Monthly Archives: January 2016

Ecosystem services survey – share your thoughts

Researchers at the University of the West of England (UWE) are carrying out a public survey on attitudes to the concept of ecosystem services, a subject that I’ve referred to many times on this blog, most recently last week.

The UWE researchers write:  “……give us your views on the term ‘ecosystem services’! Do you feel it is a valuable concept? How should it be used and communicated? Regardless of whether you work with the concept or not, we would like to hear your views. The survey closes 5th February 2016……survey takes 10 minutes or less!”

I’ve done is and they’re right, it’s very short, but well worth completing as it should generate some interesting data into how far the concept has penetrated into the public consciousness.  The link to the survey is:


Tight But Loose – just what is “biodiversity”?

Fleet photo 1

Ever since I set up the Biodiversity Blog in 2012 I’ve had it in mind to write a post asking the question “Just what is “biodiversity”?”, but have never quite got round to it, there’s been too many other interesting and important things to write about on here!  This week over at the Dynamic Ecology blog Brian McGill has beaten me to it with a really interesting post entitled:  Biodiversity and pizza – an extended analogy leading to a call for a more multidimensional treatment of nature.

I’m not entirely sure that the pizza analogy works, it’s a little tortuous, but none the less the post is provocative and interesting, and has generated a lot of comments.  I strongly recommend it.

In the interests of recycling, and because the readership of my blog only overlaps partially with that of Dynamic Ecology, thought I’d restate a few things that I brought up in the comments to Brian’s post (but this certainly won’t substitute for going over and reading it yourself”.

One of the questions that Brian asks is:  “Is biodiversity a useful term or has it outlived its usefulness?”  It’ll come as no surprise to readers that I like the word “biodiversity”: I used it for the title of my blog and for my professorship, because it captures a lot about what I value in the natural world, and because it’s a term that I’ve (professionally speaking) grown up with. To my mind it is an umbrella term that can mean different things to different people; some see this as a disadvantage but I think that, as long as we qualify precisely what we are referring to, using “biodiversity” in a loose way is not a problem. Perhaps an appropriate analogy is with politics: if someone describes themselves as a “conservative” or a “socialist” or a “liberal”, those terms cover huge internal variation and political scope, but it’s not a problem because it broadly describes the beliefs of that individual.

As an instance of when “biodiversity” may not be a useful concept for nature conservation, Brian gives an example of salt marsh, often areas with rather low species diversity, as being of low priority for conservation because they are poor in “biodiversity”.  But this ignores the fact that all of the “official” definitions of biodiversity explicitly include diversity of habitats/communities/ecosystems/biomes in a defined geographical area.  For example the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity defines it as:

“the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems.” [my emphasis]

Thus destroying an area of salt marsh may indeed result in few species being lost, but it would be a significant loss of biodiversity at that higher level of community/ecosystem, if a region has only salt marsh, woodland and grassland in it: in essence you’ve lost one third of your biodiversity because you’ve lost one third of your habitats.

Something that’s occurred to me over the last couple of days of reading comments and thinking about the questions that Brian posed is that “nature” and “biodiversity” are not actually synonymous at all. When people say they like “being in nature” or they “value contact with nature”, what they are usually saying is that they enjoy landscapes, seascapes, changes in the weather, being out of doors, etc., things which are not strictly part of what we understand as “biodiversity”.

Likewise, “protecting the environment” includes a whole set of non-biodiversity related questions and actions such as air and water quality, wastes management, sustainable use of resources, etc., much of which may not directly affect biodiversity at all.

“Biodiversity” has a specific meaning, as the definition above shows, even though that meaning can be broadly defined. Which sounds like a contradiction, but it’s not – and brought to mind the title of the Led Zeppelin fanzine: “Tight But Loose”*.  Biodiversity as a concept and as a field of research and action involves so many different types of stakeholder (ecologist, botanist, zoologist, artist, conservationist, activist) that (as I said) it provides a useful (loose) umbrella.  Problems only occur when people use different tight definitions and talk past one another.

The other aspect to Brian’s post is around the pros and cons of valuing ecosystem services, which is a much bigger argument in some ways, and I’m going to point readers to two blog posts, one recently from Steve Heard which I think is a very nice, concrete example that captures a lot of the uncertainties that Brian describes:

The second is one of mine from last July related to the value of valuing nature, which was prompted by the Costanza et al. update paper:

These are fascinating discussions that will run and run, I have no doubt.


