Sunday, 16 September 2018

Looking for a career in conservation?

There is fierce competition for jobs in conservation, so the big question is ‘how to make yourself stand out from the crowd?’ The answer is to put yourself in the shoes of the team tasked with sifting all those applications. I used to do this job as part of recruiting new staff, and it was incredibly difficult. Imagine that pile of anything upwards of 500 applicants for a job (there was one in the 1990s where I was told there were over 1,000 applicants! You must be clear why you have rejected people with very similar degrees, so you also must have a set of criteria against which to judge applicants. One of my criteria was ‘does the applicant actually show a real interest in wildlife? And ‘will this person bring something special into the team?’

As an applicant for jobs, have you ever turned the role around and then asked – would I stand out from the crowd? If not, how can I make myself more employable? I guess a MSC might help, but then an awful lot of people have a MSC. So, maybe a PhD? I am certainly aware of one job where I was eminently qualified but did not have a PhD and therefore did not make the shortlist. BUT, a PhD does not necessarily mean that the person will have what it really takes to work with people or to look at issues from a practical angle. Equally, there is a danger that a PhD will look at a job in a way that is too research orientated instead of being something that has to be delivered within a clear timescale. So, as an employer I would not leap to the conclusion that a PhD is essential. Where is the evidence of enthusiasm and personal drive?

Remember too, that although you will start your career in a non-managerial role, you may want to ascend the greasy pole! Getting suitable organising experience from an early age is often very helpful. You don’t have to be in work to get such experience. Participating in the running of a club or society at Uni is a good start. Then, there comes the post-Uni experience – clubs and societies are crying out for new, young and dynamic members. Their ranks may seem ‘crusty’ but that will change if you join, get involved and encourage other youngsters to join in. Why are those societies lacking young people? It is a vicious circle – the lack of younger members puts young people off joining, and so the society gets older still. You could break that mould and, in the process, put something positive on your CV both for today and for the future.

There are also skills that are in short supply. My former employer was stuffed full of birders (and no it was not RSPB), but there were precious few entomologists beyond those interested in dragonflies and Lepidoptera. Think about acquiring skills in a less well-frequented discipline. Yes, they are harder to break into because you need to think about keys, microscopes and maybe retaining specimens. BUT, in the process, you will acquire taxonomic skills and will also learn a lot more about ecology. The best ecologists I know are amongst Coleopterists, Hemipterists and (I would say that) especially Dipterists!

It will take years to become known as a top-ranking birder – there are so many also-rans! It will take a lot less time to become known in the circles of Dipterists, Coleopterists, Hymenopterists and Hemipterists. So, get involved with those groups. Everybody is getting worried that we don’t have a vibrant new youth base. We could have if there were new young leaders. Why not get involved with one (or more) of the Recording Schemes. Scheme organisers are on the lookout for bright young replacements – eventually we will retire and there will be vacancies for new ‘names’. It could be you, but you do need to put in the effort.

Remember too, that most societies have newsletters and journals that like short notes. Such notes and observations all count as ‘publications’ and although not top-stream peer-review, they do help you hone your writing skills and experience of ‘peer-review’ which may stand you in good stead should you think about a PhD. I’ve been hugely frustrated to see some really nice MSc projects that have never been written up but would have formed a very nice paper in the journals of one of the major non-vocational societies such as the British Journal of Entomology & Natural History and Dipterists Digest.

Does this resonate with you? If so, the world is your oyster. You don’t have to go abroad to develop the experience that can set you apart from the crowd; and you don’t have to wait. The sooner you get started the sooner you will be developing a name and reputation.

I don’t think I had a particularly outstanding career, but I have gained immensely from my engagement in the non-vocational world. As a 16-year old I joined the Committee of Mitcham Camera Club. By 25 I was on Cons Committee at Surrey Wildlife Trust and by 33 I was scheme organiser for the Hoverfly Recording Scheme. I’ve done a lot more besides and have gained hugely from the experience both professionally and socially. You could do the same or a lot better!

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Species status depends upon accurate information

Following up on a thread on UK Hoverflies concerning wildlife tourism, I thought I ought to go back to the status review of hoverflies to illustrate the state of knowledge difference between hoverflies and butterflies.

With butterflies, we see a continual growth in the numbers of species creeping towards the red lists.That creep exemplifies the problem of a lot of Britain's wildlife: habitat is being lost or it is changing as a result of atmospheric nitrification, lack of management or inappropriate management, or basic loss of habitat.
However, in the case of hoverflies the reviews point in the other direction with species being knocked off the lists on a fairly regular basis. This is because our state of knowledge is slowly improving and it turns out that we got the status wrong in the first instance. As with all things, early versions are often troubled by lack of data. This is illustrated by the changes in the conservation statuses currently used and those from the previous generation of reviews.

