Category Archives: Book review

Identifying British ichneumonid wasps: an introductory guide from the NHM

Tanzania ichneumonid P1000757

The ichneumonid wasps (Hymenoptera: Ichneumonidae) are a fantastically diverse group of insects that mostly share a similar parasitic life history: they lay their eggs in or on a host insect.  Around 24,000 species have been described, and estimates for their full diversity range between 60,000 and 100,000 species.

In Britain there are approximately 2,500 species, almost 10 times our bee diversity. Many species visit flowers, particularly umbellifers, and they can therefore be quite significant (though under-studied) pollinators of things like Wild Carrot (Daucus carota) and its relatives.

With so many species to deal with, identifying ichneumonids can be a daunting task. However the Natural History Museum (London) has produced a free beginner’s guide to identifying them – here’s a link to it.

Although it only covers 22 commonly encountered species (i.e. less than one hundredth of Britain’s species diversity) it’s nonetheless a useful introduction to a fascinating group. However you’ll not be able to identify the species pictured above – I photographed that in Tanzania a few years ago!

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Book review: A Veritable Eden – The Manchester Botanic Garden, a History by Ann Brooks (2011)

This is a book review that’s been in press for many months in the Manchester Region History Review, and I finally found out that it had appeared and I’d missed it!  Anyway I thought this would be a good opportunity to present the review to a wider audience who might be interested, and to correct a couple of typos in the printed version.

A Veritable Eden – The Manchester Botanic Garden, a History. Ann Brooks (2011). Windgather Press, Oxford. RRP – £25.

The plant kingdom globally contains an estimated diversity of 350,000 species. In the UK we can boast only some 1500 native species, a legacy of both our status as a collection of modestly sized, temperate zone islands, and the effect of the last ice age which scoured much of the land surface of its previously established flora. A depauperate flora, combined with plant envy of the botanical riches of other countries, may be one reason why British botanic gardens have been important in cataloguing and describing the world’s plant diversity, and in augmenting that flora by cramming our gardens with exotic specimens from overseas.

This long history of plant study and horticulture can be traced back to at least the mid 17th century, with the founding of what was to become Oxford Botanic Garden. Since that time, Britain’s botanic gardens have played a significant role in the economic development of both the country and its former Empire, and continue to be important in science and education, and in the leisure and recreation of the British people.

Previous work on the history of botanic gardens in Europe has tended to concentrate on the large metropolitan botanic gardens, particularly Kew, with their star botanists and international networks of contacts and collectors (e.g. Brockway 1979, Endersby 2010, Ollerton et al. 2012). The smaller provincial botanic gardens, in contrast, have been rather neglected by historians, despite the fact that almost every large British city possessed one, and that they have been an important part of local leisure and education. This is a tradition that stretches from the early 19th century and continues through to the more recent founding of the Eden Project and the National Botanic Garden of Wales.

The history and current utility of such spaces is, as their study reveals, a story that extends far beyond the horticultural and botanical realms, into social, political and economic history. In A Veritable Eden Ann Brooks introduces us to the “chequered history including national fame and financial disaster” of Manchester Botanic Garden, which existed from 1831 to 1908. This meticulously researched book explores not only the role of the Garden in local social life, but also the local political intrigues, personality clashes and mismanagement that ultimately doomed the garden. This is exemplified in the way that an un-Victorian attitude to financial prudence (commissioning ambitious building works when finances were in poor shape) collided with a very Victorian snobbery: by refusing to allow the paying general public entry to the Garden more than one afternoon a week, a funding stream that may have saved the Garden was effectively curtailed. To paraphrase the author, exclusivity was more important than income.

This was not the only policy that appears inexplicable to the modern reader. Early in its history the subscribing, largely middle class membership of the Garden made it clear that pleasurable perambulations around the site were all that they were interested in, and any pretence to education went when “in 1848 science was eliminated and the horticultural garden…was dismantled”. In this regard it was undoubtedly the people of Manchester, rather than botanical science per se, who were the principle losers, as the large botanic gardens of European capital cities dominated plant exploration and plant science up to the present day. Nonetheless the policy jars with Victorian notions of self-improvement.

A Veritable Eden originated as Dr Brooks’ PhD thesis and in general it is engagingly written, demonstrating the author’s fascination for her subject, and well illustrated with material from her personal collection and elsewhere. But there are some places where a firmer editorial hand would have made for a better book. It is clear that a few small sections have been replicated from the thesis out of context, for example a paragraph about the role of a “putter-out” on pp. 60-61. On p. 91, to give another example, we read that a Garden report concluded that “the Curator should be charged with ‘gross ignorance and mismanagement’ and that he should be replaced”; this is repeated, only three lines later, as “a charge of ‘gross ignorance and mismanagement’ should be brought against [the Curator]”. Finally, to anyone with a botanical, as opposed to historical, training the misspelling and misrendering of scientific names for some plants will jar, such as “Dickensonia” for Dicksonia and “Victoria Regia” for Victoria regia (itself an old synonym, the plant is now called Victoria amazonica).

Such editorial oversights detract only a little from the telling of the story of Manchester Botanic Garden and could easily be rectified if the book goes to a second edition. Which I hope it does; it’s a great contribution both to the local history of the city and to our understanding of the history of provincial botanic gardens.

 

References

Brockway, L.H. (1979) Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Garden. Yale University Press.

Endersby, J. (2010) Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the Practices of Victorian Science. University of Chicago Press.

