Category Archives: Australia

Plant-pollinator networks in Australian urban bushland remnants are not structurally equivalent to those in residential gardens – a new study just published

Towns and cities are ecologically complex environments where nature finds a home in all sorts of places, including both highly artificial gardens created by people, and the fragments of natural environment left behind when developments are built. In a new study that I’ve co-authored with Australian researcher Kit Prendergast we’ve for the first time compared and contrasted the pollinators, and the plants that they visit, in urban settings in the the biodiversity hotspot of Western Australia. Full disclosure: the field work was all done by Kit as part of her PhD. I just acted as an “adopted supervisor” (her words!) to help with data analysis and writing up of the work.

I think that it’s a great study, not least because it really highlights just how different gardens are to remnant natural vegetation. If we are to maintain the maximum possible pollinator diversity, and associated pollination services, we need to retain as much remnant vegetation as possible when designing and building new developments. Gardens alone are not enough.

The study details are:

Prendergast, K.S. & Ollerton, J. (2021) Plant-pollinator networks in Australian urban bushland remnants are not structurally equivalent to those in residential gardens. Urban Ecosystems

The abstract is below; if you’d like a PDF of the paper please use the form on the Contact page.


Urbanisation is a prominent and increasing form of land-use change, with the potential to disrupt the interactions between pollinators such as bees and the flowering plants that they visit. This in turn may cause cascading local extinctions and have consequences for pollination services. Network approaches go beyond simple metrics of abundance and species richness, enabling understanding of how the structure of plant-pollinator communities are affected by urbanisation. Here we compared pollination networks between native vegetation (bushland) remnants and residential gardens in the urbanised region of the southwest Australian biodiversity hotspot. Across fourteen sites, seven per habitat, plant-bee visitor networks were created from surveys conducted monthly during the spring-summer period over two years. Extinction slope (a measure of how extinctions cascade through the network), and network robustness and nestedness were higher for bushland remnants, suggesting that networks in bushland remnants had greater functional integrity, but if disrupted, more cascading extinctions could occur. In contrast, niche overlap between pollinators was higher in residential gardens, suggesting greater competition for resources. Most species-level properties did not differ between habitats, except for normalised degree, which was higher in bushland remnants. In conclusion, it appears that pollination networks in managed residential gardens are not structurally equivalent with those in bushland remnants. This has implications for conservation of wild bee assemblages in this biodiversity hotspot, and suggests removal of remnant native vegetation for residential development could disrupt the integrity of plant-pollinator assemblages.

Recent pollinator and pollination related research that’s caught my eye

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As I near completion of the copy-editing phase of my forthcoming book it’s frustrating to see all of the great research that’s been produced in recent weeks that I probably won’t be able to cite!  Here’s a few things that caught my eye:

Damon Hall and Dino Martins have a short piece on Human dimensions of insect pollinator conservation in Current Opinion in Insect Science.  My favourite line is: “any call to ‘save the bees’ must be a call to stabilize agriculture”.  Amen to that.

In the journal New Phytologist, Rhiannon Dalrymple and colleagues, including Angela Moles who hosted me during my recent stay in Australia, have a great study entitled Macroecological patterns in flower colour are shaped by both biotic and abiotic factors.  The title pretty much sums it up: in order to fully understand how flowers evolve we need to consider more than just their interactions with pollinators.  It’s another demonstration of how we must look beyond simplistic ideas about pollination syndromes to fully understand the complexities of the relationship between flowering plants and pollinators…..

…..talking of which, again in New Phytologist, Agnes Dellinger asks: Pollination syndromes in the 21st century: where do we stand and where may we go?  It’s an insightful and far-reaching review of a topic that has intrigued me for more than 25 years.  There are still a lot of questions that need to be asked about a conceptual framework that, up until the 1990s, most people in ecology and biology accepted rather uncritically.  One of the main unanswered questions for me is how further study of largely unexplored floras will reveal the existence of new pollination systems/syndromes.  Which leads nicely to….

