Category Archives: Apocynaceae

A spectacular new plant has been named to honour a colleague: meet Ceropegia heidukiae!

Finding organisms that have not previously been described by scientists is not unusual; every year, hundreds of ‘new’ species enter the taxonomic literature, a testament to how little we still understand about the Earth’s biodiversity. The majority of these species are insects, because that’s the most diverse group of organisms on the planet. But new species of plants and fungi also turn up regularly: for example in 2020, botanists and mycologists at Kew named 156, including some from Britain.

So although discovering undescribed species is not uncommon, any field biologist will tell you that it’s an exciting moment to spot something that you’re never seen before and which could turn out to be new. That was certainly the case when my colleague Dr Annemarie Heiduk’s attention was drawn to a South African plant that was clearly something special. As Anne said to me this week:

‘I will never ever forget the very moment when I spotted it and immediately knew it was something no-one has ever seen before. And I was so lucky to find it in flower. I cannot describe how beautiful it looked sticking out of the surrounding grass vegetation. It is certainly one of a kind and I really know how lucky I was to have found it. Not once did it ever cross my mind that I will discover a novel Ceropegia species, let alone one that is so distinct!’

So it was that last year Anne discovered the plant that was to be named in her honour: Ceropegia heidukiae. The species has been described by David Styles and Ulrich Meve in the journal Phytotaxa (from where the image above was taken). There’s also an account of the species on the Pollination Research Lab blog, with further photographs and information about the plant.

Anne has been honoured in this way not just because she discovered the plant, but also because, to quote the paper, she:

‘is a pollination ecologist who with her research on the floral chemistry and deceptive pollination strategies of Ceropegia trap flowers has acquired recognition as an expert in this field’

Anne tells me that she has already collected pollinator and floral scent data for this new species, so we can look forward to seeing that published in the near future. I described the fascinating pollination ecology of Ceropegia, including some of Anne’s earlier work, in my recent book. This is a genus of plants that has intrigued me since I first saw photographs of them and started growing them as a teenager, 40 years ago. Since then I’ve published several papers about their pollination strategies, and how they compare with the family Apocynaceae as a whole: see the following links for some examples:

https://jeffollerton.co.uk/2017/09/03/fly-pollination-in-the-trap-flower-genus-ceropegia-a-new-study-just-published/

https://jeffollerton.co.uk/2018/08/21/the-evolution-of-pollination-systems-in-one-of-the-largest-plant-families-a-new-study-just-published-download-it-for-free/

So, a big congratulations to Anne, and to David and Ulrich – it’s an amazing plant! I wonder what else is still waiting to be discovered in the stunning grasslands of South Africa?

Flowers can be assholes – quite literally!

2003-572 s G Bochum

WARNING: There’s a high yuck factor to this post, it’s not for the squeamish or easily offended!

One of my Twitter contacts, Traci Birge in Finland, has been reading Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society, and making some very nice comments about it. I had to laugh at this one in which she describes some plants as “assholes” because of the way in which they deceive pollinators into visiting their flowers but offer no reward in return:

If you follow that thread you can see that Traci was closer to the truth than perhaps she realised: there are some plants with flowers that appear to mimic the anuses of dead mammals, particularly in the families Apocynaceae and Araceae. By their smell, texture, colour and hairiness they are fooling flies into visiting the flowers, because assholes, like any mammalian orifice, provide an entry point for maggots of carrion-feeding flies. Sometimes the deception is so great that the flies lay their eggs on these blooms, though of course the maggots starve.

A great example of an anus-mimicking bloom is the Dead Horse Arum (Helicodiceros muscivorus). Check out the image above: if that doesn’t look like a horse’s ass, I don’t know what does!

Other examples might be found within the stapeliads, especially the genus Huernia which often have a thickened annulus to the centre of the flower. However that could also be interpreted as mimicking an open, inflamed wound on the side of an animal:

As I point out in the book, you might imagine that there would be strong natural selection against flies visiting these flowers if they lose fitness by laying eggs on such an unsuitable substrate. But the flowers are tapping into really deep-seated behaviours and clearly the flies can’t distinguish the flowers from the real thing.

This is flower pollination that is far removed from the deliciously perfumed, cute-and-cuddly, heart-warming world of bees and flowers. Isn’t nature wonderful?