Ollerton, J., Chancellor, G. & van Wyhe, J. (2012) John Tweedie and Charles Darwin in Buenos Aires. Notes and Records of the Royal Society 66: 115-124

 

Originally published as:  Ollerton, J. (2014) Book review of: “A Veritable Eden” by A. Brooks. Manchester Region History Review 25: 153-154

 

 

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The most important book you’ll read this year: What Nature Does for Britain by Tony Juniper

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Being on holiday should be about getting away from the pressures of work and the daily routine, and relaxing with an easy novel or some magazines, turning off your brain and recharging ready for a return to reality. So what am I doing writing a book review in a sun-flooded apartment in Nice on France’s Cote d’Azur? A good question that is answered by the fact that this is a book that has been engaging me since I bought it at the airport on the way out. I’d known for some time that What Nature Does for Britain by Tony Juniper was about to be published as I’d received an invitation to the book launch in Cambridge in February. It was an invitation precipitated by the small contribution I’d made to the research for the book, when I was happy to provide some facts and figures on pollinator importance and decline in Britain. Unfortunately I missed the launch due to a prior engagement, and a poorly stocked WH Smith at Luton Airport was my first opportunity to buy a copy.

Tony Juniper is well known for his environmental writing and broadcasting so I had an idea that the book would be readable and interesting. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was just how good the book actually is, and that it’s the most important book you could read this year. Let me rephrase that: it’s the most important book that our politicians, business leaders, bankers and economists could read this year. In fact individuals with any leverage to influence government policies and business strategies should be made to sit down and read this book. But for anyone with an interest in the future of this country (and indeed of the planet) this really is a book worth reading. And, if you are British, preferably read it before the General Election in May.

Over the course of nine chapters, Juniper looks at how nature (broadly defined and including geology and physical processes, as well as biodiversity) underpins our society through its positive contributions to food production, water resources, flood mitigation, energy security, and our physical and mental health. At the end of each chapter Juniper sets out a series of manifestos that he challenges the government of the next five years to adopt and develop. Whichever party/ies form the government come the May election, its MPs need to rise to this challenge. And whichever parties are in opposition, it’s important that they read them too because they should understand where and how the government can get it right and get it wrong.

One of the refreshing things for me was how holistic and connected are the scenarios Juniper develops as he tours Britain to find case studies of where people and organisations are getting it right, working WITH nature, not against it. It’s easy for those of us working in particular fields, as academics or practitioners, to become over-focused on one’s own specialism: for me that would be obsessing about biodiversity, for others it could be energy generation or the economics of farming or infrastructure investment or wastes management. What this book does brilliantly is to bring together all of these elements, and more, and weave them into a single, seamless narrative. For example, large offshore wind farms generate renewable energy AND contribute to reducing CO2 emissions AND create marine nature reserves for sea life AND thereby boost regional fish stocks AND create jobs on the local mainland AND provide investment opportunities for banks and pension schemes AND develop new, exportable technologies. Yes, there may be downsides and Juniper doesn’t shy away from discussing these, for example bird collisions with turbines. But it ought to be possible to minimise these negatives, such as with appropriate design and siting strategies.

Although I was aware of many of the broad arguments presented in this book, it’s been a revelation to see the details set out so clearly and the linkages made so effectively, and with rigour: my word there’s an impressive amount of research on show here. I mentioned that I was consulted, but Juniper and his researcher Lucy McRobert have talked wide and deep with academics, conservationists, business leaders, civil servants, and other experts. The acknowledgements section runs to more than five pages and I counted over 100 names of individuals who were thanked for their contributions. Presumably everyone who was quoted was given the chance to comment on what was being written, as I was.   The sources for the information presented are provided on Juniper’s website (http://www.tonyjuniper.com/). This is a thorough book, all the more impressive because it had to be researched and written quickly in order to be published, and read, prior to the election.

Juniper’s vision of a future Britain is one in which we can have it all: economic security, functioning ecosystems, endless energy, jobs aplenty, and solutions to our most pressing environmental problems, including future effects of climate change. Clearly he’s an optimist. And that’s refreshing in a country where pessimism and cynicism seems to be the plat du jour (sorry, been eating in too many over-priced French restaurants).  If he isn’t right then the worst that will have happened will be that we have engaged in a series of experiments with our social, natural and economic capital that are no worse, and could be a lot better, than some of the experiments that have been foisted upon us by a series of government and private business strategies. But my gut feeling (supported by the evidence) is that he’s right and that this book provides us with a road map towards a virtuous ecological circle with society at its centre.

The sad thing is that the people who really ought to be reading this book, and who would gain most from its vision, are those politicians, business leaders and economists who are least likely to open its pages because either they’ve “heard it all before”, and disagree, or because the momentum of their vested interests and entrenched views leaves no opportunity to redirect the course on which they are travelling.

Although the focus is on the United Kingdom, the proposals that Juniper sets out could apply to any country and the book be renamed “What Nature Does For _____” [insert country of choice].  In truth the issues presented, and their broad solutions, are global. So, this is the most important book you could read this year, wherever you live.  Buy a copy, read it (on holiday, in bed, while commuting, or wherever) and pass it on to the person you know who is least likely to buy it for themselves. Or send it to your local MP.  That’s what I will be doing in the days following the election.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Book review, Ecosystem services

Book review: “Pollination and Floral Ecology” by Pat Willmer

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Review of “Pollination and Floral Ecology” by Pat Willmer (2011) Princeton University Press. £65. pp. 832.

