Saproxylicphilia – dead wood alive and well

As some of my followers on Twitter will know, I have the habit of when certain so-called general ecology and conservation journals issue their new contents list, of highlighting how few invertebrate papers have been published in that particular issue.  The journal Animal Conservation, has often been the recipient of my Tweets in that they, despite their name, pretty much ignore most of the animal world, concentrating instead on those minority organisms, the vertebrates and then, mainly mammals.

Animal Conservation tweets

I was thus a little surprised when at the beginning of June I received an email from the Editorial Office of Animal Conservation asking me if I would be willing to provide a commentary piece on a paper that would be coming out shortly

From: Elina Rantanen

Sent: 05 June 2013 14:11

To: Simon Leather

Subject: Animal Conservation – Invitation to write a commentary for Feature Paper

 Dear Prof. Leather,

 I am writing on behalf of the Editors of Animal Conservation to enquire whether you would be interested in writing a short commentary on a paper which will be published in our August issue.  The paper (attached) is entitled: ‘Protected areas and insect conservation: questioning the effectiveness of Natura 2000 network for saproxylic beetles in Italy’ by Manuela D’Amen et al. We would be delighted if you would be willing to contribute.

 By way of background, the editors of Animal Conservation select a topical article in each issue, and invite experts in the field to provide short commentaries on the study.  These commentaries are then published alongside the original paper, together with a concluding piece by the original authors.  The intention of the commentaries is to discuss the findings of the study and to draw out some of their wider implications.

 Commentaries can also be used to critique a study and can generate debate although this is not the primary intention.  We normally aim to publish about three commentaries with every highlighted article.  The commentaries are usually about 1,000 words in length, and do not require an abstract.  If you agree, I would need to receive your commentary by 19th June. The commentary will be checked by the Editor of the Feature paper before it is accepted.

 If you would like to see examples of previous commentaries, please visit the Animal Conservation homepage: where previous featured articles and commentaries are available with free access.

 Please let me know as soon as possible whether or not you will be able to accept this invitation.

 I look forward to hearing from you – it would be great to have you involved.

 Kind regards,


 Dr. Elina Rantanen

Editorial Office, Animal Conservation

I was of course hoist with my own petard and had no other choice but to agree.  Actually, I was delighted and grateful to have the opportunity.

Petard cartoon

The paper, by D’Amen and colleagues dealt with the mismatch between the Natura 2000 network and the conservation of saproxylic beetles in Italy.  The authors pointed out that basically saproxylic beetles were badly served by the network in Italy which had been designed with the large charismatic mega-fauna in mind, and not the small things that run the World.  This of course allowed me a platform from which to further highlight yet another example of institutional vertebratism and reiterate my call for a less biased approach to conservation and ecology in general, which I was very happy to do indeed.

It was while I was writing this that I came across a blog post by Jeff Ollerton of Northampton University in which whilst discussing the huge amount of pollination literature that today’s PhD students are faced with, he described a phenomena that he aptly called The Cliff

Now it just so happens that I have recently had a PhD student successfully defend her thesis on saproxylic beetles and their natural enemies.  Her PhD was a follow-up to another one of my former students who investigated the volatiles given off by those fungi that cause the decay in dead and dying trees.  In addition, in my role of Editor-in-Chief of Insect Conservation & Diversity, I have noticed an increasing number of papers on saproxylic insects being submitted to the journal.  Jeff’s article thus stimulated me to see if there was also a cliff effect in the saproxylic literature.  I thus turned to that invaluable source of data, the Web of Knowledge and using the terms saproxylic , and saproxylic  beetles set the search going.   I did indeed find a Cliff effect, albeit slightly later than the pollination one.  The first published item appeared to be in 1976 which is surprising as according to Grove (2002), the term was first coined by Dajoz in France in 1966.  I have, however, so far been unable to find this paper to confirm this assertion.  Apparently, prior to Dajoz, anything that fed on wood, dead or alive, was termed xylophagous or as a xylobiont.  It was perhaps Martin Speight’s ground breaking report of 1989 extolling the importance of the dead wood habitat that caused the first cliff in about 1991.  This was followed by another ten years later or so, and since then there has been a huge increase in interest in the subject.  The incomplete data for 2013 indicate that the trend is still upwards.  Most work appears to be on beetles which given their relative abundance, makes sense.

Saproxylic published   Saproxylic citations

So, yes here we have another example of a step change in a research area.  I wonder how many more examples there are out there and if it is possible to tie them in to a particular government policy or influential publication.


Dajoz R. (1966) Ecologie et biologie des coléoptères xylophages de la hêetraie. Vie Milieu 17:525–636

Grove,  S. J. (2002). Saproxylic insect ecology and the sustainable management of forests. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 33: 1-23.

Speight MCD. 1989. Saproxylic Invertebrates and their Conservation. Strasbourg, Fr: Counc. Eur. 79 pp.

In case you wondered

What is Natura 2000 ?

Natura 2000 is the centrepiece of EU nature & biodiversity policy. It is an EUwide network of nature protection areas established under the 1992 Habitats Directive. The aim of the network is to assure the long-term survival of Europe’s most valuable and threatened species and habitats. It is comprised of Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) designated by Member States under the Habitats Directive, and also incorporates Special Protection Areas (SPAs) which they designate under the 1979 Birds Directive. Natura 2000 is not a system of strict nature reserves where all human activities are excluded. Whereas the network will certainly include nature reserves most of the land is likely to continue to be privately owned and the emphasis will be on ensuring that future management is sustainable, both ecologically and economically.  The establishment of this network of protected areas also fulfills a Community obligation under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.


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One response to “Saproxylicphilia – dead wood alive and well

  1. Pingback: Why do some bandwagons in ecology get rolling much faster than others? | Dynamic Ecology

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