists and as a deterrent to entomologists who thus choose to submit their papers elsewhere, resulting in the vertebrate dominated situation we see today.

Towards the end of Ken’s excellent post he says “Well, if the number of papers we published on each taxon reflected the number of species on the planet, then for every 1000 insect papers we publish, we should publish just 31 papers on fish, 13 on reptiles & amphibians, 10 on birds, and a miserly 5 papers on mammals! Clearly, this would be ridiculous”

Why would this be so ridiculous I ask? This is another good example of institutional vertebratism. After all, as Ken points out to us entomologists (and of course this includes Ken himself) “for taxon-specific papers, there are plenty of excellent specialist journals” This applies equally to the vertebrate world, so why shouldn’t a journal of animal ecology be dominated by invertebrates?

 

References

Leather, S.R., Ward, S.A. Wellings, P.W. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1983) Habitat quality and the reproductive strategies of the migratory morphs of the bird cherry-oat aphid Rhopalosiphum padi. Oecologia, 59, 302-306.

Leather, S.R., Ward, S.A., & Dixon, A.F.G. (1983) The effect of nutrient stress on life history parameters of the black bean aphid, Aphis fabae Scop. Oecologia, 57, 156-157.

Leather, S.R., Carter, N., Walters , K.F.A., Chroston, J.R., Thornback, N., Gardner, S.M., & Watson, S.J. (1984) Epidemiology of cereal aphids on winter wheat in Norfolk, 1979-1981. Journal of Applied Ecology, 21, 103-114.

Ward, S.A., Leather, S.R., & Dixon, A.F.G. (1984) Temperature prediction and the timing of sex in aphids. Oecologia, 62, 230-233.

Wellings, P.W., Leather, S.R. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1980) Seasonal variation in reproductive   potential: a programmed feature of aphid life cycles. Journal of Animal Ecology 49, 975-985.

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Letting the train take the strain – Summer Holiday 2014

As I am on my summer holiday this is one of my lazy blogs; mainly pictures, no science and written in the hope of inspiring more people to give up flying and take the train instead. For those of you who don’t know I try to keep my time in the air to a minimum; years go by without me encasing myself in those uncomfortable sardine tins with the disconcerting habit of dropping several hundred feet every now and then. Yes, you guessed it; I hate flying, both on a personal level and also on an ecological level. Thus for the last twenty-five years or so have taken our car with us on holiday, and when possible, kept the carbon footprint as small as possible by putting the car on the train. In the old days this was remarkably easy, as French MotorRail ran a great service from Calais, but unfortunately that was axed a few years ago and this now means we have the choice of either driving to Paris to catch the AutoTrain from Bercy or driving across to Den Bosch in The Netherlands to catch the Autoslaap Trein. You can actually travel pretty much anywhere in the world by train and ferry; The Man in Seat Sixty-One is our personal hero, do check him out.
We left Bracknell at 1715 on Thursday 17th July to catch the car ferry from Harwich to Hook of Holland. Due to the awful traffic around and in the vicinity of London, we didn’t arrive at Harwich until 2120 but despite that, got parked and into our cabin fairly quickly and in time for a late supper and glass of wine accompanied by a pretty good sunset as the ferry set sail.
Sunset Harwich

We had a very comfortable night (unlike our experience going to Bilbao eight years ago) and after a quick breakfast were able to start on our journey from Hook of Holland to Den Bosch, a drive of just over an hour. I drove the car on to the train and as we were first there apart from some motorcyclists, was at the front end of the transporter carriages.

Car on train

 

We then had a few hours of sight-seeing in Den Bosch in glorious sunshine before making our way back to the train and getting into our cabin, which came with hot and cold running water, two bunks and a complimentary glass of champagne courtesy of our stewardess.

Bedroom

We departed Den Bosch at 1315 and spent the next few hours travelling down through the Netherlands and on into Germany, much of it beside the Rhine which is very scenic at this time of the year.

