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

Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago: interview with James Eaton and Nick Brickle

Authors James Eaton (centre) and Nick Brickle (far left) with field staff from FFI on the trail of Sumatran Ground Cuckoo near Kerinci Seblat National Park in Sumatra
Authors James Eaton (centre) and Nick Brickle (far left) with field staff from FFI on the trail of Sumatran Ground Cuckoo near Kerinci Seblat National Park in Sumatra

Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago: Greater Sundas and Wallacea is a new field guide dedicated to this major region which contains a massive 13% of the world’s avian biodiversity. Featuring over 2,500 illustrations, it describes all 1,417 bird species known to occur in the region.

Co-authors James Eaton and Nick Brickle share some of their birding insights and in-depth knowledge of the region’s avifauna in this interview with NHBS.

Could you tell us a little about how you became interested in birding and what drew you to this region in particular?

James – My Grandmother gave me a copy of Benson’s Observer’s Book of Birds when I was six, and, wanting to see some of the birds in the illustrations in real life, my father agreed to take me to the local nature reserve to look for them, and from that point on it became an obsession!

Nick – Similar story. I got hooked before I was 10 years old, partly thanks to Choughs, Peregrines and my dad’s old binoculars on family holidays to Pembrokeshire. Ten years later and I found myself surveying White-winged Ducks in Sumatra and never looked back.

What inspired you to create a field guide that covers the entire Indonesian Archipelago? It must have been quite a challenge to cover such a diverse region.

All four of us are pretty obsessed with the region’s birds, both as a hobby and professionally, and all of us have travelled pretty widely in the region over many years. During this time the region has gone from having no bird field guide at all, to having a variety of books covering different parts of it; some now already long out of print. We all decided it was time to put our passion into a project that could do justice to the spectacular diversity to be found here, and so agreed to work together to create the new guide.

Could you explain a little about the unique biogeography of the region which makes it such a biodiversity hotspot?

Hard to sum it up in a sentence! It’s a fantastic combination of Asian and Australasian bird families, spread across 1000s of islands, with Wallace’s famous line running down the middle, and spectacular endemism throughout. For more, read the biogeographical history section in the introduction to the field guide!

Who is your target audience for the book?

Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago: Greater Sundas and Wallacea

Anyone with an interest in the birds of the region! Visiting and resident birdwatchers are the obvious user, but given that it includes over 13% of the world’s birds, anyone with an interest in birds should enjoy it. In due course we also hope to produce an Indonesian language version of the guide, so as to make it more accessible to the growing number of local birdwatchers.

For someone visiting the area for the first time, what are some of the most exciting sites, and the key species that you recommend looking out for?

Where to start! Within Indonesia, the best places for an introduction are probably the mountains and forests of West Java, which are easy to visit from Jakarta, and where many of the most sought after Javan endemics can be seen; or perhaps North Sulawesi, where a trip to see hornbills, endemic kingfishers and Maleo can be combined with beaches and diving; or Bali, where one of Indonesia’s rarest and most spectacular birds – the Bali Starling – can be seen with a short trip from the beach resorts.

Another choice for an easy introduction is the Malaysian state of Sabah in the north of Borneo. Here many spectacular and endemic birds can be seen from the comfort of first-rate hotels, including Great Argus and the completely unique Bristlehead. After that, the opportunities are limitless!

How do you kit yourself out for a birdwatching trip to the region, and can you recommend a great birding gadget or app?

At the simplest, you don’t need much more than a pair of binoculars (and maybe a rain coat or umbrella!). Beyond that it depends a bit on where you are going and what you’d like to see: a telescope can be useful, but is rarely essential, sound playback or recording equipment can be very useful, a camera if you like to take photos, camping equipment if you plan to visit very remote regions. If you plan to explore off the beaten track (and there are lots of parts of the region that qualify as this!) then a phone and google maps can be a surprisingly useful way to look for patches of forest, and then all you need to do is try and make your way towards them!

Do you have any favourites among the species in the guide? Are there any that proved particularly elusive or challenging to observe?

James – Difficult question, can I give two answers? One would be Helmeted Hornbill. Such an iconic bird that symbolises the region’s rainforests. You know when you hear the bird’s incredible mechanical laughing call you are in the rainforest, but equally you are reminded how it is disappearing from many areas due to illegal hunting for its casque. Another would be Bornean Ground Cuckoo. Once a mysterious bird, largely unknown due to its shy nature, feeding on the rainforest floor, but now as our understanding of the species has grown it is possible to see it. Nothing gets the adrenalin pumping quite as much as looking for this species.

Nick – Too many to choose from! For me it would have to be something that walks on the ground… pretty much any pitta, pheasant or partridge is a candidate. Maybe Banded Pitta (any of the three species…)? Or the spectacular Ivory breasted Pitta? Then of course there is Rail Babbler… Actually, more often than not my favourite is the last new species that I have seen, or the next new one that I want to see!

With so many endemic species, there must be some that fill very specific ecological niches?

Endemism is very high in the region, and many species are only found within very small ranges, such as Boano Monarch on an island only 20km wide, or Sangihe Island, only 40km long at its widest point, and with five endemic bird species. Damar Flycatcher too, found in the dark understorey of a tiny island that requires two days’ boat travel from the nearest city. Kinabalu Grasshopper Warbler is only found on the top of two mountain tops in Borneo. When it comes to specific niches, however, small island endemics are often the opposite, in that they often expand their niche due to the absence of competitors. Birds filling very specific niches are probably more a feature of the large islands groups like Borneo and Sumatra, where the overall diversity is much greater.

It is quite well publicised that one of the biggest threats to the conservation of all Indonesian species is rapid deforestation to create palm oil plantations. Are there other threats to bird species which also need to be highlighted?

Deforestation is a big issue. There has been a huge loss of forest over the last decades, but vast areas still remain, and their value is finally starting to be more widely recognised. Hunting for the captive bird trade also remains a huge threat, particularly to those species most desired as pets, such as songbirds and parrots. Local and international groups are working hard to try and reduce this trade, in particular the public demand, but there is still much work to be done to change attitudes.

How can the international community help to support conservation efforts?

As birdwatchers one of the simplest and best things you can do is to visit the region and go birdwatching! Coming here, spending time, spending money, staying in local hotels, eating local food, using local guides, all serves to create a value to the forests and the wildlife that lives in them. This is not lost on local people or the regional governments. Beyond that think carefully about the products you buy from the region, to make sure they come from sustainable and fair sources. If you have money invested make sure that is not going to support destructive or exploitative practices in the region. Finally, support a good cause! There are many, many local NGOs established and emerging in Indonesia and the wider region, all working and lobbying hard to protect the region’s forest and wildlife. Your support will help them achieve this.

Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago: Greater Sundas and Wallacea is available now from NHBS

Shipping Britain’s Treasure Islands to all UK secondary schools in three and a half weeks – phew!

Britain's Treasure Islands: A Journey to the UK Overseas TerritoriesNHBS have worked with Redfern Natural History Productions for many years now and we were delighted to help out with this special project when Stewart McPherson approached us about it.

Thanks to the very generous sponsorship of Lord Ashcroft, Redfern were recently able to donate one copy of Stewart McPherson’s latest book Britain’s Treasure Islands: A Journey to the UK Overseas Territories to every secondary school in the UK and across the overseas territories. At NHBS we organised the packing and delivery of each of these books, which in total was 5250 copies.