Figure 1. Conservation statuses of hoverflies from three generations of status reviews. Note that the system for evaluating red-list statuses has changed but the one for determining 'Nationally Scarce' has not.
The more data that we have, the better chance we have of identifying robust and meaningful conservation statuses. If we lack the data then the hand of those who wish to undermine the importance of less well-known taxa is strengthened! You can see the riducule coming up in the Public Hearing:
..... 'and how many people actually look for this 1cm long fly?' 'You say maybe 20!' 'That suggests to me that the fly is not rare, but is overlooked and of little consequence'. 'Your Honour, I submit that this evidence is false evidence because it is incomplete'.

It is an issue that Stuart and I have grappled with for a lot of our working lives. We have long argued that the problem for invertebrate conservation is that it is a Cinderella subject. So few people take the time to develop real skills and therefore the volume of information available is small. Those who wish to destroy important invertebrate sites can rubbish the conservation argument with ease, and the press can destroy it with a few choice headlines - e.g. 

100 new jobs put at risk by tiny fly!

When we prepared the status review for hoverflies we built in some resilience by looking at the levels of recorder effort and adjusting the statuses to take this into account. Our approach will hopefully mean that the statuses will remain largely stable in coming years, but we must expect there to be some movement in lesser-known species. But we still need more people to tackle the difficult groups that require specimens and microscopy. Unless we encourage the development of detailed skills and the greater use of microscopy, much of invertebrate conservation will continue to be a losing battle and we will be unable to reliably track the fates of the more specialist species.

Monday, 10 September 2018

The start of Autum?

The data for hoverfly records extracted from the UK Hoverflies Facebook page seem to be showing that this week is the start of the autumn slowdown in hoverfly abundance. I suspect that at least some of this is weather-related with poor conditions in several areas as I gather from posts.

So, I wondered whether there were regional differences in the trends and sorted the data according to three basic regions - Sorth of a line between the Humber and the Mersey (appx), Midlands - roughly down to a line between the Severn and the Thames, and South. For this analysis I used a centred 5 day running mean to smooth the inevitable spikiness of the graphs.

What do the respective graphs tell us? Well, I have been a bit surprised by the data. In previous years, the smallest graph has always been the North where we normally have far fewer recorders. It looks as though there have been more records from the north this year (Figure 1), which is a welcome change. Northern England and Scotland are often much less well-represented in a wides spectrum of recording schemes.
Figure 1. Daily records for 3 regions in 2018 presented as a 5-day centred running mean

Southern England records normally far-outstrip those of either the North or the Midlands, mainly because the vast majority of recorders seem to be based in southern England. It is difficult to be sure what has happened this year but there seems not to have been the same level of activity in the south. Perhaps that is because a larger number of people moving to spreadsheets came from the South? I think that is unlikely because we would expect recruitment of newer recorders to mirror past recruitment to a very large extent. So, my suspicion is that the effects have been far more pronounced in the South and that this has had an impact on recorder activity too.

I therefore looked at the proportions of daily records from the three regions and was surprised to see a significant difference at or around the point where the heatwave struck.In southern England it hit around 20 June and records plummeted by 25 June. In the north, however, records stayed high until around 10 July before dropping quickly (Figure 2). It has to be borne in mind that Figure 2 represents the proportion of all records, so as records from one area drop, those in other areas will effectively rise. So, the drop in the proportion of northern records really reflects a rise in the numbers of records in the south as it recovers from the harshest impact of the drought and heatwave. There may, nevertheless also be a somewhat delayed effect on the northern fauna
Figure 2. Daily records for 2018 from the middle of April represented as proportions for each region on a 5-day centred running mean
I think that some of the more erratic peaks from late July onwards reflect differing weather patterns such that the three regions have presented rather different recording opportunities. So, there is a bit of interesting work to be done linking these patterns to the respective local weather variation.

Monday, 3 September 2018

Interpreting data - effects of the heatwave

In my last post on the effects of the heatwave, I demonstrated the short-term impact of the heatwave on the numbers of records and numbers of species recorded. To do this, I used the data assembled from social media; primarily Facebook, but also to a much smaller degree Flickr. The big advantage of this dataset is that people almost invariably post their observations within a day or two of the observation; thus giving as near to a 'real-time' picture of what is going on.

It is certainly true that a small number of records will arrive over the following weeks, but approximately 98% arrive within two days of the record data. Thus, any small difference between data secured two days after the event and two weeks after the event is around 2%. When you bear in mind that the numbers of records for each day can be in the range of 120 to 180 per day in mid-summer, any slight lag in receiving records is of comparatively little consequence. I should add that all data posted are extracted within 24 hours of the post, so there is a nominal lag there too. Furthermore, the data are aggregated into weekly blocks, so there would need to be a huge influx of data for any one week to make a significant change to the shape of the graphs.

