Category Archives: History of science

Celebrating Conrad Gesner Day 2017 (and Spiral Sunday #27)!

Gessner house Zurich March 2008 018

Happy Conrad Gesner Day!  Who is he, you may ask?  And why does he have a day?  Conrad Gesner (sometimes spelled Konrad Gessner) was a Swiss naturalist and polymath, born on this day (26th March) in 1516; he lived much of his life in Zurich, where he died on 13 December 1565.  Gesner was an extremely important figure in Renaissance science and scholarship, and when I visited Zurich in 2008 to give a seminar at the university, a tour of the old town revealed a number of references to the great man, including the memorial stone above.

Gesner’s Historia animalium (“History of Animals”)  is considered one of the founding texts of modern zoology, and for that reason he is memorialised in the name Gesneria Hübner, 1825; this is a genus of moths in the family Crambidae.

However Gesner was also a botanist and wrote a couple of books on the subject, though his Historia plantarum was not published until two centuries after his death.  To celebrate Gesner’s botanical achievements Linnaeus erected the genus Gesneria L. for a group of flowering plants.  Sounds odd to have the same name for two very different types of organism, but this cross-kingdom duplication of genera is allowable under the various codes of taxonomic nomenclature.

Gesneria in turn is the type genus for the family Gesneriaceae.  It’s quite a big family (about 3,450 species in 152 genera) and is ecologically important in the tropics and subtropics, where species may be pollinated by insects and birds, and are often epiphytic on trees.  It’s not a particularly economically important family, though a number of genera are widely grown as ornamentals, and there are specialist gesneriad growers and collectors.  The more familiar plants include those mainstays of Mothering Sunday (which by coincidence is also today) African Violets (Saintpaulia), Cape Primroses (Streptocarpus) and gloxinias (Gloxinia):

Gloxinias 20170325_105735

As I was looking through my photographs from the trip to Zurich in 2008 I spotted the following image of some wrought ironwork from the old city which may well be contemporary with Gesner.  This seems a fitting way to celebrate both the great man and this week’s Spiral Sunday:

Spirals in Zurich March 2008 119.png Happy Birthday Dr Gesner!


Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Gardens, History of science, spirals

Dispelling the myth that orchid species usually only have a single pollinator

Orchids at Kew 2014-02-24 15.30.32

The idea that members of the plant family Orchidaceae (the orchids) “typically have exclusive relationships with their pollinators“, such that each orchid has only one pollinator, is a persistent one.  Recently I’ve encountered it on horticultural websites (follow that last link), in grant proposals, and on Wikipedia.

The problem is that it’s not true: it’s a myth that is perpetuated by people (often botanists or horticulturalists) who may know a lot about orchids but don’t know as much as they think they know about pollination ecology.

Orchids certainly have some fascinating and often quite intricate floral mechanisms to ensure pollination, but these have not necessarily evolved to attract and exploit just one species of pollinator.  Even in the case of sexually deceptive orchids that fool their (male) pollinating insects into believing that they are mating with a female of the same species, it is sometimes the case that more than one insect species is involved.  For example, in the well studied genus Ophrysflowers are pollinated by a narrow taxonomic range of pollinators, from a single species to up to five closely related species“.  As the authors of that last paper state, this is not the same as the mythological “extreme case of one orchid/one pollinator”.

Likewise different species of orchid bees may pollinate the same orchid flowers as they visit to collect scent compounds; for example in the Brazilian species Dichaea pendula, species from at least two different bee genera act as pollinators (Nunes et al. 2016).

The fact that “one orchid/one pollinator” is a myth is not new knowledge, it’s been widely discussed in the pollination ecology literature for decades.  For example, in our 1996 paper “Generalization in Pollination Systems, and Why it Matters” we showed data from the late 19th/early 20th centuries that clearly indicated a range of specialization in European orchids (follow that link and look at  Figure 3B).  Even earlier than this, in his 1992 paper “Trends in the pollination ecology of the Orchidaceae: evolution and systematics” Raymond Tremblay showed that only about 62% of species for which he could find data had a single pollinator, and that this varied considerably between different subfamilies of Orchidaceae, with some subfamilies being more specialized than others.

