Tag Archives: institutional vertebratism

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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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

I had also been translated into Spanish!


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.



I particularly liked the Buffalo tree hopper.

And then something I didn’t know existed happened –


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


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.


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


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.


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.


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



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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Getting a buzz with science communication – Reflections on curating Realscientists for a week

My week on Realscientists was a direct result of National Insect Week, a biennial event organised by the Royal Entomological Society (RES) to bring the wonders of entomology to a wider audience*. I had never thought about being a curator for Realscientists although I have followed them for some time.  Back in February however, one of my PhD students who has been involved with National Insect Week on more than one occasion, suggested that I might apply to curate RealScientists during National Insect Week as the RES Director of Outreach, Luke Tilley, was hoping to be on Biotweeps during National Insect Week as well.  To make sure that I had no excuse to forget to do it, she very helpfully sent me the link to the Realscientists web site and instructions on how to apply 🙂

Duly briefed, I contacted Realscientists and to my surprise and slight apprehension, was given the slot I had asked for, the week beginning 19th June.  As my curatorial stint drew closer I began to worry about what I was going to tweet about and how to fit it into my day-to-day activities.

I made a list of twenty pre-planned Tweets to give me an outline script to work from. I managed to include all but one into my week as curator, the one about why you should want to work in entomology.


The twenty tweet list

I felt that my whole week was addressing this point so there was no need to belabour the point any more.  I also received an email from Realscientists with a Vade Mecum of how and what to tweet.  I was somewhat concerned by the section on how to deal with trolling, but I needn’t have worried, as far as I could tell I received no overt abuse**.

The big day approached, which as my actual launch was at Sunday lunchtime caused some slight logistical problems, but easily solved by making lunch a bit later than usual. As it was a Sunday I basically kept it light, introduced myself and tweeted a few insect factoids and pictures, including some great images from van Bruyssels The Population of an Old Pear Tree.  I have my own hard copy of the 1868 translated edition, but if you want to read it on-line it is available here.


From van Bruyssel – The Population of an Old Pear Tree

It is definitely worth a read.

I also had to make a decision about how much time I was going to spend Tweeting. The previous curator had only done about 10-15 tweets a day, which is what I usually do.  The curator before her, however, had done considerably more.  As my stint as curator coincided with National Insect Week and as my contract with my university does actually specify that I do outreach***, I felt that I could justify several hours a day to it and that is what I did, and managing to fit quite a bit of the day job in between.

In between tweeting images and fantastic insect facts I tried to get some important messages across to my audience.  I started with what some might  term a “conservation rant”, basically bemoaning the fact that although insects make up the majority of the animal kingdom, conservation research and funding is very much biased toward the vertebrates, largely those with fur and feathers.  I also pointed out that most statements about how we should go about conservation in general is based on this unbalanced and not very representative research.  Taxonomic chauvinism has annoyed my for a long time 🙂


That rant over I introduced my audience to the work our research group does, biological control, chemical ecology, integrated pest management, agro-ecology and urban ecology and conservation. Our use of fluorescent dust and radio tagging to understand insect behaviour aroused a lot of interest and comment.


Using alternative technology to understand vine weevil behaviour.


The glow in the dark sycamore aphid was also very popular


Midweek I translated one of my outreach talks to Twitter and in a frenzy of Tweets introduced the world to Bracknell and the biodiversity to be found on its roundabouts and how an idea of how to teach locally relevant island biogeography and conservation, turned into a 12 year research project.


How teaching led research – the Bracknell roundabout story.

In between these two main endeavours, I tweeted about the influences that entomology has had on art, literature, popular culture, religion, medicine, engineering, advertising, economics, medicine , fashion and even advertising, using a variety of images.


Our new insect-inspired smoke detector attracted a lot of love and envy.

I even composed a haiku for the occasion

Six-legged creatures;

Fascinating and diverse,

Beautiful insects



I have been an entomologist for a long time.

and told the story of my life-long love of insects, incidentally revealing some of my past hair-styles and exposing my lack of interest in sartorial elegance 🙂

My overall message for the week was, and hopefully I got this across, is that we should be much


more aware of what is under our feet and surrounding us and of course, that aphids are not just fantastic insects


My final tweet

but also beautiful animals.