… amazing paper in Nature this week by Rodrigo Cámara-Leret et al. showing that New Guinea has the world’s richest island flora.  The described flora includes 13,634 plant species, 68% of which are endemic to New Guinea!  And the description of new species each year is not leveling off, there’s still more to be discovered.  A commentary on the paper by Vojtech Novotny and Kenneth Molem sets some wider context to the work, and quite a number of media outlets have covered the story.  Why is this relevant to pollinators and pollination?  Well, we actually know very little about this critical aspect of the ecology of the island: there’s only a handful of published studies of plant-pollinator interactions from New Guinea, mostly focused on figs, bird-flower interactions, and a couple of crops.  For such a biodiverse part of the world that’s a big gap in our understanding.

Finally, James Reilly, Rachael Winfree and colleagues have a paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society series B showing that: Crop production in the USA is frequently limited by a lack of pollinators.  Most significant findings to me were that of the seven crops studied, five of them have their yields limited by lack of pollinators, and that even in areas of highly intensive farming, wild bees provided as much pollination service as honeybees.

That’s a few of the things that I spotted this week; what have you seen that’s excited or intrigued you?  Feel free to comment.


Animal deaths in the Australian bushfires even greater than first feared – and what about the plants?

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Earlier this year I reported on the unprecedented Australian bushfires with some reflections of what I was observing during my time as a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of New South Wales – see: How are the Australian bushfires affecting biodiversity? Australia reflections part 4.   Karin also wrote a piece about the fires, focusing on the human impacts – see: Climate Change Stories From a Nation on Fire.

At the time scientists and the media were suggesting that perhaps half a billion reptiles, mammals and birds had been killed, a figure that provoked a strong public reaction when accompanied by images of fire-scorched koalas.  This was then revised upwards to 1 billion. But it turns out that even a billion is nowhere close to the real number of animal deaths.  A new interim report commissioned by WWF-Australia suggests that just under 3 billion animals were either directly killed or displaced.  Those which were displaced were vulnerable to feral predators such as foxes and cats, or more likely to succumb to starvation. An article in The Guardian about the WWF-Australia report is worth reading – here’s the link.

The actual figure is 2.69 billion individual animals.  Think about that for a moment.  That’s about equivalent the number of people living in India and China combined.  This is the breakdown for the different animal groups that were assessed:

● 143 million mammals
● 2.46 billion reptiles
● 180 million birds
● 51 million frogs

One thing should be immediately apparent: this is not a complete list of the “animals” that have been killed.  A lack of data means that fish, turtles and (crucially) invertebrates such as spiders, bees, beetles, and earthworms, were excluded.  Those invertebrates live at much higher densities than any of the animal groups that were assessed and indeed are the sole or principle food for many of those species.  The number of insects required to support just the insectivorous birds is staggering: globally, birds are estimated to eat 400-500 million tonnes of insects and other arthropods every year.

Even if we were to consider just the larger invertebrates, those bigger than say 0.5 cm in length (which are a minority – most are considerably smaller), then then the true scale of the animal deaths is going to be one or two orders of magnitude higher.  Or possibly more.  Thirty billion, 300 billion, 3 trillion…?  Who knows?  It’s impossible to estimate, we just don’t have enough information about those organisms.

The other major component of wildlife that is missing from the report is the plants.  I know that studies of plant mortality are being undertaken at the moment and it will be important that this is given the same level of publicity as the assessments of animals.

Writing in the foreword of the report, Dermot O’Gorman the CEO of WWF-Australia pointed out that: “It’s hard to think of another event anywhere in the world in living memory that has killed or displaced that many animals. This ranks as one of the worst wildlife disasters in modern history”.

I disagree.  I think it’s THE worst wildlife disaster in terms of the scale of animal losses over such a short period of time.  No doubt deforestation and destruction of grasslands in South America, Asia and Africa has killed more animals and plants.  But that’s over a timescale of decades to hundreds of years.  Australian wildlife was devastated in a matter of months. And no one knows exactly what the 2020-21 fire season will bring.  But I think that we can safely predict further impacts on wildlife – and people.


Help to save a bee species from extinction! And watch some cool videos

It’s World Bee Day and what better way to celebrate it than to help a bee species that’s close to extinction – watch this video about Australia’s Green Carpenter Bee and please donate to the cause:

And while you’re at it, here’s another couple of recent bee-related videos to watch:

And here’s one that doesn’t seem to want to embed – it’s Kit Prendergast from Curtin University.

