EIVE 1.0 – The largest system of ecological indicator values in Europe

EIVE 1.0 is the most comprehensive system of ecological indicator values of vascular plants in Europe to date. It can be used as an important tool for continental-scale analyses of vegetation and floristic data.

Guest blog post by Jürgen Dengler, Florian Jansen & François Gillet

Geographic coverage of the 31 ecological indicator value systems that entered the calculation of the consensus system of EIVE 1.0 (image from the original article).

It took seven years and hundreds of hours of work by an international team of 34 authors to develop and publish the most comprehensive system of ecological indicator values (EIVs) of vascular plants in Europe to date.

EIVE 1.0 is now available as an open access database and described in the accompanying paper (Dengler et al. 2023).

EIVE 1.0 provides the five most-used ecological indicators, M – moisture, N – nitrogen, R – reaction, L – light and T – temperature, for a total of 14,835 vascular plant taxa in Europe, or between 13,748 and 14,714 for the individual indicators. For each of these taxa, EIVE contains three values: the EIVE niche position indicator, the EIVE niche width indicator and the number of regional EIV systems on which the assessment was based. Both niche position and niche width are given on a continuous scale from 0 to 10, not as categorical ordinal values as in the source systems.

Evidently, EIVE can be an important tool for continental-scale analyses of vegetation and floristic data in Europe.

It will allow to analyse the nearly 2 million vegetation plots currently contained in the European Vegetation Archive (EVA; Chytrý et al. 2016) in new ways.

Since EVA apart from elevation, slope inclination and aspect hardly contains any in situ measured environmental variables, the numerous macroecological studies up to date had to rely on coarse modelled environmental data (e.g. climate) instead. This is particularly problematic for soil variables such as pH, moisture or nutrients, which can change dramatically within a few metres.

Here, the approximation of site conditions by mean ecological indicator values can improve the predictive power substantially (Scherrer and Guisan 2019). Likewise, in broad-scale vegetation classification studies, mean EIVE values per plot would allow a better characterisation of the distinguished vegetation units. Lastly, one should not forget that most countries in Europe do not have a national EIV system, and here EIVE could fill the gap.

Violin plots showing largely continuous value distributions of the niche position and niche width values of the five indicators in EIVE 1.0 (image from the original article).

Almost on the same day as EIVE 1.0 another supranational system of ecological indicator values in Europe has been published by Tichý et al. (2023) with a similar approach.

Thus, it will be important for vegetation scientists in Europe to understand the pros and cons of both systems to allow the wise selection of the most appropriate tool:

  • EIVE 1.0 is based on 31 regional EIV systems, while Tichý et al. (2023) uses 12.
  • Both systems provide indicator values for moisture, nitrogen/nutrients, reaction, light and temperature, while Tichý et al. (2023) additionally has a salinity indicator.
  • Tichý et al. (2023) aimed at using the same scales as Ellenberg et al. (1991), which means that the scales vary between indicators (1–9, 0–9, 1–12), while EIVE has a uniform interval scale of 0–10 for all indicators.
  • Only EIVE provides niche width in addition to niche position. Niche width is an important aspect of the niche and might be used to improve the calculation of mean indicator values per plot (e.g. by weighting with inverse niche width).
  • The taxonomic coverage is larger in EIVE than in Tichý et al. (2023): 14,835 vs. 8,908 accepted taxa and 11,148 vs. 8,679 species.
  • EIVE provides indicator values for accepted subspecies, while Tichý et al. (2023) is restricted to species and aggregates. Separate indicator values for subspecies might be important for two reasons: (a) subspecies often strongly differ in at least one niche dimension; (b) many of the taxa now considered as subspecies have been treated at species level in the regional EIV systems.
  • Tichý et al. (2023) added 431 species not contained in any of the source systems based on vegetation-plot data from the European Vegetation Archive (EVA; Chytrý et al. 2016) while EIVE calculated the European indicator values only for taxa occurring at least in one source system. 
  • While both systems present maps that suggest a good coverage across Europe, Tichý et al. (2023)’s source systems largely were from Central Europe, NW Europe and Italy, but, unlike EIVE, these authors did not use source systems from the more “distal” parts of Europe, such as Sweden, Faroe Islands, Russia, Georgia, Romania, Poland and Spain, and they used only a small subset of indicators of the EIV systems of Ukraine, Greece and the Alps.
  • In a validation with GBIF-derived data on temperature niches, Dengler et al. (2023) showed that EIVE has a slightly stronger correlation than Tichý et al. (2023)’s indicators (r = 0.886 vs. 0.852).
The correlation of EIVE-T values of species with GBIF-derived temperature niche data was high and even higher when restricting the calculation to those species whose consensus value was based on at least four sources (image from the original article).

How did EIVE manage to integrate all EIV systems in Europe that contained at least one of the selected indicators for vascular plants, while Tichý et al. (2023) used only a small subset?

This difference is mainly due to a more complex workflow in EIVE (which also was one of the reasons why the preparation took so long). First, Tichý et al. (2023) restricted their search to EIV systems and indicators that had the same number of categories as the “original” Ellenberg system.

Second, from these they discarded those that showed a too low correlation with Ellenberg. By contrast, EIVE’s workflow allowed the use of any system with an ordinal (or even metric) scale, irrespective of the number of categories or the initial match with Ellenberg et al. (1991).

EIVE also did not treat one system (Ellenberg) as the master to assess all others but considered each of them equally valid. While indeed the individual EIV systems are often quite inconsistent, i.e. even if they refer to Ellenberg, the same value of an indicator in one system might mean something different in another system, our iterative linear optimisation enabled us to adjust all 31 systems for the five indicators to a common basis.

This in turn allowed deriving EIVE as the consensus system of all the source systems. The fact that in our validation of the temperature indicator, EIVE performed better than Tichý et al. (2023) and much better than most of the regional EIV systems might be attributable to the so-called wisdom of the crowd, going back to the statistician Francis Galton who found that averaging numerous independent assessments (even by laymen) of a continuous quantity can leads to very good estimates of the true value. 

Apart from the indicator values themselves, EIVE has a second main feature that might not be so obvious at first glance, but which actually took the EIVE team, including several taxonomists, more time than the workflow to generate the indicator values themselves: the taxonomic backbone. EIVE for vascular plants is fully based on the taxonomic concept (including the synonymic relationships) of the Euro+Med Plantbase.

However, since Euro+Med lacks an important part of taxa that are frequently recorded in vegetation plots, to make our backbone fully usable to vegetation science, we expanded it beyond Euro+Med to something called “Euro+Med augmented”. We particularly added hybrids, neophytes and aggregates, three groups of plants hitherto only very marginally covered in Euro+Med. All additions were done by experts consistently with the taxonomic concept of Euro+Med and are fully documented. Likewise, many additional synonym relationships had to be added that were missing in Euro+Med.

Finally, we implemented the so-called “concept synonymy” (see Jansen and Dengler 2010), which allows the assignment of the same name from different sources to different accepted names (“taxonomic concepts”). This applies mainly to nested taxa that are treated at different levels in different sources, e.g. once as species with several subspecies, once as aggregate with several species. However, there are also some cases of misapplied names (i.e. names that were not used in agreement with their nomenclatural type in certain EIV systems). Such cases generally cannot be solved by the various tools for automatic taxonomic cleaning, but require experts who make a case-by-case decision.

