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“.
My summer reading this year has included two books that I’ve really looked forward to, and which have not disappointed. These books are on the one hand very different and yet share enough similarities for me to review them together. Michael E. Mann’s The New Climate War focuses on the ‘climate emergency’ whilst Dave Goulson’s Silent Earth is about the ‘ecological emergency’, and specifically the decline of insect populations. As I pointed out in arecent New Scientist opinion piece: “the climate emergency often overshadows the ecological emergency, even though the two overlap both in their causes and their solutions”. Reading these two volumes in parallel has given me a much deeper understanding of just how true that statement is, and it’s why I’m suggesting that of the many, many books that have been recently written about our current environmental crisis, these deserve to be the ones that you read.
Silent Earth deals with the billions of small things – the insects and other invertebrates – that make the world function the way it does. These creatures facilitate the recycling of organic material, the pollination of wild and crop plants, the regulation of populations of other species, and play a host of additional ecological roles. The central thesis of the book is that the growing evidence of declines and extinctions of these small animals should give us cause for concern. In contrast, The New Climate War is about the big stuff – how the world’s atmosphere and oceans are heating up, the contribution of human activities to that warming, and what this means for weather patterns and sea levels across the globe. And how industry and politicians have conspired to deny, obfuscate, and divide, undermining efforts to decarbonise the world’s economy.
It matters not whether we view the world through a microscope or via an Earth observation satellite, both of these ways of seeing and understanding are important to our future as a species. The flap of a butterfly’s wings may only rarely be the indirect cause of a hurricane in the Caribbean, but reading these books nonetheless reminds us of the connections between the world’s biosphere and its physical domains.
The science underlying both books acts as a background to their main purpose: convincing the reader that there are urgent issues with which we, as a society, must deal. In this respect they are unapologetically political, and the point at which science meets environmentalism. The books are written by scientists who are respected experts in their respective fields, but who are not content with sitting back on their award- and citation-laden laurels, and allowing their science to speak for itself (as important as that is). Both Mann and Goulson have entered the more public arenas of politics and social commentary to argue the case for fundamental restructuring of some aspects of our societies. Their reward has been near constant criticism, much of it personal, vindictive and even threatening, by the vested interests of the fossil fuel industry (Mann) and agro-chemical & farming interests (Goulson) and the keyboard warriors who labour on their behalf, wittingly or not. That Mann and Goulson persist in voicing their concerns in this way, at the same time continuing to publish high quality science, says much about them as people and their commitment to these important causes.
The stereotype of the cold, calculating, emotionless scientist is shattered by these authors as they frequently refer to their families, especially their children, as a prime motivation for their activism. In an emotive chapter, Goulson imagines his son as an old man sitting up through the night to defend the vegetables that he’s growing with his family in a Britain that has experienced not an apocalyptic collapse of society and basic infrastructure, but “a slow unravelling over decades”. As he remembers back to the world of his youth he wonders: “Why did we fail to act? We humans do not seem to be very good at grasping the big picture”.
The Big Picture is certainly an underlying theme of both books, despite the different scales at which these scientists work, and both are revelatory in their descriptions of what’s occurring behind the scenes. Pull aside the curtain and we see the financial connections between various anti-environmental think tanks and lobby groups (Mann) and the hypocrisy of large business corporations which continue to manufacture highly toxic pesticides that, although banned in the west, can be profitably exported to developing countries (Goulson). All of these messages of corruption and environmental degradation could make the books pessimistic reads. But in fact both have an optimistic undertone, a sense that we know what the issues are, we know what’s got us into this mess, and there are routes out of it. But only if (and it is a huge if) there is the willingness of governments and large corporations to act.
Both writers share a belief in humour and personal anecdotes as vehicles for emphasising important points. For example Mann describing the fearsome and brutal attention given by climate deniers to Greta Thunberg and other youthful activists as being like the Eye of Sauron (one of several Lord of the Rings analogies). Or Goulson’s description of giving a phone interview to Australian radio while lurking in the piss-smelling toilet of a British pub. These books are brought to life by the authors’ experiences as scientists and as advocates, and their passionate wish for a better future.