Ecologists in a time of COVID-19


Yesterday I was involved in what’s likely to be be my last face-to-face teaching and meetings from some weeks, possibly months.  In the morning my colleague Duncan McCollin and I watched our final year students take part in an assessed debate that pitted two sides against one another to argue whether or not Brexit will have a negative effect on biodiversity.  The students did very well, they had a great grasp of the issues and the facts and figures.  The end result was very much a draw:

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Teaching at the University of Northampton will go online from the end of the week and a field trip for our first year undergraduates that we had planned for this Thursday has been pulled.  Our annual Tenerife Field Course has also been cancelled: this will be the first year since 2003 that I have not visited the island and it’s going to leave a hole in my long-term data sets.  Perhaps the universe is telling me that it’s time to write them up for publication?

Last week I did a quick vox pop on Twitter to ask how COVID-19 has affected ecology field work at other universities:

The response was interesting and it’s clear that overseas field courses have been massively impacted.  Following the UK Government’s advice yesterday about limiting social contact it seems that local field work for student groups will also be affected.  Hopefully those undertaking individual field work, especially PhD and postdoctoral researchers, will still be able to carry out their data collection.  Do let me know in the comments if it’s affecting your work.

There were also some Twitter responses from professional ecological consultants pointing out that they may not be able to carry out surveys of sites for planning and development purposes.  This is yet another way in which COVID-19 is going to impact our economy.

Following the student debate, Duncan and I headed out to catch up with a meeting of the steering group of the Chequered Skipper Reintroduction Project   We missed the morning’s presentations but arrived in time for the lunch and a short field trip:

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The location of the reintroduction is still being kept secret, as is a second site where a further reintroduction of butterflies from the Belgium population is being considered.  However there was much discussion as to whether restrictions on travel means that this would have to be delayed until next year.

On the way to that site, during a 15 minute drive, we spotted seven red kites.  They are now so common that seeing these amazing birds hardly requires comment.  But we should never forget what an incredibly successful conservation story this has been.  To cap it all, when we arrived at the site I had the pleasure of meeting Karl Ivens, one of the main drivers behind the reintroduction of red kites to Northamptonshire. He now estimates the regional population to be a couple of thousand birds.  The guy deserves a statue, or at least a blue plaque on his house!

On the way home I was thinking about my next blog post and what to write, and whether or not to bring the pandemic into it.  There’s a lot of information, and misinformation, about COVID-19 online and I’m not qualified to add to that: I’m not an epidemiologist.  However I’d like to link to a few things I think are worth reading.

Over at the Dynamic Ecology blog, Brian McGill has posted an open thread on ecologists discussing the coronavirus pandemic.  There are some interesting contributions in the comments, particularly around the response of the UK Government to the crisis.  I was struck by Jeremy Fox’s comment that Britain has some brilliant epidemiological modelers and that “even if you don’t think much of Boris Johnson or his senior advisers, the modelers who are feeding them information and advice are intellectually honest, hardworking, care deeply about protecting the public, and are as good at their jobs as anybody in the world.”  As I pointed out in a reply, this is undoubtedly true, but a lot depends on whether the government is willing to implement that advice. And its track record so far is not inspiring: for years it ignored expert advice on the effects of badger culling on the spread of bovine TB and continued to kill badgers. It’s only just reversed that decision.  Let’s hope that they have learned from that experience.

I am also hoping that there will be at least one positive outcome from the current pandemic on top of recent extreme weather patterns linked to climate change (for example the drought and fires in Australia that I blogged about in January).  I hope that it serves to  remind the public, governments and large corporations just how dependent on the environment our society is.  Despite our advanced technologies, we are incredibly sensitive to disruptions in the natural world.  As this old piece from the New York Times points out: “most epidemics — AIDS, Ebola, West Nile, SARS, Lyme disease and hundreds more that have occurred over the last several decades — don’t just happen. They are a result of things people do to nature“.   That was in 2012, long before COVID-19 was discovered.  To update this, check out the Wildlife Conservation Society’s ongoing series of articles about the relationship between our destruction of natural habitats, the trade in illegally (and legally) hunted animals, and emerging diseases such as COVID-19.

