A world without Pandas – would it make a difference? OR Conservation versus eradication – do some species deserve to die?

Before you all get excited and ready to shoot me down in flames, this post is not about pandas ;-) It is about how we, as humans, have a very warped view about the value of the species with whom we share this planet – note I did not say OUR planet.

Imagine this as a newspaper headline; Scientists discover a way to eradicate Siberian tigers or this; Destroy Polar Bear menace say local residents or this, Malawi’s ”Serial Killer” Crocodiles Cause Havoc among the Blind, actually this last one is true http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/33608 ;-)

Most people on seeing headlines like those would be putting pen to paper, typing tweets, sharing links and generally making a huge fuss. Replace tigers, pandas and crocodiles with mosquitoes, aphids and spiders and the only people making a fuss would be that other endangered species,  entomologists,  as evidenced by this Twitter conversation sparked off by this article http://www.radiolab.org/story/kill-em-all/

Entodebate

I know I said this wasn’t about pandas but bear with me for a minute.

The following sentences are from the WWF site http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/endangered_species/giant_panda/panda/why_we_save_the_giant_panda/

“The giant panda is one of these species threatened to be wiped off the planet. Ironically, it is also one better known and loved species in the world and one of the strongest symbols of nature conservation. That is one of the main reasons why they are so important: by mobilizing people to save the panda, we are actually helping preserve the rich biodiversity, plants, landscapes, other animals that need to be there in order for the pandas to survive.

The region where pandas live, in the Yangtze Basin and its magnificent forests are home to a stunning array of wildlife such as dwarf blue sheep and beautiful multi-coloured pheasants; as well as a number of other endangered species, including the golden monkey, takin and crested ibis. The panda’s habitat is also home for millions of people. This is the geographic and economic heart of China. By making this area more sustainable, we are also helping to increase the quality of life of local populations”
By rewriting this very slightly and using Anopheles gambiae and mosquito instead of panda, you get this somewhat thought-provoking version;

Anopheles gambiae is one of those species threatened to be wiped off the planet by the deliberate action of man (http://synbiobeta.com/oxitec-arming-insects-eliminate/ and http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/newsandeventspggrp/imperialcollege/newssummary/news_10-6-2014-16-5-11).

The region where Anopheles gambiae live, sub-Saharan Africa, and its magnificent forests and savannahs are home to a stunning array of wildlife such as lions, elephants and giraffes; as well as a number of other endangered species, including the cheetah and black rhino.

That is one of the main reasons why they are so important: by mobilizing people to save the mosquito, we are actually helping preserve the rich biodiversity, plants, landscapes, other animals that need to be there in order for the mosquitoes to survive.

The mosquitoes’ habitat is also home for millions of people. This is the geographic and economic heart of Africa. By making this area more sustainable, we are also helping to increase the quality of life of local populations”

 

I know that this is a somewhat extreme example, and I am in NO way whatsoever saying that malaria prevention is a bad thing and that we should allow millions of people to die every year. What I am proposing is that we should look at the ways we can protect people from malaria and other fatal and debilitating diseases and our crops from the depredations of pests and diseases that don’t involve the eradication of other species on the planet.
Conservation biology teaches us that we should preserve species for a number of reasons.  Common textbook examples usually include the following:

Resource values – all species may have an economic or ecological value, some of which we do not yet appreciate e.g. Food, pharmaceuticals, watershed regulation, coastline stabilisation, reefs for fisheries, tourism, education, ecological baselines, habitat reconstruction etc.

Non-resource values – all species should be valued anyway e.g. Religion, moral codes, social/cultural values, existence values, intrinsic value, and aesthetic values

Precautionary principle – all species should be preserved just in case – the rivets and spaceship (aeroplane) theory

This latter theory comes from the preface to Paul Ehrlich’s 1981 book, Extinction, where he imagines a passenger inspecting the ‘plane he is about to fly in. The passenger notices someone popping rivets out of the wings and asks what he is doing. The rivet popper replies that the passenger shouldn’t worry because not all the rivets are necessary. The rivets represent species and the rivet popper represents humanity, and the ‘plane the planet Earth. Ehrlich predicted that continuing to pop the rivets of ecosystems would lead to “a crumbling of post-industrial society” and demanded that the rivet popping be stopped.

Michael Soulé, a pioneer conservation biologist and former PhD student of Paul Ehrlich wrote

untimely extinction of populations and species is bad, conservation biology does not abhor extinction per se. Natural extinction is thought to be either value free or good because it is part of the process of replacing less well-adapted gene pools with better adapted ones. Ultimately, natural extinction, unless it is catastrophic, does not reduce biological diversity, because it is offset by speciation”

Conservation principles have moved from the preservation of single species to an ecosystem point of view as outlines recently by Professor Georgina Mace of University College London,

Mace picture

although the concept of keystone species, a term first coined by Richard Paine in 1969 has, particularly if the keystone species is vertebrate, had a marked influence on where conservation efforts have been directed over the years.

