Author Archives: jeffollerton

Earning a living as an independent academic and author: here’s what I’ve learned in my first year

It’s just over one year since I stepped down from my full time professorship at the University of Northampton in order to work independently as a consulting scientist and author. It was a move precipitated by a number of factors, not least that after 25 years at that institution I needed some new challenges. I was starting to feel stale, jaded, and not a little burned out.

Since making the decision to leave the university (where I still hold a Visiting Professorship) Karin and I have down-sized our lives by selling our house, disposing of possessions that we didn’t need (though there’s still a lot in storage in the UK) and moving to Denmark, where we are renting a small apartment for the time being. Karin is Danish and, yes, both Brexit and the pandemic have played a role in our decision making.

A few people have asked me recently how I’m managing to earn a living as an independent academic so I thought I’d share with you my experiences so far. I’ve looked at my various sources of income over the past year and put them into four broad categories: Conservation, Research, Education and Writing. Then I worked out the proportion of my income that can be attributed to each area, keeping in mind that there’s overlap between them. This is the result:

Conservation-related activities accounted for the largest fraction, about 46% of my income. This includes direct advisory and consulting, on pollinator-related projects but also on wider, biodiversity-related topics. For example I worked with the Stanwick Lakes nature reserve in Northamptonshire, advising on how best to enhance and manage the site for pollinators.

It’s a site that I know very well but which was set up mainly because it’s important bird habitat. Seeing it from a pollinator’s perspective allowed me to make suggestions for improving the amount and timing of floral resources, opportunities for ground nesting bees, and so forth.

I’ve also been working with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (Wallingford) on a biodiversity strategy for the European railway network which I’ll write more about later this year when the final report is published.

Also included in the Conservation category are the many, many talks (mainly online) that I’ve done for various natural history, gardening and beekeeping groups, plus training sessions that I’ve done with ecological consultancies, estates departments, and local government. There’s a list of those available on my training and public speaking page.

Research projects funded by UK and international agencies accounted for about 32% of my income. Some of these are projects that started when I was still employed at the University of Northampton and which are paying for my time (including completing the supervision of my remaining PhD students), others are new ones. You can find a list of present and past projects on this page of my website.

I am a partner on several funding applications that are in the process of being assessed and I’ll report back when we know if they have been successful.

As well as my own research I’m also reviewing grant applications for funding organisations, advising research groups and departments on their research strategies, and working with the Turkish Journal of Botany to promote the work it publishes to a wider international audience.

Education is the third, very broad category that includes things such external examining (both taught and research degrees), assessing staff applications for promotion, and doing the occasional online lecture. It accounted for 11% of my income, less than I might have expected given that I’ve spent over 30 years teaching in higher education, educational consulting is quite a crowded field and unless you’re a high-profile specialist, it doesn’t pay well.

Writing accounted for about 11% of my income. As well as royalties from my book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society, I earned money from writing for magazines such as BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine, New Scientist, British Wildlife, and Bees & Other Pollinators Quarterly.

In addition I’ve done some advisory work for publishers, including reviewing text and making suggestions for a forthcoming children’s book about bees and other pollinators.

At the moment the balance of my work feels about right; I’ll never stop being a scientist so working on research projects is, and always will be, an important part of my life. I wish that it was possible to earn more from writing, but outside of the best-seller lists it’s difficult for authors to earn a decent living. However I’m working on my next book at the moment, as is Karin whose Essential Companion to Talking Therapy has been well received.

Working independently in this way, and putting together what amounts to a “portfolio career”, is not for everyone. It’s hard work and there are lots of uncertainties along the way, especially with regard to month-to-month consistency of one’s income. However a career as a university academic has prepared me for this in ways which I’m only just beginning to discover. Aside from the obvious subject expertise, familiarity with literature searching, and confidence when giving talks, the uncertainties associated with the high proportion of unsuccessful funding applications and navigating the (often contradictory) requirements of peer reviews has been extremely valuable experience. And of course I’ve established a large and diverse network of colleagues with whom I can collaborate and go to for advice. The diversity of paid work with which I’m engaged, plus the pro bono activities such as peer reviewing for journals, ensures that there’s never a dull day. I have absolutely no regrets about this latest step in my career!

If you’re interested in working with me or want to discuss any aspect of what I’ve written about, please do get in touch via my Contact page.

Why are there camels carved on this late medieval tomb?

In past posts I’ve written about my fascination with grave markers and the depictions of animals and plants that are sometimes featured, or their dual use as both tombstone and bird bath. It’s part of my broader interest in the relationship between humans and the rest of nature, and specifically biodiversity and culture. I’m intrigued by what taxa we choose to use as decoration and symbolism, and conversely those species that are rarely or never a part of the human cultural expression of life on Earth. Graveyards and churches are prime hunting grounds for this sort of enquiry, and I find it difficult to walk past an old cemetery without at least a quick visit.