 Along the Rhine compressed3  Along the Rhine compressed2  Along the Rhine compressed

At about 1745, we had a fifteen minute stop in Darmstadt, ostensibly to let us stretch our legs but as far as I could see it was really to let

Darmstadt station

the train staff indulge in a cigarette break! I did however mange to find a bit of nature on the platform although much to my disappointment,  it was not infested with aphids ;-)

Darmstadt vegetation

For those train buffs among you here are the engines.  We were on our way again by 1800 and at 2030 we repaired (I find that travelling in style by train brings back the language style of a more relaxed age)

Engine

to the Dining Car for a very nice three course meal with a bottle red wine – very civilized indeed and so much more comfortable than flying ;-)

  Dinner reservation Eating in style

We then retired to bed and despite the fact that we were rattling through the Alps at a fair old rate, slept very soundly until breakfast arrived at 0730 accompanied with a cup of coffee each.

Breakfast

 

Not quite as good as dinner but enough to keep us going as we hurtled through Italy.  By mid-morning we were running along the stunning Italian coastline and arrived at Livorno in blazing sunshine at lunchtime.

Italian coast Italian coast1 Italian coast2

The car was soon unloaded despite some problems with the motorcycles in front of which had been rather too securely attached to the train! We then set off on our drive to Castel Dell’Aquila in Umbria (incidentally the village features in a brief film Finding Marilyn in Castel Dell’Aquila).

It was as we were leaving Livorno that I had to make a choice between the two women in my life. Gill (Mrs (Dr) Leather) and Mrs Garmin (as we affectionately (?) call our SatNav) got into dispute.  Gill is great believer in navigating by the sun and as I was about to follow Mrs Garmin’s instruction on how to leave Livorno was told by Gill that it couldn’t possibly be right as we should be heading in the other direction – I couldn’t possibly say who was right but our estimated Mrs Garmin time of 1530 turned into an actual arrival time of 1820 ;-) Still it was worth it

House front2 House front Holiday house

 

Post script

The villa comes with a kitten and also a dog!  Just as well that we don’t suffer from allergies ;-)

Kitten  Dog

Post post script

And of course as well as reducing your carbon footprint, taking your own car means that you are able to bring back a lot of local produce, including the bottled variety ;-)

 

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Not all aphids aggregate in clumps

There is a tendency for people when they do think of aphids, to see them as existing in large unsightly aggregations, oozing sticky honeydew, surrounded by their shed skins and living in positively slum-like conditions. The bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi, the black bean aphid, Aphis fabae, the Poa-feeding aphid, Utamphorophora humboldti and the beech wooly aphid, Phyllaphis fagi, being notable examples.

       Damage on bird cherry             Aphids on runner beans 2014           Office aphids compressed           Beech aphid

Whilst this may be true for many pest aphid species, it is far from true for the group as a whole. Yes they may occur in aggregations, but quite often, they look very neat and tidy and well-behaved.

Conker aphids 2013     Aphids on heath

Some aphid species lead quite solitary lives and you often only find them in ones and twos, if at all, e.g. Monaphis antennata.  There is one aphid species, however, that manages to have it both ways, living surrounded by its friends and relatives but managing to exist in splendid isolation at the same time. The exemplar of this phenomenon is the sycamore aphid, Drepanosiphum platanoidis, which exhibits a behaviour termed ‘spaced-out gregariousness’, a term coined by John Kennedy and colleagues in 1967, although the phenomenon was

sycamore aphids on leaf

described and measured by Tony Dixon a few years earlier. Effectively, the aphids like to be in a crowd but to have their own personal space. As proof of this, when the numbers of aphids on a leaf are low, say two to three, they will, instead of spreading out across the leaf, still show the same behaviour, i.e. get to within 2-3 millimetres distance of each other.

