Vulnerable until proven Least Concern?

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) publishes the global Red List of Threatened Species and provides the standard framework under which species are assessed under a number of categories; extinct, critically endangered, threatened etc. The red list categories are used globally, continentally and regionally and are assessed by expert groups and updated periodically. When you read about species being declared extinct or new reports on threatened biodiversity, many of the times that will be informed by data from the IUCN Red List or reflect a change in a species’ status on the/a list.

The information in the portal is referenced in national data books, museum and aquaria displays and the effort in compiling and reviewing this critical biodiversity data represents countless hours of work by thousands of contributors globally. It’s a model of international collaboration and the resource itself contains a rich amount of referenced information on a species by species basis useful for academic scientists, on the ground biologists and science communicators.

However, progress on updating the Red List across biodiversity is incredibly slow. Both in terms of the proportion of species which have been assessed but also the ongoing process of reviewing and updating information which even, with the best will in the world, will always lag behind the current status of these species in the world. At the time of writing, the headline figures on the portal are that 37,400 species are threatened with extinction, representing 28% of assessed species. Playing around with the numbers in the database, 134425 species have currently been assessed, 18752 are currently rated as Data Deficient (i.e. there isn’t enough information to make an evidenced assessment), 69149 are Least Concern (sort of the neutral position but can include species under declines of pressures regionally but not significant enough to warrant a negative status) and the rest of assessed species fall into categories of growing severity, the lowest being Near Threatened (7889) through to Extinct and Extinct in the Wild (900 and 79 species respectively). Although the numbers of assessed species seem encouragingly high, depending on what you take as an ‘upper limit’ for species diversity, only <1-<10% of species currently have an entry. At this rate, the task of assessing every species will never be complete, let alone the work needed to constantly review and update species’ statuses.

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A Molluscan History of Britain and Ireland

Warning, this one’s a long read! The received wisdom is that this is anathema to a modern reader but as the ents say…

I’ve been thinking a lot about maps recently. Specifically species distribution maps. Nowadays, at the click of a button you can bring up all kinds of mapped data that our predecessors would find nothing short of magical. Portals like GBIF, irecord (requires login) and NBN atlas represent some of the most impressive collaborative efforts to answer the simple biological question, where do you find different kinds of organisms. However number 1. They are incomplete. Many museum collections datasets are yet to be liberated, the literature needs to be endlessly combed through and I can only imagine the records and antiquated datasets that sit locked up in filing cabinets, on ageing PCs, floppy disks and yellowed print outs. However number 2. It will never be complete. Short of giving every blade of grass, tadpole, cormorant and hedgehog an GPS enabled anklet, our attempts are recording and documenting are ultimately in vain. There are vast swathes of organisms we don’t even know how to look for;- the tiny, cryptic, elusive, unloved and rare.

To me this is both humbling but also deeply worrying. How do we make any decisions about our interaction with the rest of organismal life if we don’t know all the facts? Human hubris in this area is also well documented. From disastrous deliberate introductions, accidental releases, biological control that goes wrong to the many, many ways in which organisms defy the rigid parameters we assume controls and restrains them, it would be fair to say our educated guesswork has been hit and miss to date. But a fear of the unknown has never been something to paralyse us for too long and this is where modelling and experimentation can incrementally fill in some of these gaps.

One thing that’s it’s taken me too long a time thinking about natural history to really appreciate is how, at least on land, our species has irrevocably interfered with (and not necessarily just ruined) everything, especially when it comes to Britain and Ireland. This (finally) brings me on to the molluscan history of Britain and Ireland, which is as much a geological and anthropological history as it is a molluscan one as I hope to elucidate below.

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Humans Do The Funniest Things

Something I’ve written about before but continues to surprise me when I encounter it, is that despite all the fancy software, listings of all the laborious statistical models, double blind tests and holy of all holies the untouchable power of peer review that is part and parcel of contemporary life sciences research you can still find, with relative ease, entrenched great chain of being philosophy that for me, completely torpedoes and sinks some of the merit of the research in question.

I’m not saying we can ever unhook ourselves from the delusion that we’re special wee beings amongst the rest of organismal life because we’ve got a chin, invented jazz, pot noodles and various other debatable accolades that propel us to the top of some pyramid or front of some queue but I do wish it wasn’t quite so explicit in the structure of degree courses, the language we use to talk about evolution, the way we frame interest in science stories and of course how we frame our relationship with the rest of the organismal life.

