Monthly Archives: June 2012

Scientists Must Write (and Speak and Listen and Review and Edit)

“Scientists Must Write” was the title of a book published back in the late 1970s by a former tutor of mine, Robert Barrass, at what was then Sunderland Polytechnic (now the University of Sunderland).  I had assumed the book was now a long gone publishing memory and no longer available.  But it turns out that Robert updated it in the early 2000s and it’s still in print.  Almost 30 years (30!) later I can clearly remember Robert impressing upon us the importance of good writing skills for scientists-in-training.  At the time I was as far from being a professional scientist as it’s possible to be and so didn’t fully grasp this, but nonetheless what he said chimed with my own notions that writing was important, even for a scientist.

Nowadays I realise that it’s not just the writing of standard, academic papers, book chapters and books which  is essential: writing of all kinds is a necessary facet of the life of a research active scientist.   This June sees the publication of two contrasting articles that illustrate this point.  The Royal Horticultural Society’s journal The Plantsman has published a piece entitled “The Importance of Native Pollinators“, whilst the historical journal Notes and Records of the Royal Society has published my paper on “John Tweedie and Charles Darwin in Buenos Aires“.  Neither of these is standard academic fare, at least for me.  The first is a popular article aimed largely at gardeners and others interested in understanding more about pollinator conservation.  The second, whilst academic and rigourously peer reviewed, is primarily historical rather than scientific.

Why am I writing popular conservation articles and historical papers?  Largely for different reasons, though they are linked by my overall fascination with biodiversity.  The Plantsman article is an example of taking ideas and findings from the LBRG‘s research and presenting it to a wider audience who might, at the least, find it interesting and hopefully useful.  One might describe it as “popular science” though I don’t really like the term: it suggests that it’s somehow different to “real” science, which is not the case: it’s really only the format of the presentation which is different.

The John Tweedie/Charles Darwin paper reflects my desire to understand where our scientific knowledge of biodiversity comes from.  As scientists and conservationists, we draw conclusions about species’ distributions, conservation threats, extinctions, and so forth, based on information from specimens that have been collected by people like Tweedie and Darwin, and curated at places such as Kew and the Natural History Museum.  By its nature it’s a historical process and historical research helps us to understand how we arrived at our current understanding.  The only reason we know that 23 species of bee have gone extinct in England since about 1800 for example, as I cite in my Plantsman article, is that over the past two centuries specimens and observations have been recorded and analysed.  This is an ongoing process, exemplified by the BWARS project mapping the spread of Bombus hypnorum   the most recent addition to the UK’s native bee list.

As well as writing we scientists gain much from listening to what others in our field have to say and a well attended, and very interesting, meeting in London last week launched the British Ecological Society’s Macroecology Special Interest Group .  The range of talks spanned community structure, interaction networks, ecosystem services, latitudinal gradients and disease biology, all at the large spatial and temporal macroecological scales covered by this subdiscipline of ecology.  Or is it really a multidisciplinary field, a merging of old fashioned biogeography with more modern ecological approaches?  Who knows, perhaps this is sterile semantics; as I mentioned to one of the organisers in the pub afterwards, “macroecology” seems to me to be more about a philosophy of approach rather than a field in itself.

Formal teaching has largely finished for the time being, so in addition to research activities and university administrative work, much of the remainder of the last couple of weeks seems to have been taken up with editorial and peer reviewing duties for journals, including PLoS ONE, for which I’m an academic editor. This can be time consuming and thankless, but is absolutely vital if the whole system of scientific publishing is not to grind to a halt.  Scientists must write, but that writing is supported by a body of individuals who act as peer reviewers, editors, proof readers, and so forth.  Collectively that eats up a lot of scientist-hours and is something we should never take for granted.