The dedicated packing station at NHBS
The dedicated packing station at NHBS

 The UK Overseas Territories are home to thousands of species of animals and plants in habitats ranging from coral reefs to tropical rainforests, polar landscapes and deserts.

Albatross: still from YouTube video "Shipping 5350 books - one copy for every secondary school in the UK"
Albatross: still from YouTube video “Shipping 5350 books – one copy for every secondary school in the UK” – see below

In Britain’s Treasure Islands (aired as a three-part documentary on BBC4 in April, with the book accompanying the series), Stewart McPherson showcases this incredible variety of wildlife, explores the human culture and history of the islands, and documents his adventures in these remarkable lands.

Britain's Treasure Islands freshly unwrapped in the NHBS warehouse
Britain’s Treasure Islands freshly unwrapped in the NHBS warehouse

This is a monumental work of over 700 pages, with more than 1,150 full colour images and 17 specially-commissioned gatefold maps on parchment paper showing the geography of each territory.

You can find out more about the project by visiting www.britainstreasureislands.com.

To send a copy of this wonderful book to every school, NHBS received 47 pallets of books directly from the printers, used seven pallets of specially designed cardboard boxes and 6039 metres of bubble wrap!

Unloading the pallets - all 47 of them!
Unloading the pallets – all 47 of them!

Eventually when all the books were packed the couriers took away 53 pallets of books from NHBS’ warehouse in Totnes, Devon over the course of a week.

One down, five thousand to go...
One down, five thousand to go…

The packing process took six people three and a half weeks to complete! You can watch the video below for a behind the scenes look at how this all happened.

Mountain Flowers: An interview with Michael Scott

Between book writing, Michael Scott spends a lot of each year as a speaker on cruise ships - here he is exploring the Kakum National Park in Ghana.
Between book writing, Michael Scott spends a lot of each year as a speaker on cruise ships – here he is exploring the Kakum National Park in Ghana.

Michael Scott is a nature writer and cruise ship speaker who has had an interest in botany since his undergraduate studies at Aberdeen University. His latest book, Mountain Flowers, is an extensive and engrossing survey of Britain’s montane flora. Michael expands on the story of Diapensia (see below) in the August 2016 issue of British Wildlife.

Tell us about the book and who might find it interesting.
I suppose it’s aimed mostly at people who already have some general interest in the wild flowers of Britain. Perhaps they already know something about the flora of lowland areas but don’t quite know where to begin seeking out the more elusive species that grow at higher altitudes in the British mountains. The book describes the key places to visit and some of the characteristic species at each site. It also describes the ecological requirements of each species, and I’d really hope that will encourage people to explore more widely in the mountains and hopefully make new discoveries there.

Many of the mountain areas of Britain are stunningly beautiful, and I would be thrilled if people who love mountains were also encouraged to read the book and discover more about these wonderful wild areas and about the colourful plants that grow beneath their feet as they hike the fells or ‘bag their Munros’. I’ve tried to select photos for the book that are as attractive and compelling as possible to inspire readers to explore and investigate – or just to act as a wonderful souvenir of holidays in Snowdonia, the Lake District, the Scottish Highlands or wherever.

Mountain Flowers

I best sum up my objective for the book at the end of chapter one: “If I can persuade a few… hillwalkers to slow their relentless pace, to look around them as they climb, to venture off the beaten path and explore an interesting-looking crag or delve into the watery runnels that seep from the tops – in other words, to enjoy seeing a hill, rather than just conquering it – then this book will have been truly worthwhile.”

How did you first become interested in botany?
I grew up near Edinburgh Zoo and from an early age spent all my spare time in the zoo getting to know the animals. By the age of 8, I’d decided I wanted to be a zoologist when I grew up – which I thought meant going around the world looking at zoos! That enthusiasm never waned, and I went to Aberdeen University to study zoology. In first year we also had to study botany, and I found that new and fascinating. I knew that plants lay at the foot of all food chains, and therefore that plants were key to how the natural world worked, so I switched over to doing my degree in botany. I was lucky that the university had a field station at Bettyhill on the north coast of Scotland, and some of the first plants I got to know there were montane species growing at unusually low altitudes in the relative sub-arctic climate of the far north. Then, in Honours year, we had an amazing field trip to Obergurgl in the Alps, and I have been hooked on mountain flowers ever since.

You are now lucky enough to spend a lot of your time as a quest speaker on cruise ships around the world; how might you go about getting passengers interested in Britain’s mountain flowers?
It’s funny that you should ask that, because I’m just about to go off on a cruise to Nova Scotia in Canada, and on one of the four days when we sail back across the Atlantic to Liverpool I’m planning a talk called The Lure of Mountain Flowers. I think I’m going to start that with the story of a birdwatcher called Charles Tebbutt, who is best known for his book on the birds of (distinctly unmountainous!) Huntingdonshire. In July 1951, he was walking on a rugged hillside in Inverness-shire, when he spotted a plant at his feet that he didn’t recognise. He collected a few samples of the flowers and leaves, which he sent to various botanic gardens and he was promptly told, with some excitement, that he had discovered a rather handsome flower called Diapensia* which had never previously been recorded in Britain.

Diapensia on its remote hillside in the west Highlands of Scotland. Photo: Michael Scott
Diapensia on its remote hillside in the west Highlands of Scotland. Photo: Michael Scott

That may be 60 years ago now, but I think it shows that there might still be exciting discoveries to be made in the British mountains – and that you don’t need to be a professional botanist to make them! I’ll then go on to a series of beautiful scenic photographs, just to remind folk how beautiful our mountains are, then I’ll show some of our most attractive mountain plants to prove just how much they add to the allure of the hills. That will lead into the mystery stories behind these plants: I’ll speculate why Diapensia is still only known from that single, rather unremarkable hillside and what that might have to do with Norwegian commandos. I’ll tell the story of two attractive little plants that cling to survival in Snowdonia, and why a relative of the garden pinks is known from only two very different sites, one a crag in Lake District and the other a hillside of shattered rocks in Angus. There are plenty of ‘ripping yarns’ from mountain botany to interest cruise ship passengers – and I hope they will also inspire readers of my book.

(* Incidentally, I apologise to any keen botanists reading this who, like me, know many plants better by their scientific names. As in the book, I’m not quoting scientific names here because I don’t want to scare off readers who aren’t botanists – and those of us who are botanists probably have plenty of books in which we can check the scientific names if we need them).

What distinguishes a mountain flower and how many such species occur in Britain?
That’s a really good question. Many of them are species which also grow in the Alpine regions of central Europe or in the Arctic regions of the far north, so they are categorised broadly as ‘arctic-alpines’ – a term that will be familiar to most gardeners. But Britain lies in a special position off the west coast of Europe and its climate is tempered by winds that come off the Atlantic. As a result, many alpine species grow here at dramatically lower altitudes than where they occur in the Alps, and some arctic species also grow here, far south of their normal latitudes. Several species meet on the mountain cliffs of the Lake District or the southern Highlands of Scotland that grow together nowhere else in the world (which makes these especially important conservation sites in an international perspective). I also list in the book several species that grow in Britain at their northernmost or their southernmost sites in the world.