Some backstory:  In early 2012 I was asked by the review editor of the journal Annals of Botany to review this book, and I jumped at the chance as it’s the first major single-author overview of the field of pollination ecology for a number of years, by a well respected academic in the field.  Unfortunately the review took a lot longer than I expected, in part because I was also coordinating my department’s Research Excellence Framework submission, on top of other teaching, research and admin duties, and it was taking up quite a bit of my time.

In addition I had mixed feelings about the book and wanted my review to do it justice, not be over-critical but at the same time highlight what I saw as flaws.   In the words of the  Fairport Convention song, Who Knows Where the Time Goes? – my review was only completed last Christmas and duly submitted. Turns out that the journal has a backlog of book reviews to publish and the editor asked that, given it’s been a couple of years since the book was published, would I mind if the review was posted on the Annals of Botany blog rather than in the printed journal.  I happily agreed as it’s likely to get more readers on the blog, and said I’d also post it on my own blog.  So here it is:

 

Any text book that tries to assess and summarise the whole of a multidisciplinary research field such as pollination ecology and floral biology is required to be four things:  (1) comprehensive in its scope; (2) up to date in its coverage of the literature; (3) accurate in its assessment of the current state of the field; and (4) authoritative in the conclusions it presents.

This volume by Professor Pat Willmer of the University of St Andrews certainly ticks the first box.  It’s a huge book, and covers everything relating to the evolution of flower attraction and reward systems, ecological interactions with pollinators, biochemistry, physiology, agriculture and conservation; all in 29 chapters split into three sections, with 87 pages of references.  The literature extends to 2010, which is impressive for a book published in 2011 (though see my comments below about completeness of the literature).   Specialist terms are highlighted in bold to direct the reader to the glossary at the back, a useful device even if there are a few inaccuracies, which I’ll mention later.

So far so good, and the author is to be congratulated on putting together such a comprehensive, not to mention timely, single-author book.  It’s clearly the summation of a career devoted to studying pollinators and flowers, and the author’s passion for her subject is apparent throughout.

However when we come to points 3 and 4, things are less straightforward.  There are some issues with accuracy that are troubling in a book aimed at newcomers to the field as well as established researchers.  To give just a few examples:

– on p.18 we are told that asclepiads have “one stamen” (they have five); on p.169 and in the glossary that asclepiad pollinia are the pollen grains from one anther (they are the contents of half an anther); and on p.170 that the pollinaria are “glued” to pollinators (they actually clip on).

– in the glossary, tree ferns are referred to as “cycads”, an error that is repeated on p.89.

– on p.88 there is a statement suggesting that tree fern spores were dispersed by “animal fur” 300 million years ago, long before the evolution of mammals, and that this (and dispersal of spores of fungi and mosses) is the equivalent of pollination: it is not, it equates to seed dispersal.

These are troubling errors of basic botany that are forgivable in an early draft of the book (everyone makes mistakes) but not in the final published version, after it’s been read, reviewed, checked and edited.  If the book goes to a second edition I hope that these (and other) mistakes will be fixed.  But they do hint at a fundamental problem with a book (and a field) as large and complex as this: a single author is arguably unlikely to be able to do justice to all of the subject matter.

There are parts of the book where it is unclear (to me at least) what the author is actually saying.  For example, on p.96 there is a graph which, it is suggested, demonstrates that pollination by animals is “technically uncommon when assessed in terms of the numbers of broad taxonomic groups that use it”, though the legend to the figure claims that “most orders of plants have no families” that possess wind pollination.  This is confusing: what is to be concluded by someone new to the field?  Is animal pollination common or rare?  Likewise, on p.91 we are told that the “first angiosperms…would probably have had their pollen moved mainly by wind…”, but then on p.92 that “an element of insect pollination could be regarded as almost ancestral”.  Which is correct?

There are other aspects to the book that are simply out of date; for example the linear, rather deterministic schemes set out in Figures 4.6 and 4.8 showing that Cretaceous flowers were open and radially symmetrical, and only later evolved into complex, bilateral flowers in the Tertiary, ignores fossil discoveries showing that orchids evolved in the Cretaceous (Ramírez et al., 2007).  Likewise, discussion of “counterproductive” crypsis in flowers (p.124) neglects recent findings of cryptic, wasp-pollinated plants in South Africa (e.g. Shuttleworth & Johnson, 2009).

There is a theme emerging here: some of the botany that the book presents is inaccurate, confused or out-dated.  Fortunately the zoological aspects of the book are much better, as one might hope from a Professor of Zoology.

The final criterion, that the book should be “authoritative in the conclusions it presents”, is however, in my view, the main weakness of this volume.  The author is unhappy with recent developments in the field, particularly as they relate to community-scale assessments of plant–pollinator interactions, in terms of network analyses and predictive utility of pollination syndromes.  Clearly Professor Willmer is on a mission to rebalance what she perceives as failings within some of the current trends in studying pollination.  A book review is not the place for a technical dissection of the author’s arguments, which is best left to the peer-reviewed literature (though I would argue that that’s also the place to present some of the criticisms the author introduces, rather than into a text book such as this).  I could focus the whole of this review on these topics because: (a) they take up a large proportion of the book, about one-third of the text pages; and (b) they are highlighted on the cover as being one of the main contributions of the book; specifically, that the author provides a critique of previous work that does not distinguish between “casual visitors and true pollinators” that can in turn result in “misleading conclusions about flower evolution and animal-flower mutualism”. Unfortunately her targets are straw men, and one – I believe quite telling – example will suffice.