Giant Myzus

Model Myzus persicae that I recently met in the Natural History Museum

And finally, would I do it again? Yes most definitely. I ‘met’ a lot of new and very interesting people and had some really good ‘conversations’.



Harrington, R. (1994) Aphid layer.  Antenna, 18, 50-51.

Huxley, T.H. (1858) On the agamic reproduction and morphology of Aphis – Part I. Transactions of the Linnean Society of London, 22, 193-219.

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



*I was one of the original ‘founders’ of National Insect Week so have always tried to be involved in some way with the event.

**or I am so thick-skinned I didn’t notice it 🙂

***or as Harper Adams University quaintly terms it, “reach out”





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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?



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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Why I Joined the Twitterati: Blogs, Tweets & Talks – Making Entomology Visible

It is now thirteen months since I tweeted my first tweet and almost a year since my blog went public.  It is thus an opportune moment I feel to assess how this first year has gone and to see if I can convert other oldies and not so oldies to make that leap into the world of public social media.  For many years I had held the whole concept of social media in contempt – Facebook and Twitter for me, represented the very epitome of mindless gossip and tabloid extremism.  I saw them as entirely the domain of the chattering classes and the idle young.  Perhaps an extreme view, since some of my children, a number of my colleagues, my wife and even my mother-in-law were on Facebook. Still, as someone who did not get a mobile phone until March this year (and only because of the fact that during the week, I live alone, and my wife feels that it is a sensible thing to have in case of emergency), I guess I was just living up the image of the techno-refusenik.

That said, I have always felt that the job of a scientist is to communicate and having always had a desire to teach and pass on my enthusiasm for entomology to others, I have not been remiss in coming forward.  I did actually have a fling with public engagement way back in 1981 when I worked in Finland and developed their early warning system for cereal aphids.  My research actually appeared in the Finnish national farmer’s magazine almost simultaneously with my official scientific publication.

Kaytannon Maamies   Front page Leather & Lehti

My subsequent career as first a forest entomologist with the Forestry Commission and then as a university teacher at Imperial College, was pretty much that of the typical academic, with the occasional appearance on the radio and the rare television interview, plus the odd reference to my work in the national or local newspapers.

Powe of Bugs

Mainly however, I was, until about the turn of the century just communicating with my peers i.e. publishing scientific papers and facilitating communication between other entomologists; I seem to have spent the last twenty years or so editing journals, first cutting my teeth on the Royal Entomological Society’s house journal Antenna, and then moving on to Ecological Entomology and for the last seven years as Editor-in-Chief of Insect Conservation & Diversity.  So there I was facilitating the dissemination of entomological knowledge around the world and busy doing my own entomological research and training future entomologists by running the only entomology degree in the UK and also of course supervising lots of PhD students. All very commendable indeed, but perhaps a bit limited in scope…

Limited scope

Round about the turn of the century I started to get really fed up with the ignorance shown about entomology and the bias towards vertebrates by funding bodies and journals.   I started going into schools and giving talks to the public whenever possible trying to draw people’s attention to the importance of insects..

Small and local

And getting more and more provocative..

Death to polar bears

And getting more and more irritated and desperate in print..


It was obvious that there was a problem; the misconception that the public tend to have in that all insects are either pests or things that sting or bite them and need to be stamped on (Leather & Quicke, 2009:  http://www.harper-adams.ac.uk/staff/profile/files/uploaded/Leather_&_Quicke_2009_JBE.pdf ).  Some of the entomological misconceptions were amusing but being entomologically pedantic still wrong..

Funny but wrong

others which were annoying but perhaps excusable..

Top trumps   Top trumps2

and some which were just plain inexcusable..

No Excuse

The problem has been neatly summed up by others too..