I realise that I’m fortunate and that there’s a lot that I can do by working from home.  For the next few weeks I’ll be doing just that, supporting students online, completing grant and manuscript reviews, having Zoom/Skype meetings, and completing the book that I am writing.  Stay safe everyone.

Pollinators, climate change, and extreme events: two recent publications

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Well, we’re back in the UK now and have just about got over the jet lag.  I’ve returned to teaching, admin, and meetings, and both Karin and I are trying to find time to finish our books.  But the persistent backdrop to our stay in Australia – the bushfires and the role of climate change, and the ensuing tensions between scientific evidence and politics – is still fresh in our minds.  It’s timely, then, to highlight two new papers that focus on extreme events, climate change and pollinators.  The first is one of my own, led by Dr Hilary Erenler who carried out her PhD research in my group.  It’s an invited mini-review in the journal Current Opinion in Insect Science entitled “Impact of extreme events on pollinator assemblages” (Erenler et al. 2020).  The review is available as a pre-print on the journal’s website; we’ve not yet even seen the proofs, though the final version should not be too different.  If you want a copy, just ask.

In this essay we focus on what we term SHOCKS: events that provide a Sudden, High-magnitude Opportunity for a Catastrophic ‘Kick’ to the environment that can negatively affect pollinator assemblages in many different ways.  Such events can be natural, human-mediated or human-enhanced, and occur suddenly, at a high-magnitude and with possibly catastrophic outcomes for those pollinators. There are many examples of such SHOCKs, as we illustrate in the figure above which comes from the paper.  However one of our main conclusions is just how little we understand about the outcomes of such events on pollinators.  Ideally we need before, during and after event monitoring to assess how pollinators have been affected and may respond.  But SHOCKs are, by their very nature, infrequent and unpredictable, and often we don’t have the baseline data with which to compare to post-event data.  I know from conversations with Australian pollination ecologists that some have had their field sites burned and they are going to use this as an opportunity to assess how the fires have impacted pollinators.  Field experiments such as the one by Biella et al. (2019) that I discussed last year, in which flowers were removed from a plant community, may also give us some insights into the response of plant-pollinator networks to sudden SHOCKs.  But we need more research focus on this topic, especially consideration of how the impacts of SHOCKs can be reduced and mitigated.

One set of emerging human-enhanced SHOCKs highlighted by Erenler et al. (2020) is extreme weather events that are being exacerbated (in scale or frequency) by anthropogenic climate change.  We cite several papers and reviews that have considered this, but there’s still few empirical studies that have actually looked at how weather SHOCKs might be impacting pollinators.  It’s therefore timely that this week’s Science includes a very impressive study of how climate change has affected populations of bumblebees (Bombus spp.) in Europe and North America (Soroye et al. 2020).

The title of the paper rather gives away its findings:  “Climate change contributes to widespread declines among bumble bees across continents“.  This study shows that, for the 66 species of Bombus studied, there had been a decline in species diversity in 100 km x 100 km quadrats of, on average, 46% in North America and 17% in Europe.  This loss of diversity has occurred in the period 2000–2014, relative to a baseline of 1901–1974.  Using some sophisticated analyses they show that climate change has been the main driver of these losses, and has been more important than factors such as changes in land use, pesticides, etc.  Which is not to discount those other contributors to pollinator loss: they can interact with climate change and are all part of the assault that we are imposing on the environment.

The most significant finding of the Soroye et al. (2020) study, and the reason why I’m discussing Erenler et al. (2020) in the same post, is that it’s extreme heat which seems to be the driving factor in determining Bombus declines.  Bumblebees are large, hairy insects because they are adapted to cooler conditions: they are not, by and large, tropical insects, except in mountainous areas.  Not surprisingly, then, it is the number of days of temperatures higher than those historically encountered by particular bee species that is the main driver of their loss from a region.  In relation to the figure above, this is the result of human-enhanced SHOCKs, and for heat-sensitive species like bumblebees, they are occurring more often than we had imagined when we wrote our review.  I fear that the coming years will see more examples of this as the effects of anthropogenic climate change continue to play out and our world experiences more extremes of weather events that are hotter, wetter, colder, drier, windier, and more combustible than we have previously known.


