Tag Archives: Science

Proposals to “sequence the DNA of all life on Earth” suffer from the same issues as “naming all the species”

Tanzania ichneumonid P1000757

There’s a short piece on the website of the journal Science this week entitled “Biologists propose to sequence the DNA of all life on Earth“.  I don’t propose to say much about it except to say to anyone interested: read that piece, then read my recent post entitled “The road to degradation: is ‘naming all the species’ achievable or even desirable?

In my view “naming all the species” and “sequencing the DNA of all life” suffer the same issues and flaws. At a time when research funding is becoming ever more difficult to obtain (in part because it’s becoming more concentrated on fewer institutions and individuals) such multi-billion dollar initiatives make great headlines, but are they value for money?

At the moment Science also has a series of stories on its conservation news web pages, and you can find others all over the web, that point to our inability to conserve even large, charismatic species such as elephants and the big cats, and how this in turn can impact on human survival and wellbeing.  Perhaps we should devote more funding and more research energy to fixing these issues before we attempt such large-scale projects?

As always, your opinions and comments are welcomed.

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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:

h-index-graph

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:

h-index-graph-mf

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.

 

 

 

 

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Insect pollinators boost the market price of holly and mistletoe: a new study just published

Holly and mistletoe 20161211_103252.png

Each year I’ve always added at least one Christmas-themed biodiversity post to the blog, for example: Thank the insects for Christmas, A Christmas vignette, and Six Kingdoms for Christmas.  That’s partly because I really like Christmas as a winter festival, with its folklore and customs.  But it’s also because these are a great vehicle to demonstrate how pervasive and important is natural capital and the ecosystem services it provides to society.

This year I’ve gone one stage further and actually published some Christmassy research to back up the blog post.  Now, in a new study published in the Journal of Pollination Ecology, we have shown how important insect pollinators are in determining the market value of two of the most emblematic of Christmas plants: holly (Ilex aquifolium) and mistletoe (Viscum album).  Here’s the full reference with a link to the paper itself, which is open access:

Ollerton, J., Rouquette, J.R. & Breeze, T.D. (2016) Insect pollinators boost the market price of culturally important crops: holly, mistletoe and the spirit of Christmas. Journal of Pollination Ecology 19: 93-97

Holly and mistletoe are two seasonal crops that play a culturally important role as symbols of Christmas across the world, though both also have pre-Christian pagan roots. Now for the first time the role of insect pollinators in determining the commercial value of these plants has been investigated, using sales records going back over the last eleven years from Britain’s largest annual auction of holly and mistletoe, held every year in Worcestershire.

Analysis of the sales records of Nick Champion Auctions in Tenbury Wells shows that insect pollination raises the sale price of these crops by on average two to three times. This is because holly and mistletoe with berries is more sought after than material without berries, with wholesale buyers paying higher prices at auction. These berries in turn are the result of pollination by insects such as flies and bees: both holly and mistletoe are 100% dependent on insect pollination due to their having separate male and female plants.

There is some annual variation to the prices, and in years where berries are scarce (possibly due to low insect numbers) the price difference can be four-fold.

Due to concerns about pollinator declines and food security there is huge interest in the role of bees and other insects in supporting agriculture, and how we can value that role. However we believe that this is the first study showing that insect pollinators play a large part in determining the value of culturally symbolic, non-food crops. Almost all of the economic valuations of insect pollination to agriculture have focused on food crops such as beans, apples, cocoa, coffee, and so forth. Very little is known about how the value of non-food crops (fibres, construction materials, pharmaceuticals, ornamentals, etc.) is enhanced by insect pollination. This is an area where much more research is required.

But in the mean time, where better to end than with a bit of seasonal John Clare?

The shepherd, now no more afraid,
Since custom doth the chance bestow,
Starts up to kiss the giggling maid
Beneath the branch of mistletoe
That ‘neath each cottage beam is seen,
With pearl-like berries shining gay;
The shadow still of what hath been,
Which fashion yearly fades away.