During our recent Christmas family gathering in Glastonbury Karin and I briefly dropped into St John’s Church and I spotted an intriguing late medieval tomb decorated with what are clearly Bactrian camels.

I have not previously seen camels depicted on a tomb – even the grave of the famed desert explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton can only manage a Bedouin tent. Also, the date of the tomb – 1487 – seemed very early for such an exotic depiction. So I did a little sleuthing on the topic of camels in medieval Britain and came across Dr Caitlin Green’s blog post asking “Were there camels in medieval Britain?“. The answer is yes, and as Dr Green’s research has shown, they were often depicted in illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, stained glass and other media, at dates even earlier than the late 15th century.

But why are there camels on this particular tomb? The memorial belongs to John Camel and I suspect that the carvings are simply a play on his name – a sculptural pun. John is described as a lay treasurer for Glastonbury Abbey and may also have been involved in legal work, all of which sounds very dry and prosaic. But if it was John himself who commissioned this tomb, or his family that wanted a memorial which reflected his personality, it suggests to me that he certainly had a sense of humour.

“Camel” is a common place-name element in the south west of England: there’s both a river and a hill with that name, and of course King Arthur’s Camelot is reputed to be located here. The etymology of camel in this geographical sense is varied and sometimes obscure, but one thing is certain: it’s nothing to do with the even-toed ungulate mammals of the genus Camelus.

As I was writing this post it occurred to me that Burton’s Sufi-inspired poem The Kasîdah of Hâjî Abdû El-Yezdî includes some fitting lines on which to end:

“All other Life is living Death, a world where none but Phantoms dwell,
A breath, a wind, a sound, a voice, a tinkling of the camel-bell”

Anchorage: trees rooted in rock

Towards the end of our stay in Glastonbury, Karin and I took an omega-shaped circular walk that looped over the famous Tor, through the town, and back to our cottage. At one point the road we walked passed through a cutting in the Jurassic sandstone called Wick Hollow. Several very large oak and beech trees had anchored themselves into this stone, their roots finding cracks in the rock and no doubt widening them over time as they grew. The trees were spectacular and I took a few shots with my phone, though these really don’t do them justice.

The shade and structure created by the trees allowed a diversity of ferns, mosses, lichens and seed plants to grow. I’m always amazed by the power and adaptability of plants, even large trees, to find a foothold in the unlikeliest of places and by doing so, create microclimates that allow other species to flourish. Life supports life.

A healthy Christmas and a biodiverse New Year to all of my blog readers!

On Sunday, following almost a week of form-filling, covid-testing and passport-stamping, Karin and I flew back to the UK to see friends and spend time with our kids. We’ve rented a large cottage in Glastonbury for the duration and the above image is taken from the back garden.

I hope that all of my blog readers have a healthy and happy Christmas, and that the New Year is both more prosperous and more biodiverse for you.

After being in rural Denmark for five months, Britain feels very congested and busy. All going to plan, we’ll be back walking the beaches of Odsherred and enjoying the scenery. See you in 2022!

Harnessing nature’s regenerative powers: more evidence that tree planting is not (always) the best solution

An interesting study published this week in the journal Science has provided more evidence that natural regrowth of forests is faster and more efficient than tree planting for restoring habitats. Here’s the Guardian‘s take on it:

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/dec/09/tropical-forests-can-regenerate-in-just-20-years-without-human-interference

Here’s a link to the original study in the journal:

https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abh3629#

And here’s a link to something that I wrote on this topic last year, arguing that pollinators and seed dispersers play a vital role in this process:

Tree planting has its place, of course, especially as a way to get local communities engaged in positive action for the environment. But it’s not the solution for large-scale habitat restoration: in order to do that we need to harness nature’s own regenerative abilities.

Generating AI art from titles of scientific publications

WARNING: huge time wasting potential ahead.

As regulars to my blog might know, I’m a sucker for computer-generated “stuff”, for example virtual ecological systems; see my 2020 post “a simple online ecosystem model: like Tamagotchi for the green generation“. Last night while browsing Twitter I came across a few people tweeting about app.wombo.art which uses words and phrases as a prompt for its AI to generate art in a variety of styles. For example, the image above is based on the title of my book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society. The downloaded image always has “dream” at the top which is easy enough to crop, while “PROMPT” is the word or phrase that you entered, which can be turned off.