The whole taxonomic workflow of EIVE is fully transparent with an R code that “digests”:

(a) the names as they are in the source systems,

(b) the official Euro+Med database and

(c) tables that document our additions and modifications (with reasons and references).

This comprehensive documentation will allow continuous and efficient improvement in the future, be it because of taxonomic novelties adopted in Euro+Med or because EIVE’s experts decide to change certain interpretations. That way, “Euro+Med augmented” and the accompanying R-based workflow can also be a valuable tool for other projects that wish to harmonise plant taxonomic information from various sources at a continental scale, e.g. in vegetation-plot databases such as GrassPlot (Dengler et al. 2018) and EVA (Chytrý et al. 2016).

The publication of EIVE 1.0 is not the endpoint, but rather a starting point for future developments in a community-based approach.

Together with interested colleagues from outside, the EIVE core team plans to prepare better and more comprehensive releases of EIVE in the future, including updates to its taxonomic backbone.

Future releases of EIVE will be published in fixed versions, typically together with a paper that describes the changes in the content.

As steps for the next two years, we anticipate that we will first add further taxa (bryophytes, lichens, macroalgae) and some additional indicators, both of which are relatively easy with our established R-based workflow. Then we plan EIVE 2.0 that will use the approx. 2 million vegetation plots in EVA (Chytrý et al. 2016) to re-calibrate EIVE for all taxa (see http://euroveg.org/requests/EVA-data-request-form-2022-02-10-Dengleretal.pdf).

We invite you to get into contact with us if you have:

(a) a new or overlooked indicator value system for any taxonomic group in Europe and adjacent areas (including comprehensive datasets of measured environmental data in vegetation plots);

(b) suggestions for improvements of our taxonomic backbone;

(c) a paper idea in the EIVE context that you would like to realise together with the EIVE core team (since everything is OA, you can, of course, use EIVE 1.0 for any possible purpose without notifying us as long as you cite EIVE properly).

Last but not least, any test of the validity and performance of EIVE, alone or in comparison with Tichý et al. (2023), with in situ measured environmental variables, locally or even continentally, would be most welcome.

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This Behind the paper post refers to the article Ecological Indicator Values for Europe (EIVE) 1.0 by Jürgen Dengler, Florian Jansen, Olha Chusova, Elisabeth Hüllbusch, Michael P. Nobis, Koenraad Van Meerbeek, Irena Axmanová, Hans Henrik Bruun, Milan Chytrý, Riccardo Guarino, Gerhard Karrer, Karlien Moeys, Thomas Raus, Manuel J. Steinbauer, Lubomir Tichý, Torbjörn Tyler, Ketevan Batsatsashvili, Claudia Bita-Nicolae, Yakiv Didukh, Martin Diekmann, Thorsten Englisch, Eduardo Fernandez Pascual, Dieter Frank, Ulrich Graf, Michal Hájek, Sven D. Jelaska, Borja Jiménez-Alfaro, Philippe Julve, George Nakhutsrishvili, Wim A. Ozinga, Eszter-Karolina Ruprecht, Urban Šilc, Jean-Paul Theurillat, and François Gillet published in Vegetation Classification and Survey (https://doi.org/10.3897/VCS.98324).

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Brief personal summaries: 

Jürgen Dengler is a Professor of Vegetation Ecology at the Zurich University of Applied Science (ZHAW) in Wädenswil, Switzerland. Among others, he cofounded the European Vegetation Database (EVA), the global vegetation-plot database “sPlot” and the “GrassPlot” database of the Eurasian Dry Grassland Group. His major research interests are grassland ecology, grassland conservation, biodiversity patterns, macroecology, vegetation change, broad-scale vegetation classification, methodological developments in vegetation ecology and ecoinformatics.

Florian Jansen is a Professor of Landscape Ecology at the University of Rostock, Germany. His research interests are vegetation ecology and dynamics, mire ecology including greenhouse gas emissions, and numerical ecology with R. He (co-)founded the German Vegetation Database vegetweb.de, the European Vegetation Database (EVA), and the global vegetation-plot database “sPlot”. He wrote the R package eHOF for modelling species response curves along one-dimensional ecological gradients.

François Gillet is an Emeritus Professor of Community Ecology at the University of Franche-Comté in Besançon, France. His major research interests are vegetation diversity, ecology and dynamics, grassland and forest ecology, integrated synusial phytosociology, numerical ecology with R, dynamic modelling of social-ecological systems.

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References: 

Chytrý, M., Hennekens, S.M., Jiménez-Alfaro, B., Knollová, I., Dengler, J., Jansen, F., Landucci, F., Schaminée, J.H.J., Aćić, S., (…) & Yamalov, S. 2016. European Vegetation Archive (EVA): an integrated database of European vegetation plots. Applied Vegetation Science 19: 173–180.

Dengler J, Wagner V, Dembicz I, García-Mijangos I, Naqinezhad A, Boch S, Chiarucci A, Conradi T, Filibeck G, … Biurrun I (2018) GrassPlot – a database of multi-scale plant diversity in Palaearctic grasslands. Phytocoenologia 48: 331–347.

Dengler, J., Jansen, F., Chusova, O., Hüllbusch, E., Nobis, M.P., Van Meerbeek, K., Axmanová, I., Bruun, H.H., Chytrý, M., (…) & Gillet, F. 2023. Ecological Indicator Values for Europe (EIVE) 1.0. Vegetation Classification and Survey 4: 7–29.

Ellenberg H, Weber HE, Düll R, Wirth V, Werner W, Paulißen D (1991) Zeigerwerte von Pflanzen in Mitteleuropa. Scripta Geobotanica 18: 1–248.

Jansen F, Dengler J (2010) Plant names in vegetation databases – a neglected source of bias. Journal of Vegetation Science 21: 1179–1186.

Midolo, G., Herben, T., Axmanová, I., Marcenò, C., Pätsch, R., Bruelheide, H., Karger, D.N., Acic, S., Bergamini, A., Bergmeier, E., Biurrun, I., Bonari, G., Carni, A., Chiarucci. A., De Sanctis, M., Demina, O., (…), Dengler, J., (…) & Chytrý, M. 2023. Disturbance indicator values for European plants. Global Ecology and Biogeography 32: 24–34.

Scherrer D, Guisan A (2019) Ecological indicator values reveal missing predictors of species distributions. Scientific Reports 9: Article 3061.

Tichý, L, Axmanová, I., Dengler, J., Guarino, R., Jansen, F., Midolo, G., Nobis, M.P., Van Meerbeek, K., Aćić, S., (…) & Chytrý, M. 2023. Ellenberg-type indicator values for European vascular plant species. Journal of Vegetation Science 34: e13168.

Leaves and Spines: A new spiny-tailed leaf-toed gecko from the unexplored coastal savanna of Angola

A random survey in a poorly explored region of the southern Benguela Province of Angola, led to the discovery of a unique new spiny-tailed leaf-toed gecko.

Guest blog post by Javier Lobon-Rovira

After the long, hard days of fieldwork in the arid coastal region of southern Angola, Angolan researcher Pedro Vaz Pinto and his enthusiastic son Afonso, found the best spot to spend the night before heading back home. In the area of Carivo, every night was different: after four visits to this unique place, a different gecko species always showed up to add to the growing species list.

