Monthly Archives: November 2016

Ideas I had and never followed up

“When I was younger, so much younger than before” I never needed any help to come up with ideas for research topics or papers.   When I was doing my PhD and later as a post-doc, I used to keep a note pad next to my bed so that when I woke up in the middle of night with an idea (which I often did) I could scribble it down and go back to sleep.  (These days sadly, it is my bladder and not ideas that wake me up in the wee small hours 🙂*)

On waking up properly, these ideas, if they still seemed sensible, would  move onto Stage 2, the literature search.  In those days, this was much more difficult than it is now, no Google Scholar or Web of Science then, instead you had to wade though the many hard-copy Abstract series and then get hard copies of the papers of interest.  Once in my hands, either via Inter-library loans or direct from the author, or even photocopied from the journal issue (we did have photocopiers in those days), the papers would be shoved into a handy see-through plastic folder (Stage 3).  Depending on how enthusiastic I was about the idea, I would then either mock-up a paper title page or put the folder in the ‘to deal with later’ pile (Stage 4).   Many of these eventually led on to Stage 5, experiments and published papers.  Others have languished in their folders for twenty or thirty years.

As part of my phased run up to retirement (2021), I have started farming out my long-term publishable (hopefully) data-sets to younger, more statistically astute colleagues and ‘publishing’ less robust, but possibly useful data on my blog site.  I have also, somewhat halfheartedly since the task is monumental, started to go through my old field and lab books that

monumental-data

A monumental collection of data.  The top right picture is my 20-year sycamore data set.  I estimate that there are about 7 million data points in it; of which to date only 1.6 million, give or take a million, are computerised.  I also have a ten-year bird cherry aphid data set from Scotland, waiting to go on the computer, any volunteers?

are not yet computerised.  Whilst doing this I came across some Stage 3 folders, which as you can see from the colour of the paper have languished for some time.

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The Forgotten Nine

 

There were nine forgotten/dismissed proto-papers, the oldest of which, judging by the browning of the paper and my corresponding address, dates from the early 1980s, and is simply titled “What are the costs of reproduction?”.  This appears to have been inspired by a talk given by Graham Bell at a British Ecological Society, Mathematical Ecology Group meeting in 1983.  In case you are wondering, this was one of those meetings supposed to bring theorists and empiricists together.   It didn’t work, neither group felt able to talk to each other 🙂  The idea, inevitably based on aphid data, didn’t bear any fruit, although I do have this graph as a souvenir.  If anyone wants

graph

In those days we used graph paper 🙂

 the data, do let me know.

Slightly later, we find the grandly titled, “Size and phylogeny – factors affecting covariation in the life history traits of aphids”.  This had apparently been worked up from an earlier version of a paper, less grandly, but no less ponderously, titled, “Size and weight: factors affecting the level of reproductive investment in aphids”.  This is based on some basic dissection data from eight aphid species and presents the relationships, or lack of, between adult weight (or surrogate measure), ovariole number, potential fecundity and the number of pigmented embryos.  As far as I can remember these are data that Paul Wellings** and I collected as a follow-up to work we had published from a side project when we were doing our PhDs at the University of East Anglia (Wellings et al., 1980).  The second title was inspired by a paper by Stephen Stearns (Stearns, 1984), who was something of a hero of mine at the time, and was, I guess, an attempt to publish pretty simple data somewhere classier than it deserved 🙂  So this one seems to be a Stage 4, almost Stage 5 idea, and may, if I have time or someone volunteers, actually get published, although I suspect it may only make it to a very minor journal under its original title.

Then we have a real oddity, “Aphids, elephants and oaks: life history strategies re-examined”.  This one as far as I remember, is based on an idea that I had about r- and k-selection being looked at from a human point of view and not the organism’s point of view.  My thesis was that an oak tree was actually r-selected as over its life-time it was more fecund than an aphid 🙂  I suspect this was going to be aimed at the Forum section of Oikos.

The next one, dates from the late-1980s, “Protandry versus protogyny: patterns of occurrence within the Lepidoptera”, and reflects the fact that females of the pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea, on which I was then working, emerge before the males (Leather & Barbour, 1983; Leather, 1984), something not often reported in Lepidoptera.  I wondered what advantage (if any) this gave P. flammea.  I planned this one as a review or forum type paper but never got beyond the title and collecting two references (Robertson, 1987; Zonneveld & Metz, 1991).  I still think this is an interesting idea, but do feel free to have a go yourselves, as again, I suspect that I won’t actually get round to it.

Finishing off my time in Scotland, is a paper simply entitled, “Egg hatch in the bird cherry aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi.” I have ten years of egg hatch data from eight trees waiting to be analysed.  This is almost certainly not worth more than a short note unless I (or a willing volunteer) tie it in with the ten years data on spring and autumn populations on the same trees 🙂 Aphid egg data although not very abundant, is probably not in great demand.  My first published paper (Leather, 1980) was about egg mortality in the bird cherry aphid and 36 years later has only managed to accrue 32 citations, so I guess not an area where one is likely to become famous 🙂

I then have four papers dating from my time as an Associate Member of the NERC Centre for Population Biology at Silwood Park.   The first is titled, “The suitability of British Prunus species as insect host plants” and was definitely inspired by my foray into counting host plant dots as exemplified by the late great Richard Southwood (Leather, 1985, 1986).  I think I was going to look at palatability measures of some sort.