One of my PhD students, Fran Sconce, whom I have known since she was an undergraduate…

Fran graduation

had for some time been extolling the virtues of social media as a means of scientific communication,

Fran Twitter

finally convinced me that it was time to make a leap and to move into a different environment.


and thus was born @Entoprof


and Don’t Forget the Roundabouts

Blog header

So like a fellow ex-Silwoodian, Natalie Cooper who recently reported on her first year as a blogger/tweeter http://www.ecoevoblog.com/2013/10/29/to-tweet-or-not-to-tweet-that-is-the-question/ I too feel the need to assess how this first year has gone.

Well, first I found that there were lots of old friends out there, and even my old school started following me….

Old friends

A ton of ex-students, not all of whom are entomologists…


Increased opportunities for outreach and meeting people I didn’t even know existed..


And making new professional links….

Professional links

And incidentally as an Editor I have found new people to ask to act as reviewers and I’ve had great fun continuing my fight against institutional vertebratism …

Vertebrate bias

and got a great result which I am certain I wouldn’t have got without Twitter..


With my new friends I entered into public debate..

public debate

and got another result which again would not have happened without Twitter..

BBC Wildlife

and found a new way to interact at conferences..

conference interactions

and been really inspired.  I have thoroughly embraced the concept of social media and have now set up a Twitter account for the Entomology MSc http://www.harper-adams.ac.uk/postgraduate/201004/entomology  I run..

MSc Entomology

and also a Blog for them to run http://aphidsrus.wordpress.com/

Ento blog

My latest venture with the aid of


is the A-Z of Entomology, the first letter of which you can view here if you want to learn about aphids  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=liBt59teaGQ

So yes it has been a great year and a heartfelt thank you to all my Tweeps and to all of you that follow my blog.  I really have found this both useful and educational.  It has been a great eye-opener.  And of course a really big vote of thanks to Fran for finally convincing me that I should join the Twitterati.


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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: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1111/(ISSN)1469-1795 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.  http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.ecolsys.33.010802.150507?journalCode=ecolsys.1

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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Think small and local – focus on large charismatic mega-fauna threatens conservation efforts

What’s the problem?

Mention conservation to most people and they immediately think of tropical rainforests, tigers, polar bears and elephants.  But high profile so called “conservationists” are no different from the general public; for example, Robin Hanbury-Tenison whose dream job is Ranger in an African national park (Daily Telegraph, July 2nd 2009).  His writings focus on South America and Africa, and his thoughts concern saving rhinos etc.  The small essential organisms that run the world are beneath his ken.  This focus on the large and charismatic organisms fostered by TV programmes is having a harmful effect on our children’s perception of nature; a future generation of conservation scientists are receiving a highly biased view of the world.  For example, when I talk to ‘A’ Level Biology students and show them the following slide, they are all able to answer the questions posed in the middle.

Biodiversity foreign

When, however, I show them the following slide of common British invertebrates they are almost always at a complete loss, although some students are able to name the aphid,

Biodiversity arthropod UKa

although not of course, to species.  When I show them the next slide of rare

Biodiversity UK rare

animals and an internationally rare habitat, they fail dramatically, except sometimes one will guess the dormouse correctly.

Funding bodies are no less biased (Leather, 2009).  The Darwin Initiative, a UK Government fund for international nature conservation projects, has a less than enviable record when it comes to funding entomological research; since 2003 they have awarded 154 grants, 9 that specifically name invertebrates, but 50 that name vertebrates, and did not fund any invertebrate research in 2010, despite Darwin’s well known love of invertebrates, especially beetles, and his extensive research into barnacles, insect pollinators and earthworms.  Nature conservation is also internationally biased, with less and less focus placed on the UK and an ever-increasing number of TV programmes about exotic mega-fauna.  Large areas of the UK, such as towns and ex-industrial areas are often considered wastelands in terms of nature conservation but actually, may be rich in diversity.  To remain this way, however, they need not only to be protected but also to be managed.

 Why are insects important?  Are they endangered?

