Monkey slugs and their cousins

I’m not a natural Lepidopterist – over recent years I’ve come to appreciate some of the less aesthetically appealling taxa and their fascinating ecology, so find beautiful butterflies a bit too ostentatiously pretty for my tastes! Moths, on the other hand, I find rather good fun – often (though by no means always) the adults are dull shades of greyish brown (though the wing patterns can often be wonderful), while the caterpillars can be bizarre to the point of otherworldly.

Hairy, spiky, multicoloured, mimicking something else or perhaps just resembling a fantastical piece of conceptual artwork, moth caterpillars can provide endless variety for a globetrotting ecologist.

One particularly memorable encounter in recent years for me has been with the caterpillar of a Caribbean species of cup moth (Lepidoptera: Limacodidae), probably a Phobetron species. We came across it in Trinidad and its appearance was so utterly weird it took me a minute to figure out what I was actually looking at. It was brown and hairy, with six to eight false “legs” and some whorls of hair that almost looked like suckers, and was crawling slowly across a small tree. I decided it would be inadvisable to touch it (which, as it turned out, was probably a good decision on my part, as various sources claim their spines can be irritant/toxic 1).

(Clicking links to a video of the creature walking down a tree)

I assume it’s trying at least half-heartedly for tarantula mimicry – if I was a hungry bird I’d definitely think twice.

Other closely related species can be even odder, with up to nine pairs of legs.

Their ecology is actually nothing particular special: they munch on various ornamental and horticultural plants, especially small trees. Although the coolest seem to come from the Americas, the family is also present in Asia, where one species is a pest of coconut trees as well as coffee, cocoa and oil palm2. Although there was once a bit of an outbreak of them3 in Panama following a rather severe drought, which makes for some pretty interesting mental images.

The diversity of Limacodidae caterpillars is pretty mind-blowing – lurid colours, hairy spines at strange angles. I suppose they remind me of what happens when a toddler gets to play in a particularly well-appointed dressing-up box!

Really, who needs sci-fi when you have Limacodidae?

With a caterpillar like that, what must the adult look like? Well, as is frequently the case with moths, this most wondrous caterpillar pupates into medium-sized, hairy but by comparison relatively uncharismatic adult moth. It has been suggested that the hag moth (Phobetron pithecium) is a bee-mimic, which I suppose is possible, though it’s perhaps not the most convincing I’ve ever seen!

Virginia Tech/Virginia State have produced a nice little factsheet on the North American species.

1Murphy, S. M., Leahy, S. M., Williams, L. S., & Lill, J. T. (2010). Stinging spines protect slug caterpillars (Limacodidae) from multiple generalist predators. Behavioral Ecology, 21(1), 153-160.
2Chenon, R. (1982). Latoia (Parasa) lepida (Cramer) Lepidoptera Limacodidae, a coconut pest in Indonesia. Oléagineux, 37(4), 177-183.
3Van Bael, S. A., Aiello, A., Valderrama, A., Medianero, E., Samaniego, M., & Wright, S. J. (2004). General herbivore outbreak following an El Nino-related drought in a lowland Panamanian forest. Journal of Tropical Ecology, 20(06), 625-633.


Adventures in the Caribbean: cocoa and beyond

This blog entry is brought to you, somewhat belatedly, from the lovely island of Trinidad in the Caribbean.

Trinidad and Tobago, while having a big strength in industry, engineering and particularly oil and gas, is mindblowingly biodiverse when you get out of the cities and into the rural areas. The cocoa agroforestry systems are particularly lovely, with new wonders almost around every corner!

Longhorn Orthop4

And it’s cocoa that’s brought me here. It’s an amazing tree, with flowers that come straight out of the trunk, and eventually develop (if pollinated) into vividly coloured pods about eight inches long. Like a lot of crops, it’s dependent on insect pollination – but while we’ve got a reasonable grasp of the pollination systems of crops like strawberry and oilseed rape in Europe and North America, with cocoa there are still big questions that we can only begin to answer with existing knowledge.


Starting with “What pollinates cocoa?”