All photos from Wikipedia, as follows:

Helicodiceros muscivorus: Göteborgs botaniska trädgård (photographer: Ingemar Johansson) Рhttp://www.mynewsdesk.com/se/pressroom/goteborgs_botaniska_tradgard/image/view/dracunculus-muscivorus-128973, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19265330

Huernia zebrina: Enzo^ – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10963668

Huernia schneideriana: Juan Carlos Fonseca Mata – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=94705877

Cockroaches as pollinators: a new example just published

When you think of the word “pollinator” what comes to mind? For most people it will be bees, particularly the western honeybee (Apis mellifera). Some might also think of hoverflies, butterflies, moths, bats, hummingbirds…..but cockroaches?! The first published example that I know of which demonstrated that the flowers of a plant are specialised for cockroach pollination is from the mid-1990s. Since then only a handful of well documented cases have come to light, but there are undoubtedly more out there waiting to be discovered, particularly in the wet tropics. Most of the c. 4,600 species of cockroaches are nocturnal, and cockroach-pollinated flowers tend to open at night, which is one reason why they are under documented.

In a new study, published this week in the American Journal of Botany, a team of Chinese, German and British biologists has shown that a species of Apocynaceae from China is the first known example of cockroach pollination in that large family. Here’s the reference with a link to the study; if anyone wants a copy please email me:

Xiong, W., Ollerton, J., Liede-Schumann, S., Zhao, W., Jiang, Q., Sun, H. Liao, W. & You, W. (2020) Specialized cockroach pollination in the rare and endangered plant Vincetoxicum hainanense (Apocynaceae, Asclepiadoideae) in China. American Journal of Botany (in press)

The abstract for the paper follows:

Premise

Species of Apocynaceae are pollinated by a diverse assemblage of animals. Here we report the first record of specialized cockroach pollination in the family, involving an endangered climbing vine species, Vincetoxicum hainanense in China. Experiments were designed to provide direct proof of cockroach pollination and compare the effectiveness of other flower visitors.

Methods

We investigated the reproductive biology, pollination ecology, pollinaria removal, pollinia insertion, and fruit set following single visits by the most common insects. In addition, we reviewed reports of cockroaches as pollinators of other plants and analyzed the known pollination systems in Vincetoxicum in a phylogenetic context.

Results

The small, pale green flowers of V. hainanense opened during the night. The flowers were not autogamous, but were self‚Äźcompatible. Flower visitors included beetles, flies, ants and bush crickets, but the most effective pollinator was the cockroach Blattella bisignata, the only visitor that carried pollen between plants. Less frequent and effective pollinators are ants and Carabidae. Plants in this genus are predominantly pollinated by flies, moths and wasps.

Conclusions

Globally, only 11 plant species are known to be cockroach‚Äźpollinated. Because their range of floral features encompass similarities and differences, defining a ‚Äúcockroach pollination syndrome‚ÄĚ is difficult. One commonality is that flowers are often visited by insects other than cockroaches, such as beetles, that vary in their significance as pollinators. Cockroach pollination is undoubtedly more widespread than previously thought and requires further attention.

Is it safe to use oleander to treat COVID-19 symptoms?

No, it’s not safe. It’s a really, really dumb idea. Oleander is VERY poisonous and you could die. Do not do it.

OK, that was the short version; here’s the longer version. Oleander (Nerium oleander) is a plant belonging to the plant family that’s been the focus of much of my research for the past 30 years: Apocynaceae. The plant is widely grown in warm temperate and subtropical areas as an ornamental shrub or small tree and there are cultivars with flowers in a diverse palette of colours. In the Mediterranean, where it’s native, it’s a pollination generalist and pollinated by large bees, hawkmoths, and small flies. However, visitation to flowers is infrequent because, as Javier Herrera showed in this study, the flowers produce no nectar. It’s a rare example of a species of Apocynaceae with rewardless flowers in a family with very diverse pollination systems, as we showed in our study last year.

Although it’s very beautiful, oleander is also extremely poisonous. Many members of the family Apocynaceae are toxic: they are crammed full of alkaloids, cardiac glycosides, and other nasty chemicals that defend the plant against all but the most specialised of herbivorous insects, such as monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus). But even in a family renowned for its toxicity, oleander stands out as being especially lethal.