You can also use the titles of scientific articles – this one is my 1996 paper “Generalization in Pollination systems and Why it Matters” (I don’t think that it counts as a graphical abstract…):

A lot of people were submitting their thesis titles and I expect to see some of these used as frontispieces in PhDs in the near future. Here’s mine (from 1993) – “Ecology of flowering and fruiting in Lotus corniculatus“:

The other category that I had fun with was using scientific names – here’s the genus Ceropegia:

And here is Apocynaceae:

Can you guess what phrase I used to generate this one:

What’s really fascinating about this system is that every time you generate an image from the same phrase it returns something different. Go have fun, but be warned: it’s a bit of a rabbit hole and it’s possible to waste a lot of time playing around:

Life brings stability: biological crusts on sandy subsoil

A couple of weeks ago we visited Karin’s family in Jutland and went for a couple of long walks around the area. One of these took us through some very nice mixed pine, oak, and birch forest close to a river. The forest was anchored into a thin horizon of mulchy topsoil, beneath which was almost pure sand, a post-glacial legacy of the wider, wilder rivers that ran through the region at the end of the last Ice Age.

Where our path ran parallel to the river I noticed that the exposed vertical sections were far from lifeless: the sandy faces had been colonised by algae, lichens, fungi, cyanobacteria, and mosses. These biological crusts had stabilised the sand and prevented it from eroding further back into the bank. On a miniature scale they were doing what forests and other vegetation does in mountainous areas all over the world: preventing landslides.

Biological crusts in turn provide opportunities for ferns and seed plants to germinate and gain a foothold: they are often the starting point for further ecological succession.

Not only are these crusts acting as substrate stabilisers and seed beds, but all of the usual ecological processes of photosynthesis, nutrient acquisition, decomposition, carbon storage, symbiosis and competition are taking place in just a few millimetres of biodiversity. There’s a lot going on in these thin veneers of life.

Heterospecific pollen deposition is positively associated with reproductive success in a diverse hummingbird-pollinated plant community: a new study just published

Plants which live in diverse communities with other species may often share pollinators, which means that their stigmas can receive the pollen from different types of plants as well from individuals of their own species. This “heterospecific” pollen deposition may have consequences for plant reproduction if it clogs up the stigmas and prevents “conspecific” pollen from gaining a foothold. However there’s still relatively little published on this phenomenon and its impact on reproduction, particularly in highly diverse tropical communities across different seasons. In a new study just published in the journal Oikos and led by Sabrina Aparecida Lopes, we have shown that in a Brazilian hummingbird-flower community heterospecific pollen deposition (HPD) shows seasonal patterns. Contrary to expectations, we also found a positive relationship between HPD and reproductive success, which by coincidence has also been shown this month for a high-Andean plant community in this paper just published by Sabrina Gavini and colleagues.

Here’s the full reference and the abstract for our Oikos paper:

Lopes, S.A, Bergamo, P.J, Queiroz, S.N.P., Ollerton, J., Santos, T. & Rech, A.R. (2021) Heterospecific pollen deposition is positively associated with reproductive success in a diverse hummingbird-pollinated plant community. Oikos (in press)

Heterospecific pollen deposition (HPD) is ubiquitous across plant communities, especially for generalized species which use a diversity of pollinators, and may have negative effects on plant reproduction. However, it is unclear whether temporal changes in the co-flowering community result in changes in HPD patterns. Moreover, community-level studies are required to understand which factors influence HPD and how the reproduction of different species is affected. We investigated the temporal variation of HPD, its relationship with level of specialization on pollinators and floral phenotypic specialization, and its association with reproductive success (pollen limitation and fruit set) in 31 hummingbird-pollinated plant species in a tropical Campo Rupestre. We found seasonality in HPD, with species flowering in the dry season having greater diversity of heterospecific pollen on stigmas and a higher frequency of stigmas containing heterospecific pollen, compared to the rainy season. Stigmas of ecologically generalized species had more heterospecific pollen, while the relationship for ecologically specialized species depended on floral phenotype. Surprisingly, and in contrast to theory, we found a positive relationship between HPD and reproductive success. Our results indicate benefits of generalization and facilitation, in which sharing pollinators brings greater reproductive success via increased conspecific pollen deposition, even if it incurs more HPD. We demonstrated how assessing HPD at a community-level can contribute to understanding the ecological causes and functional consequences of pollinator sharing.

If you’d like a PDF, please use the Contact page to request one.

Deforestation grabs the headlines: but what about the grasslands?

Perhaps it’s because we don’t have a fancy name for it? “Deforestation” rolls off the tongue in a rather satisfying way that emphasises the importance of conserving old growth and ancient woodlands. But how do we describe destruction of grasslands? “Degrasslandation” doesn’t really work, even though at its root is trying to describe the same effect: the loss of important, carbon-storing and biodiversity-preserving ecosystems. Grasslands, remember, are the world’s largest single terrestrial ecosystem.

Of course it’s not just grasslands that are disappearing: shrublands and savannahs such as the Brazilian cerrado are being lost even faster than forests are being cut down. But again “deshrublandisation” or “decerradoisation” just don’t have the same ring. Nor the political clout: Boris Johnson cannot wax lyrical about the “cathedrals of nature” of chalk grassland on Salisbury Plain or the species rich flood meadows along the Thames. However Britain has lost far more of them than we have of ancient woodlands: over 90% of such species diverse grasslands have now gone according to some estimates.