On a random night in August 2021, they went for a routine night walks and came across this unique gecko. In shock, Pedro immediately started sharing photos with the coauthors, Werner and Javier. “Guys, I think I found a new Kolekanos” he said.

Kolekanos is a unique and iconic gecko genus in Africa and more specifically only known from southwestern Angola. Kolekanos plumicaudus was described by one of the most recognized herpetologists in Africa, the late Wulf Haacke (1936– 2021).

Feather-tailed Kolekanos was at that point a monotypic genus (only one species in the genus), known only from ~200km south of the new discovery. Immediately, we all knew that what we were looking in that photo was something different from the known K. plumicaudus. “It is a Kolekanos… but, those are spines in the tail, not feathers…” was one of the most common reactions that night. So, we started planning our next trip to the area.

Three months later we were back at Carivo, now focusing on finding more specimens of that unique gecko. After only one hour, we spotted at least six specimens among the semi-dessert vegetations and rocks. At that moment, all doubt went away. The behavior and habitat of the new gecko was completely distinctive in comparison with K. plumicaudus.

Then, with our goal achieved and based on the big success of the first night, we planned to go back through different areas to explore some of the most remote regions in Northern Namibe and southern Benguela provinces. After two days driving on impossible roads, the team reached Ekongo. That night we were tired, so we decided to have a short walk around the camp. And… there it was…! Like a ghost, this small, cryptic, and elusive gecko started  showing up in every big rock boulder. 

This study, now published in the journal ZooKeys, also highlights how poorly explored and understood some regions of Angola remain, even as it has been considered as an important source of diversification and endemism in West Africa.

‘Who is in your database and why does it matter?’

The uncertainty about a person’s identity hampers research, hinders the discovery of expertise, and obstructs the ability to give attribution or credit for work performed. 

Collection discovery through disambiguation

Guest blog post by Sabine von Mering, Heather Rogers, Siobhan Leachman, David P. ShorthouseDeborah Paul & Quentin Groom

Worldwide, natural history institutions house billions of physical objects in their collections, they create and maintain data about these items, and they share their data with aggregators such as the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), the Integrated Digitized Biocollections (iDigBio), the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA), Genbank and the European Nucleotide Archive (ENA). 

Even though these data often include the names of the people who collected or identified each object, such statements may be ambiguous, as the names frequently lack any globally unique, machine-readable concept of their shared identity.

Despite the data being available online, barriers exist to effectively use the information about who collects or provides the expertise to identify the collection objects. People have similar names, change their name over the course of their lifetime (e.g. through marriage), or there may be variability introduced through the label transcription process itself (e.g. local look-up lists). 

As a result, researchers and collections staff often spend a lot of time deducing who is the person or people behind unknown collector strings while collating or tidying natural history data. The uncertainty about a person’s identity hampers research, hinders the discovery of expertise, and obstructs the ability to give attribution or credit for work performed. 

Disambiguation activities: the act of churning strings into verifiable things using all available evidence – need not be done in isolation. In addition to presenting a workflow on how to disambiguate people in collections, we also make the case that working in collaboration with colleagues and the general public presents new opportunities and introduces new efficiencies. There is tacit knowledge everywhere.

More often than not, data about people involved in biodiversity research are scattered across different digital platforms. However, with linking information sources to each other by using person identifiers, we can better trace the connections in these networks, so that we can weave a more interoperable narrative about every actor.

That said, inconsistent naming conventions or lack of adequate accreditation often frustrate the realization of this vision. This sliver of natural history could be churned to gold with modest improvements in long-term funding for human resources, adjustments to digital infrastructure, space for the physical objects themselves alongside their associated documents, and sufficient training on how to disambiguate people’s names.

“He aha te mea nui o te ao. He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata.

“What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people.”

(Māori proverb)

The process of properly disambiguating those who have contributed to natural history collections takes time. 

The disambiguation process involves the extra challenge of trying to deduce “who is who” for legacy data, compared to undertaking this activity for people alive today. Retrospective disambiguation can require considerable detective work, especially for scarcely known people or if the community has a different naming convention. Provided the results of this effort are well-communicated and openly shared, mercifully, it need only be done once.

At the core of our research is the question of how to solve the issue of assigning proper credit

In our recent Methods paper, we discuss several methods for this, as well as available routes for making records available online that include not only the names of people expressed as text, but additionally twinned with their unique, resolvable identifiers. 

Disambiguation is a cycle. Enrichment of the data feeds off itself leading to further disambiguation. As more names are disambiguated and more biographical data are accumulated, it becomes easier to disambiguate more names. 

First and foremost, we should maintain our own public biographical data by making full use of ORCID. In addition to preserving our own scientific legacy and that of the institutions that employ us, we have a responsibility to avoid generating unnecessary disambiguation work for others. 

For legacy data, where the people connected to the collections are deceased, Wikidata can be used to openly document rich bibliographic and demographic data, each statement with one or more verifiable references. Wikidata can also act as a bridge to link other sources of authority such as VIAF or ORCID identifiers. It has many tools and services to bulk import, export, and to query information, making it well-suited as a universal democratiser of information about people often walled-off in collection management systems (CMS). 

A network of the top twenty most used identifiers for biologists on Wikidata.

Once unique identifiers for people are integrated in collection management systems, these may be shared with the global collections and research community using the new Darwin Core terms, recordedByID or identifiedByID along with the well-known, yet text-based terms, recordedBy or identifiedBy. 

Approximately 120 datasets published through GBIF now make use of these identifier-based terms, which are additionally resolved in Bionomia every few weeks alongside co-curated attributions newly made there. This roundtrip of data – emerging as ambiguous strings of text from the source, affixed with resolvable identifiers elsewhere, absorbed into the source as new digital annotations, and then re-emerging with these fresh, identifier-based enhancements – is an exciting approach to co-manage collections data.

Round tripping. In Bionomia, people identifiers from Wikidata and ORCID are used to enrich data published via GBIF, thus linking natural history specimens to the world’s collectors.

Disambiguation work is particularly important in recognising contributors who have been historically marginalized. For example, gender bias in specimen data can be seen in the case of Wilmatte Porter Cockerell, a prolific collector of botanical, entomological and fossil specimens. Cockerell’s collections are often attributed to her husband as he was also a prolific collector and the two frequently collected together. 

On some labels, her identity is further obscured as she is simply recorded as “& wife” (see example on GBIF). Since Wilmatte Cockerell was her husband’s second wife, it can take some effort to confirm if a specimen can be attributed to her and not her husband’s first wife, who was also involved in collecting specimens. By ensuring that Cockerell is disambiguated and her contributions are appropriately attributed, the impact of her work becomes more visible enabling her work to be properly and fairly credited.

Thus, disambiguation work helps to not only give credit where credit is due, thereby making data about people and their biodiversity collections more findable, but it also creates an inclusive and representative narrative of the landscape of people involved with scientific knowledge creation, identification, and preservation. 

A future – once thought to be a dream – where the complete scientific output of a person is connected as Linked Open Data (LOD) is now

Both the tools and infrastructure are at our disposal and the demand is palpable. All institutions can contribute to this movement by sharing data that include unique identifiers for the people in their collections. We recommend that institutions develop a strategy, perhaps starting with employees and curatorial staff, people of local significance, or those who have been marginalized, and to additionally capitalize on existing disambiguation activities elsewhere. This will have local utility and will make a significant, long-term impact. 