In the case of the graphs I presented on 16 August, the dip in record numbers between weeks 25 and 26 is 191 records (611 down to 420) (31.2%)  and the dip in the numbers of species recorded at the same time is 21 (75 down to 54) or 28%. Thus, there would have to have been a huge volume of records withheld for those dates but no records withheld for other dates. That seems unlikely and, indeed it is clearly not the case as the graphs look much the same now using updated data (figures 1 & 2).

Thus, I think we can be fairly safe in saying that there was a significant drop in both the abundance and diversity of hoverflies recorded during the most influential part of the drought. We can also see that as the season has progressed, the numbers of records arriving has revived to approximately the same levels as might be expected from the average of the preceding 3 years.

Figure 1. Weekly numbers of records in 2018 compared with the avaerage for the preceding 3 years.

Figure 2. Numbers of species recorded each week in 2018 compared with the average for the preceding 3 years.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Does growth in the volume of records equate to growth in the recorder skill-base?

I did a very simple analysis this afternoon, looking at the numbers of records generated from social media in the period 2015 to 2018. Most of those records come from the UK Hoverflies Facebook page which is the main mentoring tool for the Hoverfly Recording Scheme. The results are worth looking at because they tell an important story.

It might be assumed that a large increase in the numbers of records reaching recording schemes is a direct reflection of the growth in skills amongst recorders. At least, we would like to think so.  The headline message is that 2,228 people participated between 2015 and 2018 (Figure 1) via social media in that period and contributed 83,309 records. It is very encouraging to say the least.
Figure 1. Recruitment of contributors to HRS data derived from social media between 2015 and 2018.
The message is a little more sobering, however, when one looks more rigorously at the data. Of those 2,229 recorders, 619 have contributed 10 or more records and 227 have contributed 50 or more records (Figure 2). There is no point in trying to take this analysis further because at least 35 of the 133 really active recorders (who have contributed in excess of 100 records) have moved over to running their own spreadsheets. That is a result in its own right because, between them, this nucleus contributed 26,616 records, or approximately 30% of the data.
Figure 2. Recruitment of active recorders between 2015 and 2018.

There are two elements to recruitment:

The first is, of course, assembly of a bigger and more riobust dataset, which is really needed if we are to understand what is happening to hoverfly numbers. Although this sort of recording tends to concentrate on the commoner and more readily recorded species, big blocks of data will help to idenbtify the bellwethers of change.

I think the more important issue is probably the generation of a new cohort of specialists who can take on the mentoring role that the current scheme organisers fulfil. In this respect, we are doing very well with five or six very active members now regularly assisting newcomers with identications. Getting members to this point is really important and it is encouraging to see how they adopt suitably cautious approaches that demonstrate that they have learned and understand the limitations to what can and cannot be done from photographs. Thus, I think the results to date are extremely positive, especially as we will doubtless get a few new recriuits who will join that experienced pool each year.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Effects of the heatwave

Sometimes one gets a gut feeling that something is happening but it is difficult to work out why. That is the case for Volucella pellucens, which has been remarkably scarce this summer. I've noticed this in my own field work and in the posts on the Facebook group. It is a great subject because it is an animal that is noticed by novices and experienced recorders alike, and is probably over-represented in the data because it is big and relatively easy to photograph. So, when there seems to be a drop in numbers it is readily noticeable. The overall phenology (Figure 1) for 2018 compared against the past 3 years seems to tell a story but is it the heatwave or something else that is causing a problem?

Figure 1. All social media records for Volucella pellucens in 2018 compared against the three-year average of records extracted from social media.
What we see is the first peak being strongly attenuated before the second peak commences. We can be reasonably sure that the population was behaving quite normally until early June when the heatwave started to take a hold. BUT, thereafter numbers have been very low.. The second peak seems to be coincident with the normal peak, but again at much lower numbers. What is going on?

I think the answer lies in the emergence times of males and females. In most Volucella, males start to emerge a week to ten days before females and there is a very definite male peak followed by a female peak that is delayed by a couple of weeks. This is likely to be linked to delayed female emergence which is fairly common in insects. So, how does the phenology of males and females in 2018 differ from the three-year average? this we can see in Figures 2 and 3.

Figure 2. Phenology of male Volucella pellucens in 2018 compared to the three-year average 2015 to 2017.
Figure 3. Phenology of female Voucella pellucens in 2018 compared with the 3-year average from 2015 to 2017
These results are quite startling. We can see that emergence in 2018 was delayed by about a week and is likely to be a response to the longer winter. Once emergence had commenced it followed a normal trajectory for the first month in the males but females seem to have started to respond after just a couple of weeks.