Sycamore compressed

Even more extraordinary is when a predator such as a ladybird or lacewing larvae finds its way on to a crowded leaf; the sycamore aphids do a great imitation of the parting of the Red Sea, but still without touching each other and keeping their regulation distance apart. Those finding themselves at the edge, either take wing or move to the upper surface of the leaf. Although a video of this exists somewhere I have been unable to find it so you will have to take my word for it. If anyone does come across the footage please let me know.

Yet another reason to love aphids.

 

References

Dixon, A.F.G. (1963) Reproductive activity of the sycamore aphid, Drepanosiphum platanoides (Schr) (Hemiptera, Aphididae). Journal of Animal Ecology, 32, 33-48.

Kennedy, J.S., Crawley, L., & McLaren, A.D. (1967) Spaced-out gregariousness in sycamore aphids Drepanosiphum platanoides (Schrank) (Hemiptera, Callaphididae). Journal of Animal Ecology, 36, 147-170.

Post script 

You may have noticed that the two references cited spell the species name of the sycamore aphid as platanoides,  It is in fact correctly spelt platanoidis.  To their embarrassment both John Kennedy and Tony Dixon got it wrong.  It wasn’t until 1978, when a very brave (possibly helped by conference alcohol consumption) PhD student (David Mercer) of Tony Dixon’s pointed this out, that the error was noticed and corrected ;-)

Reference

Mercer, D.R. (1979) Flight Behaviour of the Sycamore Aphid, Drepanosiphum platanoidis Schr.   Ph.D Thesis, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK.

 

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Entomological Classics – The Pooter or Insect Aspirator

I’m sure that we can all remember our first encounter with that wonderful entomological device, The Pooter and were probably all told to remember to  “suck don’t blow” and also to remember to suck from the right tube.  Despite this sage advice I am also sure that most, if not all of us, have somehow managed to end up with a mouthful of small insects ;-)

pooter classic

 

The Pooter as I came across it first as a student – inherently simple but incredibly breakable http://svalbardinsects.net/index.php?id=33

So exactly what is a Pooter and when was it invented?  I of course knew the answer to the first bit but had forgotten the answer to second (if I ever knew it).  I decided to see what Google would reveal.  A quick Google search led me to this simple definition from http://brainsofsteel.co.uk/post.php?id=Looking-for-Life-in-Your-own-Back-Yard

  “The pooter (sic – pedantically as it is named after a person so should be capitalised) is said to get it’s wonderful name from William Poos an American entomologist active in the 1930s, it consists of a small transparent airtight vial with two tubes protruding.  One tube is put in your mouth and the other acts as a vacuum that will suck up bugs safely without damaging them.  There is an inherent risk of sucking a bug into your mouth but that is half the fun.”

and this one here from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/pooter

Pooter definition

and from A Dictionary of Entomology,  Gordon Gordh & David Headrick  CABI 2011 Second Edition.

Pooter noun

So it definitely seemed to appear that the Pooter was a relatively recent invention.  Was this true or was it the entomological equivalent of an urban myth? I started with finding out a bit more about the putative inventor of the Pooter, F.W.  Poos and found this also in the same source

Poos obit short

 

and after tracking down the obituary by T E Wallenmaier was rewarded with a photograph of the great man.

Poss Picture

Next I got hold of Poos’s 1929 paper in which he described the insect aspirator and sure enough there was a diagram of a Pooter pretty much as we know it today but with a cigarette holder as the mouthpiece.

Poo's Pooter

In his paper Poos notes that his design is a modified version of the aspirators used by Kunkel (1926) and Severin & Swezy (1928). So how modified was his design and should the Pooter really be called the Pooter?  In the Severin and Swezy paper we are lucky enough to have a photograph of the insect aspirator in action and it is very obviously a straight line system as opposed to the two tubes going in at the top and the text explains that  once caught the catch is tapped into another tube or vial.

Severin Swezy picture

So what about the earlier Kunkel paper?  In this case the photograph clearly shows a sucking tube and another tube in which the

Kunkel Pooter

catch is placed by blowing it out of the collecting tube; the Poos version is clearly a more efficient device as you suck and catch and can store your catches until a convenient moment arises for transfer to either your killing jar or observation  chamber.  As an undergraduate I briefly trialed a Pooter containing cherry laurel  (Prunus laurocerasus) to make a combined catching and killing device; needless to say I very quickly decided that it was not a good idea.

