Tag Archives: natural history

Pick and mix 11 – Another ten links to look at

I’m still on holiday in France so just a series of links this week.


Links to things I thought interesting (picture is the room door of the Ibis Style hotel we stayed at in Paris)

 

Is “novelty” holding science back?

Using radio tagging to improve the conservation of stag beetles

How ‘Nature’ keeps us healthy, from potted plants to hiking

How scientists at Rothamsted Research and the University of North Texas have engineered a relative of cabbage to produce fish oil

Agricultural efficiency will feed the world, not dogma

A really interesting article about migration and movement of people

Dave Goulson’s work on pesticide residues in garden plants summarised by plant ecologist Ken Thompson

Using a field journal to strengthen learning

At the risk of seeming big-headed an interesting episode of Entocast

I don’t normally post about birds but after this golden oriole

committed suicide against our patio doors thought that this deserved a mention

 

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It’s never too early to get it right – children’s books can be accurate as well as fun

Making insects more appealing to children, (and adults), by making them look cute, cuddly and more like humans, is not a bad thing in itself, there is however, a line that should not be crossed.

Etwas1

These two books for children written almost a century apart, are exact opposites. In Sibylle von Olfers’ Etwas von den Wurzelkindern published in 1906, we see the most incredibly detailed and accurate biological drawings.  The insects are pretty much recognizable to

Etwas2

The Wurzelkindern getting the beetles spruced up for spring

species as are the flowering plants; the grasses are so accurately portrayed that the following conversation occurred on Twitter.

Etwas3

Two plant scientists are able to discuss the grasses, so accurately are they drawn.

Contrast this with Birgitta Nicolas’ 2009 Der kleine Marienkäfer und seine Freunde.

Etwas4

Here the insects have four legs*, humanised faces and hands and feet, although to be fair, the bumblebee does have pollen collectors (or is perhaps wearing leg warmers). The plants are heavily stylised and although one can guess at their families, I could not for example decide if the member of the Rosaceae pictured was Prunus, Malus or Pyrus, although being pink. it is most likely meant to be a Prunus.  The language used, despite the Gothic characters in von Olfer’s book, is at the same level, so meant to be read aloud by a parent or puzzled through by a beginner, yet the treatment of the wildlife is so different.  Von Olfers’ charming and accurate illustrations provide a visual treat of exploration and learning, while Nicolas’ heavily stylised daubs rely on the texturing present, i.e. fake fur for the squirrel, fuzzy felt for the bumble bee etc.  What harm would it have done to have at least given the insects the right number of legs and in the right place, all on the thorax.  The bee might also have liked to have had the right number of wings**, I might then have been able to forgive her the humanised faces, it is a story after all 🙂

As Aristotle said “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.” Early habits die hard and if you learn that insects have four legs as a young child, confusion must ensue and make it harder to learn and retain the truth later on. First perceptions and impressions have a habit of sticking with us in later life, best to get the facts right at the beginning.

So if looking for an insect or natural history themed book for a young relative, I would recommend that you buy Sibylle von Olfer’s book and if your German or Google Translate is not up the job, you can get it in English https://www.amazon.co.uk/Tale-Root-Children-Etwas-Wurzelkindern/dp/3946190146/ref=sr_1_7?ie=UTF8&qid=1462291724&sr=8-7&keywords=etwas+von+den+wurzelkindern

Post script

Whilst clearing the attic in our new house*** in the Languedoc area of France, I came across this edition of Pinocchio published in 1959,

Etwas5

which as well as bringing back nostalgic memories, I had the same edition as a child, but in English, is a great example of getting the insects right. The keen-eyed of you will notice it has a cricket on the front cover, but unlike the Walt Disney version in which Jiminy is definitely not a cricket, Libico Maraja, the illustrator, had obviously looked at crickets closely and carefully before putting pen to paper.

Etwas6

Pinocchio meets the talking cricket – he does not have a name in the original version of the story.

Etwas7

Even when anthropomorphised he still retains essential features such as legs joined to the thorax and complete with tarsi.

