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The 6th International Berlin Bat Meeting was held online from 22nd–24th March 2021 and consisted of a series of varied and fascinating live lectures based around a timely theme: ‘The Human Perspective on Bats’. Over the three days, speakers from around the world spoke on topics such as bat coronaviruses, bat health, human interventions, bats in anthropogenic habitats, ecosystem services, conservation marketing and citizen science.
The first day of the conference began with a keynote talk from Prof. Felix Drexler (Institute of Virology, Charité Berlin) who spoke about emerging viruses with a focus on bats and SARS-CoV-2. He began by relating the fact that most (around 60%) of human pathogens have a zoonotic origin and that several notable animal-borne diseases have originated in bat hosts (eg SARS 2003, Ebola), although it is currently still debated whether bats are particularly prone to becoming reservoirs of zoonotic pathogens or whether they are just very diverse and numerous in comparison to most other mammals.
It is a constant challenge to predict where future diseases or pandemics may arise, although important factors appear to be Exposure (whether humans have close contact with the species), Ecology (aspects of the animals’ behaviour or ecology that are favourable for the maintenance and transmission of pathogens) and Evolution (as pathogens are more likely to cross species boundaries if species are genetically and antigenically related).
Moving forwards, Prof. Drexler suggested that better surveillance is required to respond to cases of zoonotic spillover, as an early response is vital in preventing future pandemics. This is particularly important in peripheral healthcare settings such as where small numbers of cases initially crop up in developing countries.
Later on in the day, Dr. Jon Epstein (EcoHealth Alliance, USA) continued this theme with a talk that looked at the interconnectedness of animal and human health. He stated that, although the exchange of microbes between animals and species is normal, many aspects of modern life, coupled with our dense populations, have made it more likely that pathogens will make the jump from animal to human. Emerging disease hotspots often show the same trends in terms of high species diversity, large numbers of intensively farmed livestock, high human population densities and land use changes which increase contact with local wildlife. Intensive agriculture, wildlife provisioning and legal or illegal wildlife trade, which often occurs in unsanitary ‘wet markets’, are thought to be particularly problematic.
As stated by Prof. Drexler in his earlier talk, Dr. Epstein concluded that surveillance is critical, alongside appropriate community interventions in cases where spillover has been found. These may include, but are not limited to, reducing the commercial trade of wildlife, building barriers so that wild animals cannot come into contact with farmed livestock and their food, and protecting food sources (such as the date palm sap that is widely collected in Bangladesh and which is often contaminated with saliva and faeces from local flying foxes who have exploited this practice as a useful food source).
Towards the end of the day we were treated to an interactive session from Dr. Tigga Kingston (Texas Tech University, USA) who used the online whiteboard, Miro, to allow the audience to discuss and document what they felt were the biggest challenges for bat conservation. Personal observations were added in the form of virtual ‘sticky notes’ to each category and then the audience was asked to vote on which areas they felt confident in tackling, and which they felt less able to deal with. Persecution of bats, habitat loss, and restrictions on fieldwork/research due to Covid-19 were found to be areas that people generally felt were the most problematic and challenging to address. The talk ended with a brainstorming session to pose various solutions to these issues.
The second day featured a session on ecosystem services. This began with a keynote speech from Dr. Rudolf de Groot who spoke about the economic importance of bats. Much of his talk focused on the limitations of our current economic models (eg GDP) when it comes to conservation and the environment, as conservation is generally only ever considered as a cost, while ecosystem values and services are rarely factored into the equation.
In a paper published in Nature (1997), the global value of ecosystem services and natural capital was calculated to be US $33 trillion. To put this into perspective, global GDP at the time was US $27 dollars. A later paper, published in Science (2002) estimated that the cost of ecosystem loss was 2-5% GDP per year, and this was expected to increase to 7% by 2050. (Interestingly, and worryingly, the amount currently spent annually on protected areas is US $24 billion, just 40% of the amount that is spent each year on ice cream).
Speaking more specifically about bats, Dr. de Groot listed several of the services that are dependent on bats, including pest control, pollination of more than 300 food plants and 80 medicinal plants, as well as the development of several important vaccines following research into bat viruses.
