A bad botanical pun

fucksia not fewsha 20171012_080602_001_preview

Not all of the poetry that I write – such as these pieces – is serious and high-minded, some of it is whimsical, funny, or just plain dumb.  Today I taught a morning class on flower structure and pollination, so in its honour here’s an example of the latter:

 

A Bad Botanical Pun

“Don’t become a gardener – there’s no fuchsia in it!”

Not a great pun, but I’ve heard worse.

However, it may be pedantic, but I have to point out

That the genus Fuchsia was named in honour of Leonard Fuchs

(A sixteenth century Bavarian botanist, as you ask).

His name is pronounced as a definite, Germanic “fucks”,

Not a prim, Victorian “fewsh”.

So, don’t become a botanist – it’ll Fuchsia!

 

Students in the pollination practical 20171012_111355_preview

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A blog post about our new paper about posting blogs: important for the science community as well as science communication

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Scientists blog for many reasons.  Some of these reasons are highly personal, other reasons are purely professional.  For most of us it’s a mix of the two.  But despite all of the scientific blogging going on there’s actually very little been written in the scientific literature about the advantages of blogging for the professional scientist.  As a step towards remedying that situation a group of co-authors and myself have today published a paper entitled “Bringing ecology blogging into the scientific fold: measuring reach and impact of science community blogs“.  It’s published in the open access journal Royal Society Open Science.  Just follow that link and you will be able to read it for free.

I’m rather proud of this paper as it’s a collaboration between active ecological bloggers, most of whom don’t know each other personally. However we share an interest in blogging and in the belief that blogging is a legitimate scientific medium for communication of ideas, data, and professional advice.  That is, blogging for the science community rather than (just) for science communication to the general public.

One of the most pleasing things about this paper is that it received two of the best reviews any of us have ever had in our careers.  The reviewers were incredibly supportive and complimentary, and asked for virtually no changes.  That’s hugely gratifying and suggests to us that we are saying something important; let’s hope the readership likes it as much!

The co-authors, their Twitter handles and links to their blogs are below.  If you click through you’ll see that we have posted coordinated pieces on our blogs about our own reflections on the collaboration and what the paper means to us.

Manu Saunders (@ManuSaunders)  Ecology Is Not A Dirty Word      

Simon Leather (@EntoProf) Don’t Forget the Roundabouts

Jeff Ollerton (@JeffOllerton) Jeff Ollerton’s Biodiversity Blog

Steve Heard (@StephenBHeard) Scientist Sees Squirrel

Meghan Duffy (@duffy_ma) Dynamic Ecology

Margaret Kosmala (@margaretkosmala) Ecology Bits

Terry McGlynn (@hormiga) & Amy Parachnowitsch (@EvoEcoAmy) Small Pond Science

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How many trees are there in Amazonia: two recent studies reached very different conclusions – UPDATED

The region of South America that we know as “Amazonia” has arguably the greatest biological diversity of any part of the planet, certainly as far as plants are concerned.  In some places the number of tree species per hectare exceeds 400, an order of magnitude greater than the number for the whole of the British Isles.  However estimating the total number of even the described plant species in this vast area has proven controversial, as two recent studies exemplify.  The first study was by ter Steege et al. (2016) and entitled “The discovery of the Amazonian tree flora with an updated checklist of all known tree taxa“, whilst the second is from just last month: Cardoso et al. (2017) “Amazon plant diversity revealed by a taxonomically verified species list“.  Both of them are open access so click on the links if you want to read the full studies.

One might expect that two such studies focused on Amazonia, both using vouchered herbarium records, would reach broadly similar conclusions as to the number of tree species in the region.  Not a bit of it: ter Steege et al. (2016) report 11,676 species, whilst Cardoso et al. (2017) say that the figure is 6,727.  That’s almost a two-fold difference!  Why the discrepancy?  Inspired by an initial tweet by University of Glasgow taxonomist Roderic Page, I downloaded the data from both studies and looked at it closely.

Here’s a scatter plot of the number of tree species per plant family reported by both studies:

Amazon tree diversity

 

The red line shows where we would expect the data points to lie if both studies had reported the same number of tree species per family.  Clearly few families lie on this line and most are above it as we might expect: as I’ve said, ter Steege et al. (2016) concluded that there were far more tree species overall and this is reflected at the family level.  Note that I’ve graphed this using a log scale and what might seem to be small differences are actually very large indeed.