The concept of ecosystem services where species can be assigned an economic value depending on the services they offer to humankind  is not new (e.g. Hooper, 1970; Westman, 1977), but has increasingly and unfortunately allowed politicians and research funders to make decisions about the worth of species from a purely human viewpoint. As a result, when discussing the eradication or otherwise of species there is a definite bias towards the ‘charismatic mega-fauna’ whether they are keystone species or not, and those species that cause us discomfort must argue very hard for their preservation; see for example this extract from Jennifer Fang’s (2010) article.
A stronger argument for keeping mosquitoes might be found if they provide ‘ecosystem services’ — the benefits that humans derive from nature. Evolutionary ecologist Dina Fonseca at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, points as a comparison to the biting midges of the family Ceratopogonidae, sometimes known as no-see-ums. “People being bitten by no-see-ums or being infected through them with viruses, protozoa and filarial worms would love to eradicate them,” she says. But because some ceratopogonids are pollinators of tropical crops such as cacao, “that would result in a world without chocolate”.

“They don’t occupy an unassailable niche in the environment,” says entomologist Joe Conlon, of the American Mosquito Control Association in Jacksonville, Florida. “If we eradicated them tomorrow, the ecosystems where they are active will hiccup and then get on with life. Something better or worse would take over.” 

 

On the plus side sometimes the ecosystem services concept can be used to highlight the benefits of the smaller and often over-looked species, but yet again only if a substantial economic value can be assigned to them http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/oct/05/threatened-species-cannot-afford-to-lose-age-of-extinction

 

Personally, I am a great believer in retaining as many species as we can, so the deliberate eradication of species from their natural environments because we find them a nuisance makes me uneasy. We share this world, we don’t own it, so finding a way to live with ‘nuisance’ species must be a better option than eradicating them.

As a parting thought, consider these words from Ehrlich & Mooney (1980), and also bear in mind the UK Government’s recent Biodiversity Offsetting policy.

“Although there are numerous examples of unsuccessful substitutions, successful ones are hard to identify.

At some point the costs of substitution will almost certainly become unbearable. Therefore, it seems that a conservative approach, emphasizing the careful preservation of ecosystems and thus the populations and species that function within them is absolutely essential.”

Tea pot

 

Some things once broken are very difficult to put back together and might not work in the same way that they did before they were broken

http://100percenttea.blogspot.co.uk/2007/11/how-not-to-repair-broken-teapot.htmle

 

References

Ehrlich, P. R. & Mooney, H.A. (1983) Extinction, substitution, and ecosystem services. BioScience, 33, 248-254

Fang, J. (2010) A World without mosquitoes. Nature, 466, 432-434

http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100721/full/466432a.html

Hooper, J.F. (1970) Economics, the ecosystem and conservation. Journal of Range Management, 23, 148-150

Mace, G. (2014). Whose conservation? Science, 345, 1558-1560.

Paine, R. T. (1969). A note on trophic complexity and community stability. American Naturalist,  103, 91-93.

Soulé, M. E. (1985). What is conservation biology? Bioscience 35, 727-734.

Westman, W.E. (1977) How much are nature’s services worth? Science, 197, 960-964

 

Post script

1Somewhat ironically Paine’s 1969 paper in which he coined the term keystone species dealt with two invertebrate species,  starfish.

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First steps towards an entomological career – A nostalgic reminiscence

Our new Freshers have now found their feet and most now no longer have to ask directions to buildings and lecture theatres. It came as a bit of a shock to me to suddenly realise that this time forty years ago I was in a similar position at Leeds University, although probably feeling somewhat more lost than our first year students because even then, Leeds was a big university (10 000 students; small compared with most universities now, but the biggest outside London then).   Then & Now Two weeks into term and I was experiencing my first ever entomology lectures – my degree was in a now extinct subject, Agricultural Zoology, which was essentially entomology and parasitology, with a strong agricultural slant. I still have the books that I bought in those first stumbling days (as Agrics we drank rather a lot) towards my career as a professional entomologist. Textbooks I note that I did not buy the two Entomological bibles of our day, Imms (A General Textbook of Entomology) and Wigglesworth (The Principles of Insect Physiology) until the following year; actually during the summer vacation so I must have been very keen and feeling quite rich  ;-) I drank and read my way through undergraduate life managing to fit in an entomological expedition to Trinidad in 1975 where I reacquainted myself with the Caribbean insects that had first sparked my interest in entomology as a child in Jamaica. Drink & Trinidad I also discovered that, to quote the advertising posters all over the island,  “in Trinidad a beer is a Carib”!

