Monthly Archives: December 2015

Biodiversity Blog – 2015 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 39,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 14 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Six Kingdoms for Christmas: the cultural biodiversity of a winter festival

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Since beginning this blog in 2012 I’ve traditionally posted one or two Christmas-themed items around this time of year, including a piece on “Thanking the pollinators for Christmas” and a true story from 2013, “A Christmas vignette“.  The role of pollinators in producing much of the traditional Christmas fare has subsequently been picked up by others (last year the University of Bristol, this year a blog from Trinity College Dublin) so I’ve decided to break with tradition and consider the ways in which biodiversity (both wild and farmed, though the latter of course originated as the former) adds to the cultural experience of Christmas through its traditions and rituals.

In this regard I’m coming at the topic as a north-European agnostic who values Christmas as an opportunity to relax and unwind at the darkest, coldest* part of the year, rather than as a Christian.  And because I’m a British scientist much of what I say relates to British customs, though I’ve tried to include non-British examples where I’m aware of them – feel free to let me know about examples I’ve missed by commenting below.

I’ve decided to structure this post taxonomically and focus on a Six Kingdom Classification** of life on Earth as that’s been the theme of my first year undergraduate teaching since October.  Four of the six Kingdoms can be dealt with fairly quickly as their significance to Christmas is marginal or non-existent.  The two “bacterial” Kingdoms (Archaea and Eubacteria) contribute little to Christmas other than providing much of the gut flora that’s going to help us digest our Christmas dinner. Important but not specifically festive.  Likewise the protists and algae (Kingdom Protoctista) add nothing specific to Christmas unless there are traditions associated with seaweed of which I am unaware.

The other three Kingdoms are the ones where cultural biodiversity associations are more apparent.  The Kingdom Fungi (yeasts, mushrooms and moulds) provides us with several Christmas traditions including (in Germany) hanging mushrooms on the Christmas tree for good luck, and in parts of Scandinavia hanging strings of dried mushrooms around the house as decorations and as a source of winter food.  There is also the association between the red-and-white colour scheme of fly agaric magic mushrooms (Amanita muscaria) and the robes of Santa Claus, though I’ve seen that idea debunked in a few places and it appears that the “traditional” interpretation of Santa’s suit originated in the USA in the 19th century.

The Kingdom Animalia (both invertebrates and vertebrates) affords us a host of cultural connections to Christmas.  Birds include the turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) which in times past were famously walked to London from Norfolk; the domestic goose (Anser anser domesticus); and much of the song Twelve Days of Christmas refers to birds, including the turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur) one of the UK’s most declining and threatened bird species.  Mammals we associate with Christmas include of course reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) pulling Santa’s sleigh, led by the nasally-advantaged Rudolph, but also domesticated farm animals.  For example in Denmark in osme households it’s more traditional to eat pork (Sus scrofa domesticus) for Christmas dinner than goose.

Staying with the vertebrates, in our house it’s traditional to have smoked salmon (Salmo salar) with scrambled eggs for breakfast on Christmas Day, and (again in Denmark) sild (Clupea harengus) is also traditionally served as a starter, but I don’t know of other fish traditions.  Likewise I’m unaware of any invertebrates that are specifically associated with Christmas, though there have been recent reports of sustainably-sourced lobsters (Homarus americanus and H. gammarus)  becoming “traditional” in Europe.  There are also some local traditions such as honey bees singing in their hives on Christmas Eve.

The last of the Six Kingdoms is the Plantae, which, whilst the least taxonomically diverse, provides us with a wealth of cultural associations to Christmas.  These traditionally include evergreen plants that have been used to decorate homes, probably since the earliest pagan Yuletide festivals, such as: Christmas trees (various conifers in the genera Picea, Abies and Pinus); European ivy (Hedera helix); holly (Ilex aquifolium); and mistletoe (Viscum album).  However such traditions evolve and adapt to local needs and availability of plants.  For example in North and South America other genera of conifers not found in europe, such as Pseudotsuga and  Araucaria, may be used as Christmas trees***.  Likewise the absence of European mistletoe in North America means that people have adopted native mistletoes in the related genus Phoradendron for decorating and snogging traditions.  Over at her blog, ecologist Manu Saunders has recently discussed how native Australian species can substitute European plants for Christmas decorations.