Although the findings from two studies are highly correlated (diverse families are diverse in both studies, ditto families with low diversity) the actual level of that species richness is very different.  For example, in the Annonaceae, ter Steege et al. report  480 species, Cardoso et al. report 388; in the Clusiaceae the figures are 247 versus 135.  Other families are excluded from one data set or the other: ter Steege et al. reckon there 7 species of trees in the Dilleniaceae whereas Cardoso et al. cite zero.  Here’s a link to the data set if you want to explore further.  

So what’s going on here?  Why do two studies with similar aims, published about 12 months apart, come to such different conclusions.  As far as I can see there are three reasons for this.

First of all, the studies used slightly different taxonomies when it came to considering families and species.  So for example, Cardoso et al. recognise the family Peraceae which ter Steege et al. do not.  Although I haven’t done it, I’m sure that if one were to dig down to the species level there would be differences in which species were accepted and which were considered synonyms.

Secondly, the exact definition of what constitutes a “tree” varies between botanists, and the non-botanists who are no doubt responsible for some of the plant collections: some consider anything to be woody and tall-ish to be a “tree”, others have more strict definitions.  Notes about growth form taken in the field consequently get included in herbarium databases and may be inaccurate, especially for the uncommon species that have rarely been seen in the field.

The final reason, and the one that seems to be responsible for most of the discrepancy, is the definition of what constitutes “Amazonia”.  In the first study ter Steege et al. defined it as including the “forests and savannahs of the Amazon basin and Guiana Shield”.  In contrast Cardoso et al. considered only “lowland Amazon rain forests”.  That’s a big difference as there’s lot of savannah in this region, as well as other habitat types.  When we did field work in Guyana some years ago we could travel very quickly between savannah and rainforest.  It was clear to us that there is a range of trees that are restricted to one habitat or another, including species of Dilleniaceae (mentioned above) that are savannah specialists (hence the family’s exclusion from the Cardoso et al. study).

Now neither of these studies is “wrong” in the sense of being inaccurate or misguided: both are great studies involving a huge effort on the part of the authors.  But the limitations and definitions of geography and taxonomy that I’ve highlighted do mean that they need to be treated as rather different and not directly comparable.

So how many tree species are there in Amazonia?  If we consider just the rainforest then it’s 6,727 (Cardoso et al. 2017).  If we consider all habitats in the region, including rainforest plus savannah etc., then the figure is 11,676 species (ter Steege et al. 2016).  One of the implications of this is that the non-rainforest “Amazonian” habitats collectively contain 4949 tree species.  Thus a large proportion of the diversity of the region is in habitats, such as savannah, which are less of a focus for conservation efforts and not as well known to the general public, but are at least as threatened by agriculture and mining as rainforest.

Thanks to Roderic Page for initially highlighting this on Twitter, and Sandy Knapp for discussion.

UPDATE:  In retrospect my conclusion above regarding the proportion of trees in non-lowland rainforest habitats was much too high, as a couple of commenters have noted below.  It’s worth reading what they have to say, and my responses.  It’s likely that the taxonomic differences between the two studies are at least as great as the geographical ones, but then taxonomic opinions vary hugely.  Just serves to emphasise what a controversial and problematic question this is!

 

 

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The Buzz Club: citizen scientists protecting pollinators

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This is a guest post by Charlie Dance who is Development Officer at The Buzz Club.


It’s hard to over-stress the importance of pollinators. Not only do they play an indispensable role in global food security, they’re also essential in maintaining the diversity of plant species in natural habitats, thus supporting nature as a whole. The UK is home to thousands of different pollinators including bees, wasps and hoverflies. However, while many of these species seem to be declining or disappearing, we know surprisingly little about the majority of them. Why are some disappearing, and how quickly is it happening? What can we do to help? How can we turn our gardens into pollinator havens? It was to help answer questions like these that the Buzz Club was founded in 2015.