Accepted wisdom is that cocoa is pollinated by 2mm long Ceratopogonid midges, particularly in the genus Forcipomyia1 – and, indeed, they seem to be the most effective insects for the job on a per-visit basis – lots of evidence suggests that they interact with flowers in the perfect way to pick up and deposit pollen, and that often one midge visit may be suffient to get a cocoa pod 9-odd months later2. However, they’re also relatively infrequent on a lot of cocoa fields, which raises the question of whether there’s really enough of them to account for the number of pods observed. How important are other small flies like Chironomids or Cecidomyiids? Do ants and thrips play a role, particularly in self-compatible cultivars of cocoa where pollen from another tree isn’t necessary for fruit-set? We don’t know nearly as much as we’d like to about the answers to these questions.

Similarly, how the midges find the flower is a bit of an unknown: do they see it, and if so…what are they looking for? Do they smell it – and if so, what are the important chemicals, and how much do they vary? What do they get from cocoa flowers that other flowers don’t (or do they?) provide?

And it seems that the cocoa needs them more than they need the cocoa. Everywhere cocoa has been planted in the world, be it Trinidad, Jamaica, Mexico, Hawaii, Ghana, Indonesia, Australia…, a species of Forcipomyia has shown up to pollinate it3. So clearly they were doing just fine long before the cocoa arrived, but once the cocoa is there they seem to derive some sort of benefit from it.

So…cocoa midges. While getting people interested in anything to do with chocolate is relatively easy, the midges themselves are somewhat less charismatic than other pollinators such as bees, hummingbirds or butterflies. Small, hairy, and closely related to various biting species – oh, and their larval stage is a 2mm long hairy maggoty thing that lives in rotting vegetation such as cocoa pods, rotting banana stem and leaf litter4.

Actually, understanding the larva is pretty important – while it’s the adults we need, we won’t get any if the larvae aren’t happy. That’s what we’ve ended up primarily focusing on this year in my current project out here. CocoaPOP (Cocoa Pollination for Optimised Production, or, formally, Optimizing Cocoa Production For Increased Yield and Income Generation) is a project co-funded by the EU via the ACP group of states, lead by the University of Trinidad and Tobago with partners from Trinidad, Jamaica and the UK. We’re looking at what’s going on with cocoa pollinators in the Caribbean – how healthy are the populations, what species are present, is the management supporting them, and how can we help? We’ve spent the last couple of years doing some fairly intensive insect sampling on 6 sites across 3 islands, to get an idea of what the pollinators do over the course of a year. We’re learning quite a lot and looking forward to publishing papers soon.

Now we’re on to the next phase – trying interventions to see how they affect pollinator numbers and eventual cocoa yield, and trying to understand the midges better. There’s evidence that this should work5, so fingers crossed! Rearing the little creatures in the lab is keeping us challenged, but we’re giving it our best shot! So I’ve spent the last couple of weeks busy in the lab and the field, helping to get the new experiments rolling and seeing what can be done to give us live midges in the lab to study.

I also had the opportunity to attend the first International Fine Cocoa Innovation Centre conference on the Ortinola Estate (formerly a cocoa estate owned by the Cadbury family, apparently). It was a great opportunity to learn about all stages of cocoa, from the genetics underpinning the important traits, through agronomy and then flavour profiles, marketing, small businesses and cooperatives. While the Caribbean is only producing a small amount of cocoa at the moment on a global scale, I think there is some real enthusiasm for increasing the region’s importance as a cocoa producer. I met some fantastic people from all sorts of areas of cocoa: academia, industry, SMEs and cooperatives. There was a pollination meeting/workshop afterwards too, which was an amazing opportunity to talk with lots of equally enthusiastic people about the next few big questions in cocoa production and discuss directions in future research.