The final example from the Plantae is the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) which I’ve pictured above.  In many ways this is an unusual plant to have such a strong cultural association with Christmas: it’s a mildly toxic species of spurge from tropical Mexico that was introduced to North America in the 19th century, then subsequently to Europe.  However its festive connotations date back to the earliest period of Spanish colonisation in the 16th century, so it’s older than some of the other Christmasy traditions I’ve discussed.

Of course biodiversity is about more than just species and taxonomic diversity, it also encompasses the diversity of habitats in which that life is found.  Here too we see strong influences of the natural world on the culture of Christmas, including festive scenes of snow-bound boreal conifer forest.  As our planet warms, however, that might be a view that is found only on Christmas cards and old movies, rather than directly experienced*.

And on that sobering note, I wish all of my readers and restful and biodiverse holiday: have a great Christmas everyone!

 

*Ha!  It’s looking to be the warmest December on record, and at times has felt more like early summer than mid-winter.

**I’m aware that there are other Kingdom-level classifications out there which could be used, but the Six Kingdom approach is a good starting point.

***Closer to home, colleagues in the office adjacent to mine have adorned their large weeping fig (Ficus benjamina) with home-made Christmas decorations.  Looks good.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Birds, Climate change, Ecosystem services, Honey bees, Mammals, University of Northampton

Biodiversity lost and found: extinct island birds and living African dragonflies

Two newly published studies have caught my eye this week as exemplifying two important aspects of biodiversity research: describing new species and understanding which species we’ve recently lost due to human activities.

Researchers working in the Macaronesian islands of the Azores and Madeira have described five new species of endemic water rails (genus Rallus) that are thought to have gone extinct within the period when humans colonised the islands.  One species may even have hung on into historic times.  All of the species were either flightless or had reduced capacity for flying, making them vulnerable to over-exploitation by humans.  That’s a common phenomenon on oceanic islands, with the dodo being the archetypical example.

What’s particularly remarkable is that these five new species increases the known recent diversity of the genus Rallus by about one third!  The reference for the paper, and a link to the pdf, is:

Alcover et al. (2015) Five new extinct species of rails (Aves: Gruiformes: Rallidae) from the Macaronesian Islands (North Atlantic Ocean) Zootaxa 4057: 151–190

The second paper is a mass-naming of 60 (!) new African dragonfly and damselfly species by a team led by KD Dijkstra, a Dutch entomologist whose work I’ve mentioned previously.  I had the pleasure of teaching with KD on a Tropical Biology Association field course in Tanzania a few years ago and his knowledge of African natural history is astounding.

To put these 60 new species into context, it increases the known diversity of African dragonflies and damselflies by almost 10%.  The reference and a link to the paper follows:

Dijkstra et al. (2015) Sixty new dragonfly and damselfly species from Africa (Odonata). Odonatologica 44: 447-678

Finding appropriate names for all of these insect species has required a degree of ingenuity from the authors and a quote from the paper demonstrates how memorable and creative some of them are:

“The Peace Sprite Pseudagrion pacale was discovered on the Moa River near Sierra Leone’s diamond capital Kenema. Twenty years earlier villagers trapped between rebel and government forces on opposite banks drowned in these tranquil waters. Two years later Kenema became the national epicentre of the Ebola outbreak…… The horntail Tragogomphus grogonfla evokes a Liberian pronunciation of ‘dragonfly’, the sparklewing Umma gumma a classic Pink Floyd album…… and the claspertail Onychogomphus undecim simply its date of discovery, 11/11/11.”