So, although I could define a mountain plant as one that grows typically above, say, 1,500 feet, that doesn’t always work in Britain because many of these come down almost to sea-level on the wind-battered north coast of Scotland or on the Western and Northern Isles – and that’s what makes British mountain botanising so intriguing. In fact, I almost reverse the argument in the book. I have selected 152 species that I regard as typically montane, then, for the purposes of the book, I define mountains as places where these plants grow – and these range from unexpected places like The Lizard in Cornwall, right up to the island of Unst in Shetland.

Tell us more about the unique conditions in the UK and their effect on mountain flower distribution.
The important thing to recognise is that many of our montane species have been clinging to survival on remote mountain ledges since just after the end of the last Ice Age. They survive there because of the chance juxtaposition of the right kind of rock and soil and a local microclimate that mimics the conditions to which they are adapted elsewhere in the high mountains of Europe or the high Arctic. It is vitally important that we try to understand why they survive there and continue to monitor their populations, because these are the plants that will give us the first warning of changes that are likely to happen on a much bigger scale in the Alps and the Arctic because of climate change. They are vital “miners’ canaries” for what lies ahead – plus I think Britain would be infinitely the poorer were we to lose them from our hills.

Page detail from Mountain Flowers
Page detail from Mountain Flowers

How have 21st century developments in botanical research affected our understanding of mountain flower ecology?
Hmm… In the strictest sense of botanical research, the latest genetic studies have sometimes made life a bit more difficult, especially for ageing botanists like me! It has changed our understanding of the relationships between species which in turn has led to a lot of changes in scientific names and how species fit into our concepts of plant families. It has also shown that one or two of what we thought were good mountain species are actually just variants of much commoner species, highly adapted to the mountain environment.

What has increased hugely over the 60 years since the last major account of British mountain flowers was published is our knowledge of the distribution of our mountain flowers, thanks to the hard work of hundreds of botanists in recording schemes masterminded by the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland (BSBI). The BSBI published increasingly comprehensive atlases showing the distribution of our native plants in 1962 and in 2002, and recorders are now hard at work gathering data for the next Atlas 2020 project, due to be completed in three years’ time, while, all round the country, enthusiastic botanists have compiled and published detailed accounts of the plants of their local counties or areas. I was given privileged access to the BSBI’s online databases in compiling the information in my book, and I am hugely grateful for that.

What I now want is for readers to prove me wrong! From the BSBI databases, I have tried to note the northernmost and the southernmost sites from where the key montane species have been recorded, and the highest and lowest altitudes at which they have been found, but I am sure keen readers could find new records beyond these extremes – and report them, I hope, to their local botanical recorder. I have reported on sites from which certain species appear to have died out, and I would be thrilled if that encouraged readers to go out and re-find the plants there.

What is the biggest conservation threat to mountain flowers in the UK?
I imagine most informed readers of the NHBS newsletter would expect me to say climate change was the biggest threat to mountain plants, and, in the long term, there is no doubt that climate change is a huge threat. But, as I have tried to show in the book, the impact of climate change on the mountain environment in the short to middle term is difficult to predict with any certainty and may not immediately be as disastrous as we fear.
What is beyond doubt is that, if we are to give montane plants any chance of adapting to the changes ahead, we need to get much better at managing our hills and mountains. Overgrazing by red deer is a huge problem across most of Scotland. The regular burning of moorland areas that are managed for the sport shooting of red grouse or to produce a ‘spring bite’ for sheep tends to encourage a few resilient species at the expense of many other, more delicate plants. Yet some mountain habitats also benefit from restricted amounts of grazing, and if continuing financial challenges lead to further declines of extensive sheep farming in the uplands that could become a big problem too. The challenge lies in getting the right balance between these conflicting priorities – and I’m afraid the decision by the people of England and Wales to leave the European Union (the EU has been a huge help in establishing conservation priorities in Britain) is not going to make that any easier.

Tell us about some specific species you find particularly interesting and that feature in the book.

Alpine Sowthistle of (legal) Scottish origin, growing in the author's garden in Scotland. Photo: Michael Scott
Alpine Sowthistle of (legal) Scottish origin, growing in the author’s garden in Scotland. Photo: Michael Scott

In the book I have selected 18 species, most of which are rarities, whose distribution and survival particularly intrigues me. I call them “Three-star Mountain Enigmas” for reasons I explain in the book and I give an extended account of each of them. For some of these species, I hope to shed insight, based on the scientific researches of dedicated mountain botanists; for others, I can only pose questions, in the hope of inspiring someone to find an answer. And there are plenty of puzzles in our mountains. Why, for example, is Alpine Rockcress found only in a single corrie in Scotland, when it grows almost as a weed in disturbed ground in the Alps and Arctic? Why (and how) is Iceland Purslane dispersed all the way from Iceland to Tierra del Fuego, yet in Britain it only grows on gravelly slopes on the Isles of Skye and Mull?

In the book, I suggest that Alpine Sowthistle is restricted to tiny populations on just four remote cliffs in the eastern Highlands of Scotland because humans have almost completely destroyed the mountain woods in which it once grew (and where it still flourishes in the Alps and Scandinavia), and I show how the 2001 outbreak of Foot-and-mouth Disease revealed how Marsh Saxifrage and Alpine Foxtail grass are actually much commoner than we ever realised.

For someone interested in a bit of amateur research, where are some of the best spots for finding mountain flowers?
I’d always say that the best place to start is the montane site that is nearest to home, whether that’s the Brecon Beacons, the Peak District, the Pentland Hills or wherever – they’re all covered in the book. Then you can make regular visits through the spring and summer to find each of the local species in full flower and follow them through the season to catch them in seed too (there are some species which you can only identify with certainty if you can find their fruits as well as their flowers) – although I should add that, by the time you read this, it is probably a bit late in the year already for mountain plants, so buy the book and start planning for next year!

Once you have got to know the commoner montane species for your local patch, you can perhaps plan a holiday further afield to one of the real mountain hotspots, like Snowdonia or Upper Teesdale, the Breadalbane hills of Perthshire or the Cairngorm Mountains of Inverness-shire. One spot that I particularly recommend in the book is the area around the Glenshee Ski Area, south of Braemar in Aberdeenshire. The A93 road from Blairgowrie to Braemar rises here to 670m (around 2,200 feet), so montane species grow right beside the car park, but the area is already so well-used by skiers that you needn’t worry too much about damaging the vegetation – and there are some really special plants for plant explorers to find.

The slopes of the Glenshee Ski Area south of Braemar on the Perthshire/Aberdeenshire boundary are one of the most accessible sites to see a good range of Britain's montane flora. Photo: Michael Scott
The slopes of the Glenshee Ski Area south of Braemar on the Perthshire/Aberdeenshire boundary are one of the most accessible sites to see a good range of Britain’s montane flora. Photo: Michael Scott

It is currently the school summer holiday period – any tips for getting kids interested in botany?
Another great question. Kids like action, and it’s the perfect time of year to show plants in action. Find the different kinds of fruits that plants produce and see how they are dispersed. Find the winged fruits (called samaras) of a sycamore tree or the ‘keys’ of an ash tree and work out how they spread. Who can get their fruit to travel furthest? Find some dandelion ‘clocks’. Don’t just see how may blows it takes to remove all the seeds from the ‘clock’; instead try to follow one of the seeds on its little parachute and find out how far it travels. If you can find a patch of Rosebay Willowherb, investigate how it spreads its seeds. If a riverside near you has been invaded by Himalayan Balsam (aka Policeman’s Helmet); see if you can work out how its explosive fruits have made it a successful ‘Alien Invader’ (in this case from India, not from Outer Space). How do the wild relatives of garden peas and strawberries spread – and what about potatoes? If you want to get really yucky, you might want to ask kids why they think tomato plants sometimes start growing beside sewage treatment plants!