Run by volunteers at the University of Sussex, The Buzz Club is a citizen-science charity using the power of the public to provide important data on pollinators. We run a variety of nationwide surveys and experiments suitable for all ages and ideal for wildlife and gardening enthusiasts. Furthermore, we provide information about how to make our urban landscapes more pollinator friendly.

For more information and for a list of current projects, please visit our website: http://thebuzzclub.uk/

As a membership-based organisation, we rely on the small donation of £2 per month from members, all of which goes directly towards running the charity. Not only do new members receive a complementary welcome pack containing a specially designed seed mix, bee identification chart, pollinator-friendly gardening guide, magnifying lens and stickers (see photo below), they also get to learn more about pollinators whilst helping to generate useful data that can be used in our projects.

We believe that with your help we can find out how best to conserve bees and other pollinators. Our ultimate goal is to ensure that we look after insects, giving them and us a future.

Join the Buzz Club here: https://alumni.sussex.ac.uk/buzzclub

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/TheBuzzClubUK

Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/The_Buzz_Club


From Jeff:  if citizen science is your thing, don’t forget that the Ivy Pollinators project will run again this year: https://jeffollerton.wordpress.com/2016/10/11/ivy-pollinators-citizen-science-project/

 

Buzz Club 2.png

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Fly pollination in the trap flower genus Ceropegia: a new study just published

Flies on C. arabica from Sage Reynolds

Pollination of flowers by flies (the insect order Diptera) has long fascinated me, in part because it often subverts the idea of what “normal” flowers should look like, but also because it is much less well studied, and appreciated, compared to bee pollination.  This is despite the fact that fly pollinated flowers are at least as frequent as bee pollinated flowers in many plant communities, as I show in a forthcoming review in the journal  Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics (more on that in November when it’s published).

Over the past decade I’ve been studying the large plant genus Ceropegia in the family Apocynaceae (subfamily Asclepiadoideae).  The flowers of these species temporarily trap their fly pollinators, releasing them after a period, during which pollination takes place and/or pollen is picked up.  The latest study from this work has just been published in the journal Flora, in collaboration with colleagues from eight different countries.  The title is:

Diversity of Diptera families that pollinate Ceropegia (Apocynaceae) trap flowers: an update in light of new data and phylogenetic analyses

If you follow that link you can download the PDF for free for the next 50 days.

One of the main findings from this new study is that the diversity of fly families that pollinate Ceropegia spp. is much greater than we had previously realised.  The total now stands at 16 different families, including some that rarely, if ever, pollinate other plants (as far as we yet know).

Another important finding is that this clade, which may contain as many as 1000 species in total, seems to have diversified despite that fact that all species are apparently fly pollinated.  This is unusual: diversification of plant clades often involves shifts to very different groups of pollinators, e.g. bee to bird or bat pollination.

There’s still lots to discover about this group of plants and this is just the latest output from what is an ongoing project focused on Ceropegia and the Apocynaceae more generally.

Here’s the abstract:

“Pollination by flies (Diptera) has been important to the diversification and ecology of the flowering plants, but is poorly understood in contrast to pollination by other groups such as bees, butterflies and birds. Within the Apocynaceae the genera Ceropegia and Riocreuxia temporarily trap flies, releasing them after a fixed, species-specific period of time, during which pollination and/or pollen removal occurs. This “trap flower” pollination system shows convergent evolution with unrelated species in other families and fascinated Stefan Vogel for much of his career, leading to ground-breaking work on floral function in Ceropegia (Apocynaceae). In this new study we extend the work of the latest broad analysis published by some of the authors (Ollerton et al., 2009 − Annals of Botany). This incorporates previously unpublished data from India and Africa, as well as recently published information, on the diversity of pollinators exploited by Ceropegia. The analyses are based on a more accurate phylogenetic understanding of the relationships between the major groups, and significantly widens the biogeographic scope of our understanding of fly pollination within Ceropegia. Information about the pollinators of 69 taxa (species, subspecies and natural varieties) of Ceropegia is now available. Twenty five families of Diptera are known to visit the flowers of Ceropegia, of which sixteen are confirmed as pollinators. Most taxa are pollinated by species from a single family. Overall, there were no major biogeographic differences in the types of Diptera that were used in particular regions, though some subtle differences were apparent. Likewise there were no differences between the two major clades of Ceropegia, but clear differences when comparing the range of Diptera exploited by Ceropegia with that of the stapeliads. This clade, one of the largest in the Asclepiadoideae, is a fascinating example of a species radiation driven by an apparently relatively uniform set of pollinators.”