The more we participate in these activities, the greater chance we will uncover positive feedback loops, which will act to lighten the workload for all involved, including our future selves!

The disambiguation of people in collections is an ongoing process, but it becomes easier with practice. We also encourage collections staff to consider modifying their existing workflows and policies to include identifiers for people at the outset, when new data are generated or when new specimens are acquired. 

There is more work required at the global level to define, update, and ratify standards and best practices to help accelerate data exchange or roundtrips of this information; there is room for all contributions. Thankfully, there is a diverse, welcoming, energetic, and international community involved in these activities. 

We see a bright future for you, our collections, and our research products – well within reach – when the identities of people play a pivotal role in the construction of a knowledge graph of life.

You would like to participate and need support getting disambiguation of your collection started? Please contact our TDWG People in Biodiversity Data Task Group.

A good start is also to check Bionomia to find out what metrics exist now for your institution or collection and affiliated people.

The next steps for collections: 7 objectives that can help to disambiguate your institutions’ collection:

1. Promote the use of person identifiers in local, national or international outreach, publishing and research activities

2. Increase the number of collection management systems that use person identifiers

3. Increase the number of living collectors registered and using an ORCID identifier when contributing to collections

4. Undertake disambiguation in the national languages of many countries

5. Increase the number of identified people on Wikidata linked to collections

6. Increase the number of people in collections with expertise in person disambiguation

7. Collaborate towards an exchange standard for attribution data

A real example of how a name string is disambiguated and the steps taken in documenting it. Wikidata item of Jean-André Soulié

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Methods publication:

Groom Q, Bräuchler C, Cubey RWN, Dillen M, Huybrechts P, Kearney N, Klazenga N, Leachman S, Paul DL, Rogers H, Santos J, Shorthouse DP, Vaughan A, von Mering S, Haston EM (2022) The disambiguation of people names in biological collections. Biodiversity Data Journal 10: e86089. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.10.e86089

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Invasive species denialism: what is it, and what can we do about it?

Even when there is agreement on the impacts of invasive species on ecosystems, some stakeholders nevertheless deny the need for, or benefit of managing invasive species.

Guest blog post by Noelle G. Stratton, Nicholas E. Mandrak, and Nicole Klenk

Invasive species denialism (ISD) is a hot topic in recent invasion ecology discourse. Many of us are familiar with the concept of science denialism, particularly during recent discussions about climate change and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Essentially, a person who exhibits science denialism is skeptical of, or refuses to believe, the scientific facts about a topic. Much of the discussion about ISD has focused on characterising it as a form of science denialism. However, while science denialism may be one form of ISD, it is not the only one.

Understanding the different forms of ISD is an important step in learning more about what drives ISD positions, and how those positions can be overcome to improve invasive species management. Recently, researchers at the University of Toronto outlined these ISD forms in a new paper in NeoBiota. While these framings are not the only ways to characterize invasive species denialism, they demonstrate that there are multiple framings to the ways that people deny the imperative to manage all invasive species as prescribed by early detection and rapid response.

So, what are the forms of ISD?

Venn diagram of the three forms of invasive species based on interviews and focus groups with invasive species community members in the Great Lakes region, including interested publics and decision-makers: 1) Invasive species denialism; 2) invasive species cynicism; and 3) invasive species nihilism. Each has different motivations and ways of talking about invasive species. Notably, all forms include an opposition to invasive species engagement or management efforts.

Invasive species denialism is the form that will typically come to mind when you picture a “science denialist”. Someone who does not believe in invasive species, or says that the existing scientific literature is all wrong, would fall within this framing. However, it is more complex than that. Invasive species practitioners also identified some of those who believed in invasive species and supported their management under this framing.

For example, folks who wanted management to happen immediately, be 100% effective, or have no risks to them or the environment whatsoever, were considered another form of denialist. This is because while these people supported invasive species management, they were still opposed to certain management efforts due to a lack of understanding of the science behind that management. Similarly, people who agree invasive species are a problem but say “this isn’t my problem, and I shouldn’t have to do anything about it” when shown evidence otherwise were also framed as denialists, as it again indicated a denial, or at least a lack of understanding of the scientific facts.

Invasive species cynicism is the form where someone may well understand what invasive species are and the science behind their management. However, they may still oppose management because they believe it will harm them in some way.

For example, someone who does not want to have to check and clean their boat to prevent an invasive species spread because it takes too much time would be categorized as an invasive species cynic. As well, someone who does not want to cooperate with management efforts because they personally like a particular invasive species and would like it to persist, despite knowing its potential for harms to the ecosystem or economy, is also an invasive species cynic. From these examples, it should be clear that this form of ISD is quite different from what we would think of as a “science denialist”. They understand the science, but it just does not motivate their beliefs or behaviour on this topic.

This research was also recently presented at the International Conference on Aquatic Invasive Species by co-author Noelle G. Stratton. Invasive species nihilism, in particular, prompted discussion both in-person and on social media.

Invasive species nihilism is the form that does not appear to take into account the science behind invasive species or their management at all. Rather, it revolves around the idea that invasive species research, management, or engagement are essentially a waste of time. The efforts were pointless and the results useless. This framing also differed from the other two forms in that the folks who expressed these beliefs often directly approached invasive species practitioners during the course of their work to inform them that their job was meaningless and to ask them why they bothered. This type of framing has the greatest potential to impact invasive species researchers and practitioners personally, and it is potentially the most difficult form of denialism to surmount during engagement and management efforts.

How can invasive species denialism impact management efforts?

ISD has the potential to hinder management efforts in a few different ways. Invasive species denialists may slow down decision-making by stalling or halting discussions with other stakeholders. In some cases, invasive species cynics have taken direct action to interfere with the implementation of policies that would aid with management efforts. Invasive species nihilism could make some stakeholders less likely to engage with managers because they have come to believe that management is pointless, and managers themselves may endure the stress of hearing that their work is not of value to people with this perspective. The effects that ISD may have on management are varied and depend largely on the type of framing of ISD being used. Similarly, the way that we respond to someone that we believe to be an invasive species denialist should be informed by the framing of ISD they are using.



“An understanding of these framings is also vital to respond to instances of ISD appropriately. Whether we are being confronted with anti-science contrarianism, environmental cynicism, or outbursts of nihilism, should inform our responses and our strategies to counter these positions.” (Stratton et al. 2022)

The framings of ISD explored in this research suggest that a diversity of interpretations of species movements, and value judgments about their impacts and the need for management, exist. This has the potential to problematize reductionist claims that all critiques of invasive species management are simply a denial of scientific facts. These results provide evidence that even when there is agreement on the impacts of invasive species on ecosystems, some stakeholders nevertheless deny the need for, or benefit of managing invasive species. This study further contributes to ongoing scholarly and practitioner conversations about the normative assumptions of invasive species biology and their implications for invasive species management and governance.

Research article:

Stratton NG, Mandrak NE, Klenk N (2022) From anti-science to environmental nihilism: the Fata Morgana of invasive species denialism. NeoBiota 75: 39-56. https://doi.org/10.3897/neobiota.75.90631

Image credits: diagram by NG Stratton; comic panels by NG Stratton, via material from Flickr (ChrisA1995, CC BY 2.0; Mike, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; the-difference CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) and Studio Alternativi (Esetefania Quevedo).

