The recent announcement of a study showing a correlative link between the loss of biodiversity and the decline of human cultural diversity (specifically of local languages) reminds us once again that studying biodiversity is more than just about discovering how many species there are in different geographical locations and how they can be conserved. The remit of biodiversity covers all levels of biological organisation, from genes to species to ecosystems, including the human species and those ecosystems we have created for ourselves. Not only that, biodiversity is also about why species occur where they do and how they have adapted to their local conditions, including interactions with the other organisms that shape their ecology and evolution.
Plants and pollinators are a good case in point: if there is not a suitable size or morphological fit between flower and animal, the animal will not be able to obtain its reward and the flower will not receive pollen. Both immediate ecological context (which species are present in a community?) and longer term evolution (how have these species adapted to one another?) are important in this regard. These thoughts were very much on my mind as I sat uncomfortably on a rectangular toilet seat in a very swish hotel in Switzerland last week. There’s a reason why toilet seats are usually curved: it fits the usual shape of our arses. Rectangular toilet seats are not well adapted to their role and do not work effectively: they are uncomfortable and a victory of Swiss style over human functionality. The same applies to the convex saucers on which breakfast coffee was served. They were the anthithesis of biological adaptation where the stylish patterns of a butterfly’s wings, say, have evolved for a purpose (display and/or camouflage) rather than to look pretty.
Karin and I were in Switzerland at the invitation of Nadir Alvarez from the University of Lausanne. Nadir and his group are using the latest molecular techniques to carry out fascinating research on species interactions and patterns of phylogeography, including work on one of my favourite groups of plants, the genus Arum. At Nadir’s request I gave rather a broad talk on the theme of the ecology and conservation of plant-pollinator interactions in highly managed landscapes, focusing on the work that members of the LBRG have done in Northamptonshire and adjacent counties. The questions afterwards suggested that it generated quite a lot of interest in the audience of about 50 faculty members, postdocs and research and MSc students. Before and after the lunch hour talk I spent time chatting with postgrads and staff about their research projects, moving from office to office in a carefully Swiss-timed fashion, always conscious that outside each window were fantastic views across Lake Geneva to the snow crowned Alps beyond: “You forget it’s there after a few weeks” claimed one postgrad.
Lausanne is a lovely city which is enhanced by the human-contrived biodiversity of planted roofs, green walls, and public green spaces. And by the species which naturally colonise suitable habitats, such as the moisture loving mosses and algae which have found a home in the stone and steel fountains designed by Georges Descombes in La Place de la Louve.
Back in Northampton late Friday night, then up early Saturday morning to prepare a talk for the local branch of Friends of the Earth’s Bee Cause campaign launch. It was the usual general over view of what pollination is, why it’s important, why pollinators are declining etc., etc. I pointed out at the start that the public audience (once again of about 50) were getting a free taster of what, from September 2012, our students will be paying £8,500 per year to listen to. They seemed to enjoy it and had some interesting questions afterwards, though one guy claimed my talk was too long and “a bit like being in church”. This was the same individual who asked me whether “wasps and nettles can sting each other” which perhaps gives an insight into his world view.
Back at the coal face of university life this week, however, the dominant theme has been marking student work. Lots of of it, as we work to get final grades into the system prior to exam boards in early June. A pile of about 90 first year reports on woodland community structure, based on field work we carried out last autumn, has been hard work but in many ways enjoyable. Some of these students have done very well and really engaged with the aims of the assignment. Quite a number independently found a recent study on the importance of rot holes in trees for maintaining epiphytic lichen diversity. Has anyone looked at this in British oaks? It would make an interesting final year student project. Which brings us back to the links between biodiversity and human culture, because lichens have been used for millenia as sources of pigments for painting, for example in illuminated Saxon manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels.