Reaching for the Sun: How Plants Work – an interview with author John King

Reaching for the Sun jacket imageWhat first led you to become interested in the study of plant science?

At school and, later, as an undergraduate student, I encountered mentors who encouraged an interest in, at first, natural history, then, general plant biology, and, finally, the more specialized field of plant physiology and biochemistry. This interest continued to grow during my years as a graduate student, becoming, in time, an academic career in plant biology.

Plants demonstrate considerable variety of form and colour, and thrive in all corners of the globe – is there a realm of plant science that particularly interests you?

My own fascination is with how plants work at the most fundamental level. In my research career, I focused on plant metabolism using such tools as biochemical mutants and molecular biological techniques to investigate how plants manufacture the molecules they require for their everyday needs, such as those involved in DNA, RNA, and protein synthesis, vitamin production – including folic acid – and some of those used by plants to defend themselves against attack by fungal diseases.

Reaching for the Sun is accessible to the non-specialist as well as the student – what was your aim for the book? What can a potential reader expect?

My aim in writing the first edition was to provide knowledge of how plants work to the informed layperson who has some background knowledge of plant biology. The green organisms are the bedrock of the biosphere in that they are the primary producers of the foods nearly all other living things must have. Their ability to capture energy from the sun and use it to form complex organic molecules from simple inorganic compounds like carbon dioxide and water is a miracle of nature. Yet there are many books with a focus on the wonders of animals and animal life but not nearly as many on plants and their lifestyles; I decided I could help to rectify this imbalance.

The seventeen chapters in the first edition covered many aspects of the inner workings of plants. I approached the subject from an historical point of view thinking that showing how our knowledge of how plants work had evolved over time would carry the less well informed reader towards increasing understanding of these unique and critically important organisms.

Parts 1-4 in the second edition cover the same major topics as the first but also includes new information consistent with recent advances in knowledge. To make this edition accessible, still, to the non-specialist, some more advanced information is kept separate in Boxes. If non-specialists wish to skip this source of information, they can do so without losing the thread of discussion in the main text. More knowledgeable students can use the Boxes as a source of additional information.

Part 5 deals with the great global geological and biogeological cycles of five of the most important elements needed by plants: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur. The first chapter in this section charts how these natural cycles operated in the four and a half billion years or so of the Earth’s existence before humans began having a significant global impact. The second chapter highlights some of the effects human activities are having on these cycles and, then, on plants, since the advent of the Industrial Revolution about 300 years ago.

How are the plant sciences set to deal with the consequences of such environmental changes?

Advances made in recent years in plant biology are huge and at all levels of plant life from the ecological to the molecular. At the level I am particularly interested in, unprecedented advances in knowledge are occurring at breathtaking speed.  Our understanding of how plants work at the most basic physiological and biochemical levels improves and expands daily, it seems.

I added Part 5 to the book because of my belief that students entering the plant sciences today need to understand how their planet has evolved during its eons of existence, how the activities of a rapidly growing human population are accelerating the pace of this evolution, especially its great elemental cycles, and what effects these imposed changes are having on plants at the most fundamental level. Any plant biology student in the 21st century needs to develop an understanding of and sensitivity to the impact of human activities on plants at all levels, including the physiological and biochemical. My aim was to provide a few clear examples of how human impacts on our land, water, and atmospheric resources are affecting how plants work. After all, the changes seen at the ecological level are often a reflection of the impact human-forced changes to the environment are having on the everyday activities going on in the cells of the plant.

John King is Professor Emeritus of Biology at the University of Saskatchewan

Discoveries of the Census of Marine Life – an interview with author Paul Snelgrove

Discoveries of the Census of Marine Life: Making Ocean Life Count jacket imageCould you describe, for those who may not be aware, the Census of Marine Life?

The Census of Marine Life has been a 10 year program involving 2700 scientists from more than 80 countries around the world, focused on understanding the diversity, distribution, and abundance of life in the global oceans.  The Census studied oceans past, oceans present, and oceans future, and found the ocean is richer, more connected, and changing more than we had realized.

How have you been involved in the project?

About 4 years ago, the Census leaders realized that a concerted effort was needed to bring together the many different elements of the project to produce a single coherent view of life in the ocean. They therefore asked me to Chair a group that would bring together Census results for a wide range of audiences, including the general public. One of the outputs of that effort is the book “Discoveries of the Census of Marine Life: Making Ocean Life Count”, which I wrote over the last year. It brings together over 1100 published scientific papers into a single story of the Census of Marine Life.Image from inside the book

What does marine science hope to take forward from the knowledge gained from the project?

Knowledge of life in the oceans can help us sustain that life by making us better stewards and managers. In the past, our exploitation of life in the oceans has often proved unsustainable and with indirect and negative consequences to many species other than those targeted by our activities. We know that we have caused many changes, and that we must do better if we are to sustain a rich, healthy ocean environment that many believe is essential to productive fisheries and indeed for life on Earth. Globally, scientists now realize the rich diversity of life in the oceans is important and that by conserving species we can also improve the probability that we can sustain healthy oceans. Knowing where they move and congregate can help us identify areas that should be prioritized for protection. Ignorance has not been bliss for ocean life in the past, and we must do better.

Image from inside the bookTell us about the book – what can a reader expect?

The book explains how the Census came about, what it discovered about life in the ocean, and why the information is important.  The book includes many colour pictures illustrating the new species and diverse environments we studied, from the shoreline to the abyss. It explains how scientific data is collected, and what it tells us. In short, it tells the story of the Census from start to finish.

