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


© 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

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

Agriculture vs. Environment: another false dichotomy

Recently, protecting the environment has been portrayed as a hindrance to economic growth, a fluffy sideshow, or a bureaucratic obstacle to hardworking families. Ironically, the absolute opposite is true. It’s just another false dichotomy.

I grew up around Agriculture. Being a farmer was one of the first career choices I can remember as a primary school kid. I’ve hand-fed calves, shown prize dairy cattle at local shows, helped friends pick fruit, and worked as a governess on a remote beef cattle station. I did university twice, and ended up where I am today, because I learned first-hand from so many farmers that a healthy environment is essential to agricultural production.

So, very personally, I’m a bit upset that the Agriculture vs. Environment dichotomy has blown out of proportion. Continue reading

Times have changed: dealing with dodgy science in the internet age

Dodgy science, dodgy scientists and dodgy humans are not a new thing. And dodgy scientific papers have been published since the dawn of scientific publishing. In 1667 an article on ‘snakestones’, a pseudoscience medical cure with absolutely no basis in truth, appeared in one of the first issues of the oldest known scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (now Phil Trans A, one of the most prestigious modern scientific journals).

Since then, disreputable papers have made regular appearances in reputable journals. And there are different scales of disreputable. The paper claiming that octopi originated from outer space was clearly far-fetched, while the scholars who recently argued there was a ‘moral panic’ over free-ranging cats simply highlighted how interdisciplinary research is often challenged by opposing methodological approaches (note: I agree with most ecologists that free-ranging cats are not good for wild animals, including insects). Continue reading

Notre Dame vs. Nature: on why valuing nature is a challenge we need to face

The recent Notre Dame fire grabbed global headlines. The morning I woke to see it on the news, I felt sad. I’m not a Christian and I’ve never been to Paris. But my mother is an artist and I studied French and ancient history for years. I recognise the intrinsic cultural value of Notre Dame and everything within it. The iconic cathedral has value, not only for Parisians, but for many parts of global society: art, religion, history, architecture, popular culture…

As concern over the fire grew, I was surprised at the response from some people online, including scientists, who began criticising support for the burning cathedral. They compared the cultural losses of Notre Dame with nature conservation and species extinction. What about forests? What about species extinction? What about the Great Barrier Reef? The implication was that if you cared about the Notre Dame fire, then you didn’t care about Nature (see these great blogs by Sam Perrin and Jeff Ollerton, including the comments from readers).

I felt confused, because I cared about both! Continue reading

Insect apocalypse: no simple answers

After my blog post earlier this year on the questionable insectageddon review paper, American Scientist invited me to write a perspective article on the media hype surrounding the story.

The review paper has many flaws and caveats (stay tuned for a more thorough treatment of the paper coming soon) and the breathless media hype around it was confused and misleading. But the overall message is valid – our collective actions are impacting ecosystems (including insects) in dangerous ways through forest clearing, pesticide use, fossil fuels, and widespread simplification of landscapes. Some insect species are being seen less frequently in some areas because of this.

However, this message is not new – we already have access to decades of more rigorous evidence showing these effects and how we can mitigate them, so the engagement value of this latest review paper is unclear. Is it worth risking public trust in scientific rigour, just to get a bit more attention for the issue?

You can read my article here: No Simple Answers for Insect Conservation


© Manu Saunders 2019