Category Archives: University of Northampton

Biodiversity, plant-pollinator interactions, and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

In the past couple of weeks I’ve delivered two presentations at virtual conferences. The first was at a Global Sustainability Summit run by Amity University, one of our partner institutions in India. The second was at the University of Northampton’s own internal research conference. Both of these focused on pollinators, as you might imagine, but they also referred to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 17 SDGs are being increasingly used as a framework for promoting the importance of biodiversity to human societies across the globe, and I’m seeing them referred to more and more often in studies and reports about pollinator conservation. That’s great, and I’m all in favour of the SDGs being promoted in this way. However I wanted to highlight a couple of aspects of the SDGs that I think are missing from recent discussions.

The first is that pollinators, and their interactions with plants, are often seen as contributing mainly to those SDGs that are directly related to agriculture and biodiversity. Here’s an example. Last week the European Commission’s Science for Environment Policy released a “Future Brief” report entitled: “Pollinators: importance for nature and human well-being, drivers of decline and the need for monitoring“. It’s a really interesting summary of current threats to pollinator populations, how we can monitor them, and why it’s important. I recommend you follow that link and take a look. However, in the section about relevant, global-level policies, the report highlights “the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – especially regarding food security (‘zero hunger’) and biodiversity (‘life on land’).

I think this is under-selling pollinators and pollination, and here’s why. First of all, as we pointed out in our 2011 paper “How many flowering plants are pollinated by animals?”, approaching 90% of terrestrial plants use insects and vertebrates as agents of their reproduction and hence their long-term survival. As we showed in that paper, and a follow up entitled “The macroecology of animal versus wind pollination: ecological factors are more important than historical climate stability“, the proportion of animal-pollinated plants in a community varies predictably with latitude, typically from 40 to 50 % in temperate areas up to 90 to 100% in tropical habitats. Now, flowering plants dominate most terrestrial habitats and form the basis of most terrestrial food chains. So the long-term viability and sustainability of much the Earth’s biodiversity can be linked back, directly or indirectly, to pollinators. That’s even true of coastal marine biomes, which receive a significant input of energy and nutrients from terrestrial habitats.

Biodiversity itself underpins, or directly or indirectly links to, most of the 17 SDGS; those that don’t have an obvious link have been faded out in this graphic:

The underpinning role of biodiversity, and in particular plant-pollinator interactions, on the SDGs needs to be stated more often and with greater emphasis than it is currently.

The second way in which I think that some writers and researchers in this area have misconstrued the SDGs is that they seem to think that it only applies to “developing” countries. But that’s certainly not the way that the UN intended them. ALL countries, everywhere, are (or should be) “developing” and trying to become more sustainable. To quote the UN’s SDG website:

“the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)….are an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership.”

and

“the SDGs are a call for action by all countries – poor, rich and middle-income – to promote prosperity while protecting the environment.”

I interpret this as meaning that “developed” countries need to consider their own future development, not that they only have to give a helping hand to “developing” countries (though that’s important too). Just to drive this home, here’s a recent case study by Elizabeth Nicholls, Dave Goulson and others that uses Brighton and Hove to show how small-scale urban food production can contribute to the SDGs. I like this because it goes beyond just considering the agricultural and food-related SDGs, and also because by any measure, Brighton and Hove is a fairly affluent part of England.

I’m going to be talking about all of this and discussing it with the audience during an online Cafe Scientifique on Thursday 25th June – details are here. I’m also going to be exploring more of these ideas in my forthcoming book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society, which is due for publication later this year. The manuscript is submitted and is about to be copy-edited. The PowerPoint slide which heads this post uses a graphic from that book that sums up how I feel about biodiversity, plant-pollinator interactions, and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Ecosystem services, IPBES, Pollination, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity

Digital resources for teaching biodiversity online: some ideas to steal

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As I mentioned in an earlier post this week, the University of Northampton is stopping all face-to-face teaching from Friday.  Other UK universities have already done that, more will surely follow.  Luckily we are close to the end of term and I only have a few teaching session left to deliver for my Biodiversity & Conservation class.  For one of these I’ve dusted off an old “virtual seminar” that I put together a few years ago when I had to miss another class (I think I was ill).  If anyone is in need of a teaching resource like this, you are most welcome to steal it.  It’s infinitely adaptable.  The range of digital resources can be changed to reflect different countries and languages.  Also, I’ve deliberately kept it broad in scope, but you could tailor it in multiple ways.

