How to survive the BES Annual Meeting

I’ve attended pretty much every BES since 1999, during which time the meeting has massively increased in size; we now attract over a thousand delegates, making it the largest gathering of ecologists in Europe. There has also been an overall increase in quality of presentations, accompanied by stiff competition for slots. With so many people and so much awesome science to see*, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed.

This post is aimed at people attending the BES for the first time, and gives some suggestions for how to get the most out of it. If you’re a student then some of these tips will be especially helpful. Older hands can check whether they agree and add their own thoughts in the comments.

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A stranger is just a collaborator you haven’t met yet. Or more likely a reviewer that you already hate, but only they know it.**

  • Pick a session and stick with it. With 12 parallel sessions, you’re not going to be able to see everything. Or even most of it. One way to guarantee missing even more is to run between sessions to catch particular talks. With the best will (and chairs) in the world, sessions do not run exactly to time, and getting between them often takes longer than you think. The end result is that you have to dash out as soon as one speaker finishes (disrupting the questions in the process), run to another lecture theatre, then miss the start of the next one. Often you’ll end up stood at the back, crammed on the end of a row, or waiting in the corridor. A better strategy is to choose the session that sounds most fun, pick a good seat, then just embrace whatever comes along. Take a gamble and discover something new rather than listen to work you’ve already heard about.
sessions

Ooo, colourful! Pick one you like then just sit through the whole thing. The dark green is particularly recommended.

  • No-one has read your abstract. Back in August you had a tentative idea about what your results might show, once you’d finished collecting and analysing the data. By the time you put everything together for the meeting, the conclusion has probably entirely changed. This is not a problem, because no-one will notice. The title you gave was indicative of the content. Treat your talk as a fresh start. No-one is assessing how closely your actual talk or poster follows the abstract in the meeting program.
  • Posters can be skimmed. Good posters, that is. Even yours. Don’t try and read every one and absorb the information (unless you’re marking them), because your brain will be full after the first five. Better to find one with an interesting title or concept, then ask the person presenting it to talk you through. Conversations about posters are always more rewarding than standing in silence while the author nervously watches you. If they’re not there then find them later or send a message.
posters

You’re not going to read all those posters unless you’re really trying to avoid social interaction.

  • E-mail the people you want to meet. If you have a hit-list of people to whom you really want to show off your research, send them a quick message beforehand. Best of all is to say “I’m giving a talk on helicopter weevils in the east stairwell on Thursday at 8:30pm and I’d really appreciate if you could make it.” Most will be flattered and make an effort to come along, thereby finding out who you are so they can recognise you later. It also helps to prompt conversation. If you don’t do this then expect to spend the whole meeting in a futile effort to spot the right name on the tags worn by total strangers. And failing.
usa

This is the BRITISH Ecological Society. We do not slavishly follow the Americans and their ways.

  • Having said that, it’s even more important to make contacts in your own peer group. Meeting the stars of your field is often invigorating, but if you’re a PhD student then others like you are the people who, in future, you’ll be collaborating with and seeing at the next conference. I would argue that these are the most important connections you can make — in time they will become your friends. Try not to hang around with people from your own institution too much, you’ll see them again next week anyway.
  • Find a conference buddy. The ideal person will be at the same career stage, from a different place, working in a related but slightly different field, and who you’ve only just met. Arrange to catch up regularly, perhaps at breakfast to compare what sessions you’re going to, or at coffee time to swap notes. This doubles your potential to find out about interesting people and science, because they can look out for things on your behalf. The welcome mixer on Sunday night is a good place to recruit one. Also, when you go down for breakfast wherever you’re staying, look out for the tell-tale tags and bags of fellow delegates and approach anyone who looks like they’re alone.
  • Steal stuff. Not valuable infrastructure. But all the stalls will  be giving away a wide variety of useful things: pens, USB sticks, post-it notes, mugs, fridge magnets… Harvest them. I haven’t needed to buy a pen in years. The recent redesign of the BES logo means they’re bound to have a whole load of fresh tat. My family always know what to expect for Christmas. “An Oxford University Press beermat? You’re too kind!”
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Quick, no-one’s looking after the stand, STEAL ALL THE PENS.

  • Watch out for the drinking. There’s no getting round it, British people do like to drink, more than most nationalities. Add to this the lethal combination of it being right before Christmas, at the end of a draining academic semester, and it’s inevitable that we flood to the bars. Most of the evening social events involve alcohol. If you’re a non-drinker then don’t worry, you won’t be a pariah, just be aware that others will be drinking around you. My main warning is to the drinkers though. It’s easy to slip into a cycle of filling up on booze in the evening, staying out late, hardly sleeping, then sustaining yourself on endless cups of coffee throughout the day. This is not healthy. It’s ok to sometimes drink something that doesn’t contain alcohol or caffeine.*** Really, the water is completely safe.
  • Talk to people! One of the best things about BES, and which we work hard to encourage, is that it’s welcoming and informal. That’s also a British thing; we’re not good at massaging big egos, or letting people take themselves too seriously. This means that if there is someone who has been particularly influential or inspirational for you, or whose advice you’d like, just walk up and say hello. Seriously. I know three of the plenary speakers, and am certain that they would all be overjoyed to speak to an enthusiastic student. If you’re not sure then ask me to introduce you.

On which note, if you’re stuck for someone to talk to, and you happen to spot me, please come up and say hello! I don’t care whether you’re a keen undergraduate or an embittered old prof, whether you work on foraminifera or velvet worms. I’m always happy to meet new people, and, if I can, to introduce you to lots of other cool ecologists. The one place you’re guaranteed to find me is the Forest Ecology Group mixer.**** We know how to party.

I love the BES. Forget Christmas, this really is the most wonderful time of the year.


* Although apparently one person only used to come for the meat sandwiches. Each to their own I suppose.

** Thanks to Richard English for the photos, which are all from the amazing BES centenary meeting with INTECOL in 2013. I was there, but too preoccupied to take any pictures.

*** I don’t follow my own advice. You’ll find me a pale, trembling wreck by Wednesday morning, and it takes a few days to recover. No loud noises or rapid movements please.

**** Apart from my talk, which is on Monday 4pm in the Population Ecology session, room 11C. Which reminds me, I still need to write it. The title? So kind of you to ask. It’s “How to avoid the Allee effect, assuming that you’re a tree. Or a barnacle.”

That’s not a jungle

Last night I watched the episode of the BBC’s Planet Earth II on jungles, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, and it’s provoked me into a rant. Now I’m well aware that any criticism, even indirect, of Sir David is likely to stir a backlash, so I’ll get the disclaimers in early. TV nature documentaries serve a number of functions, of which the most important is to entertain. In this regard the series is an undoubted success. The spectacular footage of the natural world is dazzling, and will inspire a new generation of naturalists, ecologists and taxonomists.

Nevertheless, there is another function, which is to inform and educate. The balance between the two is difficult to strike; the dry tones of an academic lecture would hardly boost viewing figures, and this is no place to be showing data. It is still important, however, to convey the correct impression, and in this the choice of terminology and manner of presentation are crucial. Hence my great discomfort at the use of the word ‘jungle’. At the end I’ll explain why this matters to those of us who care about forests.

junglebook

The Jungle Book is another example of conflation of distinct biotas. Ostensibly set in India, but there is nowhere on earth (outside a zoo) where you will find this combination of species. Also, look how sparse the canopy cover is.

What is a jungle? There is no accepted vegetation type known as ‘jungle’, and you won’t find it used in the scientific literature. The whole episode of Planet Earth II was in some doubt about what the term ought to mean. Segments switched from tropical rain forests — and Sir David frequently talked as if this was the accepted definition of ‘jungle’ — to dry forests, igapo*, and subtropical forests. By the end it was clear that the producers felt the word ‘jungle’ to be defined in popular imagination as ‘place with lots of big trees’.

Perhaps that is what most people have in mind when you say ‘jungle’, and it’s consistent with the dictionary definition, although the word also applies to such disparate entities as a musical genre and the former refugee camp in Calais. The irony is that the original derivation was quite different. The Hindi word jangal could be applied to any uncultivated ground or wasteland, encompassing everything from forests to deserts. Going further back, the Sakskrit jangala refers to an arid area with sparse trees. Of course the meanings of words drift through time and with their transfer between cultures, but this only reinforces my point that the word jungle can mean many things to different people. This leads onto my second gripe.