A beer is a carib

Despite the beer, the sunshine and the exotic flora and fauna, 1975 was the year that I decided aphids were the most fascinating of all insects and what I wanted to work on when I graduated.  I also realised that you didn’t need to travel to exotic places to do interesting fieldwork and make new discoveries. Graduation & FieldworkEven with all the distractions of student life, I did graduate and went on to do a PhD working on cereal aphid ecology. PhD work

PhD work – A good job Health & Safety hadn’t been invented ;-)

I had some great entomological lecturers as an undergraduate, all of whom helped me get to where I am today;  Brian Whittington, Noel Gibson, Edward Broadhead, Steve Sutton and the somewhat eccentric Dick Loxton who took us on our field course and introduced us to extreme sweep netting, something I still do to do this day! Extreme sweep netting References

Barnes, R.D. (1974) Invertebrate Zoology, 3rd Edition, W B Saunders & Co. Philadelphia

Barrington, E.J.W. (1967) Invertebrate Structure & Function, Nelson, London

Cox, F.E.G., Morton, J.E., Phillips Dale, R., Nichols, D., Green, J. & Wakelin, D. (1969) Practical Invertebrate Zoology, Sidgwick & Jackson, London

Grove, A.J. & Newell, G.E. (1969) Animal Biology, 8th Edition, University Tutorial Press Ltd. London Imms, A.D. (1947) Insect Natural History, Collins, London

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Entomological classics – The Malaise Trap

More years ago than I care to remember, my friends and I were playing the now, very non-PC game of Cowboys and Indians, when we saw through the trees, what we thought was a tent. On sneaking up to it we found that, if it was a tent, it wasn’t very watertight!  There were no sides, instead there was a central panel and the whole thing was made of netting.  What we had actually found, was of course a Malaise trap, although of course we did not know this at the time.  It was only later as an undergraduate that I realised what we had found all those years before.

So exactly what is a Malaise trap and how did it come into being? The Malaise Trap is a relatively new invention.  It was invented by the Swedish entomologist, Dr René Malaise in the 1930s (hence the name) and revealed to a more general entomological audience in 1937 (Malaise, 1937).  It was actually designed as a replacement for the traditional hand-held collecting net, which as Malaise states in the introduction to his paper ‘”Since the time of Linneaus, the technique of catching insects has not improved very much, and we are to-day using the same kind of net as then for our main instrument”.

I was amused, when reading on further, to find that my childhood gaffe of confusing a Malaise Trap with a net was fully justified. Malaise, later in the same paper writes, ”During my extensive travels I have repeatedly found that insects happened to enter my tent, and that they always accumulated at the ceiling-corners in vain efforts to escape at that place without paying any attention to the open tent door”. He then goes on to describe how he conjectured that “a trap made as invisible as possible and put up at a place where insect are wont to patrol back and forth, might catch them much better than any tent, and perhaps better than a man with a net, as a trap could catch them all the time, by night as by day, and never be forced to quit catching when it was best because dinner-time was at hand”.

He thus set about constructing a trap based on the idea of an open tent with a collecting device attached to the central end pole to take advantage of the fact that most insects when encountering an obstacle tend to fly upwards. On reaching the apex of the tent, the only way out is into the collecting device which is filled with a killing agent.  It is in effect, a flight intercept trap, but unlike window traps (subject of a later post), the insects instead of falling into a collecting device, head upwards and collect themselves. Malaise tested his first version of the trap on an expedition to Burma and found them to be a great success “every day’s catch from the traps grew larger and larger, and sorting it required more and more time”. He found the traps particularly good for Diptera and Hymenoptera but also very good for Coleoptera and Noctuid and Sphingid moths.  He also mentions catching Hemiptera.

In outward form, the Malaise Trap has remained fairly unchanged since its invention. The first versions were apparently fairly heavy, having a brass insect collecting cylinder and also only had one opening.  Malaise recognised the disadvantages of the single entrance version and suggested in the 1937 paper that a bilateral model would be more effective.  These followed in due course. Modified versions using plastic cylinders and different netting material were  invented in the 1960s (Gressit & Gressit, 1962; Townes, 1962; Butler, 1965).  Townes’s paper gives a very detailed description of the construction and use of modified Malaise traps (90 pages) in contrast to Butler’s three page description of a cheap and cheerful version made from a modified bed-net.

Nowadays, entomologists world-wide, particularly Dipterists and Hymenopterists, use Malaise traps of various designs and colours, and cost.  In the UK they are available from commercial outlets at prices ranging from £60 to £165. They are extremely effective and we use them to collect insects for our practical classes in the Entomology MSc based at Harper Adams University.

    Malaise traps

Malaise trap in operation, Harper Adams University, Shropshire, UK.

