Category Archives: Biodiversity

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.

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.

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.

Ivy binds the landscape and bridges the seasons: a new article just published

If you check out the latest issue of Bees and Other Pollinators Quarterly you’ll see that, as well as having a piece on the forthcoming COP26 climate change meeting and what it means for pollinators, the magazine has also published a short opinion piece by me called “In Praise of….Ivy”. The magazine is currently in the shops or you can subscribe by following this link: https://bq-mag.store/.

Although it can be invasive and an environmental nuisance in parts of the world where it’s introduced, common or European ivy (Hedera helix) is clearly one of the most vital plants across its native range of Europe, southern Scandinavia and the Mediterranean. Its clinging stems bind the landscape and provide habitat for a diversity of creatures. By offering nectar at a time when there’s few other plants in flower, and berries at a crucial point in the winter, ivy bridges a food gap for both nectar feeding insect and fruit eating birds and mammals.

Ivy is a very popular subject for student research because it’s in flower at the start of the university academic year. In the past I’ve had several students carry out their final year projects using ivy to test ideas about pollinator effectiveness and plant reproductive success. Because the open, densely-clustered flowers can dust pollen onto any insect that visits, the most effective pollinators will vary depending on which are abundant at any time and place, and include various types of flies and bees, plus those much-misunderstood wasps!

Perhaps we should leave the final word on ivy to the Northamptonshire ‘Peasant Poet’ John Clare who wrote ‘To the Ivy’ in the early 19th century:

Dark creeping Ivy, with thy berries brown,

That fondly twists’ on ruins all thine own,

Old spire-points studding with a leafy crown

Which every minute threatens to dethrone;

With fearful eye I view thy height sublime,

And oft with quicker step retreat from thence

Where thou, in weak defiance, striv’st with Time,

And holdst his weapons in a dread suspense.

But, bloom of ruins, thou art dear to me,

When, far from danger’s way, thy gloomy pride

Wreathes picturesque around some ancient tree

That bows his branches by some fountain-side:

Then sweet it is from summer suns to be,

With thy green darkness overshadowing me.

Further reading

Bradbury, K. (2015) English ivy: berry good for birds. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/gardening-blog/2015/feb/19/english-ivy-berry-good-for-birds

Bumblebee Conservation Trust (2021) Ivy mining bee: https://www.bumblebeeconservation.org/ivyminingbee/

Jacobs, J.H., Clark, S.J., Denholm, I., Goulson D., Stoate, C. & Osborne J.L. (2010) Pollinator effectiveness and fruit set in common ivy, Hedera helix (Araliaceae). Arthropod-Plant Interactions 4: 19–28

Ollerton, J. (2021) Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society. Pelagic Publishing, Exeter, UK

Ollerton, J., Killick, A., Lamborn, E., Watts, S. & Whiston, M. (2007) Multiple meanings and modes: on the many ways to be a generalist flower. Taxon 56: 717-728

Woodland Trust (2021) Ivy. https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/plants/wild-flowers/ivy/

A milkweed on the shore: tracking down an elusive Danish plant

Since arriving in Odsherred towards the end of August I’ve been looking out for one plant in particular on our bicycle rides and hikes around the region. Vincetoxicum hirundinaria is a widespread asclepiad or milkweed: a member of the family Apocynaceae, subfamily Asclepiadoideae. This is a group of plants on which I’ve published quite a few research papers and which feature heavily in my book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society.

So far the species has proven elusive and a few Danish ecologists that I’d spoken with told me they had never seen it in the wild. The GBIF account of the species shows a few populations in this part of Denmark but I wasn’t sure if they were old records of populations that no longer exist. But as of yesterday I can confirm that at least one of those populations is extant!

We had cycled out to the small town of Klint about 13km west of us, to see the glacial moraine landscape for which the area is famous and which gives Odsherred UNESCO Geopark status. As we approached the small fishing harbour at Klint I let out an excited shout to Karin who was just ahead of me: in amongst the roadside vegetation I’d spotted the distinctive and immediately recognisable yellow of Vincetoxicum hirundinaria in its autumnal hues! In the photos that follow you can see how well that yellow stands out against the colours of the other plants in the community.

At this time of the year the plant has ceased flowering, but the occasional swollen green seed pod was evidence of successful pollination of their morphologically complex flowers.

I was surprised at just how close to the sea the plants were growing; they must get inundated by sea water during stormy tidal surges.

So what is pollinating these flowers on this exposed shoreline? That’s a question that I want to pursue in the coming years. The Pollinators of Apocynaceae Database has remarkably few records of pollinators in this species, given how widespread it is. Flies certainly pollinate it, but there’s also records of wasps and bees as visitors, including bumblebees on flowers of a plant that I had in cultivation in Northampton. There’s a couple of other research groups in Scandinavia and Europe who are looking at the pollination ecology of the species and I’m hoping that we can collaborate on a study of spatial variation in its reproduction. Vincetoxicum is quite a large genus (around 150 species) and only around 10% of the species have been studied in any detail. But these studies are revealing a complex diversity of pollinators, including most recently, cockroaches in the Chinese species Vincetoxicum hainanense. I’m sure this intriguing group of plants has more fascinating stories to tell us about the ecology and evolution of its pollination systems.

FIGURE 4 from Xiong et al. (2020) Specialized cockroach pollination in the rare and
endangered plant Vincetoxicum hainanense in China. American Journal of Botany 107:
1355–1365.