His concluding remarks reminded us of the importance of raising awareness and spreading the message about the value of the natural world and the services it provides.
On the third and final day of the conference we heard a fascinating talk from Dr. Diogo Verissimo (University of Oxford, UK / Institute for Conservation Research, San Diego Zoo Global, USA) titled ‘Can Conservation Marketing Save Bats’. Many of the sessions from the final day had focused on the importance of social scientists and biologists working together to implement change and promote conservation practices. Dr. Verissimo’s talk took this a step further by discussing how effective marketing can contribute to conservation science.
The problem with bats – he initially stated – is that people don’t like them. In multiple surveys conducted around the world, bats rank low on the list in terms of popularity, and the current Covid-19 situation has done little to improve this state of affairs. He then went on to discuss how Batman is, conversely, one of the biggest media franchises of all time, and this indicates that the way in which a subject or species is marketed and packaged can have a huge impact on its public appeal.
Dr. Verissimo explained that ‘social marketing’ involves the use of marketing principles to influence the behaviour of individuals and communities for the general good. When it comes to conservation this means that we need to show individuals how conservation and ecosystem services have a value to them, whether that is a tangible benefit (such as pollination being vital for the food they enjoy), or intangible (such as pride in a local rare species or habitat).
He went on to suggest that emotions are much better at driving change and decisions than facts, and environmentalists must always remember that everyone in the world is not going to think in the same way as them, as people have different life experiences and therefore different priorities. It is incredibly important to understand the target audience of any marketing campaign and to appreciate that only a small percentage of this audience are likely to be influenced – however, these are the people that need to be focused on. Finding out who they are is a huge part of the process.
In his final remarks, Dr. Verissimo stressed the importance of including social science research when considering conservation and conservation marketing campaigns. Although working in such an inter-disciplinary manner can be a challenge in itself, he believes it is critical for the future of global conservation.
The talks and poster presentations that we saw over the three days of the meeting were lively and varied and it was great to hear from people from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds. I’m certain that everyone who attended would join me in congratulating the organisers of the meeting for an exceptionally well planned and executed meeting that brought together people from around the world to share their expertise and opinions on ‘The Human Perspective on Bats’.
Puffin colonies in the north-east Atlantic are declining due to a lack of prey in the areas where they breed. New research from the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology has found that puffin chicks in several colonies are much more likely to starve due to food shortages. This is in contrast to other smaller populations, such as those on Skomer Island in Wales, that currently appear to be thriving.
The risk of scientists transfering coronavirus to North American bats while conducting winter research has found to be less than 1 in 3,333 when PPE is properly used or scientists have tested negative for COVID-19. This data, collected by the U.S. Geological Survey, is important as the consequences of human-to-bat transmission of the virus are significant.
The Blue Marine Foundation have called for the creation of national parks within the waters around the UK coast and have identified 10 areas that could be protected within the next 10 years. Charles Clover, the executive director of the charity, pointed out that creating national parks at sea would bring similar benefits as those on land and would conserve and enhance wildlife and cultural heritage while also bringing in funding and contributing to the economy.
Over the winter, North Atlantic right whales have produced more offspring than scientists have seen since 2015. Although still critically endangered, it is hoped that this indicates an upward trend that will continue for the next few year. This increase is particularly welcome following the observation three years ago when the whales produced no known offspring at all.
Dr Tony Gent, CEO of the ARC Trust, recently took the time to talk to us about the challenges faced by amphibians and reptiles in the UK, some of the charity’s success stories, and ways in which you can get involved with amphibian and reptile conservation.
Firstly, could you give us a brief introduction to Amphibian and Reptile Conservation and the work that you do?
Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC) is a national conservation charity dedicated, as its name suggests, to conserving frogs, toads and newts, snakes and lizards. ARC manages a network of over 80 nature reserves in England and Wales that cover some 2,000 hectares. These include a significant suite of lowland heathland areas that are home to all six native reptile species. The trust is also custodian for nationally important habitats for natterjack toads and pool frogs, plus sites established specifically to support populations of great crested newts.