The next is called ‘Realising their full potential: is it important and how many insects achieve it?”  I’m guessing that this was a sort of follow-up to my second most-cited paper ever (Leather, 1988), the story of which you can read here, if at all interested.  Most insects, even those that are pests, die before achieving anywhere near their full reproductive potential, but then so do we humans, and our population continues to grow.  So in answer to the question, I guess not and no it doesn’t matter 🙂

Also linked to insect reproduction is the next paper, which I have followed up with the help of a PhD student, and do hope to submit in the near future, “Queue positions, do they matter”.  As this one may actually see the light of day, I won’t say anything further about it.

And finally, another one about aphid eggs, “Bud burst and egg hatch synchrony in aphids”.  This one was going to be based on my then ten-year sycamore aphid data but is now based on my twenty-year data set and is now in the very capable hands of a PhD student and hopefully will see the light of day next year.

There are also a number of other folders with no titles that are just full of collections of reprints.  I can only guess at what these ideas were so won’t burden you with them.

I mentioned at the beginning of this piece that I don’t wake up in the middle of the night with ideas any more.  As we get older I think there is a tendency to worry that we might run out of ideas, especially when, as we do in the UK, suffer from ludicrously underfunded research councils with very high rejection rates that don’t allow you to resubmit failed grant applications.  It was thus reassuring to see this recent paper that suggests that all is not lost after you hit the grand old age of 30.  That said, I do believe that as you move away from the bench or field, the opportunity to be struck by what you see, does inevitably reduce.  As a PhD student and post-doc you are busy doing whatever it is you do, in my case as an ecological entomologist, counting things, and inevitably you see other things going on within and around your study system, that spark off other ideas.  It was the fear of losing these opportunities as I moved up the academic ladder, which inevitably means, less field and bench time and more time writing grant applications and sitting on committees, that I specifically set aside Monday mornings (very early mornings) to my bird cherry plots and even earlier Thursday mornings to survey my sycamore trees.   Without those sacrosanct mornings I am pretty certain I would have totally lost sight of what is humanly possible to do as a PhD student or post-doc.  This, thankfully for my research group, means that I had, and have, realistic expectations of what their output should be, thus reducing stress levels all round.   As a side benefit I got to go out in the fresh air at least twice a week and do some exercise and at the same time see the wonderful things that were going on around and about my study areas and as a bonus had the chance to get some new ideas.

 

References

Leather, S.R. (1984) Factors affecting pupal survival and eclosion in the pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea (D&S). Oecologia, 63, 75-79.

Leather, S.R. (1985) Does the bird cherry have its ‘fair share’ of insect pests ? An appraisal of the species-area relationships of the phytophagous insects associated with British Prunus species. Ecological Entomology, 10, 43-56.

Leather, S.R. (1986) Insect species richness of the British Rosaceae: the importance of host range, plant architecture, age of establishment, taxonomic isolation and species-area relationships. Journal of Animal Ecology, 55, 841-860.

Leather, S.R. (1988) Size, reproductive potential and fecundity in insects: Things aren’t as simple as they seem. Oikos, 51, 386-389.

Leather, S.R. & Barbour, D.A. (1983) The effect of temperature on the emergence of pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea Schiff. Zeitschrift fur Angewandte Entomologie, 96, 445-448.

Robertson, H.G. (1987) Oviposition and site selection in Cactoblastis cactorum (Lepidoptera): constraints and compromises. Oecologia, 73, 601-608.

Stearns, S.C. (1984) The effects of size and phylogeny on patterns of covariation inthe life history traits of lizards and snakes. American Naturalist, 123, 56-72.

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.

Zonneveld, C. & Metz, J.A.J. (1991) Models on butterfly protandry – virgin females are at risk to die. Theoretical  Population Biology, 40, 308-321.

 

*I hasten to add that I do still have new ideas, they just don’t seem to wake me up any more 🙂

**Now Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wollongong

 

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You don’t need charismatic mega-fauna to go on an exciting safari

I got very annoyed the other day; the Zoological Society of London (Institute of Zoology) released what they termed a ”landmark report”.  I guess you can all immediately see why I was annoyed.  The headline of the press release very clearly states that global wildlife populations are on course to decline by 67% by 2020.  What their report actually says is that global vertebrate populations are on course to decline.

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https://www.zsl.org/science/news/landmark-report-shows-global-wildlife-populations-on-course-to-decline-by-67-per-cent

Plants and invertebrates are a much bigger and more important part of global wildlife than the tiny fraction of the world’s species contributed by those animals with backbones. I instantly posted a Tweet pointing out that for a scientific institution this was a highly inaccurate statement to be promulgating.