The Shepherd’s Calendar (1827)

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Ecosystem services, Hedgerows, Mutualism, Pollination, University of Northampton

Recent developments in pollinator conservation: IPBES, 10 Policies, pesticide conspiracies, and more

Bee on apple blossom - 1st May 2015

It’s been a busy week for anyone interested in pollinators and their conservation, lots of things happening that I thought I would summarise in a single post with links.

First of all IPBES (the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) has finally released the full text of its Thematic Assessment on Pollinators, Pollination and Food Production  – nine months after it was discussed at the 4th IPBES Plenary Meeting, and three months after the Summary for Policymakers came out.  Even now the document is not in its ultimate state, it’s the text without its final layout or appendices (though it still runs to 868 pages!)  The preamble to the report states that:  “A full laid out colour version, including a preface and annexes will be posted here shortly”.

Sources tell me that there have been some delays while the exact style and colour scheme of the report are finalised, which, if true, is frankly not very encouraging : this is an important document that needed to made public at the earliest opportunity.  I accept that it’s got to be correct, and it’s a complex report, and this is not a criticism of the authors, rather of IPBES’s bureaucracy.  Pollination ecology and pollinator conservation is a fast moving field and there have already been significant scientific and policy developments since the text was finalised which will not be incorporated into this version.

To coincide with the release of the report comes two important articles in the two most prestigious scientific journals by some of the authors of the report.  In “Ten Policies for Pollinators” (Dicks et al. Science 354: 975-976) the authors set out a series of recommendations for politicians.  The article is paywalled so here’s their list with some annotations [in square brackets]:

1. Raise pesticide regulatory standards [to include our most important pollinators – wild bees and other insects!]
2. Promote integrated pest management (IPM) [rather than automatically feeding the profits of agrochemical companies].
3. Include indirect and sublethal effects in GM crop risk assessments.
4. Regulate movement of managed pollinators [lots of evidence that poor husbandry is a major cause of colony collapse disorder, for example].
5. Develop incentives, such as insurance schemes, to help farmers benefit from ecosystem services instead of agrochemicals.
6. Recognize pollination as an agricultural input in extension services.
7. Support diversified farming systems [does Brexit provide an opportunity to do this in the UK?]
8. Conserve and restore “green infrastructure” (a network of habitats that pollinators can move between) in agricultural and urban landscapes [already lots being done on this in urban areas but much less in rural areas].
9. Develop long-term monitoring of pollinators and pollination [there’s already been a report on this – expect more news early next year].
10. Fund participatory research on improving yields in organic, diversified, and ecologically intensified farming.

Overall it’s a sensible set of recommendations – the only ones that I would have added would be to develop education and awareness programmes of the importance of natural capital and ecosystem services, aimed at farmers, civil servants, politicians, planners, business and industry, developers, etc.  And also to build consideration of natural capital into local planning systems so that the loss of habitats, trees, ponds, etc. are properly accounted for.  I’m sure others can think of more – feel free to comment.

Getting politicians to take notice of these recommendations in an age where scientific experts are derided as no different to “soothsayers and astrologers” will be a challenge though.

Lead author Lynn Dicks discussed these recommendations on the BBC Radio 4 Farming Today programme (from about 3:27) – well worth a listen.

Following on from this some of the authors of the 10 recommendations article were also involved in a review published this week entitled “Safeguarding pollinators and their values to human well-being” (Potts et al. Nature) – hopefully that link will take you to the full text of the article which is being widely circulated for free in a read-only form (it can’t be downloaded unless you have an e-subscription to Nature).

On the subject of safeguarding pollinators (and specifically from pesticides) a video of Dave Goulson speaking at the 2015 National Honey Show appears to have been edited to remove his comments about neonicotinoid pesticides (about 34:08 to 34:28).  Dave’s not sure if this is conspiracy or cock-up, but it’s an odd coincidence that this is the only glitch in an otherwise well-produced video.