Biella P., Akter A., Ollerton J., Tarrant S., Janeček Š., Jersáková J. & Klecka J. (2019) Experimental loss of generalist plants reveals alterations in plant-pollinator interactions and a constrained flexibility of foraging. Scientific Reports 9: 1-13

Erenler, H.E., Gillman, M.P. & Ollerton, J. (2020) Impact of extreme events on pollinator assemblages.  Current Opinion in Insect Science (in press)

Soroye, P., Newbold, T. & Kerr, J. (2020) Climate change contributes to widespread declines among bumble bees across continents. Science 367: 685-688 [see also the commentary by Bridle and van Rensburg pp. 626-627 of the same issue]

Neither left nor right, but international environmentalism: Australia reflections part 8

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The NASA Earth Observatory reported this week that “explosive fire activity” has caused smoke from the Australian bushfires to enter the stratosphere and be carried half way around the world.  That smoke is currently creating hazy skies and colourful sunrises and sunsets across South America.  In the coming months the smoke will complete a full circuit and arrive back in Australia, and then continue onwards … for who knows how long?

Nothing I’ve read this week sums up better the fact that the world’s environmental challenges, including climate change, are global in scale and scope.  They therefore require global initiatives to solve.  But as I’ll argue below, equating “green” politics with the left and “anti-environmental” policies with the right is an unhelpful characterisation.

Despite the need for global action, the world’s political landscape seems to be going in the opposite direction.  Inward-looking, right-wing populism is on the rise, and governments are hunkering down into a siege mentality of denying that there are any environmental problems that require serious, long-term action.  The Australian government, bolstered by the Murdoch-owned media empire (see Michael Mann’s recent piece on this in Newsweek), sees the bushfire crisis as “business as usual” even though all the evidence is to the contrary – demonstrated in this interesting piece from two Australian climate scientists.

Elsewhere in the world, Presidents Bolsonaro in Brazil and Trump in the USA are tearing up environmental regulations and “green tape” and allowing “the people” (or at least big business interests) to ransack the natural world for their own gain.  At the same time, one of the less-well-reported elements of Boris Johnson’s various speeches over the past few months has been its emphasis on the environment (he even used the word “biodiversity” in one of them) and the pressure he put on the other leaders of the G7 countries at their most recent meeting.  Perhaps that should come as no surprise given that Boris’s father, former Conservative MEP Stanley Johnson, has sound credentials as an environmentalist, particularly during his time with the European Commission. Indeed, in the mid 1980s Stanley Johnson received an award from Greenpeace for “Outstanding Services to the Environment”.  He’s even written for The Guardian, which is not the natural home for a member of the Conservative party.  There are other Conservatives with sincere pro-environmental attitudes (Zac Goldsmith and Rory Stewart come immediately to mind) and whatever you may think about their views on other topics, you can’t doubt their sincere environmental commitments.  And of course there are pro-environmental politicians in the Labour Party, and the Liberals and the SNP and Plaid Cymru and…..well, just about all of them.

Globally, both right- and left-governed states have variable environmental policies. Two countries recently reported that they had made extraordinary progress in tree planting restoration schemes: India (a right-wing, populist government) and Ethiopia (much more left-leaning).  China (communist in name but who knows what we should call it?) has a very mixed record on the environment, with huge investments in both solar power and coal mining.  It’s hard to get firm environmental data out of communist North Korea but the evidence so far suggests that they are not doing well: see this piece from 2009 by journalist Peter Hayes.

Closer to home, in the last few months on Twitter I’ve been called an “eco-loony” by a farmer; told that my objections to the High Speed 2 (HS2) rail infrastructure project were providing support for climate change deniers by a couple of train buffs; and accused of “sleeping with the enemy” by an environmental activist who didn’t like my stance on another large project.  The latter also tweeted a made-up quote from me to emphasise just how morally corrupt I was. Irony was lost on them I think.  I don’t know the political allegiances of those individuals but if I was a betting man I’d be fairly sure of a good return – definitely a mix across the spectrum.