*although if you look closely, this insect, which I think is meant to be an aphid, does seem to have six legs 🙂

Etwas8

 

**at least the ladybird has elytra and wings 

***our retirement dream house and where I hope to write all the books that I have planned to write over the last twenty-odd years and never got round to doing 

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Being inspired by the BES

This week (20th July) I have had the privilege of being able to interact with 50 undergraduates (mainly just finished their first year) under the auspices of the British Ecological Society’s new undergraduate summer school held at the Field Studies Council’s Malham Tarn Centre. The scheme enables aspiring ecologists to have “an opportunity to enhance their existing knowledge with plenary lectures from senior ecologists, fieldwork, workshops, careers mentoring and more at a week-long residential course” This was especially pleasurable for me because as a school boy and student I spent several enjoyable camping holidays at Malham and it gave me an opportunity to take part in a field course again, something I have missed since leaving Silwood Park where I ran the now defunct annual two-week long Biodiversity & Conservation field course. The programme included two ecological luminaries and old friends of mine, Sue Hartley from the University of York and plant scientist and author, Ken Thompson formerly of Sheffield University and also Clare Trinder from the University of Aberdeen.  Also in the programme was conservation biologist, Stephanie Januchowski-Hartley,  and additional input from the Chartered Institute of Ecology & Environmental Management (CIEEM), microbial ecologist, Dr Rob Griffiths from CEH and ecologist Dr Peter Welsh of the National Trust.

I arrived mid-morning of the Tuesday, having driven up from Shropshire to Yorkshire the night before, having taken the opportunity to stay in the old family home in Kirk Hammerton before it is put up for sale. Whilst there I also set a few pitfall traps to collect some insects that we might not catch otherwise. As it happened they were a dismal failure, returning mainly spiders, harvestmen and woodlice, plus one nice carabid beetle, more of which later. The weather didn’t look all that promising for an insect sampling session but I kept my fingers crossed and hoped that it wouldn’t rain as much as it did almost 40 years ago when my best friend from school and I aborted our camping holiday at nearby Malham Cove after three days of solid rain 😉

Malham Tarn

Malham Tarn – not quite raining

  I was greatly amused on arriving to be greeted by a very large arachnid lurking on an outhouse.

Malham spider

We breed them big in Yorkshire!

Malham Tarn FSC

Malham Tarn Field Studies Centre

After checking my equipment and locating suitable sampling sites I joined the students, Karen Devine, the BES External Affairs manager and some of the PhD mentors for lunch. After lunch it was my slot, a chance to infect (sorry, inspire), fifty ecologically included undergraduates with a love of insects. After being introduced by Karen I launched into my talk to a very full room of students.

Karen Devine

Karen instilling order and attention 😉

Ready to be inspired

Ready and waiting to be inspired

The undergraduates came from thirty different UK universities with a strong female bias, 34:16. Exeter University had four representatives, with Reading, Liverpool John Moores, UCL and Bristol with three each. I was sorry to see that there were no students from my Alma mater Leeds, or from my former institution, Imperial College, once regarded as the Ecological Centre of the UK, although UEA where I did my PhD, had two representatives.  There was also one representative from my current place of work, Harper Adams University. Incidentally one of the students turned out to have gone to the same school that I did in Hong Kong, King George V School, albeit almost fifty years apart; a small world indeed.

I set the scene by highlighting how many insect species there are, especially when compared with vertebrates.

The importance of insects

The importance of insects and plants

Number of animal species

Or to put it another way

After a quick dash through the characteristics of insects and the problems with identifying them, exacerbated by the shortage of entomologists compared with the number of people working on charismatic mega-fauna and primates, I posed the question whether it is a sound policy to base conservation decisions on information gained from such a small proportion of the world’s macro-biota.

Then we were of into the field, although not sunny, at least it was not raining so I was able to demonstrate a variety of sampling techniques; sweep netting with the obligatory head in the bag plus Pooter technique, butterfly netting, tree beating and, as a special treat, motorized suction sampling, in this instance a Vortis.

Sampling

With aid of the PhD mentors and Hazel Leeper from the Linnaen Society, the students were soon cacthing interesting things (not all insects) and using the Pooters like experts.

Students sampling

Getting close up with the insects

I also let some of the students experience the joy of the Vortis, suitably ear-protected of course. All good things come to an end and it was then time to hit the microscopes, wash bottles, mounted pins and insect keys.

In teh lab

Getting stuck in – picture courtesy Amy Leedale

Down the microscope

What’s this?