ARC leads on recovery programmes, especially for more threatened species, including managing reintroduction and captive breeding programmes, direct engagement through site management and running national monitoring schemes. We actively engage with advocacy in the UK and further afield, to ensure that amphibians and reptiles are considered via legislation, policy, and funding streams. We also support and undertake research and run education and training programmes to promote amphibian and reptile conservation. Though UK based, we also work with partner organisations across Europe and in the UK’s Overseas Territories.
Our team achieves this through a network of volunteers, partner organisations, Governmental agencies and engaging with the wider public.
As for most groups of animals in the current climate, the factors affecting their populations are obviously complex. However, what do you consider to be the greatest challenge faced by amphibians and reptiles in the UK?
A number of factors are impacting on our reptile and amphibian populations including disease, climate change, pollution, drought and wildfires. However I consider the biggest challenge is ensuring that there is enough suitable habitat available for these species to maintain their populations and distribution across the country, given the vast pressures for alternative land uses.
Of our seven species of amphibian, comprising of three newt, two frog and two toad species, some such as the common frog are widespread, while others such as the natterjack toad are found in a restricted number of habitats and endangered. Similarly, the three species of lizard and three species of snake that make up our reptile fauna include widespread species, such as the slow worm, and other species such as the smooth snake and sand lizard that have much more restricted ranges. All, however, need certain habitat features to survive; reptiles in particular need generally open habitats with a good ground cover, while amphibians need ponds for breeding.
The loss and degradation of the habitats on which these rare amphibians and reptiles depend has been a major factor contributing to their decline. Pond numbers in England and Wales decreased dramatically from an estimated 800,000 in the late 19th century to around 200,000 in the 1980s; this in turn has impacted on amphibian populations. Heathland, the only habitat occupied by all six of our native reptile species, has declined by over 85% since the late 18th century. The heaths that remain are highly fragmented, meaning that some patches are too small to sustain characteristic native reptile species.
As well as ensuring that areas are not lost to competing land uses, such as development or intensive agriculture, it is important that these areas sustain the features within them that allow amphibians and reptiles to survive. Having comparatively low mobility, we also need to ensure there are linkages between these areas to prevent populations becoming isolated and to allow for recolonisation if for any reason they become locally extirpated.
Our work securing areas as protected nature reserves can help address this, but we need to see action over a much wider area. ARC both undertakes and provides advice on habitat management on behalf of landowners, who are often steered by government directives. We therefore also lobby for more robust land use policies and funding mechanisms that encourage sympathetic land management. Agri-environment schemes, for example, protect land from the impacts of development, or at least fully mitigate any unavoidable damage that will occur. Underpinning this is the need for a greater awareness and regard towards the conservation of these animals, so that they are considered positively in decision making.
Within the UK, reptiles and amphibians are notoriously elusive – do you think that this affects the extent to which people are aware of them and the conservation issues that they are facing?
The elusive nature of these species makes it difficult for people to see them and therefore often misunderstand them.
In appearance they are neither feathered nor furry and lack the inherent universal appeal of some other animals. This has contributed to their negative profile in tradition and folklore which are often associated with evil, witchcraft and common ailments such as warts. Indeed, even Carolus Linnaeus, the great biologist and ‘father of modern taxonomy’, described reptiles and amphibians in his book The System of Nature as ‘These foul and loathsome animals are abhorrent because of their cold body, pale colour, cartilaginous skeleton, filthy skin, fierce aspect, calculating eye, offensive smell, harsh voice, squalid habitation, and terrible venom.’
This matters because people’s appreciation and negative perceptions of amphibians and reptiles are echoed in the low importance placed on their conservation, leading to their needs being often just not considered. This can range from direct persecution to simply over-looking their habitat needs, for example in tree planting programmes.
It is hard to appreciate something you cannot see; indeed many people are not aware that we even have reptiles in UK. However, once appreciated they then become important to preserve. That’s why at ARC we place great importance in getting people to see and to learn about the amphibians and reptiles in their area, and to learn how and when they can be seen.
The sight of frogspawn in the garden pond followed by tadpoles and the unmistakable sound of croaking frogs can offer a close-up experience of wildlife and, for some people, this has been the start of a lifelong interest in nature. We are also seeing an increasing fascination with our native ‘dragons’ and recognition of their cultural significance.
This past year has been unbelievably hard for charities. How has 2020 (and 2021 so far) differed for the ARC Trust and how have you dealt with the difficulties that Covid has created?