Can amateurs combat the threat of alien species? Tracking introduced species in the world of citizen science

How citizen scientists documented the spread of an alien mantis across Australia

Guest blog post by Matthew Connors

From the infamous cane toad to the notorious spotted lanternfly, we all know the drastic effects that introduced species can have on both ecosystems and agriculture.

In today’s interconnected world, these alien species are being moved around the globe more frequently than ever before.  Hitchhikers and stowaways on ships, planes, and other vehicles can cause irreversible and catastrophic damage to fragile native ecosystems and to us humans, and tens of billions of dollars are spent every year trying to control these invaders.

Spotted lanternfly. Photo by peterlcoffey licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

But one of the greatest problems for researchers and government bodies trying to combat these threats is that it can be incredibly difficult to monitor the invaders even when we know they’re here.

So how on earth is anyone supposed to detect when a new species has invaded?  Many of these organisms are small, inconspicuous, and difficult to identify, and by the time they’ve been spotted it’s often already too late to act.

What if there was a way to quickly and easily find invasive organisms all over the world?  Enter the world of Citizen Science, where anybody and everybody can produce important scientific data without even leaving their backyard.  Just by taking a photograph of an organism and uploading it to a citizen science platform like iNaturalist or QuestaGame, amateurs and enthusiasts can provide scientists with invaluable records from across the globe.

A screenshot from the iNaturalist homepage, captured on July 7, 2022.

Back in 2015, when amateur naturalist Adam Edmonds spotted an unusual praying mantis in his garden, he took a photo and posted it to the Australian citizen science platform BowerBird.  When even the local experts didn’t recognise it, a specimen was sent off to mantis specialist Graham Milledge.  He confirmed that it was a newly introduced species – the South African Mantis (Miomantis caffra).

Miomantis caffra, an adult female from Victoria, Australia. Photo by Adam Edmonds

Since then, this alien mantis has spread across Australia from Sydney to Perth.  And every step of the way, citizen scientists have been there to document its spread.

Last month, all of these citizen science records were compiled by entomologist Matthew Connors of James Cook University (Queensland, Australia) into the first comprehensive report of the mantis’s presence in Australia.  Understanding where the species has spread and what impacts it has had on native species is crucial to managing and controlling it.

The introduced South African Mantis (Miomantis caffra) preys on a native Harlequin Bug (Dindymus versicolor) in Geelong, Australia.  Photo by Kelly Clitheroe

The research found that the South African Mantis has spread through suburban habitats in three Australian states (Victoria, New South Wales, and Western Australia) and one offshore territory (Norfolk Island).  It probably arrived in these regions as egg cases attached to plants and equipment, and it can now be found in high numbers, especially during late summer and early autumn.  Despite this, it appears to be highly localised and has only been recorded in suburbia, and furthermore there has not been any noticeable impact on native species.

Miomantis caffra, egg case (ootheca) from Victoria, Australia. Photo by Ken Walker

None of this research would have been possible without citizen scientists – the dedicated community of enthusiasts and amateurs who share their finds with researchers online.  Photographs from citizen science platforms and social media sites have been instrumental in showing just how far the South African Mantis has spread.  In fact, more than 90% of the records of the species come from citizen scientists, and without them we would barely know anything.

These days, more and more researchers are realising just how useful citizen science can be.  As well as tracking introduced species, citizen scientists have rediscovered rare creatures, documented never-before-seen behaviours, and even discovered completely new species.

Miomantis caffra, an adult female from Victoria, Australia. Photo by Matthew Connors

This latest research, published in the Journal of Orthoptera Research, is among a handful of recent studies that have gone a step further though – instead of just being a source of data, the citizen scientists were invited to take part in the entire research process, from data collection all the way through to publishing.  After all, they did all of the fieldwork!

Research like this is proof that anyone can be a citizen scientist in today’s day and age – so what are you waiting for?

Research article: Connors MG, Chen H, Li H, Edmonds A, Smith KA, Gell C, Clitheroe K, Miller IM, Walker KL, Nunn JS, Nguyen L, Quinane LN, Andreoli CM, Galea JA, Quan B, Sandiford K, Wallis B, Anderson ML, Canziani EV, Craven J, Hakim RRC, Lowther R, Maneylaws C, Menz BA, Newman J, Perkins HD, Smith AR, Webber VH, Wishart D (2022) Citizen scientists track a charismatic carnivore: Mapping the spread and impact of the South African Mantis (Miomantidae, Miomantis caffra) in Australia. Journal of Orthoptera Research 31(1): 69-82. https://doi.org/10.3897/jor.31.79332

Novel research seeks to solve environmental challenges in BioRisk’s latest issue

The special issue features 35 studies presented at the International Seminar of Ecology 2021

Guest blog post by Prof. Stephka Chankova, PhD

The new special issue of BioRisk compiles materials presented at the International Seminar of Ecology – 2021. The multidisciplinary nature of modern ecology was demonstrated by the main topics of the Seminar: biodiversity and conservation biology, biotic and abiotic impact on the living nature, ecological risk and bioremediation, ecosystem research and services, landscape ecology, and ecological agriculture.

Research teams from various universities, institutes, organizations, and departments, both from Bulgaria and abroad, took part in the Seminar. Foreign participants included: Environmental Toxicology Research Unit (Egypt), Pesticide Chemistry Department, National Research Centre (Giza, Egypt); National Institute for Agrarian and Veterinary Research (Oeiras, Portugal), Centre for Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Changes (Lisbon, Portugal); Bach Institute of Biochemistry, Research Center of Biotechnology of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Moscow, Russia).

Biorisk’s latest issue: Current trends of ecology

Some of the reports presented joint research of Bulgarian scientists and scientists from Germany, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, and the USA. After assessment by independent reviewers, the articles published in the journal cover the topics presented and discussed at the Seminar. 

A set of reports were focused on the anthropogenic and environmental impacts on the biota. Soil properties were shown as a factor that can modulate the effect of heavy metals, present in chronically contaminated soils. Different ap­proaches to overcome environmental pollution were presented and discussed: zeolites as detoxifying tools, microalgae for the treatment of contaminated water bodies, and a newly developed bio-fertilizer, based on activated sludge combined with a bacte­rial strain with detoxifying and plant growth-promoting properties. The clear need for the enlargement of existing monitoring program by including more bioindicators and markers was pointed out.

It was shown that, by using various markers for the evaluation of environmentally induced stress response at different levels (microbiological, molecular, biochemical), it is possible to gain insights of the organisms’ protection and the mechanisms involved in resistance formation. The contribution of increased DNA repair capacity and AOS to the development of environmental tolerance or adaptation was also shown.

Important results for understanding the processes of photoprotection in either cyanobacteria or algae, and higher plants were obtained by in vitro reconstitution of complexes of stress HliA protein with pigments. The crucial role of the cellular physiological state, as a critical factor in determining the resistance to environmental stress with Q cells was demonstrated.

Several papers were focused on the action of bioactive substances of plants origin. The bioactivity was shown to depend strongly on chemical composition. Origanum vulgare hirtum essential oil was promoted as a promising candidate for the purposes of “green” technologies. Analyzing secondary metabolites of plants, it was shown that their productivity in vitro is a dynamic process closely related to the plant growth and development, and is in close relation with the interactions of the plant with the environment.