Full disclosure: this can hardly be considered an objective review as both Dave Goulson and Mike Mann are friends of mine. Dave I met over thirty years ago when we were graduate students in the same department, and we’ve published a few things together. Mike I encountered much more recently, as I described in this post, when we were concurrently on sabbatical at the University of New South Wales and discovered that we were living in adjacent apartment blocks. In some respects the world of science is a very small one. Despite these personal connections I don’t think that I would have said much that’s different about either book had I not known their writers. But who knows, that’s not the way things are. There are certainly things to criticise in both books, and I don’t agree with all of the writers’ conclusions and could debate several points of interpretation with them, especially in Silent Earth where I’m in more comfortable territory. But those would be minor criticisms in light of the conclusions that these important books draw: that our world is changing rapidly, that we are responsible, and that we have a duty to act immediately. It’s not too late, but we need to listen to the science and what scientists such as Mann and Goulson are telling us.
Watch out for my article in Bees and Other Pollinators Quarterly Magazine about what the forthcoming COP26 climate change meeting has in store for pollinators, including why commitments to developing countries are important and the Grasslands+ initiative.
The magazine is in the shops on October 12th or you can subscribe by following this link: https://bq-mag.store/
Over the past few months I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between the “Climate Emergency” (CE) and the “Ecological Emergency” (EE), and how they overlap considerably in terms of causes and solutions, but that the priorities of the CE often trump those of the EE. One of the outcomes of this has been a commentary that’s been published in New Scientist this week. It’s free to access – here’s the link:
It’s extracted from a much longer article that discusses the role of pollinators in relation to climate change. Hopefully that will be published in the not too distant future.
The other thing that’s happened this week is that, in my role as Visiting Professor of Biodiversity at the University of Northampton, I was asked to take part in a webinar that’s one of a series being produced in support of the Levelling Up Goals. The LUGs, modelled on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have cross-party support in Parliament and aim to bring economic prosperity to those parts of the country that have lagged behind in recent decades. The “Green Economy” is seen as central to this.
It was interesting and I learned quite a bit, for example about how the government is investing the state pension pot in sustainable energy projects. The format of the webinar, however, with the chair asking individuals a question and each of us responding, was a little frustrating as there was no real opportunity to counter statements being made, particularly by the MP for Hexham.
Yesterday Karin and I had out first COVID-19 vaccination; today we both feel a little under the weather, but it will pass. It’s certainly better than the alternative!
The distribution of plants, animals and other organisms that we see around us is clearly influenced by climate: all species have limitations in terms of temperature, rainfall, etc., that affects where they can live and reproduce. As well as these contemporary “climatic niches” however, there are much more subtle effects of historical climate on species, and the ways in which they interact with one another. These are harder to study because it requires us to know about what climatic conditions were like in a particular region thousands or millions of years ago. But as our knowledge of paleoclimates grows, we can apply it to understand how contemporary ecology is shaped by the past. This in turn may tell us how species will react to future climate change.
In a new study that I’ve just published with Brazilian, Danish and American colleagues, we’ve shown that the frequency with which a South American savannah tree self-pollinates is determined mainly by the climatic stability experienced by a population since the Last Glacial Maximum. In contrast, and perhaps surprisingly, the current diversity and abundance of pollinators plays a much smaller role in how often plants self-pollinate.
The work was led by André Rodrigo Rech and formed part of his original PhD research. Here’s the full citation:
The abstract is below, first in English then in Portuguese. If anyone wants a PDF please add a comment or send me a message via my Contact page.