If you have a boggy area nearby, see if you can find Common Butterwort growing there and investigate how its sticky leaves trap little insects which the plant then dissolves and absorbs to get the nutrients it needs to grow. Even better, see if you can find Common Sundew whose leaves are covered in red hairs which curve over to trap little insects caught by the sticky surface of the leaves. Then go online to discover how Venus Flytraps, Pitcher Plants and other insectivorous plants trap their prey – there are some great websites aimed at youngsters about these plants.

Mountain Flowers is available from NHBS

Mountain Flowers

Grasses, sedges and rushes: an interview with Dominic Price

Dominic Price
Dominic Price near some grass in a valley mire

Dominic Price is the author of this summer’s botanical bestseller, A Field Guide to Grasses, Sedges and Rushes. He is also director of The Species Recovery Trust, a botanical tutor, and an all-round advocate for conservation.

Your book is proving to be a huge success – what prompted you to write it, and who is your target audience?

It mostly came about from the grass courses I’ve run for the last seven years, during which I built up a huge body of observational evidence on grasses, from chatting to people and just spending a lot of time looking at them. Teaching plants is fantastic as it really makes you be concise about why things are what they are, plus you get to see what people muddle up; things you might never think yourself.

A Field Guide to Grasses, Sedges and RushesIn addition I felt there was a niche for an affordable, portable, and easy to use book. It definitely won’t suit everyone, but I hope that people who might have been put off by some of the more weighty tomes might find this a good way in (which certainly applies to me). It won’t teach you every grass, but hopefully it will make people feel much more confident about the ones you tend to encounter regularly.

 

How did you become interested in grasses?

During my early years of being a botanist I was terrified of grasses and it took me a long while to get a handle on them. This came about from spending time with other friendly botanists and gleaning as much as I could from them. Once I had got better at them (and I’m still a long way from mastering them) I was really keen to share this knowledge with other people. I did my first grasses course at the Kingcombe Centre 7 years ago, which I was absolutely terrified about running, but it went OK, and it all moved from there. I now run about 18 grasses courses a year, which I absolutely love doing, and all the proceeds from these go into our species conservation programme, meaning a single day’s training can fund a species programme for a year.

What defines the graminoids, and how can the three groups – grasses, rushes, and sedges – be distinguished?

Internal image from A Field Guide to Grasses, Sedges and Rushes
Internal image from A Field Guide to Grasses, Sedges and Rushes

It’s a difficult term, graminoids! I’m very guilty of calling them grasses, which of course only some of them (the Poaceae) are. I also tend to commit the grave sin of talking about wildflowers and grasses (especially when describing courses) when of course grasses are in fact flowers. Their key characters are that they are all monocots, and exclusively wind pollinated.

Telling them apart can be relatively easy, the rushes tend to have waxy round stems, the sedges are tussocky with separate female and male inflorescences, and the grasses are, well… grassy looking? But there are so many exceptions to this! Just today I was running a course where someone muddled up Slender Rush with Remote Sedge, and I realised that these two look almost identical from a distance!

What is the importance of the graminoids in the ecosystem at large?

Graminoids are exceptionally useful as indicator species, with many of them showing incredible affinity to certain soil types, nutrient levels and pH. If you walk into a field and see a shiny green swath of Perennial Ryegrass you know you’re unlikely to be finding overwhelming levels of biodiversity. Go into another field and find a clump of Meadow Oatgrass and you know you’re in for a long haul of finding other species.

As it says on the Species Recovery Trust website, over the past 200 years, over 400 species have been lost from England alone. Do you think enough is being done to halt biodiversity loss in the UK?

Tricky question! We have an incredibly large and diverse conservation sector in the UK, full of talented and passionate individuals devoting their lives to saving the planet. And yet we are still losing species at an alarming rate. When I was born, just over 40 years ago, the world had twice as many species as it does now, so this is not a historical problem we can blame on previous generations, this is the here and now of how humans are choosing to live our lives and harm our planet.

These are clearly difficult times financially, and clearly every sector is feeling the pain of budget cuts, however it is upsetting to see the way biodiversity has almost dropped off current political agendas (the environment was barely mentioned at all in the referendum debates) so I do worry that people, and governments, are just not doing enough. It is now fairly widely accepted that we are living through (and causing) a sixth mass global extinction event, which should be the biggest story and policy issue anyone is talking about, and yet species conservation still seems to be a niche market!

What does it take to re-establish a species like Starved Wood-sedge, which is one of the Trust’s Species Recovery Projects?

Large utricles (seeds) of Starved Wood-sedge (Carex depauperata) - photo credit: The Species Recovery Trust
Large utricles (seeds) of Starved Wood-sedge (Carex depauperata) – photo credit: The Species Recovery Trust

Starved Wood-sedge (SWS) has two native sites in the UK, and we’re working hard at both of these over a long time period to steadily improve the conditions, bringing more light in through coppicing and canopy reduction, and trying to encourage seedling establishment through ground scarification. SWS has an interesting bit of trivia in that it has the largest utricles (seeds) of any native sedges which should make it very easy to grow, but recently we started to think these large seeds may be their downfall as they are so susceptible to vole and mouse predation – but it’s hard to know for sure. We have established and continue to closely work on the two re-introduction sites, where we used plants grown up by Kew Gardens to establish new populations, and we are keen to establish one more in the next decade in a more traditionally managed wood to look at how the species would fare in active coppice rotation.

If you could put one policy change in place today to enhance species conservation what would it be?

I’m not sure, my current rather grassroots view is I’m not sure if conservation isn’t dying a death by policy. A few years back I spent the best part of two years of my life working on Biodiversity Opportunity Areas, only to see these being replaced by IBDAs (which I’ve now forgotten what it stands for) only to see these superseded by NIAs. I then had somewhat of a personal crisis that in all that time, even though I’d been instrumental in producing some very interesting maps of core area and buffer zones and opportunity areas, I’d done absolutely nothing to help species on the ground. I think it was during this same time that Deptford Pink went extinct in Somerset and Dorset too, which I still feel pretty bad about.

The problem with policies, and ministers, and successive governments is that they never last for that long. While not disputing that our current democracy is a wonderful thing, and obviously I feel lucky to live in a country where we can all vote and potentially change things we like, if you superimpose governments and policies on top of the Anthropocene (the current geological age where humans have gained the ability to start fundamentally changing the planet, both in terms of biodiversity and climate) then the two simply don’t match up in terms of the timescales we need to be operating on to bring a meaningful change to biodiversity loss. And it goes without saying that when government budget cuts occur it will always be the environment sector that will suffer, and this obviously has a terrible net effect on projects that are up and running and are suddenly suspended.

Without wanting to sound too ‘big society’ I think the meaningful changes we are seeing are from individuals, either making a big difference in their jobs in the environment sector, or simple volunteering, spending a few days a year clearing bramble from around a rare species, counting butterflies on a transect, monitoring their local bat populations. For me, that is where change is happening, not in government policy units.

How would you encourage a young nature lover or student to take an interest in the subject of grasses?