Origanum vulgare hirtum. Photo by cultivar413 under a CC-BY 2.0 license

The influence of the agricultural system type on essential oil production and antioxidant activity of industrially-cultivated Rosa damascena in the Rose valley (Bulgaria) was reported, comparing organic vs conventional farming. The rose extracts from organic farming were shown to accumulate more phenolic compounds, corresponding to the higher antioxidant potential of organic roses.

A comparative study, based on official data from the statistics office of the EU and the Member countries, concerning viral infection levels in intensive and organic poultry farming, demonstrated that free-range production had a higher incidence of viral diseases with a high zoonotical potential.

Pollinators of Lavandula angustifolia, as an important factor for optimal production of lavender essential oil, were analyzed. It was concluded that, although lavender growers tend to place beehives in the fields for optimal essential oil production, it was crucial to preserve wild pollinators, as well.

Lavandula angustifolia inflorescence excluded from pollinators.

New data reported that essential oils and alkaloid-rich plant extracts had the strongest acetylcholinesterase inhibitory activity and could be proposed for further testing for insect control.

It was reported that the vegetation diversity of Bulgaria had still not been fully investigated. Grasslands, broad-leaved forests, and wetlands are the best investigated habitats, while data concerning ruderal, shrubland, fringe, and chasmophytic vegetation in Bulgaria are scarce.

Other important topics were reported and discussed in this session: the possibility of pest control using pteromalids as natural enemies of pests in various crops; the main reasons responsible for the population decrease of bumblebees – habitat destruction, loss of floral resources, emerging diseases, and increased use of pesticides (particularly neonicotinoids); the strong impact of temperature and wind on the distribution of zooplankton complexes in Mandra Reservoir, in Southeastern Bulgaria; an alternative approach for the ex-situ conservation of Stachys thracica based on in vitro shoot culture and its subsequent adaptation under ex vitro conditions.

Bombus hortorum/subterraneus collecting nectar in 1991, and B B. wurflenii/lapidarius worker robbing nectar of Gentiana asclepiadea in 2017

New information was presented concerning pre-monitoring geochemical research of river sediments in the area of Ada Tepe gold mining site (Eastern Rhodopes). The obtained results illustrate that the explored landscapes have been influenced by natural geochemical anomalies, as well as, impacted by human activity. The forests habitat diversity of Breznik Municipality was revealed, following the EUNIS Classification and initial data from the Ministry of Environment and Water and the Forestry Management Plans. It was shown that, in addition to the dominant species Quercus dalechampii, Quercus frainetto, Fagus sylvatica, Carpinus betulus, some artificial plantations with Pinus nigra and Pinus sylvestris were also present, as well as non-native species, such as Robinia pseudoacacia and Quercus rubra.

Models for Predicting Solution Properties and Solid-Liquid Equilibrium in Cesium Binary and Mixed Systems were created. The results are of great importance for the development of strategies and programs for nuclear waste geochemical storage. In conclusion, many results in different areas of ecology were presented in the Seminar, followed by interesting discussions. A lot of questions were answered, however many others remained open. A good platform for further discussion will be the next International Seminar of Ecology – 2022, entitled Actual Problems of Ecology.

A provisional checklist of European butterfly larval foodplants

For the first time, a list of the currently accepted plant names utilised by 471 European butterfly larvae is presented, with references.

Guest blog post by Harry E. Clarke, Independent Researcher

5th instar Swallowtail larvae feeding on Milk-parsley.

Many books on butterflies publish lists of their larval foodplants. However, many of these lists of larval foodplants have been copied from previous lists, which in turn have been copied from previous lists. Consequently, errors have crept in, and many plant names have long been superseded. This can result in duplicates in the list, with the same plant being given two different names. Most plant lists do not include the authority, which can make it difficult or impossible to identify which plant is being referred to. Some of these plants may not be used by butterflies in Europe, but elsewhere in their range. Or the plants may have been used in breeding experiments, but not used by the butterflies in the wild.

Many of these publications providing the larval foodplants of butterflies only provide the binomial name, without specifying the author. This can create problems in knowing which species of plant is being used, as the same plant name has been used in the past by different authors to describe different species. In some cases, distribution can be used to determine the correct species, but plants can often have similar distributions. For example, in the World Checklist of Vascular Plants, there are 40 entries for the plant with the scientific name Centaurea paniculata, which refer to thirteen different accepted species, depending on authors, subspecies, and variety or form.

Not quite so simple: updating the current lists of larval foodplants

With climate change and habitat loss threatening numerous species, the conservation of butterflies (and other animals) is becoming more important. Whilst many factors determine the distribution of butterflies, such as temperature and rainfall, their survival depends solely on the kinds of plants their larvae eat. Accurate lists of larval foodplants are therefore important to find out where to direct limited conservation resources for the best result.

What started out as a straightforward job of updating the existing lists of larval foodplants with currently accepted names turned out to be a far bigger job. Many of the lists are incomplete, and may vary throughout the range of the butterfly. Here, errors have crept in too. Many references provide incomplete, unverifiable information. Many species of butterfly lay their eggs off-host, rather than on the host plant. For example, the Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia)oviposits on tree trunks above where Viola species are growing. Consequently, oviposition records need to be treated with caution, depending on the species.

What do butterfly larvae eat, and why does it matter?

Butterfly larvae can be very fussy about which plants they can use. 20% of European butterfly larvae are monophagous, feeding on just one species of plant. 50% are oligophagous, feeding on a few different closely related plants, whilst 30% are polyphagous feeding on plants in many different families. The Holy Blue (Celastrina argiolus) can utilise plants in an astonishing 19 different families.

The oligophagous butterflies can be divided into two groups:

  • Oligophagous-monophagous (OM) – feeding on one plant species in one region, and another species in another region.
  • Oligophagous-polyphagous (OP) – feeding on several closely related species of plants throughout their range, usually in the same genus, or a closely related genus.
4th instar Small Tortoiseshell feeding on Common Nettle.

Plant preferences are only known for a few species of butterflies. For example, the English race of the Swallowtail (Papilio machaon) feeds on Milk-parsley (Peucedanum palustre), whereas in the rest of Europe it has been recorded on 62 other plants. The main larval foodplant of the Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) is Common Nettle(Urtica dioica), although it will occasionally use other plants.

The survivability of larvae on different plants is largely unknown, except in a few cases where the butterfly species has been studied in detail. There are plants that larvae may be able to eat, but that would likely not help them survive to pupation.

Two species are known to switch their larval foodplant during their second year of development. The Scarce Fritillary (Euphydryas maturna),for example, switches from Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) to Guelder-rose (Viburnum opulus). The Northern Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus centaureae) switches from Dwarf birch (Betula nana) to Cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus).

The most delicious plants

For the first time, a list of the current accepted plant names utilised by 471 European butterfly larvae is presented, with references. Where possible, errors in previous lists have been removed. The list of larval foodplants doubled compared to previous published lists. This has resulted in a list of 1506 different plant species in 72 different families. 86 plant records are only known at the generic level. Larval foodplants of 25 butterfly species are currently unknown, which are mostly the “Browns” (Satyrinae), which probably feed on grasses (Poaceae), or possibly sedges (Cyperaceae).