It could also be integrated into the two other taxonomy and biodiversity teaching sessions I’ve discussed in the past:

The Taxonomy of Gastronomy – https://jeffollerton.wordpress.com/2016/11/17/engaging-students-with-the-fundamentals-of-biodiversity-1-the-taxonomy-of-gastronomy/

An Assessed Plant Taxonomy Questionnaire – https://jeffollerton.wordpress.com/2016/11/22/engaging-students-with-the-fundamentals-of-biodiversity-2-an-assessed-plant-taxonomy-questionnaire/

Again, feel free to steal these if they are useful

 

Here’s the text I send to students:

 

Digital resources for biodiversity: a virtual seminar

One of the great advances in understanding how biodiversity is distributed in time and space, and how it is changing, is the huge amount of digital resources (both raw data and data visualisation) that are available via the internet at no cost.  In this virtual seminar you will explore just a fraction of these resources; bear in mind that many more are available.

First of all, read this blog post about the definition of “biodiversity” and what it really means:

https://jeffollerton.wordpress.com/2016/01/22/tight-but-loose-just-what-is-biodiversity/

[Note: if that post isn’t suitable, you could point them to another definition, e.g. the Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biodiversity.]

Next, take a look at each of the digital resources for biodiversity listed below.  Spend some time exploring each website and the information that is available.  As you are doing so, consider this: do these digital resources provide data and information that corresponds with all aspects of biodiversity, as defined in that blog post and by your own understanding of the term?  If not, what’s missing, what else is required?  Do a web search and see if you can find resources to fill any gaps yourself.  [Note: at this point you could ask more specific questions about these resources and their usefulness for particular tasks or objectives, or set up a chat room in a VLE or similar to discuss issues raised].

Digital resources:

Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF)

https://www.gbif.org/

 

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Data Explorer

http://geodata.grid.unep.ch/

 

Interaction Web Database

https://www.nceas.ucsb.edu/interactionweb/

 

Kew Herbarium

http://apps.kew.org/herbcat/gotoHomePage.do

 

National Biodiversity Network (NBN) Atlas

https://nbnatlas.org/

 

Database of Insects and their Food Plants

http://www.brc.ac.uk/dbif/

 

Natural History Museum Data Portal

data.nhm.ac.uk/

 

British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Garden Birdwatch

https://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/gbw/results

 

British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Bird Trends

https://www.bto.org/about-birds/birdtrends/2019

 

Global Biotic Interactions (GloBI)

https://www.globalbioticinteractions.org/about.html

 

Global Invasive Species Database

http://www.iucngisd.org/gisd/

 

 

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Ecologists in a time of COVID-19

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Yesterday I was involved in what’s likely to be be my last face-to-face teaching and meetings from some weeks, possibly months.  In the morning my colleague Duncan McCollin and I watched our final year students take part in an assessed debate that pitted two sides against one another to argue whether or not Brexit will have a negative effect on biodiversity.  The students did very well, they had a great grasp of the issues and the facts and figures.  The end result was very much a draw:

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Teaching at the University of Northampton will go online from the end of the week and a field trip for our first year undergraduates that we had planned for this Thursday has been pulled.  Our annual Tenerife Field Course has also been cancelled: this will be the first year since 2003 that I have not visited the island and it’s going to leave a hole in my long-term data sets.  Perhaps the universe is telling me that it’s time to write them up for publication?

Last week I did a quick vox pop on Twitter to ask how COVID-19 has affected ecology field work at other universities:

The response was interesting and it’s clear that overseas field courses have been massively impacted.  Following the UK Government’s advice yesterday about limiting social contact it seems that local field work for student groups will also be affected.  Hopefully those undertaking individual field work, especially PhD and postdoctoral researchers, will still be able to carry out their data collection.  Do let me know in the comments if it’s affecting your work.

There were also some Twitter responses from professional ecological consultants pointing out that they may not be able to carry out surveys of sites for planning and development purposes.  This is yet another way in which COVID-19 is going to impact our economy.

Following the student debate, Duncan and I headed out to catch up with a meeting of the steering group of the Chequered Skipper Reintroduction Project   We missed the morning’s presentations but arrived in time for the lunch and a short field trip:

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The location of the reintroduction is still being kept secret, as is a second site where a further reintroduction of butterflies from the Belgium population is being considered.  However there was much discussion as to whether restrictions on travel means that this would have to be delayed until next year.