On p.447 there is a criticism of the use by Waser et al. (1996) of Charles Robertson’s historical data set, and specifically that the analyses they present “…did not distinguish visitors from pollinators even though Robertson’s database did include information on this”.  However Waser et al. clearly state (p.1045 of their paper) that only pollinators were included in the analyses, not all flower visitors, and that “visitation is not a synonym for pollination…non-pollinating visitors are excluded (as in Robertson 1928)” (p.1048).

Why should Professor Willmer make a statement to the contrary?  Evidently she wishes to impress upon her readers that (in her opinion) there are fundamental problems in current approaches to studying pollination at a community level.  But even if that were the case (and I don’t believe it is) misrepresenting previous studies to suit an argument is poor scholarship at best.

Regardless of whether some of her criticism is well founded, the author does not seem to appreciate that plant–flower visitor interaction networks are ecologically important regardless of whether or not a flower visitor acts as a pollinator.  More fundamentally, true pollination networks possess similar attributes to flower visitor networks, for example a nested pattern of interactions, and arguments about level of generalisation of species are a matter of scale, not category (Ollerton et al., 2003).

At the end of her Preface, Professor Willmer reveals to us quite a lot about her personal attitude to research when she states that some readers might find her approach “too traditional” in an “era where ecological modelers [might be claimed to] have more to tell us than old-style field workers”.  What the author fails to appreciate is that this is a grossly false dichotomy and that most of the pollination ecologists who have embraced new analytical methodologies for understanding plant–pollinator interactions are also “old-style field workers” with considerable experience of studying the ecology of flowers and their pollinators beyond the computer screen.

In summary this is a book that, for all its good qualities of comprehensiveness and (mostly) up to date coverage, should be read with caution: parts of it are neither as accurate nor as authorative as the field of pollination and floral ecology deserves.

 

LITERATURE CITED

Ollerton J, Johnson SD, Cranmer L, Kellie, S. 2003. The pollination ecology of an assemblage of grassland asclepiads in South Africa. Annals of Botany 92: 807-834.

Ramírez SR, Gravendeel B, Singer RB, Marshall CR,  Pierce NE. 2007. Dating the origin of the Orchidaceae from a fossil orchid with its pollinator. Nature 448: 1042-1045.

Shuttleworth A, Johnson SD. 2009. The importance of scent and nectar filters in a specialized wasp-pollination system. Functional Ecology 23: 931-940.

Waser NM, Chittka L, Price MV, Williams N, Ollerton J. 1996. Generalization in pollination systems, and why it matters. Ecology 77: 1043-1060.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Book review, Evolution, Mutualism, Pollination

Je ne egret rien

Little Egret - cropped

Conservation does not mean the same as preservation, despite the popular synonymy of these two words.  Preservation implies that something remains the same, is static and held in the same unchanging state.  One can preserve an old book, or fruit, or traditions for instance.  But one cannot preserve biodiversity because species change in abundance and distribution, regardless of the activities of humans.  That’s just how nature is.  One could take a deep time view of such change and consider the ancient habitats and organisms that built much of Britain’s underlying geology, as I mentioned when I described some walking on the Dorset coast a while back.  But even over shorter time scales that are comprehendible to humans, biodiversity changes, by the day, the month and the year.

That’s where egrets, and the pitiful punning title of this post, come in.  At the end of last week Karin and I spent a long weekend on the Suffolk coast, in the village of Walberswick.  It’s an old stomping ground for Karin but I don’t really know this area very well at all.  We spent our time talking and reconnecting, eating local food, drinking the good local Adnams beer, walking along the beaches, through saltmarsh and reed beds, and collecting stones and sea glass (I really like sea glass and have amassed bottles of the stuff over the years that we keep on sunny windowsills – think of it as aesthetic waste management).  And we looked at birds as we encountered them in these rich, diverse habitats.  Final total for the weekend was a respectable 37 species, including a few I couldn’t identify, helped along by a trip to the RSPB’s Minsmere Reserve (with, it seemed, every other birder in Suffolk; we had to queue to get into some hides). 

Two of the species we saw were egrets, a common name that covers several genera in the heron family Ardeiedae.  As the Wikipedia entry for egrets notes: “The distinction between a heron and an egret is rather vague, and depends more on appearance than biology”, as good an argument for the importance of scientific species names as any I’ve encountered. 

The first of the two species I spotted was the Little Egret (Egretta garzetta), an elegantly roaming bird that actively hunts along river margins and through marshland and flooded fields.  I was able to get within 10 metres or so of a bird at Walberswick and could admire its poised movements on vivid yellow feet, contrasting with black legs to make it look like a woman wearing footless stockings, as Karin put it (she took the photograph that accompanies this entry).  The second species of egret was the Great White Egret (Ardea alba), a much taller bird than the first, and an ambush hunter; like the related Grey Heron its strategy is to stand still and wait until prey comes to it.

The earliest record of a Little Egret in Britain was almost 200 years ago, in East Yorkshire in 1826.  However it is not known to have bred in this country until a pair did so in Dorset in 1996.  In other words, just 20 years ago this was an uncommon bird in Britain whose rare arrival would have generated a flurry of local twitching.  Now it hardly gets a mention on birding sites, we are so familiar with it.  Not so the Great White Egret which still raises some excitement when it appears.  Although this species was also recorded as early as 1821 in Britain, Great White Egrets only began to breed in Britain in 2012 and there is considerable anticipation that it will follow the Little Egret in expanding its population in this country.