Buy your copy of Discoveries of the Census of Marine Life

Visit the official Census of Marine Life website

The Skeptical Environmentalist is back with Smart Solutions to Climate Change

Bjørn Lomborg shot to fame with The Skeptical Environmentalist in 2001, a book which generated a great deal of interest from scientists and the media alike. The debate which followed focused on Lomborg’s general assertion that much of what environmentalists claimed was not nearly as bad as they reported. FromThe Skeptical Environmentalist jacket image pollution to public health, and the extinction of biodiversity to climate change, Lomborg offered analysis to show a better than feared picture. Several books since (e.g. The Lomborg Deception) have taken Lomborg to task over his methods and choice of data, and much has been made, particularly by the climate deniers, of his dismissive coverage of global warming.

Well… following on from The Skeptical Environmentalist, and his later book Cool It, he’s back to answer his critics with a new edited book on our response to climate change. Smart Solutions to Climate Change takes catastrophic climate change as a starting point. “I am saying what I have always said” says Lomborg, “that the climate is a real and important, man-made problem, but that we are Smart Solutions to Climate Change jacket imagehandling it badly”. A panel of authors (economists – including three Nobel laureates) examine a range of policy and technology responses to climate change and suggest we change emphasis – shifting away from a Kyoto/Copenhagen focus on reducing emissions, and instead invest $100 billion in new technology funded by a carbon tax.

This is an in-depth and fairly technical read, but thought provoking and accessible. No matter what your views on Lomborg, he is now addressing what many see as a looming reality – that we are not making anywhere near enough progress in responding to climate change, and that even building on what’s already been started will not fix the problem.

Shooting in the Wild – Chris Palmer’s appeal to wildlife film makers

Shooting in the Wild jacket image

What inspired you to enter the world of wildlife film, and what was the first film you ever made?

What inspired me was a desire to use film to advance the cause of conservation. I was frantically seeking fresh and innovative ways to promote environmental protection. The first film I ever made was on the California Condor with Robert Redford.

Shooting in the Wild is a scrupulously diplomatic survey of the history and ethics of wildlife film making – what is the hardest ethical puzzle you have had to confront in your experience making films?

You forgot to say that the book is full of fascinating stories! The hardest ethical puzzle I confronted was the desire to get close to wild animals while knowing it was wrong to harass them in that way.

As a conservationist, what do you believe a good wildlife film should do? What are the limits?

A good wildlife film should inspire the viewer to love nature more deeply and to encourage action of some kind to promote conservation.  And it should do this without harassing animals or deceiving the audience with staging or manipulation. There are no limits.

The tale of someone like Howard Hall and his “extraordinary patience” resulting in fascinating footage and industry recognition for his first film is  inspiring – perhaps the overly enthusiastic “claws and jaws” approach hides a more intriguing diversity of behaviour in the animal kingdom?

I’m not a cinematographer like Howard, but the behavior of wild animals goes far beyond copulation and predation, and is often intriguing and unpredictable. The “claws and jaws” approach does wildlife a disservice and is highly disrespectful of the natural world.

You recount some classic stories of misadventure – Timothy Treadwell and Steve Irwin come to mind – have you personally found yourself in any close animal encounters you were glad to have got out of? What is your most memorable animal encounter?

Swimming with humpback whales in Hawaii and walking near Kodiak bears in Alaska come to mind, but remember, we always work closely with biologists and so are never in any danger unless we do something stupid or careless. I’ve never felt threatened.

And what about memorable human encounters? You have worked with a huge variety of people and you mention some of these in the book …

“Shooting in the Wild” contains many memorable stories about film stars and other celebrities. I encourage readers to get hold of my book and enjoy them!

You talk about how social media is bringing wildlife filmmaking directly to people and engaging them in action on the ground. How does this new phenomenon play into the ethical concerns that are raised in the book?

One way is that everybody is a filmmaker now because everyone has a camera on their cell phone. Millions of people with cameras are edging closer and closer to wild animals to try to capture a career-enhancing shot. This upsurge in people stalking animals in order to get pictures is not good news for wild animals, who for the most part just want to be left alone.

What drives you to make this effort, at this time, to bring your industry to account? Are you optimistic that your conscientious approach will become standard?

What drives me is the deteriorating state of television. Recently I saw Bear Grylls on Animal Planet gratuitously and cruelly kill a large lizard by swinging it against a tree by its tail, and then plunging a knife into its neck.

Are you currently working on any interesting projects?

We’re producing three giant screen IMAX films on climate change, humpback whales, and the oceans. I’m also working with Rob Whitehair and Bruce Weide on a film about wolves.

How can people find out more about the questions raised in the book?

By writing to me and requesting the companion Study Guide. My e-mail address is  Another way is by asking to be put on my mailing list so you receive periodic e-mails about our various projects.  Again, people should feel free to e-mail me about that. Also, every Tuesday night in Washington DC at American University where I teach we have events related to wildlife and environmental films which are free and open to the public.