Recently, a chemical derived from oleander called oleandrin has been touted as a health supplement to treat patients with the COVID-19 coronavirus. However there is no evidence that it is effective as a treatment but a LOT of evidence that it is highly toxic to both animals and humans. The fact that’s being touted as a COVID19 treatment by President Trump and some of his pharmaceutical industry donors should ring alarm bells for anyone with any common sense. And just because it’s a “natural” product does not in any way make it safe. DO NOT EAT OLEANDER!

Bound for the Great Southern Land

cropped-tenerife-2008-080

Great Southern Land, in the sleeping sun
You walk alone with the ghost of time
They burned you black, black against the ground
And they make it work with rocks and sand

Great Southern Land by Icehouse

Today Karin and I are packing before heading to the airport for a flight tomorrow to Australia.¬† It will be Karin’s first trip to the Great Southern Land, and my second: I spent part of 1993 and 1994 there on a short postdoctoral research project.

We’ll be there for about two months. Karin will be writing (she’s working on a book and will be contributing further articles to Medium and other outlets).¬† I’ll be working with Angela Moles and Stephen Bonser at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) on an Australian Research Council-funded project looking at whether species interactions affect the invasibility of plants native to Europe that are running wild in Australia. So it’s test of the “enemy release hypothesis” (leaving behind the herbivores and parasites) but with the addition of a “making new friends” hypothesis, i.e. gaining pollinators and other mutualists. That grant, plus a Visiting Fellowship to UNSW, is funding the trip.

In a post back in May I mentioned the Australian PhD researcher, Zoe Xirocostas, who is also working on this project.  Zoe surveyed plant populations in the UK, Spain, France, Austria and Estonia over the summer. She is now back and in the middle of surveying in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania.

As well as that project I want to spend time finalising my forthcoming book, collecting some data on Apocynaceae pollination ecology (of course!) and do some community-level surveys of wind/animal pollination to add to a global data set I am compiling.¬† Karin and I are also running a workshop at UNSW on “Writing for non-academic audiences” and I’m also giving a research seminar there and at Western Sydney University.¬† In addition we are visiting friends and family over Christmas and the New Year.¬† We’re packing a lot into a trip of two months!¬† And of course work at the University of Northampton never goes away – I have project students and PhD researchers to advise and there’ll be the usual weekly blizzard of emails to clear…

Having not¬†been back to Australia since 1994 it will be interesting to see how it’s changed – a lot drier and smokier I imagine…¬† I’ll be updating the blog as the work progresses; over and out until we land in Sydney.

“Weighted” nestedness and “classical” nestedness analyses do not measure the same thing in species interaction networks

This post resulted from a question I posed on Twitter last week and hopefully summarises the issue as I see it and the results of the discussion with colleagues that followed.  Let me know if you disagree or if I have missed anything.


The use of network approaches to understanding how plants and their flower visitors interact¬†has revolutionised the study of these and other mutualistic assemblages of species.¬† It’s a subject I’ve discussed on the blog before, highlighting some of the work we have published – for instance, see¬†Plant-pollinator networks in the tropics: a new review just published and¬†Local and regional specialization in plant‚Äďpollinator networks: a new study just published¬†as two recent examples.

One of the recurring patterns that we see in mutualistic species networks (but not in antagonistic ones such as host-parasite and predator prey) is “nestedness”.¬† In a nested assemblage of species, generalists with lots of links to other species interact with other generalists and with specialists (those species which have few links to other species).¬† Conversely, specialists tend only to link to generalists: specialist-specialist interactions are rare.¬† In nature, when we rank species in a network from most to least generalised, this sort of relationship looks like this:

South Africa nested

The rows are plants and the columns are pollinators, in this case from an assemblage of asclepiads and their pollinators we studied in South Africa.¬† A filled cell in the matrix indicates an interaction between that particular plant-pollinator combination.¬† It’s not perfectly nested by any means, but statistically this is not a random pattern and it comes out as nested when analysed.¬† There are a few ways of doing this but the most commonly used is the Nestedness metric based on Overlap and Decreasing Fill (NODF) developed by Almeida-Neto et al. (2008).

I first saw nestedness discussed in relation to plant-pollinator interactions in a presentation by Yoko Dupont of her PhD research at a SCAPE meeting in Sweden in 2001.¬† It was one of those “A-HA!” moments in science when the light bulb switches on and you realise that you are seeing an important new development which adds significant understanding to a field.¬† Yoko subsequently published her work as¬†Structure of a plant‚Äďflower‚Äźvisitor network in the high‚Äźaltitude sub‚Äźalpine desert of Tenerife, Canary Islands.