So the Pooter is distinct from the other devices in that the catch does not have to be transferred immediately to another container and that it has the sucking and catching ends coming out of the same aperture.  Interestingly enough I did find an earlier description of an insect aspirator that had the same properties as the Pooter but was a straight line system (Buxton, 1928).  So is the criterion

 

Buxton Pooter

 

for a Pooter the two tubes emanating from the same source?  Apparently not as I have found these all described as pooters (sic).

 

Pooters

Despite all my searching and a resort to Twitter, the earliest reference to an insect aspirator that I could find (many thanks to Richard Jones also known as @Bugmanjones) was 1868 and is basically the same device as that described by Severin and Swezy in 1929.

Precursor Pooter

So if we accept that the Pooter is the classic two tube sucker-storage version then yes, Poos invented the Pooter.  If we contend that the Pooter is any old insect aspirator then it seems that Ormerod got there first and we should perhaps only be calling it a pooter  because of the noise we make when aspirating an insect ;-)

References

Gibb, T.J. & Oseto, C.Y. (2006) Arthropod Collection and Identification: Laboratory and Field Techniques.  Academic Press , New York

Kunkel, L.O. (1926) Studies on Aster Yellows.  American Journal of Botany, 13, 646-705

Poos, F.W. (1929) Leaf hopper injury to legumes.  Journal of Economic Entomology, 22, 146-153

Severin, H.P. & Swezy, O. 91928) Filtration experiments on curly top of sugar beets.  Phytopathology, 18, 681-691

Wallenmaier, T.E. (1989) Poos, Frederick, William-1891-1987-Obiturary. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington , 91, 298-301

 

Post script

I knew I would regret throwing out my old copies of Antenna when I moved to Harper Adams.  During my research I came across a reference to some correspondence in Antenna in 1982.

Obit excerpt

 

Luckily, Val McAtear, the Librarian at the Royal Entomological Society, very kindly scanned in the relevant pages for me.  To my chagrin, I found that I would have saved myself a lot of time if I had remembered this article (Fergusson, N.D.M. (1982)  Pooter Post. Antenna,  282-284).  On the plus side, I had, however, found several references to insect aspirators that he had not.  His additional references are shown below in case anyone wants to track them down.

Baden, E.B. (1951)  Collecting beetles associated with stored food products.  Amateur Entomologist Leaflet 6, 1-9

Cogan, B.H. & Smith, K.G.V. (1974) Instructions for Collectors.  British Museum (Natural History).

Colyer, C.N. & HJammond, C.O. (1951) Flies of the British Isles, Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd.

Hurd, P.D. (1954) ‘Myiases’ resulting from the use of the Aspirator method in the collection of insects.  Science, 119, 814-815

Lewis, D.J.  (1933)  Observations on Aedes aegypti L. (Dipt., Culic.) under controlled atmospheric conditions.  Bulletin of Entomological Research, 24, 363-372

Myers, E.H. (1933) A mouth pipette and containers for smaller organisms.  Science, 77, 609-610

Oldroyd, H. (1958) Collecting, Preserving and Studying Insects.  Hutchinson, London.

O’Rourke, F.J. (1939) Ant collecting.  Amateur Entomologist, 4, 33-34

Perkins, J.F. (1943) The collecting trip, in the Hymenopterist’s Handbook.  Amateur Entomologist, 7, 140-147

Philip, C.B. (1931) Two new species of Uranotaenia (Culicidae) from Nigeria, with notes ion the genus in the  Ethiopian region.  Bulletin of Entomological Research, 22, 183-193

Psota, F.J. (1916) A suction-pump collector.  Entomological News, 27, 22-23

Wishart, G. (1930) Some devices for handling insects.  Journal of Economic Entomology, 23, 234-237

 

Post  post script

Two curiosities that I came across in my foray into the depths of insect aspirator history was a patent filed in 1938 by a Clyde Barnhart for an aspirator designed to reduce wear and tear on the operator

Pooter patent

And a mechanical aspirator powered by a car engine (Moore, H,.W. (1943)  A mechanical aspirator of sorting and collecting insects in the field.  Canadian Entomologist, 75, 162).

