This year’s Missouri Botanical Garden/St Louis University John Dwyer Public Lecture in Biology will be given by Alan Mosswho researches Himalayan bumblebees and their interactions with flowers. The lecture is being live-streamed on YouTube – details are in the flyer above.
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:
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: Pollinationsyndromes 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….
…..an amazing paper in Nature this week by Rodrigo Cámara-Leret etal. 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.
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.
Recently I came across an online game based on a simple cellular automaton modelcalled orb.farm in which you have to design an enclosed ecosystem that supports plant, animal and bacterial life. It’s a little bit addictive and a lot of fun! Reminds me of a more sophisticated form of the Tamagotchi, but without the ridiculous waste of plastic, metal and electronics that inevitably comes with these kids’ crazes.
When I tweeted about this earlier in the week the most excitement was generated by some scientists who actually work in lake ecosystem ecology. They were very impressed! The occasional Easter Eggs that appear also keep you hooked. Helpfully, you can also close down your browser or computer and your ecosystem is still there when you open it up again.
Orb.farm is by Max Bittkerand I hope that he develops it further. I can see it being used for some serious experiments as well as being educational and fun.
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
This commentary brings together some recent findings in palaeontology, molecular phylogenetics, and pollinator sensory physiology and behaviour, to discuss the progress that’s been made in understanding the deep-time evolution of this most familiar and charismatic of ecological interactions.
The short version is that the old conceptual models are absolutely wrong. Some version of “first came the gymnosperms and they were primitive and unsuccessful because they were wind pollinated. Then, at the start of the Cretaceous, the angiosperms evolved and they were insect pollinated and advanced and so more successful” continues to appear in text books. But we’ve known for a long time that many of the Jurassic gymnosperms were insect pollinated. This may (or may not) predate insect pollination of angiosperms: there are huge disagreements between palaeobotanists and molecular phylogeneticists about when the first flowering plants evolved. The graphic above comes from our essay and shows just how big the discrepancy is: molecular models suggest an origin for the angiosperms about 70 million years prior to the first confirmed fossils. That’s about equivalent to the whole of the Jurassic period! There are similar disagreements when it comes to the evolution of pollinating insects: for the Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) the difference between the earlier molecular and later fossil evidence may be as much as 100 million years.
As we discuss, there are huge implications in these discrepancies for understanding not just how major elements within the Earth’s biodiversity evolved, but also for the origins of pollinator sensory physiology. Insect behaviours linked to colour vision and odour reception may in turn influence effective crop and wild plant pollination.
The image accompanying our essay is by the very talented biologist, science communicator and graphic designer Elzemiek Zinkstok – follow that link and check out her work.
In the past couple of weeks I’ve delivered two presentations at virtual conferences. The first was at a Global Sustainability Summit run by Amity University, one of our partner institutions in India. The second was at the University of Northampton’s own internal research conference. Both of these focused on pollinators, as you might imagine, but they also referred to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 17 SDGs are being increasingly used as a framework for promoting the importance of biodiversity to human societies across the globe, and I’m seeing them referred to more and more often in studies and reports about pollinator conservation. That’s great, and I’m all in favour of the SDGs being promoted in this way. However I wanted to highlight a couple of aspects of the SDGs that I think are missing from recent discussions.
The first is that pollinators, and their interactions with plants, are often seen as contributing mainly to those SDGs that are directly related to agriculture and biodiversity. Here’s an example. Last week the European Commission’s Science for Environment Policy released a “Future Brief” report entitled: “Pollinators: importance for nature and human well-being, drivers of decline and the need for monitoring“. It’s a really interesting summary of current threats to pollinator populations, how we can monitor them, and why it’s important. I recommend you follow that link and take a look. However, in the section about relevant, global-level policies, the report highlights “the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – especially regarding food security (‘zero hunger’) and biodiversity (‘life on land’).
I think this is under-selling pollinators and pollination, and here’s why. First of all, as we pointed out in our 2011 paper “How many flowering plants are pollinated by animals?”, approaching 90% of terrestrial plants use insects and vertebrates as agents of their reproduction and hence their long-term survival. As we showed in that paper, and a follow up entitled “The macroecology of animal versus wind pollination: ecological factors are more important than historical climate stability“, the proportion of animal-pollinated plants in a community varies predictably with latitude, typically from 40 to 50 % in temperate areas up to 90 to 100% in tropical habitats. Now, flowering plants dominate most terrestrial habitats and form the basis of most terrestrial food chains. So the long-term viability and sustainability of much the Earth’s biodiversity can be linked back, directly or indirectly, to pollinators. That’s even true of coastal marine biomes, which receive a significant input of energy and nutrients from terrestrial habitats.
Biodiversity itself underpins, or directly or indirectly links to, most of the 17 SDGS; those that don’t have an obvious link have been faded out in this graphic:
The underpinning role of biodiversity, and in particular plant-pollinator interactions, on the SDGs needs to be stated more often and with greater emphasis than it is currently.
The second way in which I think that some writers and researchers in this area have misconstrued the SDGs is that they seem to think that it only applies to “developing” countries. But that’s certainly not the way that the UN intended them. ALL countries, everywhere, are (or should be) “developing” and trying to become more sustainable. To quote the UN’s SDG website:
“the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)….are an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership.”
“the SDGs are a call for action by all countries – poor, rich and middle-income – to promote prosperity while protecting the environment.”
I interpret this as meaning that “developed” countries need to consider their own future development, not that they only have to give a helping hand to “developing” countries (though that’s important too). Just to drive this home, here’s a recent case study by Elizabeth Nicholls, Dave Goulson and others that uses Brighton and Hove to show how small-scale urban food production can contribute to the SDGs. I like this because it goes beyond just considering the agricultural and food-related SDGs, and also because by any measure, Brighton and Hove is a fairly affluent part of England.
I’m going to be talking about all of this and discussing it with the audience during an online Cafe Scientifique on Thursday 25th June – details are here. I’m also going to be exploring more of these ideas in my forthcoming book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society, which is due for publication later this year. The manuscript is submitted and is about to be copy-edited. The PowerPoint slide which heads this post uses a graphic from that book that sums up how I feel about biodiversity, plant-pollinator interactions, and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
….is that it creates nonsense like this! Now, I’m sure that spatial and temporal trends of global pollination have, indeed, benefited me – but that’s not the title of the paper! The actual title is “Spatial and Temporal Trends of Global Pollination Benefit” – full stop. I handled the paper when I was an editor at PLOS One and somehow my role has been bundled into the title by whatever reference management system the authors have used.
One thing that “Spatial and Temporal Trends of Global Pollination Benefit Jeff Ollerton” does get right, though, is subject-verb agreement – check out Steve Heard’s post over at Scientist Sees Squirrel on this very topic, and how a careful analysis of sentence structure can improve your writing.