Hopefully these examples make something abundantly clear: the relationship between politics and environmentalism is not straightforward.  That’s been obvious to me, and many others, for a long time.  But I’m not sure how widely understood this is because the impression that is presented to the public by both the right- and left-leaning media, is that “green equals left”.  And whilst there may be some truth to that currently in relation to the political alliances formed between various Green Parties, there is no historical basis for this correlation.  It’s even mixed up in the minds of the modern-day socialists. A few months ago a left-wing journalist opined that the left had “always” been pro-environmental, yet the (supposedly) socialist website Spiked has been publishing pieces arguing that environmentalists are against the working class and that de-carbonisation strategies will cost jobs – see this piece for instance.  Before anyone comments, I’m aware that Spiked has an odd and paradoxical history…..

Historically, both the far left and the far right have a mixed track record on the environment.  I read an appalling story recently about the Soviet Union whaling fleet killing whales simply to meet targets, not because they were of value economically; the author described it as “the most senseless environmental crime of the 20th century“.  However, communist Cuba set aside 10% of its area as national parks and biosphere reserves, and has a strong environmental track record.  In the 1950s, Maoist China had a policy of killing sparrows and other “pests” that was partly the cause of the Great Chinese Famine in which tens of millions of people died of starvation.  The first National Parks in the world were set up in the USA by what we could broadly consider conservative presidents, but the American legacy of nuclear testing and the fossil fuel industry is nothing to be proud of.  Finally, there is a long history of “green” fascism, from the environmental policies of the Nazis (I’ve not read this book but it looks fascinating), to individuals such as Jorian Jenks who was a founding member of the Soil Association, to modern day “eco-fascists” whose justification for carrying out mass-murder and domestic terrorism is rooted in arguments about reducing population growth in order to “save the Earth”.

It’s telling that Big Capitalism is starting to think more seriously about global environmental problems, how they can be solved, and at the same time create jobs and prosperity (and a buck or two for investors – I’m not naive).  Outgoing head of the Bank of England Mark Carney  has argued that firms and banks need to stop investing in fossil-fuels.  Many are following his lead, or are ahead of that curve, including the bank Goldman Sachs and the $7 trillion investment firm BlackRock which has recently stated that “climate change will become the centre of the firm’s investment strategy“.  Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman  has argued this week that Australia is showing us “the road to hell” and that governments and businesses of all political stripes and inclination better get on board with the environmental agenda.  Soon!

I firmly believe that neither the left nor the right are the friend nor the foe of environmentalism: there are plenty of historical and current examples of rapacious right-wing and left-wing governments, and also examples of such governments being highly pro-active at reducing  their country’s environmental impact.  The one thing that seems to me to be environmentally damaging is a rigid ideology that is followed through regardless of where it is positioned.

The title of this piece is a word play on a slogan adopted by the Socialist Workers Party: “Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism”.  The environmental challenges facing our planet, our species, and the species with which we share this biosphere, are international in scope and it requires international, multi-partisan political action to address.   Whatever your personal political leanings, if you care about the planet, that statement must be blindingly obvious.  That’s why I’m so supportive of organisations like the UN’s IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services).  Now, more than ever, the world needs this level of pan-national leadership.

If I’ve learned one thing as an ecologist it’s that the world is a complex, historically contingent and often unpredictable place: simplistic notions of socialism = good/bad and capitalism = good/bad are not going to solve the current crisis of climate change, loss of biodiversity, pollution, and a host of other environmental problems.  Only thinking outside of narrow ideologies is going to do that, and using the tools and strategies that are available to us, including market forces, open democracy, local activism, global movements, and whatever else works.  I’m still optimistic that the world can provide humanity with the kind of  metaphorical “pleasant walks” that Charles Darwin wrote about when he visited the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney:

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But we have to act fast.  Otherwise the ruins of civilization, and of the biosphere, may be our species’ legacy: that’s why I chose the image that opens this piece.