 

References

Butler, G.D. 91965) A modified Malaise insect trap. The Pan-Pacific Entomologist, 41, 51-53

Gressitt, J.L. & Gressitt, M.K. (1962) An improved Malaise Trap. Pacific Insects, 4, 87-90

Malaise, R. (1937) A new insect-trap.  Entomologisk Tidskrift, Stockholm, 58, 148-160

Townes, H. (1962) Design for a Malaise trap. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of  Washington, 64, 162-253

 

Post script

Malaise was not just an entomologist; he was an explorer and a passionate believer in the existence of Atlantis. A detailed biography of this extraordinary character can be found here, including a photograph of the original Malaise trap.

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Not all aphids have wings

Given that aphids are commonly known as green-fly or black-fly, it might be presumed that all aphids are capable of flight. Although this is almost certainly universal at the species level (but see Post script) it is not true within a species. As I have described in an earlier post aphids are possessed of extremely complex and fascinating (to me at least) life cycles. Depending on the species, either most stages of the life cycle are winged (alate) as adults, e.g. the sycamore aphid Drepanoisphum platanoidis

Holocyclic.png

Sycamore aphid

I couldn’t resist showing you this beautiful picture of an adult sycamore aphid borrowed from the best aphid web site that I know of (see http://influentialpoints.com/Gallery/Drepanosiphum_platanoidis_common_sycamore_aphids.htm)

 

Other aphid species, such as my favourite, the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi, only produce alate morphs at specific times of year or in response to changes in host plant quality or crowding.

Heteroecious

 RhopalosiphumPadi  Rhopalosiphum padi on leaf

Winged (alate) and non-winged (apterous) morphs of Rhopalosiphum padi.

In species such as the sycamore aphid, the only apterous morph tends to be the sexual female or ovipara, which has no need to disperse and after mating lives only long enough to develop and lay its eggs on the bark of sycamore trees.

Sycamore ovip on bark

Ovipara of the sycamore aphid searching for an oviposition site

In those species such as the bird cherry-oat aphid, the winged forms are very different from the non-winged forms, not just in terms of their wings but in their physiology, behaviour and life history traits (Dixon, 1998). The role of the winged morphs is to find new host plants and to start new colonies. They have long antenna, long legs and well-developed and many, sensory organs (rhinaria). They are the dispersal stage, or in the case of winged males, the mate seekers. They respond more readily to host odours; they need to be able to find new host plants at a suitable physiological stage and preferably free of natural enemies. A well-developed olfactory system is thus called for.

If you cut them open (preferably anaesthetizing them first), and remove their ovaries, you will find that they have ovarioles with only a few embryos in each chain and that most of the embryos are not mature i.e. without eye spots. In addition, if you cut open a number of individuals from the same clone you will find that they will not all have the same number of ovarioles. For example, the alate exules (winged forms produced on the secondary host plants )of Rhoaplosiphum padi, the number of ovarioles can range from four to ten (Wellings et al, 1980). This variability of ovariole number in the dispersal morphs of aphids that spend much of their life cycle on ephemeral host plants is quite common (Leather et al 1988).  So why do so many aphid species have variable numbers of ovarioles in their alate morphs?

Shaw (1970), showed that there appeared to be three types of black bean aphid (Aphis fabae) alate exules; migrants, those that flew before depositing nymphs, flyers, those that deposited a few nymphs before flying, and non-flyers, those that stayed and reproduced on their host plant. He postulated that this was an adaptation in response to host quality, the worse state the plant was in the more likely the migrant morph would be produced. Many years later Keith Walters and Tony Dixon (Walters & Dixon, 1983) were able to show that there was a very strong relationship between reproductive investment (number of ovarioles) and flight willingness and ability. The more ovarioles an aphid had, the less likely it was to want to take off and fly, and in addition those with more ovarioles could not fly for as long or as far as those with fewer.

Ovarioles and flight

In other words a trade-off between fecundity and migration. As long distance aphid migration is very costly (very few survive, Ward et al, 1998) it makes sense to have members of your clone spreading the load (risk), from short-distance hops (trivial flights), with the chance that the next door plant might be just as bad as the one left behind and within easy reach of natural enemies, but with a higher chance of survival and reproduction, to long distance migratory flights, with the reduced probability of finding a host plant but with the chance that it will be high in nutrition and low in natural enemies.

What clever beasts aphids are ;-)

 

References

Dixon, A.F.G. (1998) Aphid Ecology, Second edn. Chapman & Hall, London.

Leather, S.R., Wellings, P.W., & Walters, K.F.A. (1988) Variation in ovariole number within the Aphidoidea. Journal of Natural History, 22, 381-393.

Shaw, M.J.P. (1970) Effects of population density on the alienicolae of Aphis fabae Scop.II The effects of crowding on the expression of migratory urge among alatae in the laboratory. Annals of Applied Biology, 65, 197-203.