At about 39:20 Dave talks about the importance of engaging kids with nature and specifically pollinators.  I completely agree and last week did a live Q&A phone interview with Year 7 pupils at Abbeyfield School in Northampton who are doing a project on bees.   The kids asked some great questions and were very well informed – a credit to their teachers!

This week there was a lot of pollinator and pollination ecology being discussed at the Ecological Society of Australia’s annual conference – Manu Saunders has produced a Storify to summarise the talks and Twitter comments – here’s the link.

Linked to this, against my better judgement and as an experiment, I’ve finally joined Twitter.  It’s a bit of an experiment to see how I get on and so far I’m enjoying it, though I’m sticking to science and environmental news – my handle is @JeffOllerton if you want to follow or tweet at me.

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Ecosystem services, Honey bees, IPBES, Neonicotinoids, Pollination, Urban biodiversity

Engaging students with the fundamentals of biodiversity (2) – an assessed plant taxonomy questionnaire

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In my post last week I described “The Taxonomy of Gastronomy“, a first year undergraduate exercise aimed at giving students experience and confidence using scientific names for species, as well as providing an understanding of taxonomic hierarchies and food diversity.  The follow-up to this is an assessed questionnaire that focuses more deeply on plant taxonomy, phylogenetics, and human uses.  Here’s the text of the exercise [with a few annotations in square brackets for clarity]:

 

ENV1012 Biodiversity: an Introduction

Assessed Questionnaire

This exercise is assessed and is worth 25% of your final grade for this module.

The questionnaire is time constrained; you have two hours in which to complete it. Once completed, upload it to NILE using the Submit Your Work folder [NILE is our Blackboard e-learning platform]. Any questions, please ask or email me if I’m not in the room [email provided – the class is so large that I had to split it across two computer suites].

The Task

At the beginning of this session you will be given the name of a plant family.  Your job over the next two hours is to research that family and answer the questions below. Each of you will be researching a different plant family so by all means discuss what you are doing and collaborate, but everyone’s final answers will be different.

For this exercise focus on the following websites:

The Tree of Life Project: http://www.tolweb.org/tree/

Wikispecies: https://species.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page

Note that we don’t usually recommend Wikipedia as a source of information, but much of the taxonomic material on this site is quite good because it is produced and maintained by experts.

 

The Questions

Be accurate in your answers: you will lose marks for misspelled scientific names, genus and species names not italicised, appropriate use of capital initials, etc.

Do not copy and paste from websites – this will be spotted with the software that we use and your answers will be rejected.

 

  1. What is the scientific name of the plant family you are researching?
  1. Which botanist named the family? Hint – you will find an abbreviation of the name on the Wikipedia page.
  1. Does this family have a common name? If so, what is it? If not, say so.
  1. What is the distribution of the family, e.g. tropical or temperate, New World or Old World, global?
  1. Fill in this blanks on this taxonomic hierarchy:

Kingdom:  Plantae

Order:

Family:

Subfamilies (if present):

Tribes (if present):

 

  1. What is the estimated number of genera in the family?
  1. Provide the names of up to three of those genera:

a.

b.

c.

  1. What is the estimated number of species in the family?
  1. What mode(s) of pollination do species in this family possess (e.g. wind, animal, water)?
  1. Provide a short description of the human uses of this family (no more than 50 words):

 

Using the Tree of Life site, find and list:

  1. The sister family or families to your family (hint: it’s the family or families closest on the evolutionary tree).
  1. The first “containing group” for your family (may be an unranked, informal taxonomic level).
  1. The next “containing group”.
  1. Keep going until you get to the final “containing group” – where do you end up? [a slightly trick question – everyone ends up at the same place]
  1. State one surprising or unexpected thing that you have learned from doing this exercise (no more than 25 words).

 

My students have now completed this exercise and I was very pleased with the outcome: the average grade was around A-/B+ and no one failed (yet, there are still come non-submissions…).  The answers to question 15 were particularly interesting and included things like: “I had no idea that potatoes and chillies were closely related”, “amazed at the diversity of plants”, “didn’t realise that plants were so fascinating”.

