Monthly Archives: January 2019

Pick and Mix 26 – more gleanings from around the world

How dinosaurs got their name

It seems that most scientists only have temporary careers 😦

Yes, as we suspected, competitive grant writing is inefficient and wastes scientist’s time

Stephen Heard explains how William Caxton inlfuenced how we report statistics

You don’t need fossil fuels to keep the economy running

Drawing specimens (rather than taking a photograph) is the best way to learn about morphology and taxonomy

Continuing with the botanical theme, plant blindness, yes it is a thing, probably worse than insect blindness which I have written about in the past

Incredible blueness – Ray Cannon on butterfly wings

Electrifying  – flying spiders

Earwig wings – real life origami

 

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British Ecological Society Annual Meeting 2018 – representing ecologists but not ecology?

I managed to get to the BES annual meeting this year.  I hadn’t been since 2014 as I boycotted the 2015 meeting*  and the timing of the 2016 and 2017 meetings meant I couldn’t attend those due to teaching commitments.  This time the meeting was in Birmingham and term had ended so there was nothing to get in the way of reconnecting with the annual meetings, the first of which I attended in 1977.  I arrived, soaked to the skin, at the International Conference Centre on a very rainy Sunday afternoon.  Despite the inauspicious start, I was heartened to have a reminder of the BES Undergraduate Summer School; one of my fluorescent beetles from the evening “track a beetle” exercise was on display 😊

Fluorescent carabid beetle, the star of the evening at the Malham BES Summer School 2018

In general, despite the sad memories the pre-Christmas period carries with it, It was good to catch up with old friends and former students.  As a bonus there were some fantastic plenaries; I particularly enjoyed Sam M Gon III’s talk on The Hawaiian Islands as a Model for Biocultural Conservation, which opened with a traditional Hawaiian chant.

A most unusual and very enjoyable plenary

Great to see lots of very special insects

Another great plenary was Danielle Lee’s on science communication and the importance of getting local non-scientists involved in one’s research programmes.

Danielle Lee – On the importance of science communication, a subject close to my heart

There were a lot of great talks, but as is often the case with large meetings, a lot of clashes and hard decisions to make about which talks to miss.  As a member of the Twitterati I was made very aware of this by seeing the Tweets about talks I was missing 😊

Alistair Seddon – a Doctor Who fan

One thing that struck me very forcibly, was that entomology seemed to be very under-represented compared with when I first started attending BES meetings.  There were no specific sessions dedicated to invertebrates; in earlier years it was relatively easy to find insect-themed sessions and talks.  This year, and perhaps this is a modern trend in ecology, even the titles of many of the talks didn’t mention the study organism, the abstract being the only clue about what was being discussed.  I have noticed this trend in paper titles recently too, and will, I am sure, address this in a future blog post 😊 It worries me somewhat that conservation biologists and ecologists have, despite the warnings that a number of eminent ecologists have made in the past, former BES President, Bob May, for example (Clarke & May, 2002) that funding and practical conservation is heavily biased in favour of vertebrate (Seddon et al., 2005), which are hardly representative of global macro-biodiversity. As far as the British Ecological Society goes, one would expect that a Society that has, over the last decade or so, become increasingly politicised, and on the face of it, publicly engaged with climate change and other ecological issues, to actively implement a change in direction of the research supported and showcased.

I have previously taken the Journal of Animal Ecology to task for ignoring most of the world’s animal life, yes you guessed it, invertebrates 😊 Their cover images are similarly biased.  Sadly, I am now going to have to take the British Ecological Society to task. I mentioned earlier that I felt the general content of the talks and posters was not representative of the world we live in and on leaving the conference decided to see if my gut feeling was a true reflection of the event.  Amy Everard of the British Ecological Society, kindly supplied me with the abstracts of the talks and posters which I then categorised according to the study organism(s) covered.  Some were a bit difficult, as even with the abstract it was difficult to decide where the focus was, so fungi and microbes may be a little more under-represented than they were in reality, particularly where the talk was on the interactions between fungi, microbes, insects and plants and in some cases, vertebrates.  I lumped all invertebrates together, although as you might expect, most invertebrates were arthropods and those were mainly insects. Plants included trees and forests where the focus was on the role the plant component played and general includes models and multi-organismal studies.  Vertebrates, which were largely birds and mammals, also includes fish, and the very few studies on amphibians and reptiles. Crude, but I feel it gives the overall picture.

