The Plant Messiah: An interview with Carlos Magdalena

Carlos MagdalenaCarlos Magdalena is a botanical horticulturist at Kew Gardens, famous for his pioneering work with waterlilies and his never-tiring efforts to save some of the world’s rarest species from extinction. In his book, The Plant Messiah, Carlos shares stories of his travels and his work at Kew and, in doing so, opens our eyes to the delicate wonder of plants and the perils that many of them are now facing.

We recently caught up with Carlos to chat about plant conservation, his views on extinction and lots more.

The Plant MessiahIn your book you describe your trips to some incredible places – most of which have resulted in the collection of valuable herbarium specimens and seeds for growing or storage. Where does the impetus for these projects come from? Do you get to choose the species and/or projects that you work on or are these assigned to you?

They can happen for various reasons. Sometimes, they are assigned to me, like the projects in Peru and Bolivia: there is a need for a horticulturist capable of speaking Spanish, with experience in propagation of tropical plants and therefore, they contact me and from there we start the ball rolling. However, there is always the personal interest, though this works in an indirect way. Because I have been interested for years in tropical waterlilies, especially those from Australia, I had built up masses of knowledge, contacts and experience and therefore one day, someone needs someone with those skills and they want you to join in their projects. My endeavours in Mauritius started when seeds were set in a Ramosmania plant in a glasshouse in London. After this happened, there was a need to bring back this species to the island. Since this was a very genuine reason that could be solved at a very low cost, funding was allocated soon to travel and then, any time I go, I return with many more species that need working on to secure them ex-situ so you establish a working relationship with the country. There is so much work to be done that at the end of the day, money and time are the limits to be honest, but especially, funding is the main issue I have.

The Plant MessiahMany of the methods you use for germinating seeds and propagating plants have been considered unorthodox, and this is undoubtedly one of the reasons behind your outstanding achievements. Did you find that your peers and colleagues were initially suspicious of your techniques and approach, or did you always feel supported in your methods?

I guess they are not that unorthodox after all, I will say is more in the lines of ‘if something does not work, let’s try something else’, which is a bit unorthodox but also the sensible thing to do in those cases. I guess it is always tricky to swim against the ‘mantras’ or certain situations where is easier to stick to ‘oh, it won’t work because it cannot be done’ but even when I can be a victim of this myself, I try to do my best to think that you never know if you don’t try. Horticulture is a bit complicated since there are so many aspects to take into account. Science has a big part to play in it, but there is also that bit that is more like cooking, not witchery, but no white lab coat stuff either.
In cultivation, there are too many factors, compost types, light, humidity, temperature, temperature fluctuation, pests, seasons, fertilizers, nutrient levels, and so on and so forth. It is very difficult sometimes to come from an answer as result of traditional science when trying to work out what are the best parameters for each of the 400,000 known species of plants. Good basic science knowledge is vital, but the capacity of guessing, the ability to acknowledge and correct your own mistakes, to be capable of observing very small changes in the general looking of a plant (which I guess involves good photographic memory) are equally important, throwing in a bit of ‘gut feeling’ as it can help too! Sometimes first you manage to grow a plant by ‘play it by the ear’ and if you succeed and manage to grow many, then you can do the empirical work in a more traditional scientific manner, but first, it has to grow!

Many of the processes you describe in your book are very labour intensive and appear to involve a certain amount of trial and error. With the understanding that time is of the essence for many of the species you work with, and that availability of seeds may be severely limited, how do you cope with the prolonged uncertainty and pressure that must surely exist when attempting to germinate seeds or propagate cuttings?

You try to do the obvious first. Sometimes you know that something works very well with that family, so you will try that first. If it does not work you need to come up with a theory of ‘what happened’ and then create a scenario that tries to prevent that situation happening again. When quantities of seeds are abundant, then that makes things easier since you can try many things at once. With very small quantities of material this is not possible, so you try to use safer options. Seeds that cannot be dried die if you dry them. Seeds that need to be dried to germinate can stay wet for a period after harvesting, so if the seeds have not been dried already, I may sow them without drying in a way that I can recover it later to try a dry, then wet method. If something can be undone, sometimes takes preference over some action that cannot be undone. If that fails, then try plan B. if everything fails and there is no more material, you had that experience so that next time something is available you can try something else. However, were the seeds non-viable? Were they too old? It can be a bit tricky to get the whole picture sometimes. There are quite a few general rules that help, the difficulty is to spot the exceptions to the rule. In these cases, experience is the mother of science and not the other way around, but then, you have to be sure that whatever change you want to do make sense from a natural science point of view.

You frequently state in your book that extinction is unacceptable. How do you feel about the proposals by some ecologists that our modifications to the planet have in fact stimulated evolution, and that extinctions and non-native invasions are just part of a natural process, albeit it one that our actions may have accelerated?

First, I think that even if something is naturally going extinct, it should be preserved. No-one questions that we preserve items such as cathedrals or classic paintings under the excuse that ‘oh well, naturally they will fall apart and disintegrate in time’. They are an immeasurable resource and relevant part of our heritage. Regarding the invasive introductions…this is complex and cannot be summarized in a simple statement like the one above. There are species that naturalize and do not create a massive change, they just integrate as another item in the system, others occupy heavily pre-damaged ecosystems, so in fact, and they are a symptom rather than an illness of the damaged ecosystem. Look at Buddleia and its preference for cracks in concrete, brownfields, and decaying urban environments. Conservation is in a way altruistic (every species should have the right to live, just because it is a species), but also is an act of egoism and self-preservation because they are so useful to us in many ways. The more that we can keep, the more biodiverse the planet will be. As earlier stated, it is a very complex issue. What is the impact of invasive plants on CO2 absorption? Not sure what the answer to that is, but I bet that in some cases they are sequestering CO2, but not for all the species nor all the situations either. Avoiding extinctions should be always high on our agendas. We can aim to preserve many species long term, even if we still allow for lots of human changes taking place, but only if we can stop climate change and we manage the land properly. If we think ‘yeah, is all part of a natural process’ then we have to admit that burning fossil fuels is as natural as flying rabbits from Spain to the Antipodes, and also, that climate change will lead to a mass extinction but then, it will recover in a few million years later? No thanks, I rather keep the world as it is, beautiful and biodiverse, because guess what, nearly all of it is avoidable. Key word here: avoidable.

Animal conservationists often bemoan the fact that it is difficult to get the public interested in the “non-charismatic megafauna”. So, while the whales, tigers and pandas of the world have plenty of public attention and support, the plankton, toads and flies are often neglected. Do you feel this problem exists within the sphere of plant conservation too? Are the beautiful “charismatic” plants given attention over the less visually striking species? Or do you think that plants as a whole are neglected? As an extension of this, how do you think we should go about getting the public to care about the conservation of plants?

Firstly, yes, I think that plant conservation is low on people’s minds when compared with furry large animals. True that. But to be fair, a subspecies of the Javan rhino was declared extinct in Vietnam in 2011 and all the populations of this emblematic mammal are declining badly despite its cuteness, so there is work to be done with animals for sure.
I think we need to understand that plants are more important to our survival, and to the animal species survival than we think they do. With plants, we need to know them better before we can truly appreciate them. There is no Rhino without savannah and we need to look at the savannah more like a vegetation community rather than a background setting for Rhinos. Plants are the green glue that sticks the planet ecosystems together. We need to look at the system more, but systems are made of components and we cannot lose them if we want to keep the system going. It is always easier to attract funding and interest to showy plant species. Sad but true, but on the other hand, many stunning looking species are threatened and nothing much has been done. We need to raise the game in all departments of conservation. At the end of the day, it is the planet that we are protecting, not single species only. I have the feeling that avoiding plant extinction is easier than animal extinction, at least ex-situ. Yet, there are more instances of animals being reintroduced to the wild than plants. Sometimes, you need to introduce animals to recover the vegetation, i.e wolves rather than planting trees. Sometimes you may need to plant trees to reconnect two populations of large mammals. Fisheries rely heavily on seagrass and mangrove forest. Those two marine habitats fix massive amounts of CO2. Does global warming affects Panda’s favourite food? Rather than focus on animal vs plant conservation, we need to do this: to focus on single species so that they do not go extinct but also make sure that the worlds ecosystems are functioning. Easier said than done, but I refuse to accept that ‘cannot be done’. It is all avoidable.

Finally, is there a plant, either extant or presumed extinct, that you dream of seeing during your lifetime?