Feral bees in odd places; Australia reflections part 7

On a trip to the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney yesterday Karin and I came across an interesting colonial-era statue in which a colony of feral, non-native honey bees had taken up residence.  These bees are yet another alien invasive species that can create conservation problems in parts of the world where they don’t belong naturally.  But it was funny enough to inspire a bit of Ogden Nash-style poetry on Twitter; you need to watch the video to fully appreciate it:

Life between the tides: Australia reflections part 6

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That last post about climate change and politics was a bit heavy, for which I make no apologies.  But there’s always space for something lighter on this blog.  Sometimes it’s nice to reflect on what brought me to the point of being a scientist with an interest in biodiversity.  Some of my earliest exposure to natural history involved peering into rock pools on the coast near Sunderland in the north east of England.  In an old family album there’s a photograph of me aged about four, intently gazing at the welks, crabs and anemones as they wait for the next tidal surge to bring food or predators.  If I wasn’t in Australia I’d go and hunt that photo down and share it with you.  Right into my 20s my dad would tell any and every one about my childhood obsession with “gannin’ on the yocks”.  The word “gannin'” is north eastern colloquial English for “going” while “yocks” was me not being able to pronounce “rocks”.  “I’m gannin’ on the yocks” became a family catchphrase that could be used in any number of circumstances.  It might just sum up my professional career if I think hard about it….

Later, at school and then college, I took part in several class projects that involved running transect lines down the shore and examining the zonation of the creatures: more hardy organisms, predictably, at higher points, the sensitive species lower down.  Generations of biology students must have done similar studies.  Do they still?

These rocky shore reminiscences have been inspired by a great piece of writing about tide pooling by Sarah Jean McPeek over at the Lively Discussions blog.  I can’t match Sarah’s eloquent lyricism but I can match her love of a rocky shore.  There are some great ones on the coast near Coogee, ranging from very small, deep holes, up to huge, artificial ones that were built as ocean swimming pools. Here’s some photos:

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Holes within a pool.  This is a great opportunity for a rocky shore ecologist to do a replicated manipulation experiment:

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This is a different kind of experiment to test the hypothesis that water in large pools has evaporated enough to make it significantly more saline and thus increase the buoyancy of the human body.  Hypothesis supported:

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A classic wave-cut platform:

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This very distinctive seaweed is known as Neptune’s necklace (Hormosira banksii):

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This pool is being influenced by a freshwater spring that’s coming in from the left:

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These fresh water streams and pools are important for the local coastal birds, including silver gulls (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae) which belong to the same genus as black-headed gulls (C. ridibundus) in the northern hemisphere but which I think is a prettier species:

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Australian white ibis (Threskiornis molucca) also enjoy the fresh water pools:

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Humans have inhabited this coastal area for at least 20,000 years and its the traditional land of the Cadigal people.  In more recent times the locals have enjoyed the huge tidal swimming pool known as Wylie’s Baths.  I’ve snorkeled here a few times and seen some beautiful fish and invertebrates:

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Much further up the coast at Port Macquarie, which we visited over Christmas as I recalled in this post, the geology is very different.  The rocky shores are composed of hard volcanic basalt rather than the softer Sydney sandstone:

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This is an incredibly dynamic environment.  According to my relatives in Port Macquarie, the place where Karin is standing was until recently a rock pool almost two metres deep that was rapidly filled up by the shifting sands of the coast.  Winter storms will probably scour the sand out again.  Will the limpets and barnacles have survived I wonder?

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2019-12-22 15.24.06




Climate change, politics and a host of viewpoints: Australia reflections part 5


It’s impossible to get away from discussions of climate change and its role in the Australian bushfires at the moment. It’s all over the Australian media, at least that part of the media that isn’t controlled by the Murdoch empire.  Politicians of various stripes are falling over themselves to declare their point of view and some careers are (hopefully) being harmed by crass statements that try to belittle expert, informed opinion – the latest example from Twitter is #NotAWeatherGirl, which has been trendingfor a couple of days now.

If you have any interest in global climate change then the name of Prof. Michael E. Mann will be familiar to you, from his famous hockey stick graph, his work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, his books on the topic, the RealClimate blog, as well as numerous media interviews and television appearances.  Until yesterday we’d not met.  But by coincidence, like me, Prof. Mann is also on sabbatical in Australia, is also working at UNSW, and is based near to us.  Via Twitter I invited him for a meet up to discuss what’s happening in Australia at the moment and to set it in a global perspective.  Karin and I met with Mike at a local café, along with an Australian journalist who has asked to remain anonymous, and we chatted for a couple of hours.  From the position of outsiders coming from cultures that politically are moving closer together, and with an expert local perspective, it was interesting to consider what the USA, the UK and Australia have in common and what’s different. And of course, Karin’s Danish heritage provided yet another perspective.  What follows is a short summary of our discussion and some additional thoughts.