The nested pattern of interactions is conceptually derived from earlier work on island biogeography and species-area relationships and was initially developed to apply to interaction networks by Jordi Bascompte and colleagues in Spain and Denmark – see: The nested assembly of plant-animal mutualistic networks.

What was so exciting about this idea to me was that it provided a way to formally analyse what many of us had been observing and discussing for some time: that mutually specialised plant-pollinator interactions between species are rather rare, and that specialists tend to exploit generalists.  This makes perfect sense because specialist-specialist interactions may be more likely to go extinct, though why it does not also apply to host-parasite interactions is far from clear (and in fact the best known specialist-specialist interactions tend to derive from seed parasitism interactions such as fig-fig wasp and yucca-yucca moth relationships).

Fast forward 20 years and the plant-pollinator networks literature has exploded and our methods of analysis are much more sophisticated than they were in the late 1990s and early 2000s.¬† Every few months researchers are coming up with new ways in which to analyse these networks, mainly using the R environment for statistics and graphing.¬† Anyone entering the field would be forgiven for being bewildered as to which approaches to use: it’s bewildering enough for those of us who have been following it from the start!

One thing has been particularly bewildering me for a few years now, and that’s the introduction of “weighted” nestedness.¬† “Weighted” in this sense means that the abundance or interaction frequencies of the species in the network is taken into account in the analyses.¬† Visually it could look something like this if we code the cells in the network above to represent abundance or frequency (the darker the cell, the more abundant or frequent):

South Africa nested weighted

I’ve just mocked up the network above, it’s not the actual data.¬† But quite often networks look like this when we weight them: generalist interactions and/or species tend to be more frequent than specialist.¬† So far, so obvious.¬† But here’s the thing: networks that are statistically significantly nested when analysed by NODF tend to be not significantly nested when analysed by a new set of weighted metrics such as wNODF or WINE – see the documentation for the bipartite package for details.¬† ¬†And I don’t understand why.¬† Or rather I don’t understand why we should be using weights in an analysis of nestedness which is, at its heart, an analysis of presence-absence.¬† Species are either there or they are not, they are either interacting or they are not.¬† Their frequency or abundance is immaterial to whether a network is nested.¬† Indeed, assessing frequency of interactions in plant-pollinator networks is fraught with difficulties because (a) there are so many ways in which to do it; and (b) interactions between plants and pollinators in a community can vary HUGELY between years and across the geographical ranges of the species involved.

This should concern the interaction network community because recently I’ve had reviewers and co-authors saying things like: “don’t analyse for nestedness using NODF because wNODF/WINE is The Latest Thing, use that instead”.¬† But as far as I and the colleagues who commented on Twitter can tell, nestedness and weighted nestedness are different concepts and are not inter-changeable.¬† Indeed, many of us are struggling to really define exactly what weighted nestedness analyses are actually measuring.¬† I can define nestedness in simple terms as a verbal concept, without using the word “nested”, as you saw above.¬† I can’t do that with weighted nestedness, and I have yet to encounter anyone who can.

So the consensus from the Twitter discussion seems to be that:

  • for any study we should use only those analyses that are relevant to the questions we are asking rather than simply running every available analysis because there are lots to choose from.
  • weighted interaction networks that include abundance or frequency are not necessarily superior to binary presence-absence networks.¬† Again, it depends on the question being asked.
  • we should not treat weighted nestedness as an upgraded or superior version of classical nestedness.¬† If you are interested in nestedness, use a binary analysis like NODF.

My thanks to the colleagues who contributed to the Twitter discussion:  Nacho Bartomeus, Pedro Jordano, Pedro Luna, Marco Mello, Chris Moore, Timothée Poisot, and Kit Prendergast.  If you want to follow the Twitter discussion, start here:  https://twitter.com/JeffOllerton/status/1159377089319047168

 

Are these first photographs of a living specimen of a rare African butterfly?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Earlier this year my colleague at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, David Goyder, tweeted a link to a new book about the biodiversity of Angola which you can download for free by following this link.¬† David’s an authority on Apocynaceae, the family of plants on which I’ve also worked for many years (see this recent post), and has been sorking in Angola in recent years on a large biodiversity project.¬† So I was interested to see what was in the chapter¬† he had co-authored called “The flora of Angola: Collectors, Richness and Endemism“.¬† I was immediately struck by one of the images in Figure 5.3 showing an unnamed butterfly feeding on the flower of a species of Apocynaceae (Raphionacme michelii).