Photo credit: flies on flowers of Ceropegia arabica in cultivation by Sage Reynolds.

 

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The 31st Annual Meeting of the Scandinavian Association for Pollination Ecology (SCAPE 2017) – registration closes 15th September

SCAPE logo

SCAPE is my favourite annual conference by a long margin: small, friendly, welcoming (especially for Master’s and PhD students, and postdocs), and packed full of great science.  It’s the longest-running annual conference of its kind in the world and this year the 31st meeting takes place in Norway; registration closes on 15th September – here’s the link for more information.

So if you are a scientist with an interest in pollination ecology, in all of its varied expressions, consider coming along.  I’ve written a short history of SCAPE here, and these are some links to previous meetings to give you a sense of what to expect:

https://jeffollerton.wordpress.com/2016/10/15/i-want-to-see-the-bright-lights-tonight-the-30th-annual-scape-conference-part-1/

https://jeffollerton.wordpress.com/2015/10/25/scape-day-3-science-on-a-sunday/

https://jeffollerton.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/dancing-with-wolves-more-from-scape-2014/

https://jeffollerton.wordpress.com/2012/11/07/the-great-escape/

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Hummingbirds have a sense of smell: so why do we keep saying that they don’t?

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One of the general features associated with specialised hummingbird-pollinated flowers in the New World is that they often have no scent perceptible to the human nose.  This is then interpreted as evidence that hummingbirds have no sense of smell, which strikes me as circular reasoning at best.  This “fact” is then frequently repeated in text books and on the web, for example at the Bird Watcher’s Digest site, at The Spruce site, and at the World of Hummingbirds.

However I know of only two research papers that have tested whether or not hummingbirds can smell, both of them short notes; and in both cases they found that the hummingbirds they tested could associate scents with food in artificial flowers.  Those studies (with links to the originals) are:

Goldsmith, K.M. & Goldsmith, T.H. (1982) Sense of smell in the black-chinned hummingbird. Condor 84: 237-238

Heringer, H. et al. (n.d. – c. 2006?) Estudo da capacidade olfatória em três representantes da subfamília Trochilinae: Eupetomena macroura (Gould, 1853), Thalurania furcata eriphile (Lesson, 1832) e Amazilia lactea (Lesson, 1832).  Unpublished manuscript – possibly a student project (?)

It surprises me that this has been so little studied, given how much research has otherwise been done on hummingbirds.  Have I missed any other studies?  Clearly vision is more important for hummingbirds when locating food, but that’s not the same as stating that hummingbirds have no sense of smell.  Seems to be one of those myths that won’t go away, of which there are many in pollination biology.

Comments welcomed, as always.

 

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Final thoughts from the International Botanical Congress in Shenzhen

IBC 47 Veg market

Despite my best efforts I’ve not been able to produce a daily post about the International Botanical Congress (IBC) in Shenzhen.  The days were just too busy: too many interesting people to talk to; too many great talks to see; too much cold beer to be drunk and tasty food to be eaten; and a too-comfortable bed to collapse into at the end of a long, long day.

It’s Sunday today, and the closing ceremony took place yesterday afternoon.  Speeches were made and thanks offered to our Chinese hosts.  It was a fitting end to what has been a truly remarkable conference, the like of which I’ve never previously experienced, and may never again.  It wasn’t just the scale of it – almost 7,000 delegates giving and attending hundreds of talks – but just the very positive buzz of all of these plant scientists determined to make a difference in some way, through their research and education and outreach work.  That’s been the main theme of this conference: that a healthy global population living in a safe and sustainable world is not possible without plants, and to achieve that we must take the plant sciences very, very seriously indeed.  Plants are the foundation of our civilization and the key to surviving the future.