Internal image from A Field Guide to Grasses, Sedges and Rushes
Internal image from A Field Guide to Grasses, Sedges and Rushes

I’m lucky to have two young children to try this out on, and I must say they are now budding graminologists. I think the starting point is everyone likes knowing what things are and naming them, whether it’s music, works of art, types of lorry. We are on the whole naturally inquisitive beings, so I just tend to show people things and encourage them to go off and find more like them. Add to that some stripy pyjama bottoms (Yorkshire Fog), Batman’s Helmet (Timothy), Floating Sugarpuffs (Quaking Grass) and Spiky Porcupines (Meadow Oatgrass) and the whole thing becomes pretty fun! Incidentally there are equivalent adult versions of these too, which are unmentionable here…

What is the most surprising, odd, or unexpected fact you can share about grasses?

Grasses have a profound link with humanity. 4 million years ago the spread of grasses in the savannas of East Africa is now believed to be the main driver in our primate ancestors coming down from the trees and developing a bipedal habit to move between patches of shrinking forest while keeping a watch out for predators. 40,000 years ago we saw the birth of agriculture with the development of early crops, the decline of hunter gatherer lifestyles and the start of the society we live in today (gluten intolerance sufferers probably think this is where it all started to go wrong). And all because we learnt to collect seed from promising looking grasses, and start planting in quantities we could harvest.

Tell us more about the plant identification courses. What are these all about and how people can get involved?

When we set up The Species Recovery Trust we knew that funding projects over a long term basis (all our work plans are 50 years long) was going to be a challenge, so we set about seeking ways to bring in modest sums of unrestricted funding over that period of time, for which running training courses was an obvious contender. This was combined with my passion for teaching plants, and then finding other people who shared this view. We’ve now been able to build up a team of some of the best tutors in the country, who combine their expert knowledge with running courses that are extremely fun and really help people get to grips with a range of subjects.

By automating the booking process (which works most of the time) we can also keep our prices extremely competitive, as well as offer discounted places for students and unemployed people who are desperate to get into the sector. On alternate years we offer one ‘golden ticket’ which enables one winner to attend 10 training courses for free, which will give people a huge helping hand in their conservation careers.

All the information on the courses can be found on the training courses page of The Species Recovery Trust website.

Can you tell us about any interesting projects you are involved with at the moment?

Spiked Rampion (Phyteuma spicatum) - photo credit: The Species Recovery Trust
Spiked Rampion (Phyteuma spicatum) – photo credit: The Species Recovery Trust

We have a great project running on Spiked Rampion at the moment, and after 6 years we now have the highest number of plants ever recorded, all due to a fantastic steering group of the good and great from Kew, Forestry Commission, Sussex Wildlife Trust, and East Sussex County Council, along with some very committed local volunteers. It’s been a lot of work but proved a great example of many organisations joining up with a single achievable aim of saving a really rather special plant from extinction.

This summer is going to see a network of data loggers placed around the New Forest as part of a project to re-discover the New Forest Cicada, that we’re working on with Buglife and Southampton University. There are real concerns about whether this species is already extinct, but as it spends most of its life underground and only emerges and sings for a short period it is a good contender for the UK’s most elusive species.

A Field Guide to Grasses, Sedges and Rushes is available from NHBS

A Field Guide to Grasses, Sedges and Rushes

The Effective Ecologist: An Interview With Neil Middleton

Neil Middleton - author of The Effective EcologistNeil Middleton is an entrepreneurial ecologist who is the managing director of consultancy Echoes Ecology Ltd, and Time For Bespoke Solutions Ltd, a company that provides management consultancy and people development solutions.

Many will recognise Neil as co-author of Social Calls of the Bats of Britain and Ireland, however it is his passion for workplace training and development that is the driving force behind his latest book, The Effective Ecologist: Succeed in the Office Environment.

What inspired you to write this book?

The number of times I see people who have paid lots of money and spent a huge amount of their time being educated and trained to work within our sector, only to find that so many of the things that differentiate the mediocre from the brilliant just haven’t been covered. I spend a lot of my time being asked by people for advice and guidance, and felt that no one else had attempted to tackle the subject matter from the perspective of an ecologist. I found this quite irritating and eventually decided that if no-one else was going to try and help, then I would.

The Effective Ecologist: Succeed in the Office Environment
The Effective Ecologist: Succeed in the Office Environment

Office success… isn’t it all a good work ethic and common sense?

In part, most definitely – I would not deny that. But if it is as simple as that why do so many people struggle to deliver a number of the ‘non-ecological’ aspects of their work to the highest level. And what is a good work ethic and common sense? Has anyone ever described that to you in the role you are in? Do you know, specifically, the things you should be focusing on and the pitfalls you should be avoiding. Do you know how to manage your time better, be more professional, be better organised? Who in your working environment is assisting you in a structured way with these things? Other types of business within the service sector (which is where ecological consultancy sits) spend huge amounts of time and resources training their people on some of the material I am writing about here. For some reason this isn’t that evident within ecology. As I say in the book – sitting in today’s ecological consultancies we have ecologists who are managing people, dealing with customers, project planning, marketing products, producing financial reports… They are expected to perform all of these responsibilities, and many more, to a high level, as well as the ecological aspects of their role. How many of them have been given training or proper guidance about how to perform these non-ecology aspects of their role to a high level?

Would you mind telling us about your worst office etiquette blunder?!

Illustration from The Effective Ecologist by Joan Punteney
Illustration from The Effective Ecologist by Joan Punteney

It makes me shudder thinking about the number of blunders I have made over my working life, and still do. I will keep it ecological.

I once got into a lift with a bloke who used to be my YOC leader about thirty years earlier (for those youngsters out there, the YOC used to be the junior branch of the RSPB). It just so happened that many years later, coincidentally, we were both working for the same insurance company.  He didn’t normally work from our office. I saw him in the distance and quickened my step in order to catch up with him, so that we could share the lift. I said good afternoon, asked him how he was and then proceeded to tell him all about this excellent spot I had found for watching raptors (he was a member of his local raptor group after all). Anyway, it turns out he was in the building to meet with our regional manager (Tracey), who, as it happens, was also my boss’s boss. So being helpful I took him to Tracey’s room, continuing to tell him about some of my latest bird sightings.

They met, and Tracey welcomed him by saying, “Brilliant to meet you again John.”  The guy I had been talking to – or at least I had thought I had been talking to – wasn’t called John! Yes I had just met some random stranger (considerably more senior to myself in the business) in the lift and had swamped him with ornithological anecdotes. The bloke didn’t know me at all, but remained polite throughout, and thought he had just met some nutter in the lift. I doubt that he would have ever been able to tell a Kestrel from a Griffon Vulture, let alone a Sparrowhawk from a Goshawk. And after Tracey had finished her meeting? Yes I was called in to explain myself, as John had obviously told her all about it. Before long everyone on the floor had heard about what had happened.

Sounds painful! In your experience, what are the three most common office faux pas people might make?

In no particular order, and in haste, these are today’s examples. Ask me tomorrow and I would come up with a different list, I am sure.

