A Christmas vignette (re-post from 2013)


First posted Christmas 2013, I thought it was worth re-posting as it’s as resonant this year as last.


This afternoon I booked half a day’s leave to go into Northampton town centre to pick up some final Christmas gifts.  A crowd of shoppers in Abington Street was eager to lay their hands on the freebies being distributed by that traditional Yuletide apparition, The Coca Cola holidaysarecomingholidaysarecoming Big American Truck.  As red and shiny as Rudolf’s nose, it was pedalling its cheap brand of Christmas sentimentality to a willing audience.  

Shopping completed and daylight fading fast, I headed back to the multi-storey car park, again passing the Coca Cola queues, skirting them, determined not to be sucked in.

The car park was cold and ugly, as they tend to be.  But on the second floor, level with the bare crown of a tree that emerges from an adjacent pub garden, a mother and her young son stood.  Hands full of shopping bags, they had paused to listen to a male blackbird singing as the dusk drew in.  As I passed I heard them chatting about its song: both agreed it was beautiful.

Driving out of the car park I wound down my window: the blackbird was still singing.

I could give a very academic spin to this tale and talk about the cultural and spiritual ecosystem services that are provided by such birds, which nourish us in ways that no amount of corporate marketing ever could.  But I shan’t: it was a perfect Christmas vignette and a perfect contrast to the earlier soulless commerciality.  And that’s sufficient.

15 thoughts on “A Christmas vignette (re-post from 2013)

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thanks Emily! Can’t believe it was 12 months ago that it happened, where does the time go? We were in the same car park this evening but no blackbird this time….

  1. standingoutinmyfield

    This is a probably very stupid question but I can’t even figure out where to start looking for the answer, so I thought I would see if you have any ideas…why are there more orders of plants than insects? In other words, why are there so many fine subdivisions of the plant taxonomic hierarchy relative to the insect taxonomic hierarchy and does this reflect meaningful biological details, or is it some sort of biological artefact of our identification and classification process? (For example, I have a dataset where there are 1,174 insect species and 455 plant species…representing 5 insect orders and 37 plant orders!) Any insight you might have would be greatly appreciated!!

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Hi there – it’s an interesting question and I don’t have a definitive answer, but I’d make a few observations that might help you.

      First of all, comparing “insects” and “plants” is not a comparison of the same taxonomic level: Plantae is a kingdom and Insecta is a class, so part of the answer may lie there. A comparison of Plantae with Animalia would be more apt. Even if by “plants” you mean “angiosperms”, the flowering plants still comprise a higher taxonomic rank.

      Secondly, the insects are a much more ancient group than the flowering plants and there are a large number of extinct orders. Perhaps if we added these to the extant orders we’d get a better idea of the true diversity? I don’t think there are any extinct orders of flowering plants, though I could be wrong and certainly some of the early, basal fossils are of uncertain position.

      Finally, yes, there could well be differences in the way that botanists and zoologists define their ranks. There must be papers published on this topic but I can’t recall having seen any.

      Hope this helps,

      Best wishes,


      1. standingoutinmyfield

        Oh you’re right. There are a million ways in which I should make that question more specific… I meant that in datasets of plant insect interactions, which involve flowering plants and flower visiting insects. The number of flowering plants with resources available to insects seems to span a much greater taxonomic hierarchy than the number of insects visiting plants. I’m wondering what this even means or if it is significant at all. From a network theoretic perspective, it could have a huge influence on the phylogenetic structuring of community based networks, but if there’s no biological meaning behind it, I should do something to control for the difference.

      2. jeffollerton Post author

        Yes, that’s a rather different issue relating to how you deal with such data rather than the reasons why taxonomic structures are different in insects versus plants. There are methods for taking phylogeny into account in network analyses though they are still in their infancy. And note that “taxonomy” may not equate with “phylogeny”, at least on the scale of family and below.

      3. standingoutinmyfield

        But is it really different? Or is there biological meaning to this trend? It’s not an issue of sampling because it’s pervasive in the plant pollinator network literature. Is the taxonomic diversity of entomophilous angiosperms higher than the taxonomic diversity of anthophilous insects? I recognize that taxonomy doesn’t equate with phylogeny…in this case, would using branch lengths reveal the plant and insect diversity to be equal? Thank you for your insights!

      4. jeffollerton Post author

        Yes, I think it’s different. Your original question was “why are there more orders of plants than insects?” and asking if this was just an artefact of how we do taxonomy or whether it was biologically relevant. Now the question seems to be “how should we deal with the greater taxonomic “breadth” in plant versus pollinator data sets”. Part of the answer to the latter is that a limited number of insect orders have evolved flower visiting as a way of obtaining resources.

        “Would using branch lengths reveal the plant and insect diversity to be equal?” – not in p-p data sets, given what I said above, but I’m not sure about if you include the whole of the insects.

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