Only one? The trouble here is what to choose…there is so many things I do not want to miss in my life time. Never seen the redwood forest, I’ve never been to South Africa, Madagascar, New Guinea, Socotra…just to name a few incredible biodiverse areas that contain 100s of interesting ‘must see’ species. The discovery of a living fossil plant in the likes of Ginkgo or the Wollemy pine would always be very exciting…indeed the reappearance of an extinct species is always uplifting, however, if I have to choose, I go for the ‘extinction avoidance’. Mostly because, if I’m aware it is about to happen, and when it happens, it is so depressing. So I choose this: to produce and germinate seeds of Hyophorbe amaricaulis from Mauritius. Only one palm tree left, and decades of failures mean that is likely it will go extinct during my lifetime. I’m aware of this, and I cannot bear the thought of waking up one day to the news that a cyclone has split it in half.

The Plant Messiah by Carlos Magdalena is published by Penguin Books and is available from NHBS in hardback. The paperback version is due for publication in April 2018.

Behind More Binoculars: An interview with the authors

Behind More BinocularsBehind More Binoculars: Interviews with Acclaimed Birdwatchers is the second book of interviews with birders. They are chosen to encompass a varied range of perspectives and approaches to birding.

We caught up with the authors, Keith Betton and Mark Avery, to ask them some questions about this insightful, humorous, thought-provoking and thoroughly unique approach to getting to the core of what makes birders tick.

Many of the interviewees’ route into birding was roaming the countryside near their homes during their childhood, often in rural locations. With parents now reluctant to let their children stray and wild spaces less common, do you think this presents a problem and if so, what is the best route now for children to discover and connect with the natural world?

Keith: I do see this as a problem for many young people who want to experience nature. Also, it is now more complicated for schools to organise nature rambles because of the health and safety checks that need to be made. There are still great local groups organised by RSPB Wildlife Explorers and some of the Wildlife Trusts – but just going out on your own is no longer an easy option.

Mark: It is a bit of a problem – but arguably the problem is in the parents’ heads. Looking back, I think I was a bit too cautious with my children and I was a lot less cautious than many parents. It is to do with what is normal – when I was a kid I headed out into the countryside all day and apart from a few bruises and grazes never came to any harm, but very few children get that delicious freedom these days.

I was encouraged that so many birders end up working in wildlife/conservation. What do you think inspires a young birder to move into conservation and not just focus on birds?

Keith: This is more a question for Mark I think. But they need to have passion for the bigger picture of conservation and not be thinking about earning much money.

Mark: Doing something that you feel is worthwhile and working with kindred spirits is a great way to spend your working life. You spend a lot of time at work – why not get a real kick out of it!

Behind More BinocularsAs the title suggests, all the interviewees were using binoculars and telescopes from quite an early age. I had binoculars from an early age (ostensibly for plane-spotting) but preferred to use my normal sight. Is it possible to be a birder without binoculars? Can you think of the gains and losses from using the naked eye instead of magnification?

Keith: The likes of Gilbert White in the 1700s made do without binoculars as they had not been invented, but today they are easy to obtain and don’t have to cost a fortune. Using all of your senses to detect nature is important, but unless you can see the details of the plumage you are missing out on so much.

Mark: Ears are important too. I’ve sometimes recorded how many species I detect and identify by sound before sight and it’s usually about 40% of them on a walk around my local area. Being attuned to nature comes with time. I have been walking down a busy noisy street in London and heard a bird call way above my head (often a Grey Wagtail – a bird with a loud simple flight call) and looked up to see it. No-one else paid it any attention of course. If I’d seen anyone else looking up I’d have known they were birders.

There is lots of travelling in this book; I’m going to avoid the obvious question regarding carbon footprint and concentrate on the positive. Jon Hornbuckle’s alarmingly dangerous travel adventures also resulted in him helping protect endangered birds and forests in Peru. What are the benefits travelling birders can bring to the birding and conservation movements?

Keith: If there were no people watching birds and wildlife in many of the world’s national parks then I think a significant number would be turned over to agriculture. If we all travelled everywhere the world’s carbon emissions would increase to the extent that climate change would accelerate further. But if birders travel to conservation areas then the local people have a reason to want those areas to be saved.

Mark: No, the obvious question is the best one. Why do nature lovers travel so much when they know it harms nature? Beats me!

In the ‘Last Thoughts’ chapter of the book you mention that the demographic for birders is rather mature and mainly men. You claim this gender balance is improving and bearing that in mind, what do you think a similar book to yours would look like in twenty years time?

Keith: While the gender imbalance is shifting I doubt it will ever reach 50/50, so such a book would probably still contain more accounts from males than females. The average age in both of our books was around 50-60, and partly that’s because you want to talk about what people have done in the past – and older people have more stories to tell. But it would be good to move that average age down a bit!

Mark: I think the differences in birding and nature conservation in 20 years’ time will be more interesting than the gender of who is talking about them. But I hope and expect a more even gender balance.

Behind More BinocularsThere was often some discussion about ‘boots on the ground’ verses ‘reports and research’ approach to birds and conservation. What are your thought about the right balance between meetings, media and marketing strategies verses getting your hands dirty in ‘the field’?

Keith: You need both – but the danger is that too much money can be devoted to discussing a conservation plan and then not enough to make the plan happen. One of my biggest concerns is the obsession with safety audits before even a simple action. I was really struck by Roy Dennis’s account of being at an Osprey nest tree that was at risk of falling down and just needed a few nails and strips of timber to keep it in place. None of the staff sent to inspect it could fix the tree as there had not been a full safety audit, so Roy just climbed up and did it himself. That’s boots on the ground (well boots on the tree actually!).

Mark: Conservation needs both. I started as a scientist working in the field – and loved it. But if you work for an organisation, and you rise up the hierarchy, you are going to spend more time wearing a tie, sitting in meetings and less in the rain with sore feet. We really do need people with a wide variety of skills to change the world. I do think though, well I would wouldn’t I, that having some senior people who have come through the ranks and know what it is like out in the field and at the base of the organisation is a good thing?

I really enjoyed Barbara Young’s interview, she had so much energy and conviction. I imagine her strident views and no-nonsense approach shook a few people up and she was convinced that nature conservation is a political issue. Do you agree – should nature conservation be more political, should birders and anglers for example see common ground, put differences aside and be a stronger political voice – should they even back a political party which shares their values or is that too far a step? If it is too far a step, how do you think the voice of birders and conservationists can be heard in the modern media blizzard that everyone is subjected to?

Keith: I’ll let Mark answer

Mark: Nature conservation is self-evidently political because it depends on altering people’s behaviour (and often they don’t want to change). You can’t increase Skylark numbers much without influencing hundreds or thousands of farmers. It’s difficult to talk to them all and persuade them to farm differently, but a change in incentives or legal requirements can get to lots of them. And that’s politics! Whether you use a stick or a carrot is politics. I don’t for a moment claim that birdwatchers must be political, but nature conservationists have to influence politics to have much impact. And the organisations to which we pay our subscriptions have to do a better job, as came out in a couple of interviews, at making that case. I don’t think that birders and anglers have completely overlapping views, but they do have partly overlapping needs – and that’s why they should work closer together on some issues (even if they fight like cats on others).

I can see why searching for rarities would be so addictive and many of the interviewees are very keen on recording them: what rarities do you expect to see turning up on these shores and which birds might go from rare to common in the UK over the next ten years?

Keith: Already in the last ten years my main birding area (Hampshire) has lost Yellow Wagtail and Tree Sparrow as a breeding species, and soon we may lose Willow Tit and Wood Warbler. We are likely to gain Great White Egret and Cattle Egret as breeders in the next ten years. As for real vagrants I think we’ll just keep getting a few new ones, although species that are declining in Europe (such as Aquatic Warbler) will turn up much less often.

Mark: Experience shows that we aren’t very good at getting these guesses right! Pass!

My final question maybe should have been my first, but can you tell me what inspired you to start interviewing birders in the first place?

Keith: It struck me that some of the real trailblazers of ornithology (such as Phil Hollom) were not going to be able to share their stories for much longer and so I sat down and got him to tell me about his life. Mark had a similar idea and came up with the idea for Behind the Binoculars. He wanted to interview me for the book. I agreed, and as it was still an early idea I suggested some other people who might be interesting to interview. In the end we realised we both had lots of ideas, and we agreed to work as a team.

Mark: They are interesting – sometimes peculiar, sometimes inspirational but interesting all the same.

About the authors

Keith Betton is a keen world birder, having seen over 8,000 species in over 100 countries.  In the UK he is heavily involved in bird monitoring, where he is a County Recorder. He has been a Council member of both the  RSPB and the BTO, currently Vice President of the latter.

Dr Mark Avery, many moons ago, worked for the RSPB and for 13 years was its Conservation Director.  He is now a writer, blogger and environmental campaigner and is prominent in the discussions over the future of driven grouse shooting in the UK.