Read on, dear reader for the paradoxical platypus, concerned scientists who are earthworms and other lies we tell ourselves at night.

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Biodiversity Loss On Display

I originally wrote this way back in the alternate dimension of January 2020 and for reasons obvious and less obvious it never went out where I intended it to. I’ve found myself digging it out and sending it to others a few times since though so here’s me finally putting it out there, for ease of finding and sending on, more than anything else.

Public displays in museums are the thinnest veneers both in terms of the number and type of objects you encounter but also because very few museum colleagues get to work on exhibitions, very infrequently. Having said that, they are a very ‘loud’ veneer (mixed metaphors much) designed, as they are, to speak directly to a broad visitor group. I’ve recently been working on and thinking about large scale display changes in museums which come up fairly infrequently but present a lot of challenges, particularly when it comes to the natural world and especially looking at topics like biodiversity. How do you squeeze the vastness of the concept of biodiversity, a topic that is complex, important and flawed, into the finite volume of a display case for a diverse general visitor audience?

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First Marine Fish Declared Extinct. Mass extinction? What Mass Extinction?

I was rather miffed with myself to have completely missed an important but sad conservation biology milestone back in March this year when the IUCN Redlist of Threatened Species was updated to list the smooth handfish Sympterichthys unipennis as officially extinct. The milestone got a bit of coverage in the news but given the nature of news cycles these days it’s sort of understandable that a database updating to declare an obscure and not especially photogenic animal extinct, a fish no less, got a bit buried. But why was this particular bit of news such a landmark? The listing of Sympterichthys unipennis as extinct by the IUCN is the first marine bony fish to be declared extinct in modern times. Now, that needs a bit of unpacking. There’s a bit of weaselling there to turn it into a more notable fact but given how we’re inundated with information – about biodiversity loss, changes we should all be making to benefit nature – how is it only now that the first (marine, modern etc. etc.) fish is being declared extinct? Have scientists been alarmist all this time? One extinct fish out of the tens of thousands of living species doesn’t seem too bad, does it? Surely you’d expect more if we are in the midsts of the sixth mass extinction?

Let’s unpick what this status change means and delve into a topic that genuinely keeps me up at night: how do we know a species is extinct? Hopefully this will help clarify why this is an important milestone and why it absolutely doesn’t mean that worrying claims about biodiversity loss are overly cautious or unwarranted. Continue reading

The Pseudoscience of Octopuses From Space

One of the great joys of social media is people getting in touch to share things they think you might like, or know about or have a hot take on. This week a few people got in touch asking about alien octopuses from space. Without paying it too much attention I’d assumed that this news story from August 2015 had got reposted somewhere where scientist Clifton Ragdale made a perfectly innocuous statement quoting Martin Wells who compared the octopus to an alien (in some senses). Sadly, this juicy quote was just too good to pass up which lead to the story in the science and geek media cropping up again and again under various headlines pertaining to octopuses from space.

I was wrong, however, to assume this old story had popped back up again. This time around there’s a ‘serious’ paper “Cause of Cambrian Explosion – Terrestrial or Cosmic?” (Steele et al. 2018) in what appears to be a serious journal, Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology making some frankly ridiculous and unscientific claims about octopuses and an extraterrestrial origin. I know I should leave it alone, to not even point more eyes in the direction of it but the fact that people are talking about it and at least a couple of serious-looking media outlets are fairly uncritically running the story Cosmos, the Express, means taking an in-depth look might be worthwhile. Continue reading

