Book Review: The Last Butterflies

(This is the accepted version of my review published here in Trends in Ecology & Evolution.)

It is an unfortunate paradox that insects, the most abundant and diverse class of animals on Earth, are also the most understudied and misunderstood. With diversity comes complexity, and scientists have only scratched the surface on knowledge of global insect ecology. In The Last Butterflies, ecologist and butterfly expert Nick Haddad explores some of this complexity.

Despite the title, this is not a story of despair. Nor is it just about butterflies. Haddad weaves an absorbing narrative about the multidimensional process of science and insect conservation, the damaging impacts humans can have on the web of life, the ethical quandaries of conservation, and the positive changes and solutions that give us hope. Each main chapter is focused on a single butterfly species: six of the rarest North American butterflies that Haddad has spent his career studying, and two more well-known species from North America and the UK. The eight butterflies are framing devices, each one illustrating pieces of the challenging puzzle that is insect ecology and conservation. Continue reading

Happy 10th birthday to Ecology is not a Dirty Word!

Cheers to everyone who has read and shared my blog posts over the years. I’ve had some great discussions here and made some really worthwhile connections because of this little blog. Most importantly, it’s kept me inspired and connected through the highs and lows of academia. Here’s to many more blog posts, discussions, and connections to come!

I’m so happy that my current second most visited post is ‘On the importance of observations to Ecology’, an ode to natural history notes and a reminder that ecological science will stagnate without observing natural interactions occurring around us. It sums up many of the reasons why I started blogging in the first place. (It was pipped to the post by one of my insectageddon articles)

Some more on why I love blogging:

The buzz on (ecology) blogging

On 7 years of ecology blogging

Our paper on why ecology blogs are so valuable to the academic community: Bringing ecology blogging into the scientific fold: measuring reach and impact of science community blogs. For anyone who still needs convincing that academic blogs are not a waste of time, this paper is an excellent piece of evidence: co-authors are from Don’t Forget the Roundabouts, Scientist Sees Squirrel, Dynamic Ecology, Jeff Ollerton’s Biodiversity Blog, and Small Pond Science

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© Manu Saunders 2019

How damaging is sexy soundbite scicomm?

The ‘tyranny of the sound bite’ has plagued politicians and celebrities for decades. Pithy one-liners, taken out of context, can be extremely damaging to a person’s reputation.

In science communication, Sexy Science soundbites, condensing complex ecological problems into simple data points or the efforts of single researchers, can damage public understanding of science.

We’ve seen this with Insect Armageddon and the recent ‘3 billion lost birds’ story. Ecology is the science of nuances, and any claim of global patterns or precise data points must be interpreted with context.

Much of the problem with these soundbite disasters lies with the science communication around the story, not necessarily the science itself. Continue reading

Is boycotting peer review reasonable?

A few opinion pieces are doing the rounds arguing that scientists should boycott peer review, especially for paywalled journals. The argument goes that this action is a protest against Big Publishing, because peer reviewers should be paid, and because we should support ‘open science’. I genuinely don’t understand this logic.

Peer review is a community service because scholarship is a community endeavour. Peer review is an important part of an academic’s role. Each individual’s service collectively contributes to a rigorous body of scientific knowledge. This is much better than the pre-peer review days of a single editor deciding on publication (this tradition persists in the desk reject).

A community service is generally unpaid – that’s the difference between a service for the good of the system and a business transaction for individual benefit. Do you volunteer for your kid’s sports club? Do you belong to your neighbourhood watch group? Do you contribute to your local conservation or landcare groups?

Why do you volunteer your time? Do you expect payment for these activities? Continue reading

System Solutions: sustainable agriculture is about ecological interactions

The latest IPCC report was released last week, with very similar findings to the IPBES report released earlier this year. Both reports analyse published research and provide evidence-based recommendations to guide policy-making. They corroborate what ecologists and environmental scientists have been showing for the last few decades via hundreds of thousands of studies across multiple disciplines.

In a nutshell, we need to change how we, as a species, interact with our environment. Most importantly, we need to change the way we manage and use land and natural resources. And there are many ways we can do this. Continue reading

What is a species? Philosophy, Science and Scicomm

What is a species? This apparently simple question is one of the best ways to get scientists arguing.

A recent article by Henry Taylor, a philosopher at University of Birmingham, asks this question from a philosophical perspective. The article itself is okay. But there is zero chance of biologists adopting its recommendation, ‘to scrap the idea of a species’, any time soon (see also this older article at the same platform, on the same subject, from a biologist’s perspective).

What I found interesting is how different audiences interpreted the article in the comments and on social media. I saw a mix of reactions (based on my network and a few searches; obviously not indicative of everyone) – some scientists were condemning the article vocally and aggressively, while others who didn’t appear to be scientists (based on their Twitter bio), shared the article in agreement and support.

‘What is a species?’ is a classic philosophical question, not a scientific one. Philosophical questions are a valuable tool for life. They are conceptual, not factual; they are rarely ‘solved’ (in the scientific sense); and they need to be addressed with complex thinking, not just facts or empirical research. You don’t have to agree with this approach, it’s just how Philosophy differs from Science. Disciplines are defined by different methodologies, standards, systems, and norms.

Continue reading

The windscreen phenomenon: anecdata is not scientific evidence

The windscreen phenomenon refers to people’s perception that there are fewer insects being splattered on their windscreen than they used to see. It is one of the most common anecdotes presented as evidence of global insect decline in the Insectageddon stories. But anecdotes are not scientific evidence. Anecdotes describe local conditions, not globally-relevant facts.

People often claim the ‘windscreen phenomenon’ is established evidence and proven fact. But a search of academic journal databases returns only one published study that has used car windscreens to measure changes in local insect abundance. In that study, Anders Møller compared insect abundance (although it’s not clear from the Methods if he actually measured density) with breeding rates of insectivorous birds in an agricultural landscape in Denmark. Data was collected in the same way at the same location for 20 years, which is very impressive, and analysis showed an 80% decline in insects across the period. Continue reading