Monthly Archives: May 2016

Wild speculation: could the Bruniquel Cave Neanderthal structures represent a mammoth?

Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 12.27.37

As I’ve mentioned before (e.g. here and here) the field of human evolution is one that has long fascinated me and I could have quite easily been deflected into paleoanthropology as a profession had not the lure of plants and pollinators been stronger.  So I’ve followed with interest this week’s fascinating announcement of the ancient origins of some enigmatic structures found deep within a French cave complex.  The journal Nature published the research paper by Jaubert et al., and has produced a wonderful accompanying video that you can view here.

Something struck me as I watched this video for the 3rd or 4th time: the aerial view of the structures seen at about 48 seconds looks very like the head of a young mammoth, seen from the front, with the mounds representing the two eyes and the smaller circle lower left a curling trunk.  There’s even a large stalactite/stalagmite positioned where we might expect to see a small tusk.

Mammoths were hunted by Neanderthals and we know that they made structures (possibly dwellings) from their bones.  Much later, Palaeolithic humans painted prey animals such as mammoths on the walls of caves.  OK, if it is a mammoth it can only be viewed from above, but then that’s also true of the Nazca Lines.

So is it completely bonkers to suggest that these Neanderthals were building representations of animals they were familiar with in these caves?  We are very good at seeing patterns in otherwise random assemblages of markings, for example the face of Jesus in a rock or on a frying pan, or tomatoes, cats and houses that look like Hitler.  But this is rather different – we know that the structure is not natural, it was constructed.  We don’t know why it was constructed or what, if anything, it was meant to represent.  Perhaps a mammoth is not too fanciful an idea?

Silver Medal for the BES’s pollinator’s display at RHS Chelsea Flower Show!

RHS Silver Medal

An early train to London yesterday got me to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in time for the gates opening at 8am.  I’d agreed to spend the day staffing the British Ecological Society’s Animal Attraction: The garden and beyond display, which deals with the relationships between plants and their pollinators – see my recent posts here and here.

The first thing I noticed as I approached the display was how impressive and well designed it looked, with some wonderful planting to complement the simple, bold scientific information.  The second thing I noticed was that we had won a Silver Medal!  The whole team was very pleased – it’s the third year that the BES has been represented at Chelsea, but the first time that it’s won a medal.  I’m proud to have made a small contribution to that by advising on the plants and the scientific content, but the main kudos goes to the BES’s staff and to the garden designer Emily Darby.

Over the course of a long day we talked to hundreds of visitors about the display, what it represented, and the different ways that flowers are adapted to their pollinators.  There was a huge amount of public interest and support, very gratifying to see.  Here’s some pictures from the day:

RHS display

RHS crowd

RHS crowd with fig

RHS Jeff

RHS display


Pollinators, yeast, and the BES at RHS Chelsea – official press release


The official press release for this week’s British Ecological Society display at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, which I talked about last week, was embargoed until this morning; here’s the full text that’s been tailored by the University of Northampton press office:


Scent, colour and form all shape the choices we make about what to plant in our gardens. Gardeners know that flowers produce nectar and scent to attract the birds, bats, insects and other animals they rely on as pollinators, but few realise that organisms too small to see with the naked eye also play a vital role in this process.

Ecologists have discovered that a yeast called Metschnikowia plays a key part in the pollination story and next week, for the first time, visitors to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show will be able to get a sniff of it and see how it looks under the scanning electron microscope.

The yeast forms part of the British Ecological Society‘s Animal Attraction: The garden and beyond display, which focuses on the relationships between plants and their pollinators – relationships that are amazing in their diversity as well as crucial to global food security. The University of Northampton’s Professor of Biodiversity, Jeff Ollerton, has been advising the British Ecological Society on the project.

Metschnikowia is ubiquitous, present in most flowers in most gardens, yet ecologists are only just beginning to uncover its mysterious role in pollination. The yeast is studied in only four laboratories in the world and Dr Manpreet Dhami from Stanford University has donated the yeast for the British Ecological Society’s garden.

Like other yeasts, Metschnikowia may produce volatile chemicals that mimic the scent flowers use to attract pollinators, thus helping the flower to attract more pollinators and therefore set more seed. In return, the yeast becomes attached to birds, insects and other pollinators, which it relies on for dispersal.

Professor Ollerton explained: “It was a pleasure to work with the British Ecological Society on this project as it highlights two important points about the natural world: that pollinators other than bees are just as important to both wild plants and crops, and that the diversity and abundance of many of these groups is declining worldwide.” Professor Ollerton’s recent study, published in Science, found that 23 species of British bees and flower-visiting wasps have gone extinct since the 19th century.

According to Jessica Bays of the British Ecological Society: “To tackle this decline, we need to understand its causes, including climate change, habitat loss and pesticide use, and we also need to understand the role played by yeasts such as Metschnikowia, which is why we decided to bring it to Chelsea this year.”

