The impossible quest for a biodiversity metric to rule them all

Will a new metric save biodiversity? This recent opinion piece in Science magazine argues for just that: “a single, simple indicator”, an annual biodiversity target based on species extinction rate. The idea is that the metric will encourage people and policy to protect nature.

The authors justify their argument based on two assumptions:

1) extinction fully incorporates the most fundamental aspect of biodiversity loss

2) extinction is widely understood and easy to communicate

This all sounds well and good. But…

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Teaching resources: history and philosophy of ecology

I’ve just written a few lectures for a first year ecology unit on history and philosophy of ecology. I remembered my own undergrad education, dominated by the male European history of science, and didn’t want to repeat that history. Ecology is so much more that!

Modern science is founded on western philosophy, so it’s understandable that European science gets most of the attention. But despite what most of us learned at school, scientists aren’t all male and there were many non-European scientists that contributed to the development of modern scientific knowledge.

Most importantly, Indigenous people’s knowledge is tied to place, and we often ignore the wealth of knowledge about ecological interactions and processes that Indigenous cultures hold, as well as the respectful environmental interaction (management) that is embedded in country and culture.

This is a list of some good resources that I found useful to highlight an inclusive history of the development of ecological science, at an introductory level. There are more nuanced details, but these resources simply highlight the important fact that science has developed from diverse minds, not just a select few white guys. Some of those famous guys deserve the credit, others don’t so much.

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How many species live in your home?

This is a guest post from Matthew Holden, an applied mathematician based at the University of Queensland. I loved seeing his backyard biodiversity hunt on Twitter, because so many of his pictures were of invertebrates! His story…

Well that’s what I wanted to know about my home.

It all started one day, more than a year ago, when my housemate, Dr Andrew Rogers, was cleaning out his closet. He wanted to move the spiders outside and spare them from getting sucked up by our vacuum, during a much-needed cleaning session. But there was one problem, there were a lot of spiders, definitely several species. He thought, “How many spiders do I share the house with?” It was a slippery slope … it wasn’t long till we wanted to know all of the species in our home.

From then on, we regularly talked about conducting a very local biodiversity survey, but never got around to it. We were fortunate enough to even have a taxonomist, Dr Russell Yong, move in with us, who was keen to help out. But we kept putting it off.

Then the pandemic happened. We all decided to start working for home – a perfect time to do the survey. It would give us all a social activity to bond over during this time of isolation. Andrew even came up with a hashtag for us to share our findings #StayHomeBiodiversityChallenge. Continue reading

Nature moves back in…or will it?

With urban areas around the world suddenly emptied of humans, people are sharing photos and videos on social media showing wild animals cavorting in the empty streets.

I started to collate some of them on Twitter, but I gave up because it’s really hard to confirm how many of them are fake news.

The Goats of Llandudno were a legitimate lockdown observation – but it turns out they’re regular visitors to the town. Some posts are clearly a joke (a herd of buffalo in the centre of Buffalo, NY), while others would seem pretty believable to most people with no specialist knowledge of the species or location, like the ‘rare Malabar civet’ in the streets of an Indian town.

Most posts provide very little context, no confirmation of the date they were filmed, and often no confirmed source. For the average responsible social media user, there is simply no way of verifying them. Continue reading

Special issue on insect conservation and population trends

The latest issue of Insect Conservation & Diversity is out, a special issue on insect population trends. I’m really happy I was able to contribute to a few papers in this issue as both editor and author (obviously not the same papers in each case!).

Thanks to Editor in Chief Raphael Didham for pulling together a great collection of papers, as well as rallying the editorial team to contribute to the issue with this really useful peer-reviewed paper summarising the key challenges involved in measuring insect population trends. This paper is really timely, as it highlights some of the potential pitfalls involved in estimating population changes over time.

Ecological data (e.g. long-term data on animal population trends) are not like simplified stock market trends or sports team stats. They are confounded by numerous complex environmental and measurement factors, many of which an observer may not be aware of. Nature isn’t simple and we’re kidding ourselves if we want a quick and easy answer to sum up everything, everywhere. Continue reading

A personal view on our bushfire crisis

As the end of 2019 approached, I had planned to write one of my usual New Year posts here, something about my top posts and the best papers I read last year.

But as January approached, the escalating crisis we are currently experiencing made all of that seem frivolous and pointless.

I’m an optimist and I don’t like to dwell on despair. But this climate crisis ravaging our beautiful country is too critical to ignore. This post is more personal than usual – I’ll write something about insects and ecosystem services when I have time to get my thoughts together. Continue reading

Let’s get political! (as scientists)

When I grew up, I was taught that politics and religion were taboo subjects in social situations, sometimes even among close family. I liked to believe this social code came from a well-meaning place…the idea that we shouldn’t judge people on their personal beliefs. But I suspect it was more of a survival mechanism, evolved over generations of bloody wars that started because of political gripes and religious persecution.

As a scientist on social media I’ve often been told that I should only comment on things I have expertise in, things I actually work on. And I shouldn’t ‘get political’.

Sure, I don’t publicly comment on scientific disciplines I have no experience in. Even within ecology, I rarely comment on animals or systems I don’t work with regularly. And fair enough too. I get really frustrated when scientists without insect expertise make inaccurate public comments about insects, or when ecologists who don’t work on ecosystem services science publicly claim the concept is flawed. Continue reading

What is a research discipline? We need collaboration, not segregation

I’ve read two new papers this week that got me thinking about how and why we define ourselves as researchers.

One was this excellent paper led by Brian McGill on why macroecology and macroevolution, once essentially part of a single discipline, need to reconverge as they both have complementary goals. As the authors note, macroecology tends to focus on spatial processes, while macroevolution tends to focus on temporal processes. In reality, both types of processes are linked across scales and influence each other. To address fundamental questions about biodiversity and ecosystem function, we need to consider both together.

This segregation across related disciplines is a real problem that we need to address – we’ve seen it with agricultural science and ecology, freshwater & terrestrial ecology and more… Continue reading

Bees and meat consumption: a spurious correlation

I’ve seen and heard a few claims circulating that removing meat from your diet is essential to ‘save the bees’. This is misleading and draws a long bow between lots of random correlations to promote a particular agenda.

Sure, intensive meat production contributes to some big environmental problems and there are plenty of reasons to reduce your meat consumption. But there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support claims that eating meat is bad for bees.

Meat comes in many forms. From wild game to highly-processed ‘meat products’, from large-scale intensive feedlots to diversified low-intensity grazing systems, from locally-produced to high food miles. It is generally impossible to make blanket statements about all meat. 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