Walters, K.F.A. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1983) Migratory urge and reproductive investment in aphids: variation within clones. Oecologia, 58, 70-75.

Ward, S.A., Leather, S.R., Pickup, J., & Harrington, R. (1998) Mortality during dispersal and the cost of host-specificity in parasites: how many aphids find hosts? Journal of Animal Ecology, 67, 763-773.

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.

 

Post script

It is possible that there are some aphids that never fly – Aphids from the genus Stomaphis have incredibly long mouthparts (they all feed through tree bark), and as far as I can tell from perusal of

Stomaphis query aceris

Roger Blackman and Vic Eastop’s monumental work, alate morphs have never been described (or seen) and even males are apterous.

Blackman, R.L. & Eastop, V.F. (1994) Aphids on the World’s Trees. CABI, Wallingford.

 

Post post script

For a very detailed and thoughtful review of the ‘decisions’ and costs involved in aphid reproductive and dispersal biology see Ward, S.A. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1984) Spreading the risk, and the evolution of mixed strategies: seasonal variation in aphid reproductive strategies. Advances in Invertebrate Reproduction, 3, 367-386.

 

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How do we save UK plant sciences?

At the beginning of this year (2014) the UK Plant Sciences Federation published an important report about the crisis facing plant sciences in the UK. This was not the first report of this type, for example in 2009 the BBSRC which ironically, is together with HEFCE perhaps one of the main culprits that caused the crisis in the first place, produced a report on vulnerable bioscience research skills, in which among others, they highlighted the vulnerability of plant sciences. The British Society for Plant Pathology produced a similarly gloomy report in 2012. All three reports basically said that UK plant sciences are in danger of extinction unless something is done sooner, rather than later.

Lawn dead 2014

To explain why I, an entomologist, am writing about this, I should explain that plant sciences encompasses plant pathology, plant nematology, plant entomology and pest management as well as agriculture, botany, horticulture, plant breeding etc.

In response to these findings the UKPSF set up four working groups, one of which, the Training and Skills Working Group, I was asked to chair. As if I hadn’t enough work to do already, I agreed.

Our Terms of Reference are:

To develop an implementation plan for the UKPSF and plant science community, outlining clearly defined actions and associated time scales. The plan should contain:

  • One or two short-term actions (achievable within six months to one year).
  • One to three medium to long-term actions (achievable within one to five years).

For each action the working group should specify realistic:

  • Mechanism(s).
  • Responsibility/responsibilities.
  • Timescale(s).
  • Rationale

The working group consists of

Simon Leather Professor of Entomology, Harper Adams University (Chair)

Mary Berry Curriculum Leader for Science, Woodlands Academy

Sarah Blackford Head of Education & Public Affairs, Society for Experimental Biology

Gary Foster Professor of Molecular Plant Pathology, University of Bristol; President-Elect, British Society of Plant Pathology

Alistair Griffiths Director of Science, Royal Horticultural Society

Jo Hepworth Postdoctoral Researcher, John Innes Centre

Jon Heuch Owner and Director, Duramen Consulting Ltd (Chartered Foresters and Arboricultural Consultants); Trustee/Director, Arboricultural Association

Emma Kelson Training Officer, Society of Biology (Minute Secretary)

Celia Knight Independent educational consultant (UKPSF Executive Committee)

Charles Lane Consultant Plant Pathologist, Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera)

Jonathan Mitchley Lecturer in Plant Community Ecology, University of Reading; Senior Botanist, RSK Group Ltd

Ginny Page Director, Science and Plants for Schools (SAPS) (UKPSF Executive Committee)

Dawn Sanders Docent/Associate Professor, Gothenburg University; Gardens for Learning

Phil Smith Coordinator, Teacher Scientist Network (TSN)

Mimi Tanimoto Executive Officer, UKPSF (Coordinator)

Eleanor Walton PhD Student, University of York

So a fairly wide range of interests and hopefully representative of the plant science community.

I began by asking each member of the group to highlight their greatest concern about plant science training and skills: In no particular order these were our thoughts and concerns