And finally

It appears that in the USA poot is analogous to fart!

Pooter tooter

And now sadly, available in the UK for a mere £12.99 – http://www.thepooter.co.uk/

Pooter tooter UK

But the good news is that you can get a real Pooter (albeit plastic) for much less , £1.79 to be precise ;-)

Pooter Invicta

http://www.rapidonline.com/science/invicta-insect-pooter-517018

 

 

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Are we too late to save Natural History? The demise of Natural History training in schools and universities

For some years now I have sounded off about my concerns over the loss of entomological expertise and teaching (Leather, 2007, 2009ab). My former colleague Donald Quicke and I have also written about the demise of natural history teaching in secondary and tertiary education (Leather & Quicke, 2009, 2010). More recently, I have been following a debate on Ecolog about the lack of field-based natural history teaching in the USA, with many contributors lamenting the decline of teaching in this area due to the over-emphasis placed on teaching molecular biology and allied subjects. Interestingly enough, at about the same time, Jeremy Fox addressed a similar issue about natural history knowledge in academic ecologists and concluded that there was not as much of a problem as many people thought  http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/01/28/stats-vs-scouts-polls-vs-pundits-and-ecology-vs-natural-history/

Terry McGlynn http://smallpondscience.com/2014/02/03/natural-history-is-important-but-not-perceived-as-an-academic-job-skill/ however, is much less sanguine and perceives a real problem with not just the teaching of the subject, but of the willingness of students to engage with those courses still available.

In the UK the decline in teaching whole organism biology in general at secondary school and undergraduate level has become ever more pronounced. Biology teaching at research intensive university has become increasingly cell and molecular biased as whole organism biologists retire and are replaced by cell and molecular biologists publishing in ‘high impact’ journals; the needs of teaching are perceived as secondary, research profiles are seen as more important. As a consequence, many biology degrees in the UK lack balance, and content is largely dependent on what those staff still willing to teach, are able to offer. We thus have zoology degrees where whole organisms are largely absent and the invertebrates are covered in perhaps as few as twelve lectures. We also see ecology degrees lacking physiology; how can you understand an ecosystem if you don’t know how the constituent parts work?

I have not been alone in bemoaning the status of natural history knowledge and training; in 2005, Anne Bebbington of the Field Studies Council wrote

At secondary level the decrease in the importance of whole organism biology in the curriculum, declining opportunities for fieldwork and the concentration of A-level fieldwork on techniques and course assessment allow little time for training in identification skills. Many A-level students feel that being able to recognise and name organisms is not important. In teaching students to be responsible citizens and to care about their environment, a knowledge of at least the common organisms around them is vital. Initiatives are needed to engage the interest of primary school children and to provide more opportunities for fieldwork at secondary level, including time to teach students to recognise organisms. Training for teachers would be valuable and the role of organisations outside formal education in educating the wider public is also recognised.”

Five years later, Donald Quicke and I (Leather & Quicke, 2010) wrote “The great majority of those now studying for degrees in biology have had virtually no training or experience in identifying organisms, and sadly, the drive towards ever more molecular and hands-off meta-analysis type study in universities is exacerbating the situation. Although students may be enthused on a two-week long field course and get to learn to recognise a few major groups or species, without back-up, just as with use of statistics, for example, this will have little, if any, long term retention in their skill set.”

We are now almost five years on from these words and worryingly, things, despite all the citizen science activities that seem to spring up every week and the popularity of natural history apps and programmes like Springwatch, have actually got worse and not just in the UK (Tewksbury et al., 2014)*.