We could add other birds to this list of species which have naturally colonised Britain within living memory, such as the almost ubiquitous Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto) as well as insects such as the Tree Bumblebee Bombus hypnorum and the Ivy Bee Colletes hederae.  Others will undoubtedly follow in the future, and perhaps the Cattle Egret will be the next member of the heron family to take up permanent residence on our shores.

Of course the flip side of new arrivals such as these is extinction, a topic that I will return to at some point as we’re currently putting the finishing touches to what I hope will be an exciting new paper on British bee and wasp extinctions.   Understanding the ebbs and flows of biodiversity over time requires data to be collected and we are fortunate in Britain to have a number of active monitoring schemes that regularly survey different groups of organisms.  This activity is vital if we are to be able to monitor our wildlife and to take action if we see declines, though the most recent results for the Status of Priority Species index makes grim reading:  the overall abundance of threatened species in the UK declined by 68% between 1970 and 2010.  It’s a complex message, though, and there are some success stories within those statistics.  But the animals that have fared worst have been the insects, particularly moths and some of the bees, wasps and ants.

Against this background of monitoring and decline I was happy to accept an invitation last week to attend a Defra-sponsored meeting at the Natural History Museum in London to discuss the setting up of an insect pollinator monitoring scheme.  A group of about 50 scientists and conservationists discussed what such a scheme might look like and how it could be implemented.  I’ll report back in more detail about this in the future once some decisions have been made as to how to proceed.

Meetings such as this, as well as being important in their own right, provide an opportunity to catch up with old friends and colleagues and discuss their latest work, or latest child/house move/job move, as appropriate.  So it was good to have a couple of beers after the meeting and chat with a few people including Dave Goulson, arguably one of the most significant scientists working in British pollinator conservation, and an outspoken critic of the current use of neonicotinoid pesticides.  Dave founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and has produced a lot of the scientific literature on bumblebees as he describes with wit and passion in his recent book A Sting in the Tale.  I’ve known Dave for over twenty years (we were PhD students together) so I was a little embarrassed to ask him to sign my copy of his book, but as a collector of signed editions I wasn’t going to let the opportunity slip.  Dave mentioned that the book has been shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize and I hope it wins: ok, I’m biased, and can read it in Dave’s own voice which adds enormously to the book.  But it’s a great read for anyone interested in pollinators, or conservation, or just in the processes which turn a natural history obsessed kid into a professional scientist. 

This will be my last blog entry from Britain for a month; on 31st October I fly out to Brazil to spend time with André Rodrigo Rech, running a short pollination biology course, speaking at the Brazilian Botanical Congress, and conducting field work.  I’ll try to blog as I go along.  In a happy coincidence the Great White Egret is depicted on the Brazilian five real banknote.  I’ll look out for it.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Birds, Book review, Pollination

Rewilding – inside and out

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The last blog entry I posted mentioned the reintroduction of red kites to England, surely one of this country’s most impressive conservation success stories of the past few decades.  Such reintroductions can be seen as one minor aspect of the “rewilding” programme being advocated by some conservation biologists.  In its most extreme form, radical rewilders advocate populating whole landscapes with large herbivores and predators that once roamed these regions but are now locally extinct, either because of human hunting pressure or environmental change (sort of Jurassic Park backed up with real science).  The idea is that reintroducing such animals results in more “natural” habitats in which ecological processes are returned to a more pristine state and biodiversity is maximised.  

There are arguments for and against rewilding in all its forms, and four recent coincidental occurrences make rewilding a topical subject for this blog.  

Coincidence one is that the Guardian newspaper has posted a great animated video about rewilding, voiced by environmental writer George Monbiot, whose work I’ve mentioned previously.  It’s an interesting overview of rewilding, if a bit simplistic; and (spoiler alert!) I’m sure I’d not want to jump naked into a river with hippos!  

Coincidence two is that I’m currently reading Once and Future Giants: What Ice Age Extinctions Tell Us About the Fate of Earth’s Largest Animals by Sharon Levy, which discusses some of the more radical rewilding notions that have been proposed, such as introducing elephants, lions, zebra and other African megafauna to North America, as stand-ins for their Pleistocene cousins which may (or may not) have been over hunted by the ancestors of native Americans.  That’s a controversial topic, as you might imagine, and it’s a book that’s well worth reading, not least because it effectively captures the atmosphere of the various camps of scientists promoting the hypotheses they personally support.

Coincidence three is that a paper was published in the journal Science last week which provides evidence for what can happen when larger animals (often the first to go locally extinct) are removed from ecological communities.  In this case, the seeds of a dominant, bird dispersed palm tree have evolved to be significantly smaller in size in those populations where the largest seed dispersing birds have been removed.  All of this has happened in the last 1o0 years or so, remarkably rapid evolution.  One of the authors, Spanish scientist Pedro Jordano, gives an account of the paper in his blog.  The study is one of the few published that links loss of biodiversity of species interactions to their ecological and evolutionary consequences, and has generated a lot of media attention.

The final coincidence is that a short review paper has finally appeared which I co-authored with Duke University medical researcher William Parker entitled Evolutionary biology and anthropology suggest biome reconstitution as a necessary approach toward dealing with immune disorders“.  You can take a look at the paper (or at least read the abstract) yourself.  But in essence the review places William’s Biome Depletion Theory in a broader perspective of how the loss of species with which Homo sapiens would normally interact (in this case gut worms of various types) can have profund knock-on effects for human health and may explain the epidemics of some conditions that are currently prevalent within industrialised societies.  More controversially, the review advocates that we begin to routinely rewild our gut fauna by selectively introducing one or more types of laboratory-bred worms to the guts of children.  There’s already a lot of discussion around this topic but one day in the future such procedures may become no more unusual than standard childhood vaccinations.