Covid shut the door on many of our activities, and especially face to face meetings with people including many educational training events and group activities. This has had a number of different impacts, including the amount of habitat managed, opportunities for us to show people reptiles and amphibians and our volunteer engagement. However we maintained work across all of the different areas of our activity – it just meant we had to do these in different ways and have gained from doing so.
As we saw home working and ‘Zoom meetings’ become the norm we were in a position to move many of our education and training events online swiftly. Over the year of restrictions we have developed free ‘bite sized training courses’ and have made some of our sites accessible virtually through virtual reserve walks, drone tours, Q and A panel sessions, quizzes, activities and classroom lessons for children. As lockdown continued, people became more aware of their immediate environments and we offered an opportunity for the public to undertake a home-based survey through our online Garden Dragon Watch survey in addition to our reserves remaining open throughout.
Our two major annual events, the scientific meeting that we co-host with the British Herpetological Society and the Herpetofauna Workers Meeting run jointly with ARG-UK, went online. We explored different platforms for these meetings and, while we couldn’t meet face to face, these meetings attracted larger audiences than we could have hosted through physical meetings, reduced costs and gave a voice to people who had not previously joined in before. This not only significantly reduced the carbon footprint of these events but actively engaged a wider range of delegates, networks and researchers. We will be looking at how we can integrate some of these positive outcomes into future outreach.
What would you consider to be your greatest success story so far?
Ultimately we aim to improve the conservation status of all 13 native species of amphibians and reptiles in the UK. Securing 80 sites into active conservation management, 25 of which we own, is something that we would not have imagined possible when the foundations for forming the charity were being laid in the late 1980s. In terms of conservation impact, our translocation work has truly brought species back from (and in one case beyond) the brink of extinction in Britain.
Sand lizards suffered significant declines across their range during the mid to late 20th Century, disappearing from Wales, seeing a huge reduction in the Merseyside populations and loss from huge swathes of Surrey, Hampshire and Kent. We have led conservation efforts for this species in Britain and in 2019 we released our 10,000th sand lizard as part of our long-term reintroduction programme which has restored sand lizards to 70 sites, restoring much of their former range. Similarly, the range of the natterjack toad dwindled over a similar time period and down to a single surviving heathland population south of the River Thames. We have been involved in reintroducing natterjack toads to 17 sites across the UK.
Perhaps our greatest species success story is the pool frog which was formerly considered to be non-native and went extinct from the UK in the 1990s. We worked in partnership to assemble evidence to indicate that they were in fact native and, through our reintroduction programme, we sourced pool frogs from Scandinavia and successfully reintroduced them to Norfolk, bringing the species back from extinction in the UK. Our latest Green Recovery Challenge government funded project will explore how we can restore the species range in East Anglia, by trailing outdoor enclosures.
Our greatest success overall is the combination of seeing the status of wildlife improve and the benefits that come to people because of what we do. In the course of working towards our primary mission of conserving amphibians and reptiles, we benefit many other species that share their habitats, such as birds, butterflies and dragonflies. We also provide benefits directly to our volunteers and the public who enjoy our reserves that tell us they benefit in terms of their physical and mental health, social lives, enjoyment, education and career development.
How can people get involved with amphibian and reptile conservation, particularly if they are inexperienced in terms of identification and/or field survey?
Reptiles and amphibians occur throughout the country, but the species that you may encounter will vary in different locations and habitats. There are a variety of ways you can get involved through ARC, and whatever your background, we welcome your support.
If you live close to one of our nature reserves or local projects you might like to join a habitat activity day. We run programmes of habitat management designed for teams of volunteers mainly through the winter months – It’s a great way to keep fit, make friends and get a personal insight into looking after your local nature reserve. ARC also offers opportunities to learn more about amphibians and reptiles through training, including online, field and class-based courses and events run in partnership with the Field Studies Council. We are keen to have more people joining in with our national programme of species and habitat surveys, which has various options for people with different levels of knowledge and available time. There is also an opportunity to take part in our Garden Dragon Watch (recording amphibians and reptiles in your garden), or if you have more time sign up to monitor species at a location near you, though the spring and summer months. The information volunteer surveyors supply is valuable in helping ARC to keep track of where amphibians and reptiles are found and how populations are faring.