First, just to remind you how life on the planet is divided up between the various taxa based on species described to date (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Relative proportions of plant, animal, fungi and microbial species described to date.

So how does this compare with what attendees at BES2018 saw and heard about? As you can see, my gut was right, the little things that run the world were under-represented in both the talks (Figure 2) and posters (Figure 3).

Figure 2. Taxa represented in talks at BES2018 (plants 32%, vertebrates 25%, invertebrates 20%, general 19%, fungi and microbes 4%)

 

Figure 3. Taxa represented in posters at BES2018 (plants 34%, vertebrates 31%, invertebrates 15%, general 13%, fungi and microbes 7%).

Of some comfort to plant scientists is that despite the often cited unpopularity of plants among students, about a third of all the talks and posters were plant-based.   If one goes purely by biomass, then this is an under-representation of the importance of plants.  A recent paper (Bar-On et al., 2018), estimates that plants make up almost 90% of the planet’s biomass, with the animal kingdom making up perhaps as little as 5% (Figure 4). Given that insects and other invertebrates account for perhaps 97% of all animal life, this further emphasises that the time and funding given to vertebrate ecology is totally unjustified.

Figure 4. Biomass of organisms on Earth from Bar-On et al (2018)

Unfortunately, the British Ecological Society is not alone in overemphasising the importance of the tiny number of vertebrates.  Perhaps more disturbingly is the fact that references to insects in introductory biology textbooks have declined hugely over the last century (Figure 5) while those to vertebrates have increased (Gangwani & Landin, 2018).

 Disappearing insect references (Gangwani & Landin, 2018).

This is a serious problem and one that the British Ecological Society for one, should be doing something about.  Yes, the BES might represent ecologists in general, but they certainly don’t represent ecology.  The Trustees of the BES should take note of the following statement from a group of ecological entomologists “the neglect of insects as study organisms has led to serious bias in our understanding of the functional ecology of ecosystems” (Basset et al., 2019) and the concerns echoed by conservation practitioners (Figure 6) and if that isn’t enough, then perhaps this will “a broader taxonomic base for threatened species assessments, adequately representing invertebrates, will facilitate more profound conservation and policy decisions” (Eisenhauer et al., 2019).

Figure 6. What people on the ground say; a haphazard selection from Twitter

I’ll just leave you with this thought, there are as many aphid species in the world as there are mammal species, just over 5000, but you wouldn’t know it from the number of PhD and post-doctoral positions that are advertised annually, and as for Tipulids (craneflies), a similar sized family….

 

References

Bar-On, Y.M., Philips, R. & Milo, R.  (2018) The biomass distribution on Earth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115, 6506-6511.

Basset, Y., Miller, S.E., Gripenberg, S., Ctvrtecka, R., Dahl, C., Leather, S.R. & Didham, R.K. (2019) An entomocentric view of the Janzen-Connell Hypothesis.  Insect Conservation & Diversity, 12, 1-8.

Clarke, J.A. & May, R.M. (2002) Taxonomic bias in conservation research. Science, 297, 191-192.

Eisenehauer, N, Bonn, A. & Guerra, C.A. (2019) Recognizing the quiet extinction of invertebrates. Nature Communications, 10, 50

Gangwani, K. & Landin, J. (2018) The decline of insect representation in biology textbooks over time. American Entomologist, 64, 252-257.

Seddon, P.J., Soorae, P.S. & Launay, F. (2005) Taxonomic bias in reintroduction projects. Animal Conservation, 8, 51-58.

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The Roundabout Review 2018

Welcome to my, now very definitely, traditional review of the past year.

Enjoying ENTO18 at Edgehill University

 

Impact and reach

Brigitte Nerlich warns against measuring the impact of science communication but as far as I can tell she is not against reporting the following type of data, although if I was looking for impact these annual review posts would not be the best way to go*.

I have continued to post at about ten-day intervals; this is my 229th post.  As I wrote last year, there never seems to any difficulty in coming up with ideas to write about; the problem is more in deciding which one to use and when.  As happened last year, some of my blogs have made it, albeit in slightly modified forms, into print (Cherrill & Leather, 2018; Leather, 2018).