Most of the world’s animals are invertebrates: insects and allied invertebrates comprise approximately 78% of the world’s macro-biodiversity, whereas vertebrates, even using the most generous estimates, make up less than 3% (Clark & May, 2002). Invertebrates have more species than all other groups put together and are an important food source for other, more popular, animals. They also carry out vital roles for us, including cleaning our air and soil, breaking down decaying material and pollination.  If these groups are not looked after and protected from extinction then not only will the favoured charismatic animals not continue but we are at risk also!   About 250 species of beetle have not been seen in the UK for 35 years, bees are in decline,  and we have no idea if earthworm and Collembolan populations are coping with modern, intensive agriculture.  Only a tiny amount of money gets channelled into nature conservation, and only a minute fraction of this then finds its way into conserving invertebrates, the majority is siphoned off to conserve the much smaller numbers of the furry, feathery and flowery.  As a result, whilst we have detailed lists of the endangered vertebrates worldwide, we don’t even know how many invertebrates there are, let alone if they are endangered or not. As Papworth et al. (2009) point out, how can we expect people to care about the environment and conserve it, if they do not perceive it in its entirety?

Why is local important?

The only places suitable for nature are considered to be untouched areas in the open countryside.  While these areas are protected, local nature reserves or patches of green space are discarded and become more and more fragmented and degraded in quality.  The biodiversity of urban gardens has been intensively researched in previous studies in Sheffield (the BUGS project) demonstrating surprisingly high invertebrate diversity (Smith et al., 2006) as have the roundabouts of Bracknell (Helden & Leather, 2004; Helden et al., 2012).  Some focus should be shifted to these sorts of sites and not just the isolated big patches, and this will allow us to support the greatest amount of habitat for British wildlife.

 What can we do?

Regardless of what exotic animal you hear about as being greatly endangered, try to look a bit closer to home and down by your feet.  You’re more likely to encounter something there which would actually make a difference if you cared about it and protected it.  And for those contemplating conservation gap years overseas, why not save money and make a difference at home.  It might not be as exotic, but your efforts will be just as valuable.


Clark, J.A. and May, R.M. (2002) Taxonomic bias in conservation research. Science 297, 191–192.

Helden, A.J. & Leather, S.R. (2004)  Biodiversity on urban roundabouts:  Hemiptera, management and the species-area relationship.  Basic & Applied Ecology, 5, 367-377 http://www.harper-adams.ac.uk/staff/profile/files/uploaded/Helden&Leather2004.pdf

Helden, A.J., Stamp, G.C. & Leather, S.R. (2012)  Urban biodiversity: comparison of insect assemblages on native and non-native trees.  Urban Ecosystems,  15, 611-624 http://www.harper-adams.ac.uk/staff/profile/files/uploaded/Helden_et_al_2012.pdf

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

Papworth, S.J., Coad, L., Rist, J., Miller-Gulland, E.J. (2009) Shifting baseline syndrome as a concept in conservation. Conservation Letters 2, 93-100. http://www.iee.unibe.ch/cb/content/e7117/e7118/e8764/e9981/e9990/Papworth_ConLet2009.pdf

Smith, R.M., Gaston, K.J., Warren, P.H., Thompson, K. (2006) Urban domestic gardens (VIII): environmental correlates of invertebrate abundance. Biodiversity & Conservation 15, 2515-2545. http://bugs.group.shef.ac.uk/BUGS1/sources/bugs-reprint8.pdf



Although this article is written from an entirely UK-centric viewpoint, I would be very much surprised if what I have described is confined to the British Isles.

The UK Government commemorates Darwin with the ‘Darwin Initiative’ a fund for international nature conservation. But the little animals he loved are not well catered for. In 2009 only one project specifically relating to invertebrates was included in the 74 projects short-listed by the ‘Darwin Initiative’.

Matt Shardlow, Director of Buglife – The Invertebrate Conservation Trust said “Darwin loved bugs and understood their critical importance supporting life on earth. Currently society invests a pathetic amount of money into conserving these natural riches; without sufficient Government funding we have to depend on the generosity of individuals to save the small things that run the world.”


(DEFRA funding to The Darwin Initiative assists countries that are rich in biodiversity but poor in financial resources to meet their objectives under one or more of the three major biodiversity conventions: the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD); the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES); and the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), through the funding of collaborative projects which draw on UK biodiversity expertise). http://darwin.defra.gov.uk/


Filed under Bugbears, EntoNotes