*I’m fond of bringing musical examples into these blog posts 🙂


Nature Improvement Area final report published today by Defra

As regular readers of the blog will be aware, over the past three years my research group has been involved as a lead partner in the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area (NIA) project, one of 12 NIA schemes across England.  I’ve posted regular updates on the the Nene Valley NIA, for example see my posts entitled Angry Birds! (and startled bees), To Dream a River, and Biodiversity conservation pays its way.

Although our group still has work to do on writing up the results for our ecosystem services assessment of the Nene Valley, the NIA scheme has formally ended, and today Defra has issued a final NIA Monitoring and Evaluation Report, plus an accompanying press release.  Defra (and the government) judges the NIA scheme to be a resounding success and I have to agree with them.  To quote from the press release and from the final report:

  • Nearly 20,000 hectares of natural habitat – the equivalent of almost 23,000 football pitches – has been created, restored or preserved across England.
  • The Nature Improvement Areas have also helped people reconnect with nature, with volunteers contributing over 47,000 days, school children earning their green fingers by planting trees, and communities getting involved in decision making.
  • The NIA partnerships mobilised resources with an equivalent value of £26.2 million (including the financial value of volunteer time and services in-kind) in addition to the initial government grant funding. Of this total, £15.3 million was from non-public sources (e.g. private sector and nongovernmental organisations).
  • Learnings from the Nature Improvement Areas will now help to inform Defra’s 25 year plan for action on the environment which will be published later in the year as part of a comprehensive, long-term vision to protect the country’s natural heritage.

This last point is a critical one; much was achieved with the government’s initial investment of £7.5 million over three years.  Continuation of this type of funding, for the original 12 NIAs and additional projects, would achieve so much more, especially if it was tied in with upland and river restoration projects that focused on natural flood defences (which we know will work).  The potential savings from such investment could run into 100s of millions of pounds.  Let’s hope Defra has the strategic vision to make this happen.

Advice for senior scientists and the importance of first-author publications

The internet is awash with bloggers and dedicated sites giving advice to early-career scientists and graduate research students (what I’ll collectively refer to as ECRs).  Much of it is very good (see for example The Thesis Whisperer, any number of posts over at Dynamic Ecology and Small Pond Science, and the University of Northampton’s own Research Support Hub), though sometimes it’s contradictory and comes down to matters of taste and opinion (see for example the differing comments on a post of mine about giving effective conference presentations).

There are also any number of books, including Peter Medawar’s Advice to a Young Scientist and James Watson’s Avoid Boring People (hopefully to be followed up with a sequel entitled Avoid Alienating People With Crass Statements)*.

But there is very little guidance and advice out there for more senior scientists who are mid- to late-career.  I did a quick search and found only one article that mentioned this topic, specifically about mid-career mentoring, and that was from 2012.

Why is this?  Is it because (as I suspect) more senior scientists are assumed to have their careers sorted out, they “know the ropes”, they are networked and publish, and have only a bright sunny future in academia to look forward to?  Clearly this is nonsense; as that article I linked to stated:

Do complicated career issues evaporate after tenure** and/or do we all magically know how to deal with everything that academe throws at us? No, and no

So I’d be interested in hearing any bits of advice or guidance, or links to useful resources, and would encourage new posts by other bloggers, related specifically to more senior scientists in academia.  To get the ball rolling, my contribution would be: make sure you keep publishing as a first-author (and preferably single-author) throughout your career.

In academia it’s easy to get lost as to what it actually is to be a scientist (idea generator/data collector/analyser/writer) in amongst all of the other requirements and pressures of the job at a senior level (grant writing/committee memberships/teaching/administration and paperwork/manuscript and grant reviewing/editorial duties/ECR supervision and line management/external meetings and advisory groups/etc.)

As a senior scientist it’s possible to publish good papers frequently as last author (indicating seniority as head of the research group and/or ECR supervisor), and as mid author in amongst tens or hundreds of other scientists with whom you are collaborating on some level.  In these papers other people are conducting the bulk of the “science”, and that’s fine, I publish in both of these ways myself.  But the question then arises, that if this is all that a senior scientist is currently doing, have they lost something of themselves as scientists?  Have they become something more akin to a science-manager than a “real” scientist (whatever that actually means)?

