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….
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.
*As a meat-eating non-flyer, who tries as much as possible to eat seasonal, locally sourced, air-miles-free food, my choice of food was somewhat limited, basically bread. It was also obvious that the vegans and vegetarians were perfectly happy to clock up air miles and eat food that required a lot of carbon to produce 😊