50 Natural History Museum Exhibitions

After us. Life after the Anthropocene.
Altruistic animals. The zoology of selfishness.
Animal Additives. The zoology of household products.
Anthropodenial. Are Animals Human?
Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
Arses and Elbows. Anatomy for Beginners.
Back from the Dead? The Science Fact and Fiction of De-extinction.
Bats are not Bugs.
Better off Dead? The Ethics of Eradication.
Blue boobs and other unlikely evolutionary tropes in science fiction.
It Came From The Bottom of A Shoe. Invasive species and how we help spread them.
Can’t see the forest or the trees. What happened to England’s nature?
Chimaeras: The Evolutions of Symbiosis
Collecting the Dead. Where did all these specimens come from?
The Conservation Lottery. Which species should we save?
Cute and Fluffy. Subjectivity and study species.
Dinosaurs in the Garden. The confusing language of science.
The Death of Natural History.
Faeces, Droppings & Turds. The biology of shit.
Fakes, Fibs and Forgeries. Damaging Dishonesty in Science.
From Nature to the Plate. Where your food comes from.
GREED! The organisms we’re eating into extinction.
Going, going, gone. 100 species that slipped through our fingers.
How to kill a cow. Where do you think burgers come from?
Killer Cities. Pathologies of modern civilisation.
Lost! Mishaps and accidents in science research.
Microbiota: the other organisms that make up you.
Mincer vs. Machine Gun. The hunting we’re okay with vs the hunting we’re not.
Mind the Gaps. What we don’t know about natural history.
Murmurs, Swarms and Schools. When animals amass!
Needle in a haystack. The organisms only seen once.
No Cure Without Kill. Animals that die for science.
The Paradox of Sustainable Living. Does individual action make a difference?
Pushing up the daisies: the biology of death.
Preggers: The Biology of Birthing.
Race: Construct, Cultures, Genes.
Ravaged, Sick and Toxic. Environmental lessons from the ‘developed world’.
Right vs Correct. Morality in conservation biology.
Saved for exploitation. What makes a species worth saving?
Sick as a parrot? Disease in other animals.
SPERM. The anatomy of fertilisation.
Subhuman, the history of animal rights.
Subspecies, the politics of biological taxonomy.
Trash Planet. The search for untouched nature.
Toxic Wasteland? Our children’s inheritance.
Unloved! The importance of small, unattractive and obscure animals.
What is an animal and why does it matter?
Whoops! The ten biggest cock-ups in biology and their legacy today.
Whose nature is it anyway? The geopolitics of biodiversity.
The World on a Plate, the natural history of your supermarket.

Is the vampire squid an octopus or a squid?

Here’s another simple but difficult question that came up this week on Twitter prompted by cephapodologist @Thomas_Clements reaction to a tweet put out by the team behind the E/V Nautilus deep sea rover twitter account which used a popular science fact about vampire squid which read as such:

Did you see it?! We had an extended visit with a Vampyroteuthis infernalis (literally meaning “vampire squid from hell”). Neither a squid nor octopus, this fierce-sounding cephalopod actually fishes for marine snow using two retractable filaments and mucus-covered suckers!

Now, as you may have gathered from the title of this post, the bit I’m interested in is the ‘fact’ about vampire squid being neither an octopus or a squid. It’s a common enough fact you can find out and about in the edutainment and sci-comm resources and there’s something about the trope of telling people that a name we’ve just told them doesn’t mean what it is commonly assumed to which science communicators love. Whether or not ‘not facts’ help with engagement or learning I remain to be convinced.

Thomas, who surely knows his nidamental glands from his accessory nidamental glands, quoted the tweet stating that vampire squid are in fact octopuses. At this point I got involved too possibly disagreeing with him, although even with 280 characters discussions went around in circles. So. Once and for all. Are vampire squid octopuses, squid or neither and can we change the flipping name in any case? Because like starfish vs sea stars it’s a waste of valuable attention time telling people what something isn’t rather than what it is. Continue reading

Elsewhere in the blogosphere update August

Can’t believe it’s been seven months since the last update! Goodbye 2017 you were pretty much as sucky as 2016 was but in a different way. It’s been a busy couple of months and unfortunately my writing juices have been sucked away by other endeavours, including an exciting book chapter which I’ve been very keen on writing for a while.

Here’s some of the more recent natural history and museum stuff I’ve been working on and contributed to from around the web, corralled into one place.  Continue reading

Elsewhere in the blogosphere update January

So here we are, two months since the last entry cobbled together with clips from around the web with ANOTHER ONE. I guess I’m sticking to blogosphere too. As with the last update, I’ve been contributing a lot elsewhere, some of which you may have missed.I struggle with the fine balance between trying to share ideas, what I’ve written and what others have written, enough so that people see it but not too much to end up spamming content he says whilst spamming content.

December and January have been fairly busy but here’s what I managed to squeeze out of the old brain tubes. Continue reading