1Billes, D.J. (1941) Pollination of Theobroma cacao L. in Trinidad, B.W.I. Tropical Agriculture (Trinidad), 18(8):151-156; . Posnette, A.F. (1944) Pollination of cacao in Trinidad. Tropical Agriculture (Trinidad), 21(6):115-118.
2Falque, M., Vincent, A., Vaissiere, B.E. & Eskes, A.B. (1995) Effect of pollination intensity on fruit and seed set in cacao (Theobroma cacao L.). Sexual Plant Reproduction, 8(6):354-360.
3Winder, J.A., & Silva, P. (1972). Cacao pollination: Microdiptera of cacao plantations and some of their breeding places. Bulletin of Entomological Research, 61(04):651-655.
4Besemer, H.A. & Soria, S. de J. (1978) Laboratory rearing of Forcipomyia spp. midges (Diptera, Ceratopogonidae): 1. Adult feeding, larval feeding and copulation trials; a revision of Saunders method of rearing. Revista Theobroma (Brazil), 8(2):43-59; Winder, J.A. & Silva, P. (1972) Cacao pollination: Microdiptera of cacao plantations and some of their breeding places. Bulletin of Entomological Research, 61(4):651-655.
5Groeneveld, J.H., Tscharntke, T., Moser, G., & Clough, Y. (2010) Experimental evidence for stronger cacao yield limitation by pollination than by plant resources. Perspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics, 12(3):183-191; Adjaloo, M., Banful, B.K.B., & Oduro, W. (2013) Evaluation of breeding substrates for cocoa pollinator, Forcipomyia spp. and subsequent implications for yield in a tropical cocoa production system. American Journal of Plant Sciences. 4(2):204-211.

Communicating science to the willing…and the unwilling

This week I had the privilege to give a talk at a local science/astronomy society not too far from where I live and work. It was a delight – I met some lovely new people, there was a bit of debate at the end and many fascinating and thought-provoking questions. Altogether, a thoroughly wonderful experience and the kind of thing I really value. Getting out of the old ivory tower can be an eye-opener – meeting new people can make you think about your research in a fresh way, and that’s fantastic.

However, a difficulty with communicating science more widely is that the type of people who get involved with public science events often seem to belong to one of three groups: young people who are forced to by their school/university, people of any age who do something related to this as their job anyway, and retired people who have the time and perhaps have rediscovered an old interest they’d always wanted to cultivate. Of course, all these groups offer wonderful opportunities, and the above is a sweeping generalisation with many exceptions. However, the truth of the matter is there there are oodles of people in society who we, as scientists, ecologists, and so on, are not really reaching…ever, in any meaningful way. Presumably most of us would like to communicate well with a diversity of people, because they all have the ability to influence science and environmental policy, they can all consider how their own lifestyles may or may not benefit climate change, biodiversity, etc. And we’d probably all like the scientists of the future to be as diverse as possible in their backgrounds and perspectives.

Studies are finding again and again that people’s relationship with science is very variable and seems to suggest that at the moment we often end up preaching to the choir, if you like – talking to people who were already interested and open to engagement – rather than genuinely seeking out people who weren’t interested in science before and find a way to ignite a spark of fascination in them. Indeed, the link above divides people into four groups, from the ultra-engaged “Fan Boys and Fan Girls” through to the 20% of people who are “Concerned and Disengaged” with respect to science and technology.

“One of the other key findings of the CSIRO study was that the Fan Boys and Fan Girls are further away from the average point of community values than any other segment of the population. This means that Fan Boys or Girls probably have the least idea of what might appeal to the other segments. They know what turns them on, but they are probably only guessing what will work for the other segments.”

So what do we need to be doing better? This wonderful pamphlet from ecoAmerica caught my eye recently – although aimed at US audiences, people are people, and it does highlight a few key truths. As scientists, we may sometimes assume that something should be inherently believable because we’re familiar with the research and the peer review process and we know it to be true, and therefore surely everyone should just see the truth and agree? But it’s not that simple…

Firstly, it reminded us that “the public” are not an amorphous mass: whether you’re talking to (in the USA) mostly Republicans or Democrats, people who identify with a religion or not, married or single people, different educational backgrounds – all these things are pretty important not just with respect to the jargon you choose to leave in or take out, or the topic areas you choose to cover, but also in terms of what values will matter to different people. As an example in ecoAmerica’s report, a lot of environmental messages are pitched by and for liberals as a “care versus harm” type message, which resonates with the message creators, but with more conservative audiences, rephrasing the arguments as a question of “sanctity versus degradation” apparently holds more weight because many of these people have strong moral values to do with protecting what is sacred from defilement. They list a whole load of such continuums that may resonate more or less strongly with different groups – liberty versus oppression, fairness versus cheating, loyalty versus betrayal, etc.