There is no such thing as ‘the jungle’, in the same way as there is no single thing called ‘the’ tropical rain forest. Every tropical forest is as different from one another as they are from any temperate forest. This point is the main message of Corlett & Primack’s excellent and strongly-recommended book Tropical Rain Forests, which itself only reinforces the lessons of earlier books by the late Tim Whitmore and Peter Richards, and I could go back further. We’ve known this for centuries.

Now in fairness to Sir David, he does use the plural ‘jungles’, but many of the segments failed to even mention the locations where filming had taken place. This serves to obfuscate and trick the unwary viewer into believing that all these species can be found together in some common, unitary habitat. The three photos below come from forests in Africa, Australia and Malaysia. Though they are all recognisably forests (call them jungles if you like), the similarity is superficial, and there is unlikely to be any single species of plant or animal in common among them.

Why does this matter? Perhaps at this point you’re thinking that I’m an academic pedant, preciously guarding the intellectual high-ground against any incursions from enjoyable, popular culture. You’d be right. But there’s a serious motive behind my rant, which is that the conflation of so many habitats and biomes around the world diminishes the importance of their diversity, variety and local particularity. As part of the segment on indri, Sir David noted the rapid rate of deforestation in Madagascar. But one rain forest is not the same as another. The loss of a hectare of rain forest in the Philippines will lead to the loss of a completely different set of species than one in the Western Ghats or the Brazilian coastal forest. Each biome has its own distinct composition and threats. By blurring forests into a composite, we lose the appreciation of the value that any single one has in particular.

The audience of this series includes viewers in countries around the world. The real work of conservation takes place on the ground, in the places that host all this diversity. One of the challenges of environmental education and outreach is to get people to care about the diversity on their doorstep. By making forests more abstract, they become more distant and less relevant, even whilst appearing in your living room. It matters to say where particular species are found, because they can provoke interest and pride in the host nations whose citizens have the greatest power to ensure their ongoing survival. It’s not just any forest — it’s your forest.

What should we do? If you’ve been inspired by Planet Earth II — and I’m sure that many have — then take it as an entry to learning more about the enormous diversity within and between forests around the world, and what makes the forests in your own area so special. If you’re an educator, at whatever level, then use the brilliant BBC materials as a starting point. Then tell your students about how much more diverse, ingenious and spectacular nature is than even the most high-definition TV screen can ever convey, and to go out and see it for themselves.


* Thanks to fellow forest ecologist Sophie Fauset, who corrected my initial post, in which I’d called it varzea. Extra pedant points to her!

Why should you join an academic society?

In the last month I’ve spent a lot of time, over and above the duties of my actual job, doing unpaid work for one academic society. I turned down an invitation to apply for the council of another, though I remain an active member and attend their conferences. Finally, when the renewal for a third society came up, despite having been a member for many years, I decided that it was no longer meeting my needs and will allow my membership to lapse at the end of 2016.

There’s a good reason why I haven’t actually named the societies concerned; I’d like to use this as an opportunity to think about the general reasons for joining an academic society (or not) rather than the benefits of any in particular. Here are some of the common benefits:

  • You believe in their mission. In this sense you might view membership in the same was as supporting a charity: you’re making sure that work you care about gets done, and opinions you share have a collective voice. Every society should have a clear mission statement. Here’s a few random choices:

Like those? Then head to the membership pages and sign up. That said, I’m only a member of one of the above, despite warmly supporting all of their objectives. This again is much like charities. In general it’s hard to disagree with what they aspire to do, but that doesn’t mean we can give to all of them. Another filter is required.

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Head to their website, and it’s immediately clear what BES aspire to do. Join if you agree!