Behind More Binoculars: Interviews with Acclaimed Birdwatchers is available to order from NHBS

Signed Copies Available

NHBS attended the recent BTO Conference and Keith has kindly signed some stock of Behind More Binoculars; we have a very limited stock, so should you order, please state ‘signed copy’ in the comments and we will do our best. If you want to catch up on the first volume of interviews we currently have a special offer on the hardback edition.

From all of us at NHBS, we wish you plenty of happy and successful birding adventures in 2018.


Improbable Destinies: An interview with Jonathan B. Losos

Jonathan B. Losos with his favourite research subject: the green anole

Jonathan B. Losos is an evolutionary biologist, currently at Harvard University. He is best known for his research on speciation in Caribbean anoles, a genus of iguanian lizards. Previously, he has authored Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree: Ecology and Adaptive Radiation of Anoles. His latest book, Improbable Destinies: How Predictable is Evolution?  is an incredibly enjoyable romp through evolutionary biology, examining the phenomenon of convergent evolution (i.e. the process by which different organisms have evolved the same or similar traits independently over time), and asks the question: how repeatable is evolution really? After reading this book recently (see also the review I left for the book) I contacted Jonathan to talk some more convergent evolution with him.

1. As a biologist, I can understand your fascination with convergent evolution. But to introduce yourself to the readers, what drew you to study this one topic out of all the fascinating aspects of evolution? Was this interest there from the beginning, or did you chance on it as your research progressed?

I’ve been interested in convergence ever since I learned about evolution because convergence of species living in similar environments is such a great demonstration of the power of natural selection. However, when I conducted my doctoral work on Caribbean Anolis lizards, I truly became fascinated by the phenomenon.

2. In your preface, you write how your PhD project on lizard diversification in the Caribbean supported ideas on convergent evolution. Right after writing up your thesis, Gould published his book Wonderful Life, in which he stressed the importance of contingency, arguing that evolution is unpredictable. You write you were taken with his book. How did you go about reconciling Gould’s views with your own?

Evolutionary biology is unlike most sciences in that it is a historical science. We can’t just do a key experiment or derive an equation and solve the problem. Rather, like detectives, we have to build the best case to understand what happened in the past. In addition, as Ian Malcolm said in Jurassic Park, life finds a way. In fact, evolution occurs in myriad different ways – almost any way of evolving you can imagine has occurred somewhere, some time. In this way, evolution is an inductive sciencewe can’t derive general rules for first principles; rather, we have to go out in nature and develop many case studies. Only in that way can we recognize the general patterns from the interesting exceptions.

It is in this light that I reconciled my one research on Anolis lizards, which indicated that evolution has travelled very much the same course four times on the different islands of the Greater Antilles (the large islands of the Caribbean), with Gould’s ideas that evolution, for the most part, is unpredictable and unrepeatable. I considered the Anolis situation to be one of the exceptions, fascinating, but out of the ordinary.

3. Part two of your book describes a plethora of field studies, including your own work on Anolis lizards, which by and large show that evolution is repeatable. Some people, botanists especially, have raised the objection that such findings could also come about by phenotypic plasticity. You have addressed this objection yourself experimentally and found that phenotypic plasticity only plays a limited role. Have others done the same, and is this something that is routinely considered and excluded as a possible explanation in this kind of research?

Phenotypic plasticity – the ability of genetically identical individuals to produce different phenotypes when exposed to different environmental conditions – has long been known. However, until recently, it was mostly considered to be noise in the system, non-adaptive phenomena that mostly served to prevent natural selection from producing evolutionary change (the reason being that natural selection might favor one variant, but if different variants in a species were genetically identical, then selection wouldn’t lead to any evolutionary change). However, in recent years we have realized that plasticity may be an important part of the evolutionary process. Although phenotypic variation (i.e., variation in traits such as anatomy, physiology) among individuals in a population may not be genetically based, the ability of a species to produce different phenotypes in different conditions is itself a genetically based trait that may evolve adaptively. Thus, species may evolve to exhibit great phenotypic variation as a response to living in many different environments. As a result, the amount of research on phenotypic plasticity has skyrocketed in the last two decades.

Improbable Destinies

4. Towards the end of Part Two, you point out another weak point of most field experiments. They generally start off with genetically related populations and so are likely to be predisposed to generate parallel evolutionary responses. Furthermore, statistical analyses might filter out the exceptions to the rule. Has experimental work by now moved on to using genetically dissimilar starting populations to investigate if convergent evolution is powerful enough to funnel different populations towards the same evolutionary outcome?

I wouldn’t say that this is a weak point of field experiments. Rather, it is a consequence of the hypothesis that is being tested. If you want to understand why guppies evolve to be more colourful in the absence of predators, then the appropriate experiment is to create multiple replicate populations of guppies in different conditions and see what happens. But, as I wrote in the book, we would expect very similar, closely-related populations to evolve similar adaptive responses to the same questions. One approach would be to conduct parallel experiments on many different species of fish to see the extent to which they adapt in similar ways (or in differing ways). Right now, I’m unaware of anyone doing this. However, different researchers sometimes ask the same question with different species, and this is the most likely way we will be able to address this question.

5. Part Three of your book looks at long-term laboratory experiments with bacteria. It seems here too, results initially suggested convergent evolution is the rule. Until exceptions starting cropping up on the longer term. Does the answer to the question whether evolution is repeatable depend on the timescale over which you look? Are we too focused on the short-term if we conclude that convergent evolution is the rule, rather than the exception?

That’s a keen observation. In Rich Lenski’s Long-Term Evolution Experiment, the story after 14 years was that evolution is pretty repeatable. Then, 30,000+ generations into the experiment, one of 12 experimental lines evolved a very different adaptation, one that still hasn’t been matched in the other 11 lines after another 14 years. So, yes, the longer one conducts a study, the greater the chance that rare, unique adaptations will occur (and we must remember that 30,000 generations are a drop in the evolutionary bucket). On the other hand, as Rich Lenski himself says, if the LTEE is continued long enoughmaybe for 300,000 generations – then perhaps the other 11 populations will discover the new adaptive solution as well. So, yes, definitely, these studies need to be continued much longer. Most studies today, LTEE’s fame and influence notwithstanding, are much shorter in length (note: Loses and Lenski edited the book How Evolution Shapes Our Lives. ed.).

6. You conclude your book by saying that in the short term evolution is predictable, but that the world of biological possibilities is a vast one, and that in the long term, chance events have had a large impact. Given the many books dedicated to the topic of convergent evolution, and the way it speaks to people’s imagination, do you think we have overestimated the importance of this mechanism? Are we too keen on seeing patterns where there are none?

Well, we need a bit of historical perspective on this question. Until recently, we thought of convergent evolution as relatively rare. Great examples of the power of natural selection, worthy of being in biology textbooks, but not at all common. Now, thanks to the work of Simon Conway Morris and others, we realize that convergence is much more pervasive than we used to believe. This has been a valid contribution to our understanding of evolution. Nonetheless, some workers have gone too far, in my estimation, in emphasizing the importance and prevalence of convergent evolution. It is a common and important aspect of evolution, but it is not the only story.

Improbable Destinies is available to order from NHBS

Flight Lines: Interview with Mike Toms

The Flight Lines Project is a collaboration between the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA). Using a unique combination of art, stories and science, this project aims to explore the lives of migrant birds and to highlight the challenges they face in a rapidly changing world.

In this interview with Flight Lines author, Mike Toms, we talk about the relationship between art and science, the importance of volunteer ornithologists and cultural differences in our attitudes to birds.

Flight Lines author, Mike Toms

I’m curious about the perceived division between the arts and the sciences. While it’s true that many artists portray images of the natural world in their work, there are not many situations where artists and scientists are required to work together towards a common aim. Flight Lines is obviously a wonderful example of this – where did the idea for the project come from and what do you consider to be the most important thing that came out of it?

There is growing evidence that audiences exposed to science and conservation messages through the creative arts are more likely to show meaningful change in their understanding, which suggests that those of us working in research should seek now opportunities to communicate the impact of our work. Flight Lines was made possible by the generous legacy left by Penny Hollow and the kindness of her executors. Penny, a long-standing BTO member was a regular at the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA) exhibitions, a great supporter and a lay member of the SWLA. The bringing together of artists and scientists to raise the profile of our migrant birds was a fitting tribute to her interests and something that we had been looking do alongside our programme of research into migrant birds. Not only has the project enabled us to tell the stories of our summer visitors to new audiences but it has also helped to underline how art and science can work together to effect change.

Flight LinesOur knowledge of where our migrant birds disappear to each year has vastly increased with the development of ever smaller and more advanced tracking devices and locators. What do you think will be the next big technological advancement in the study of bird migration?