Whilst most plant families are utilised by less than six butterfly species, a few plant families are particularly favoured, with grasses (Poaceae) and legumes (Fabaceae) being the most popular. Similarly, most plant species are only utilised by a few butterfly species, but the fine grasses Sheep’s Fescue (Festuca ovina) and Red Fescue (Festuca rubra) are favoured by a large number of butterfly species.

Taxonomic splits create problems. Where cryptic species are allopatric, records can be allocated on the basis of their distribution. But where cryptic species are sympatric, this will require a resurvey to determine the larval foodplants. It cannot be assumed that two cryptic butterfly species use the same plants, as something has to become different for them to evolve into separate species.

Looking forward

Future publications should ensure that old and ambiguous plant names are not used. Plant names should be specified with their full scientific name, as specified by the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants. The World Checklist of Vascular Plants should be checked to ensure the currently accepted plant name is being used.

Fully documented records are needed of what larval foodplants butterfly larvae are utilising in the wild. To get a better understanding of usage, full details need to be recorded, including date, location, altitude, abundance, and larval stage. Abundance will help in the understanding of preferences. To allow records to be properly verified, evidence should be provided on how the larvae and plants were identified. Regional lists are also important – to help direct conservation efforts to the plants being used locally, rather than elsewhere. This list of larval foodplants is provided as a step towards a fully justified database, which will be updated as and when corrections are found. It highlights those 25 butterfly species whose larval foodplants are currently unknown.

4th instar Chequered Skipper (Carterocephalus palaemon) larvae feeding on Purple Moor-grass (Molinia caerulea).

Research article:

Clarke HE (2022) A provisional checklist of European butterfly larval foodplants. Nota Lepidopterologica 45: 139-167. https://doi.org/10.3897/nl.45.72017

Invasive crayfish can cause high fisheries damage

In Zambia and Zimbabwe, a single crayfish may cause annual fishery losses of as much as $6.15

Guest blog post by Josie South

Invasive crayfish have the potential to cause high economic cost to artisanal fisheries in southern Africa through scavenging behaviour and destroying fish fry habitat.

A recent study by C∙I∙B Research Associate Josie South (University of Leeds, UK) with scientists from the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB) quantified the damage caused by two invasive crayfish compared to native crab species, at two temperatures, on tilapia catch and macrophytes.

Redclaw crayfish entangled in a gill net in the Kafue River. Photo by Bruce Ellender

Economic costs of invasive species are vital to prioritise and incentivise management spending to reduce and restrict invasive species. No economic costs have been published for the global invader – the redclaw crayfish (Cherax quadricarinatus), and none for the entire continent of Africa. Another prolifically invasive crayfish, the red swamp crayfish (Procambarus clarkii) is also invasive in various countries of southern Africa. Anecdotal reports of crayfish scavenging from artisanal gillnet fisheries are abundant across the invasive ranges but lacked quantification. Similarly anecdotal information about macrophyte stands being destroyed by crayfish has been reported.

For their study, Josie and colleagues compared the feeding rates per gram of crayfish to that of the native Potamonautid crabs at 19°C and 28°C on simulated fisheries catch and macrophytes to identify how much damage may be caused.

Gill net fish catch damaged by crayfish scavenging. Photo by Josie South

The red swamp crayfish consumed the most macrophytes regardless of temperature, at a higher rate than the redclaw crayfish or crabs. In contrast, redclaw crayfish consumed the most tilapia regardless of temperature, and targeted the tail, abdomen, and fins whereas the crab only consumed the head of the fish. The damage rates of redclaw crayfish were then combined with average mass of crayfish in three invasion cores in Zambia and Zimbabwe. It was found that the damage one crayfish may cause annual fishery losses from $6.15 (Kafue River); $5.42 (Lake Kariba); and $3.62 (Barotse floodplain).

Inland fisheries contribute substantially to the livelihoods and quality of life in Africa. The two invasive crayfish have different capacities for ecological and socio-economic impact depending on the resource and the temperature which means that impact assessments should not be generalised across species.

Redclaw crayfish capacity to damage fish catch was substantial but this should be caveated with two over/under estimation issues: 1) the potential for fisher behavioural change which may reduce crayfish damage and 2) small damage to the fish may render the catch unsaleable and therefore the cost of the whole fish is lost.

Dr Josie South states that while these data are a crucial first step in filling knowledge gaps in crayfish impacts in Africa, it also stresses the need to derive observed costs from fisheries dependent data to avoid misleading estimates.

Also of concern, is the capacity for ecological and socio-economic damage from the red swamp crayfish, which was recently removed from the NEM:BA regulations of prohibited species due to lack of impact evidence.

Read the paper published in NeoBiota

Madzivanzira TC, Weyl OLF, South J (2022) Ecological and potential socioeconomic impacts of two globally-invasive crayfish. NeoBiota 72: 25–43. https://doi.org/10.3897/neobiota.72.71868

This blog post was first published by DSI-NRF Centre for Invasion Biology, Stellenbosch University.

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30-million-year-old Baltic amber reveals lacewing that looks like mantis

The insect, described as Mantispa? damzenogedanica, helped reveal important insights into the morphology of these fascinating insects and how it changed through history

Guest blog post by Viktor Baranov

Lacewings (Neuroptera) are mostly known for representatives such as green lacewings or antlions, which are distinguished by their appearance – large eyes and four long wings – but also by their predatory larvae, which play an important role as pest control agents in agriculture. But few non-specialists know that some lacewings can look a lot like praying mantises.

Mantispa? damzenogedanica, general overview. Photo by V. Baranov

Mantis lacewings (Mantispida) are among the most charismatic, though rather poorly known representatives of the true lacewings. They look like small- to medium-sized praying mantises. Mantis lacewing are 5-47 mm long, and all of them have prominent grasping (also called raptorial) legs. This superficial resemblance is due to the convergent evolution of the shape in true mantises and mantis lacewings. Convergent evolution is a process of organisms evolving similar traits, due to their adaptation to the similar conditions – i.e. hummingbirds and sunbirds live on different continents but look very similar due to their similar lifestyle. This type of evolution has led to the similar shape of the grasping legs, which act as a couple of snap traps for unsuspecting prey. 

Going back to the Cretaceous, Mantis lacewings have a long geological record. There are plenty of Mesozoic records of them and their relatives, such as thorny lacewings (Rachiberothidae) and beaded lacewings (Berothidae), totalling  105 recorded specimens. Curiously, there is a clear gap in mantis lacewings records from the Cainozoic.

Until recently, no adult mantis lacewings had been recorded from Baltic amber. In a single case, fossil parasitoid larvae of mantis lacewings were found attached to their host, a spider.

This changed last year, when a beautiful specimen of the mantis lacewing, almost 2 cm long, was brought to our attention by a private amber collector and esteemed supporter of palaeoentomology research – Jonas Damzen from Vilnus, Lithuania. The specimen was found at the Yantarny mine in Kaliningrad oblast, Russia.

By analysing the morphology of this beautiful specimen, we found out that it is closely related to the extant genus Mantispa. However, it was impossible to conclusively corroborate its affinity, because important characters such as rear wing venation and genitalia were obscured by so called “verlummung” – a white film, which covers many of the fossils in Baltic amber.