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My comment (still ignored by them) at the ZSL press release

The ZSL despite being copied into the Tweet, have so far (three weeks later), not deigned to reply.  I have taken the ZSL to task before with equally little success.  To give them credit where it is due however, just over four years ago they did release Spineless, a report about the global status of invertebrates, although the press release associated with this was a much more low-key affair then the recent one that I took exception to 🙂

Dr. Ben Collen*, head of the Indicators and Assessments unit at ZSL says: “Invertebrates constitute almost 80 per cent of the world’s species, and a staggering one in five species could be at risk of extinction. While the cost of saving them will be expensive, the cost of ignorance to their plight appears to be even greater”.

ZSL’s Director of Conservation, Professor Jonathan Baillie added: “We knew that roughly one fifth of vertebrates and plants were threatened with extinction, but it was not clear if this was representative of the small spineless creatures that make up the majority of life on the planet. The initial findings in this report indicate that 20% of all species may be threatened. This is particularly concerning as we are dependent on these spineless creatures for our very survival.

Unlike Ryan Clark who was also stimulated to write a protest blog in response to the same article, I do have something against vertebrates; they suck away valuable research funding and resources away from the rest of the animal kingdom (Leather, 2009; Loxdale, 2016) and distract attention and people away from invertebrate conservation efforts (Leather, 2008; Cardoso et al., 2011).  I have highlighted two sentences in the above quotes from the Spineless press release for very obvious reasons and wish that ZSL had taken these words to heart.  If, however, you go to their research page it would seem that these were only empty promises as less than 10% of their projects deal with invertebrates.  It is at times like this that I take comfort in the knowledge that I am not alone in despairing of the unfair treatment that invertebrates and the people that work with them suffer.

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Sums it up nicely, despite the focus on marine invertebrates 🙂

I had a few minutes of relief after posting my Tweet about the ZSL and their lack of scientific integrity, but I still felt frustrated and annoyed.  The need to do something further preyed on my mind, and then I had an idea. What about highlighting the charismatic mega-fauna that the ZSL and other similar bodies persist in ignoring.  I went on a quick photographic safari and in a few minutes was able to produce a little visual dig at the fans of the so-called charismatic mega-fauna.

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Going on safari as an entomologist

I thought this might raise a few appreciative likes from fellow entomologists and got back to work. I logged into Twitter a couple of hours later and was gratified, if somewhat surprised, to find that my Tweet seemed to have generated a bit of interest and not just from my followers.

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Appreciative tweets and comments from fellow invertebrate lovers – click on the image to enlarge it

I had also been translated into Spanish!

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Reaching the non-English speaking world 🙂

Then the Twitter account for the journal Insect Conservation & Diversity asked if anyone had other examples and generated a bit of a mini-Twitter storm with some great additions to the list.

 

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I particularly liked the Buffalo tree hopper.

And then something I didn’t know existed happened –

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I got a Gold Star!

This number of likes far exceeded my previous best-ever tweet, by a very long way.  Seriously though, it made me think about what makes some

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My previous best Tweet.

Tweets so much more retweetable than others.  My invertebrate safari tweet didn’t go viral, my understanding is that viral tweets are those that are retweeted thousands of times, but it certainly had an impact on people’s lives, however fleetingly.

safari-tweet

Having an impact, albeit not viral.

For those of you not up on Twitter analytics, what this means is that as of November 9th  2016, more than 33,000 people had seen my Tweet, of which almost 2000 had taken the trouble to click on it to make it bigger.  Of those 33,000 who saw it almost 400 went to the trouble to click the Like button and 260 re-tweeted it.  On the other hand, my serious taking the

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Not so great an impact, but at least it was read by a few people 🙂

ZSL to task tweet,  attracted much less attention, although one could argue that it was dealing with a much more serious issue.  That aside, responses like this and the other many positive outcomes I have had since I joined Twitter make me even more convinced that Tweeting and blogging are incredibly useful ways of interacting with both the scientific community and general public and getting more people to truly appreciate the little things that run the world.  Hopefully the ZSL, government funding agencies and conservation bodies will take notice of the plea by Axel Hochkirch (2016) to invest in entomologists and hence protect global biodiversity.

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A timely reminder (Hochkirch, 2016)

 

And finally, to end on a lighter note, please nominate and highlight your own favourite ‘charismatic mega-fauna invertebrates’.  There are many more out there.

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Another view of the Buffalo tree hopper  http://www.birddigiscoper.com/blogaugbug133a.jpg  photograph by Mike McDowell

 

References

Cardoso, P., Erwin, T.L., Borges, P.A.V., & New, T.R. (2011) The seven impediments in invertebrate conservation and how to overcome them. Biological Conservation, 144, 2647-2655.

Hochkirch, A. (2016) The insect crisis we can’t ignore.  Nature, 539, 141.

Leather, S.R. (2008) Conservation entomology in crisis? Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 23, 184-185.

Leather, S.R. (2009) Taxonomic chauvinism threatens the future of entomology. Biologist, 56, 10-13.

Loxdale, H.D. (2016) Insect science – a vulnerable discipline? Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, 159, 121-134.

 

 

*The lead author of the report, Ben Collen was a former undergraduate student of mine, but hard as I tried, I was unable to convert him to the joys of entomology 🙂

 

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