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

Breaking the Curse of the Postdoc

This week I had a bittersweet achievement. I started a great new job, moved in to my beautiful new office, and then immediately moved home to work for the foreseeable future, amid the simmering anxiety of this global pandemic.

Readers who follow my blog know that I moved to Armidale three years ago to start a postdoctoral fellowship at University of New England. Before that, I was at Charles Sturt Uni in Albury, where I did my PhD followed by my first three-year postdoc.

This week I started as a Lecturer in Ecology & Biology at UNE. The position was advertised in November last year; I applied, interviewed and found out I was successful a few weeks ago. I’m so excited!

But it’s a really strange time to be starting a new job – my thrill at joining the teaching team has understandably been overshadowed by the ongoing stresses of COVID19. 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

All impact metrics are wrong, but (with more data) some are useful.

A couple of years ago I wrote about some of the limitations of relying on Altmetrics as an indicator of a paper’s impact, because it doesn’t pick up all online mentions.

Yes, impact metrics are flawed; experts have been pointing this out for years. And I’m not singling out Altmetrics here, there are a few different impact metrics used by different journals for the same goal, e.g. PlumX, Dimensions, CrossRef Event Data.

Despite their flaws, we’re all still using them to demonstrate how our work is reaching global audiences. I used them recently in a promotion application and a major grant application.

But I’m now questioning whether I will keep using them, because they are deeply flawed and are consistently misused and misinterpreted. They are literally a measure of quantity without any context: the number of shares or mentions, but no indication of how and why they are being shared.

This is problematic for a few reasons. Continue reading

Are 40% of insects facing extinction?

This magic number was stated in that flawed entomofauna paper, without any explanation of how this number was calculated – see why that paper is flawed here.

Since then, it has been stated regularly in popular media, scientific papers and technical reports, often without citation, just a number pulled out of the air and presented as fact.

Globally, there are about 5 million estimated insect species in total. Only 1 million species have scientific names. So, conservatively, the 40% claim suggests that at least 400,000 species are threatened with extinction.

So is it an accurate prediction? No. Here’s why: 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

Moving on from the insect apocalypse to evidence-based conservation

Our insect apocalypse paper is finally published online at BioScience, with awesome co-authors Jasmine Janes and James O’Hanlon!

We summarise the major flaws in the pop culture ‘insect apocalypse’ narrative and argue that focusing on a hyped global apocalypse narrative distracts us from the more important insect conservation issues that we can tackle right now. Promoting this narrative as fact also sends the wrong message about how science works, and could have huge impacts on public understanding of science.

And, frankly, it’s just depressing. Right now, we all need hope, optimism and reasons to act, not a reason to give up.

This blog isn’t about the paper, you can read it yourself (journal, preprint, or email me for a copy). This is about why we wrote the paper. 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