Tag Archives: taxonomic bias

My Bête Noire – The Journal of Vertebrate (oops sorry, Animal) Ecology

Back in 2014 I took the Journal of Animal Ecology to task for pretty much ignoring most of the animal world and publishing almost exclusively vertebrate papers.  Ken Wilson their Editor-in-Chief decided to check up on this claim and to his chagrin, found that I was right in my assertion 🙂

As a loyal subscriber to the print copy of the journal I am very aware of the front cover photograph and have had two occasions this year to publicly praise the journal for their invertebrate-themed covers.  Then I received the July issue which despite having an invertebrate themed In Focus article, featured a leopard as their poster animal.   Although I love cats, I feel that the mega-cats, and the other so-called large charismatic mega-fauna do ecology as a whole, and entomology in particular, a great deal of harm. They suck away much-needed funds and bright capable students into an area that is vastly over-supplied with resources that could be much more profitably used elsewhere, i.e. the study of our planet’s dominant animal inhabitants, the invertebrates.

Journal of Animal Ecology cover images 2017

 My first reaction to the leopard picture was to go through my shelves and look at all the front covers of the journal since they adopted the new size and format, to see how biased (I automatically assumed that they would be) they were towards vertebrates.   I was not surprised, there was indeed a very strong vertebrate bias.

Journal of Animal Ecology front covers, 2009-2016

Just over 80% of the covers had a vertebrate subject; taxonomically they break down to 50% mammals, 20% birds and 11% fish.   Considering the true species composition of the known number of vertebrates, mammals (less than 0.5% of described animal life, about 5 500 species) are vastly over-represented to say the least.  Fish people should be particularly incensed 🙂

Relative proportions of described animal life.  Fish as the most speciose vertebrate group get a picture 🙂  I apologise to any nematologists who might be reading this post 🙂

So what about the journal content, has editorial policy change since 2014 and how are the invertebrates doing?  Ken stated in his blog that taxonomically speaking the papers published in Journal of Animal Ecology were approximately, 30% bird, 26% mammal, 12% fish and 20% insect related. I did a quick count of the papers published in 2015 and 2016.  Things are changing, birds and mammals are down (24% and 22% respectively) and fish are on the up (17%), but vertebrates still account for 67% of papers published in the last two years. Although the journal is still very vertebrate biased that is a definite improvement, but still not back to the glory days of the 1970s,  Nevertheless, well done Ken and colleagues.  Progress is being made (whether deliberately or not) to redress the balance, but still much more is needed to put invertebrates in the lead where they deserve to be.   More insect front covers would surely be easy enough to implement and help reinforce the message that insects and other invertebrates are where most of real world ecology is to be found.  Over to you Ken 🙂


Post script

I always feel a bit guilty about taking the Journal of Animal Ecology to task, because when compared with the Journal of Zoology,  JAE are paragons of virtue in regard to publishing invertebrate papers but I guess that as a long-standing member of the British Ecological Society I feel a somewhat more proprietorial interest 🙂

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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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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/


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