Buy a copy of Shooting in the Wild

Reed – an expert’s view

A Book of Reed jacket image

Dr S. M. Haslam is a field botanist and researcher with the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Cambridge, who has made intensive studies of reed sites in Britain and Malta, and less intensively across eastern and western Europe, Israel and North America. Her studies on plant growth have made her familiar with various plants from Africa and Australia. Her new book, A Book of Reed, is published by Forrest Text. We asked Dr. Haslam for some insight into her subject…

“Reed occurs in all five continents. It is concentrated in Europe, Asia and Africa, but is most variable and abundant in eastern Europe and into Asia (much in China), in temperate climes. Here it is the commonest wetland dominant, the commonest (non-bog) peat former, and the commonest sparse species in other wetland types. Reed peat is of course a fen peat, formed under water from old plant peats. Reed beds, before much human impact, often lived for several thousand years, colonising flooded areas and building up peat until dry land vegetation could invade or land or sea level changed to increase surface water again. The plants have large rhizome systems growing at the front and dying at the back. It is thought, but without evidence, that the same plants live throughout the life of a stable bed (one that is not subject to constant disturbance and disruption).

“Before main drainage, the next most important habitat (still seen, though sparsely) is in bands along lowland streams, outside a fringing band of trees or bushes. Small dominant stands occur in other wet places, and sparse reeds are in most fens, rich and poor, in estuaries and beside some rivers.

“Reed is extraordinarily sensitive to most environmental impacts, natural and human. These variations make reed a fascinating study in plant behaviour.

“There has been a deplorable decline and loss of river plants which is quite possibly worst in Britain, among the larger countries. This has occurred over the past 30 years or so, although some decline was recorded from the 1930s through to 1980 (principally in fine-leaved Potamogetons). Among small countries, Malta seems to be approaching total loss in a few decades time, there having been a good and common aquatic flora in 1850. This loss, however, is primarily due to water loss from abstraction.”

The dedication in Dr. Haslam’s next book, “The Waving Plants of the River”, is to “the botanists of the future who dedicate their lives to reverse the present decline and devastation of river plants.”

A Book of Reed is available now from NHBS

Getting into mangroves – an interview with Mark Spalding

World Atlas of Mangroves jacket imageWhat is a mangrove, what sort of habitat does it provide, and what might you find living there?

The term mangrove covers both a group of plants, and the habitats they build. The plants are a broad group which consists of about 70 species and hybrids, including a palm and 3 large ferns, the rest being trees. They have all evolved to live in the intertidal zone, and many have some quite dramatic adaptations – physiological mechanisms to keep out or to remove salt; strange roots which hold them up in soft soils, and others to allow air to the roots in the waterlogged muds; even reproductive tricks, like vivipary, to give young plants a headstart in a tough environment.
And wherever they grow they form a very distinctive habitat which is sometimes just a few small patches in a narrow intertidal zone, but sometimes extends for hundreds of kilometers around deltas and along estuaries.

The World Atlas of Mangroves, published by Earthscan, is a huge undertaking with you at the helm as lead author. What are your credentials? Who were your colleagues?

I think it’s taken about 5 years. Leadership of the whole project was run by the wonderful International Society for Mangrove Ecosystems, a small but very active NGO based in Japan, with funds from the International Tropical Timber Organization. Mami Kainuma, one of the co-authors, works with ISME. Also, at its heart, it’s a book rich with maps – and that work fell to two other organisations: FAO in Rome and UNEP-WCMC in Cambridge – and many fantastic colleagues in both organisations.

I wrote an earlier mangrove atlas with ISME which came out in 1997. In fact the two works are almost incomparable. The 1997 work was the best we could do with limited resources. It’s not bad, but this work is so much more than just a new edition – we’ve got globally consistent, detailed maps; we reviewed 1400 references for the text; we have the first ever range maps for all species…

With mangroves disappearing three to four times faster than land-based forests, what is being done to address the situation?

I think the issue is largely a product of where they are situated. The coastal zone has faster-growing populations and mangroves are on a sort of front line, on valuable land which can be readily and easily converted for agriculture, aquaculture or urban development.
But quite a lot is being done. We estimate that a quarter of all remaining mangroves are in protected areas, while additional areas are in places where there is sustainable management. The realization of just how valuable mangroves are has also driven huge efforts at mangrove restoration and plantation in many countries – over 2% of the world’s mangroves are restored.

What are the main problem or priority areas for mangrove conservation?World Atlas of Mangroves page detail

Communication. I think the case for mangrove conservation is rock-solid. More so than for some other habitats where direct dollar values for goods and services can sound a little tortured or unconvincing. But many still don’t know it, so mangroves are still suffering from a poor press as unproductive wastelands, and from poor accounting, as short-term profits are being used to persuade losses with often dire long-term consequences.

But it’s not all bad news? What are some of the success stories?

Matang forest in Malaysia, and the Sundarbans in Bangladesh and India, are among the longest-running tropical forestry operations in the world. They are plantations of a sort, though much reafforestation is just natural growback. But in both places for well over a century thousands or even tens of thousands of people have benefitted from timber products and fisheries, while the wildlife remains abundant, showing that we can work  alongside nature.

Mangroves are also robust survivors. Given half a chance they’ll recover. They don’t appear to be stressed by warming temperatures, and if they can migrate inland then sea level rise might not stress them too much either.  Get things right and they are going to help us to adapt to climate change AND keep local communities going with other goods and services.

The World Atlas of Mangroves is a global overview, and this is a focus we see increasingly in conservation and ecology with developments such as remote sensing. What are the benefits and the limitations of this kind of approach?