  • You want something back. Joining a society isn’t just about supporting them; you may have an expectation that they will provide some benefits to you. Some of the common ones include:
    • Professional membership and accreditation. Having membership of a society on your CV demonstrates a commitment to the academic field in which you are working. Some societies, such as the Ecological Society of America, provide certification schemes to demonstrate your standing in your field.
    • Discounts for meeting attendance. For the British Ecological Society the equation is pretty simple: if you’re attending the Annual Meeting then it’s cheaper to join for a year than to pay non-member rates. This is at least in part why the headline costs of many conferences are so high; it increases the incentive to join the society.
    • Receiving their in-house magazines. Only members of the BES can receive the quarterly Bulletin, which contains news, opinion articles and reviews.  ESA members get a print copy of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, which you might not otherwise have access to (other than via dodgy links).
    • Journal access. Most societies give their members free access to their journals, or the option of discounted print copies, which are cheaper than subscribing independently. Digital access is also a normal offering, although I’ve never managed to log into the online version of a society journal successfully.
    • Members-only grants. This is a big one. The early stages of my career were made possible by small grants of a few thousand pounds from societies and charities that were kind enough to invest in me, provided that I signed up to them. This was awesome.
    • Support and mentorship. Societies are a great way to get advice, access dedicated support and training, or to meet and learn from role models in your field. Many place a particular focus on developing graduate students or early-career researchers. You will also build confidence through finding and sharing with other people like yourself.
    • Discounts on books and journals, often those produced by the society, but sometimes through deals with other publishers. This is a nice bonus but I doubt that it draws in great numbers of new members.
    • Reduced page charges. If you join the American Society of Naturalists, you get discounts for publishing in American Naturalist. This is common for many society journals, and as with attending their conferences, it usually saves money in any given year. Whether this acts as a sufficient incentive to depends on whether you pay directly for page charges and membership from your own money or a grant. Remaining a member implies that you believe that you will continue to publish regularly in that journal, which seems rather aspirational.
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Want to feel good about your research? Join an academic society and meet people who will be really enthusiastic (and want to help you). I’m on the right next to my collaborator Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz examining his student’s poster at SCB-Asia 2015.

  • It’s affordable. This does rather depend on your career status, amount of disposable income, and whether your employer (or grant) will cover the costs. Many societies offer cheap rates for students, or are even free for introductory periods. Joining international societies can depend on exchange rates; if your currency is plummeting the way Sterling has in recent months, think twice before adding to your direct debit list. A cost-benefit analysis comes into play. It’s likely that you will accumulate memberships as your career progresses, but sometimes these will need trimming because you can’t participate in everything.
  • Become part of a community. You care about your research area, right? Of course you do, otherwise you’d be doing something soulless that’s better remunerated for shorter hours*. Being a member of an academic society puts you in contact with other people who are passionate about the same things and are investing their lives in them as well. They will be interested in what you do, supportive of your work, and looking to share and collaborate. In time, after running into them for a few years, they become friends. I met many of my closest friends at conferences; some of them I’ve worked with, most are just awesome people that I wouldn’t otherwise have come across.
atbc16

Meeting new friends at ATBC 2016 in Montpellier. Food and wine help.

Back to my opening comments. I won’t name the society I’m leaving, other than to say that the fall in the value of Sterling following Brexit shifted my equation and made me feel that it was no longer worthwhile. But it’s no secret that the one I do a lot of work for is, of course, the British Ecological Society (I’m on their Council). Not a member yet? Well you should join, and it’s free for students for the first year, so you’ve got nothing to lose!


* Quick disclaimer: I write mainly for an academic audience, but am aware that many members of scientific societies are actually interested parties who just want to keep abreast of developments in a field that they’re enthusiastic about. If that applies to you then please don’t flame me, but I’d love to hear about a job that is well-paid, intellectually satisfying, allows an appropriate work-more work-life balance and still allows you to measure trees occasionally.

 

Free software for biologists pt. 5 –operating systems

If you’ve made it this far in the series then you’ll have already explored software for writing, analysing data, preparing figures and creating presentations, many of which are designed explicitly with scientists in mind. You’re clearly interested in learning how to make your computer work better, which is great. If you’re willing to do this then why not take the natural next step and choose an operating system for your computer which is designed with the scientific user in mind?