I was very impressed with how well the students did at getting specimens down to orders and families and have every confidence that there are a number of future entomologists among them. After the evening meal, Kate Harrison and Simon Hoggart from the BES Publications Team introduced the students to the tactics of paper writing and publishing which I think they found something of an eye-opener. The students, after a rapid descent on the bar, enjoyed a Pub Quiz whilst I relaxed with a glass of wine until it was dark enough for me to demonstrate the wonders of using fluorescent dust to track our solitary carabid beetle using my UV torch before heading off to bed.

Fluorescent carabid Eloise Wells

Glow in the dark carabid beetle – the bright lights of Malham Tarn – photo courtesy of Eloise Wells

I was sorry to have to leave the next morning, it would have been great fun to have stayed the full week, but next year I do hope to be able to be there for at least two days and nights so that we can do pitfall trapping and light trapping and of course, have more fun with fluorescent insects.

I hope the students found the whole week inspirational and useful, I was certainly inspired by their obvious enjoyment and interest and will be surprised I if do not come across some of them professionally in the future.

Well done BES and congratulations to Karen and her team for providing such a great opportunity for the students. I am really looking forward to next year and being able to see great Yorkshire features like this in the sunshine 😉

Yorkshire grit

 

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Are we too late to save Natural History? The demise of Natural History training in schools and universities

For some years now I have sounded off about my concerns over the loss of entomological expertise and teaching (Leather, 2007, 2009ab). My former colleague Donald Quicke and I have also written about the demise of natural history teaching in secondary and tertiary education (Leather & Quicke, 2009, 2010). More recently, I have been following a debate on Ecolog about the lack of field-based natural history teaching in the USA, with many contributors lamenting the decline of teaching in this area due to the over-emphasis placed on teaching molecular biology and allied subjects. Interestingly enough, at about the same time, Jeremy Fox addressed a similar issue about natural history knowledge in academic ecologists and concluded that there was not as much of a problem as many people thought  http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/01/28/stats-vs-scouts-polls-vs-pundits-and-ecology-vs-natural-history/

Terry McGlynn http://smallpondscience.com/2014/02/03/natural-history-is-important-but-not-perceived-as-an-academic-job-skill/ however, is much less sanguine and perceives a real problem with not just the teaching of the subject, but of the willingness of students to engage with those courses still available.

In the UK the decline in teaching whole organism biology in general at secondary school and undergraduate level has become ever more pronounced. Biology teaching at research intensive university has become increasingly cell and molecular biased as whole organism biologists retire and are replaced by cell and molecular biologists publishing in ‘high impact’ journals; the needs of teaching are perceived as secondary, research profiles are seen as more important. As a consequence, many biology degrees in the UK lack balance, and content is largely dependent on what those staff still willing to teach, are able to offer. We thus have zoology degrees where whole organisms are largely absent and the invertebrates are covered in perhaps as few as twelve lectures. We also see ecology degrees lacking physiology; how can you understand an ecosystem if you don’t know how the constituent parts work?

I have not been alone in bemoaning the status of natural history knowledge and training; in 2005, Anne Bebbington of the Field Studies Council wrote

At secondary level the decrease in the importance of whole organism biology in the curriculum, declining opportunities for fieldwork and the concentration of A-level fieldwork on techniques and course assessment allow little time for training in identification skills. Many A-level students feel that being able to recognise and name organisms is not important. In teaching students to be responsible citizens and to care about their environment, a knowledge of at least the common organisms around them is vital. Initiatives are needed to engage the interest of primary school children and to provide more opportunities for fieldwork at secondary level, including time to teach students to recognise organisms. Training for teachers would be valuable and the role of organisations outside formal education in educating the wider public is also recognised.”

Five years later, Donald Quicke and I (Leather & Quicke, 2010) wrote “The great majority of those now studying for degrees in biology have had virtually no training or experience in identifying organisms, and sadly, the drive towards ever more molecular and hands-off meta-analysis type study in universities is exacerbating the situation. Although students may be enthused on a two-week long field course and get to learn to recognise a few major groups or species, without back-up, just as with use of statistics, for example, this will have little, if any, long term retention in their skill set.”

We are now almost five years on from these words and worryingly, things, despite all the citizen science activities that seem to spring up every week and the popularity of natural history apps and programmes like Springwatch, have actually got worse and not just in the UK (Tewksbury et al., 2014)*.