ARC also runs a members’ scheme for people who wish to support the work we do, stay up to date with the ecology and conservation of amphibians and reptiles, gain discounts to events and conferences and claim a welcome pack containing an array of species identification resources.
The 6th International Berlin Bat Meeting is due to be held online from 22nd–24th March 2021 and will consist of a series of live lectures delivered via video link. To make it possible for people to attend from around the world, the lectures will also be available to watch on demand. At NHBS, we’ve always loved being involved with the Berlin Bat Meeting and hope that soon we can attend again in person!
In the build up to this exciting event, organiser Dr. Christian Voigt kindly took the time to answer some questions about this year’s meeting. Dr Voigt is Head of the Department of Evolutionary Ecology at Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, Lecturer at the Freie Universität Berlin and Member of the Berlin-Brandenburg Centre for Stable Isotope Ecology.
The theme of this year’s International Berlin Bat Meeting is ‘The Human Perspective on Bats’. Can you tell us why you decided to choose this particular theme?
We decided on this topic because we became aware of the necessity to address bat conservation from a more holistic approach. Conservationists often have the saying ‘wildlife management is the management of humans’ and this is very much true. We need to better understand the emotions and attitudes of humans towards wildlife in general and bats in particular, in order to protect wildlife and bats respectively. Ultimately, this will make conservation more efficient. The Covid-19 pandemic told us that we were right because many aspects of bat conservation have turned more difficult when some people changed their attitude towards bats. It is important to remember that bat conservation does not only mean dealing with the protection of bat populations but also with their ecosystem function. In many cases, bats are very helpful for humans, e.g. by consuming large numbers of pest insects or because they pollinate flowers or disperse seeds. Becoming aware of these ecosystem services might change people’s minds about why they should care for bats. Lastly, zoonotic diseases such as Covid-19 emerge because the way we treat wildlife is wrong. Poaching, wet markets, our whole interaction with wildlife has to be reconsidered and we will be talking about this during the International Berlin Bat Meeting. The topic of the upcoming IBBM `’The human perspective on bats’ is more relevant and timely than ever.
What do you think are the key conservation challenges currently faced by bats?
The major challenge is now to re-establish a good reputation for bats. Bats are key players in ecosystems, they are important indicator species, and many species are rare or even threatened. We need to care for them.
How do you hope that this meeting will contribute to the work required to address these challenges?
Our hope is that we come up with ideas about how to approach bat conservation and human-bat interactions from a different angle. This conference will bring together people from various geographic backgrounds and from a variety of disciplines. It is this exchange of ideas and perspective that make the IBBM quite unique among bat conferences.
Meetings such as these provide an unrivalled chance for attendees to share ideas and network. Do you know of any key projects or collaborations that have arisen from previous International Berlin Bat Meetings?
The networking that happens during these meetings is huge. The very first IBBM on bat migration brought this topic to the attention of many people and lots of papers have been published since then. Specifically, our meeting on bat diseases, right when white-nose syndrome hit North American bats, stimulated a lot of excellent research on both continents. I remember that we sat together during the IBBM and discussed what should be done and what to expect.
Organising an online meeting must be very different in comparison to organising an ‘in person’ event. How have you found the process? And have you noticed that there are benefits to this format, as well as challenges?
Organizing an online meeting is overall not difficult, it was the postponing of the conference, not knowing when to reschedule it and not knowing how people would respond to an online instead of a presence conference that caused us sleepless nights. Now that we have already organized a few online events, the task seems doable. Overall, the benefits are that people from many more places on our globe can participate in this event without having to pay the travel costs. The challenge for these kinds of conferences is to maintain a format in which people feel encouraged to discuss and to interact. This can be better achieved when you meet in person, e.g. during coffee breaks. It is my hope that we have a very lively discussion and a very stimulating event.
A new tool, used to accurately predict the age of animals in the wild, has been developed by researchers from the University of Maryland and UCLA. Using DNA from tissue samples they found that bats could be accurately aged using an ‘epigenetic clock’ which looks at changes to the DNA that occur over time.