Personally, I try to publish at least one first-author output (not necessarily a peer-reviewed paper, could be a commentary or a popular article) each year, and have succeeded in most years.  I believe (though I may be fooling myself) that it keeps me in touch with what it is to be a scientist and why I became one in the first place.  For reasons I can’t fully articulate it feels important to me to be involved in research and writing in which I do the bulk of the data collection, analysis, and/or writing myself, and to see an output through the editorial process from manuscript preparation to submission, dealing with reviewers’ comments, and to final publication.

Is this a reasonable goal/expectation for a senior scientist?  It’s important for me but I can well understand that other scientists will have other priorities, different things that they focus on.

Coincidentally, as I was finishing off writing this post, Dr Kath Baldock drew my attention to this short piece by Kaushal et al. entitled Avoiding an Ecological Midlife Crisis that’s just been published in the January issue of the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America.  Although specifically focused on professional ecologists, their advice to “nurture the original connection to nature” will surely resonate with scientists from all fields if we substitute “nature” for other, discipline-specific words and phrases.


*This is all very positive and as it should be: ECRs need advice and guidance as to how to navigate their profession, and that needs to come from multiple sources because sometimes (often?) their own institution doesn’t give adequate guidance.  However I do have some misgivings about more senior scientists advising their more junior colleagues based on their own experiences: the world of academia is a fasting-moving place and what applied to a previous generation may not necessarily apply to the current one.

**It’s an American article: British universities don’t even know how to spell “tenure”.

SCAPE 2016 – the 30th anniversary meeting

SCAPE logo
As regular readers of this blog are aware, the annual SCAPE conference is one of my favourite scientific meetings, and for the last few years I’ve published live blogs of the conference as it happens (for example, here, here, here).  SCAPE 2016 will be a very special one – it’s the 30th anniversary of the meeting – and is taking place in a very special place.  Initial details have recently been circulated by Professor Jon Ågren (Uppsala University) on behalf of the organising committee, as follows:
The meeting will take place at Abisko, northernmost Sweden 13-16 October. More information will be published in late spring, but mark these days in your calendar already now!
Information about the premises of the meeting:
Some info about Abisko National Park:
And about the nearby Abisko Scientific Research Station:
 Anyone wishing to receive the next SCAPE circular, send an email to Jon:

Biodiversity rocks: a spider named in honour David Bowie, and a worm for Lemmy

With the death of David Bowie yesterday the world of music and art and fashion lost a cultural icon.  As well as remembering his incredible music and ground-breaking visual and social statements, the great man is immortalised in the name of a huntsman spider: Heteropoda davidbowie.  

I’ve not seen the original paper that named it, but it was presumably because the bright orange hair that covers the spider’s body reminded the author of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust period in the early 70s, and the name of Ziggy’s band – The Spiders From Mars.

That other recently deceased rock icon, Lemmy Kilmister, also has a species named for him – an extinct polychaete worm called Kalloprion kilmisteri – apparently named “in honor of Lemmy of Motörhead, for musical inspiration during the course of [studying the fossil]”.

I’ll miss them both: biodiversity rocks!


With thanks to my friend and colleague Professor Stewart Thompson for bringing the spider to my attention. 

Protecting an ecosystem service: approaches to understanding and mitigating threats to wild insect pollinators

Bee on apple blossom 2 - 1st May 2015Back in April 2015 I attended a two day meeting at Imperial College’s Silwood Park campus to discuss initial project ideas to address evidence gaps in the recent National Pollinator Strategy.  I mentioned the meeting in passing in a post at the time concerned with whether biodiversity scientists should also be campaigners, but didn’t say a lot about what conclusions we came to and what the next steps would be because at the time I was unclear on both of those counts: it was a very wide ranging meeting with a lot of participants coming at the question of pollinator conservation from different perspectives.  As well as academics there were representatives from the agrochemical industry, government research organisations, and  the National Farmers Union.