Anyone who doubts that last sentence should have joined us the other day when we made a short visit to a local fruit and vegetable market.  Beautifully displayed on low stalls was botanical produce that reflected both thousands of years of Chinese cultivation and crop breeding, including food plants not very familiar in the west……

IBC 45 Veg market.jpg

IBC 46 Veg market

….together with the produce that’s only been a part of the Chinese diet for a few hundred years, or less, following its introduction from Europe and the Americas, including current staples such as chillies, squashes and potatoes:

IBC 43 Veg market

Global movements of food crops have enriched diets and supported the populations of entire countries: most of the fruit and vegetables that we eat in the UK, for instance, are not even native to Europe let alone the British Isles.

During this trip to the market I was able to add two new plant families to my life list of those I’ve eaten.  They were Sauruaceae (the leaves and rhizomes of Houttuynia cordata) and Portulacaceae (Portulaca oleracea being a common leaf vegetable in some parts of the world, but not the UK).  That brings my current total of pant families I’ve eaten to more than 90.

That theme of the importance of plants was codified by the launch at the IBC of the Shenzhen Declaration on Plant Sciences, on which the Natural History Museum’s Sandy Knapp has been an author; hopefully you can read the seven priorities in this image:

IBC 40 Shenzhen Declaration

The Shenzhen Declaration provides both a rallying call for plant scientists to convince their governments of the importance of their work, but also highlights how seriously China takes the whole concept of sustainable development.  It’s remarkable (but actually perfectly logical) that such a fast developing country should be the prime mover in the area of green sustainability.  Only time will tell if they are doing enough, at a pace that will make a difference.

There were a couple of awards made at the closing ceremony, including the first ever Shenzhen Award to Prof. Peter Raven, 81 years old and still going strong.  Earlier in the week a colleague introduced me to this giant of botany and evolutionary biology, and I got to shake his hand, feeling a bit awe struck I have to admit!

IBC 40 Peter Raven.jpg

The Engler Medal went to Chinese botanist Prof. Hong Deyuan for his systematic work on paeonies and other Chinese plants:

IBC 40 Hong Engler.jpg

So, that’s it for another six years.  IBC 20 will be held in Rio in 2023; the Shenzhen Congress has set a high bar, but we’re sure that Brazil can match it!

IBC 39 Rio

Today I’m off to Fairy Lake Botanical Garden to do a bit of exploring with some colleagues, then I fly home tomorrow evening.  It’s been a wonderful trip but I’m looking forward to seeing my family, our cats, and how our garden has changed in the short time I’ve been away.  My sincerest thanks to all the friends and colleagues who have made this such a stimulating and extraordinary conference.  Especial thanks to our Chinese hosts who made us feel so welcome, and the IBC Awards Committee for providing me with an “Excellent Scholar” award to enable me to take part. Over and out from Shenzhen.

IBC 37 - Jeff

 

 

 

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Wampee are not the only fruit: more from the International Botanical Congress

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It’s been a busy couple of days so this is my first chance to post a brief update on what is happening at the International Botanical Congress in Shenzhen, China.  Not only have there been great talks to attend, but it’s been an all-too-rare chance to catch up with friends and colleagues, some of whom I’ve not seen for years.  Also I’ve been able to meet researchers whose work I know well but whom I’ve never met.  And I’m still trying to finish my talk for Saturday…..  So here’s a few glimpses of what’s been going on, in no particular order.

On Tuesday I attended two fascinating symposia, one on the patterns and outcomes of pollen transfer between species in plant communities.  The first talk was this one by the great Chinese pollination ecologists Shuang-Quan Huang.  I’ve corresponded with Shuang for years but the IBC has been my first chance to meet him.

IBC 30 - Shuang

That was in the morning; in the afternoon I went to a session on my favourite plant family, the Apocynaceae, organised by my colleague and collaborator Sigrid Liede-Schumann.  This included some great talks on the evolutionary relationships within the family, and patterns of diversity in poorly studied parts of the world.  There were two talks on my favourite genus in my favourite family, Ceropegia. The first, by Sharad Kambale, was about the endemic species found in India, followed by a second on the pollination biology of the genus by Annemarie Heiduk.  Anne’s talk complements my own on Saturday, and in fact she, Sigrid and I are co-authors on a paper on the genus that, we heard on Monday, has just been accepted by the journal Flora.  Here’s a shot of the Apocynaceae participants; Anne is far right with Sigrid next to her.  It’s a sobering thought that Sigrid and I have been collaborating for over 20 years……:

IBC 28 - Apocs

Of the keynote lectures I’ve seen in the last couple of days, I was particualrly inspired by Loren Rieseberg’s over view of plant evolution in the Anthropocene.  This is surely the only talk this week, or at any IBC, that ended with a couple of episodes of a children’s animated series about nature!  Loren’s work with Scout and the Gumboot Kids was inspired by him becoming a father and recognising that the most important contribution he will ever make is the legacy he leaves as a teacher of the next generations, rather than as a researcher (though his research work is very significant!)