Put simply, Windows is not the ideal operating system for scientific computing. It takes up an unnecessarily large amount of space on your hard drive, uses your computer’s resources inefficiently, and slows down everything else you’re trying to do*. Ever wondered why you have to keep updating your anti-virus software, and worry about attachments or executable files? It’s because Windows is so large and unwieldy that it’s full of back-doors, loopholes and other vulnerabilities. You are not safe using Windows.**

What should you do? Macs are superior (and pretty), but also expensive, and free software solutions are preferable. The alternative is to install a Linux operating system. If this sounds intimidating, but you own a smartphone, then you may not realise that Android is actually a Linux operating system. Many games consoles such as the PlayStation, along with TVs and other devices, also run on Linux. Do you own a Chromebook? Linux. You’ve probably been a Linux user for some time without realising it.

Linux-Tux-Logo-Vector

I have no idea why the Linux avatar is a penguin. It just is.

If you’re coming out of Windows then you can get an operating system that looks and behaves almost identically. Try the popular Linux Mint or Mageia, which both offer complete desktops with many of the programs listed in earlier posts pre-installed. Mint is based on the Ubuntu distribution, which is another common Linux version, but has a default desktop environment that will take a few days to get used to. The best thing about Ubuntu is that there is a vast support network, and whatever problem you come across, however basic, a quick web search will show you how to resolve it in seconds.

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Your Linux Mint desktop could look like this sample image from their website. See, Linux isn’t so intimidating after all.

Unlike Windows, all these distributions are free to download, easy to install, and everything works straight out of the box. Within a week you will be able to do everything you could do on Windows. Within two weeks you will be realising some of the benefits. Like any change, it takes a little time to get used to, but the investment is worth it. There are literally thousands of operating systems, each tailored to a particular group of users or devices. Rather than getting confused by them all, try one of the major distributions first, which offer plenty of support for beginners. Once you know what you need you can seek out an operating system that is specifically tailored for you (or, if you’re really brave, create one).

DistroWatch.com: Put the fun back into computing. Use Linux, BSD._001

Yeah, I know, DistroWatch.com may not look like the most exciting website in the world, but it does contain download links to every Linux OS you could imagine, and many more.

It’s possible to boot many of these distributions from a DVD or even a USB stick. This means you can try them out and see whether they suit before taking the plunge and installing them on your hard drive (remembering to back all your files up first, of course). If it doesn’t work out then take the DVD out of the computer and all will return to normal. An alternative, once you’ve set it up, is VirtualBox, which allows you to run a different distribution inside your existing operating system.

If you have an old computer which appears to have slowed down to a standstill thanks to all the Windows updates and is not capable of running the newer versions, don’t throw it away! This is exactly what manufacturers want you to do, and is why it’s not in their interests to have an efficient operating system. Making your computer obsolete is how they make more money. Try installing one of the smaller operating systems designed for low-powered computers like elementaryOS. You will get years more use out of your old hardware. A really basic OS like Puppy Linux will run even on the most ancient of computers, and if all you need to do are the basics then it might be good enough.

My preferred operating system is Arch, which has an accessible version Manjaro for moderately-experienced users. It’s not recommended for beginners though so try one of the above first. Why bother? Well, there’s an old adage among computer geeks that ‘if it isn’t broken, break it’. You learn a lot by having to build your OS from the ground up, making active decisions about how your computer is going to work, fixing mistakes as you go along. I won’t pretend that it saves time but there is a satisfaction to it***. Even if it means having to remember to update the kernel manually every now and again. One of its best features is the Arch User Repository, which contains a vast array of programs and tools, all a quick download away.

desktop 3_003

Behold the intimidating greyness that I favour on my laptop, mainly to minimise distractions, which is one of the advantages of the OpenBox window manager. Files and links on the desktop just stress me out.

As with every other article in this series, I’ve made it clear that you will need to spend a little time learning to use new tools in order to break out of your comfort zone. In this case there are great resources both online and from more traditional sources, such as the magazine Linux Format, which is written explicitly for the general Linux user in mind. You might outgrow it after a few years but it’s an excellent entry point. If you’re going to spend most of your working life in front of a computer then why not learn to use it properly?

With that, my series is complete. Have I missed something out? Made a catastrophic error? Please let me know in the comments!


* To be fair to Microsoft, Windows 10 is much better in this regard. That said, if you don’t already have it then you’ll need to pay for an upgrade, which is unnecessary when there are free equivalents.