The fact that students were able to do this in small groups, and discuss their findings, yet still produce largely unique answers, added a lot to the enjoyment of this exercise I think.  Certainly there was a buzz in the room while they were researching their answers.  It will be interesting to see what the module feedback is like at the end of term.

The grading criteria for this assessed questionnaire were fairly simple and straightforward:

  1. All questions answered.
  2. Answers are grammatically correct, with appropriate use of scientific conventions, e.g. underlined genus and species names, use of capitals, etc.
  3. Information presented is accurate

 

As always, feel free to comment, make suggestions, and point out errors and improvements.

 

 

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Have we broken the planet?

sea-ice-graph-november-2016

A graph showing this year’s figures for area of global sea ice, in comparison with the same data for the past c. 40 years, was widely shared on Twitter yesterday, resulting in a lot of discussion and consternation.  I’m not on Twitter (yet…) and picked this up from Terry McGlynn’s Facebook feed.  The graph shows an anomalously low extent of sea ice compared with what we would expect at this time of the year, in fact a drop of about 25%.

As you can see, something looks to be seriously wrong.  For more discussion about the graph, see this piece over at The Verge.

I’ve not discussed climate change much on this blog, it’s not my area of specialism and there are plenty of other good bloggers out there who are far more knowledgeable than I.  But graphs like this are hugely worrying because they not only suggest that aspects of our climate may be at a tipping point where they change from one state/predictable pattern to another.  That’s a concern on a global level, because it’s strong evidence for global warming.  However the reduction in sea ice also has huge implications for the biodiversity that depends upon the ice.

If I hear any more news on this I’ll post it, but in the meantime it’s worth pondering whether perhaps the UK’s signing up for the Paris Climate Agreement this week is a bit too late.  As my colleague Duncan McCollin put it: “we’ve broken the planet”.  I hope he’s wrong.

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Managing for Pollinators – a special issue of the Natural Areas Journal

Inula at Ravensthorpe 20160710_145426The October issue of the Natural Areas Journal is a special one devoted to the topic of “Managing for Pollinators”.  All of the papers have a North American focus but I think that they will be of general interest to anyone, anywhere in the world, who is concerned with how best to manage habitats for pollinators.  Here’s the contents page of the issue, copied and pasted from the site; I’m not sure if the full text links will work if you or your institution does not have full text access, but you should at least be able to view the abstracts:

Editorial: Pollinators are in Our Nature Full Access

Introduction by USFS Chief Tidwell – Pollinators and Pollination open access

pg(s) 361–361

Citation : Full Text : PDF (227 KB)

National Seed Strategy: Restoring Pollinator Habitat Begins with the Right Seed in the Right Place at the Right Time Full Access

Peggy Olwell and Lindsey Riibe
pg(s) 363–365

Citation : Full Text : PDF (1479 KB)

Hummingbird Conservation in Mexico: The Natural Protected Areas System Full Access

M.C. Arizmendi, H. Berlanga, C. Rodríguez-Flores, V. Vargas-Canales, L. Montes-Leyva and R. Lira
pg(s) 366–376

Abstract & References : Full Text : PDF (1302 KB)

Floral Guilds of Bees in Sagebrush Steppe: Comparing Bee Usage of Wildflowers Available for Postfire Restoration Full Access

James H. Cane and Byron Love
pg(s) 377–391

Abstract & References : Full Text : PDF (1500 KB)

The Role of Floral Density in Determining Bee Foraging Behavior: A Natural Experiment Full Access

Bethanne Bruninga-Socolar, Elizabeth E. Crone and Rachael Winfree
pg(s) 392–399

Abstract & References : Full Text : PDF (1219 KB)

Common Methods for Tallgrass Prairie Restoration and Their Potential Effects on Bee Diversity Full Access