One of the things that I’ve tried to impress upon my final year undergraduate students this term during our Monday morning biodiversity seminars is just how little we still don’t understand about life on our planet.  Discoveries of new species are a regular occurrence, and for most we know nothing about their life histories or their interactions with other species (the aspect of biodiversity that particularly interests me).  In other cases (as with the Macaronesian water rails) the species were gone before we knew that they even existed.  I wish that I could be sure that this won’t happen in the future, but it will, until we (and the future generations that we are teaching) do something to address the problems of habitat destruction and inappropriate exploitation of biodiversity.

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8 things I learned from the Parliamentary Pollinators Update seminar – UPDATED

POST event December 2015

As I advertised a couple of weeks ago, last Wednesday I was in London to take part in a Pollinators Update seminar at the Houses of Parliament organised by the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST).  It was a very interesting event and good to catch up with some of the latest ideas about pollinators and their conservation.  However it’s been a busy week since then and I’ve not had time to post a full account of the seminar, which was attended by over 40 people.  So I’ve decided to write a brief summary of eight things I learned that day from my fellow speakers* and from the day in general; in some cases I’ve linked to the original sources where available:

1.  About 46% of Europe’s bumblebees have declining populations (see the European Red List for Bees that I highlighted in an earlier post)

2.  Around 2% of the world’s bee species do 80% of the crop pollination (Kleijn et al. (2015) Nature Communications)

3.  Pollinators other than bees perform 39% of the flower visits to crops (Rader et al. (2015) Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)

4.  By 2100 the Red-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius), one of the commonest species in Europe, may be extinct across most of the continent due to climate change (Rasmont et al. (2015) Climatic Risk and Distribution Atlas of European Bumblebees)

5.  Only 6.6% of Entry Level Stewardship agreements by farmers across England included plans to grow nectar- and pollen-rich flower mixes.

6.  Criticism of laboratory studies of the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides are just as illogical as criticisms of field studies: both have their limitations and advantages, and both are needed.

7.  A panel of four experts on pollinators and pollination will largely agree about the answers to most questions an audience asks.

8.  A Westminster seminar such as this will attract very few MPs if it clashes with an important debate in the House of Commons, in this case about future military action in Syria.

UPDATE: here’s a number 9 suggested by Simon Potts: we all strongly support and encourage the setup of an All Party Parliamentary Group on “Pollinators” not just “honeybees” or “bees”.

 

*With thanks to my fellow panelists Simon Potts, Claire Carvell and Richard Gill, and to Kirsten Miller and the POST team for organising the event, and for the photograph of the panel in action.

 

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Climate change, Ecosystem services, Pollination

Virtual Conference on Ecology and Climate Change

Following on from what seemed to be a quite popular Virtual Conference on Pollinators, Pollination and Flowers I thought I’d mark this week’s Paris talks on tackling climate change with a second  “virtual conference” on the topic of climate change and how it may affect (and be affected by) natural and agricultural ecological systems.

This is a great set of talks* with some very thought-provoking ideas.  Hope you enjoy them.

Douglas Sheil  (Norwegian University of Life Sciences)

Do forests attract rain?

 

Hans Joosten (University of Griefswald)

For peat’s sake – bogs and climate change

 

Nicola Di Cosmo (Institute for Advanced Study)

Climate, conflict, and historical method

 

Ben Beard (NCEZID Centers for Disease Control)

Climate change, ecology, and disease emergence

 

Jennifer Cartwright and Bill Wolfe (USGS Tennessee Water Science Center)

Climate-sensitive, insular ecosystems of the Southeast U.S.

 

Nabil Nemer (American University of Beirut)

Are changes in insect patterns in the Lebanese Mountains evidence of climate change?

 

Lini Wollenberg (University of Vermont)

Climate Change Mitigation on Agriculture-Forest Landscapes

 

Tim Benton (University of Leeds)

Food and the future: climate and resilience

 

Feel free to discuss the talks in the comments section and to post links to other talks on the same topic.

 

*I’m assuming that, as all of these videos are in the public domain, none of the presenters or copyright owners objects to them being presented here.  If you do, please get in touch and I’ll remove it.

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