  • Failure to communicate effectively. For example, not saying the right thing to the right person at the right time. Almost everything that goes wrong in a work setting (or for that matter personal settings) boils down to poor communication or no communication.
  • Doing the wrong things in the wrong order when under pressure. Time is evaporating and you are wasting the remaining time doing stuff that isn’t going to get you to where you need to be.
  • Not preparing enough. To fail to prepare, is very much to prepare to fail. Too often people aren’t very good at playing ‘consequences.’ They don’t think what is going to happen next, and then after that, and so on. This means that a few steps down the line when something unexpected happens they are caught off guard. If only they had thought it through and prepared properly to begin with, that unexpected situation should’ve been precisely one of the scenarios they should’ve accounted for days, or even weeks, earlier.

Say I’m an ecology graduate passionate about reversing habitat loss and saving endangered species. How does this book help animals?

If you want to be successful working with a subject you are passionate about, and do this to a high level, and therefore in your example, help animals as much as you can, then this book talks about the skills that, quite possibly, will make you considerably more effective, more professional, a better communicator, more organised, a better team player, and much more. Ask yourself – are you happy at being merely OK at what you do, or do you want to make the best use of your time in order to have the greatest positive impact upon the things you are passionate about? So I would challenge you to keep buying all the books about the animals you are so passionate about, and yes you will undoubtedly learn more about the technical aspects of your role, but this book (at less than twenty quid and a handful of hours) will open the door to many of the tools you can use to turn that knowledge and passion into the actionable events that will make the difference. I am afraid to say that passion and knowledge alone are rarely enough.

If I may I would also like to say that the material in the book is not just for new entrants into the role. There is so much in here that is equally applicable to more experienced ecologists, managers and those in a training role within our sector. There is already an excellent book about How to Become and Ecological Consultant (Searle, S. M., 2011).  This new book is the next step in the process and could easily have been called ‘How to succeed now you have a job, and in doing so perform at the highest level.’

How would you describe the unique challenges facing graduating ecologists in 2016, and in what ways do you think today’s graduates differ from those of ten or fifteen years ago?

The one thing that has been evident throughout the last decade is that, in the main, people qualifying from colleges or universities just aren’t work ready to enter many ecological consultancies. It is the ever present scenario, ‘You can’t get a job without experience. But how do I get the experience without a job?’ Many of the people we see coming into our own business for interviews have been told very little, if anything, about the consultancy sector, and even less about the business skills they will need in order to give themselves any chance of success. I find this quite frustrating as ecological consultancy work is probably one of the more realistic career options that people going through an appropriate university degree can hope to pursue.

Also, for someone to spend all of that time and expense gaining a qualification that so often tells them so little about the natural world in their own country is disappointing. We see many people that may know quite a bit about overseas mammals or habitat for example, but would struggle to identify a water vole!  There are exceptions to this, but based on the CVs we have passing regularly through our inboxes, they are very much exceptions. 

As managing director of two companies, as well as a bestselling author, time management must be a well worn tool in your kit bag. What’s your top time management tip?

Neil Middleton in field ecologist mode
Neil Middleton in field ecologist mode

Everything in this world is affordable or available at some level apart from time itself. It doesn’t matter how rich you are, how many people you have in your team, whether or not you are the best at what you do. Once a moment has passed you can never get it back, you can never go back to yesterday and undo the thing that prevents you doing what you should be achieving today.

My top tip – treat time as the most precious commodity you have available to yourself, organise it well, be protective over it and use it well. Make sure you spend your time doing things that make a difference – if there is no benefit to spending time on something then stop doing it. No benefit, no point. One of the ways I focus on this is, when I go to bed each night I list in my head what I will achieve tomorrow – and nine times out of ten I do it. Sometimes it’s painful, sometimes other things get in the way (often in fact) – but I don’t go to bed the following night regretting how I have spent my time today, and I don’t make excuses. We all are equally rich with the time we have immediately in front of us. The choice is, how do you choose to use it to best effect?

And what three daily habits would you encourage any office worker to take up starting tomorrow?

  • Look at what you have on in your diary for tomorrow and next week, today – and not tomorrow morning. If you don’t have a diary, then get one, use it, and keep it with you at all times. Don’t have separate diaries for personal and business. You can only be in one place at any one time. People keeping two diaries tend to be unable to commit to things because their other diary is at home, or at some point make errors that needn’t have been made. I have a whole section about this in the book and I don’t sit on the fence about it.
  • Every phone call you have with a colleague, a customer or a supplier – immediately follow it up with an email. Get into this habit and you will protect yourself and the business from someone saying in the future that they didn’t agree to that, or they hadn’t understood what you meant at the time etc. You will never know which one of these every day conversations will come back to bite you, but beyond doubt one or two of them will. When that happens you will regret not doing that email. You know you are right, but you can’t prove it, and now others are doubting you. Don’t regret it, it’s a controllable – do the email.
  • Be on time, every time – without fail. People that keep time well tend to be organised, professional and of course in the right place at the right time. Too often first impressions and daily tasks are tarnished or ineffectively handled because someone is late. It’s not professional and it certainly is disrespectful to others.

If there is one thing you wish you had known at the beginning of your career, what would it have been?

How important all of these business-related skills are to giving yourself a chance of being better at what you do. In my own world at that time I thought it was just down to being technically good enough, and gaining experience. It isn’t. Being technically brilliant doesn’t make you the best person at the job – being effective does. This is what the book is about. I am trying to enable others to realise, earlier on, many of the things that no-one told me about at the beginning.

There is a big marketing dilemma with this book. Firstly, those people who already know some of this stuff will buy it and probably learn some new stuff to add to their tool box. Then, those who are struggling might think it’s worth a shot – can’t do me any harm. But many more will feel that they don’t need it. They are getting on just fine as they are, and they don’t know what they don’t know. These are the ones that may benefit the most, irrespective of what stage in their career they are at. If you are one of these people, and you are the only one in your team that reads the book – then immediately you have an edge. Conversely if everyone in your team has read it and you haven’t – well… To summarise, I wish I had read this book 35 years ago.

What would be one of the most challenging training situations you encounter on a regular basis?

Referring to my office blunder answer – it’s now time to fess up! I am good at remembering names, and pretty good at remembering faces, but an Achilles heel is most definitely putting the two things together at the right time. This is an area that I find myself constantly having to focus time and effort on. Put an audience in front of me and I have various tricks I adopt to help reduce the chances of me getting someone’s name wrong. Occasionally though, regretfully, I make a mistake and have to apologise.

How has self-development been important to you in your life?

If you stop developing you stop improving, you stop getting better and you stop learning. After that… then is there really much point in doing what you are doing? You may as well say to yourself – ‘well this is as good as I will ever be and I am going to stop trying to be better.’ I am sure that there are lots of happy people out there who from a professional perspective are able to be like that. I find that approach odd and uncomfortable, and as such I just want to keep learning how to avoid making mistakes, or when that fails, learning what I could do next time that would result in a better outcome.

Who or what has had the most impact on your success?

Who? – So many people, ranging from people I currently work with, all the way back to when I was in the insurance sector and before that in the leisure and catering sector. I am where I am now (we all are!) because of who we have listened to and looked up to in the past.

What? – Not being afraid to push myself in a professional setting. If something seems beyond me or too difficult or almost impossible I would rather try and fail (failure gives you the ammunition to do it better next time!) than wonder, what if? It is quite daunting doing something like writing a book. I suspect many people don’t do things because they think they can’t, or they don’t want to risk making a fool of themselves, or are overly concerned what others might think. My advice would be, whatever you set your sights on – go for it. The worst that will happen is that you will learn a lot about yourself. The best that could happen should be self-evident. The one certainty is that if you don’t try it you will achieve nothing, learn nothing and always wonder ‘what if?’