The Gulf Stream System, (also known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, or AMOC) has been weaker in the last few decades than it has been in over 1000 years. Looking at archives of ocean sediments and ice cores, researchers from Ireland, Britain and Germany have stated that this slow-down, which is having a huge impact on weather patterns and regional sea levels, is likely due to human-caused climate change.
Gulls have been found to be a major cause of weed seed dispersal over long distances, and transfer a variety of plant species between agricultural and natural areas. As well as causing economic losses for farmers, this dispersal can also be responsible for more serious ecological problems and changes to local biodiversity. Previous to this study, it was not thought that weeds were dispersed via birds as they lack fleshy fruit and have very small seeds.
As a result of climate change, spring snowmelt in the Alps is now occurring earlier in the year – by the end of the century it is predicted to occur 50-130 days earlier. New research, conducted at the University of Manchester, has demonstrated that this change in timing is affecting microbial communities beneath the soil which is having critical knock-on effects on both above-ground life and carbon cycling.
A rare bee, not recorded in its native Australia for almost a century, has been found in Queensland. Assumed extinct, three populations of Pharohylaeus lactiferus were found following extensive sampling across almost 250 sites. However, although populations are now known to exist, P lactiferus remains rare and extremely susceptible to habitat destruction.
A new project, organised by the National Trust, plans to create ‘blossom circles’ in cities across England, Wales and Northern Ireland in a bid to inspire the UK equivalent of Hanami – the traditional Japanese custom of appreciating the transient beauty of flowers. As well as creating nature-rich havens and contributing to the Trust’s ambition to plant 20 million trees by 2030, it is hoped that these spaces will aid in the emotional recovery of local people following a very difficult year.
The connection between time spent in nature and improved mental health has long been known, and a recent study conducted at the University of Connecticut has shown that this continues to be true throughout the global pandemic. Participants who felt that they were in tune with or had a connection with the natural world were found to be coping better with increased stress experienced during the pandemic in comparison to those who did not feel this connection.
President Biden has set about the challenge of reversing Trump’s decisions on climate change with a swathe of actions that will target around 100 environmental policies. New policies will focus on protecting land and animals, placing stricter rules on carbon emissions, air and water quality, and making industrial companies accountable for any practices that harm the environment.
The origin of flowering plants has long been puzzling scientists due to the discrepancy between their relatively recent appearance in the fossil record and their much older origin suggested by genome data. However, a new study conducted by a team of scientists from Switzerland, Sweden, the UK and China has shed new light on this mystery. According to their results, the lack of earlier fossils is likely due to the rarity of such early specimens and the low chance of them becoming fossilised.
The process of coral bleaching – where corals lose their colour and eventually die – is triggered by warmer ocean temperatures, and is a becoming a huge problem for corals worldwide. A scientist from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) has recently made a major breakthrough in explaining this process and shown how ocean warming affects the symbiotic relationship between the coral and algae much earlier than previously assumed.
New regulations to protect English peatland will place major restrictions on the burning of heather and other vegetation in a bid to help the UK reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. These regulations, however, have been criticised by some environmental groups as not going far enough, whilst The Moorlands Association have expressed concerns about how they will impact landowners.
Professor Jeff Ollerton is a researcher, educator, consultant and author, specialising in mutualistic ecological relationships – in particular, those between plants and their pollinators. Now one of the world’s leading experts on pollinators and pollination, he has conducted field research in the UK, Australia, Africa, and Tenerife, and published a huge body of ground-breaking research which is highly-cited and used at both national and international levels to inform conservation efforts. Jeff currently holds Visiting Professor positions at the University of Northampton in the UK and Kunming Institute of Botany in China.
His recent book, Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society, provides a hugely informative yet accessible look at the ecology and evolution of pollinators around the globe, and discusses their conservation in a world that seems to be stacked against them.
In this article we chat with Jeff about his background, the book and the future of pollinators in an increasingly changing climate.
Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to write Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society?