More recently, in a chapter in the 2006 book I co-edited with Nick Waser entitled “Geographical Variation in Diversity and Specificity of Pollination Systems” Steve Johnson, Andrew Hingston and myself looked at data from southern African compared to North American and European orchids; here’s the figure from that assessment:


Ollerton et al Figure 7 - JPEG

Orchids  are more specialized in southern Africa compared to Europe and North America (as are a number of other plant groups including the asclepiads, which we’re comparing them with here).  But even in southern Africa, only about 65% of the orchids studied have a single pollinator species.  It’s worth pointing out, though, that many of the species included in this analysis, and in Raymond Tremblay’s paper, have been studied only at single sites and often in single years, meaning that we have no idea if there is any spatio-temporal variation in the pollinators a particular orchid species exploits.

Why does this myth persist?  I think it’s for the same reason that myths are retold from generation to generation: they are great stories that fascinate the teller and the audience.  Indeed, orchids are very special plants with some amazing floral and vegetative adaptations, fascinating relationships with fungi, and incredible diversity.  But we don’t have to mythologise their relationships with their pollinators to try to make orchids more special than they already are.


Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, History of science, Pollination

Honey bee or honeybee; bumblebee or bumble bee?


Language is fascinating, particularly the way in which it changes over time to incorporate new words, or old words used differently.  In science this has important implications for understanding: semantics matter.  With this in mind I’ve been curious about the alternative ways in which authors write the informal names of species.  Scientific names (Genus species)  should be fairly stable in their spelling and presentation (though not always, especially in the older literature); but “common” names of species vary widely geographically and temporally.

Here’s an example using Google’s Ngram Viewer which is a useful tool for tracking changes in word use over time.  Different authors currently use the terms “honey bee” and “honeybee”, sometimes in the same publication.  But as the image above shows. historical analysis suggests that “honey bee” is the more traditional term, and that “honeybee” only came into common usage from the start of the 20th century, and by the late 1920s had taken over “honey bee”.

Likewise “bumblebee” and “bumble bee”; despite “bumble bee” having a much earlier usage, “bumblebee” has dominated since the late 19th century:

screen-shot-2017-02-28-at-10-16-51It’s interesting to speculate about what might have caused these shifts in use, and it’s possible that in these examples it was the publication of especially influential books that used one term over another and influenced subsequent writers.  Could make a good project for a student studying how use of language varies in different time periods.

For my own part I tend to prefer “honey bee” and “bumblebee”, but I can’t precisely articulate why; perhaps it’s because in Europe we talk about “the honey bee” as a single species (Apis mellifera) but not “the bumblebee” because there is usually more than one co-occurring Bombus species in a particular area.  Do others have a particular preference?


Filed under Bees, History of science, Honey bees

What’s the point of the h-index? UPDATED

UPDATE: I’ve increased the sample size of EEB scientists I used in the analysis.


Over at the Dynamic Ecology blog yesterday, Jeremy Fox posted an interesting analysis of which metrics correlate with the chances of early career researchers in ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB) gaining an interview for an academic post in North America.   Spoiler alert: none of them correlate, except the number of job applications you submit.

These metrics include number of papers published, number of first author papers, number of large (>$100,000) grants held, number of years post-doc, and h-index.  Nada, zilch, nothing, nowt is significantly correlated.  Which is good: as Jeremy (and the stream of commenters) discuss, it means that interview panels are looking roundly at individuals and what they can offer a university department, and not relying on (sometimes dubious) metrics.

Which brings us to the h-index….  Jeremy linked to an old post of mine called “How does a scientist’s h-index change over time?“, a piece that was far and away my most viewed post last year (and second-most viewed post in 2015).  This suggests that there’s still a huge “appetite” for the h-index, in terms of understanding what it is and how it can/should (or cannot/should not) be used.  Even before the Dynamic Ecology post came out I was planning to update it and give examples where I think it might be useful, so this seems like a good time to do that.

Opinions on the h-index vary hugely.  Some of the links in my original post were to writings by scientists who really like the idea of being able to use it to track the academic impact of an individual (or at least some measure of it).  Others despise it, and indeed all academic metrics, as pernicious and potentially dangerous to science – see David Colquhoun’s video on this topic, for instance.

I’m somewhere in the middle – I recognise the weaknesses of the h-index, but I also think that it’s measuring something, even if the something that it’s measuring may not be directly translatable into a measure of “quality” or “impact”, and especially not “employability” or “worthy of promotion” (and I would certainly never countenance using the h-index as a the sole measure of the latter two).