This led to a discussion of the theory of virtues – i.e. things that people in a given group consider to be important. So while one person may consider education, critical analysis and freedom of choice to be highly important traits, another may place a higher value on faith, loyalty and deference to authority. The first person is never really going to engage constructively with the second by building an argument about sustainable farming, for example, on the basis of scientific datasets and published papers, but may perhaps see more success with a case based on respect for the earth and community, interconnectedness of ecosystems such that one person’s actions affect another’s or reference to a respected authority figure endorsing a strategy.

The thing that struck me most is that part of connecting with your audience is creating a sense that you and they are part of a single group, on the same side. Everyone, in the end, wants to do things that they regard as fundamentally decent according to the values of the group in which they feel they fit. So for climate change behaviours, you create a group in which you and the audience all feel a sense of belonging, and then those behaviours feel a lot more appealing than if you’re simply a distant, “other” scientist lecturing them about what they need to do. This means looking for common ground with your audience, especially in cases where at first impressions you may not seem like part of the group (e.g. your accent, age, gender, cultural background or dress style is different).

I think some of these ideas of how to connect with people are really good to keep in mind not just when making a speech to a Permanent Secretary, but in a whole variety of areas of science communication – from schools outreach, lectures, talks to the local beekeeping club, meetings with farmers, conference presentations, etc.

Most importantly, perhaps we need to just make fewer assumptions about the people we’re talking to and try and see the arguments from their perspective?

The vulture bee

Today is the annual Verrall Lecture and Supper, a time for entomologists in the UK to gather in the vicinity of the Natural History Museum, looking uncharacteristically well-turned-out, and enthuse about insects over good food and wine. Taxonomists frequently bring pinned specimens of weird and wonderful species for show-and-tell, so it seems appropriate that the post today is all about a weird and wonderful insect. Or rather, three related species of weird and wonderful insects.

As a child, after barbeques on long summer evenings, we’d sometimes be sitting there in the garden when wasp workers (Vespula vulgaris, mostly) would fly down and start gnawing leftover scraps of meat from abandoned chicken legs and flying off with them. Most Vespid wasps are pretty partial to both meat and sugary liquids (hence the success of cola bottle traps). Bees, on the other hand, have given up their carnivorous ways and turned to exclusively plant-based diets.

Or have they…?

I found out about vulture bees recently and I decided they were weird and wonderful enough to warrant a little post.

Vulture bees are not like most bees. They are, to put it delicately, “obligate necrophages”.

Most bees eat nectar and pollen.

Vulture bees eat dead meat.

They were only really appreciated in the early 1980s, but a few people seem to have found them fascinating enough to engage in studies of their behaviour. The majority of work on them that I can find, at least recently, seems to have been done by David Roubik at the Smithsonian (who first published on them) and colleagues.

There are three main species, all in the genus Trigona: T. hypogea, the aptly-named T.
and T. crassipes.

Their behaviour is nicely described by Noll (1997) and Roubik (1982)1, and isn’t so very
different from how common vespid wasps approach food sources, really. Apparently they won’t go for utterly rotten, stinking meat – they like it at least reasonably fresh.

Trigona, of course, are eusocial stingless bees – so after one individual finds a carcass, they rapidly recruit more foragers to the food source and soon you end up with many. It only takes a matter of minutes or a couple of hours after the first visit – till you can have between 40 and 108 bees on the carcass, which if you’re talking about something the size of a rat or lizard is quite some density of bees. They’re flexible – they’ll take brood from wasps’ nests in the right circumstances as well2 (interestingly, as normally it’s wasps doing this to bees!).