  • we seem to have lost people who can identify things.
  • what do we understand plant science to be, what plant scientists do and what are the skills and opportunities for the future? These need to be understood to communicate professions to young people.
  • the perception that plants are boring. There is a lack of general respect for plant scientists and this needs to be tackled to attract young people into the sector.
  • Even within the academic world, there is a lack of respect for plant scientists, and this stems from a wider society perspective. Plant scientists are underappreciated at all levels.
  • lack of curriculum knowledge at lower level e.g. NVQs.
  • Government does not see plant science as connected with culture. There is big strength in relation to food production but we are failing to explain the wealth of ecosystems services that plants give us. Fusing technology with functionality and health and wellbeing will allow people to understand that plant science is worthwhile and valuable.
  • lack of funding: securing more funding for plant science will entail getting greater public support and more people interested in plants. Increasing awareness of plant science in schools will therefore allow more of a cultural change.
  • lack of trained people within schools to deliver effective plant science education. Making teachers confident and well equipped to teach plant science is a challenge. Few biology teachers in schools have a plant science background. Biology content of the secondary school curriculum is fractured and does not tell a sensible story, so it does not entice or engage students sufficiently. At ‘A’ level, the main focus is on human physiology and not enough on the physiology of plants. Students do not understand the life cycle of plants because they are taught in random chunks.
  • the university sector is just as bad; many biology departments are moving towards animal, human and biomedical sciences because they tend to bring in more funding. Plant pathologists are a dying breed in UK universities and if plant science is not made a core part of biology degrees, it could lead to a major skills gap.
  • a behavioural change is needed to get people involved with plant science and plant health. Funding initiatives, although welcome, tend to be short-lived so how do we sustain a significant long term improvement?
  • it is important to inspire young people to study plant science and demonstrate the types of careers available. We also need to make sure that employers have people with the right kinds of skills but universities often struggle to put on plant sciences courses because of a lack of student interest.

For a similar overview and some possible solutions, see http://cairotango.wordpress.com/2014/04/03/the-trouble-with-plant-science-education/

The main concerns are a lack of understanding of what plant science is, a lack of respect for whole organism plant science and plant scientists in universities, and a huge problem at pre-university level with children and young people not understanding how important plants are and why they are exciting. There is a huge skills shortage in areas such as plant nematology and in basic whole organism biology including the ability to identify organisms, be they plants, fungi, insects and the damage they cause. Students do not understand that there are careers in plant science and related areas such as integrated pest management. In summary the UK has a big educational and resourcing problem in plant sciences.

Why this post?

Think of this as a crowd-sourcing exercise. As a group we want your opinions and most importantly, your suggestions about what the best way forward is. Please engage.

 

If we do nothing

Without a well-trained cadre of plant scientists that are able to recognise whole organisms and are able to interact with industry we will see more problems arising with invasive species, our crop production industry will be severely compromised and biodiversity loss will accelerate. The current crisis in the Forest Health sector for example, is a direct result of lack of investment in plant and allied sciences.

 

What can we do?

Degree accreditation

The Society of Biology and their degree accreditation scheme is one way to restore whole organism plant science teaching to universities. Rachel Lambert-Forsyth of the Society of Biology told us that the key learning outcomes for the three-year programme are general skills such as teamwork, project management, maths and statistics, demonstrating technical skills and familiarity with a practical environment. The final component is specific skills and knowledge appropriate to the degree title. The Society expects to be able to accredit across the breadth of the biosciences but they will need to make sure that they have the relevant expertise to assess this.

We noted that in chemistry and experimental psychology, external bodies specify what should be taught in universities for a course to be accredited. Perhaps to be accredited a biology course should contain a minimum specified number of hours of plant science teaching. Apparently however, the academics involved in the development of the criteria are very against being too specific in case they stifled innovation. The criteria do, however, specify that biology courses should contain the breadth of biosciences so accreditation assessors would look for this. On the plus side, a number of large companies have stated that during their recruitment processes they will actively be looking for students with accredited degrees. This will hopefully encourage universities, including Russell Group ones, to accredit their degrees.

Named plant science degrees at the moment are in decline, Imperial College infamously reduced their plant science provision in 2010 despite having opened new facilities two years earlier. Bristol University used to run a botany degree but this was stopped recently with full support from the plant biologists in the department. The reason given was that instead of studying plants in isolation, plant science should be studied in relation to ecology, animals/insects etc. This may sound a reasonable argument but the problem is that once these subjects are taken out of courses, biochemistry and biomedicine begin to take over and basic whole organism plant science is invariably the loser. This had already happened to the Imperial plant sciences degree before its closure.

We therefore felt that the only way to prevent this happening was to ask the Society of Biology specify that core parts of whole organism plant science must be included in biology degrees, as this would force departments to make plant science appointments and to teach it in a unified way.
Inspiring the next generation of plant scientists

The high level priorities from the UKPSF report include inspiring the next generation of plant scientists and ensuring that employers’ skills needs are met through appropriate training and education.