In an increasingly global world they help us to get things in perspective. For those working at national or local levels they offer a context for that work. They enable arguments to be made, and I’d like to think they also enable connections – that people working South America might realize the bonanza to be made from ecotourism, or sustainable harvesting. They also help those who deal with issues at the international level – in the case of mangroves to make the case for their importance – in climate change adaptation, carbon sequestration, rural livelihoods, offshore fisheries. Of course its not a book to be used for navigation! The maps are good, but not that good, and it’s always important for people like me to remember that books like this are really written by the thousands of experts who live and work “on the ground”.

You have commented on the “extraordinary synergies between people and forests”. How would humanity be affected by a substantial decrease in the world’s remaining mangroves?

Of course, many in the west wouldn’t notice, and the world’s economies might not notice, but mangroves are right there in the front line for many of the world’s poorest. There would be declines in livelihood, and in food and fuel supplies in many of the world’s poorest tropical coastal areas. A more subtle impact would be that of increased vulnerability. These same people, and others, even in coastal towns and cities, would become more exposed to risk from storms, flooding and the more subtle encroachment of sea level rise. Mangroves won’t stop these things, and its hard to pin exact numbers on the services, but the evidence that they help significantly is now very solid.

I assume you have visited many mangroves in your travels – what is it like to experience being in, on or around a mangrove? Any interesting stories from a field marine ecologist?

I just love getting into mangroves, wherever I am. It’s an escape to another world. To scramble, monkey-like through the 3-dimensional landscape of roots, with feet never touching the ground, or to paddle a canoe through apparently endless narrow channels, or even, in some places to snorkel at high tide and to watch fish at home in

World Atlas of Mangroves page detail

an underwater forest. And then to stay still and watch to intense activity across the full spectrum of marine and terrestrial life. There’s a sort of magic about it, it seems to break all our preconceptions of what the coast should be like, or the sea, or a forest!!!

What part do you see the Atlas playing in highlighting the cause of mangrove conservation?

There’s a lot of information out there about the importance and value of mangroves, but perhaps it’s suffered from being piecemeal. The case might have been made that each story was a one-off. This time we’ve read 1400 sources and had review comments from over 100 people. It’s no longer possible to ignore the patterns and I hope that it might be used, by academics, teachers, policy experts and NGOs, to really make the case. Mangroves are critical resources.

What would you suggest as the most important next action the world’s conservation organisations and political leaders should take if we are to see our mangroves flourish and to secure a happy future for their inhabitants and dependents?

I think for some, conservation organizations embracing habitat restoration and active plantation might be something of a new direction. For others working  to educate local communities on the values of mangroves, or to help them defend their mangrove from clearance or conversion might be new ground. For sure we could always do with more protected areas, but actually in this case the holistic vision might take us beyond that and into thinking about protection in other ways, such that we halt losses completely and start to increase habitat areas.

Another new direction will be seriously planning for climate change. That will mean thinking about what lies behind the mangroves and planning for movements and migrations as sediments move, and new land is inundated.

The World Atlas of Mangroves is available now from NHBS

The Winter Hare – An Interview with Wildlife Artist Andrew Haslen

The Winter Hare Jacket ImageWhat first inspired you to begin painting wildlife?

I have always been interested in the countryside. As a young boy I was always out in the woods and fields, watching wildlife, climbing trees or building dams across streams. As far back as I can remember I always liked to draw and paint, the two just naturally seemed to merge. I like to think I started like everyone else by colouring in, and just carried on.

How would you describe your style as it features in The Winter Hare?

I seem to have developed several different styles or ways of producing pictures, I think they have come about because I get bored easily and want to try new things. Also I am never really happy with my work, I tend to see all the things that are wrong rather than right and this makes me move on. The book shows most of the ways I work, from linocuts which are hand-coloured to drawings, watercolours and oil paintings.

Could you briefly tell the story behind this book and how it came about?

Image from The Winter HareSeveral people have been encouraging me to do a book for several years now. I have always liked the idea but put it on the back burner… When my dog found and brought home some orphaned leverets, which I reared to adulthood, it gave me the theme around which I could build the book. The young hares were only orphaned because of my dog! I think she was trying to mother them – when they arrived on the kitchen floor one Sunday morning they were quite wet from several good licks.  Because I had no idea where she had found them I was faced with the problem of looking after them. This proved quite eventful and took up much of my time over the following months but did give me the unique opportunity of drawing them at close quarters.

In the course of running The Wildlife Art Gallery I have designed books for other people but putting one together of my own work gave me fresh problems. In the past I just worked with the material I had available but with this book I was able to paint new pictures to fit a particular spaces which slowed things up considerably.

Image from The Winter HareHares, tortoises, dogs and cats, and many different birds, including a kingfisher and a green woodpecker – feature in this book.  Are there any pictures of which you are particularly proud?

I like to paint animals that are around me and sometimes that includes domestic animals or pets. As for pictures I am proud of I guess it would be the next one I am about to paint – it is always perfect until I start putting marks on the paper.

Your paintings are full of character and intimacy – how did you get the animals to sit still for so long?!

I always try to paint or draw the individual animal rather than to just produce the standard version of it. With the hares I was in an ideal position to do this as they were around me all the time allowing me every opportunity to capture them. Getting animals to sit still is always a problem – I think the secret is not to try and to just start drawing. If the animal moves before your sketch is complete then turn the page and move on. A half-completed drawing is better than one you have tried to complete from memory if you are unfamiliar with the animal.

Hares have such an important place in English folklore. Were you conscious of this during the process of raising the orphans, or was the experience rather more prosaic?

I have always been interested in hares, including all the folklore that surrounds them. At one time the idea for the book was revolving around this. In the end it never came about, but it may form the basis for another book in the future.