Patterns in ecology are the products of current factors interacting with history. Nevertheless, few studies have attempted to disentangle the contribution of historical and current factors, such as climate change and pollinator identity and behavior, on plant reproduction. Here, we attempted to separate the relative importance of current and historical processes on geographical patterns of the mating system of the tree species Curatella americana (Dilleniaceae). Specifically, we asked the following: (a) How do Quaternary and current climate affect plant mating system? (b) How does current pollinator abundance and diversity relate to plant mating system? (c) How does mating system relate to fruit/seed quantity and quality in C. americana? We recorded pollinators (richness, frequency, and body size) and performed pollination tests in ten populations of C. americana spread over 3,000 km in the Brazilian savannah. The frequency of self‐pollination in the absence of pollinators was strongly influenced by historical climatic instability and not by present‐day pollinators. In contrast, seed set from hand‐cross and natural pollination were affected by pollinators (especially large bees) and temperature, indicating the importance of current factors on out‐cross pollination. Two populations at the Southern edge of the species’ distribution showed high level of hand‐cross‐pollination and high flower visitation by large bees, but also a high level of autogamy resulting from recent colonization. Our results indicate that historical instability in climate has favored autogamy, most likely as a reproductive insurance strategy facilitating colonization and population maintenance over time, while pollinators are currently modulating the level of cross‐pollination.
Os padrões em ecologia são o produto de fatores contemporâneos interagindo a partir de uma bagagem histórica. Apesar desse reconhecimento, poucos estudos se ativeram em separar as contribuições dos fatores históricos e atuais como o clima, a identidade e comportamento de polinizadores sobre a reprodução de plantas. Neste trabalho nós decompomos a importância relativa dos processos contemporâneos e históricos no padrão geográfico do sistema reprodutivo da árvore comum no Cerrado, Curatella americana (Dilleniaceae). Especificamente nós perguntamos a) como o clima do presente e do quaternário afetam o sistema reprodutivo? b) Como a abundância e diversidade de polinizadores afeta o sistema reprodutivo da planta atualmente. c) Como o sistema reprodutivo se relaciona com a quantidade e qualidade dos frutos produzidos em C. americana? Para responder estas questões, nós registramos os polinizadores (riqueza, frequência e tamanho corporal) e realizamos testes de polinização em 10 populações de C. americana distribuídas em mais de 3.000 km de Cerrado no Brasil. A frutificação com autopolinização foi fortemente influenciada pela instabilidade climática do passado e não teve relação com os polinizadores no presente. Em contraste, a frutificação com polinização cruzada manual e natural foi afetada pelos polinizadores (especialmente abelhas grandes) e pela temperatura atual, revelando o papel de fatores ecológicos sobre a polinização cruzada. Duas populações na borda sul da distribuição de C. americana apresentaram alto nível de frutificação com polinização cruzada manual e altas taxas de visitação floral por abelhas grandes, mas também apresentaram alto nível de autogamia interpretadas como resultado da recente colonização dessas áreas. Nossos resultados indicam que a instabilidade climática do passado promoveu a autogamia como uma estratégia de segurança reprodutiva capaz de facilitar a colonização e manutenção de populações nesses locais com polinizadores imprevisíveis. Em contrapartida, nos locais com disponibilidade de polinizadores a polinização cruzada foi intensificada revelando a como processos históricos e contemporâneos atuam de forma sinérgica sobre o sistema reprodutivo das plantas.
The nice people at NHBS recently did a wide-ranging interview with me about my new book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society and what led me to write it. It covers a lot of ground, including climate change, food security, the UK Pollinator Monitoring Scheme, and growing up in Sunderland.
It was eminent bee biologist Charles Michener who first* pointed out that there was something odd about the global distribution of bees. In his 1979 paper Biogeography of the bees he writes:
“unlike many groups which abound in the tropics, bees attain their greatest abundance in warm temperate areas”
Think about that for a moment: in contrast to most other groups of insects, birds, mammals, flowering plants, fish, indeed the majority of the Earth’s biodiversity, bees are NOT generally at their most species rich in tropical areas. Rather, we have to move north and south of the equator to find them at their highest diversity. This is an odd pattern of distribution for such a successful (> 20,000 species), globally widespread and ecologically important group of organisms.