One thing that’s clearly true is that the climate change deniers have lost.  Period.  There’s no faux science or dodgy statistics that they can fall back on that have any credibility.  Fudging the data, as some have tried to do for Australia, does not work anymore: anyone willing to listen can see through this charade.

The world’s weather systems are changing, and they are changing EXACTLY in line with the predictions based on human-induced climate change. These changes are causing massive disruptions to natural ecosystems and to human societies, from the drought and fires in Australia and California, to the flooding in Jakarta and the American mid-west, and in parts of the UK.  Karin’s been writing about this recently in relation to human stories from the bushfires and I recommend you take a look; as always, her take on such events complements my own.

The misery that these bushfires and floods have produced among citizens has prompted previously skeptical or agnostic politicians to act, or be seen to be acting.  Those that don’t (and we’re looking here at Aussie Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the increasingly desperate Donald Trump – who’d’ve thunk he’d try to start a war in the middle of a personal political crisis….?) are going to find themselves quickly out of office.  In this regard the British government is rather different, and Boris Johnson appears to be on board with the need to act on climate change.  Even Piers Morgan seems to be hurrying to get on to the right side of history.  But the danger is that it will be too little, too late.  Denmark, of course, along with other Scandinavian countries is showing just how much can be done to cut emissions from energy generation, travel and agriculture, and to invest in a more sustainable future.

In the face of such overwhelming scientific evidence, the consortium of right-wing media barons, plus vested business interests and unfriendly foreign agents, have adopted a different tactic. Rather than deny the science they are targeting the individual influencers who they see as a danger to their power. The vile abuse of Greta Thunberg is the most obvious example, but Mike’s come in for his fair share of abuse too.  Anyone with green credentials who flies or has a less than Spartan lifestyle is accused of hypocrisy, and the focus is being turned on to what individuals should be doing rather than what governments and industry can achieve much more easily and with greater impact.  In Australia it seems there is a campaign to down-play the role of natural processes in the bushfire crisis by claiming that it’s mainly due to a spate of arson, and that “Greenies” have made the situation worse – Twitter bots and trolls have been implicated in this conspiracy.

All of this is an effort to undermine sustainability arguments: that we can have a sound economy based on social justice, environmental protection, green jobs, and a transition to a low-carbon economy.  But we need some structural changes to the global economy, including getting away from this obsession with GDP and “growth”.  This doesn’t mean throwing the baby out with the bath water and dismantling capitalism altogether.  We were agreed that we need to build on the best bits of capitalism and open democracy, and move forward with that, rather than tearing down what has been achieved in terms of human progress.  As I’ve mentioned before, Steven Pinker’s recent book Enlightenment Now has some great arguments on this topic.

Related to this is the fact that environmentalism does not have a political home – it is neither left- nor right-wing in focus: there are greens across the spectrum. Karin summed it up neatly this morning when she said: “Perhaps environmentalism is the catalyst to bring us together, no matter what our political beliefs or backgrounds are?”

This is important to appreciate because we all tend to gravitate towards others who share our views.  Meeting face-to-face with people like Mike and the journalist is inspiring but there’s always the danger that we are talking within a bubble, an echo chamber that just reflects backs our own perspectives on the world. The same is true of social media. One of the discussions we had was about who we aim our blogs, books and Twitter messages at: who are we trying to talk to? Those people too entrenched in their views, who will deny the impact of, or solutions to the world’s environmental problems are a lost cause.  Nothing will sway them.  Those who agree with us don’t need any further convincing: they are already strong allies.  But there’s a huge swathe of the population between these two poles that can hopefully be won over and convinced by sound arguments.  That’s who we need to reach out to, that’s who I hope is following the tragic events in Australia and elsewhere in the world, and seeing what is really happening.

Jeff and Mike Mann