Image from The Winter HareWhat were some of the highlights of the experience? Any funny stories?

Rearing the hares was not always easy and they caused a lot of disruption to my life, but it was certainly a privilege. I don’t think there are many people who can say they have been boxed by a hare.  On several occasions I would be drawing one of them and he would jump onto my drawing pad and chew the end of my pencil.

You founded the Wildlife Art Gallery in Lavenham, Suffolk – what could people expect to see there?

The gallery was first opened in 1988 to show the work of contemporary wildlife artists. From the start the gallery seemed to take on a life of its own and over the last 22 years we have staged some exceptional exhibitions. During that time the type of work we show has evolved and if people visit the gallery today they will find a cross section of artists both past and present; painters, printmakers and sculptors working in the field of wildlife art or countryside-related subjects.

Who are your heroes in the wildlife art world?

‘Heroes’ is probably the wrong description because in most cases it is the work they produce which I admire. Many, like R. B. Talbot Kelly and Eric Ennion (Eric Ennion: One Man’s Birds; Eric Ennion: A Life of Birds), are no longer with us. I never had the opportunity to meet them so all I have is their work to look at and be inspired by. There are two living artists who have made an impact on how I look at painting. The first was back in the mid 80’s when I went to an exhibition of watercolours by Lars Jonsson. The second was Kim Atkinson who ran a painting holiday on Bardsley Island in which I took part in the early 90’s. In addition there are several members of the Society of Wildlife Artists to whom I have enjoyed talking, and whose work I enjoy.

I am also influenced by individual pictures and I particularly like work by book illustrators and printmakers from the first half of the 20th Century.

How do you feel about the current state of wildlife in Britain today, and what can people do to help?

I think the best way to help is to protect and increase habitat. I have tried at home in a small way to plan the garden with wildlife in mind, with areas left to go wild, and by planting trees and digging ponds.

Buy The Winter Hare now.

Visit the Wildlife Art Gallery website.

Insectopedia – An Interview with Hugh Raffles

Insectopedia Jacket Image

We asked Hugh Raffles, author of Insectopedia, to give us a glimpse into the intriguing  subject matter of his new book. Here’s what he had to say:

What inspired you to write about insects?

Insects are fascinating. They exist in vast numbers and extraordinary diversity, and they’re ecologically and economically vital. They elicit intense and intensely ambivalent feelings from us – do they think? Do they feel? We’re not sure. Yet, as Elias Canetti put it, they’re “outlaws” and we kill them not just with impunity but, often, satisfaction. They’re mysterious, powerful, and our relations with them are very complicated. I find that a pretty inspiring combination.

What is your earliest insect memory?

When I was little, we used to go to Norfolk for a few weeks every summer. My mum would put a jam jar part-filled with water on our kitchen windowsill. Attracted by the jam, the wasps would land on the rim and fall into the trap. I’d watch for hours, fascinated but immobilized – too scared to rescue them but horrified by their struggles. I’m sure I had happier insect encounters, but that’s the one that’s stayed with me all these years!

Tell me about ‘mushi-eyes’ and ‘konchu-shonen’ – do you now have them, and are you one?

‘Konchu-shonen’ (insect-boy) and ‘mushi (insect)-eyes’ are terms I learned in Japan while researching the chapter on Japanese beetle collecting. I was fascinated to discover that so many celebrated Japanese artistic figures, including pioneers of anime and manga such as Tezuka Osamu and Hayao Miyazaki, had been obsessive insect-lovers as children. Once you know that, you see it clearly reflected in their work. Yoro Takeshi, a well-known neuroanatomist and popular writer in Japan, was also a ‘konchu-shonen.’ He told me that spending time with insects gives you ‘insect-eyes’ – an enhanced sensitivity to small differences, to the individuality of plants, animals, and people, and to the existence of multiple, intersecting worlds. I came to a love of insects pretty late in life but like to think I developed a little mushi-vision over the course of writing this book.

The chapters in Insectopedia are as much about people as they are about insects. Do you draw any parallels?

I’m wary of drawing these kinds of parallels. It’s too easy to project our dreams and ideologies onto animals and find the lessons that suit our purpose. I’m an anthropologist, not an entomologist and I like to explore the worlds that humans and insects create together in our entwined lives on this planet. There’s a lot to learn about both people and insects from looking closely at these connections. One of the things I’ve loved about writing this book has been meeting people who are deeply connected to insects, maybe as artists, musicians, farmers, scientists, or collectors, and learning about insects through their experience. That’s been very inspiring.

Which is your favourite story from the book?

My favorite fieldwork was in Shanghai, meeting people who trained crickets to fight and going to the casino to watch the battles. My favorite story though is about Yajima Minoru, a prominent and innovative designer of Japanese insect zoos. Mr. Minoru was present during the bombing of Tokyo in 1945. As we know, the destruction was immense, more people were killed in the raids and the firestorm they generated than in the nuclear explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Mr. Minoru describes wandering dazed through the smouldering city among the traumatized population, in deep shock and despair. Then, in a crater, half-filled with water, he sees a dragonfly perched on a floating twig, laying her eggs. He takes it as a sign of rebirth amidst the rubble. The sight of this insect tells him that there’s a possibility of overcoming the nightmare and that there’s still a future to live for. This was a dramatic and moving story, but it wasn’t unusual to meet people who found in insects similar emotional strength and also refuge from difficult personal experiences.