What are you looking forward to in 2016?

At the moment improving my running technique, lots of bat work and my holiday in the south of France in August (I will have my diary with me though!), when I can do some batting and birding for pleasure, and spend good times with my partner, Aileen, who inspires me to be the best version of myself that I can be. But don’t tell her about the batting and birding bit – she thinks it’s a holiday; not a self-development opportunity.

The Effective Ecologist: Succeed in the Office Environment

The Effective Ecologist: Succeed in the Office Environment is available to order from NHBS

Naturalist, artist and author Steven Falk on his new field guide to bees

Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and IrelandNaturalist and wildlife artist Steven Falk has had a diverse career with wildlife and conservation, including working as an entomologist with Nature Conservancy Council, and as natural history keeper for major museums. He is now Entomologist and Invertebrate Specialist at UK invertebrate conservation organisation Buglife. His new Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland will be published by British Wildlife Publishing next month.

Tell us about your role at Buglife.
At Buglife, I have quite a diverse role. I provide information and advice to colleagues, external enquirers and a plethora of external organisations. I’ve been particularly involved with overseeing the production of new red lists for assorted invertebrate groups, also providing feedback to the various national pollinator strategies, new agri-environment schemes, plus helping to develop projects for some of our most endangered invertebrate species. We also have a consultancy now, Buglife Services, which carries out and coordinates invertebrate surveys all over Britain. We’ve just done an exciting survey of the A30 and A38 in Devon and Cornwall. We need more understanding of road verge invertebrates, especially pollinators.

How did you come to write this landmark identification guide to all the bees of Britain and Ireland?
I was approached by Andrew Branson in 2012 and was initially quite reluctant, because you cannot use a traditional field guide approach for bees, as many cannot be identified to species level in the field (they require the taking of a specimen for critical examination under a microscope) and it is crucial that we keep the national dataset (run by BWARS) clean and reliable by being honest about where the limits of field identification lie. So I agreed to write it on the basis that it covered all 275 species, had reliable keys, and could appeal to both hardcore recorders and general naturalists. I knew this was feasible, because we had faced the same challenge with the seminal book British Hoverflies (Stubbs & Falk, 1983, 2002). So it is a field guide in the loose sense – it will help you to recognise much of what you see in the field, but also indicate at which point you need to take specimens and put them under a microscope. But you don’t need to collect bees or have a microscope to enjoy the book – we made sure of that.

Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and IrelandThere is growing concern about the conservation status of bees – how are our bees getting on, and how might the publication of this book help them?
Yes, we need to be concerned about bees. We have already lost 25 species and several more are teetering on the edge of extinction. Good bee habitat continues to be lost. Brownfield land came to the rescue last century, but most of that has now been developed or lost its flowery early successional stages, which is what so many bees need. The research being carried out on pesticides such as neonicotinioids is also pretty disturbing – check out the work by Prof. Dave Goulson at Sussex University. It seems to be affecting bee numbers in many parts of the country. The national pollinator strategies being published by UK member states are a call to arms – let’s get monitoring bees. But the emphasis is on developing citizen science to achieve some of this, because there is little funding. High quality amateur recording is part of this plan, and Britain’s strong tradition of this makes it a realistic proposition. But the last comprehensive coverage of British bees was Saunders, 1896, and it has been the lack of modern ID literature that has held bee recording back. Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland, and the supporting web feature (embedded in my Flickr site) will hopefully fix this!

Your career as a wildlife artist began early – you worked on the colour plates for Alan Stubb’s guide to British Hoverflies when you were just a teenager. How did this collaboration come about?
I pinned some bumblebees I had caught near my home in North London when I was 12. Half of them turned out to be bee-like hoverflies, and that started a fascination with hoverflies. The following summer holiday, I went out with a net almost every day, and seemed to find a new type of hoverfly daily. I was totally hooked on them, and I painted things that fascinated me, including those hoverflies. I exhibited some hoverfly artwork at the 1976 AES Exhibition in Hampstead, and met Alan Stubbs who told me he was writing a new guide to hoverflies. I said I wanted to do the artwork (I was only 14), and the rest is history. It took 3 years of evenings, and I think I was 17 when I finished it. I’m very proud of those plates, and you can see how my style develops (plate 8 was the first and plate 7 was the last – you can see a lampshade reflection in the early ones!).

Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and IrelandDo we see any of your artwork in this book?
Sadly not, my eyesight is not great these days and I do very little drawing and painting now. But the British Wildlife Publishing ‘house artist’ is the great Richard Lewington, and he’s done a magnificent job. The bumblebee plates in particular, are just stunning, the best ever produced.

What sort of techniques do you use to produce your artwork – which is strikingly realistic and very detailed?
I painted birds a lot as a young child and was very aware of the bird artists of the time and their styles, people like Basil Ede, Charles Tunnicliffe and Robert Gillmor. I particularly liked the detail and photo-realism of Basil Ede’s work and became aware that he used gouache. So I started to use gouache and preferred it to watercolour. I’d often start with a black silhouette and build up the colour and texture on top of this, which is the opposite of watercolour painting. But others, like Denys Ovendon and Richard Lewington, show what can be done with watercolour, so it’s just a taste thing. For really intense or subtle colours, I’d need to use watercolours, because they produce a much larger colour pallete than gouache. Richard knows his watercolours – you need to if you want to tackle butterflies like blues, coppers and purple emperors. I’m possibly more proud of my black and white illustrations than my colour work. Here I was most influenced by the likes A. J. E. Terzi and Arthur Smith, house artists for the Natural History Museum. Their use of cross-hatching and stippling is so skillful, and I’ve tried to emulate this in my pen and ink artwork. Never use parallel lines in cross hatching!

Any future interesting projects coming up that you can tell us about – artistic, or conservation-based?
There are many more books I’d like to write, especially for wasps and assorted fly groups. It’s not just the subject, it’s the approach. I like getting into the mindset of the beginner and finding the right language and approach. We need to get more people recording invertebrates. I like the double-pronged approach of books plus web resources, and I have a popular and ever-expanding Flickr site that greatly facilitates the identification of many invertebrate groups. On the conservation front, I’m keen to continue promoting understanding of pollinators and to increase the effectiveness of agri-environment schemes. Invertebrate conservation is in my blood and I’ll be pursuing it to the very end in one form or another. I might even try illustrating again one day if I can find the right glasses!

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5 reasons to buy The Flowering Plants Handbook

The Flowering Plants HandbookThe Flowering Plants Handbook: A Practical Guide to Families and Genera of the World is the first book to collate both plant family and generic information following 25 years of molecular DNA work.

The idea for this book grew out of a plant identification course, run in 2010 by botanist and the book’s author James W. Byng, at the University of Aberdeen. It found its current form via several years of workshops and courses which generated crucial feedback that helped to refine the content.

So what’s so great about this book?

1) The book has a global coverage for flowering plant families and genera. It will be useful wherever you are in the world. Also people’s gardens are usually full of exotic/non-native species and this guide will help with the identification of these plants where other field guides will not.

2) The botanical terminology used has tried to be simplified with a short botanical glossary to help with any technical terms. The idea is to appeal to all levels of experience, from undergraduate student to specialist.