Alexandra Harmon-Threatt and Kristen Chin
pg(s) 400–411

Abstract & References : Full Text : PDF (300 KB)

Status, Threats and Conservation Recommendations for Wild Bumble Bees (Bombus spp.) in Ontario, Canada: A Review for Policymakers and Practitioners Full Access

Sheila R. Colla
pg(s) 412–426

Abstract & References : Full Text : PDF (420 KB)

Conserving Pollinators in North American Forests: A Review Full Access

James L. Hanula, Michael D. Ulyshen and Scott Horn
pg(s) 427–439

Abstract & References : Full Text : PDF (1711 KB)

Dispersal Limitation, Climate Change, and Practical Tools for Butterfly Conservation in Intensively Used Landscapes Full Access

Laura E. Coristine, Peter Soroye, Rosana Nobre Soares, Cassandra Robillard and Jeremy T. Kerr
pg(s) 440–452

Abstract & References : Full Text : PDF (4647 KB) : Supplementary Materials

Revised State Wildlife Action Plans Offer New Opportunities for Pollinator Conservation in the USA Full Access

Jonathan R. Mawdsley and Mark Humpert
pg(s) 453–457

Abstract & References : Full Text : PDF (249 KB)

Diet Overlap of Mammalian Herbivores and Native Bees: Implications for Managing Co-occurring Grazers and Pollinators Full Access

Sandra J. DeBano, Samantha M. Roof, Mary M. Rowland and Lauren A. Smith
pg(s) 458–477

Abstract & References : Full Text : PDF (1537 KB)

The Role of Honey Bees as Pollinators in Natural Areas Full Access

Clare E. Aslan, Christina T. Liang, Ben Galindo, Hill Kimberly and Walter Topete
pg(s) 478–488

Abstract & References : Full Text : PDF (467 KB)

Food Chain Restoration for Pollinators: Regional Habitat Recovery Strategies Involving Protected Areas of the Southwest Full Access

Steve Buckley and Gary Paul Nabhan
pg(s) 489–497

Abstract & References : Full Text : PDF (732 KB)

Forbs: Foundation for Restoration of Monarch Butterflies, other Pollinators, and Greater Sage-Grouse in the Western United States Full Access

R. Kasten Dumroese, Tara Luna, Jeremiah R. Pinto and Thomas D. Landis
pg(s) 499–511

Abstract & References : Full Text : PDF (1716 KB)

Using Pollinator Seed Mixes in Landscape Restoration Boosts Bee Visitation and Reproduction in the Rare Local Endemic Santa Susana Tarweed,Deinandra minthornii Full Access

Mary B. Galea, Victoria Wojcik and Christopher Dunn
pg(s) 512–522

Abstract & References : Full Text : PDF (2880 KB)

Save Our Bats, Save Our Tequila: Industry and Science Join Forces to Help Bats and Agaves Full Access

Roberto-Emiliano Trejo-Salazar, Luis E. Eguiarte, David Suro-Piñera and Rodrigo A. Medellin
pg(s) 523–530

Abstract & References : Full Text : PDF (463 KB)

The Importance of Phenological Diversity in Seed Mixes for Pollinator Restoration Full Access

Kayri Havens and Pati Vitt
pg(s) 531–537

Abstract & References : Full Text : PDF (2208 KB) : Supplementary Materials

Stewardship in Action Full Access

Sarah Riehl
pg(s) 538–541

Citation : Full Text : PDF (595 KB)

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Engaging students with the fundamentals of biodiversity (1) – “The Taxonomy of Gastronomy”

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This term we have started refreshing and reformatting our first year undergraduate modules, partly in preparation for the move to our new Waterside Campus, but also because they were beginning to feel a bit tired and jaded.  We have begun with ENV1012  Biodiversity: an Introduction, a 20 CATS module which mainly services our BSc Environmental Science and BSc Biology programmes.