The Roof Tiles of Chirche (Darwin’s Unrequited Isle part 3)

Architectural analogies in evolution are not new.  The most famous (and, in its time, controversial) is perhaps Gould and Lewontin’s “Spandrels of San Marcos and the Panglossian Paradigm” in which these prominent evolutionary biologists suggested that some features of the biology of species were secondary “emergent” structures which formed from the conjunction of other, evolved characteristics.  That is to say these features are not evolved in their own right, they are simply by-products of the evolution of other factors.  In this respect they are like “spandrels” – the ornamented space between two structurally significant elements, for example the arches and the domed roof they uphold in the Basilica di San Marco in Rome.  Gould and Lewontin were following a metaphorical path that had been traversed by many major figures in evolutionary biology.  Most notably, Darwin used the notion of the architect, contrasting natural with artificial selection, in a number of his books, including “The variation of animals and plants under domestication”.

Another architectural analogy occurred to me over the past couple of weeks, time Karin and I have spent back in Tenerife pursuing field work funded by a small grant from the British Ecological Society.  We are staying in a cottage in the pretty village of Chirche in the west of the island.  The older properties, our rented castita included, are roofed with traditional, hand made rough clay tiles that are slim, curved and tapering towards one end.  Tiles are carefully laid curve up and curve downwards in alternating rows so as to both shield the building from the weather and to shed the rain from the roof in the channels formed by the up-curved rows.  These same tiles are used along the ridges of the roof, in contrast to roofing back in the UK where differently shaped tiles would serve for roof and ridge.  Not only that but the same basic curved and tapering form serves as a structural element for the tops of walls, as half pipes to direct the flow of water, and as building blocks for chimney stacks, etc.

It’s a wonderful example of economy of manufacture and purpose, using the same basic element to serve multiple functions.  What has this to do with biodiversity you ask?  It’s a fitting observation for this trip, in as much as we are studying flowers and their visitors.  Flowers are another great example of the economy of evolution: all of their basic elements (male stamens, female stigma style and ovary, petals and sepals) have evolved from the same basic botanical element – leaves.  If that seems unlikely take a look (a really close look) at some of the fancy, highly bred flowers for sale at your local garden centre or plant nursery.  Some will have leaf-like structures deep within the flower where genetic mutations have resulted in the expression of organs rather more like their ancestral form than like stamens or petals.

The purpose of returning to Tenerife is to collect more data as part of an on-going project I’ve been running within our undergraduate field course.  The Canary Wallflower (Erysimum scoparium) has flowers that change colour; they are pure white when they first open and from the second day onwards they darken to violet then ultimately purple, staying on the plant for up to 10 days.  At the same time the flowers stop producing nectar.  The pollinators learn to associate white flowers with more reward and focus their attention on the newly opened blossoms.  This is clearly an evolved strategy as it benefits the plant to have its most recent flowers preferentially visited, rather than the older flowers that have already received pollen.

In an earlier paper we demonstrated, by removing purple flowers from experimental plants, that these older flowers act as a long-to-medium range advertisement to pollinators (the plants look purple from a distance).  It’s a very intriguing system.  We now have about 10 years of data showing that the main pollinator is an endemic solitary bee (Anthophora alluadi).  But there seems to be some variation between years, with a wider range of different bee species present in years following very dry winters (such as this one) when there are fewer other plants in flower.  So the idea that we are testing is that the relative specialisation of the plant (i.e. how many pollinator species it has) is context dependent: in some years/sites it is a specialist, in others a generalist.

Biodiversity is not fixed in time or space.  It varies at all scales and, for this plant and its pollinators, the biodiversity of interactions between them is stable only over modest time periods.  Over the millions of years these plants and bees have existed in the Canarian archipelago, their exact roles within the system have probably varied enormously, like actors improvising their parts dependent on the whims of external forces, in this case weather conditions.  The roof tiles of Chirche saw little rainfall during the last winter; bad for the local farmers and the other people who depend on this rain.  But good for ecologists wishing to study how variation in climate can affect biodiversity.