I made a note to myself to talk to David about adding the record to our Pollinators of Apocynaceae Database. But before I had a chance to do that, another apocynologist colleague, Ulrich Meve in Bayreuth, forwarded the chapter with a similar idea in mind.

We emailed David about the image and he sent us originals, but confessed he didn’t know what the insect was.¬† So I uploaded it to an African Lepidoptera forum on Facebook.¬† At which point a wave of excitement broke, because after some discussion as to whether it might be a new species, it turned out that the most likely candidate was an exceptionally rare butterfly called Acraea mansya in the family Nymphalidae.

According to Dominique Bernaud, an authority on the group, this species is hardly known beyond a few collections and he has never seen a photograph of a living specimen: if you follow this link you will see that the known distribution of the species does not include Angola,  and indeed it is not listed in the chapter on butterflies in the Angola biodiversity book.  So this is a new country record and (we think) the first images of living insects: so a double first for a beautiful species.

Here’s links to collection information for the plant and to David’s checklist of plants from the region, which gives details of the vegetation and the habitat.

An unanswered question, of course, is whether the butterfly is a pollinator of this species of plants.¬† Raphionacme belongs to a subfamily of Apocynaceae that have hardly been studied from the perspective of pollination ecology, so we simply don’t know.¬† Hopefully someone in the future will visit this remote region of Africa and find out!

Thanks to David for sending the images (a complete set of which is below), the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project, and the Wild Bird Trust, Parktown, South Africa.

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Tantalising evidence for a new type of pollination system in Madagascan Apocynaceae

cynanchum obovatum with wasp_madag -angavokely_meve 1

As I recounted in my post last summer, the plant family Apocynaceae contains species with a very wide diversity¬† of pollination systems – see:¬† The evolution of pollination systems in one of the largest plant families: a new study just published ‚Äď download it for free.¬† Confirmed pollinators include bees, birds, moths, butterflies, flies, beetles, and wasps of a dizzying diversity.¬† So I was intrigued to receive an email earlier this week from my colleague Prof. Dr Ulrich “Ulli” Meve of the University of Bayreuth with the subject line “Wasp expert needed”.¬† Ulli is an authority on Apocynaceae taxonomy, also has an interest in their pollination biology, and is a co-author of the study last year.

Attached to the email were a couple of images showing a wasp visiting flowers of Cynanchum obovatum, an endemic species of Apocynaceae from northern and eastern Madagascar.¬† Ulli had taken the photographs during field work there in preparation for the Flora of Madagascar project.¬† Here’s the global distribution of the species according to GBIF records:

cynanchum obovatum from gbif

I was excited because Madagascar has a very rich diversity of Apocynaceae (between 500 and 1000 species).  However we have flower visitor observations for only a small fraction of them, fewer than 20 species, and good evidence that the visitors are pollinators for only a couple of those.

I didn’t immediately recognise the family to which the wasp belonged: it didn’t look like either Vespidae or Pompilidae, two groups that are known pollinators of Apocynaceae.¬† So I uploaded the shots to the Hymenopterists Forum on Facebook and within minutes had received an answer:¬† it was a species of Scoliidae, commonly referred to as scoliid wasps.¬† The distinctive wing corrugation found in this family is clearly visible on this image:

cynanchum obovatum with wasp_madag -angavokely_meve 2

Scoliids are parasitoids of beetles and are some of the world’s largest wasps, but it’s not a very diverse family, with only about 560 described species, and only a single species in the UK (on the Channel Islands).¬† Compare that with the Pompilidae and Vespidae, both of which contain c. 5,000 species worldwide.

Ulli tells me that when he saw the scoliid on C. obovatum “the wasp knew what to do with the flowers”, something I’ve experienced with vespid and pompilid wasp pollinated species in Africa: these wasps are really familiar with the flowers, they know how to work them to get a reward as they are regular and committed visitors.¬† We believe that this is likely to be the legitimate pollinator of the plant, in which case it’s one of the few records for Scoliidae pollinating Apocynaceae, and the first for Madagascar.¬† Other examples are mainly in South America, India¬†and South Africa, and usually as one of a broad set of other wasps and/or bees visiting generalist flowers.