So when is the h-index useful?  Well one use is as a personal tracker of one’s own standing or contribution within a field, assessing the trajectory of a career, and perhaps gauging when it’s time to apply for promotion (at least in the UK system which is a less transparent process than in North America, or at least that’s my impression).  To illustrate this I’ve collated the h-indexes and years since first publication for 72 EEB scientists using Google Scholar (GS).  I used GS rather than Web of Science (WoS) as, although GS is less conservative, WoS seems to be becoming noticeably less accurate; for example it’s recently assigned to me chapters on which I was not an author but which are included in a book that I co-edited.  Another advantage of GS, of course, is that it’s publicly available and not pay walled.

It’s long been known that a scientist’s h-index should increase over their professional lives, and indeed that’s what we find if we plot number of years since first publication against an individual’s h-index:


It’s a fairly strong correlation, though with a lot of scatter (something Jeremy noted in his blog) and it suggests that EEB scholars accrue their h-index  at a rate of about 1.6 papers per year, on average, though with a big range (0.3 to 4.2 papers per year).  One (albeit fanciful*) way to think about this graph is that it’s analogous to a Hertzsprung–Russell (HR) diagram in astronomy, where, as they age, stars shift position predictably on a plot of colour versus magnitude.  In a similar way, as EEB scientists age professionally, their position on this plot moves in ways that may be predictable from their scientific output.

There’s a lot of structure in HR diagrams, including the famous Main Sequence, where most stars lie, as well as stellar evolutionary tracks for Giants, Super Giants, White Dwarfs, etc.  In this modest sample I think we’re starting to see similar structure, with individuals lying far above or below the “h-index Main Sequence”, indicating that they are accruing greater or fewer citations than might be expected.  UPDATE:  In particular, three individuals who are “Super Giants” (to use the astronomical terminology) and lie far above the Main Sequence.  Carlos Herrera makes an interesting point in the comments (below) about self-selection in GS which could mean that there are far fewer people with low h-indexes represented than we might expect.

One of the things that could be explored using these type of data is exactly why it is that this is happening: is it a question of where they are based, or their nationality, or where they publish, their sub-field, or what?  One easy analysis to do is to assess whether there is a difference between female and male scientists, as follows:


Previous research has suggested that women on average receive fewer citations for their papers than men (see this 2013 study in Nature for instance) and this graph gives some support to that idea, though I’ve not formally tested the difference between the two lines. What is also interesting is that the R-squared values are identical, indicating as much variation in female as male career trajectories, at least as measured in this way.

UPDATE:  These additional data suggest that the h-indexes of male and female researchers diverge over time, and that most of the difference is for mid to late career scientists.  It’s unclear to me why this might be the case, but we could speculate about factors such as career breaks to have children.  Note that I struggled to find female EEB scientists with an h-index larger than about 80 – if I’ve missed any please let me know.

The data set I used for this analysis is certainly not random and contains a lot of people I know personally or by reputation, so a larger, more systematic analysis could come to some rather different conclusions.  However I thought this was an interesting starting point and if anyone else wants to play with the data, you can download the anonymised spreadsheet here.


*I’m not at all convinced about this analogy myself and am happy for anyone to explain to me why it’s a very poor one 🙂  UPDATE:  Though Stephen Heard seems to like it.






Filed under Biodiversity, History of science

Elsevier successfully patents a common peer review process

As reported yesterday on Mike Taylor’s Sauropod Vertebra blog, who in turn picked up the story from the site, at the end of August the giant publisher Elsevier successfully patented what they see as a unique form of peer review: waterfall (or cascading as it’s long been known) peer review. This is described as “the transfer of submitted articles from one journal to another journal” owned by the same publisher.  And there’s nothing new about it, it’s been accepted practice for a number of publishers for years now.

If you want to look at the original U.S. patent, here’s a link to it.

I don’t often re-work the content of others’ blogs, but his is exceptional: the motivation for Elsevier’s actions seem dubious at best and it’s worth clicking through and reading those pieces in detail.  What is Elsevier thinking?

The timing of this one story is also interesting.  It’s as if the Gods of Publishing had actually read my last post about peer-reviewed versus non-peer-reviewed publishing, and decided to have some fun with us mere mortals…..