** If you think I’m kidding, and you’re currently on a laptop with an integral camera, read this. Then go away, find something to cover the camera, and come back. You’re also never completely safe on other operating systems, but their baseline security is much better. For the absolutely paranoid (or if you really need privacy and security), try the TAILS OS.

*** Right up until something goes snap when you need it most. For this reason I also have a computer in the office that runs safe, stable Debian, which is valued by many computer users for its reliability. It will always work even when I’ve messed up my main workstation.

Field notes from Mexico 6 — a botanist in the museum

On my last day in Mexico, my hosts kindly took me to see the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. First of all — wow. It’s absolutely spectacular, and if you have even the slightest interest in human history, culture and archaeology then you should go. Much like the British Museum* in London, you simply can’t take in the whole place in a single day. In fact, you would struggle to do so in a week.

In a single afternoon I was only really able to take in two archaeological sections: the Mexica empire, and the civilisations of the Pacific coast. The former were characterised by a militaristic state, the latter by their complex cultures and fine crafts. In fact, I was even more focussed, as I was specifically looking for evidence of botanically-inspired features among the artefacts, and I found plenty.

Many of them, interestingly, were related to cacti. This surprised me. Although Central America is the cradle of cactus diversity, and they are the most distinctive feature of Mexican dry vegetation, they are also relatively unimportant as crops and a minor component of most systems. Evidently they were considered worthy of carving into stone though.

In the section on the Mexica, rulers of the Aztec Empire, there is an altar with an Opuntia (prickly pear) clearly depicted on the rear face. This distinctive cactus provides a useful resource: its pads, once cleaned of the spiny glochids**, are cooked as a vegetable, known today as nopales, a word which derives directly from the Nahuatl as spoken by the Aztecs. Likewise the fruit, tuna, is still harvested and eaten widely in Mexico. The name Opuntia itself, however, is from the reference by Theophrastus to a plant in the classical Greek city of Opus which could grow from a leaf that was stuck in the ground. He wasn’t talking about a cactus though, because although they are now invasive in some parts of the Mediterranean, they definitely hadn’t arrived there in 300 B.C.

 

Opuntia isn’t solely used for food though; one of its more surprising appearances was in a reconstruction of a burial chamber from La Cueva de la Candelaria, on the border between the modern states of Hidalgo and Durango, which was occupied around 1100–1300 AD. The bodies each rest upon a layer of Opuntia pads. It hardly seems like comfort — no-one would do that if they were alive — perhaps these were provisions for the journey beyond?

Other cacti have more entertaining functions, such as peyote (Lophophora williamsii), a favourite hallucinogen for ritual and recreational use. It appears as a design on a large pot, and also in my favourite piece in the museum, a ring of revellers surrounding a shaman who is clearly holding a cactus in his hand. Both are from the Tumbas de Tiro tradition of West Mexico (200–600 AD).

RIMG2623To finish off the cacti, how about this metre-tall carved columnar cactus, probably from the genus Cereus? I definitely coveted this for a corner of my living room. It’s thought to be a boundary marker between two territories, and has the face of a legendary Mexica leader carved into its base. What interests me is that this kind of cactus isn’t present in that area, at least not in the modern world. Was it chosen because it was a feature of the landscape back then, or alternatively because it would stand out as unusual?

Other plants have important cultural associations. I’ve mentioned Agave before on this trip, particularly with reference to the manufacture of the alcoholic beverage pulque. I learnt much more in the museum though. Pulque had its own god, Ome Tochtli, which translates as ‘Two Rabbit’. Adults were only permitted one drink of pulque in any sitting (size not specified), and drunkenness was heavily frowned upon, lest one lose control and fall under the violent spell of Cenzon Totochtin, or ‘Four Hundred Rabbits’ (which, wonderfully, is the name of a popular brand of mezcal). So remember kids, two rabbits good, four hundred rabbits bad.

RIMG2635Another impressive piece of Mexica sculpture was this calabaza (Cucurbita moschata), a relative of the modern pumpkin. This magnificent piece was the size of… well, a ripe pumpkin. Alongside maize, which appeared in countless exhibits, beans and chilli, this was one of the staple foods of the peoples of central Mexico.