It’s clear that forests have great PR, are highly photogenic, and are ecologically incredibly important. So today’s announcement at COP26 that world leaders have committed to stopping deforestation by 2030 is welcome news: if they come through with their promises, which they didn’t following a similar announcement in 2014. But I’m in agreement with Gill Perkins who has just published this opinion piece in New Scientist. A commitment to stop grasslands, and other types of habitat, being built on, ploughed up or agriculturally “improved” could go a long way towards ensuring that carbon remains locked up in the world’s soils and vegetation. It doesn’t all have to be about the forests.

UPDATE: for more about the importance of grasslands and how they are being degraded worldwide, see this recent piece by Richard Bardgett, James Bullock, and colleagues entitled “Combatting global grassland degradation“.

Hooded crows as strandline scavengers: some observations on an intriguing behaviour

When I was teaching undergraduate ecology I always impressed upon my students the idea that the categorisations we use to describe “communities” and “ecosystems” are really loose, artificial attempts to put boundaries around borderless ecological systems. Nowhere is this more true than in coastal ecosystems, where the transition from “sea” to “shore” to “sand dune” to “coastal woodland”, for example, is a blur of overlapping habitat types linked by the movement of organisms, nutrients and energy from one to another.

Birds are especially important linkages in this respect, because they are highly mobile and thus effective at connecting “land” to “sea”. Consider gulls, for example, which may be feeding in coastal waters and on grasslands some distance away, and defecating and being preyed upon in both, resulting in transfer of sea-derived nutrients and energy into terrestrial ecosystems, and vice versa. There’s considerable interest amongst ecosystem ecologists in understanding such transfers; for example, here’s the opening sentences from the abstract from the 2013 paper Donor-Control of Scavenging Food Webs at the Land-Ocean Interface by Thomas Scholar and colleagues:

Food webs near the interface of adjacent ecosystems are potentially subsidised by the flux of organic matter across system boundaries. Such subsidies, including carrion of marine provenance, are predicted to be instrumental on open-coast sandy shores where in situ productivity is low and boundaries are long and highly permeable to imports from the sea. 

Here on the coastal beaches of the Kattegat I’ve been intrigued by the behaviour of hooded crows (Corvus cornix), which are acting, it appears, as just such facilitators of the “flux of organic matter” from sea to land.

There are six corvid species in the area, and hooded crows are by no means the most common: there’s at least as many rooks (Corvus frugilegus) and jackdaws (Coloeus monedula), and we often see all three species foraging together on ploughed fields or suburban grassland. That’s not surprising, because like many members of the crow family these species are opportunistic omnivores that eat a wide range of animal and plant material, both living and dead, as well as clearing up human food waste, which I described a few years ago during a visit to Kathmandu.

But hooded crows are the only species that we see scavenging on the shoreline.

On Sunday, for example, I took a late afternoon stroll along the local beach with my binoculars and, as usual, I saw hooded crows in small groups of two or three, sometimes in the company of gulls. As I watched, in quick succession I saw two lesser black-backed gulls (Larus fuscus) paddle onto the beach, one with a large, flapping flatfish in its beak, the other with a struggling shore crab. As the gulls tore apart their respective prey they were quickly joined by some hooded crows that had been hanging around nearby. Once the gulls had eaten their fill the crows moved in and demolished the rest. The crows seem to be particularly adept at getting the last bit of meat from inside crab carapaces.

That’s behaviour I’ve seen a many times since we arrived here in August, crows picking over the remains of fish or crabs or (in one instance) a dead harbour porpoise that had also attracted the interest of gulls.

This focus on relatively large carrion items by the crows is understandable, but relatively rare because it’s controlled by the frequency with which such dead animals become available on the shore. It´s much more common to see the crows working their way systematically along the strandline, turning over seaweed in search of insects, crustaceans, and other small food items. I’ve even seen them hack away at washed-up acorns in the beach. It must be a productive way of finding food because they do it with such regularity.

But there’s a number of things about this behaviour that are puzzling me.

For example, why is it only the crows that work the strandline? Why do we never see jackdaws or rooks, which are at least as common, and equally omnivorous scavengers? They are also just as intelligent as the hooded crows and presumably could learn that this is a good place to find food. Also, are the crows that we see strandline “specialists” that spend most of the time on the beach, and nest in the nearby dune woodlands? Or is there a constant turnover of individual birds from the surrounding countryside to the beach and back? Do the birds learn this behaviour from one another and is it passed down from parents to offspring?

I’d be interested in your comments on these observations, as always. If you’d like to know more about corvid behaviour and ecology, I can highly recommend Dr Kaeli Swift’s Corvid Research Blog.