During summer 2015 one of the conveners of the meeting, Dr Richard Gillherded cats organised colleagues, pulled together all of the text and ideas that were generated, and took on the task of seeing a summary of the meeting through from initial draft to publication.  It was a monumental effort, involving 27 authors and 86 manuscript pages, and Richard did a sterling job.  Entitled “Protecting an ecosystem service: approaches to understanding and mitigating threats to wild insect pollinators” it will appear as a chapter in the next volume of Advances in Ecological Researchwhich should be published later this month.

The abstract and contents for the chapter are below; if anyone wants a copy of the full chapter, please let me know.


Insect pollination constitutes an ecosystem service of global importance, providing significant economic and aesthetic benefits as well as cultural value to human society, alongside vital ecological processes in terrestrial ecosystems. It is therefore important to understand how insect pollinator populations and communities respond to rapidly changing environments if we are to maintain healthy and effective pollinator services. This paper considers the importance of conserving pollinator diversity to maintain a suite of functional traits to provide a diverse set of pollinator services. We explore how we can better understand and mitigate the factors that threaten insect pollinator richness, placing our discussion within the context of populations in predominantly agricultural landscapes in addition to urban environments. We highlight a selection of important evidence gaps, with a number of complementary research steps that can be taken to better understand: i) the stability of pollinator communities in different landscapes in order to provide diverse pollinator services; ii) how we can study the drivers of population change to mitigate the effects and support stable sources of pollinator services; and, iii) how we can manage habitats in complex landscapes to support insect pollinators and provide sustainable pollinator services for the
future. We advocate a collaborative effort to gain higher quality abundance data to understand the stability of pollinator populations and predict future trends. In addition, for effective mitigation strategies to be adopted, researchers need to conduct rigorous field- testing of outcomes under different landscape settings, acknowledge the needs of end-users when developing research proposals and consider effective methods of knowledge transfer to ensure effective uptake of actions.

1. Importance of Insect Pollination
1.1 Providing an Ecosystem Service
1.2 Brief Introduction to Pollination Ecology and the Importance of Wild
2. Major Threats to the Pollination Service Provided by Insects
3. Steps in the Right Direction to Protect Insect Pollinator Services: Policy Actions
4. Understanding and Mitigating Specific Threats to Wild Insect Pollinators to Protect Pollinator Services
4.1 Understanding the Stability of Insect Pollinator Communities
4.2 Using Molecular Approaches to Monitor Insect Pollinators
4.3 How Do Parasites Shape Wild Insect Pollinator Populations?
4.4 Understanding Insect Pollinator Population Responses to Resource Availability
4.5 Engineering Flowering Field Margins as Habitats to Attract Insect Pollinators
4.6 How Might We Improve the Wider Countryside to Support Insect Pollinators
4.7 Insect Pollinators in Urban Areas
5. Considerations When Developing Future Research and Mitigation Strategies

Building a blog readership takes time revisited; and seven good reasons for academic blogging

Almost 12 months ago I wrote a post entitled “Building a blog readership takes time” and summarised how the audience for my own blog had increased slowly at first and then seemed to rapidly take off after about 18 months.  The post received a lot of interest and more comments/pingbacks than usual, including a comparison with the first year of posting by the Ülo Niinemets’ Lab blog.  So I thought I’d update the figure to look at what has happened in the intervening 11 months; here it is:

Blog stats - January 2016

As you can see the upward course of monthly views has continued, increasing from 1000-2000 on average in autumn/winter 2014 to 3000-4000 on average at the moment.  However the variance has also increased and over this time scale has become less predictable; for example, views for December 2015 were actually lower than for the same month in the previous year.  The >7000 views for August 2015 is clearly an outlier, an anomaly caused by a deliberately provocative post entitled “Who is feeding the honey bee bullshit machine?”  It will be interesting to see if this variability continues and I’ll report back in another year (!)

Meanwhile over at the Times Higher Prof. Pat Thomson from the School of Education at the University of Nottingham, has written a piece on “Seven reasons why blogging can make you a better academic writer“.  The seven reasons are:

Blogging can help you to establish writing as a routine*

Blogging allows you to experiment with your writing “voice”

Blogging helps you to get to the point

Blogging points you to your reader*

Blogging requires you to be concise*

Blogging allows you to experiment with forms of writing

Blogging helps you to become a more confident writer

Those I’ve marked with an asterisk* are the ones that chime most with my experience, but this is clearly very personal and it’s worth reading the whole piece for yourself.  Happy Blogging in 2016!