Some 15 years ago I was inspired by Michener’s comments when, together with colleagues Steve Johnson and Andrew Hingston, we wrote a chapter called Geographical variation in diversity and specificity of pollination systems for the 2006 Waser & Ollerton edited volume Plant-pollinator Interactions: from Specialization to Generalization. In that chapter we presented a rough analysis of how bee diversity per unit area in different countries changes with latitude. This, and a follow-up that appeared in my 2017 Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics paper, confirmed Michener’s view that there’s an unusual relationship between bee diversity and latitude, with peak species richness outside of the tropics, in warm, dry environments.
What I really hoped over this time was that some serious bee biologists would follow up Michener’s insights and produce a full analysis of how bee diversity changes across the planet. Yesterday that hope was realised when Michael Orr, Alice Hughes, Douglas Chesters, John Pickering, Chao-Dong Zhu and John Ascher published the first analysis of bee diversity across the whole planet, and its underlying causes, in their open-access paper Global Patterns and Drivers of Bee Distribution.
Their analyses are based on a data set of >5,800,000 records of where bees occur and it’s been an incredible achievement to bring all of that together into a planet-wide view of where bees are found, and why. I highly recommend that you download and read it, it’s an impressive piece of work.
What have camels got to do with all of this? Well, as the authors show in their paper (from which the image above is taken), if you graph up the increase in bee species richness with latitude from the poles in each hemisphere, you get two humps at about 35 degrees north and south of the equator: like a Bactrian camel. In contrast, as I noted above, if you were to do the same for for most other species you’d get a single hump at the equator: like a dromedary camel.
One of the key drivers of this bimodal pattern seems to be the amount of rainfall in an environment – bees do not like it too wet, in contrast to their relatives the ants which do show the more typical tropical peak in diversity. As the authors put it:
“humidity may play a key role in limiting bee distribution, such as through spoilage of pollen resources”
One of the implications of this for the biogeography of plant-pollinator interactions is that we might expect there to be a greater diversity of different types of pollinators in areas where bees are not so abundant. And indeed that is exactly what we find: in that Ollerton, Johnson and Hingston book chapter I mentioned we showed that there’s a step-change in the diversity of functionally specialised pollination systems as one moves from the sub-tropics into the tropics. There could be many reason for that but I suspect that one is a relative lack of bees compared to the number of plants species; thus you get tropical “oddities” such as specialised cockroach pollination in some plants.
Orr et al.’s paper is a milestone in bee biogeography and opens up new opportunities for conserving these insects, and their vital relationships with the flowering plants. To give just one example: these analyses provide a framework for predicting bee diversity hotspots in parts of the world that have been poorly explored by bee taxonomists, but which are nevertheless severely threatened by habitat degradation and conversion to agriculture. It could also be used for predicting how climate change might affect future bee distributions, especially in parts of the world that are expected to become wetter. I’m looking forward to seeing how the team’s work develops in the future.
*It’s always risky to state “first”, but Michener was certainly the first that I am aware of. Let me know if you’ve come across any precedents.
In the next few months my new book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society will be published. As you can imagine, I’m very excited! The book is currently available to pre-order: you can find full details here at the Pelagic Publishing website. If you do pre-order it you can claim a 30% discount by using the pre-publication offer code POLLINATOR.
As with my blog, the book is aimed at a very broad audience including the interested public, gardeners, conservationists, and scientists working in the various sub-fields of pollinator and pollination research. The chapter titles are as follows:
Preface and Acknowledgements
1. The importance of pollinators and pollination
2. More than just bees: the diversity of pollinators
3. To be a flower
4. Fidelity and promiscuity in Darwin’s entangled bank
5. The evolution of pollination strategies
6. A matter of time: from daily cycles to climate change
7. Agricultural perspectives
8. Urban environments
9. The significance of gardens
10. Shifting fates of pollinators
11. New bees on the block
12. Managing, restoring and connecting habitats
13. The politics of pollination
14. Studying pollinators and pollination
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:
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:
Is anyone's #ecology field work affected by the Covid-19 pandemic? We are due to head to Tenerife on 19th April and I'm waiting to see if FCO advice changes
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:
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 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.