What is interesting is that there appear to be double peaks in the phenology of both sexes. Prior to this year I would probably have thought that the second peak was a second brood and that larval development was quite rapid. I rather doubt that is the case now and suspect that there is always a partial delay in emergence from north to south but I don't think we really have enough records to test this theory.

What does seem to be clear is that the male population has been substantially attenuated by the heatwave, whilst there may have been some bounce-back amongst females. We know from our own mark-release-recapture work that some individuals survive for as much as six weeks, but that the vast bulk of the population only survives for about 3 weeks. So, there could be doubt about the numbers of females fertilised by the much-diminished male population.

My instincts are that these animals probably don't stay in diapause in response to external temperatures and that the drop in numbers in 2018 is related to survival rates and adult longevity. Perhaps this could be tested if we can secure sufficient larvae and breed them up in controlled conditions?

Time will tell, but there is clearly some interesting research potential in this species.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Impact of drought upon numbers of hoverfly species recorded

Ad-hoc, or opportunistic, data are always very difficult to interpret. There is no consistency in the method of recording, with the numbers of people involved varying from year to year. The relative skills of recorders will also change as people change interests, lose interest or, sadly, depart this world! So, all analysis must be accompanied with caveats.

I have been trying to make sense of this year's drought in the UK. Can we use the numbers of records? For this exercise I looked at the numbers of hoverfly records extracted from social media per week in the preceding 5 years and produced two graphs. One compares the years (Figure 1) and the other compares 2018 against the average for the preceding 5 years (Figure 2). It is clear from Figure 1 that each year is so different that it is almost impossible to make any comparison. It should be noted that the numbers of records in 2013 and 2014 were small in comparison with 2016, and that the numbers of records in late summer and Autumn 2016 were much greater than in any of the other 4 years. 2016 was the peak year for data extraction direct from the UK Hoverflies Facebook page, since when many of the most active recorders of the time have switched to maintaining their own spreadsheets. In addition, the autumn of 2016 was unusually warm and saw recording extend far longer than normal (into early November).

Figure 1. Numbers of hoverfly records extracted from social media between 2013 and 2018

There is more to be made of Figure 2 in so far as it is clear that the general trend is similar with peak numbers occurring in August. A clear drop in the numbers of records during the drought is also apparent, as is the approximate 2-week difference in the start of the season as a result of the length of the last winter. Nevertheless, the range in numbers of records between 2013 and 2017 is substantially skewed by the first year when the UK Hoverflies Facebook group was launched (mid summer 2013). In that year, there was relatively little activity if one bears in mind the levels of activity in 2016.

Figure 2. Numbers of hoverfly records extracted from social media in 2018 against an average for the previous 5 years (2013 to 2017)
So, we can detect a general narrative, but it would be unwise to rely simply on the numbers of records. Is there an alternative metric that might tell us more? I have previously discussed the effects of the drought on recorder activity (28 July 2018: Recorder activity - a possible proxy for looking at the impact of weather on datasets?). In that analysis it seemed that recorder activity had diminished at a time when it might be expected to see growth in activity. So, with diminished recorder activity it may be that the numbers of records is directly related?

This time, my attention turned to the numbers of species recorded. Again, the year by year totals vary hugely, making it difficult to place 2018 into context (Figure 3). When placed into the context of the 5-year average, 2018 does stand out quite markedly (Figure 4). I think the crucial point is that the overall trend for 2018 was similar to both 2016 and 2017 so I have also plotted 2018 against the average for 2015 to 2017, which are the three years in which recorder effort was similar to, or exceeded 2018 (Figure 5). The result work very nicely, with 2018 clearly fitting the 3-year average until the third week of June, when the numbers of species recorded crash. Numbers of species seem to be on the rise now. The rise is partly explained by the arrival of second generations of some species and possibly also the effects of the big mass occurrence event ten days ago.

The big question is whether the numbers of species recorded will recover by September? If not, we must also ask 'what will be the knock-on effects into 2019 and how can we establish whether any reduction in numbers arises because of the 2018 extreme weather?

Figure 3. Numbers of species recorded from social media in the years 2013 to 2018. Note that whilst the totals for 2013 and 2014 are lower than those for later years, the disparity is not as great as in the numbers of records (Figure 1).
Figure 4. Numbers of species recorded in 2018 compared with the 5-year average from 2013 to 2017. Using this metric we might assume that 2018 was actually species-rich until the crash in June; however, the effects of lower levels of recording in 2013 and 2014 are clear when the graph excludes these years (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Numbers of species in 2018 compared with the 3-year average for 2015 to 2017. Using this metric it seems that 2018 was broadly comparable with previous years until the third week of June when numbers crashed. There seems to be recovery in the last week, perhaps as a result of cooler wetter conditions.