It’s interesting that this species of Cynanchum is one of the few in which the corona which covers the gynostegium (the fused sexual parts) is closed over:

cynanchum obovatum_madag - angavokely_meve

That means it requires quite a strong, large insect to get inside and access the nectar.  So the prediction is that the pollen masses (pollinaria) will be found on the mouthparts of these wasps.  Intriguingly, a very closely related species C. repandum has no such closed corona, begging the question of whether it might be pollinated by a different type of insect:

cynanchum repandum sl 2867_low

For now this record will go into the Pollinators of Apocynaceae database as pollinator unproven, but i would be great if someone working in Madagascar could confirm the status of this pollination system.

My grateful thanks to Ulli for sharing his pictures and allowing me to tell the story of what may be a whole new Madagascan pollination system for our favourite family.  Apocynaceae is full of surprises!

cynanchum obovatum with wasp_madag -angavokely_meve 3

 

The evolution of pollination systems in one of the largest plant families: a new study just published – download it for free

Figure 1 JUNE revision

Interactions between flowering plants and the animals that pollinate them are known to be responsible for part of the tremendous diversity of the angiosperms, currently thought to number at least 350,000 species.¬† But the diversity of different types of pollination system (bird, bee, moth, fly, etc.) is unknown for most large, related groups of plants (what systematists term “clades”) such as families and subfamilies.¬† In addition we know little about how these interactions with pollinators have evolved over time and in different parts of the world.¬† Only a handful of groups of flowering plants have been studied with respect to questions such as:

How much do we currently know about the diversity of pollination systems in large clades?

How is that diversity partitioned between the smaller clades (e.g. subfamilies, tribes, genera) of a family, and what are the evolutionary transitions between the major groups of pollinators?

Do these pollination systems vary biogeographically across the clade’s range?

These sorts of questions have been addressed for the massive, globally distributed Apocynaceae (one of the top 10 or 11 largest angiosperm families with more than 5,300 species) in a study just published using a new database of pollinators of the family.¬† What’s more, the work is open access and anyone can download a copy for free.¬† Here’s the citation with a link to the paper:

Ollerton, J., Liede-Schumann, S., Endress, M E., Meve, U. et al. [75 authors in all] (2019) The diversity and evolution of pollination systems in large plant clades: Apocynaceae as a case study.¬†Annals of Botany¬†123: 311‚Äď325

In this study we have shown that (among other things):

  • The family is characterised by an enormous diversity of pollination systems involving almost all of the major pollen vectors and some that are nearly unique to the Apocynaceae.
  • Earlier diverging clades have a narrower range of pollination systems than those that evolved later.
  • Transitions from one type of pollination system to another are evolutionarily constrained, and rarely or never occur, whereas others have taken place much more often, e.g. between wasp and beetle pollination.
  • There is significant convergent evolution of pollination systems, especially fly and moth pollination, by geographically and phylogenetically distinct clades.

You’ll notice that there are 75 (!) authors on this paper.¬† That’s because we’ve pulled together a huge amount of previously unpublished data and used some state of the art analyses to produce this work.¬† It was a monumental effort, especially considering that my colleague Sigrid Liede-Schumann and I only decided to push ahead with this project about a year ago when we chatted at the International Botanical Congress that I posted about at the time.¬† In truth however the origins of this paper go back over 20 years to 1997 when when Sigrid and I published a study of what was then known about pollination systems in the Asclepiadaceae (the asclepiads).

In that paper we said that the research “is intended to be ongoing…[we]…hope to re-review asclepiad pollination within the next decade”.¬† At the time I didn’t think it would actually take more than 20 years!¬† However over that period a lot has changed.¬† For one thing the Asclepiadaceae no longer exists, broken up and subsumed within a much larger Apocynaceae.¬† Also, I’ve done a lot of work in the field and in the herbarium on some of the smaller groups within the family, such as Ceropegia.¬† Others, including many of my co-authors, have also been working on different groups in various parts of the world.¬† Finally the level of sophistication of the analyses we are now able to do has increased beyond recognition compared to what we could achieve in the mid-1990s.¬† All of this means that now is the right time to produce this study.