It is the arrival of smaller and smaller devices that has revolutionised our understanding of the movements of migrant birds. The level of information that can now be collected through the use of GPS-tags and satellite-tags means that we can identify the sites and habitats used by migrant birds throughout the year. In some cases, such as with those tags that communicate via the mobile phone or satellite network, the information collected can be presented to the public in near real time, greatly adding to wider engagement with the science that is being undertaken. For the smallest birds, the tags used have to be retrieved the following year in order to download the data. As miniaturisation continues, we will soon be able to track the movements of Swallows, House Martins, Whitethroats and other small migrants in near real time. That will be a significant advancement for our understanding.

Whinchat, Blakeney by Richard JohnsonIn the UK I think it would be fair to say that we have an above average obsession with birds and their welfare. This is in stark contrast to many of the countries you discuss in the book, where birds are often viewed mainly as food or hunting trophies. What do you think is responsible for this difference in attitudes?

It is incredibly important to recognise the cultural differences that exist between countries in terms of how birds are viewed. Many of these are deeply rooted and extend back through generations, each shaped by local beliefs and opportunities, by living conditions and by trade. The hunting of migrant birds in North Africa, for example, is shaped by at least three different drivers: some are hunted for food by people living in very poor communities; others are hunted because of cultural beliefs, and many are hunted because there is a sizeable market for such commodities within the Middle East. It is important that we recognise how attitudes towards birds differ across the globe so that we can deliver approaches to conservation that are sensitive and appropriate.

Flight Lines trip to Senegal, West AfricaThe subject of supplementary feeding is currently a hot topic with the recent publication of an article in Science showing how great tits’ beaks have changed size due to the use of garden feeders. However, the messages we receive about feeding our garden birds are very mixed. Do you think the amount of supplementary feeding that occurs in the UK is a good thing overall?

The provision of supplementary food is one of the most common deliberate interactions between people and wild birds, supporting a wild bird care industry within the UK worth an estimated £210 million each year. Despite the huge amount of supplementary food provided in gardens we know surprisingly little about its impacts, which is one of the reasons why the BTO has been funding research into this topic over many years. Supplementary feeding may increase the overwinter survival of small birds, shape the communities of birds living alongside us and alter migration patterns and behaviour. It may also change the dynamics of competition between species or aid the spread of new and emerging diseases. Before we can say whether or not it is a good thing we need to improve our understanding of the associated costs and benefits, and look at these in relation to other human-bird interactions, such as climate and habitat change.

Scissor stone curlew by Harriet MeadCitizen science schemes are an incredibly powerful force in terms of obtaining large quantities of data and you frequently mention in your book how much of our knowledge about bird populations comes from the tireless efforts of volunteers. Do you think that being involved with a citizen science project is also empowering to the individual and can help to break down some of the boundaries between “professional” scientists and amateurs, making science and research more accessible to them?

The terms ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ are often used incorrectly, suggesting that staff are professionals while volunteers are amateurs, when what is really meant is that staff get paid and volunteers don’t . Many volunteers are experts in their field, sometimes the expert, and the right approach to citizen science should recognise this. We know from various research studies that volunteers participate in citizen science for a whole host of different reasons, some linked to internal values – such as feeling good about yourself – and some to external – such as sharing expertise, contributing towards charitable objectives. A well run citizen science project should make the science being carried out more accessible to participants, enabling them to see how their contribution is being used to answer a particular research question and empowering them to recognise the impact that their involvement is facilitating.

Do you feel that your art is influenced by your love of birds and wildlife and, conversely, do you feel that your art affects your appreciation of the natural world?

Some of my writing – the prose and poetry – is influenced by the natural world and by the sense of place. This feeling for the natural world is equally evident when I am participating in BTO surveys, especially the Nest Record Scheme, where significant time is spent immersed in nature, watching birds and their behaviour in order to find and monitor nesting attempts.

Flight Lines is published by the British Trust for Ornithology and is available to buy from NHBS.


Manta: Interview with Guy Stevens

With their horn-shaped cephalic fins and large, gaping mouths, manta rays have long been the source of mariners’ myths and legends. Today, we know much more about these curious creatures, although many features of their lives and behaviours remain a mystery.

Marine biologist and co-founder of the Manta Trust Guy Stevens has spent many years researching mantas in an effort to understand their lives and to promote conservation practices that will ensure their continued survival. In Manta he has joined forces with National Geographic photographer Thomas Peschak to create a visually stunning and informative tribute to these animals.

To coincide with the re-release of the book, we recently spoke to Guy about his work with Mantas and the conservation challenges that they face.

Your life as a researcher and CEO of the Manta Trust must be incredibly varied and exciting. I’m curious what a typical day in the life of Guy Stevens looks like. Or, if a ‘typical’ day is unheard of for you, can you describe a recent day for us?

My days tend to be dictated by where I am. When in the field I am usually diving or freediving with manta rays on a daily basis, collecting data or guiding tourist expeditions. However, increasingly the majority of my time is spent on my computer behind a desk responding to emails, having Skype calls, writing papers, applying for grants and managing an ever increasing manta team.

Setting up an NGO must require an immense amount of work and passion. What did you find most challenging about the process and, as an extension of this, what advice would you offer other conservationists who are hoping to travel a similar path?

The most challenging part of the process, which still remains the main challenge today, is ensuring there are funds to enable the charity to carry out its mission. My advice to anyone wishing to follow a similar path would be to ensure you diversify your revenue streams.

Manta: Secret Life of Devil RaysThe work conducted by yourself and other researchers around the world has contributed a huge amount to the body of knowledge about manta rays. What do you think are the next big questions that need to be addressed and how do you think new technologies (e.g. satellite and acoustic tagging / genetic techniques) will contribute to these?

From a conservation perspective one of the next big focus areas is to try and quantify the extent and impact of bycatch fisheries on the high seas (such as purse seine tuna fisheries) to manta rays and their close relatives, the devil rays; how many are being caught, which species, where, when and how many survive release after capture? Using post-release mortality tags can help us to estimate how many of the rays are likely to survive being captured after release, while the implementation of better management practices can hopefully reduce bycatch.

It is clear from your book that the problems facing mantas are incredibly complex and, as such, will require complex solutions. The final message I took from your book, however, appears to be one of hope. What significant changes would you like (or hope!) to see happen within the next five years in the arena of manta ray conservation.

I would like to see a world shifting away from industrial fisheries which employ unsustainable fishing practices; such as drift nets, long-lines, gill nets, etc. The oceans are rapidly being depleted and we need to protect much greater areas of this common resource from fishing if we want to stand any chance of safeguarding the world’s charismatic species like manta rays from extinction in the next few decades.

Finally – and I appreciate that you must have hundreds to choose from – is there a single encounter with a manta ray that really stands out in your memory and that will stay in your heart forever?

Yes, certainly the encounter which stands out the most is the one I describe in the book with the manta Slice, who I rescued from fishing line back in 2008 in Hanifaru Bay….there are lots of detail on this encounter in the book and here’s a link to the story on our website (although it is a bit outdated now);

Manta: Secret Life of Devil Rays is available from NHBS.

To find out more about the work of the Manta Trust and how you can support them, go to


Saltmarsh: Interview with Clive Chatters

Saltmarsh is the 5th and latest addition to the British Wildlife Collection. In this passionate and eloquent book, Clive Chatters celebrates some of our most beautiful and exceptional saltmarshes, bringing to life this mysterious and ever-changing habitat. To celebrate its publication, we recently chatted to Clive about the book and about conservation of saltmarshes in the UK.

Author, Clive Chatters

Your book is incredibly well-researched and is packed with fascinating details on the history, ecology and management of saltmarshes in the UK. However, if you were to be faced with an audience of people who know absolutely nothing about saltmarshes, their beauty or their value – what are the key things you would tell them to inspire and pique their interest?

Talking about Saltmarshes is no substitute to joining the audience on a short walk and experiencing the landscape first-hand. In a modest stroll one can share the reek of the mud and the companionable cry of waders. The breeze will bring minute particles of brine to our lips, a piquant introduction to a habitat so alien from our own. I would hope that such a stroll would leave people wanting more.

Saltmarsh by Clive ChattersSome of the most enjoyable parts of the book for me were the historical accounts of the saltmarshes; finding out how both common people and nobles, together with the shifting political framework throughout the ages, influenced the landscape of our country. Is history a particular passion of yours and do you think that an understanding of a region’s history is important for current and future conservation decisions?

Our encounters with wildlife are just snatched insights into the lives of countless other species. Britain’s landscape has co-evolved with people, we are a part of our nation’s native fauna. By understanding how that relationship has developed we can better understand our place in the world and so appreciate our responsibility for the consequences of our actions.