Having said that, there were enough problems convincing land owners that reintroducing beavers was a good thing in the Scottish Highlands, whilst similar plans for wolves and bears have stalled; reintroduction of tape worms to their children’s lowlands will probably take even more convincing.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Birds, Book review, Evolution, Personal biodiversity

A (bird) book for bedtime (and a bit about bees besides)

2012-10-27 14.28.28

Biodiversity as it’s generally defined and conceived includes not only diversity of species and habitats, but also diversity within species, often (but not always) genetic in origin.   Eddie Izzard’s new two-part television series Meet the Izzards neatly captures the idea of genetic diversity, and how it informs our  understanding  of the past evolution and prehistorical dispersal of a large, bipedal mammalian omnivore.  “Cultural biodiversity” in Homo sapiens is less easy to define in this way as it has probably only a limited genetic component and is passed from individual to individual by copying and refining.  Other species have “culture”,  for example New Caledonian crows and chimpanzees, but human cultural diversity is more varied than that of any other species.

Take book reading as an example.  Some individuals of our species never read.  Others read only one book.  Incessantly.  And then argue about what it means with others who read the same book.  Other individuals gorge on a book a day or snack on one a  month, or manage on a starvation diet of one per year.  I’m a two book nibbler.  Normally I always have a novel and a volume of non-fiction on the go.  The novel is for last thing at night when I need to turn off my mind and do some easy reading; a few pages then it’s time to sleep.  Nibble, nibble.  The non-fiction is for the morning, if I wake up early enough, or weekends if they are free; or train journeys.  Still nibbling, but this time on more solid fare.

As with all cultural diversity, none of this is inflexible and at the moment I’m also reading a non-fiction book at night:  Fighting for Birds:  25 years. in nature conservation by Mark Avery, former Conservation Director of the RSPB.  Mark kindly came to give a talk at the university recently and brought copies of his book to sign and sell.  It was a stimulating lecture and feedback from the students who attended was very positive.  For those students who didn’t make it (and there were a lot) I have to ask:  why are you paying thousands of pounds a year to not turn up to events that will inspire, educate and develop you?  You had the chance of bending the ear of a very prominent British conservationist.  At the very least you could have asked:  “How do I get to do the job that you do?”  You’re currently investing a LOT of money in your future and, frankly, wasted opportunities such as this are the equivalent of failing to claim a share dividend.

Back to the book.  Although Mark claims Fighting for Birds is not an autobiography,  it is very autobiographical in scope and provides some great personal insights into the RSPB and the development of bird (and broader) conservation in the UK and the EU.  His description of the battles fought over the fate of the Flow Country brought back memories of writing an essay on that topic during my undergraduate years in the late 1980s.  I’ve still not visited that part of Scotland but I have in mind a road trip this summer that may take it in.  The RSPB is one of our partners on the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area project so I was particularly interested in finding out more about what makes our most important wildlife charity tick.  Mark is an engaging and candid writer, forthright in his opinions political and ecological (and their interactions)  as you can see from his blog.        

By pure coincidence, this week Mark hosted a guest blogger in the shape of Matt Shardlow, Chief Executive of Buglife, talking about the current controversies over banning the group of pesticides known as neonicotinoids.  Matt puts forward a compelling case for withdrawing these chemicals from general use.  I don’t dispute anything he says about the role of neonicotinoids in bee deaths (though there is some debate about dosage levels used in some of the published studies and how this might translate into effects in the field).  But it does concern me that this new focus on pesticides is taking the spotlight off habitat loss, particularly grasslands, which is a far more important threat to pollinator populations.   There is a real danger that this single issue will be seen as an easy fix by government when a broader reform of farming practices is what’s really required.  The decline of wild bees and other pollinators can be tracked back to long before the introduction of neonicotinoids. There were some silly comments on the blog about neonics currently being the single most important conservation issue.  This is short sighted hyperbole and (again coincidently) Lynn Dicks has written an interesting piece on the subject of rhetoric, lies and over-the-top claims in the journal Nature.

The decline and extinction of pollinators in the UK has been an ongoing process since the 19th century.  I’d hate to see the government think that it’s “fixed” the pollinator problem by banning some pesticides, a much simpler task than protecting and restoring habitats, and encouraging farmers to manage their land more sensitively.  With 70% of the UK’s land dedicated to farming, human (agri)culture has got to be a key element in conserving biodiversity.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Book review, Nene Valley NIA, Pollination, University of Northampton

We are so very ‘umble

Studying biodiversity can be a humbling experience.  It is humbling to contemplate the intricate ecological context in which species exist, embedded within a matrix of other organisms with which they engage in competition or cooperation or feeding relationships.  It is also humbling to learn that, for some scientists, the focus of their research into ecological complexity and biodiversity is on a single system of species interacting in a single place over a period of decades.