For those of you who remain lukewarm about the idea that social media has a place in science, I wold ask you to think again and if you need any more convincing, refer you to a recent paper that very clearly demonstrates the benefits arising from such interactions (Côté & Darling, 2018); evidence that science communication via social media is a very worthwhile use of our time. Semi-related to my Blogging and Tweeting are my other forms of science communication, giving talks and helping at outreach events, such as the Big Bang Fair and EntoSci18.  I also had three Skype a Scientist dates this year, one with a school in the USA and two with schools in the UK.  I really enjoyed them and hope that the pupils were equally pleased. If you have not come across this scheme, check them out here.

My blog had visitors from 181 countries (165 last year, 174 in 2016 and 150 in 2015), so only another 14 to go to achieve total global domination 😊  My blog received 54 300 views (40 682 last year, 34 036 in 2016; 29 385 in 2015).  This year, as last year, most of my readers came from the USA, with views from India moving from 5th to 4th place and Brazil being replaced by South Africa.

Top reads

My top post (excluding my home page) in 2018 was the same as last year, one of my aphid posts,  A Winter’s Tale – Aphid Overwintering, although there may have been some disappointment felt by those who were hoping to find a reference to Shakespeare’s play or the song by Queen. It is now my all-time winner with just over 9000 views, knocking Not All Aphids are Vegans with over 8 000 views into an honourable second place.  My top ten posts tend to be either about aphids or entomological techniques/equipment which I guess means that I am filling an entomological niche.

A Winter’s Tale – aphid overwintering 3,941
Not all aphids are vegans 2,113
Not Jiminy Cricket but Gregory Grasshopper – someone ought to tell Walt 1,338
Ten papers that shook my world – watching empty islands fill up – Simberloff & Wilson (1969) 1,225
Entomological classics – The Moericke (Yellow) Pan Trap 1,105
Entomological Classics – The Pooter or Insect Aspirator 1,097
Aphid life cycles – bizaare, complex or what? 1,051
Entomological classics – The Tullgren (Berlese) Funnel 948
Entomological classics – the Window (pane) Flight Intercept Trap 871
Not all aphids have wings  769

 

Trends

There still seems to be no signs of the number of people viewing my site reaching an asymptote or for that matter, taking off exponentially; just a straightforward linear relationship.

Still no signs of slowing down?

Tweeting for entomology

I still find my interactions on Twitter very rewarding, although this past year I have become somewhat more political; Brexit and Trump, need I say more?  Most of my tweets are, however, still entomological and ecological and the increase in political comment has not stopped my followers from growing.  I finished 2017 with 5860 followers and begin 2019 with just over a thousand more, 6884.   It would have been nice to have hit the 7 000-follower milestone before the end of the year but many thanks to all my readers and especially to those who take the time to comment as well as pressing the like button.  My top commenters, as indeed they were last year, were fellow bloggers, Emma Maund, Emily Scott, Jeff Ollerton, Amelia from A French Garden and Philip Strange.  I look forward to interacting with you all in 2019.

This past year marked my partial retirement from academia but I hasten to add, not from entomology.  I have, as planned, spent more time doing the things I enjoy and finally got some of my book projects off the ground.  My co-authors Tilly Collins and Tricia Reader and I spent a week together at our house in France writing a book outline and in December signed a contract with Oxford University Press for our provisionally titled ‘Field Course Handbook’.

Authors at work 😊

I have also submitted an outline for a semi-popular book about insects which I have great hopes will appeal to the Commissioning Editor’s choice of reviewers.

And if anyone is worried that this means that the entomological provision at Harper Adams University will be diminished, rest assured.  Not only did we appoint a very talented junior member of faculty, Heather Campbell (@ScienceHeather) we also appointed another talented entomologists (whom I taught some years ago), Simon Segar (@simonsegar); both are proving very popular with the students and staff. I am doing pretty much the same teaching as I have always done, so our entomology provision has actually increased, which is just as well as we have now started an undergraduate degree in entomology, the only one in the UK.

A Happy and Prosperous New Year to you all.

References

Cherrill, A.J. & Leather, S.R. (2018) Predatory journals a growing threat to scientific integrity?  In Practice, 102, 38-40.

Côté, I.M. & Darling, E.S. (2018) Scientists on Twitter: preaching to the choir or singing from the rooftops?  Facets, 3, 682-694.

Leather, S.R. (2018) “Ecological Armageddon” – more evidence for the drastic decline in insect numbers.  Annals of Applied Biology, 172, 1-3.

 

 

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