I also enjoyed Peter Wyse Jackson’s talk on “International developments and responsibilities for the botanical community in plant conservation”.  Peter very eloquently set out the case for how plant conservationists can lead the way in achieving many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, but the key must be to include local communities within projects and not exclude them.  It reflected a theme that’s running right through the conference, that plant science has a vital role to play in making our civilization sustainable: plants are absolutely key to this:

 

IBC 32 - Development goals

After all, humans are just Super Monkeys in evolutionary terms….

IBC 31 - Supermonkey.jpg

…and monkeys need plants, especially fruit such as these delicious wampee (Clausena lansium) a new one for me that I’d never tried before.  It’s in the same family as oranges and other citrus fruits (Rutaceae) but has a texture more like a grape and a sour, slightly phenolic taste:

IBC 34 - Fruit.jpg

In these blog posts I’m trying to give just a few personal insights into what’s been going on, but there’s much that I’ve missed: on any given day there’s as many as 28 separate symposia going on at the same time!  No wonder then that the IBC has its own daily newspaper:

IBC 36 - Congress news.jpg

Now, I must get back to writing that talk….

 

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Highlights from Monday at the International Botanical Congress

IBC 21

On the way in to the congress venue yesterday morning I spotted a small yellow bird lying dead on the street; turned out to be a Japanese White-eye, a first for me.  Can I count dead birds on my life list?

The scientific programme for the day got off to a great start with a keynote by Michael Donoghue on the value of model lineages for really exploring plant evolution in depth.  He focused on the work of his group on the genus Viburnum, and it has a masterclass in presenting a lot of complex work in an engaging and contextual way, telling a great story.

These photos tell you about the scale of these keynotes and the need for video feeds of the presentation.  It’s all working well though:

IBC 23

IBC 24

In the afternoon things got a little more intimate when the themed symposia started.  For now I’ve decided not to try to move between sessions to cherry pick talks I really want to hear and instead stick with the single sessions.  The first of these was on “Pollination by non-flying mammals” and a series of speakers outlined some of the diversity of these animals and how flowers are adapted to be pollinated by them.  As camera traps have become more widely used, especially at night using infra red lighting, the range of mammals known to pollinate flowers has increased and now includes species such as genets and elephant shrews.  The latter wins the prize for outrageous cuteness!  Check out some of the images of these pollinators at this BBC site.

That session ended at 3.30pm and there was just time to chat to a few people and grab a quick coffee before I was speaking at 4.00pm in the “Evolution of floral traits” session, in a vast hall that seemed mainly empty but actually probably had a couple of hundred people in it:

IBC 25

My talk was on “Spatio-temporal stability of an island endemic plant-pollinator interaction involving floral colour change”. It seemed to be well received though in retrospect I probably focused too much on the pollinator side of what’s happening in our Tenerife study system.  The talks that came after were a great mix of scales and approaches but by 6.00pm the jetlag had caught up with me and I couldn’t stop myself falling asleep towards the end of a fascinating talk by Adam Roddy (sorry Adam!)  That was bad enough: then I started snoring and was jerked awake when Kathleen Kay punched me (thank’s Kathleen!)  Oh the science shame….

Much chatting afterwards then whisked off to dinner by some Chinese and American colleagues, in the fanciest hotel I’ve ever seen: we were met out of the lift by a gaggle of singing waitresses…. A very pleasant evening.  Back to the hotel by 9.30pm, for a beer and some tv, but could hardly keep my eyes open.  Slept until 6.00am – huzzah – jetlag seems to be over!  Now to breakfast and the start of a new day.  Must finish writing my talk for Saturday though….

IBC 26

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