One of the changes has been to go from a “long-thin” delivery of 2 class hours per week over two terms, to a “short-fat” delivery of 4 hours per week in one term.  The advantages of this, we think, are two-fold: (1) it provides students with a richer, more immersive experience because they are not mind-flitting between different topics; (2) it frees up longer blocks of time for academic staff to focus on programme development, research activities, etc.

For now we have opted to deliver the 4 hours in a single session.  That’s quite a long time for the students (and staff) to be taught (teaching) but it’s punctuated by short breaks and includes a lot of practical work in the field, lab, and computer suite.

One of the aims of ENV1012  Biodiversity: an Introduction is to engage the students with the use of taxonomic names of species and higher groups, familiarise them with the principles of biological classification, why this is important (and why it underpins the rest of biology and much of the environmental sciences), and so forth.  Building confidence in how scientific names are used, and the diversity of species that all of us encounter on a day-to-day basis, are important aspects of this, and I developed a couple of new exercises that we are trialling this term which are focused on these areas.

The first one is called “The Taxonomy of Gastronomy” and was partly inspired by a conversation I had with Steve Heard when he posted about The Plant Gastrodiversity Game.  It works like this. I begin with an interactive lecture that sets out the basic ideas behind taxonomic classification and its importance.  After a short break the students then begin the hands-on part of the exercise.  Working in groups of three they use a work sheet that lists 10 culinary dishes, including:  fried cod, chips, and mushy peas; spotted dick; spaghetti bolognese; Thai green curry with tofu & okra; chocolate brownies, etc. (this can easily be varied and adapted according to needs).

The students’ first task is to find a recipe online for each dish.  For each biological ingredient in that dish, they list its common name and find its taxonomic family, genus, and species (italicising the latter two, as per taxonomic conventions).  I emphasise that it is important to be accurate with names as they will be doing something similar in a later assessed exercise.

This takes a couple of hours and then they feedback their results in a debriefing session, including finding out who had the longest list of species in a meal – the winner was 17 species in a moussaka recipe, with a Jamie Oliver fish and chips recipe coming a credible second with 12!  We also discuss particularly common taxa that turn up frequently, for example plant families such as Solanaceae – the relatedness of tomatoes, chillies, peppers, potatoes, and aubergine, the students found very intriguing.

By the end of this exercise the students will have gained familiarity with researching, understanding, handling, and writing scientific names of species and higher taxonomic groups.  In addition they will have a better understanding of the taxonomic diversity of organisms that we consume, and their relatedness.  It may also have encouraged them to try out some new recipes!

If anyone wishes to comment or add suggestions for improvements, please do.  If you’d like to try this yourself with your own students feel free to adapt it to your own needs, though an acknowledgement somewhere would be polite.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Personal biodiversity, University of Northampton

The Living Planet Report 2016 – taking stock with a student seminar

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This morning I started the first in a series of weekly two-hour seminar sessions with my final year undergraduate students on their Biodiversity and Conservation module.  By this stage in their BSc programme the students are being weaned off lectures and being encouraged to take a more critical perspective on the published scientific literature.  Each week we deal with a specific issue relating to biodiversity such as: measuring biodiversity; current trends; spatial patterns; biodiversity and  ecosystem services; and how much is there still to discover about biodiversity?

This morning we focused on the Living Planet Report 2016, the latest installment of an annual assessment of the rate and extent to which we are losing animals across the globe.  The report, which came out last month, generated a lot of media attention with headlines such as “World wildlife falls by 58% in 40 years” and “World on track to lose two-thirds of wild animals by 2020“.

As preparation for the seminar I asked the students to read the first chapter of the report and then during the session I divided them into groups of three in order to take stock* of the report and answer a series of questions such as:

What do you understand by the “Anthropocene”?

What do you understand by the “Living Planet Index” (LPI)?

How do the LPIs vary across the planet and across taxonomic groups?

What is the evidence base for these trends?

Which LPIs show the greatest declines and which LPIs show the least declines? Can you account for these patterns?

Which LPI trend do you consider to be the most worrying, and why?