Having said all of that, this is still a work in progress.¬† Our Pollinators of Apocynaceae Database contains a sample of just over 10% of the species in the family.¬† So lots more data on plant-pollinator interactions needs to be collected before we say we fully understand how pollination systems have evolved in this most remarkable family.¬† I’d be happy to talk with anyone who is interested in the family and being involved in future data collection.

The database will be freely available to anyone who wants to use it – lots more can be done with this information and, once again, I’m happy to chat with potential collaborators.

I was recently interviewed about the study, and about plant-pollinator interactions and the Apocynaceae more generally, for the¬†In Defense of Plants podcast – here’s a link to that interview.

Finally, I’d like to express my sincerest thanks to my co-authors on this study – I really couldn’t have done it without you guys!

Academic job interviews: don’t feel obliged to do everything you said you’d do

Interview transparencies 2018-07-17 17.14.59

Last month I cleared out my office in preparation for our move to the University of Northampton’s new Waterside Campus.¬† Going through files I’d not opened in decades was a cathartic and occasionally emotional experience.¬† In one file I came across a box of OHP transparencies from the presentation I gave at my job interview in 1995!¬† (For younger readers, OHPs were just like PowerPoint, but you carried them around in a box….)

Anyway, the presentation (see photo above) at what was then Nene College of Higher Education set out what my research plans were going to be if I was offered the job. It’s interesting to look back on these research themes and consider whether I did actually do what I said I was going to do (go to my Publications page for details of the papers I’m referring to):

Flowering phenology” – This was a large part of my PhD, which I had completed two years earlier.¬† At Northampton I did a bit of work,¬† including a big meta analysis with Mexican colleagues Miguel Munguia-Rosas and Victor Parra-Tabla, but nothing further, though I do have a lot of unpublished data that one day may see the light of, err, day….

Pollination systems in the Asclepiadaceae” – I’ve done a lot of work on this plant family, including field work in South America and Africa, particularly with my German colleague Sigrid Liede-Schumann.¬† However Asclepiadaceae no longer exists as a separate family (it’s now a subfamily of Apocynaceae).¬† I have a large paper in press at the moment which assesses the diversity of pollination systems in the Apocynaceae; more on that when it’s published.

Specialisation and generalisation in pollination systems” – yes, done lots on this too, including contributing to the Waser et al. (1996) Ecology paper that’s now racked up >1550 citations, plus assessing latitudinal trends in specialisation.¬† Still a major focus of my research, it’s an area where there are lots of questions still to be answered.

Reproductive output [in plants]” – very little done since my doctoral work, though questions of annual variation in reproductive allocation were a big part of my PhD.¬† Has fallen by the wayside rather.

Seed predation” – ditto – it was a major component of my PhD and I published a couple of things but then hardly touched the topic.¬† A shame in some ways as I still think it’s a fascinating topic.

Pollinator behaviour” – I’ve done some work, mainly on birds and bees rather than the butterfly model system I proposed at the time, which was to work with Dave Goulson on a follow-up of a paper we published on floral constancy in Small Skipper butterflies.¬† This field has moved on hugely though, with some extremely sophisticated work being done with captive bumblebee colonies for instance.

Overall I think I’ve worked on about 50% of what I said I would do, which I’m more than comfortable with.¬† Because I’ve also done a whole bunch of stuff I never mentioned at interview, including work on pollinator conservation and interaction network analyses, both of which were hardly thought about in 1995.¬† There’s also research on the history of science that I was thinking about in the early 90s but which I didn’t present as a major research theme.

The moral of this story for anyone preparing for a job interview for an academic position is: Don’t think that you have to do all of the research that you say you’re going to do in the presentation.¬† Opportunities come and go, and interests wax and wane.¬† What is currently seen as exciting research may well, in 10 years time, be seen as old hat or a dead end, or have evolved in ways that provide you with fewer opportunities to contribute.¬† Prepare to be flexible, but don’t lie about your intentions.¬† In fact, as recently highlighted on the Dynamic Ecology blog, don’t lie about any aspect of getting an academic job!

One other thing: be realistic.¬† In retrospect I was too ambitious in the range of areas in which I wanted to do research, though they were all linked.¬† But over the course of 23 years it’s impossible to say how your research career will develop.¬† I’m looking forward to the next 23…. ūüôā