Saltmarsh by Clive ChattersTo quote from the end of your book, “all habitats and landscapes are subject to change”. However, saltmarshes are arguably under the influence of a greater range of factors in comparison to many other habitat types; with short- and long-term fluctuations in tides, sea level rise and land subsidence in addition to the inevitable human impacts of agriculture and land development. For these reasons, do you think that saltmarshes are uniquely difficult to provide a conservation plan for?

Nature conservationists are asked to master a host of interactive challenges. There are common themes covering all habitats and species  that focus on safeguarding interconnected landscapes and securing the wherewithal to allow ecological processes to progress unimpeded. In saltmarshes this usually means making spaces for tides and sediments to move and for the vegetation to develop in the presence of large grazing animals. Saltmarshes are particularly demanding as they shift across the landscape at a rate that can outpace our ability to manage change. If we fail then human life and property are at risk and the diversity of the natural world is diminished.

Saltmarsh by Clive ChattersAs a long-term naturalist with a rich and varied career, what do you think (or hope) will be your most important legacy to conservation?

All any of us can do is hope to leave Britain’s wildlife in better heart than when we first grew to know it. To me success is measured by rejuvenating conditions in which wildlife can cope with whatever changes are yet to come.

The research and writing of Saltmarsh must have been an immense undertaking. I’m curious what is next for you? Are there plans afoot for further books?

I enjoy writing as it helps to marshal the results of my curiosity into a semblance of order. If others enjoy what I’ve written then there are many more stories to tell.

British Wildlife Collection

Saltmarsh was published as part of the British Wildlife Collection; a series of books, each covering an individual aspect of British natural history. From the first publication in 2012, they have covered such diverse topics as mushrooms, meadows and mountain flowers, and books have been written by some of Britain’s finest writers and experts in their field. Filled with beautiful images, these wide-ranging and well-researched titles are a joy for any naturalist who is passionate about British wildlife and landscapes.

Browse the complete British Wildlife Collection

Bowland Beth: An Interview with David Cobham

Bowland Beth dramatises the short life of an English hen harrier between 2011 and 2012 and immerses the reader in the day-to-day regimen of her life. Interweaved with her story is the larger tale of the species fight for survival under the constant threat of persecution. In this article our book specialist, Nigel Jones, talks to the author, David Cobham, about the plight of the hen harrier and his hopes for the future of this glorious bird.

David Cobham
The Author of Bowland Beth, David Cobham.

There are numerous organisations and NGOs in the book who want the same outcome for the hen harrier, but who seem to be in conflict as to how to achieve their aims. What strategy do you think would enable all these groups to speak with one voice; do you think this would help when confronting powerful lobby groups such as the landowners and their connections in government?

The problem lies in some organisations wanting an outright ban on driven grouse shooting. That is not going to happen as has already been demonstrated. What we all have to work for is a system of licensing driven grouse moor shooting. Controlled by DEFRA a driven grouse moor would be licensed to operate and granted the subsidies that are substantial.  If a case of illegal killing was proven in court the license for driven grouse shooting would be revoked for 3 years. I believe this would get a majority backing.

The hen harrier in your book is named Beth. I encounter some people who disapprove of naming animals, they claim this is anthropomorphism and inappropriate to conservation.  What would you say to those people?

Mark Avery in his review of my book saw exactly what I was trying to do. Ring numbers or tag numbers are impersonal. By giving them names it makes us feel closer to the birds. The news that Bowland Beth has died is much more heart wrenching than that 834759 has died.

Sadly, I have never seen a hen harrier. Your description of them is written with such a passion akin to awe that I am now determined to see one of these birds for myself. What chance does an everyday person like myself have of seeing a hen harrier in the wild?

A survey last year reported that there were 4 breeding pairs of hen harriers in England – none of them on grouse moors. The best time to see hen harriers is in the winter when there is a considerable influx of hen harriers from the Scandinavian countries. They pitch up from October on the east of England and can be seen as they come into roost in reed beds on the coast or in damp areas with shelter from silver birches inland. They return north to breed in mid-March.

The landowners say they need to make an income from the moors, and driven grouse shooting is the only way they can do this. They will put the case for local employment and, like the debate around foxhunting, accuse opponents of not understanding ‘the countryside.’ Do you think a ban on driven grouse shooting is the only way to force the landowners hand, or do you think working alongside landowners to assist with techniques such as brood management and diversionary feeding is the best way to proceed?

Brood management is just one of six measures in DEFRA’s save the hen harrier project. It is a concession to the grouse moor owners. This is how it will work. First, when a nest is found on a grouse moor, diversionary feeding must be tried. This involves feeding day old chicks during the six week period when hen harriers take grouse chicks. They are placed on a plank supported by trestles about 30 metres from the nest. Trials at Langholm showed that this method reduces chick predation by 86%. If another hen harrier nests within 10 km of the original nest then brood management comes into play. The clutch of eggs is removed and hatched in an incubator. They are taught to feed. When they can feed themselves they are placed in an aviary out on the moor. Monitored by experts they will be given a “soft” release and continue to be fed until they are self sustaining.

If the trial is shown to fail due to illegal killing it will cease immediately.

I’m quite cynical about this. I think a lot gamekeepers won’t allow a hen harrier to nest on their moor and furthermore there are not enough hen harriers breeding on grouse moors in England to justify this procedure.

There are some conservationists that advocate adopting a more laissez-faire approach to extinction, moving priorities to bio-abundance rather than biodiversity and accepting that extinction and invasive species are part of the evolutionary process. What are your thought regarding this way of thinking?

I quote directly from my book. An extract from The Diversity of Life by Professor Edward O. Wilson: “We should not knowingly allow any species or race to go extinct. There can be no purpose more enspiriting than to begin the ages of restoration, reweaving the wondrous diversity of life that still surrounds us”. The hen harrier was extinct as a breeding bird in England in 2013. Its fate lies in our hands now.

Despite the hen harrier being a totem and emblematic of a battle between conservationists and those wishing to preserve a ‘rural way of life;’ a quick straw-poll I conducted indicated little knowledge of the bird. However, with more knowledge, I believe the majority would care about the hen harrier. How can the plight of the hen harrier compete in a media blizzard of often superficial and meaningless content?

When Bowland Beth was shot we believe she had just found a mate. Her femur was fractured, six of her tail feathers cut through and her femoral artery nicked. She picked herself up and flew unsteadily off, streaming blood behind her. Her vision blurred and she crashed into heather. Don’t tell me that birds don’t feel pain. She must have been in exquisite pain. I know about pain. I broke my femur last October, and lay there for six hours before I was found. That is the bond I have with Bowland Beth.

Do you believe satellite tagging is a good way to monitor hen harriers, and if so why?

Illegal killing of hen harriers continues. There is an arms race – sophisticated satellite tagging versus state of the art weaponry. Since 2007 36 hen harriers satellite tagged by Natural England have “disappeared”. Bowland Beth was one of them. The Hawk and Owl Trust satellite tagged two hen harriers last year. The male, Rowan, was shot last October in the north of England. His leg was smashed and he was able to fly some distance before collapsing in the heather. Sorrel, a female, is alive and well and flourishing in Scotland.

Protecting the hen harrier requires dedication, passion and commitment to the cause of conservation, often from volunteers working long hours in all weathers. What would you say to inspire a future generation of conservationist to take up the baton?

To watch a young hen harrier successfully fledge from her nest and set out into the unknown is the start of a Great Adventure. Sharing this knowledge with other weary volunteers who have probably not seen anything all day re-invigorates them, gives them the impetus to go out again and search for that elusive V-shaped image of a hen harrier, searching up and down, for its favourite prey, short-tailed field voles.

Bowland Beth: The Life of an English Hen Harrier, written by David Cobham and illustrated by Dan Powell, is published by William Collins and is available in hardback.


Orison for a Curlew: Interview with Horatio Clare

Orison for a Curlew takes us on a pilgrimage in search of the slender-billed curlew; once a common sight in its breeding grounds of Siberia, but now diminished to a handful of unconfirmed sightings. In this article, one of our book team Nigel Jones, talks to the author, Horatio Clare, about conservation, environmentalism and his hopes for the future of the titular bird.

The author, Horatio Clare

Despite the rather gloomy prognosis for the fate of the slender-billed curlew, your book seems to me about hope. Are you optimistic that conservation will gain ground due to stories such as the plight of Numenius tenuirostris, or do you think this story is more of a prelude of things to come?