By way of a counter-point to the media hype, and to consider one potential area of criticism of the report, I also ask the students to look at critiques written by Simon Leather (You don’t need charismatic megafauna to go on an exciting safari) and Ryan Clarke (What about the little things?).  In both of these posts the bloggers take the report to task by pointing out that it ignores the vast majority of animal life, i.e. invertebrates such as insects, crustaceans, and so forth.

Simon and Ryan have a valid point, of course, but the fact of the matter is that we simply don’t have the same quality of long-term population data for invertebrates as we do for  birds, mammals, fish, reptiles and amphibians.  The exception to that is the butterflies which the Living Planet Report does discuss, devoting a whole page to grassland butterflies.  It also states (p20) that “Methods to incorporate invertebrates and plants are now in development”.

Although the hype around the report is a bit over the top, nonetheless this focus on the best possible data sets does emphasise the fact that the world’s biodiversity is declining in species richness and abundance.  The final question I ask the students is whether, in their opinion, we on the verge of a “Sixth Mass Extinction” (as the report suggests).  A show of hands at the end showed that about half think “yes”, a quarter think “no”; and a quarter (myself included) said “we don’t know”.  It was a nice demonstration of the complexities around coming to any kind of consensus when it comes to reports such as this.

All-in-all it was a great session, the students really engaged with it and raised some very interesting points.  I’m looking forward to the rest of these seminars, they promise to be very stimulating.

 

 

*Before anyone comments, yes, I know that the photo shows a pillory not a set of stocks.  But we don’t have a set of stocks at the university, only a pillory.  Exactly why we have a pillory on campus is another matter…..

 

 

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Filed under Biodiversity, University of Northampton

Scientist as Poet as Scientist – from Dark Mountain 10

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What follows is the text from an article that has just been published in Dark Mountain issue 10. Click on that link and you can read more extracts from this volume of poetry, prose, and illustration, and even purchase a copy.  Dark Mountain 10 focuses on “poetics”, hence the title and topic of my contribution.

The Dark Mountain project is a fascinating, vibrant, loose network of writers, thinkers, musicians and artists, whose work and ideas I’ve discussed previously (see:  Up a mountain darkly and We are so very ‘umble).  It’s a great achievement that they (we) have made it to ten issues; here’s to the next 10.

 

Poet as Scientist as Poet

For as long as I can recall I have been a scientist. Early memories as a child include turning over rocks and probing under bushes in search of elusive insects, dissecting knowledge from road kill, and splitting it from fossil-rich shale. But also, for as many years as I can remember, I have created poetry. Sometimes this has been permanent written text, other times only thoughts and fragments, committed to temporary memory and ultimately lost like the bugs I studied in jars and released back into the wild. Over time the science has become public-facing as hobbies were turned into a career. The poetry remained turned inward, written for myself, only occasionally on show to lovers or to audiences at local spoken-word events.

Perhaps the idea of scientist as poet is too contradictory to bear serious scrutiny, but both of these aspects of my life relate to a deep, enquiring curiosity that has always been present. Both reflect a need to understand something of this complex, confusing world we inhabit, and the place of people and their relationships with one another, and with the environment in a wider, encompassing nature.

In the first volume of Dark Mountain I stepped out as a scientist-poet and contributed an essay-with-poetry entitled ‘W(h)ither Science?’, which was a very personal take on the role of scientists, and the knowledge they generate, in the early 21st century. This piece was framed within the context of Uncivilised ideas of ‘what happens when it all goes wrong?’ I prefer to think of it as ‘if’ rather than ‘when’ because, as I originally put it, ‘knowledge is not predictable’. In other words, we don’t know what will happen in the future, so we can only prepare for a range of outcomes. If we take the best of the sciences and of the arts, and of the education they generate, perhaps we can survive as a species and as a set of communities.