Filed under History of science

How many non-peer-reviewed publications should a scientist produce?

Peer-reviewed writing move science forwards; non-peer-reviewed writing moves science sideways.  

That’s my publication philosophy in one sentence.  In other words, when scientists write research papers and book chapters that are peer-reviewed, the underlying rationale is that we are adding to the sum total of human knowledge, providing insights into a topic, and moving a field forwards. When we write non-peer-reviewed articles we are generally writing about science for a broader audience, with little original content (though perhaps with some original ideas).  This moves concepts out of a narrow subject area and into the purview of wider society, which can be other scientists in different fields, or government agencies or policy makers, or the general public.

There can be exceptions to the rule, such as the IPBES pollinators and pollination report that I’ve been discussing this year. The report was widely peer-reviewed but is intended for a much broader audience than just scientists.  Conversely, non-peer-reviewed critiques and responses to published papers can clarify specific issues or challenge findings, which will certainly move science forward (or backwards into muddier waters, depending on how you view it).  However, in general, the principle stated above holds true.

This raises the (admittedly clunky) question I’ve posed in the title of this post: just how much non-peer-reviewed publication should a scientist who is an active researcher actually do?  How much time should they spend writing for that wider audience?

It’s a question that I’ve given some thought to over the 30 years1 that I’ve been writing and publishing articles and papers.  But a couple of posts on other blogs during the past week have crystalised these thoughts and inspired this post.  The first was Meghan Duffy’s piece on Formatting a CV for a faculty job application over at the Dynamic Ecology blog. There was some discussion about how to present different types of publications in the publication list, and notions of “sorting the wheat from the chaff” in that list, which seemed to refer to peer-reviewed versus non-peer-reviewed publications.

One of the problems that I and others see is that the distinction is not so clear cut and it’s possible to publish non-peer-reviewed articles in peer-reviewed journals.  For example the “commentary” and “news and views” type pieces in NatureScience, Current Biology, and other journals are generally not peer reviewed.  But I’d certainly not consider these to be “chaff”.  To reiterate my comment on Meghan’s post, all scientific communication is important.  As I’ve discussed in a few places on my blog (see here for example) and plenty of others have also talked about, scientists must write across a range of published formats if they are going to communicate their ideas effectively to a wider audience than just the scientists who are specifically interested in their topic.

Peer-reviewed publication is seen as the gold standard of science communication and it is clearly important (though historically it’s a relatively recent invention and scientific publications were not peer reviewed for most of the history of science).  So why, you may be asking, would scientists want to write for that wider audience?  One reason is the “Impact Agenda” on which, in Britain at least, there’s been a huge focus from the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the Research Councils. Grant awarding bodies and university recruitment panels will want to see that scientists are actively promoting their work beyond academia. That can be done in different ways (including blogging!) but articles in “popular” magazines certainly count.  I should stress though that this wider, societal impact (as opposed to academic impact, e.g. measures such as the h-index) is not about publishing popular articles, or blogging, or tweeting. Those activities can be part of the strategy towards impact but are not in themselves impactful – the REF would describe this as “Reach”2.

The second recent blog post that relates to the question of peer-reviewed versus non-peer-reviewed publications is Steve Heard’s piece at Scientistseessquirrel on why he thinks it’s still important to consider journal titles when deciding what to read.  He makes some important points about how the place of publication says a lot about the type of paper that one can expect to read based just on the title.  But the focus of Steve’s post is purely on peer-reviewed journals and (as I said above) it’s possible to publish non-peer-reviewed articles in those.  I think that it’s also worth noting that there are many opportunities for scientists to publish articles in non-peer-reviewed journals that have real value.  Deciding whether or not to do so, however, is a very personal decision.

Of the 96 publications on my publication list, 65 are peer-reviewed and 31 are not, which is a 68% rate of publishing peer-reviewed papers and book chapters.  Some of the peer-reviewed papers are fairly light weight and made no real (academic) impact following publication, and (conversely) some of the non-peer-reviewed articles have had much more influence. The non-peer-reviewed element includes those commentary-type pieces for Nature and Science that I mentioned, as well as book reviews, articles in specialist popular magazines such as New Scientist, Asklepios and The Plantsman, pieces for local and industry newsletters, and a couple of contributions to literary journal Dark Mountain that combine essay with poetry.  This is probably a more diverse mix than most scientists produce, but I’m proud of all of them and stand by them.