A recent article by Professor Tim Birkhead on the Times Higher Education website illustrates this nicely and conveys beautifully the long term passion and commitment demonstrated by some field biologists and ecologists to research projects.  However I disagree with one of his statements that “….long-term studies are rare. In total there aren’t many more than a dozen or so”.  I suspect that Tim is talking about long term studies of breeding success and population dynamics of vertebrates in the UK.  If one broadens both the taxonomic scale (to take in plants and invertebrates) and the geographic coverage, then there are many, many ecological studies that have continued for decades.  The Park Grass plant community experiment, for example, begun at Rothamsted in 1856, is the oldest ecological experiment anywhere in the world.

Other long term studies are documented in the recent edited volume by Ian Billick and Mary Price – The Ecology of Place.  Highly recommended for its demonstration of the scientific and conservation value of long term ecological research.  Ecology of Place was one of the books I took with me to Tenerife during field work earlier in the summer and I’ve been working through it ever since, absorbed by its chapters more than I can recall in any other edited volume of research.  Some scientists have committed their professional (and sometimes personal) lives to the study of a single locality for over 50 years and the ecological insights from such work have been enormous.  It’s a commitment to the science that I could not possibly mirror; I’m not that kind of scientist.  Whereas I am capable of building up “long term” datasets that span up to 16 years (and counting) these are not the kinds of highly focused, in-depth studies that Mary and Ian have picked for their book.  Perhaps my problem has always been a short attention span and a desire for novelty, like a kid in a toy shop wanting to pick up and play with all of the exciting things on offer.  There’s no single right way to be a scientist (though there are lots of wrong ways).

But back to Uriah Heep and his expressions of ’umbleness.  It’s always been my opinion that  as a society we require some humility when we consider how reliant we are on the processes and resources provided by the biosphere, something that has come to be called ecosystem services, and which I’ve discussed before in a number of blog posts, starting here.  The fact that we rely on the natural world to provide soil nutrients, fresh water, carbon storage, crop pollination, and a whole range of other goods and services, is beyond dispute.  More controversial, however, is the valuation of ecosystem services: how (indeed, should) do we put a monetary value on what nature provides?

A lot of words have been written about these questions in the past few years and recently the writer and environmental activist George Monbiot has weighed into the discussion with an article for the Guardian newspaper that argues that the whole notion of valuation of ecosystem services “diminishes us, it diminishes nature. By turning the natural world into a subsidiary of the corporate economy, it reasserts the biblical doctrine of dominion”.

Now, I have a lot of respect for George, whose writing is always provocative and pulls no punches.  He also puts his money where his mouth is, not least in publicly declaring his earnings.  And on a philosophical level I don’t have a problem with George’s thesis that valuing nature in terms of money is fundamentally wrong; it is wrong, but it’s also the best wrong strategy amongst a whole set of strategies for biodiversity conservation.  Before I explain why, I should also say that I don’t think George argues his case very effectively.  He begins by setting up something of a journalistic straw man in his article by initially claiming that at “a cost of £100,000, [the government] commissioned a research company to produce a total annual price for England’s ecosystems. After taking the money, the company reported….”.

George is presumably referring to the UK National Ecosystem Assessment which as its website clearly states: “was an inclusive process; many government, academic, NGO and private sector institutions helped to design the assessment, contribute information and analyses, review the preliminary findings, and promote the results.”

Not a “research company” then.

George Monbiot also misses the point that spiritual and cultural ecosystem services are explicitly valued within this framework, making a lie of his claim that in the future we won’t ” be able to argue that an ecosystem or a landscape should be protected because it affords us wonder and delight”.  Yes we can, it just so happens that the argument is being framed in economic terms.

Clearly George believes that valuation of ecosystem services is just some neoliberal government/big business conspiracy to rip off the public.  But that’s not its purpose, even if it may be one possible outcome, and one which we must guard against.  As environmentalist Tony Juniper recognises in a response to George Monbiot’s article,  ecosystem service valuation is a serious attempt to value something which has been dismissed by big business as valueless. Regardless of whether the actual monetary values are in any way accurate, it’s backed up by some very sound science and scientists, including some who have the kind of long term commitments to ecology that I discussed above.  Ecosystem services valuation is not perfect but it’s a way forward that should not be dismissed.  It’s an approach that we are using within the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area project that I’ve talked about previously, most recently with respect to the River Nene.

Those of us who have had an interest in environmentalism and ecology for many years have noticed a slow shift in public attitudes to “green” issues.  What was once the preserve of hippies and tree huggers is now mainstream.  Most people “get” that the environment is important, even if they can’t articulate what that importance is.  There are some, including those good folks currently climbing the Dark Mountain, who believe that despite this mainstreaming of environmentalism, we are still going to hell in a handcart and the future is bleak.  Perhaps we are and it is, I don’t know.  But the valuation of our natural capital and the ecosystem services it provides may be our last chance to save the natural world, including our society and our species.  You will note that I wrote “including” not “and”.  That’s important:  I don’t distinguish between the two because Homo sapiens is part of “nature” – we evolved within and are shaped by this biosphere and nothing that we do is therefore “unnatural”.  Some of our decisions and activities may be perverse and misguided and against the long term interests of both ourselves and the planet we inhabit.  But it’s not against nature.  How can we be against something of which we fundamentally are a part?  Understanding that we are saving ourselves by conserving the biosphere is a more humbling conclusion that any pretence that we have stewardship, or worse dominion, over “nature”.