A little like flies, they feed by regurgitating saliva with a sort of honey-like concoction of fruit juices on to the food source and then lapping it up. The strange meat-mead mixture, if you can call it that, is then stored in honeypots much as their herbivorous cousins store regular nectar, honey or other sugar solutions! The three species don’t do it exactly the same way – T. hypogea seems to add a lot more nectar/juice, whereas T. necrophaga stores pretty much just meat “solution”.

They’ve completely given up gathering pollen – the workers don’t even have pollen combs on their legs any more. They have, however, occasionally been seen visiting stinkhorn mushrooms3 – if you’ve ever encountered a stinkhorn while walking in the woods, you can probably appreciate why, as they do smell quite convincingly like a dead fleshy thing! Apparently they may actually consume the spores (which are suspended in a goopy icky brown semi-liquid goo), and may also have a role in spore dispersal for these fungi.

Camargo and Roubik4 have looked into their anatomy in a bit more detail – it seems like apart from having fairly good mandibles and the lack of pollen combs, they’re not terribly exceptional, but usefully are able to produce antibiotic compounds in their salivary secretions (as a result of an interesting microbial gut flora). Which, if you’re eating raw meat, is probably helpful. Slightly more worryingly, Camargo and Roubik also comment that these bees produce a “sweet, clear honey…of unknown origin”. I am not altogether sure how they deduced that this honey was sweet, but as much as I like honey, when offered it from a nest where the bees were known to store partially-digested bushmeat broth I’d personally have given it a miss…


1Noll, F. B. (1997). Foraging behavior on carcasses in the necrophagic bee Trigona hypogea (Hymenoptera: Apidae). Journal of Insect Behavior, 10(3), 463-467 and Roubik, D.W. (1982) Obligate necrophagy in a social bee. Science 217 (4564), 1059–60.
2Mateus, S., & Noll, F. B. (2004). Predatory behavior in a necrophagous bee Trigona hypogea (Hymenoptera; Apidae, Meliponini). Naturwissenschaften, 91(2), 94-96.
3Oliveira, M. L., & Morato, E. F. (2000). Stingless bees (Hymenoptera, Meliponini) feeding on stinkhorn spores (Fungi, Phallales): robbery or dispersal. Revista Brasileira de Zoologia, 17 (3), 881-884.
4Camargo, J. M., & Roubik, D. W. (1991). Systematics and bionomics of the apoid obligate necrophages: the Trigona hypogea group (Hymenoptera: Apidae; Meliponinae). Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 44(1), 13-39.

Oliver Rackham, lover of trees

My intention had been for my next blog post to be a piece on an fascinating little insect, but that can wait because instead this post will be about one of the people who inspired me to get deeper into ecology.

Professor Oliver Rackham was one of my favourite lecturers and a scientist I truly admired. His lectures didn’t stick to any of the principles of pedagogy, but they were some of the most inspirational I have ever attended. He talked about his work, his books, about woodlands and their history and ecology, and I just sat enthralled. The lectures seemed to end all too quickly. Sadly, I learned today that Professor Rackham has passed away, so instead this entry will be a tribute to the work he did and the effect it had on me.

Oliver Rackham was one of the most passionate scholars of historical ecology in the British Isles (and Crete) and in particular, one of the greatest lovers of woodlands. The time he spent observing, studying and recording the ecology of various ancient woodlands around and near Cambridgeshire have taught us so much about the importance and irreplacability of ancient woodlands and the interactions between the plants and ecosystems in them. His ability to disentangle the complex and ancient relationship between the people of the British Isles and the trees, woodlands and forests – where it was to some extent mutualistic, and where it’s been less so – was a wonderful contribution to our understanding of woodland management (certainly for me!).

He showed me what it was to really love your area of work. I will never forget a slide show he put up for us: every year, for the past 25 years, he’d gone to the exact same spot in one of his most beloved woods, and taken a photograph. And then he assembled them into a slide show, so we got to watch the passage of time in that piece of woodland and how it changed over the years, while still retaining the same trees at the heart of it. I remember the slide from 1988, after the great storms of 1987 – he pointed out the trees that had been lost and it seemed to me that he genuinely mourned the loss of each one. It’s part of nature, and ecologically, a fallen tree is a chance for many other species of plant and insect to move in, but a great, ancient tree is still something that’s hard to replace these days.