So back to my original question: is 68% a low rate of peer-reviewed publication?  Or reasonable?  I’m sure there are scientists out there with a 100% rate, who only ever publish peer-reviewed outputs.  Why is that?  Do they really attach no importance to non-peer-reviewed publications? I have no specific answer to the question in the title, but I’d be really interested in the comments of other scientists (and non-scientists) on this question.

I had to double check that, because it seems inconceivable, but yes, it’s 30 years this year. Gulp.

Impact is how society changes as a result of the research undertaken.  So, for ecologists, it could be how their research has been translated into active, on-the-ground changes (e.g. to management of nature reserves, or rare or exploited species), or how it’s been picked up by national and international policy documents and then influenced policies on specific issues (invasive species, pollinator conservation, etc.)


Filed under History of science, Poetry

When Charles collide: Darwin, Bradlaugh, and birth control for Darwin Day 2016


The town of Northampton celebrates a number of local heroes from sports, the arts, and even science.  These includ the footballer Walter Tull, the co-discover of the structure of DNA, Francis Crick, author Alan Moore, and former resident thespian Errol Flynn. I could go on, but in honour of Darwin Day 2016 I thought I’d focus on the great naturalist.

Darwin had several personal associations with Northampton and Northamptonshire. He was a corresponding member of the Northamptonshire Natural History Society, which is now one of the oldest surviving societies of its kind. Darwin also corresponded with Walter Drawbridge Crick a Northampton shoe manufacturer and amateur naturalist who was grandfather of Francis.

Further afield in Northamptonshire, Darwin had a number of friends and correspondents, including the Reverend John Downes, vicar of Horton & Piddington. By coincidence, the captain of the Beagle, Robert FitzRoy, lived in Northamptonshire for much of his early life.

A Darwin link to Northampton that’s not widely known about is the brief correspondence he engaged in with Charles Bradlaugh the radical reformer and MP for the town during the 1880s.  Bradlaugh is a real local hero, with a very prominent statue in the town, and a pub, a local country park, and one of the university’s student residences named after the great man.

On 5th June 1877 Bradlaugh wrote to Darwin asking for his support in a court case by appearing as a witness for the defence: Bradlaugh and his colleague Annie Besant were charged with obscenity for writing that promoted contraception.  Darwin replied the very next day and politely declined.

As far as I’m aware the texts of both letters have never been published in full, only snippets are available.  An extract of Darwin’s letter is given in Charles Bradlaugh: a record of his Life and Work, written by his daughter:

“I have been for many years much out of health, and have been forced to give up all society or public meetings; and it would be great suffering to me to be a witness in Court. It is, indeed, not improbable that I may be unable to attend. Therefore, I hope that, if in your power, you will excuse my attendance…. If it is not asking too great a favour, I should be greatly obliged if you would inform me what you decide, as apprehension of the coming exertion would prevent the rest which I require doing me much good”.

At the Darwin Correspondence Project, Darwin’s response is summarised as follows and gives a very different flavour to his reaction:

“[Darwin] would prefer not to be a witness in court. In any case CD’s opinion is strongly opposed to that [of Bradlaugh and Besant].  [Darwin] believes artificial checks to the natural rate of human increase are very undesirable and that the use of artificial means to prevent conception would soon destroy chastity and, ultimately, the family.”

Bradlaugh’s letter has only a very brief summary and I’ve not seen any direct quotes (though perhaps I’ve missed them?)

The correspondence, its historical context, and the subsequent trial have been written about several times (see for example Peart and Levy 2005 and Peart and Levy 2008) and there’s some more recent commentary on Dan All0sso’s blog.

All of this gives a fascinating insight into Darwin as a socially conservative member of the English upper middle class, despite the radical implications of his ideas about evolution.  Bradlaugh and Besant (both true radicals in all senses of the word) were found guilty, fined and sentenced to six months in prison, though following an appeal the conviction was later overturned due to a legal technicality.

Happy Darwin Day to my readers!




Filed under Charles Darwin, History of science, University of Northampton

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.



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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Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Book review, Gardens, History of science

Pollination syndromes: a brief update on recent developments, and news that Stefan Vogel has passed away

Bee on Salvia - OBG - November 2015

In a recent post I discussed the current debates about “pollination syndromes”, which I described as “sets of flower characteristics that have repeatedly evolved in different plant families due to the convergent selection pressures applied by some groups of pollinators”.

