Tag Archives: Science

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.

Generating AI art from titles of scientific publications

WARNING: huge time wasting potential ahead.

As regulars to my blog might know, I’m a sucker for computer-generated “stuff”, for example virtual ecological systems; see my 2020 post “a simple online ecosystem model: like Tamagotchi for the green generation“. Last night while browsing Twitter I came across a few people tweeting about app.wombo.art which uses words and phrases as a prompt for its AI to generate art in a variety of styles. For example, the image above is based on the title of my book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society. The downloaded image always has “dream” at the top which is easy enough to crop, while “PROMPT” is the word or phrase that you entered, which can be turned off.

You can also use the titles of scientific articles – this one is my 1996 paper “Generalization in Pollination systems and Why it Matters” (I don’t think that it counts as a graphical abstract…):

A lot of people were submitting their thesis titles and I expect to see some of these used as frontispieces in PhDs in the near future. Here’s mine (from 1993) – “Ecology of flowering and fruiting in Lotus corniculatus“:

The other category that I had fun with was using scientific names – here’s the genus Ceropegia:

And here is Apocynaceae:

Can you guess what phrase I used to generate this one:

What’s really fascinating about this system is that every time you generate an image from the same phrase it returns something different. Go have fun, but be warned: it’s a bit of a rabbit hole and it’s possible to waste a lot of time playing around:

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“.

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.

Claims that only 10% – and not 75% – of crops are pollinator dependent are misleading and dishonest

Earlier this week the Genetic Literacy Project site posted an essay entitled ‘10% — not 75% — of crops pollinator-dependent: Our World in Data debunks claims that global food supply is imminently endangered by ‘disappearing’ insects‘. That click-bait title is hugely misleading, some of the purported ‘facts’ are incorrect, and indeed the whole thing reeks of dishonesty and bad faith.

First the misleading title. This ‘debunks’ claim actually compares two different things: 75% of CROPS being dependent on pollinators versus 10% of crop YIELD. However, even if we focus on the 10% claim, a small increase in yield can be the difference between profit and bankruptcy for small-scale farmers. And most of the world’s farmers are small-scale and living on the borderline between loss and break-even. In addition, there’s no acknowledgement of the food production from home gardens, allotments, and community gardens, which is significant but largely unquantified.

Next, by focusing on yield and comparing, say, wind-pollinated wheat with insect-pollinated apples, the article takes no account of the fact that many of these crops that depend to some extent on pollinators mainly provide essential vitamins and minerals – not calories – to diets. When I tweeted about this earlier in the week, one person commented that they describe the insect-pollinated foods as ‘an important source of flavour and colour in our diets, rice and wheat are all well and good, but you do kinda need something more than grey slop to live’. Another said: ‘I’m so glad you mentioned this. I’m sick of reading articles that praise innovations to increase calories, when what we need is better nutrition from vitamins, minerals & fibres’.

Both great points, and well made.

That essay was also factually incorrect when it described roots crops such as carrots or some of the leafy cabbages and lettuces as not requiring pollinators. Many varieties of these crops ARE pollinator dependent: how do they think we get the seed for the next year’s crop?! And there are many crops and varieties that have not been evaluated for their dependency on pollinators: the 75% figure actually refers to the 115 most productive crop plants (Klein et al. 2007).

When I tweeted about the essay I commented that I was very disappointed by ‘Our World in Data’ – they are usually better than this when it comes to the facts. What I hadn’t appreciated at the time was that in fact the Genetic Literacy Project had highjacked the original piece by Hannah Ritchie and reworked it to give it a very different slant*.

This is where it starts to get dishonest and in fact the Genetic Literacy Project (GLP) has form in this area. The Sourcewatch site describes the GLP as ‘a corporate front group that was formerly funded by Monsanto’ with a remit to ‘shame scientists and highlight information helpful to Monsanto and other chemical producers’. In other words it’s heavily tied to Big Agriculture which, of course, would like us to believe that there’s not an issue with declining pollinators, that pesticides and agricultural intensification are our friends, and that Everything Is OK. Read the full account here.