The problem we face is that although there are still many people interested in natural history per se, there is a declining number of opportunities for people to be academically trained in the disciplines associated with its study. Thus fewer biology teachers with these skills are employed and opportunities for enhancing (or subverting as some might see it) the rigid school curriculum at present enforced in secondary schools are becoming fewer too. The good work done in some primary schools by dedicated teachers and outreach specialists such as Minibeast Mayhem are not reinforced at secondary school and thus fewer students want to go on to pursue such studies, or are even aware that such study is possible. At undergraduate level, we find very little whole organism teaching in both the field and laboratory. How many zoology degrees in the UK now expose their students to functional morphology; for example, examining and drawing skulls in able to understand the evolution of reptilian jaw bones to mammalian auditory bones; something that even I, as an invertebrate zoologist, was ‘forced’ to do? I was pleasantly surprised during my recent visit to University College Dublin as the external examiner for their BSc Zoology degree, to find that at least some zoology courses do still retain many of the essential whole organism elements required to fully understand animal form and function.

What are we doing about these lost skills? The UK Plant Sciences Federation recently (January 2014) released a detailed report where they highlighted areas where the UK is desperately short of expertise and training; much to my gratification this included entomology as a key subject area 😉 They have, since the release of this report, set up a number of working groups, one of which, Training and Skills, I have agreed to chair. Our first meeting is in July and we will report back at the end of September, hopefully with some concrete and workable suggestions. The Field Studies Council, as you might expect, are also very much concerned about the situation and thanks to a recent grant from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation have been able to initiate a programme called Tomorrow’s Biodiversity which has the aim of facilitating the recording of biodiversity by getting more people trained in identification skills, particularly in the less well-known taxa.

The problem as I see it, lies in the lack of formal natural history training and teaching at undergraduate level. This has been brought about by the failure of university departments to understand the importance of whole organism biology and a tendency to recruit staff according to the funding fashion of the moment, rather than considering the big picture and recruiting across the specialities. We need to balance the teaching and research staff within our university departments so that we produce a viable population of graduate whole organism biologists, be they zoologists, botanists, or ecologists, who are able to recognise the plants and animals that surround them and not just a few ‘model organisms’ and also to understand how they function within that environment. We also need to look seriously at our pre-university biology teaching and increase the amount of whole organism and field content in both pre- and post-16 teaching. There are many opportunities to do this even in genetics. For example in ‘O’ Level Biology our teacher took us outside to search for and collect the snail Cepea nemoralis, famous for its variation in shell colour which is genetically controlled and which is selected for by the degree of predation that populations in different environments suffer from thrushes (Cain & Sheppard, 1954).  There are many such opportunities but only if the teachers know about them and are willing and able to take them.

Pink Cepaea_nemoralis

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cepaea_nemoralis.jpg

  Yellow Cepaea_nemoralis_(Linnaeus_1758)

      http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hain-B%C3%A4nderschnecke#mediaviewer/Datei:Cepaea_nemoralis_(Linnaeus_1758).jpg

An afternoon outside taught us genetics, ecology and plenty of natural history. I feel privileged and thankful that I was able to spend so much of my childhood outside in the natural

Simon Jamaica c 1963

world and hope that we can at least give the current generation of young people the opportunity to enjoy and understand the importance of the natural world around them before it is too late.

References

Bebbington, A. (2005) The ability of A-level students to name plants. Journal of Biological Education 39: 63-67. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00219266.2005.9655963#.U5g5MFRwa70

Cain, A.J. & Sheppard, P.M. (1954) Natural selection in Cepaea. Genetics, 39, 89-116 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1209639/

Leather, S. R. (2007). British entomology in terminal decline? Antenna 31: 192-193.

Leather, S. R. (2009a). Taxonomic chauvinism threatens the future of entomology. Biologist 56: 10-13. http://cdn.harper-adams.ac.uk/document/profile/Leather_Biologist_2009.pdf

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

Leather, S. R. & Quicke, D. L. J. (2009). Where would Darwin have been without taxonomy? Journal of Biological Education 43: 51-52. http://cdn.harper-adams.ac.uk/document/profile/Leather_&_Quicke_2009_JBE.pdf

Leather, S. R. & Quicke, D. L. J. (2010). Do shifting baselines in natural history knowledge threaten the environment? Environmentalist 30: 1-2. http://cdn.harper-adams.ac.uk/document/profile/Leather_&_Quicke_2010.pdf

Tewksbury, J.J. et al. (2014) Natural History’s place in science and society. Bioscience 64: 300-310 http://bioscience.oxfordjournals.org/content/64/4/300

*Slightly tongue in cheek, I must point out that the authors failed to cite any of my papers concerning the decline of natural history teaching 😉

 

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Woolly bear postscript – where have all the young entomologists gone?