On the way to that site, during a 15 minute drive, we spotted seven red kites.  They are now so common that seeing these amazing birds hardly requires comment.  But we should never forget what an incredibly successful conservation story this has been.  To cap it all, when we arrived at the site I had the pleasure of meeting Karl Ivens, one of the main drivers behind the reintroduction of red kites to Northamptonshire. He now estimates the regional population to be a couple of thousand birds.  The guy deserves a statue, or at least a blue plaque on his house!

On the way home I was thinking about my next blog post and what to write, and whether or not to bring the pandemic into it.  There’s a lot of information, and misinformation, about COVID-19 online and I’m not qualified to add to that: I’m not an epidemiologist.  However I’d like to link to a few things I think are worth reading.

Over at the Dynamic Ecology blog, Brian McGill has posted an open thread on ecologists discussing the coronavirus pandemic.  There are some interesting contributions in the comments, particularly around the response of the UK Government to the crisis.  I was struck by Jeremy Fox’s comment that Britain has some brilliant epidemiological modelers and that “even if you don’t think much of Boris Johnson or his senior advisers, the modelers who are feeding them information and advice are intellectually honest, hardworking, care deeply about protecting the public, and are as good at their jobs as anybody in the world.”  As I pointed out in a reply, this is undoubtedly true, but a lot depends on whether the government is willing to implement that advice. And its track record so far is not inspiring: for years it ignored expert advice on the effects of badger culling on the spread of bovine TB and continued to kill badgers. It’s only just reversed that decision.  Let’s hope that they have learned from that experience.

I am also hoping that there will be at least one positive outcome from the current pandemic on top of recent extreme weather patterns linked to climate change (for example the drought and fires in Australia that I blogged about in January).  I hope that it serves to  remind the public, governments and large corporations just how dependent on the environment our society is.  Despite our advanced technologies, we are incredibly sensitive to disruptions in the natural world.  As this old piece from the New York Times points out: “most epidemics — AIDS, Ebola, West Nile, SARS, Lyme disease and hundreds more that have occurred over the last several decades — don’t just happen. They are a result of things people do to nature“.   That was in 2012, long before COVID-19 was discovered.  To update this, check out the Wildlife Conservation Society’s ongoing series of articles about the relationship between our destruction of natural habitats, the trade in illegally (and legally) hunted animals, and emerging diseases such as COVID-19.

I realise that I’m fortunate and that there’s a lot that I can do by working from home.  For the next few weeks I’ll be doing just that, supporting students online, completing grant and manuscript reviews, having Zoom/Skype meetings, and completing the book that I am writing.  Stay safe everyone.

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Filed under Australia, Biodiversity, Butterflies, Climate change, University of Northampton

Just published: Interactions between birds and flowers of Rhododendron spp., and their implications for mountain communities in Nepal – download it for free

Figure 3

Back in April I posted a series of reports on a student field trip that I was involved with in Nepal, supporting our University of Northampton partner college NAMI in Kathmandu; the first one is here.  During that trip, my NAMI colleagues and I made some interesting observations about the role of generalist passerine birds and specialist flower-feeding sunbirds as pollinators of rhododendrons in the Himalayas.  This was subsequently followed up with another set of observations in which I didn’t take part, and then written up as a short research note.  I’m pleased to say that it has now been published in the new, open-access journal Plants, People, Planet.  Here’s a link to the paper which you can download for free:

Ollerton J., Koju N.P., Maharjan S.R. & Bashyal B. (2019) Interactions between birds and flowers of Rhododendron spp., and their implications for mountain communities in Nepal. Plants, People, Planet 00:1–6. https ://doi.org/10.1002/ppp3.10091

The report really asks more questions than it answers.  It points out how important these rhododendron forests are for the people of Nepal but that we know virtually nothing about the pollination biology of the dominant trees and therefore the long-term persistence of Rhododendron species in the face of forest exploitation and climate change.  Our hope is that it stimulates both further research on the topic and increased awareness of how important it is to protect these habitats.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Birds, Climate change, Pollination, University of Northampton

Bound for the Great Southern Land

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Great Southern Land, in the sleeping sun
You walk alone with the ghost of time
They burned you black, black against the ground
And they make it work with rocks and sand

Great Southern Land by Icehouse

Today Karin and I are packing before heading to the airport for a flight tomorrow to Australia.  It will be Karin’s first trip to the Great Southern Land, and my second: I spent part of 1993 and 1994 there on a short postdoctoral research project.