The problem we face is that although there are still many people interested in natural history per se, there is a declining number of opportunities for people to be academically trained in the disciplines associated with its study. Thus fewer biology teachers with these skills are employed and opportunities for enhancing (or subverting as some might see it) the rigid school curriculum at present enforced in secondary schools are becoming fewer too. The good work done in some primary schools by dedicated teachers and outreach specialists such as Minibeast Mayhem are not reinforced at secondary school and thus fewer students want to go on to pursue such studies, or are even aware that such study is possible. At undergraduate level, we find very little whole organism teaching in both the field and laboratory. How many zoology degrees in the UK now expose their students to functional morphology; for example, examining and drawing skulls in able to understand the evolution of reptilian jaw bones to mammalian auditory bones; something that even I, as an invertebrate zoologist, was ‘forced’ to do? I was pleasantly surprised during my recent visit to University College Dublin as the external examiner for their BSc Zoology degree, to find that at least some zoology courses do still retain many of the essential whole organism elements required to fully understand animal form and function.

What are we doing about these lost skills? The UK Plant Sciences Federation recently (January 2014) released a detailed report where they highlighted areas where the UK is desperately short of expertise and training; much to my gratification this included entomology as a key subject area ;-) They have, since the release of this report, set up a number of working groups, one of which, Training and Skills, I have agreed to chair. Our first meeting is in July and we will report back at the end of September, hopefully with some concrete and workable suggestions. The Field Studies Council, as you might expect, are also very much concerned about the situation and thanks to a recent grant from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation have been able to initiate a programme called Tomorrow’s Biodiversity which has the aim of facilitating the recording of biodiversity by getting more people trained in identification skills, particularly in the less well-known taxa.

The problem as I see it, lies in the lack of formal natural history training and teaching at undergraduate level. This has been brought about by the failure of university departments to understand the importance of whole organism biology and a tendency to recruit staff according to the funding fashion of the moment, rather than considering the big picture and recruiting across the specialities. We need to balance the teaching and research staff within our university departments so that we produce a viable population of graduate whole organism biologists, be they zoologists, botanists, or ecologists, who are able to recognise the plants and animals that surround them and not just a few ‘model organisms’ and also to understand how they function within that environment. We also need to look seriously at our pre-university biology teaching and increase the amount of whole organism and field content in both pre- and post-16 teaching. There are many opportunities to do this even in genetics. For example in ‘O’ Level Biology our teacher took us outside to search for and collect the snail Cepea nemoralis, famous for its variation in shell colour which is genetically controlled and which is selected for by the degree of predation that populations in different environments suffer from thrushes (Cain & Sheppard, 1954).  There are many such opportunities but only if the teachers know about them and are willing and able to take them.

Pink Cepaea_nemoralis

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cepaea_nemoralis.jpg

  Yellow Cepaea_nemoralis_(Linnaeus_1758)

      http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hain-B%C3%A4nderschnecke#mediaviewer/Datei:Cepaea_nemoralis_(Linnaeus_1758).jpg

An afternoon outside taught us genetics, ecology and plenty of natural history. I feel privileged and thankful that I was able to spend so much of my childhood outside in the natural

Simon Jamaica c 1963

world and hope that we can at least give the current generation of young people the opportunity to enjoy and understand the importance of the natural world around them before it is too late.

References

Bebbington, A. (2005) The ability of A-level students to name plants. Journal of Biological Education 39: 63-67. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00219266.2005.9655963#.U5g5MFRwa70

Cain, A.J. & Sheppard, P.M. (1954) Natural selection in Cepaea. Genetics, 39, 89-116 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1209639/

Leather, S. R. (2007). British entomology in terminal decline? Antenna 31: 192-193.