Was that really only six years ago? So much has happened in the intervening period; the science has turned ever more outward, with more writing for scientific journals, magazines, my blog, and more presentations of the research undertaken by my group to other scientists, to policy makers and NGOs, and to the public. The poetry, meanwhile, has remained private, which led me to consider whether it was time to give up a little more. The two short poems in this essay were both written more than ten years ago, though they have been revised and polished periodically. Even as I began to construct this piece I was revising words and reconsidering sentence structure, much as I might revise the analysis of a data set or reconsider its interpretation when writing a scientific paper. One of the things I love about producing poetry is that its form is malleable, it’s never complete, I can change it when I wish. This malleability is also a feature of science: we revise our ideas when confronted with new evidence, rejecting previously supported hypotheses in favour of more accurate notions of the universe.

 

Chains of Copper, Locks of Lead

Mention a river:
I may have heard of it,
Or talked to a woman who has gazed at its bed.
Cage its waters, bind its banks,
With chains of copper, and locks of lead.

Ultimately bending to time, eroding
The surge and the volume sustaining, removing.

Weighed down, I lay down,
And the river unconscious
Passed over my body and on to the sea.
While my lover cast stones from the bank to the current.
The banks of my body, the river of me.

 

Due to their inherent chemical properties, both lead and copper are relatively ductile, weak metals: they cannot withstand the force of a river indefinitely. In the same way, no matter how much we believe we can tame rivers or seas or any other component of the natural world, ultimately the environment will prevail. It just takes time. We might canalise a river to prevent flooding or dam it to provide hydro-electricity, but not realise that in its untamed state the river is more valuable, as it provides food, allows travel, brings fertility to flood plains. What, then, does it mean to ‘know’ something about a river? Whose knowledge is more valuable, which expert do we trust? The internet is awash with information, but knowledge, first and second-hand, can both enlighten us and sometimes prevent us from really understanding.

 

Ordinary by Choice

She chose the route and chose her topics,
Modular waypoints across years of work.
Decisions based on the balance of a gyroscopic
Pursuit of life, work, and an honours degree.
Finally, she elected to be
Ordinary by choice.

 

A student who chooses not to complete a final year dissertation
module – and so graduate with Honours – but rather exit university with an Ordinary degree, is described as ‘Ordinary by choice’. The phrase strikes me as both poetic and prophetic. Could anyone choose to be ‘ordinary’, and even if they could, is such a thing desirable? Is the course of a simple, ordinary life preferable to one that is complex and extra-ordinary? Does anyone truly believe that their experience of our rich, intricate world, in which decisions are made about priorities and ‘balance of life’, is ordinary, no matter how they make a living or what they do to fill their days?

Education in its widest sense, both formal and informal, taught and autodidactic, is a constant and destinationless journey that takes us from ignorant to less-than-ignorant. It is no coincidence that we use the same word (‘course’) in education, and to describe a river, and a life. A river’s function, as far as people are concerned, depends on choices that we make as to its course and fate. But even without human intervention that course naturally shifts over time and its destination is not necessarily the sea: much depends on geological events and the resulting topography of the land, at time scales uncaptured by the course of an individual’s experience.

The scientific research that I undertake is an attempt to capture truths about the ecological functioning of our planet and how it underpins human societies, no matter how technological or industrialised. It takes collected, often hard-won, data, internally scrutinises it for meaning, and externalises the findings into tables, graphs and written texts, that may influence other scientists or emerge in government reports or policy documents. My poetry takes ideas, emotions, feelings, and projects that mix of internal and external worlds into forms that sometimes, but not always, make sense to me. Empirical truths and emotional truths are not the same thing, and in fact may be contradictory and counter-factual. But empirical rationalism and emotional construction can coexist, and often do within the minds and personalities of scientists. Most do not produce poetry, but every scientist I know is emotionally invested in their subject and openly describes their science in terms of delight, rage, obsession, elation and disappointment, every bit as intense as any poet.

 

The full reference for this is:

Ollerton, J. (2016) Scientist as Poet as Scientist  Dark Mountain 10: 185-189

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Filed under Biodiversity and culture, Dark Mountain Project, Poetry