A recent report from the Aspires project at King’s College, London, highlights that children make important decisions about what is not for them at around the age of 10 to 12 (start of KS3 in the UK). http://www.kcl.ac.uk/sspp/departments/education/research/aspires/ASPIRES-final-report-December-2013.pdf

It is therefore important to get the message across to children that plant sciences are exciting before this. There are a number of initiatives run by national learned and public societies already in existence e.g. the Bug Club for, Nature Detectives, Science and Plants for Schools, RSPB and Plantasia at Kew. See the links below for some examples

http://www.amentsoc.org/bug-club/

http://jointhepod.org/campaigns/campaign/31 Big Bumblebee Discovery

http://www.pestival.org/

http://nationalinsectweek.co.uk/

http://www.saps.org.uk/

http://www.gatsby.org.uk/en/Plant-Science/Projects/Science-and-Plants-for-Schools.aspx

http://www.naturedetectives.org.uk/club/ run by the Woodland Trust

http://www.opalexplorenature.org/ has a Kid Zone

The problem is that whilst it is “relatively” easy, given the right resources and parental and teacher support, to get pre-secondary school interested in the wonders of nature, once they get to secondary school the demands of the school curriculum and expertise available, tend to deter all but the most ‘nature-struck’ children. Those that still retain an interest in whole organism plant biology then find that at university level, options are still very much restricted. This is due to the composition of university teaching staff in biology departments which for the last twenty years or so, has been determined by fashions in research funding and not by the needs of teaching. Courses and modules available have, due to lack of suitable staff, been steadily drifting away from the much-maligned area of natural history and whole organism biology to the much-lauded, and very well-funded, bio-molecular sciences, despite the plethora of articles highlighting the dangers of this attitude, and not all by me ;-)

At university level the Gatsby Foundation runs summer schools to encourage undergraduates to consider plant sciences as a career option. This is much-needed, as Ginny Page from SAPS reports that of all the resources SAPS produces, they struggle the most to get teachers using the careers resources. She said this is probably because traditionally, subject specialist teachers are not responsible for delivering careers advice so it is not a standard part of lessons.

There are still a few postgraduate programmes currently available in the UK that are plant science based, such as that run by Reading University in Plant Identification or the MSc in Plant Pathology at Harper Adams University to mention just one of our applied plant science degrees. The problem is, that although jobs await graduates form these courses, particularly those in the pest management area, it is increasingly difficult to get undergraduates to take up the places. Again pointing to the fact that there is a dearth of plant science teaching in current undergraduate courses.

There is of course the Field Studies Council who do a fantastic job, and are, with funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Trust also seeking ways to train trainers and to enthuse future generations of field biologists, so it is worth looking at their priority areas and considering linking up with them.

The UKPSF is developing an online outreach toolkit to collate information on the types of activities that plant scientists can get involved with and how they can get involved, as well as some downloadable resources. They are hoping to launch the toolkit later in 2014. There are also a number of passionate advocates for the plant sciences such as Jonathan Mitchley and his Dr M Goes Wild site.

We agreed that there needs to be greater clarity of signposting to schools or anyone thinking about future careers in plant science, about how and where they can study plant science. This could perhaps be achieved by setting up a young plant science ambassador scheme for students and postdocs to go into schools to teach children about plants and talk about careers. It is likely that the Gatsby Summer School would be a good source of ambassadors.

In conclusion, we agreed that there is a need to highlight the educational opportunities and the career paths to the very many varied, and well-paid jobs in the plant science sector.

The problem is that although there are a number of organisations and individuals promoting plant science that they are not yet all centrally coordinated. We see this as a job for the UKPSF. Funding for these initiatives might then become easier and perhaps more available and generous.

 

Inspiring the teachers

We noted that there is a shortage of plant scientists teaching in schools.

At the moment trainee teachers in physic, maths, chemistry and computing are awarded £25,000 but nothing is provided to trainee biology teachers[1] as a lot of biology graduates already go on to do PGCEs (Postgraduate Certificate of Education); however a large proportion of them are molecular biologists, microbiologists, biochemists and some zoologists. Many have little or no field experience and prefer to remain in the laboratory so this reinforces the idea that plants are boring

We need to get more time for plant science into school curricula and make children interested in it because this would help to fill the spaces on plant science degrees. To do this we need to get more plant science students to take up teaching so once again we are back to the supply problem.

As there is so much to fit into a PGCE, it might be worth looking at what training could be provided for Newly Qualified Teachers during their first year of teaching. SAPS already run two day events for those who train teachers, where they have practicals and talks from plant scientists.

A few universities already have schemes such as INSPIRE, which encourage PhD students and postdocs to go into schools but this is for physics, chemistry and engineering students. The STEM Ambassador scheme provides similar opportunities but very few of the students involved are plant scientists.

Getting more plant scientists into schools is, I think, a government responsibility and will involve yet more adjustment of the school science curriculum nationally. Over to you whichever Minister is in charge this week.

 

“Our vision

At the end of our first meeting as a working group, we came up with a vision of where we would like to see plant science in the future, hopefully near rather than distant.