It is about hope. I do think the hunger for watching nature footage, and writing and reading about the natural world will translate, given the unavoidable nature of climate and environmental awareness as the world changes, into action. My sense of my generation, currently in our forties, is that we came out of an easy time – the nineties – well aware of how lucky we were, and how things were going with the planet and capitalism generally – and that we have not seen the best of us yet. We have been getting it together, I know of great people in powerful positions, and others doing tremendous work, and I hope things will change for the better. Brexit and Trump are shattering reversals for the world and nature, but not insurmountable. Moreover, it seems the slender-billed curlew may not be on the way out! A population may breed in Kazakhstan and the birds may have been seen and filmed a few years ago in Holland.

Being such a delicate and ethereal creature; do you think the slender-billed curlew was always vulnerable to possible extinction, regardless of human activity; was there a more dominant species pushing it out of it’s niche?

No I am sure we are the dominant species which pushed it out, by draining marshes and polluting the water. It was surely vulnerable in that it is highly specialised.

The relentless corrosion of diminishing natural spaces is a strong theme in your book. The argument for development is usually ‘people come first’ and, by definition, wild spaces are mainly unoccupied by people. I would love to see the hundreds of white pelicans, spiralling up to find the thermals that you describe. However, most of us will only see a spectacle such as this on television, or envisage it vicariously. For me this is the paradox of conserving wild spaces for their own sake – how do we get everyone involved with conservation when only a few people ever get to experience what it creates? How do we make wild spaces matter to everybody?

Knowledge of the natural world and knowing what you are looking at can make a walk in the garden, park or road a safari. That is the way you make every space matter: put names and stories on the creatures that inhabit it. Funnily enough I have written two children’s books on the subject! Which makes me think, children’s literature being a kind of menagerie, we all begin as nature-lovers; it’s just that some adults discount the planet’s marvels, and certainly its needs. And of course corporations exist solely to harvest the planet’s riches as quickly as possible, heedless of environmental cost, if they are allowed to be, for the benefit of share-holders. I think some form of cooperativism between individuals and between nations offers the only hope for long-term sustainability.

There are some conservationists that advocate adopting a more laissez-faire approach to extinction, moving priorities to bio-abundance rather than biodiversity and accepting that extinction and invasive species are part of the evolutionary process. What are your thought regarding this way of thinking?

It is a sin to cause the extinction of a species, as Prof Kiss puts it in Orison. To fail to prevent the extinction of a species seems of a different order, if hard to enjoy. If you regard our privilege of dominance as responsibility, then we have a duty to look after all of what used to be called God’s creatures. We should not really accept anything less than bio-abundance and biodiversity, should we?

I really enjoyed meeting all the people in your book; their dedication, passion and commitment to the cause of conservation was wonderfully described, without ever reducing them to parodies or caricatures. For me they represented the ‘hope’ in your book. However, they all seemed at odds with the world, probably viewed by their relative governments as part of an ‘awkward squad’ and their work and funding was often in decline. What would you say to inspire a future generation of conservationist to take up the baton?

With journalism going through tough times, there is no better way to have the fun and the interest of being the awkward squad, travelling the world, getting up the noses of baddies and making the planet a better place than becoming an environmentalist! What a blessed and admirable profession! What adventure it offers! And…the happiest people you meet are naturalists and environmentalists, on the whole, though they deal in tragedy and folly often.

Licenced under CC BY SA 3.0, Naturalis Biodiversity Centre
Numenius tenuirostris Vieilliot, 1817

The hunting for sport, the mist nets and the bird markets make for a very threatening environment for migrating birds. However, it’s the drainage of the marshes for agriculture and the encroachment and contamination of heavy industry that you more frequently allude to as the biggest threat. Do you see hunting as a potential partner to conservation, or are those two pursuits always going to be in conflict?

Having just read Bowland Beth: The Life of an English Hen Harrier by David Cobham I feel hunting is unhelpful, if not abominable, but that may be a grouse-centric view. In Greece the numerous hunters are thought of with something like revulsion by some conservationists; the hunting I saw while living in Italy was an absolute disgrace. No doubt many hunters are great and ardent conservationists. Unfortunately many are not.

The slender-billed curlew sightings in recent history are difficult to verify. What are your hunches about their authenticity and when was the last recorded sighting that you believe was accurate?

The birds filmed in Holland in 2013 seem genuine but I am no expert. I believe they are seen – and recorded – now and then. I heard a report from Oman, but a confirmed sighting is a tricky thing: it seems you need two or more photos and absolute proof. My friend Istavan Moldovan is cautious about the 2013 footage – as I write he is chasing relict populations of Apollo butterflies in the Carpathians in Romania. Does that not sound like a great career?

The last question is a simple one, but maybe the most difficult to answer. I know you certainly hope so, but do you believe Numenius tenuirostris will ever be seen again?

I absolutely do. I am quite sure they are out there and it is my dream to see one! Thank you so much for your wonderfully intelligent and acute questions, quite the best!

Orison for a Curlew, written by Horatio Clare and illustrated by Beatrice Forshall, is published by Little Toller Books and is available in paperback and hardback.

Little Toller was established in 2008 with a singular purpose: to revive forgotten and classic books about nature and rural life in the British Isles.

Their Nature Classics Library series was established to re-publish gems of natural history writing, with up-to-date introductions by contemporary writers. The success of the series has now developed into a publishing programme which includes a series of monographs by authors like Fiona Sampson, John Burnside, Iain Sinclair and Adam Thorpe as well as stand-alone books – all attuned to nature and landscape and aimed at the general reader.

Each Little Toller writer brings something new to the series – but it’s always characterised by a deep understanding of the subject, combined with wonderful writing.  A sense of the personal reaction to the natural world is imperative. Little Toller also pay a great deal of attention to the aesthetic of their books, using artists to complement the writing to create a beautiful object, befitting Little Toller’s high publishing standards.

Little Toller is now preparing its books for the latter part of the year, notably the first ever biography of the legendary but enigmatic J A Baker, author of The Peregrine, and access to the new Baker archive has led to important new insights into his life. 2018 will see new books from Tim Dee on Landfill, a book about Ted Hughes and fishing called The Catch, and an examination of the landscape of the north of the Irish republic from Sean Lysaght. Little Toller’s sister charity Common Ground is also working on a large exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park next year, for which there will be a raft of publishing.


Inheritors of the Earth: An interview with Chris D. Thomas

The author shows on a field trip in Sabah
Chris D. Thomas on a field expedition in Danum Valley, Sabah, 2015.

Chris D. Thomas is a Professor in the Department of Biology at the University of York and was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in July 2012. He has an interest in understanding how humans have changed the biological world, and how we might protect the biodiversity that remains. His first book, Inheritors of the Earth, is a very interesting and thought-provoking read on the current mass extinction crisis, and conservation philosophy in general, focusing on the proverbial winners, and calling out conservationists for holding viewpoints that seem more driven by nostalgia than by logical thinking about the biological future of our planet. Sure to ruffle some feathers, NHBS nevertheless believes that this book makes an important contribution, and that his arguments are more balanced than a cursory glance might suggest. We contacted Chris with a list of questions that arose after reading it.

1. In your book, you quite rightly argue that, despite species going extinct, there are species who are benefitting from our presence and the changes we have wrought to our ecosystems. You acknowledge that our influences largely seem to result in an accelerated introduction of species in new areas. Will the net result of this great reshuffling not be a world that is suited only to generalist species (the proverbial rats and pigeons) at the expense of specialists?

This is not quite how I see it. Take your two examples. The Asian brown rat was a regular rodent (granted it was omnivorous, but so are many other rodents), before it hitched a lift with us around the world. Today, the brown rat mainly lives in and around human habitation and farmland, except on islands that lack native rodents, so you could simply call it a specialist on human-modified environments. The feral or town pigeon originated as a specialist cliff-nesting pigeon (the rock dove) in western Europe, the Mediterranean, and into western Asia. It is still a cliff-nesting bird, living on our buildings. Neither the feral pigeon nor the brown rats are unusually generalised, relative to many other birds and mammals. It is their proximity to us that makes us think of them as generalists.  I don’t think we should synonymise ‘successful’ or ‘living in human-modified environments’ with being a ‘generalist’.

2. In Chapter 6, “Heirs to the World”, you mention that most current conservation efforts focus on trying to defend the losers. You argue that, though honourable, it will be more effective to back the winners, i.e. those species that will make up future biological communities. An important theme in the recent book Never Out of Season: How Having the Food We Want When We Want it Threatens Our Food Supply and Our Future is that the loss of wild crop varieties through extinction is threatening our future food supply. Many of these wild varieties might have the potential of providing new food sources when our current crop varieties will inevitably succumb to new insect pests or pathogens, or can provide other benefits (e.g. pharmaceuticals). This is why projects such as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and other seed banks are so important. Do you see any value in the conservation of threatened species, or is this crying over spilt milk?

