Tag Archives: invertebrates

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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Some fantastic sculptures but a sad lack of insects

A couple of weeks ago my wife and Daughter #2 and I, took advantage of the late Bank Holiday Weekend to visit The Sculpture Park near Farnham.  For a Bank Holiday weekend the weather was pretty good, the sun decided to shine 😊

As the name suggests the park is set in a wooded valley with ponds, streams and small lakes, all of which are used to good purpose, the sculptures, most of which are for sale*, placed in appropriate locations.

At £10 each it was pretty good value; on the day we visited there were 850 sculptures on site.  You could, if you were so minded, walk around for free, but the £10 gives you access to a guide to the sculptures, including their prices* and directions to navigate the site.  Without the guide, you could have an enjoyable walk, but you would certainly miss a lot.  There is also an on-site shop if you want to spend more money and help the enterprise prosper 😊

I took a lot of photos, concentrating mainly on the natural history based themes, not of all of which I am going to share, but hopefully those I do will give you an idea of the site.

The site starts some distance before you reach the ticket office.  The sculptures are in a variety of materials and styles, stone, metal, fibre-glass and wood, abstract, odd and realistic.

Is this what the toads were heading towards?

The site makes great use of the natural features and there are many surprises lurking in bushes, around corners and above your head.

 Continuing with the watery theme

Amazing what you find lurking in the trees 🙂

and don’t forget to look above head height.

Perhaps the birds closer to the ground should be wary of the polar bear?

Woodland scenes

Waste not, want not, especially if you can sell it as art 🙂

Some very odd stuff – Listening for the boneshaker?

More phantasmagorical beings

These woodland denizens however, you might be forgiven for thinking are real

Beautiful

Even as an entomologist I thought this was great – Rutting stags in wood

And there were some insects, a couple of mantids ready to pounce on the unsuspecting visitor

Metallic arthropods

Invertebrates were, however, in very short supply, so even snails made it into my selection 🙂

 

Some days I feel like this 🙂

 

The Aurelian – way out of my price range 🙂

And to finish – a three dimensional play on words

 

It was a great place to visit, despite the dearth of invertebrate exhibits. Most of the sculptures were based on humans, which I seem not to have photographed 🙂  That said we did only see 420 of the sculptures, perhaps there were more invertebrates in the remaining 440! I somehow doubt it.  Going by this it would seem that sculptors, like the majority of the public, are institutionally vertebratist ☹ That said, French sculptor Edouard Martinet makes larger than life insect sculptures using old car parts and his work would certainly fit in well here.

A word of warning, parking is at a premium. We had to park a good ten minutes walk away from the entrance.  There there is a picnic area, but alas, no café,  and as you will need to spend a minimum of four hours to get around all the sculptures, it is well worth making a day of it and taking ample supplies of food and drink.

*prices ranging from a few hundred pounds to tens of thousands  :-0

 

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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

 

Notes:

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/

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