  • Raised awareness and appreciation of the importance of plant science to UK plc and globally.
  • Better industry and government support for plant science, including appropriate legislation.
  • Plant science seen as a well-paid and respected profession, with clarity over the variety of attractive career paths.
  • Universities valuing the impact of plant science and adjusting their recruitment priorities accordingly.
  • Biology degrees at UK universities with a clear thread of plant science throughout.
  • Accreditation and QAA benchmarks that require the inclusion of plant sciences in biology degrees.
  • Education and training covering a wide range of plant sciences that equips students with a variety of skills.
  • Stronger training links between academia and industry ensuring that HE courses are fit for purpose in industry.
  • Greater awareness and interest in plant science at all levels of education.
  • More plant scientists going into professional teaching, and more researchers engaging with schools.

The next hurdle to overcome is to implement the actions that will help us to achieve our vision. Easier said than done, but we did come up with some concrete suggestions.

 

What we decided

Short term

  • Establishment of a young plant scientist group/ambassador scheme.
  • Collation of resources providing information on plant science careers, training opportunities, courses and provisions, and depositing them on suitable websites.
  • Engagement with employers to find out what skills/training provisions they need.
  • Communication to funders/BBSRC that more support is needed for field based work, not just molecular biology.

Medium term

  • Degree accreditation and QAA benchmark engagement.

Long term

  • Getting more plant scientists into universities.

 

All very laudable but will it bear fruit? At present it is all very much dependent, certainly for the short-term and medium term objectives on the UKPSF finding the wherewithal to fund and manage our proposed initiatives. I think the bottom line is that unless universities are forced to teach a well-rounded plant science degree we are unlikely to see much positive change in the future. The onus may be on the government to change the way it funds universities.

 

Please feel free to comment and disseminate.

Lawn 2014 with fungi

 

Post script

Too much talking not enough action?

Note that in 2009, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the then Biosciences Federation held a public consultation to identify strategically important and vulnerable areas of UK bioscience expertise. “Plant and agricultural sciences were highlighted by more respondents (76%) than any other discipline as strategically important capabilities that were already vulnerable or liable to become so. According to the 47 organisations surveyed, the UK still has major skills shortages. We need improved training in-house, as well as through degree, postgraduate and specialised courses”. The following areas were identified as priorities: general plant science, taxonomy and identification, crop science, horticultural science, plant pathology, plant physiology, field studies, plant entomology, nematology, genetics, weed science and pest management.

Interestingly enough when given the chance to fund the only MSc in Entomology in the UK, the Training & Awards Committee failed to take it, and one reviewer (a molecular biologist at a leading Russell Group university) even cited the course area as being outwith the remit of the BBSRC despite  the call specifically mentioning entomology as an area that should be funded at MSc level. The mind boggles at such a narrow-minded view. I suggested at the time that funds should be ring-fenced to ensure funding in these vulnerable areas but was told that this was impossible.

Disturbingly, the BBSRC and MRC are once again conducting a survey to identify vulnerable skills areas and again, due to the composition of the various committees within the BBSRC and MRC (heavily biomedical and molecular biased), I suspect that the only way in which plant sciences and whole organism biology will be saved is by enforcing ring-fencing. We can only hope that someone has the courage and vision to implement it.

 

Post postscript

For those of you who remain unconvinced that plants are exciting I refer you to this remarkable footage from the Private Life of Plants

Private Life of Plants – Bramble Scramble

 

References

Campen, R. (2012) The great outdoors. Biologist, 59, 30-34.

Cheeseman, O.D. & Key, R.S. (2007). The extinction of experience: a threat to insect conservation? In Insect Conservation Biology (ed. by A.J.A. Stewart, T.R. New & O.T. Lewis), pp. 322-348. CABI, Wallingford.

Dayton, P.K. (2003) The importance of the natural sciences to conservation. American Naturalist, 162, 1-13.

Greene, H.W. (2005) Organisms in nature as a central focus for biology. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 20, 23-27.

Leather, S.R. & Quicke, D.L.J. (2009) Where would Darwin have been without taxonomy? Journal of Biological Education, 43, 51-52.

Leather, S.R. & Quicke, D.L.J. (2010) Do shifting baselines in natural history knowledge threaten the environment? Environmentalist, 30, 1-2.

Noss, R.F. (1996) The naturalists are dying off. Conservation Biology, 10, 1-3.

Tewksbury, J.J., Anderson, J.G.T., Bakker, J.D., Billo, T.J., Dunwiddie, P.W., Groom, M., Hampton, S.E., Herman, S.G., Levey, D.J., Machinicki, N.J., Del Rio, C.M., Power, M.E., Rowell, K., Dsalomon, A.K., Stacey, L., Trombulak, S.C., & Wheeler, T.A. (2014) Natural History’s place in science and society. Bioscience, 64, 300-310.

 

[1] Source: http://www.education.gov.uk/get-into-teaching/funding/postgraduate-funding

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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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