If you could be an insect for a day, which would you be?

One of the 24-hour adult mayflies. I could live my entire life in the time allotted!

You obviously have a great love of diversity – have you always been a collector of specimens?

I do love the diversity of insects but I’m not actually a collector of specimens. I have a low-level kleptomania that makes it hard for me not to pick up stones, shells, dead insects, and other little things, and I have a desk cluttered up with that kind of stuff. But I’m not attracted to the killing and manipulation that’s involved in collecting. And, in fact, I’m not really attracted to collections. As I say somewhere in the book, they remind me of mausoleums – the transformation of living beings into aestheticized objects makes me a bit uneasy.

I was speaking metaphorically. The book is like a cabinet of curiosities and your interests so far-reaching…

Oh, that kind of collector! Yes, I do have some of that early modern curiosity. Happily, insects are everywhere and I had a lot of fun following them into unexpected and obscure places, and along the way learning about all kinds of topics about which I knew very little.

Does Insectopedia have an overall message?

It may sound clichéd, but I think of the book as a journey. It’s an exploration into our deep and varied connections with one part of the natural world. More than anything, I hope it creates reflection and helps people look at insects with slightly different eyes and slightly different feelings. If there is a message, it’s one that we already know: We’re all in this together!

What are your favourite natural history books?

I have a fondness for 19th-century naturalists which I developed when I was writing my first book, In Amazonia: A Natural History. I especially like Henry Walter Bates’ A Naturalist on the River Amazons and Alfred Russel Wallace’s Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro. Both books offer such a strong sense of first-hand experience and the unfolding struggle to understand the totality of a world so different from the one these two men left behind in England.

Who are your heroes in your field?

I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant but I don’t have heroes. However, I’ve come away from this book full of admiration for many of the people I spent time with. One of them is Cornelia Hesse-Honegger, a Swiss artist who, for more than 30 years, has been painting tiny insects she’s collected close to nuclear power plants around the world and is convinced that the high incidences of deformities she’s found are the result of low-level radiation. Her paintings are beautiful and disturbing and her discoveries should make us hesitate in the current rush to embrace nuclear power as a “green” energy source.

If you could spend a month working in another field, which would you choose?

I’d have to say marine biology. It’s always been my fantasy to spend time in the deep ocean. It might be the only landscape on this planet even more alien than the land of insects!

What will you be working on next?

I’m starting research on a book about rocks and stones. It’s a big project and I’m looking forward to getting going. Last summer I began some fieldwork in China and in a few weeks I’ll be going to the UK to visit a few megalithic sites. I’m very excited about it!

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Visit Hugh Raffles’ Insectopedia site.

Silent Summer: Editor Interview

Norman Maclean, editor of the best-selling Silent Summer Jacket ImageSilent Summer, talks to NHBS about his career, early home-grown experiments with nature conservation and the state of wildlife policy in Britain today.

What first inspired you to pursue your field of study, and how old were you?

I have been interested in wildlife since my earliest years (aged 6), being brought up amongst fields and farms on the outskirts of Edinburgh. I was equally interested in insects, birds, mammals and fish. My parents were very tolerant of my rearing caterpillars, beetles, field mice and newts at home, mostly in my bedroom.

What were the books that inspired you when you were young?

The books of Richard and Cherry Kearton on Nature Photography in St. Kilda and elsewhere.

“Direct From Nature: The Photographic Work of Richard and Cherry Kearton” by John Bevis.

Later, “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson.

What is your all time favourite natural history book?

Gilbert White’s “Natural History of Selborne”.

Who are your heroes in the field?

Gilbert White, Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel, David Attenborough.

How do you split your time between the field and your writing projects?

You might call me a polymath. Academically, I am Professor in Molecular Genetics, but I have strong hobby interests in wildlife, trout fishing, playing tennis, gardening, antiquities and travel.

How has your core understanding of the subject changed since you began your research?

Enormously. As a geneticist I have lived through 50 years of amazing discovery and change. In terms of wildlife, ecology and conservation I have always been a keen field biologist and have taught on student field courses in Southern Spain for over 20 years. I have also been witness to the alarming decline in insects and some birds and mammals. I have studied wildlife in over 50 countries worldwide, seeing the destruction of so much natural habitat, yet savouring the riches of what is left.

What has been the highlight of your career so far?

My main research topic is gene regulation, and I and my research group have made some signicant discoveries in this area. Maybe my proudest moment in youth was discovering the first breeding of the Golden Plusia moth in Scotland when I was twelve – confirmed by letter from the Edinburgh Museum of Natural History.

What do you consider to be the most interesting current developments in your field of study?

In genetics the sequencing of the genomes of many species including humans, and in conservation biology the return to the UK of breeding cranes, red kites, otters, pine martens and others.

Which current issues in conservation do you feel have the biggest impact on your field, and how would like to see these dealt with?

The realization that you cannot effectively conserve wildlife in the UK by making fences round reserves and letting nature take its course.  Ecologically speaking, almost all of Britain and Ireland has been moulded by human interference and activity so our future responsibility lies in the active management of wildlife, including judicious culling where necessary.

How would you like to see your field develop in the future?

With increased political prioritization of wildlife conservation and the preservation of what remains of the countryside. We must urgently control further human population increase and resist further demands on space, water supplies, energy supplies and contributions to global warming. We should all be prepared to reduce our own standards of living in order to improve those of the other species with which we share the planet.

Where will you be taking your next study trip?


What will your next book be?