3) It is the first single source book (not several volumes or a series) to contain useful morphThe Flowering Plants Handbook Internal Imageological characters for all genera for 96% of current plant families. There are 6,656 genera included in total for all families which makes it more comprehensive than any other book on the market.

4) This is one of the first books to contain images for every flowering plant family and there are over 3,000 inside. Most books have images and information for common families but not all of them.

5) Lastly, the four-step approach (described in the book) to identify a flowering plant from anything (usually) green with a flower to genus level is unique to this book. This makes the book unique for teaching plants in biodiversity areas – such as the tropics – and in classes. Several American universities are trialling this four-step approach with the eBook version in their courses at the moment.

AThe Flowering Plants Handbook Internal Imagebout the author

James W. Byng is a widely travelled botanist and completed his PhD at the University of Aberdeen and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  He is an accomplished botanical tutor and his research is mainly focused on Old World plants and the classification of flowering plants.

He is a key member of the Plant Gateway team, a new botanical organisation founded in collaboration with the University of Aberdeen.

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Anne Bebbington on botanical illustration and her new book, Understanding the Flowering Plants

Dr. Anne Bebbington trained as a botanist and worked for over 30 years for the Field Studies Council and as an environmental educator. Also an outstanding botanical illustrator, her career has traced a path between the two complementary fields, and she is a past President of the Institute of Analytical Plant Illustration.  Her new book is a testament to this dual expertise.

What came first for you, botany or illustration – and how have the two interwoven throughout your career?

From an early age natural history, drawing and painting were always my favourite occupations. At university I was lucky to be able to study both botany and zoology and found that drawing the plants and animals we studied was for me the best way of describing and understanding them. After specializing in plant ecology I joined the Field Studies Council. As well as teaching environmental studies at all levels from primary pupils to undergraduates, I tutored many wild flower courses for adults both in Britain and further afield in Europe, Canada and Australia. My interest and expertise in illustration always formed an important part of my work, particularly in producing handouts and identification aids, and running short botanical illustration courses. In retirement I work as a freelance natural history illustrator but also continue to share my enthusiasm for plants running workshops and giving talks to both natural history groups and garden clubs.

You are a founder member and past President of the Institute for Analytical Plant Illustration. Tell us more about this organization?

The Institute of Analytical Plant Illustration (IAPI) promotes interest in the diversity and understanding of plants through illustration. It was founded in 2004 by the late Michael Hickey, an excellent teacher, botanist and skilled analytical illustrator. Its aim is to encourage and facilitate collaboration between botanists and artists by organizing talks, running workshops and field meetings, and setting up projects which members can contribute to.

In 2010, with IAPI support, I got together with Mary Brewin, a skilled artist, to provide a course of ten workshops combining botanical tuition with an opportunity to develop and practice appropriate illustration techniques. We hoped it would help members to:

  • gain a better understanding of plants to inform their practice of the art of botanical illustration.
  • develop and refine illustration techniques appropriate to different botanical subjects.
  • encourage enthusiastic beginners to gain botanical knowledge and some basic art skills.

This course was very successful and raised great interest and in the last four years has resulted in the running of further courses and workshops both for IAPI and other groups and organizations.

What is the place of botanical illustration in scientific research?

Botanical illustration both in the form of photography but also drawings and painting is integral to all aspects of scientific research.

Are there any botanical subjects that you are particularly inspired to work from?

I am particularly interested in the way that plants interact with their environment and how the intricacy of their structure plays a part in their success and survival. I frequently work with my husband, a zoologist and photographer, investigating the interactions between plants and animals, particularly insects. Close observation and drawing plants out in the field is also something I really enjoy.

What are you currently engaged with in terms of your botanical illustration career?

I am currently looking at the detailed internal structure of flowers in relation to their pollination mechanisms by producing illustrations in the form of half flowers.

It’s a beautiful book and a wonderful resource for botanical information – who is the book written for?

The book should be accessible to anyone, even those with little or no scientific background. It was written for:

  • botanical artists and photographers  who wish to gain a better understanding of the Flowering Plants to inform their practice of the art of botanical illustration.
  • anyone who works with or just enjoys plants and wants to know more about them.

Understanding the Flowering Plants: A Practical Guide for Botanical Illustrators is published by Crowood Press and is available now.

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Brock Fenton on the mystery and science of bats

Bats: A World of Science and MysteryBrock Fenton is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Biology, Western University, Ontario, Canada. His research programme involves using bats to explore the interfaces between animal behaviour, ecology and evolution. As co-author of the exciting new book, Bats: A World of Science and Mystery, we thought it would be interesting to pose him a few bat-related questions:

How did you become involved with bat research as a career?

As an undergraduate student I was attracted to bats by the abundance of things to learn about them. Part of this I experienced by looking in caves for hibernating bats that had been banded elsewhere. The other part was the library, books about bats (Bats by G.M. Allen; Nerve Cells and Insect Behaviour by Kenneth D. Roeder) and articles in journals. My main research focus now is on bat evolution, behaviour and echolocation.

In evolutionary terms, what is a bat, and how have they come to represent around 20% of all mammal species?

Bats are mammals capable of powered flight. Flight gives them mobility and their small size makes them inconspicuous. Bats fill a variety of trophic roles as consumers of insects, plant products, as well as other animals (from fish to other bats and birds), and even blood. I suspect that a combination of mobility, small size and flexibility is responsible for their evolutionary success. The blood-feeding vampire bats are among the best examples of this success.

Is it possible to define the character of a bat, and a typical day in the life?

I had not thought of “character”. Bats are mainly nocturnal, so operation at night is a key characteristic. They are long-lived (some species over 30 years in the wild), and high energy, requiring large quantities of food to fuel their activities. Although bats typically emerge (from their daytime roosts or hiding places) at dusk, they probably come and go from their roosts during the night. In the northern hemisphere and some other temperate parts of the world, bats use delayed fertilization to ensure that young are born when food is abundant.

The title of the book includes the word ‘mystery’ – what do we remain in the dark about regarding these nocturnal creatures?

There are about 1260 species of living bats. The largest weigh about 1500 grams, but most species are under 50 grams.  Bats survive because they are hard to find by day. The combination of secretive and small size makes most species of bats hard to study. This means that people who study bats regularly make astonishing discoveries about them. In spite of some concerns about the possible role of bats in public health, most species have no direct impact on humans. Lack of direct connection to humans means that bats are sidelined when it comes to some main stream areas of interest, particularly those relating to human health.

What are the world conservation priorities for bats at the moment, and can you highlight any projects that are doing interesting work?

Bats are “typical” wildlife, mainly negatively effected by the habitat consequences of expanding human populations and demand for resources. In Northeastern North America, White-nosed Syndrome has killed literally millions of bats. Around the world turbines at “wind farms” also kill bats, but not on the scale of WNS. Research into White-nosed Syndrome and bats’ responses to turbines are important for the future of bats. Other research into the role that bats may play as reservoirs for diseases also is important for the image of bats. The last part of the book speaks about some of the unanswered questions about bats that appeal to the authors.

Who is this book aimed at?

We hope that this book will appeal to anyone interested in biodiversity and natural history. This could be the person interested in evolution or echolocation, conservation or social behaviour. We also hope that it appeals to those intrigued by flight, by where bats live and what they eat. It is not intended to be a text book about bats.

Bats: A World of Science and Mystery is published in November 2014

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