I argue that we should in most instances continue to protect ‘species’. Rare species may become common and hence fulfil important roles in future ecosystems, and species that we currently ignore (or have not yet discovered) may become economically, medically or socially important to us in the future. Hanging onto as many species as possible is not a preservationist agenda, but rather a means of maintaining the building blocks of future ecosystems, fuelling biological changes that will take place in the coming centuries. Similar arguments apply to rare genes that belong to wild relatives of plants and livestock that we already use. They provide long-term resilience and flexibility.

3. In Chapter 11, “Noah’s Earth”, you call for a new conservation philosophy that acknowledges that life is a process, not a final product. In your view, this philosophy would rest on four overarching principles: a) accept change, b) maintain flexibility for future change by conserving species wherever possible, c) accept that humans are natural and that anything we do is part of the evolutionary history of life (this includes not shying back from employing any and all solutions at our disposal, including genetic techniques – none of them will make the world less natural), d) live within our natural boundaries. In the remainder of that chapter you elaborate on the first three principles, but not the fourth. How do you envision realising this fourth principle?

As I say: “We know that we cannot expect the bounty to continue if we carry on killing animals faster than they can breed or cut forests down faster than they grow. This strategy failed when our ancestors drove most of the world’s largest land animals to extinction, and it has played out in the last few centuries as whale and fish populations have collapsed under the pressure of over-harvesting. We need a resilient and sustainable approach. We should aim for maximum efficiency, by which I mean that we should pursue strategies that fulfil all human needs – and, where possible, desires – of every citizen on Earth while generating the least possible collateral damage to the global environment.”

Harvesting a species faster than the survivors can reproduce can be thought of as a relatively ‘hard’ natural boundary (once a species is extinct, it is no longer a resource), but other bounds are much softer (a forest with one fewer species still grows), and hence we often need to specify tolerable levels of change, rather than catastrophic points of no return. These issues deserve book-length treatment on their own, which is why I did (deliberately) somewhat duck the issues!

When I refer to the ‘least possible collateral damage to the global environment’, I am thinking about the development of technological and social ‘game changers’. For example, most meat production is based on filling our fields and barns with cows, sheep and chickens, which we then kill for food. If we could switch to the consumption of ‘factory-grown’ cultured meats, powered by renewable energy, it would dramatically reduce pressure on the land; although admittedly not by as much as if we all became vegetarians.

4. Your book makes many valid points as to how our current thinking around species conservation is in conflict with itself, or simply illogical (e.g. the distinction between native and invasive species, because, seen over long enough time scales, species distribution has always fluctuated. Or the idea that there is no one period in the history of life that we can take as a benchmark of the idealised pristine state the world should be in. Or simply the idea that conservation means “freezing” the world in its current (or a former) state – after all, the only constant of life on our planet has always been change). You also, provocatively I would say, argue that many island species that have gone extinct were effectively already evolutionary dead ends, having evolved in environments free from predators and pathogens. We have merely hastened their demise, but they would eventually have gone extinct anyway. Should we really give up on them?

I don’t think it is particularly controversial (or provocative, therefore) to say that most flightless and disease-susceptible terrestrial birds (as opposed to seabirds) that live on oceanic islands represent evolutionary dead-ends, on a time scale of ten or so million years. What are the alternatives? They would never be able to establish viable populations on continents because pathogens and predators are present. Confined to their island homes, they would eventually have died out, either when the islands eroded away, or when additional continental species arrived without human intervention (for example Darwin’s finches have ‘only’ been on the Galapagos for two to three million years). In most cases, we have accelerated the extinction of such species but not altered their eventual fate.

What we should do with the few remaining survivors is another issue. What I argue in Inheritors of the Earth is that we should think quite broadly. Can we introduce new genes to disease-susceptible birds that will make them resistant (for example to save the remaining Hawaiian honeycreepers)?  Can we cross predator-susceptible birds with related species that reproduce fast enough to survive the new levels of predation (for example to save New Zealand black stilts)?  Could we introduce new strains of bird malaria that are less potent, and displace the existing fatal ones? In other words, can we make the endangered island forms more resistant in some way and the continental invaders less virulent, so that long-term coexistence becomes possible? If not, then maybe we should indeed abandon some of the losers, and contemplate releasing continental walking birds (which can resist pathogens and predators) and pollinators, rather than dwell too long attempting to recreate a biological world that was inherently unstable.

Inheritors of the Earth5. One argument in favour of trying to conserve the “charismatic megafauna”, such as elephants and rhinos, are that they function as flagship species, and that conservation efforts aimed at them can benefit whole ecosystems. In your book, you don’t really go into this. What are your thoughts on the concept of flagship species, especially in light of your argument that “defending the losers” is ultimately a lost cause?

I am generally in favour of large, flagship species because they require large areas to protect, and this indirectly benefits many other species (though flagship conservation is not sufficient because it may miss areas of endemism). They are also culturally important to conservationists as well as to the general public, gaining public and political support for conservation. The giant panda has been globally important, and critical to the conservation of Chinese forests, despite being a slightly ‘dodgy species’!

When I discuss losers, remember that I then add the question “can we turn them into winners” (or at least into survivors). For the large megafauna that still survive, this is easy. We can choose not to hunt them to extinction any longer. It is already the case that large birds and large mammals are tending to recover in Europe and North America, and this is also true of the Great Whales. They were losers in the context of historic human culture, and there is no necessary reason why they ‘must be’ losers. Once ivory and rhino horn ‘culture’ is turned around, there will be nothing ‘wrong’ with these species either.

6. If you were put in charge of a major conservation organisation, say WWF, what would you do differently? Would you, for example, have greenlighted their recent campaign to try and protect the last remaining individual vaquitas (the threatened porpoise endemic to the Gulf of California)?

I’m not going to answer your first question because that would be a whole new book (or job if they offer it to me!). I’ll just say that, on day one, I would request a review of activities, and for every measure currently being undertaken to prevent change or decline, I would ask for the staff to develop an additional measures to promote changes that would increase diversity (or the status of an endangered species).

As for the vaquita, I am no expert. However, it is evolutionary distinct, and it is a perfectly viable species if we were stop killing it (including through gillnets). It is not a species that one should necessarily give up on. More broadly, it is a symptom of the mismanagement of the world’s marine resources. We sorted out farming on land a long time ago, but we are still more or less acting as hunter-gatherers in the marine realm. It is hopelessly inefficient.

If I had an infinite supply of money, I would be looking to invest in fish farms (they can be locally damaging, but humans still need food), and I would also invest in new GM crops which produce fish oils so that the farmed fish could be fed on terrestrial plants rather than ‘wild caught’ marine resources. Beyond that, I would invest in cultured fish meat (factory grown muscles), further reducing the need to catch wild fish. The aim would be for virtually all fish consumed in the year 2100 to be farmed or, ideally, cultured as tissues in factories.

Whether or not the vaquita itself can be saved, these strategies are all about generating permanent means of providing a global supply of fish meat without causing anything like as much collateral damage as takes place at present.

7. As mentioned above, I think your book makes excellent arguments. And yet, reading it also brought with it a certain sense of unease. It almost feels a bit defeatist, as if we might just as well give up on fighting to save threatened species and just go with the flow. I can see this argument not being popular. A lot of people feel we have a moral responsibility, as an intelligent, thinking species, to not drive other species over the edge, and to put a stop to our destructive ways. Isn’t saying “everything we do is natural, we are just another step in the evolution of life” a bit of a cop out?

I’ll leave others to discuss morals!

Saying that everything is natural, including all conservation actions we take, allows us to take ‘affirmative action’ for wildlife in a manner that some conservationists would historically have been nervous about (“I can’t do that, it would not be natural”). So, I see it as an opening up of new conservation opportunities, not a cop out.

8. It is perhaps a bit early to ask you how the book has been received. But, clearly, when a book like this is written, it is often based on years of work and research that has led up to it. These ideas did not just appear. So, how have your viewpoints been received so far?

The response to the book seems good so far, but it is far too early to judge. You are right, I have put some of these views out there previously, and they have received a mixture of responses. Many people seem very supportive. However, invasive species biologists are mostly negative, I think fearing that non-native species legislation could be undermined, more than genuinely questioning the biological thesis (that may just be my interpretation). There are also those, such as E. O. Wilson, who consider that I and others are being Anthropocene apologists. I understand their point, but we cannot simply continue to wish that we live in an unchanged world. We have to develop an understanding of biology, and an approach to conservation, that works with change rather than against it.