I don’t know. Any ideas welcome!

If you could spend a month working in another field, which would you choose?

Ancient History.

How would you encourage young people who might be interested in pursuing a career in your field?

Get a degree in biology or genetics at a reputable university and learn your own fauna and flora.

Get your copy of Silent Summer today

Pitcher Plants of the Old World – An Interview with Stewart McPherson

Stewart McPherson, the author of the new two-volume set Pitcher Plants of the Old World and the best-selling Lost Worlds of the Guiana Highlands, took time out from his international adventures to answer a few questions for NHBS. We hope you enjoy reading more about Stewart’s experiences in the field!

What awakened your passion for pitcher plants and other carnivorous plants?
While at university, I took part in several rainforest conservation programmes in countries across Central America and Southeast Asia. One of these projects involved an eight week stay in the Maliau Basin in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, and this experience gave me the opportunity to observe Nepenthes in the wild for the first time. To my amazement, in the very first pitcher of a N. hirsuta plant which I examined, I found the body of a dead mouse, and from this experience, my fascination with carnivorous plants was fixed.

What variations exist between pitcher plants in the Old World and the New World?
In the Old World there are two genera (families) of Pitcher Plants – Nepenthes and Cephalotus. Nepenthes occur across tropical areas of the western hemisphere, mainly in Southeast Asia, and consists of 120 species, including the largest of all carnivorous plant species which produce giant “pitcher” traps larger than 3 litres in volume that occasionally trap prey as big as rats. Each species of Nepenthes differs in the shape, size and colouration of its pitchers – often these traps are bizarre and extremely beautiful. Cephalotus, on the other hand, grows only in S. E. Australia and produces small, purple pitchers the size of a thimble which are specialised towards the trapping of small prey, namely ants. 

There are five genera of pitcher plants in the New World (Americas). These include the Sarracenia of North America – which mainly produce striking, tall, but narrow, trumpet shaped pitchers that grow in marshy grasslands. Also in North America, there grows Darlingtonia – the cobra lily – which produces bizarre, cobra-shaped traps. Both the Sarracenia and Darlingtonia grow in temperate areas, so experience cold conditions (often frost and snow) in winter. So these plants can often be cultivated outdoors in England. In addition to these, there are three pitcher plant groups from the tropical Americas – the ancient Heliamphora which produce stout, cup shaped traps, and grow atop of the tepuis – ancient “lost-world” plateaus scattered across southern Venezuela, as well as representatives from two groups of tank bromeliads (Brocchinia and Catopsis).

All seven genera of pitcher plants are extraordinary – each with remarkable adaptations to kill insects and other small animals. They are also often very beautiful and colourful, and all seven groups are grown by increasing numbers of horticulturists around the world.

What has been your greatest discovery?
While undertaking research for Pitcher Plants of the Old World, I climbed a remote and little explored peak in Central Palawan, in the Philippines. After a difficult climb, on the top of this mountain, two friends and I discovered a spectacular, giant, new species of pitcher plant. It is one of the largest of all known pitcher plant species, producing traps over 30 cm long, and beautifully coloured with green, yellow, red and purple. I had been lucky to find several other new species on different mountains previously – but this was the most interesting by far, because it is so massive, colourful and beautiful. We decided to name this new plant after Sir David Attenborough – and so it is now formally been described Nepenthes attenboroughii. Both a description of this new plant, and an account of how it was discovered, are presented in Pitcher Plants of the Old World, Volume Two.

Tell us about some of the challenges that you’ve experienced in the field.
I prepared Pitcher Plants of the Old World in response to the lack of available information on dozens of species of Nepenthes. Since many species of Nepenthes are not in cultivation, and also because there is often confusion concerning those that are, I resolved to study and photograph each species of Nepenthes and Cephalotus in the wild, in order to document each adequately. After graduating from university in 2006 at the age of 23, I began three years of intense research focusing on Nepenthes and Cephalotus, and spent a cumulative total of eighteen months in the field. Over the last three years, I climbed over one hundred mountains across Southeast Asia in search of species of Nepenthes. Many of these journeys were relatively simple, lasting just a few days or less. Others required more extensive effort, and in a few cases, I spent more than one week to find a single Nepenthes taxon.

This endeavour has been a journey in every sense of the word. It has taken me to Nepenthes habitats in mine fields, various rebel and guerilla conflict zones, through prison grounds guided by murderers, to the slopes of active, smoldering volcanoes. I travelled through intense storms, floods, and repeatedly to the habitat of wild tigers, elephants and always the ubiquitous leeches of the forests of Southeast Asia. Several times I had to resort to drastic measures, for example when running short on food, I was forced to eat wild frogs in Kalimantan and fruit bats in Sulawesi. Often the journey has been physically difficult, and a few times I had to accept failure and return disheartened from difficult efforts to climb mountains that could not be summited. Equally on a few occasions, after spending days climbing peaks, sometimes no pitcher plants were to be found. The great botanist Carolus Linnaeus named Nepenthes after a spirit that banishes all ills and grief, and as he prophetically suggested 250 years ago, after every success in finding remarkable Nepenthes species, all thoughts of past difficulties and hardships are replaced with amazement and wonder, and so it has been for me. This search has given me a wealth of memories from the most beautiful corners of the world which I will always treasure. From countless beautiful rainforest scenes, to the summits of many misty, tropical mountains, and even to the cliffs of remote coral islands. I had the privilege of venturing to some of the enduringly least explored corners of Southeast Asia, through traditional villages to remote mountain peaks to encounter four new species of Nepenthes. However, all journeys inevitably end, and this one is now complete shortly before my 26th birthday. Undertaking this work has been both the most difficult, but equally the most enjoyable experience of my life, and I sincerely hope that you might you enjoy the result.