He showed me what it was to care about a habitat in all its complexity, and the difference the right sort of management could make. He showed me that ancient woodland is one of our most magnificent and precious resources, and what we destroy now cannot be replaced just by planting new trees elsewhere. An ancient woodland has so much going on – as I’ve found out later on when chasing after honeysuckle whitefly (Aleyrodes lonicerae) and their predators and parasitoids1 – even ancient woodland remnants in business parks and the like are still surprisingly more interesting than some secondary woodland and most rather artificial amenity land.

He also taught me the importance of remembering the history and the records of our habitats – when he told us about passages from the Domesday Book describing boundaries of ancient woodland then, and then related how he’d managed to follow those same woodland boundaries now and found them much unchanged – right down to a wild service tree as a boundary marker on one woodland – I was just infected with this fascination with how the landscape has changed (or not) over time and matching historical records to what we see now in terms of ecology and land use. Perhaps I also owe to Oliver Rackham my interest in local history. I can certainly thank him for my later passion for some of the local nature sites in east London when I moved to Queen Mary for my PhD.

So hearing that future students and ecologists would no longer be able to enjoy his lectures was terribly sad. He published many, many books, however, and I hope that they will continue to be read and treasured and the knowledge Professor Rackham has given to us will help towards safeguarding the amazing ancient woodlands we have left. Thank you, Professor Rackham. I am grateful to have benefited from your knowledge and passion.

1The honeysuckle whitefly, when found in conjunction with parasitoids like Euderomphale chelidonii and predators like the horseshoe ladybird Clitostethus arcuatus, seems to be a fairly good (though of course not 100% reliable) indicator of ancient woodland and is a fascinating and a charming little insect. I hope I get to spend more time exploring its ecology in the future.

The importance of brownfield

I don’t know if this is wading in a bit too deep for a first blog post, instantly raising the politics of development and greenfield versus brownfield, but it is a matter that’s close to my heart. In particular, I feel the need to defend brownfield sites before they’re all written off as desolate industrial wastelands and redeveloped into something else without consideration of what is being lost in the process. I’m not the first person to do this, admittedly: Buglife have been quite vocal about it already, but it’s important, so the more people talk about it, perhaps the more other people will be prompted to think about it.

At the moment the whole business of greenfield versus brownfield development is coming up left, right and centre. On the one hand, you have the groups who are outraged at development of agricultural land and countryside for housing, etc., often close to their own homes and on the outskirts of towns and villages. Understandably, some people want development to happen elsewhere and don’t like seeing countryside they love turned into housing estates. Suggesting brownfield as a target seems compelling in such a case – it’s that concrete stuff in cities that’s an eyesore, right?

On the other hand, as an example, you have the tense indrawn breath that came from the room of entomologists at the BES/AES Citizen Science Special Interest Group meeting last October, when a respected Peer suggested developing brownfield land should be a priority in preference to greenfield. The unfortunate Peer seemed genuinely surprised at a bunch of ecologists would want to protect brownfield preferentially. And to be honest, who can blame him? Essentially, everyone in the room wanted the same thing: to ensure most development happened on sites with less ecological value, preserving the sites with more ecological value. However, where we disagreed was how to assess that value, and which sites came out on top.

I think all this stems from the incongruity between what people think brownfield is, and what brownfield actually can be.

I suspect if you asked many people what they thought a brownfield site looked like, they’d suggest something like a disused factory, concrete “eyesore” or another rubbish-strewn urban site attracting fly-tipping and unsavoury behaviours. And it’s true that ordinarily all of those things are indeed brownfield and probably most of them would be nicer – for both people and ecology – if they were redeveloped sensitively.