Not all the exhibits were carved in stone. One of the most important documents held by the museum is the Botorini Codex, a long pictographic account painted on fig bark by an Aztec artist around 1530–1541, so not long after the Spanish arrived. It tells the legend of how the Aztec arrived in the Valley of Mexico after leaving their original home of Aztlan. They decided to settle there due to the abundance of resources, but their first action was, of course, to cut down the trees. This is a useful reminder that tropical deforestation is by no means a new phenomenon, even if its intensity has increased in the modern world. One puzzling mystery though: why does the tree have arms?

RIMG2619

A section from the Botorini Codex illustrating the clearance of forests in the Valley of Mexico following the arrival of the ancestors of the Aztec.

Finally, I’ll finish with another Mexica carving. On first inspection it looks like a bird sitting in a stylised flowering tree. But look more closely and you’ll see that the bird is eating some kind of caterpillar. In other words, it’s an archaeological representation of a tritrophic interaction! Perhaps they would have been unsurprised by findings of ecologists in Panama 500 years later that birds protect trees from herbivory.

RIMG2633

Bird eats caterpillar eats tree. Tritrophic interactions in archaeology!


* Which is an order of magnitude larger again, thanks largely to the pillaging of cultures around the world in the name of empire, such as in the notorious case of the Elgin Marbles.

** Bristly patches of spines on some cacti, which often have barbs and detach when touched. I recommend a bar of soap to remove them. Then throw away the bar of soap before anyone else uses it by accident.

Field notes from Mexico 5 – ghost plants

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Monotropa uniflora in the understorey of an Abies religiosa forest, El Chico National Park, Hidalgo, Mexico. Thanks to Sarah Pierce for the ID.

On numerous occasions on our trip through the coniferous forests of Mexico on the #PinaceaeGo project, we’ve encountered a ghostly pale plant on the forest floor. Depending on where in the world you’re from, it might look very familiar; or totally unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. That in itself is part of the mystery surrounding this plant.

Monotropa uniflora is variously known as the ghost plant, corpse plant, or Indian Pipe. As its appearance suggests, it is parasitic, and does not contain any chlorophyll of its own for photosynthesis. Unlike most parasitic plants, however, it doesn’t obtain its energy from other plants. Instead, it is an unusual example of a mycoheterotroph— it steals sugars from mycorrhizal fungi in the soil which are themselves symbiotic partners of trees. In other words, the trees choose to associate with the fungi, providing them with sugars in return for soil nutrients. Monotropa hijacks this arrangement and takes from the mycorrhizae while offering nothing in return.

This indirect theft is what allows it to survive even in dense, dark forests, and to be associated with a range of forest types. While most parasitic plants target particular plant species, M. uniflora is highly specialised on a few species of mycorrhizal fungi from the Russulaceae. All these features set mycoheterotrophs apart from more common parasitic plants such as dodder (Cuscuta spp.) or broomrapes (from my favourite plant family, the Orobanchaceae**), which are direct parasites on other plants.

Confusion over the taxonomy of Monotropa has been long-standing. Prior to Linnaeus, a related species Monotropa hipopitys was actually included in the genus Orobanche. Early botanists must have thought that parasitism ranked as a higher criterion for organising plants than flower traits. For a while it had its own family, the Monotropaceae, but it is now incorporated into the Ericaceae, along with heathers and Rhododendron, which superficially look nothing like it.

Another of its bizarre features is what biogeographers refer to as a disjunct distribution. It occurs in all sorts of places worldwide, in Russia, North and South America, but with large gaps between them. Genetic evidence suggests that these are distinctive, but not enough to call them different species. How did they get to such widespread locations? Was it through their dust-like seeds, or linkages in previous climates, or human transportation? Even where it is found, it’s never very common, and appears only in certain seasons.

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Global distribution of Monotropoideae (including Monotropa uniflora) from Kathleen Kron’s Ericaceae site.

It’s not often that one can come across the same distinctive species in so many places around the world. How did a species of heather come to evolve into a fungal parasite, to develop such a strange form, and to spread itself quite so far? Wherever you find it, it’s always going to be special and mysterious.


* Here’s a pretty old review of this group of plants from 1994. If another has been published since then I’m unaware of it, and suggests that there might be scope for an update.