We’ll be there for about two months. Karin will be writing (she’s working on a book and will be contributing further articles to Medium and other outlets).  I’ll be working with Angela Moles and Stephen Bonser at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) on an Australian Research Council-funded project looking at whether species interactions affect the invasibility of plants native to Europe that are running wild in Australia. So it’s test of the “enemy release hypothesis” (leaving behind the herbivores and parasites) but with the addition of a “making new friends” hypothesis, i.e. gaining pollinators and other mutualists. That grant, plus a Visiting Fellowship to UNSW, is funding the trip.

In a post back in May I mentioned the Australian PhD researcher, Zoe Xirocostas, who is also working on this project.  Zoe surveyed plant populations in the UK, Spain, France, Austria and Estonia over the summer. She is now back and in the middle of surveying in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania.

As well as that project I want to spend time finalising my forthcoming book, collecting some data on Apocynaceae pollination ecology (of course!) and do some community-level surveys of wind/animal pollination to add to a global data set I am compiling.  Karin and I are also running a workshop at UNSW on “Writing for non-academic audiences” and I’m also giving a research seminar there and at Western Sydney University.  In addition we are visiting friends and family over Christmas and the New Year.  We’re packing a lot into a trip of two months!  And of course work at the University of Northampton never goes away – I have project students and PhD researchers to advise and there’ll be the usual weekly blizzard of emails to clear…

Having not been back to Australia since 1994 it will be interesting to see how it’s changed – a lot drier and smokier I imagine…  I’ll be updating the blog as the work progresses; over and out until we land in Sydney.

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Filed under Apocynaceae, Australia, Biodiversity, University of Northampton

Two bee species new to science named in honour of pollination ecologists

New Eucera species

Last week the Israeli bee taxonomist Achik Dorchin published a new paper entitled “Taxonomic revision of the aequata-group of the subgenus Eucera s. str (Hymenoptera, Apidae, Eucerini)” .  The paper focuses on a little-known group of “longhorn” bees from the Eastern Mediterranean region, a part of the world with an extraordinarily high bee diversity.  In this taxonomic account, Achik has named two bees new to science in honour of two pollination biologists:

Eucera dafnii is named by Achik for Prof. Amots Dafni, whom he describes as his “teacher and friend…a pioneer pollination ecologist of the Mediterranean region, who has led the research project during which much of the type series was discovered”.  Amots is almost legendary in the field, he’s been conducting research on the flora, fauna, and pollination ecology of the region since the late 1960s, and remains a productive and influential scientist.

Eucera wattsi is named in honour of Dr Stella Watts, “a talented pollination ecologist, who collected much of the type series and contributed important floral observation and palynological data for this study”.  Stella completed her PhD at the University of Northampton in 2008, with a thesis on “Plant-flower visitor interactions in the Sacred Valley of Peru”, and then went on to do a post doc with Amots in Israel.

It’s fitting that these bees are named in their honour: congratulations Amots and Stella!

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The role of press freedom in protecting the environment

Ollerton et al Press freedom Figure 1

Recently I’ve been working with a couple of journalist colleagues at the University of Northampton on a short article exploring the relationship between press freedom and environmental protection in different countries.  That piece has just been published on the Democratic Audit website – here’s the link.

I think that the findings are really interesting, and timely in an age when press freedoms are being eroded and journalists physically attacked and even murdered.

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Celebrating the environmental and historical heritage of the Nene Valley

One of the great privileges of the job I have is working with individuals and organisations across all aspects of conservation and science; people who are asking the most fundamental of ecological or evolutionary questions, through to those addressing on-the-ground questions of habitat management and restoration.  One of my current roles is as a board member for Nenescape Landscape Partnership Scheme, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (2016-2021) and involving multiple Northamptonshire partners, with the University of Northampton acting as the Competent Authority for the financing of the scheme.  Our students and staff are also involved in various ways, volunteering their time and expertise.

Friday and Saturday this week was taken up representing the University and the Nenescape board at events that showcased Nenescape-funded projects.  First up was the East Northants Greenway project where we admired the new benches that had been installed, the clearance of rubbish along this former railway, tree planting, the All Aboard for Rushden Art Codes project, and a new mural, and chatted with local residents who seem to be very happy with the work that’s been done.  Then it was along to Rushden Transport Museum to look at the work that’s been done on the old railway goods shed.  On Saturday I was up at Ferry Meadows near Peterborough to try out the new boardwalk that has been installed and to see the restoration of Heron Meadow as a site for overwintering wild fowl and waders.  I now have temporary tattoos of pollinators…. Later in the afternoon I headed to Stanwick Lakes for a celebration of the new barn and heritage garden that’s been created as part of the Settlers of the Nene Valley project, complete with a Viking re-enactment group.  Here are some images from the two days:

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Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Nene Valley NIA, Nenescape, Northants LNP, University of Northampton

Chequered skippers are back: extinct English butterfly breeds for the first time in over 40 years!