Leather, S. R. (2009a). Taxonomic chauvinism threatens the future of entomology. Biologist 56: 10-13. http://cdn.harper-adams.ac.uk/document/profile/Leather_Biologist_2009.pdf

Leather, S. R. (2009b). Institutional vertebratism threatens UK food security. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24: 413-414. http://cdn.harper-adams.ac.uk/document/profile/Leather_2009_Trends-in-Ecology-&-Evolution.pdf

Leather, S. R. & Quicke, D. L. J. (2009). Where would Darwin have been without taxonomy? Journal of Biological Education 43: 51-52. http://cdn.harper-adams.ac.uk/document/profile/Leather_&_Quicke_2009_JBE.pdf

Leather, S. R. & Quicke, D. L. J. (2010). Do shifting baselines in natural history knowledge threaten the environment? Environmentalist 30: 1-2. http://cdn.harper-adams.ac.uk/document/profile/Leather_&_Quicke_2010.pdf

Tewksbury, J.J. et al. (2014) Natural History’s place in science and society. Bioscience 64: 300-310 http://bioscience.oxfordjournals.org/content/64/4/300

*Slightly tongue in cheek, I must point out that the authors failed to cite any of my papers concerning the decline of natural history teaching ;-)

 

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External Examining – what is it and why do it?

Magnifying glass

I am now in my first year as the external examiner for the BSc Zoology degree programme at University College Dublin (UCD).  Some of you will know what this entails from personal experience, others will not even be aware that the process exists.  For my sins I have been involved in external examining university courses since 1997.  So exactly what does being an external examiner involve and why do I do it?

According to the UCD handbook ….

“Extern (sic) Examiners play a vital role in assisting the University in fulfilling its obligations of assuring the academic standards and integrity of its modules leading to awards.

1.2. Extern Examiners provide an important consultative and advisory function in supporting the development of modules as well as the enhancement of teaching, learning and assessment practices.

1.3. UCD appoints Extern Examiners that are internationally recognised experts in their subject areas and are from institutions with the highest academic reputations.”

Looking across UK universities and reading their descriptions of the duties of external examiners we find a common message that as an external examiner your duties involve the review of  all summative assessment (ie check that the exam papers are fair and understandable) prior to students being assessed and the requirement to submit an annual report, based upon your professional judgement, about  a number of aspects of the programme.  These being answers to the following questions; are the academic standards set for the programme awards appropriate, how rigorous are the assessment processes, are the students assessed fairly and equitably and are the standards and student achievements comparable with those at other similar institutions.  You are also asked to identify examples of good practice and to suggest areas where improvements or changes would be beneficial.

I got involved with external examining purely by accident; back in 1997 I was asked to validate a new degree programme in Life Sciences at what was then The Roehampton Institute of Education, now Roehampton University.   Validating a degree programme involves assessing the course materials, programme specifications, learning outcomes, projected demand, resource availability, goodness of fit to other programmes etc., etc.  Having agreed that there was a case for them to start the new programme I found myself two years later being asked if I would like to be the external examiner!  Obviously, having validated the degree in the first place I felt that it would be churlish to refuse ;-)

I have since that first appointment been an external examiner at the University of Leeds (BSc Biological Sciences), York University (Environmental Sciences (Undergraduate and Masters), University College London (BSc Biology), Writtle College (MSc Conservation Management), University of Cumbria (MSc Forest Ecosystem Management and Conservation Biology) and now BSc Zoology at UCD.   I have also validated and re-validated several degrees at other universities but managed to suggest alternative external examiners for those ;-)

Appointments are usually made for three years but in many cases extended to four years and very occasionally to five.  So what does it actually involve in practice?  Before your annual, or in some cases biennial visit, you will be sent exam papers to check if the questions are appropriate and to proof-read (you will be amazed at how many spelling and grammatical mistakes can creep into exam papers).  You should also receive module descriptors and the material that students are given before being set assignments and also details of how scripts are graded and marks allocated.  Some places will send you examples of course work and student project dissertations before your visit so that you can make a start on your evaluation ahead of time.  On arrival at the Department, where you will spend the next two to three days,  you should be allocated a space (a secure office/room) where you will be faced with a pile of paperwork to go through.  This can vary greatly, depending on the number of students in a cohort and the number of assessments that count towards the final degree mark.  Those programmes where all years of study contribute to the final grade will have more for you to look at.  Your main duties usually involve examining the paperwork associated with those students graduating in that year, so final year exam scripts, examples of coursework assignments and of course their final year project dissertations/theses.  My UCD pile was about average.

Scripts Dublin 2014 compressed

When I first started as an external examiner,  exit vivas for students were fairly wide-spread and in some cases were used to moderate the degree results of individual students.  This practice has pretty much disappeared and in fact it is now rare to actually get to talk to students on a one-one basis. I totally agree that it was unfair to classify a student’s degree on the basis of a twenty-minute interview, but on the other hand feel that you learn a great deal about the course by talking to students about their projects and experiences.  The staff who deliver a course look at things from a very different viewpoint than those who are on the receiving end.  At some universities students are invited along to an informal gathering with the external examiner(s) (drinks and nibbles provided as an inducement) so that at least some idea of what the students think can be gained; unfortunately take-up can be very low and those who do turn up are certainly not a random sample.   At many universities now, final grades are not changeable and final degree outcomes are determined by an algorithm.  The practice of speaking up at the final exam board in the hopes of moving a student from one grade to another is a thing of the past, and perhaps rightly so as it was very subjective and dependent on the student having a passionate advocate.  Now, if you as an external feel that items within a module were over-marked or under-marked, you are there in an advisory position and not in an executive position, and if any changes to marks are made it will be for the module and not for individual students.

At UCD I was able to talk face to face with half the zoology cohort,  an experience that I found interesting, informative and enjoyable and which did  not have any life-changing effects on the students.  Their final marks were not affected.

At the end of your visit you will be invited along to the Final Examination Board where the marks are presented to the assembled faculty and you will be invited to say a few words about general standards and highlight any concerns that you wish to be addressed before your next visit.  You should also highlight the good things that you noticed and say thank you for the hospitality that you will have received.   Incidentally you will also have to provide a written report to the host university before you receive your fee although you do generally get your travel expenses back fairly promptly.

So why do I agree to be an external examiner?  First,  I find it very useful to be able to compare practices across institutions, I often find examples of good practice which I take note of and apply in my own teaching or tell others in my home department about.  Sometimes I come across great exam questions which I shamelessly borrow to inflict on my own students!  Secondly I think that it is something one should do as a ‘ good academic citizen’  and finally,  you are also usually well treated by the staff of the Department you are visiting and get a least one opportunity to be wined and dined and to meet staff members in an informal setting.

So if you are asked to become an external examiner say yes.  It is not that onerous and it is certainly educational.  If you do decide to become an external examiner I have three pieces of advice for you.

Don’t ask for things to be changed just for the sake of it – for example, the way exam questions are posed in a particular way is generally for a reason.  The people who taught the course know what the students are expecting.  I remember one external examiner asking me to reword an exam question which I did, the result of which was that the students did not answer the question because they did not ‘get’ what it was about.

Don’t be antagonistic – I treat external examining much the same way as I do PhD examining – a two-way process that should have positive outcomes for all involved.  You might not agree with the way things are done in the Department, but find out why it is done that way; if there is no reasonable answer then gently point out why you think it would be better done your way.  If you have valid criticisms to make do so, but do make sure to mention the things you thought were excellent.  Talk to staff and find out if there are things that they feel should be changed by the university or Department.  As the external examiner your report is read by the university administrators and usually published on the University’s website.    You do have the power to make a difference.

Finally, talk to the students.  Even if the Department you are visiting does not have student vivas, ask them to arrange a meeting, either with a group or preferably individual students, so that you can hear things from both sides.

Change will not happen instantaneously, even if you feel it should.   Look, listen and learn and it will be a pleasant three or four years for you and your hosts and at the end of it all you will hopefully feel that you have achieved something worthwhile.

 

 

 

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