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Filed under Book review, Dark Mountain Project, Ecosystem services, Nene Valley NIA

Flattery Gets You Nowhere (reduce, reuse, recycle part 1)

It was always my intention, when I began this blog, to use it as a vehicle to rework and reuse scraps of writing I’ve done over the years that had no real “official” outlet .  Hence the subtitle of this posting.  The following is a book review I wrote on the Amazon website in 2007, after I had read Christine Garwood’s book Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea.  It’s a really interesting and well written piece of science history that gives a perspective to science that goes far beyond the immediate topic area of cranky ideas.  I have to confess to a potential bias: the author is a friend of mine.  But that doesn’t make the review any less genuine: if I’d not enjoyed the book I’d have kept quiet!

The pathways through which the history of scientific progress can be mapped are strewn with the remains of overturned ideas and outdated pronouncements, some cranky and (with hindsight) nonsensical, others perfectly reasonable given the state of knowledge at the time. Newtonian physics, though sensible at the human scale, suddenly fails to convince at a subatomic level, not because of any failings on the part of Newton, but because technological and mathematical advances have allowed modern physicists to probe closer and deeper.

Similarly, in biology, many established taxonomic ideas concerning the evolutionary relationships between major groups of flowering plants, mammals and other large clades are, thanks to molecular phylogenetics, shown to be erroneous. And so science advances, from the clearly wrong to the (probably) correct, leaving in its wake the cast off ideas of previous generations.  Except sometimes, when science (or at least fringe perceptions of scientific understanding) takes a backwards stride of such length that one begins to question whether scientific “facts” mean the same thing to everyone.

The concept of the Flat Earth may be a unique example of how a fact (the globularity of the Earth) could be established very early in the development of the rational analysis of nature, only to be rejected by a minor, but vociferous, cohort of “true believers”.  As this fascinating book by Christine Garwood relates, observations by Aristotle confirmed the true shape of the world, and there were no serious challenges to this idea until the 19th century.  Mediaeval scholars accepted a spherical Earth (disc-shaped mappae mundi, I was interested to learn, were symbolic, not cartographic, in intention) and the fears raised by the prospect of Columbus plunging over the edge of the world were a nineteenth century fiction concocted by the author Washington Irving.

The emergence of Flat Earth views in Victorian England as a serious (at least to their promoters) attack on received scientific wisdom has to be seen as an unusual reverse in thinking, not least because the “Zetetic” Flat Earthers sought to use science against itself to accumulate evidence to support the idea of the Earth as a plane, not a planet. In this vivid and well researched account, Christine Garwood moves easily between historical scholarship and popular science to follow the development of Flat Earth thinking from its rejection by the Ancient Greeks through to its Victorian revival, when learned men as distinguished as Alfred Russell Wallace could be convinced to take part in parochial experiments along England’s canal system to try to prove that the Earth was a globe. Darwin, Huxley and others saw little value in rising to the Zetetics’ bait, and Wallace himself regretted his involvement in later years (but seems to have needed the cash at the time).

As the author demonstrates, the death of the early major movers in the sphere of Flat Earth promotion was followed by the emergence of other, equally committed and frequently just as eccentric personalities, until eventually popular support for the notion of a Flat Earth ebbed away with the first manned space flights, and the photographs and experiences which were returned to Earth. Flat Earthism did not entirely die, however, and no amount of “proof” could dissuade the opinion of zealots such as Samuel Shenton, founder of the International Flat Earth Research Society. Like fundamentalists of all persuasions, he had an answer for everything, however contrived and paranoid.

In Garwood’s thought provoking book our understanding of the development of fringe ideas in the history of science is advanced through an analysis of the primary sources relating to an intriguing subject. The book is scholarly but accessible, at once entertaining and authoritative, and also topical in the context of the increasingly widespread anti-evolutionary views promoted by some religious groups. Unsurprisingly Garwood finds parallels between Creationism and Flat Earth thinking, not least because until recently they were promoted by groups with similar world views and memberships.

Flat Earth ideas continued to be advanced in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as both an academic jest with serious anti-establishment overtones by the International Flat Earth Society of Canada, and as a continuation of Zetetic thinking by other groups. Currently these ideas are defunct and even the most literal of Biblical literalists reject the notion, making it unlikely to re-emerge. Even if it did, no modern scientist would risk credibility by debating it.

Creationism is a different matter entirely and some professional scientists (myself included) have opted to debate with Creationists despite the views of (amongst others) Steve Jones and Richard Dawkins that such exposure only provides oxygen for their cause. Unlike the Flat Earth theorists, however, anti-evolutionists are not simply going to fade away and their influence is now felt in American classrooms and textbooks. How should scientists respond? With reasoned arguments that convince the public and politicians (if not the fundamentalists, who can believe what the hell they like as far as we’re concerned) or by ignoring them and hoping they might disappear in their own infighting?

Both Flat Earthism and Creationism reflect wider social and attitudinal differences regarding the role of Homo sapiens in nature: as rapacious exploiter; or careful steward of the Earth; or as an ecosystem component in its own right. Science can provide data and theories and models, but it is up to individuals how they choose to interpret and act on such information, or whether they decide to deride or ignore it. Christine Garwood’s first book is a marvellous insight into just how deeply self-delusional beliefs can become embedded in the minds of intelligent, but blinkered, individuals, and it is hoped that her subsequent books examine these themes in more detail. Perhaps her successors 200 years in the future will be similarly taken to write about the incredulous movement that denied that Earth’s climate was changing and that the human species was fundamentally altering the biosphere through pollution and over-exploitation of resources, despite the weight of data. And let us hope that we still have a society that can appreciate the irony.

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Filed under Alfred Russel Wallace, Book review, Creationism, Evolution, History of science