Tickets are still available for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2016 – for more information click here.

A bee in a hurry, a plant at its leisure – for Biodiversity Day 2016

Male B lap on Salvia cropped P1120309Happy Biodiversity Day everyone!  In celebration I thought I’d share with you my entry for this year’s University of Northampton Images of Research competition, the winners of which have just been announced (I wasn’t one of them, but congratulations to those who were).

Here’s the text I wrote to accompany the image:

Sometimes it’s difficult to photograph fast-moving bees, but this blurred image of a male Red-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) captures something of the essence of why plants use pollinators such as bees. Plants are static and cannot go searching for mates, so they sit and wait and use pollen vectors to move their male gametes to the flowers of other plants of the same species. Sometimes this involves wind or water currents; but for most plants this means using animal pollinators.

The bumblebee has been caught with its tongue extended, having just loaded up on nectar to fuel its search for virgin queen bumblebees with which to mate. The plant is a cultivated salvia variety growing in my garden: some of my research group’s work has involved studying pollinator diversity in urban and rural gardens, with a view to understanding the role of these artificial environments for conserving pollinators.

Connecting with Nash, connecting with “nature” – reflections on a recent discussion


Last night I took a trip up to London with my long-time friend and sounding board Barry Percy-Smith (Professor of Childhood and Participatory Practice at the University of Huddersfield) to watch Graham Nash being interviewed and playing music for a recording of Radio 4’s Mastertapes series.  Regular blog readers may remember that we did the same thing a couple of years ago when Nash’s compadre David Crosby did a similar recording, which I wove into a blog post.

Although I had no intention of using the Nash gig as a jumping-off point for a post, walking through Maida Vale yesterday evening, looking for a good pub, I was thinking about a discussion that’s going on over at the Ideas for Sustainability blog called “Is connection with nature an oxymoron?“.

The discussion centres around a very interesting recent paper by Robert Fletcher in which he argues that “a sense of separation from “nature” is in fact paradoxically reinforced by the very environmental education and related practices employed to overcome it“.  I’d recommend that you read both the paper and the blog post, with comments: there are a number of points raised on Ideas for Sustainability, including whether or not “oxymoron” is the correct term to use here and, more importantly, that Fletcher’s paper has a very narrow frame of reference in terms of how it’s critiquing “connecting with nature”.

But in addition I think that there’s a point to be made that no person on the planet (unless they have been kept in a sealed, sterile, environment their whole life and fed artificial food supplements) is actually “disconnected from nature”.  Directly and indirectly we are all of us connected with non-human life and landscapes, whether we are aware of it or not – and most of the time we are not – via the food we eat or just the subliminal perception of the commonplace wildlife and horticulture that you can see even in the most urbanised of environments.

During our pub quest through what is a very built-up part of London – a city synonymous (at least in the UK) with the idea of disconnection from nature – I was seeing non-human life everywhere: plants were growing in the most inhospitable of places (see the images below of a large wisteria covering most of an apartment block, and a proudly tended balcony of plants in pots); large gulls were crying overhead; house sparrows were chirruping in gardens; “weeds” were popping up in the most unlikely spots.




Yes it’s common-place stuff, and yes much of it is anthropogenic, but that doesn’t make it any less “nature” or lessen our connection with it. The real question for me is about how many people actually perceive this, either consciously or subliminally. I suspect there’s far more of the latter than the former, but that if the non-human elements of “nature” were removed from even the most built-up parts of large cities like London, that people would notice and respond negatively to its removal.  Perhaps rather than trying to reconnect people with some idealised view of “nature” that is separate from their usual existence we should actually be encouraging (“teaching”?) them to think about the non-human life that they encounter in their daily lives, a process that ought to start at an early age.

On that note it seems appropriate to sign off with one of my favourite Graham Nash songs – Teach Your Children. – and a bad photo from the gig.




Pollinators at RHS Chelsea Flower Show


Pollinators, as regular readers of this blog will know, are diverse and important, both ecologically and agriculturally.  But that diversity is declining and it’s an issue that deserves greater publicity and action.

To that end, for the past eight months I’ve been advising a team from the British Ecological Society (BES) on the content for a display at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show which is running all next week.  The display is called “Animal Attraction: The Garden and Beyond” – if you follow that link you’ll get a sense of what the display is all about, but in essence there are three key messages that the BES is trying to get across:

  • Celebrating the diversity of pollinators (not just bees!) both in the UK and globally.
  • Flowers have evolved many different ways of attracting and rewarding pollinators, leading to the fantastic diversity of floral form that gardeners appreciate.
  • Planting a diversity of flowers in your garden can only be a good thing for helping conserve pollinator populations.

As you can see from my wristband, I’ll be helping to staff the stand all day Tuesday 24th May, so if you’re at the show come and say hello and take a look at what the BES team has produced.