However, brownfield encompasses pretty much all ex-industrial and ex-commercial land, for fairly liberal definitions of “ex”, “industrial” and “commercial”. Lodge Hill, contentious and threatened home to 1% of the UK’s nightingales and designated SSSI, is arguably considered to be at least 20% brownfield1 (ironically, some of the comments in articles defending this site include exhortations to develop brownfield in the place of Lodge Hill). Brownfield sites, in fact, include a large number of rare, marginal and delicate habitats – think of environments such thin gravel, moss/lichen, ex-quarries, early successional habitats and so on, common on brownfield sites. Large areas of bare ground can warm faster than the surrounding environments, resulting in cosy little microclimates. The thin soils provide an opportunity for the types of plants that tolerate difficult conditions but would compete poorly in a more traditionally hospitable environment like a back garden. Consequently, some brownfield sites can host all manner of fascinating and fantastic species, from the infinitely charming Horrid Ground Weaver (abandoned quarry) to a whole variety of scarce beetles (Eyre et al. 2003). Ground-nesting bumblebees such as B. sylvarum and B. humilis are also quite fond of some of the more plant-y brownfield sites across north Kent, such as areas of the Hoo peninsula. While these little invertebrates are not as naturally charismatic as pandas, they are still species living with a great big metaphorical axe hanging over their heads (and probably in general a lot cheaper to protect).

Brownfield is in many ways serving a function that other habitats – coastlands, heathlands, scrub and rough grassland – used to serve for nature in terms of the levels of disturbance and stress (in a good way) placed on the organisms within it, and the species assemblages that consequently are supported. Unfortunately, we’ve managed to get rid of a large wedge of our heathlands, scrublands and rough grasslands from where they used to be, so brownfield is kind of what we’ll have to rely on to fill the gaps.

It’s perfectly possible for a site to be considered brownfield and yet be hugely diverse, host a number of priority conservation species and include areas of rare habitat. Similarly, not all greenfield sites have any particularly noteworthy ecological value – some former arable land is a bit of an insect/plant/bird diversity desert, with very limited value as a functioning ecosystem. Of course, it may have other values – food production, dog walking, public enjoyment. How these weigh up in the mind of an entomologist versus a politician versus someone who owns four Labradors might be quite different, admittedly.

It seems that people with biodiversity concerns about formerly-developed but high-natural-value sites are starting to divide into two groups, however – there are those who oppose the classification of green-looking sites with high natural diversity as “brownfield” from the outset, and those who are willing to let sites be called brownfield while trying to emphasise the natural value. I can see the logic in both approaches, but I suspect the lack of a coherent terminology/message may damage the cause in the long-term.

So before we write off all brownfield as “worthless” and assume all greenfield is “green and biodiverse”, let’s take a look at what really lives there, and what might be gone forever if we change it, before deciding which bits should go first.

1The RSPB argue it’s mostly greenfield; the council and MoD argue it’s considered a brownfield site.


Allen, D. (2011) The distribution, ecology and conservation of the Horrid ground-weaver Nothophantes horridus. Buglife.

Dale, J. (accessed 2015) Brownfields, England’s rainforests. Presentation: UEL/Buglife

Eyre, M. D., Luff, M. L., & Woodward, J. C. (2003). Beetles (Coleoptera) on brownfield sites in England: An important conservation resource? Journal of Insect Conservation, 7(4), 223-231.

So it seemed like time to start a blog

Reasons why now seemed like a good time to start a blog:

  • I’ve been increasingly fascinated by excellent blog posts written by other colleagues in the field, as a starting point for debates, and as a general source of information about more obscure, interesting or unusual areas of the field.
  • A case in point: Jeff Ollerton recently pointed out1 that over a third of biology papers basically don’t get cited at all in their first four or five years of publication – assuming the quality of the work is rigorous, the only obvious ways to change this are to make the papers more visible (so people know they exist) and more available (so all who want to read them, can).
  • The way things are shaping up for the next REF, I suppose there will be a lot of emphasis on impact, visibility, citations and reputation of work, which means everyone will probably be encouraged to interact with the wider world more and more – which is no bad thing.

The end result being that I signed myself up to WordPress and got this. Some redecorating is probably required to make it visually topical.

I will endeavour to keep it somewhat up to date with periodic musings and more occasional rantings on ideas, news and issues that interest me and perhaps also you.

1PSA target metrics for the UK research base, Office of Science and Technology, DTI (2005) via What do academics do once the research is published?