9. Obviously, there are many parties in our society who stand to gain a great deal from ignoring conservation concerns and steam-rolling ahead with “business as usual”, continuing to destroy natural habitats for corporate gains. With this book now poised to be published, do you not worry that your narrative will be hijacked, the way has happened with the debate surrounding climate change? I can already see people using your arguments to legitimise their actions, arguing along the lines of “this biologist said that the extinction crisis really isn’t such a big deal. See? Lots of species doing really well!”. Have you considered strategies to prevent this from happening?

I nearly didn’t put fingers to keyboard for this very reason. However, if we build a case for conservation based on a loss-only view of the world, eventually it will fall. The edifice is already creaking. A more balanced view that admits to the reality of biological gains as well as losses should, in the end, lead to more rational decision-making.

In terms of conservation, I have stated my own views. In the Epilogue, I write: “If [existing conservation] efforts were abandoned, the extinction rate would escalate. A major task of conservation is to keep the losses towards the lower end of the likely range – as well as to encourage biological gains. Although I have been advocating a more flexible approach to the environment, and specifically to conservation, nothing I have said should be used to undermine attempts to save existing species or maintain protected areas.

As for the extinction ‘big deal’, biological gains of the Anthropocene do not let us off the hook. A simple linear extrapolation of the current rate of extinction wipes out about three-quarters of all species in the next ten millennia. This is risky, given that species represent our planet’s biological parachute. All future ecosystems will be formed from the descendants of existing species, and we do not know which of today’s currently-rare species will be important components of future ecosystems (especially if humans alter the planet in yet another, unexpected way). Letting rare species go could have major long-term consequences. My advice would be not to discard the biological building blocks of our planet lightly.

Inheritors of the Earth is available to order from NHBS

The Sensory Ecology of Birds: Interview with Graham Martin

The Sensory Ecology of Birds is a fascinating new work that explores the sensory world of birds from an evolutionary and ecological perspective. The author Professor Graham Martin gives us some insights into his inspiration, the incredible diversity of avian sensory adaptations, and how studying sensory ecology can help in developing practical conservation solutions.


Professor Graham Martin – Author of The Sensory Ecology of Birds

How did you first become interested in bird senses?

Through owls. As a child I used to listen to tawny owls calling all through the night in a nearby wood and I wanted to know what they were doing and how they did it. My father took me round the woods at night and that experience led me to wanting to know more about the eyesight of owls.

What inspired you to write the book and what kind of readers do you think would find it useful?

I have been studying bird senses all of my working career. Nearly 50 years ago I started to get paid for looking into bird senses; it has been a strange and exciting way to spend my time. After such a long time of investigating the senses of so many different birds I wanted to bring it all together, to provide an overview that will help people understand birds from a new perspective. I think anyone interested in birds will enjoy the book and find it useful. No matter which group of species intrigues you most, this book will enable you to see them from a new perspective. Understanding bird senses really does challenge what we think birds are and how they go about their lives.

Sensory ecology is a relatively new field of research; could you explain a little about what it is and what makes it particularly relevant today?

Sensory Ecology is basically the study of the information that birds have at their disposal to guide their behaviour, to guide the key tasks that they perform every day to survive in different types of habitats.  Different habitats present different challenges and to carry out tasks animals need different sorts of information. Birds have at their disposal a wide range of different sensory information, they are not just reliant upon vision. However, each species tends to be specialised for the gaining of certain types of information. Just as each species differs in its general ecology, each species also has a unique suite of information available to them. Sensory ecology is also a comparative science. It compares the information that different species use and tries to determine general principles that apply to the conduct of particular behaviours in different places. For example how different birds cope with activity at night or underwater.

Sensory adaptations to overcome the challenges of being nocturnal in two species, the Kiwi (Apteryx mantelli) and Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis) – photo credit: Graham Martin

Sensory Ecology also looks at why evolution has favoured particular solutions to particular problems.  I think the major result of this kind of approach is that it certainly challenges our assumptions about what birds are and also what humans are. We do not readily realise that our view of the world is very much shaped by the information that our senses provide. We are rather peculiar and specialised in the information that we use to guide our everyday behaviours. My hope is that people will come to understand the world through birds’ senses, to get a real “bird’s eye view”. In doing so we can understand why birds fall victim to collisions with obvious structures such as powerlines, wind turbines, motor vehicles, glass panes, fences, etc. We can then work out what to do to mitigate these problems that humans have thrown in birds’ way.

An understanding of how a species perceives its environment can be very useful in designing practical conservation measures. Could you give us some examples?

Yes, I have been involved in trying to understand why flying birds apparently fail to detect wind turbines and power lines, or diving birds fail to detect gill nets.  These investigations have led to a number of ideas about what is actually happening when birds interact with these structures and what we can do to increase the chances that birds will detect and avoid them.

How do you think that studying avian sensory ecology can enhance our understanding of our own sensory capabilities and interaction with the world?

It gives a fresh perspective on how specialised and limited our own view of the world is. We make so many assumptions that the world is really as we experience it, but we experience the world in a very specialised way. Sensory ecology provides lots of new information and facts about how other animals interact with the world, what governs their behaviour, but equally importantly sensory ecology questions very soundly our understanding of “reality”, what is the world really like as opposed to what we, as just one species, think it is like. This is quite challenging but also exhilarating. We really are prisoners of our own senses, and so are all other animals. Sensory ecology gives us the opportunity to understand the world as perceived by other animals, not just how we think the world is. That is really important since it injects a little humility into how we think about the way we exploit the world.

Could you give us some insight into how birds can use different senses in combination to refine their interpretation of the world around them?

Owls provide a good example. Their vision is highly sensitive but not sufficiently sensitive to cope with all light levels that occur in woodland at night, so owls also rely heavily upon information from hearing to detect and locate moving prey. The nocturnal behaviour of owls requires these two key sources of information but even these are not enough. To make sense of the information that they have available to them the woodland owls need to be highly familiar with the place in which they live, hence their high degree of allegiance to particular sites.  Other birds, such as ducks, parrots and ibises rely heavily upon the sense of touch to find food items. The degree to which this information is used has a knock on effect on how much the birds can see about them. So a duck that can feed exclusively using touch, such as a mallard, can see all around them, while a duck that needs to use vision in its foraging cannot see all around. This in turn has implications for the amount of time birds can spend foraging as opposed to looking around them, vigilant for predators. In many birds the sense of smell is now seen as a key source of information which governs not just foraging, but also social interactions.

Are there interesting examples of species that are specialists in one particular sense?

Usually birds rely upon at least two main senses that have become highly specialised and which are used in a complementary manner. For example, in ibises it might be touch and vision, in kiwi it is smell and touch, in some of the waders it is touch and taste, but in other waders touch and hearing.

White-headed vulture – photo credit: Graham Martin

Probably the most obvious single sense specialisations are found among aerial predators such as eagles and falcons, they seem to be highly dependent upon vision to detect prey at a distance and then lock on to it during pursuit. However, we really don’t know anything about other aspects of their senses and there is a lot left to learn about them.

Can you tell us about any species that you have studied that you find particularly fascinating?

Oilbirds; they are really challenging to our assumptions about what birds are, how they live and what information they have available to them.

Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis) – photo credit: Graham Martin

Oilbirds are the most nocturnal of all birds, roosting and breeding deep in caves where no light penetrates, emerging only after dusk and then flying over the tropical rain forest canopy to find fruit. But they are a form of nightjar! In the complete darkness of caves they use echolocation to orient themselves and calls to locate mates. When searching for food in the canopy they use their sense of smell to detect ripe fruits, they have long touch sensitive bristles around the mouth. And their eyes have sensitivity close to the theoretical limits possible in vertebrate eyes.  They seem to rely upon partial information from each of these senses, and use them in combination or in complementary ways. They really are marvellous, but in truth the senses of any birds, and how they are used, are fascinating and intriguing, it is a matter of delving deep enough, and asking the right questions.

In what kind of direction do you think future sensory ecology research is headed?

We now have available a lot of techniques to find out about the senses of birds, from behavioural studies, to physiology and anatomy. Armed with these techniques, and also with ways of thinking and measuring the perceptual challenges of different tasks and different environments, there are so many questions to investigate. We have some fascinating findings but we have only just scratched the surface with regard to species and it does seems clear that senses can be very finely tuned to different tasks. I like to compare the diversity of the bills that we find in birds with the same diversity in the senses in those species.

Every bill tells a story about form and function, about evolution, ecology and behaviour. The senses of birds show the same degree of diversity and tuning. So to me sensory ecology is a wide open field with lot of questions to investigate. To appreciate the world from a bird’s perspective will, of course, give us a much better understanding of how to mitigate the problems that humans have posed to birds by shaping the world for our own convenience.

The Sensory Ecology of Birds is available now from NHBS