The authors of the Ecology Letters paper that I discussed (Rosas-Guerrero et al. 2014) have now replied to our original critique of their approach and you can read that reply (Aguilar et al. 2015) in Journal of Pollination Ecology by following this link.  Readers can make up their own minds as to whether the authors have responded adequately to our concerns, but I just briefly wanted to raise three points.

The first is that much of these authors’ response is focused on an earlier paper of ours (Ollerton et al. 2009) rather than on our critique per se.  Nick Waser, Mary Price and myself have therefore written a second response that deals with some of the misunderstandings apparent in that piece; it’s available to download here.

The second point relates to the existing literature on pollination syndromes and pollinator effectiveness used by Rosas-Guerrero et al. (2014); as we demonstrated in our critique this is clearly a biased data set that is skewed towards groups of plants with relatively large flowers, “interesting” pollination systems, and text book examples of classical pollination syndromes such as bird and bat pollination.  Researchers who study flowers and their pollinators choose their subjects based on a whole set of criteria, but random selection is not one of them.  However as far as we can judge, Aguilar et al. (2015) seem to be arguing that drawing strong, “universal” conclusions about syndromes from this highly biased data set is perfectly acceptable because of the statistical rigour of formal meta-analysis. I’d re-iterate our main point that no amount of statistical rigour and exhaustive literature searching can take into account inherent biases within the primary data (i.e. the literature itself).

Finally, Aguilar et al. (2015) claim that “human disturbance of natural habitats has caused disruptions in patterns of mutualistic interactions that may partly explain the presence of the diverse pollinator assemblages that are frequently found in pollination studies”.   It seems to us to be disingenuous to argue that pollination syndromes are universally valid and then to essentially concede that there are lots of wrong visitors (“secondary” pollinators), and to explain that with the idea that everything is disturbed in the Anthropocene.  If this is really the case then we probably need to throw out a lot of our understanding of evolutionary ecology as a whole, not just studies of plant-pollinator interactions.

Clearly we don’t accept this argument and in fact it has echoes of arguments that have been going on since the 19th century (Waser et al. 2011): more than 130 years ago the Darwinian biologist Hermann Muller was criticising Federico Delpino (one of the original architects of the idea of pollination syndromes) for ignoring the “wrong” flower visitors.  Interestingly, Delpino was a fundamentally a teleologist who saw purpose in nature, expressed through (as he perceived them) the highly ordered relationships between flowers and pollinators.

As we discuss in the Waser et al. (2011) paper, Stefan Vogel was another prominent pollination biologist, and advocate of the importance of pollination syndromes, who was also fundamentally teleological in his thinking.  I was sad to learn that Stefan passed away very recently, in what I believe is his 90th year.  I was fortunate enough to meet Stefan at a symposium in honour of his 80th birthday at the International Botanical Congress in Vienna in 2005.  He graciously signed my copy of The Role of Scent Glands in Pollination and said, with a twinkle in his eye, “you and I have probably got a lot to discuss”. Unfortunately we never got the opportunity, but later I dedicated our 2009 paper on Ceropegia pollination to him “in honour of his pioneering work on pollination” in the genus.  Stefan’s legacy of research, particularly in the tropical regions of South America, is a fitting tribute to his memory.

Pollination syndromes clearly continue to attract much interest in the scientific literature, and just this week I was intrigued to see a paper by John Benning showing that a species of Ericaceae that looks as though it “should” be pollinated by bees is actually moth pollinated.  No doubt the discussion of the evolutionary extent and predictability of pollination syndromes will continue for some time to come.


Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, History of science, Journal of Pollination Ecology, Pollination

Why do ecologists not become physicists?

There are a few examples of physicists moving fields into ecology, perhaps most notably Robert May, but I don’t know of any examples where ecologists have entered physics.  Are there any?

If not there may be a good reason for this, as Steve Heard’s post about his tongue-in-cheek Centrifugal Theory of Species Diversity, and the resulting discussion in the comments, indicates.

I’ll leave you to read it, only to note that if the Ollerton Modification of Heard’s Conjecture is ever shown to be correct, I want my share of the Nobel!


Filed under History of science