Where to begin? Like lots of ecologists my interest started with natural history as a kid: poking around in rock pools, looking under stones, keeping tadpoles in jars, collecting fossils, the usual stuff that most people grow out of. I was born in Sunderland, close to the shipyards and coal mines that provided employment for most of my family. The grasslands and scrubby areas that developed on bombsites and after slum clearance were where I ranged free: my wildlife playground was the result of industrial development and decline. I also learned a lot from my dad who was a keen gardener, and plants have always been a passion. At school I didn’t do well – “easily distracted” said my reports – and only passed one A level (Biology). That was enough to get me into an HND in Applied Biology at Sunderland Polytechnic, then onto the second year of a BSc Environmental Biology degree at Oxford Polytechnic. My dissertation supervisor was Andrew Lack and he convinced me that I should apply for a PhD with him, looking at the pollination ecology, flowering phenology, and reproductive output of grassland plants in colonising and established grasslands. That was completed in 1993 (by which time the institution was Oxford Brookes University) and I went off to do some travelling and field work in Australia, funded by some small grants. When I got back I applied for numerous postdoctoral positions but the first job I was offered was a lectureship at Nene College of Higher Education in Northampton. At the time it was predominantly a teaching institution but they were keen to develop their ecological research. I originally planned to be there for a couple of years and ended up staying for 25! By that time it had transitioned into the University of Northampton. Throughout all of this the main focus of my research has been the ecology, evolution and conservation of plant-pollinator interactions, with field work in the UK, Africa, South America, and Asia. That’s a huge field of study, ranging in scope from molecular ecology to animal behaviour to agriculture and government environmental policy. A few years ago it struck me that there was a need to bring together these different strands into a single, coherent book that presented a state of the art account of why all of this was important, how the different topics fitted together, what we had learned so far after a couple of hundred years of research, and where the gaps and scientific disagreements lay. The result was Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society.
While it’s evident that habitat destruction and fragmentation have a huge role to play in the decline of pollinator species, you also state that rising temperatures may be a more significant factor, particularly for species such as bumblebees. Given the continual, and some may say unstoppable, rise in global temperatures, are you hopeful in any way for the future of pollinators?
Well, first of all, I certainly don’t think that climate change is unstoppable. We know what needs to be done and we know how to do it, though it’s not easy of course. But, yes, we are already seeing the effects of climate change on pollinators, particularly in relation to range shifts as insects move northwards in the northern hemisphere. Bumblebees are a particular concern because on the whole they are adapted to colder temperatures. However most other bees are adapted to warmer, drier conditions, and they may benefit from moderate climate change. The problem is that we simply don’t know enough about the natural histories of most of the 20,000 or so species of bees to say. Our knowledge of most of the hundreds of thousands of other species of pollinators is even less well developed. But I do have some optimism that pollination services to most plant species will be maintained under moderate climate change because we know from experimental work that we’ve carried out that the majority of interactions are relatively generalised and interchangeable: a range of pollinators can pollinate most plants, and vice versa. It’s the more specialised interactions that are likely to be less robust to climate change, especially in places like South Africa where I have been fortunate to work. The key to conserving pollinators, as it is for all biodiversity, is creation, restoration, linking-up, and protection, of natural habitats. As I argue in the book, we have to go far beyond “planting for pollinators” and putting up a few bee hotels if we are serious about conserving pollinators in our rapidly changing world.
While professional scientific research, alongside informed policy change, will obviously be key in directing the future of pollinators around the world, you also mention the importance of amateur naturalists and citizen scientists in collecting data and providing some of the legwork behind sustained long-term studies. What advice would you give to a non-professional individual who wishes to get involved with pollinator conservation? (eg. volunteering, donating to charities/organisations, lobbying for policy change etc.)
Yes, all of what you list there is important, and I would add that individuals can do a lot by thinking carefully about what they plant in their gardens and how they manage them (i.e. not using pesticides) and lobbying local councils about how parks and road verges are managed. They could also get involved in initiatives such as the UK Pollinators Monitoring Scheme. Similar schemes have been set up in other countries. Adding observations to iRecord is also important.
When hearing about the decline of pollinators, many people (fuelled by frequent media stories) will immediately be fearful about the future and security of our food production. Is there a valid reason for concern, and are there any precautionary steps that you believe the agricultural industry should be taking to deal with a potential collapse in pollinators?