Frankly, the GLP is so tainted that I’d not believe anything that they publish.

Pollinator decline and the role of pollinators in agriculture are complex issues. If you’d like to know more about the importance of pollinators to agriculture, complete with some accurate and objective facts, then there’s a whole chapter devoted to the topic in my book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society.

*Note that I’ve been communicating with Hannah about the root and leaf crop issue and she accepts that this needs to change in the original. She’s also asked the Genetic Literacy Project to take down their version as it contravenes copyright.

Reference

Klein, A.-M., Vaissière, B.E., Cane, J.H. et al. (2007) Importance of pollinators in
changing landscapes for world crops. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B
274: 303–313.

Consider publishing your pollination and plant reproductive ecology research in the Turkish Journal of Botany!

This month I was appointed to the editorial board of the Turkish Journal of Botany and I’m looking forward to working with the team at the journal to enhance the international profile of this publication. The journal has a long track record: it’s been published continuously since the 1970s and currently has a 5-year impact factor of 1.165.

The Turkish Journal of Botany is one of the official publications of TÜBİTAK (the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey) and is fully open access, with no page charges. All papers are published in English. Although it’s a ‘regional’ journal, the scope of what it publishes is not limited to just Turkey. Looking over the last couple of volumes I see authors from Russia, India, Egypt, Lebanon, Pakistan, USA and China, as well as a new species of lichen from Antarctica!

The journal is particularly keen to publish more papers in the area of pollination, floral evolution, plant reproductive ecology, and related topics. So if you’re working in that area and looking for an outlet for your latest paper, please take a look at the Instructions for Authors and consider the Turkish Journal of Botany.

If you have any questions, please write a comment below or send me a message via the Contact page.

The largest West African flower: Pararistolochia goldieana!

Some years ago, browsing in a second hand bookshop, I happened across a copy of an old magazine from 1950 called Nigeria. Published by the then colonial government, it was a miscellaneous collection of articles about the culture, geography and natural history of that fascinating West African country. Although aspects of the contents are problematical by modern standards, I bought it because of a short article about a wild plant with enormous flowers and a remarkable pollination strategy. In particular, the spectacular photograph of a man holding a flower that’s the length of his forearm grabbed my attention: who couldn’t love a flower like that?!

The plant is Pararistolochia goldieana, a vine found in the forests of this region, as described in the introductory text:

These types of flowers are pollinated by flies, a common strategy in the Birthwort family (Aristolochiaceae) to which the plant belongs. This strategy of fly pollination in which flies are deceived into visiting the flowers by their stink and colour, and temporarily trapped in the enclosed chamber, is something that I explore in detail in my book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society, particularly in the genus Ceropegia. Those plants show convergent evolution with the pollination systems of Aristolochiaceae, though they are unrelated.

Pararistolochia goldieana has a wide distribution across West Africa, including Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. The IUCN Red List categorises it as ‘Vulnerable’ due to habitat loss. The population where these photographs were taken is described on the final page of the article:

The city of Ibadan is one of the largest in Nigeria and has grown enormously, ‘from 40 km2 in the 1950s to 250 km2 in the 1990s‘. I wonder if this forest, and its botanical treasures, still exists?

During field work in Gabon in the 1990s I was fortunate enough to encounter a species of Pararistolochia in the rainforest of Lopé National Park. It was a different species to P. goldieana, with rather smaller but no less spectacular flowers, and it stank to high heaven! We knew it was there long before we saw it. I collected some flies from the flowers and had them identified, though I’ve never published the data: it’s available if anyone is working on a review of pollination in the family.

This 1950 article is anonymous, so I don’t know who to acknowledge for the amazing images. However the botanist R.W.J. Keay was working on a revision of the family for the Flora of West Tropical Africa project at the time, so it may have been written by him.