Biodiversity monitoring on the University of Northampton’s new campus – a video of my recent talk

Waterside - 20160504_081622

In a recent post I mentioned the talk that I had presented at a one-day conference on “delivering biodiversity” organised by the Environmental Association of Universities and Colleges at the University of Worcester.  The subject of the presentation was the work we’ve been doing with a couple of our students looking at how the building of the University of Northampton’s new Waterside Campus is impacting on biodiversity on the site, with a particular focus on birds.

The talks from that conference were videoed and can be viewed on the EAUC event site.  All of the presentations are worth viewing, but if you’re particularly interested in the Waterside project, my talk is the fourth one down.  I’ll apologise in advance for the occasional pauses – someone in the first couple of rows was wearing perfume and it was really catching my throat!

Polinode – a user-friendly tool for visualising ecological networks

Birds mixed flocks (2) - curvedIt is a general ecological rule that no species exists in isolation; all species interact with other organisms within the communities to which they belong. The collection and analysis of ecological interaction data has burgeoned over the past couple of decades, particularly in my own area of (largely) mutualistic species interactions such as plant-pollinator relationships – see for example this recent post on hummingbird-plant networks.

There are a number of software packages available for analysing and visualising this type of data, including bipartite  and foodweb in R, Food Web Designer, and Gephi.  Tools such as this vary in their flexibility and in the investment of time required to produce good quality graphics, and ultimately it’s down to personal preferences which you use.

Recently I discovered some very user-friendly network visualisation software that is browser/cloud based, free to use (at least the basic version), very flexible, intuitive and quick to learn. Ideal if you are pressed for time and want to generate some quick food webs.

The system is called Polinode and was developed primarily to visualise business and social science data (the “poli” part is nothing to do with pollination, that’s purely coincidental). However there’s no reason why it can’t be used for ecological data, as the image above demonstrates. This is a visualisation of mixed-species flocks of birds feeding together and alone on a local urban park that I’ve discussed previously.  The thickness of the line is proportional to number of interactions observed, and the size of each node is proportional to the number of birds.  Both are scalable in Polinode.

One could also present these data as a straight-line graph, without the loops to indicate single-species feeding:

Birds mixed flocks (5)

As well as these types of networks it’s also possible to produce bipartite (what Polinode terms “hierarchical”) graphs, for example this network of bumblebees feeding on different plant families in a British grassland (click for a closer view – I realised afterwards that I downloaded a rather small version):

Bombus hypnorum with plant families

The system is very flexible and nodes can be grabbed and moved around (as I did above to offset the plant family nodes), recoloured, resized, text resized, etc.

Polinode also calculates a range of network metrics such as degree and Louvain communities (a measure of modularity) which is more limited than some ecologists might require, but which is a good starting point for those new to ecological network statistics.

Data files can be uploaded directly from Excel, and there are example templates showing how to lay out the data.  There is also ample online support including written guidance, videos, and a regular blog. Even in the few months I’ve been playing with the system the developers have added more features, including a graphing facility that generates column and scatter plots from your networks.

There you go, that’s an introduction to Polinode for ecologists; hope it’s useful for your work.

More on Sir David’s dragonfly -“restoring our sense of species”

As a follow-up to my post yesterday about the tributes to Sir David Attenborough, I thought I’d share this link to an open-access article just published in the journal Nature by KD Dijkstra, the dragonfly expert who named Acisoma attenboroughi from Madagascar:

Natural history: Restore our sense of species

It’s a nicely written and well-argued piece exploring the importance of appreciating and documenting the richness of species on this planet.  Well worth reading.

Tributes to Sir David – and he finds time to write to one of our students!

Saadias letter from Sir DavidThere can’t be many people currently working or studying in ecology, conservation, or the environmental sciences who were not in some way inspired by the programmes presented by Sir David Attenborough during his long career.  I certainly was, and I can trace my interest in the richness of our planet’s biodiversity right back to watching his ground-breaking series Life on Earth as a young teenager, and then reading the book, bought for me by my parents.

As you are probably aware, yesterday was Sir David’s 90th birthday, and the tributes to his iconic status as part of the scientific and cultural fabric of our nation, and his international standing, have been extensive and heartfelt. My personal favourites include naming the new NERC research vessel the RSS Sir David Attenborough and having a Madagascan dragonfly named after him by my friend and colleague KD Dijkstra, whose work I’ve highlighted previously on this blog.

But in the midst of all of these tributes and celebrations of a spectacular career, the measure of the man can be summed up by his taking the time to send a hand-written letter to one of our undergraduate students (see photograph).  The story of how Saadia Khan received Sir David’s letter can be read in full on the University of Northampton’s website.

All I can offer by way of my own tribute is to say thank you, Sir David,  for continuing to be such an inspiration, and may you have many more birthdays to come.