Morphospace plot showing changes in the diversity of raptorial appendages over geological time. Image credit J. Haug/ V. Baranov

So, to deal with this uncertainty, we designated this specimen as “probable Mantispa” (Mantispa?). In our research article published in the journal Fossil Record, we gave it the name Mantispa? damzenogedanica. The specific epithet is a combination of ‘Damzen’, honouring Jonas Damzen, who found, prepared, and made the specimen available, and ‘gedanicum’, relative to one of the Latin names for Gdańsk, Poland, where the specimen is housed in the Museum of Gdańsk.

Except for being an impressive, large, imposing insect fossil of the mantis lacewing, and the first one in Baltic amber at that, M.? damzenogedanica also present an intriguing question: why are so few mantis lacewings recorded from this fossil deposit, which is among the best-studied in the world?

Baltic amber deposits were formed in the mid-to-late Eocene epoch (38-33.9 MYA) in Northern Europe. Current consensus on the climate of the area at the time stands that it was not dissimilar to the south of the North American eastern seaboard, for example the Carolinas or Florida’s Panhandle: it was warm-temperate. Such climate is in fact perfect for extant mantis lacewings, so it is logical to suggest that unsuitable climate was not the main reason for the rarity of these animals in Baltic amber.

Analysing the diversity of the shape of mantis lacewings, we found a surprising trend – since the Cretaceous, the diversity in the shape of their legs has decreased. While the shape of the raptorial legs in the Cretaceous was characterised by eclectic, amazing diversity, later mantis lacewings have a rather uniform shape of raptorial legs.

We are not sure what may have caused this decrease. We think that drastic biotic changes after the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event (the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs) may have led to the environment becoming less conductive to mantis lacewings, which in turn decreased their diversity. Thus, it is likely that the rarity of mantis lacewings is simply a reflection of the decline in their diversity and abundance after the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction. 

Younger amber deposits (i.e. Dominican amber), and, of course, extant fauna display significant species diversity, but the diversity of shape never recovered after the Cretaceous. This new mantis lacewing from Baltic amber offers us a rare glimpse into a time when, in the world after dinosaurs, lacewings got a little less diverse and charismatic.

Research article: Baranov V, Pérez-de la Fuente R, Engel MS, Hammel JU, Kiesmüller C, Hörnig MK, Pazinato PG, Stahlecker C, Haug C, Haug JT (2022) The first adult mantis lacewing from Baltic amber, with an evaluation of the post-Cretaceous loss of morphological diversity of raptorial appendages in Mantispidae. Fossil Record 25(1): 11-24. https://doi.org/10.3897/fr.25.80134

Image recognition to the rescue of natural history museums by enabling curators to identify specimens on the fly

New Research Idea, published in RIO Journal presents a promising machine-learning ecosystem to unite experts around the world and make up for lacking taxonomic expertise.

In their Research Idea, published in Research Ideas and Outcomes (RIO Journal), Swiss-Dutch research team present a promising machine-learning ecosystem to unite experts around the world and make up for lacking expert staff

Guest blog post by Luc Willemse, Senior collection manager at Naturalis Biodiversity Centre (Leiden, Netherlands)

Imagine the workday of a curator in a national natural history museum. Having spent several decades learning about a specific subgroup of grasshoppers, that person is now busy working on the identification and organisation of the holdings of the institution. To do this, the curator needs to study in detail a huge number of undescribed grasshoppers collected from all sorts of habitats around the world. 

The problem here, however, is that a curator at a smaller natural history institution – is usually responsible for all insects kept at the museum, ranging from butterflies to beetles, flies and so on. In total, we know of around 1 million described insect species worldwide. Meanwhile, another 3,000 are being added each year, while many more are redescribed, as a result of further study and new discoveries. Becoming a specialist for grasshoppers was already a laborious activity that took decades, how about knowing all insects of the world? That’s simply impossible. 

Then, how could we expect from one person to sort and update all collections at a museum: an activity that is the cornerstone of biodiversity research? A part of the solution, hiring and training additional staff, is costly and time-consuming, especially when we know that experts on certain species groups are already scarce on a global scale. 

We believe that automated image recognition holds the key to reliable and sustainable practises at natural history institutions. 

Today, image recognition tools integrated in mobile apps are already being used even by citizen scientists to identify plants and animals in the field. Based on an image taken by a smartphone, those tools identify specimens on the fly and estimate the accuracy of their results. What’s more is the fact that those identifications have proven to be almost as accurate as those done by humans. This gives us hope that we could help curators at museums worldwide take better and more timely care of the collections they are responsible for. 

However, specimen identification for the use of natural history institutions is still much more complex than the tools used in the field. After all, the information they store and should be able to provide is meant to serve as a knowledge hub for educational and reference purposes for present and future generations of researchers around the globe.

This is why we propose a sustainable system where images, knowledge, trained recognition models and tools are exchanged between institutes, and where an international collaboration between museums from all sizes is crucial. The aim is to have a system that will benefit the entire community of natural history collections in providing further access to their invaluable collections. 

We propose four elements to this system: 

  1. A central library of already trained image recognition models (algorithms) needs to be created. It will be openly accessible, so any other institute can profit from models trained by others.
Mock-up of a Central Library of Algorithms.
  1. A central library of datasets accessing images of collection specimens that have recently been identified by experts. This will provide an indispensable source of images for training new algorithms.
Mock-up of a Central Library of Datasets.
  1. A digital workbench that provides an easy-to-use interface for inexperienced users to customise the algorithms and datasets to the particular needs in their own collections. 
  2. As the entire system depends on international collaboration as well as sharing of algorithms and datasets, a user forum is essential to discuss issues, coordinate, evaluate, test or implement novel technologies.

How would this work on a daily basis for curators? We provide two examples of use cases.

First, let’s zoom in to a case where a curator needs to identify a box of insects, for example bush crickets, to a lower taxonomic level. Here, he/she would take an image of the box and split it into segments of individual specimens. Then, image recognition will identify the bush crickets to a lower taxonomic level. The result, which we present in the table below – will be used to update object-level registration or to physically rearrange specimens into more accurate boxes. This entire step can also be done by non-specialist staff. 

Mock-up of box with grasshoppers mentioned in the above table

Results of automated image recognition identify specimens to a lower taxonomic level.

Another example is to incorporate image recognition tools into digitisation processes that include imaging specimens. In this case, image recognition tools can be used on the fly to check or confirm the identifications and thus improve data quality.

Mock-up of an interface for automated taxon identification. 

Using image recognition tools to identify specimens in museum collections is likely to become common practice in the future. It is a technical tool that will enable the community to share available taxonomic expertise. 

Using image recognition tools creates the possibility to identify species groups for which there is very limited to none in-house expertise. Such practises would substantially reduce costs and time spent per treated item. 

Image recognition applications carry metadata like version numbers and/or datasets used for training. Additionally, such an approach would make identification more transparent than the one carried out by humans whose expertise is, by design, in no way standardised or transparent.

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Research publication:

Greeff M, Caspers M, Kalkman V, Willemse L, Sunderland BD, Bánki O, Hogeweg L (2022) Sharing taxonomic expertise between natural history collections using image recognition. Research Ideas and Outcomes 8: e79187. https://doi.org/10.3897/rio.8.e79187