First of all, I don’t think that pollinators are going to disappear from agricultural landscapes completely, that’s hugely unlikely. But there are a couple of things that should concern farmers and governments. There’s growing evidence that the yields of some crops, in some places, are limited by availability of pollinators, and that’s likely to get worse if pollinator populations decline. We also know that there are crops which, although they can self-pollinate, produce a higher quality of fruit or seeds if they are outcrossed by pollinators. So there’s a clear financial benefit for farmers to take pollinator declines seriously. Globally, most of the staple crops are either wind pollinated grasses (rice, wheat, etc.) or are propagated by tubers (potatoes, yams) so food security in terms of populations starving is unlikely to be a consequence of pollinator decline. However most of the fruit and vegetables that provide the essential vitamins and minerals in our diets need pollinators either for the consumed crop or, as in the case of onions, for the seeds that produce the crop. So food security in the sense of having a healthy diet is definitely something that we should take seriously. Things that farmers and the agricultural industry should be doing include the obvious such as restoring and creating natural habitat on their farms, not over-managing grasslands and hedgerows, and reducing the amount of biocides that they are using.
I discovered lots of interesting things from your book that I previously didn’t know – such as the fact that there are pollinating lizards! In all of your years of study, what is the most fascinating fact that you have learned about pollinators?
Oh, wow, that’s a tough one! Every research project that I’ve undertaken has turned up new information and observations that have intrigued and excited me, and even blown my mind. That’s one of the reasons why I do what I do, there’s so much still to discover. I estimate that we’ve got some kind of information about the pollinators of only about 10% of the 352,000 species of flowering plants that there are in the world. Even in Britain and Ireland the reproductive ecologies of most of the plants have hardly been studied. So there are always new things to discover. Citing a single fascinating fact is difficult, but if I had to choose one it would be the calculation that I made for a review article in 2017 when I worked out that as many as 1 in 10 insect and vertebrate species may visit flowers as pollinators. That did astound me and I had to double check my maths!
2020 was a year that was largely dominated by the Covid-19 crisis, a fact that you touch on briefly in your book. How has the pandemic affected your working life and, as a researcher who relies on time spent in the field, how have you dealt with the challenges of lockdown and restricted movement?
Ughh, yes, it’s been difficult. I was supposed to take a group of students to Tenerife in April for our annual field course and that had to be cancelled. It’s the first year since 2003 that I’ve not made the trip and it curtailed some long-term data collection that I’ve been undertaking. Perhaps the universe is telling me that it’s time to publish the data….? But on the plus side, once we knew that we’d be in lockdown for some months, I sent out an email to my network of pollination ecologists to suggest that we use the time to collect data on flower-pollinator interactions in our gardens. The response was phenomenal! It’s generated over 20,000 observations from all over the world. We’re writing up a paper describing the data set at the moment and we will make it freely available to PhD and early career researchers who were not able to collect data last year and whose funding and time are limited.
Finally, what are you working on currently, and do you have plans for further books?
So back in October I stepped down from my full-time professorship to work independently as a consultant ecological scientist and author – my new website has just gone live in fact: www.jeffollerton.co.uk. Although I will miss teaching students, I really needed some new challenges and wanted to work more closely at the conservation and advisory end of the field, and start to make more of a difference on the ground. I still have a Visiting Professorship at Northampton where I’m completing some externally funded projects and supervising a couple of PhD researchers. And I’ve recently been appointed Visiting Professor at the Kunming Institute of Botany in China where, vaccines willing, I will be spending part of the summer on a climate change and pollinators project. As for further books, yes, there are another three that I want to complete in the next few years. I’m talking with Pelagic at the moment about the next one and they are interested, but I’d like to keep the topic hush-hush for now – I’m referring to it as “Project B”! But it does deal with pollination, I can tell you that.
Droughts, viruses and road-building have been identified as some of the major threats to the world’s forests and the people living around them. A new study conducted at the University of Copenhagen highlights the importance of prioritising conservation plans for forests, stressing that failure to do so will have enormous consequences for global health and economies.
2020 has been a difficult year for many, but it also contained a wealth of positive environmental news. This inspiring article from mongabay.com highlights some of the top positive environmental stories from 2020, including details of several species that were brought back from the edge of extinction, a surge of interest in renewable energy, the creation of new protected areas, and how a few Indigenous women leaders got some long-overdue credit and recognition.