** One day I hope to retire to a herbarium and prepare a full review of the Orobanchaceae, so long as no-one else gets there first. I collect them on sight, wherever I am in the world. This is probably a pipe-dream. I’m never going to retire…

Field notes from Mexico 4 – tree farmers

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Pico de Orizaba looms large over the landscape of Veracruz State, Mexico. From this vantage  point we’re still 3000 m from the summit.

There are two main crops grown on the northern slopes of Pico de Orizaba, a dormant volcano and the highest mountain in Mexico*. Unsurprisingly, one is maize, the standard subsistence crop in this region. The other is the pine tree Pinus patula.

We’ve spent two days this week getting to know the northern face of Pico de Orizaba, which is the side where the majority of coniferous species are found. As in so many parts of the world, our explorations are complicated because anywhere that’s accessible has been transformed by humans, which means that even if we can spot intact forests through the telescope, reaching them would be nigh-on impossible without a guide, climbing gear and a lot more time.

The first day was spent on the ridge tops, trying to get a view down into some of the valleys and find a promising route. This was a race against time as the cloud falls rapidly over the course of the day, shrouding everything in thick fog. Eventually we spotted some tall old-growth stands and reached a friendly village where they showed us the trail to reach them. We scouted a short way up the ridge but heavy rain put paid to any further adventures.

The next morning we set out to climb the narrow gorge which led to the forests we wanted to reach. On several occasions we hit waterfalls and had to turn back to climb around them. It also poured with rain for a large part of the day. Our determination was rewarded, however, when we finally emerged into some grand, full-stature forests of Pinus patula, mixed with some P. ayacahuite and Abies religiosa. It was a breathtaking sight and made the long climb worthwhile.

We weren’t the first to reach them though. All the way, our trail had been pock-marked by the hooves of donkeys. It soon became apparent that what we had reached was not an isolated remnant of forest but the current front line of an ongoing, small-scale logging operation.

The dominant cottage industry in this region is the manufacture of low-grade crates and pallets, the kind that are used to transport fruit and vegetables. Many households are surrounded by mounds of sawdust; often someone (usually a woman) is sat outside knocking together an endless series of crates. The improvised sawmill providing the planks is around the back. Their dominant raw material is Pinus patula.

Which brings me back to my comment at the start of the post about farming Pinus patula. Government grants have provided landowners in this area with thousands of seedlings of Pinus patula, which are now being planted all through the valleys. Men can be found peppered across the slopes, clearing the brash and shrubs away in order to plant yet more. The scheme has obviously been running for several decades because, in a few places, the trees are now reaching harvestable sizes.

I will confess to having mixed feelings about this. There is no doubt that the main driver of loss of these magnificent ancient forests has been the manufacture of cheap pine products. On the other hand they are, in some sense, being replaced, which means that the activity could in the longer-term become sustainable. Farmers are at least planting a native tree species, and one which clearly belongs in these valleys. It will act to reduce erosion, prevent flooding, and although not as good as old-growth stands, plantations will still provide habitat for many of the species that formerly inhabited the forests. The waste products — bark and other off-cuts — can be used as fuelwood to reduce their dependence on other sources such as charcoal. Finally, making crates provides a stable income for communities who have lived on and farmed these slopes for generations.

This landscape is so rugged, the topography so steep, that there will always remain some places where the native vegetation persists, out of reach of both donkey and chainsaw. These may only be small fragments but they are crucial in providing continuity, seed sources and safe redoubts from the encroachment of civilisation. I may never reach them or survey them, but I am glad to see them from my telescope, and know that they still exist.

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This beautiful forest is under threat. But somewhere in these mountains others like it will remain, simply by virtue of their inaccessibility.


UPDATE: in between writing and posting this piece, the aftermath of Storm Earl led to multiple deaths in the area around Coscomatepec, where we were staying, due to flooding and landslides. It’s worth remembering that behind the headline figure of fatalities is always a larger story of survivors who have lost houses, crops, livestock; many villages will have been cut off. Mexico is a beautiful country but one with great disparities in wealth, and in this tragedy the heaviest burden will fall on those least able to cope.


* Its total height is 5,636 m, but most striking is its prominence, rising 4,922 m above the surrounding landscape. It really does stick out.