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Last year I wrote about our involvement with the chequered skipper reintroduction project that’s happening in north Northamptonshire, and specifically the work of University of Northampton postgraduate researcher Jamie Wildman.  For the past month we’ve been sitting on some news that we were not allowed reveal: the reintroduction has been a success!  That is to say, adult butterflies emerged in May this year, having overwintered as pupae, and have been seen breeding in Rockingham Forest.  The secrecy was to prevent hordes of butterfly twitchers (buttwitchers?) descending on the site and possibly doing unintentional harm as they searched for the adults.  The population just isn’t large enough to be able to withstand that sort of pressure.

The BBC has run with the story this morning – here’s the link – and we have issued a piece via the university’s press team: the link to that is here.

In a time when the media is dominated by profoundly depressing stories about wildlife and the environment it’s great to be able to end the week with some positive news.  Here’s to the long-term success of this lovely little critter!

 

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Rediscovery of a plant species 170 years after it was lost from the Northamptonshire flora

 

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This past week I’ve been hosting a postgraduate researcher from the University of New South Wales in Australia.  Zoe Xirocostas has been recruited to work on a project on which I’m a collaborating with Prof. Angela Moles and Dr Stephen Bonser (University of New South Wales) and Dr Raghu Sathyamurthy (CSIRO).  It’s funded by the Australian Research Council and will run from 2019-2022.

Zoe’s PhD is about understanding the role of herbivores and pollinators in determining how plant species native to Europe have become invasive in Australia.  She arrived with a wish-list of species that she wants to study at sites in the UK (Northampton), Spain, Estonia, France and Austria, in order to compare them with populations in Australia.  One of those species was small-flowered catchfly (Silene gallica), a plant that I hadn’t seen in Northamptonshire.  The NBN Atlas account for the species shows almost no records for central England and when I checked the Northamptonshire Flora it stated that the species had last been recorded in the county in 1843.  Clearly this was not a plant we could study for this phase of the project.  Or so we thought.

By coincidence, the week of Zoe’s preliminary fieldwork coincided with two days of surveys of the University of Northampton’s new Waterside Campus by staff and students.  This is part of an ongoing project to understand how the development has affected local biodiversity.  Friday was to be the last spring bird survey of the season (see this recent post updating that project) and Thursday was to be devoted to plants and bees.

To help with this we had the assistance of two County Recorders: Ryan Clark for the bees and Brian Laney for the plants, both hugely knowledgeable and enthusiastic about Northamptonshire’s.  We started the surveys on an area of short-cropped, species-rich turf that is being maintained by a combination of rabbit and Canada goose grazing:

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In no time at all Brian had racked up dozens of plant species; it’s really a very rich site indeed.  Bees were fewer and further between, but after an hour we had a list of about 10 species, including one of my favourites, the ashy mining bee:

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Zoe and her field assistant Susmita were busy bagging flower heads for the pollination experiments when suddenly we heard an excited shout from Brian.  He had moved on to look at some plants that were coming up in a disturbed area of ground some distance away.  Unbelievably, Brian had found small-flowered catchfly!  More than 170 years after it had last been record in the county.  On our campus!  We rushed over to take a look, and there it was, near a path that Zoe and I had walked just a couple of days before and completely failed to spot it.  In our defence, although it is striking in close up (see the image at the top of this post) it hides itself very well among other plants:

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An amazing discovery!  But what is this plant doing here?  The answer is that small-flowered catchfly is an annual species of disturbed areas, it requires soil to be turned over in order to allow its seeds to germinate from the soil seed bank.  The construction work on the site has involved moving around hundreds of tons of soil and this has provided ideal conditions for the plant and for many others that are associated with this kind of habitat.  The challenge now will be to work with the university’s estates department to decide on a management plan that involves regular rotovating of that area.  That shouldn’t be too hard, they are as keen to maximise the biodiversity of the campus as we are.

The natural world is full of surprises, especially “lost” species turning up unexpectedly.  Soil seed banks for some species can be very persistent, with seeds remaining dormant for decades or even hundreds of years until conditions are right for germination.  It’s very satisfying to be present at just the right time to see it happen!

To finish here’s a shot of the survey team, minus one member (Vivienne) who had to leave early; from left to right – Ryan, me, Brian, Susmita Aown, Duncan McCollin, Zoe, Janet Jackson:

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity