Tag Archives: taxonomic chauvinism

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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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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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.

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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.

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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 🙂

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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.

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Using alternative technology to understand vine weevil behaviour.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

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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

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

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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’.

 

References

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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