On Saturday (16th February) I attended the Shropshire Entomology Day at Preston Montford http://www.field-studies-council.org/centres/prestonmontford.aspx organised by Peter Boardman of the Field Studies Council http://www.field-studies-council.org/. The day was very well attended, about 75 people in total, and the talks ranged from detailed discourses on how to tell aquatic bugs apart to more general talks such as that by Peter Boardman  (my personal favourite) about the genealogy of a box of insects once owned by the remarkable Dipterist and blackfly expert, Lewis Davies http://www.blackfly.org.uk/downloadable/bsgbull28.pdf and that by Richard Becker showing us how he has made his organic Welsh hill farm into a haven for a wide variety of insects from dung-flies to butterflies.  I was there with my Professorial hat on, and incidentally my entomological t-shirt, to spread the word about the MSc in Entomology that we run at Harper Adams University http://www.harper-adams.ac.uk/postgraduate/201004/entomology and to foster links between us and other like-minded individuals and organisations.  We also heard about plans for a new Dragonfly Atlas for Shropshire and the forthcoming Cranefly Distribution Atlas for Shropshire, as well as the herculean efforts of the Wrekin Forest Volunteers http://wrekinforestvolunteers.blogspot.co.uk/ to ensure that every tetrad in the count at least one invertebrate record associated with it.

All in all it was a very enjoyable and informative day.  The thing that struck me most however, and I have made this observation before http://www.harper-adams.ac.uk/staff/profile/files/uploaded/Leather_&_Quicke_2010.pdf, was that the age range of the speakers and audience was heavily skewed towards the grey end of the spectrum, me included.  There were some relative youngsters present, but the overwhelming majority of the participants present, and those pictured in the talk by Paul Watts about the Wrekin Forest Volunteers, were heading towards retirement age or definitely past it.  I have noticed this phenomenon many times when giving talks to local Natural History Societies, most markedly at the Crowthorne Natural History Society, http://cnhg.org.uk/meetings.html where I was the youngest person present by at least 15 years!

So where were all the youngsters, and in this case I mean the 20-30 age group.  Volunteering to work abroad at great expense on projects involving charismatic mega-fauna or sat in front of their computer screens playing games or engaging with their peers on Face Book?  That said, one young man I spoke with, was planning to go to university to study ecology, an ambition that had been stimulated by volunteering in India, but the impression I got was that once qualified, he intended to return to India to continue on similar projects rather than get involved with small local projects as I advocated in a previous article https://simonleather.wordpress.com/2013/02/01/think-small-and-local-focus-on-large-charismatic-mega-fauna-threatens-conservation-efforts/ .

Yes I had an enjoyable day, yes I made some great contacts and yes, I even stimulated interest in the courses we offer, but Houston, we have a problem. There is enthusiasm at primary school level and the Bug Club http://www.amentsoc.org/bug-club/ do a great job at fostering this enthusiasm, but secondary school teaching (with some rare exceptions) and sadly, biology, zoology and ecology degrees at undergraduate level in the UK, largely relegate entomological teaching to a handful of lectures, concentrating instead on molecular biology or, when whole organisms are mentioned, my pet bugbear, charismatic mega-fauna.  My greatest fear is, that unless we can get secondary schools and universities to provide teaching that encompasses the invertebrate world, we will not only see the continued lack of engagement with invertebrates by the young, but we will also lose the older end of the spectrum as the endangered entomologically enthusiastic youngsters become extinct and no longer provide us with the next generation of grey entophiles who maintain sites such as this http://www.insects.org/entophiles. I find it hard to imagine that there are people who can fail to love or be thrilled by organisms such as this giant water bug, once they have them drawn to their attention.

giantwaterbug_on-hand

http://beneficialbugs.org/bugs/Giant_Water_Bug/giant_water_bug.htm

At the risk of sounding alarmist I really feel that it is imperative that we get the message of how important entomology is out  to all levels of society and government before it is too late.  How we do this is another matter, but do it we must.

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