What are the most pressing conservation concerns affecting pitcher plants in the wild?
Several species of Nepenthes are either on the verge of extinction in the wild, and one may already have been completely wiped out. Because dozens of species of Nepenthes pitcher plants occur only on one mountain and no where else in the world, and since in a few cases, the total wild population may be just a few hundred plants, they are at serious risk of being poached, overcollected or having their habitat destroyed. This risk is made even greater because of the value of these plants – horticultural interest is such that even seedlings of the most rare and sought after species are often worth hundreds of pounds, dollars or euros.

In general, poaching represents the biggest threat overall to most pitcher plant species, but habitat loss, mining, forest fires and a plethora of other factors are also real risks to these incredible plants. Realistically, it is highly likely that several species may become extinct over the next few years in the wild. Which is why it is important for horticulturists, botanic gardens and conservation organisations to work together and maintain collections of different strains of the rarest species to prevent complete loss. Perhaps one day, the rarest species may be reintroduced back into the world – and for this hope – the horticulture represents the only means of survival for several species for the time being. Documenting both the status of the various pitcher plant species, and the various threats and practical means of conservation are fundamental elements in the books that I have written.

Is there an increasing interest in pitcher plants outside of academia?
Definitely. There are dozens of specialist societies, horticultural nurseries, online forums and thousands of websites – not just in Europe and north America, but increasingly across Asia and Australia. More and more horticulturists are becoming fascinated by these alluring, bizarre, but beautiful plants of prey.

What would you recommend to people interested in seeing pitcher plants in their natural habitat?
The most spectacular and fun place to see pitcher plants in the wild is Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Borneo. This mountain is great to climb. It is located in the Kinabalu National Park – which is incredibly organised and a model for sustainable management of wilderness areas. Tours are easy to book (but often sell out during busy seasons). The climb takes just one day each way, and you reach the top of the highest peak in Southeast Asia. On the way, you see several spectacular species of pitcher plants. But – a little known secret – is that when you descend – ask your guide (before you start your climb) to go down via the Mesilau centre. This is a beautiful resort – but right by the resort, there is a short trail which all the guides know. It is called the nepenthes rajah trail, and along this short walk, you see the largest of all pitcher plant species – N. rajah – which produces pitchers that trap prey as large as rats! It is incredibly easy to see (just a 10 minute walk from the resort) and breathtakingly beautiful. The plants are strictly protected and well managed, and the revenue from your visit helps maintain the area.

Tell us about your best-selling book, Lost Worlds of the Guiana Highlands. What drew you to publish a book about this subject? What are the logistics involved in visiting such an isolated place?  
The book is about the tepuis – the immense, sandstone plateaus of Southern Venezuela and borderlands of northern Brazil and western Guyana. These mountains are simply the most extraordinary and breathtaking places on the planet – each is encircled by towering sandstone cliffs up to 1,000 meters tall. The summits of each of these so called “lost worlds” has remained variably isolated for millions of years – and today they are home to many ancient plants and animals that occur no where else in South America. Indeed, some of the animals on top of these great plateaus are most similar to extinct fossils. The story of how these tablelands were discovered and explored inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s adventure classic “The Lost World”.

I had always been interested in these mysterious mountains because they are the home of the Heliamphora pitcher plants (see above) which I had grown since a child. I was actually undertaking a conservation project whilst in Belize, and after five months working in the jungle and teaching in a remote village, I returned back to a seaside village for a break, and after diving one day, found a copy of a May 1989 National Geographic magazine including an absolutely spectacular article on these mountains. At the time, there were no detailed books about these mountains, how they had formed, how they were discovered, or the weird wildlife of their summits. So at that moment, I decided to write a book on the subject.

Visiting the tepuis is not easy. Most can be accessed only by helicopter. Only four tepuis can be climbed – only one of which – Mount Roraima – is regularily visited. Mount Roraima is a tourist attraction and many people climb up it each year. I had to visit 20 or so of these tepuis to undertake the research I needed to finish my book, which took 6 months of traveling. These mountains take my breath away – they are still (in my opinion) the most incredible and spectacular places on earth.

Of the many places you’ve visited in your travels, which ones stand out in your mind? Why?
Aside from the tepuis – I think the Philippines. I spent 14 weeks researching the pitcher plants of this beautiful country. The people are the friendliest, kindest and in many ways the most innocent and warm I have met. The landscape is extraordinarily varied and beautiful, as is the wildlife. However this is a country with a turbulent past that has seen more than its fair share of troubles. Partly due to this history and political instability, the wildlife – especially the plant life – remains little documented. The pitcher plants of the Philippines have hardly been studied. My friend and I found several new species there, as well as spotting one species of pitcher plant that had not been seen for more than a hundred years. Without a doubt, there are more new species of pitcher plants (and of course other plants and animals) awaiting discovery in the Philippines. The Philippines is also one of the most interesting places I have ever been to; from chickens and goats on buses, to local “delicacies” such as unhatched eggs, to jeepneys – perhaps the strangest type of vehicle ever built – you really can’t guess what each day will hold.

Browse the two-volume set Pitcher Plants of the Old World

Browse the best-selling Lost Worlds of the Guiana Highlands