Demography Behind the Population

By Rob Salguero-Gómez1,2,3,4 & Alden Griffith5

1 Department of Animal & Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield, Alfred Denny Building, Western Bank, Sheffield, S10 2TN. UK.
2 Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions, The University of Queensland, School of Biological Sciences, Queensland 4072, Australia.
3 Evolutionary Biodemography Laboratory, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research. Konrad-Zuse-Straße 1, Rostock, DE-18057, Germany.
4 School of Natural Sciences, Department of Zoology & Trinity Centre for Biodiversity Research, Trinity College Dublin, Dublin 2, Ireland.
5 Environmental Studies Program, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA 02481, USA.

Okay, so here goes your daily quota of “productive procrastination[1]: go to Google and look up “Population Ecology”. Likely, the very first hit will be brought to you by Nature Education and it will state something along the lines of “Population ecology is the study of … what factors affect population and how and why a population changes over time. Population ecology has its deepest historic roots, and its richest development, in the study of population growth, regulation, and dynamics, or demography…”. We will admit it… this is a bit of a boring definition, and rather limiting too, as we have recently argued (Griffith et al. 2016). However, this definition rightfully highlights what’s behind centuries of arduous work by generations of researchers.

Recently, we published the cross-journal special feature “Demography Beyond the Population” (Griffith et al. 2016) following a BES homonym symposium and workshop that took place in Sheffield just over a year ago. This special feature highlights exciting venues of research in which demographic approaches are being successfully applied, with disciplines as different as conservation biology, forest dynamics, evolution, functional ecology, infectious diseases, life history strategies, etc. Up until this week, the special feature had been unique in its nature in that it brought together for the first time all journals of an ecological society – the British Ecological Society in this case – to pitch the idea that demography is an ideal currency of scientific exchange across sub-disciplines in ecology and evolution. After all, any organism, be a nematode, Bristlecone pine or human, goes about making a living in similar ways: it must survive, age (or grow or develop) and, if lucky, reproduce. These are the fundamental individual-level processes (or vital rates, as we fancy calling them, us silly demographers) that reside at the core of demography.

Joining this special feature is a newly produced cross-journal virtual issue, “Demography Behind the Population”. The goal of this virtual issue is to honor the long, deep roots of demography by offering a repertoire of outstanding demographic research that has been published by all BES journals in recent years.

This new and exciting cross-journal virtual issue leads to the natural question “where is the origin of population ecology?” You may think of C. S. Elton (1900-1991), whose work helped formalised the turning of natural history in ecology, with a strong focus on animals (1927, 1958). Maybe E. R. Pianka (1939-…), whose seminal work on the determinants of r- vs. k-strategies (1970) is still very active nowadays (Oli 2004, Salguero-Gómez et al. 2016). Or perhaps J. L. Harper (1925-2009), who re-invigorated plant population ecology by advocating experimental approaches to vegetation science (Full virtual issue details here), and whose work arguably innitiated comparative plant demography (Saruhkan & Harper 1973). Or could it be R. H. MacArthur (1930-1972) and E. O. Wilson (1929-…), whose treaty on island biogeography (1967) remains today one of the most widely cited pieces of ecological research. Very important contributions indeed… but we can go a bit further back! How about A. J. Lotka (1880-1949)? After all, among many remarkable contributions, his work led to the so-called Lotka-Euler equation (building on previous work from L. Euler (1707-1783)) for age-structured populations, which constitutes one of the most widely used principles of population ecology. Farther back?! Okay, and how bout T. R. Malthus (1766-1834) who, in his work “An Essay on the Principle of Population” (1798) laid down the foundations and implications of exponential growth of a population under ideal conditions? Now you are starting to get to the root of it… mathematics is central root at the base of population ecology, as with many other scientific disciplines.

As an example, in 1744, the French mathematician A. Deparcieux (1703-1768) examined in his work “Essay on the probabilities of the human lifespan” (1746) mortality rates among 2,045 nuns and monks born between 1580 and 1640, with the expectation that they should live longer given the sinless of their lives. His work resulted in one of the earliest life tables, a tool that has now taught in any intro ecology course around the globe. Much to the surprise of Deparcieux, the opposite result was found: monks and nuns lived shorter than married individuals – though the pattern seems to have reversed in more modern times. In the same vein, in 1858, epidemiologist William Farr (1807-1883), considered by some as the father of demography, found that married couples lived longer than singles, and that widowed people lost life: a man whose wife just died would double its mortality probability the next year. Providing a more explicitly ecological contextualisation of human demography, G. Buffon (1707-1788) examine how our own mortality rates relate to climate, geological formation, elevation and settlement density. This is one of the earlier modern demographic treatments of ecological questions. Fascinating, isn’t it? By the way, let us not treat humans apart from all other organisms here, shall we!?

The reality is that population ecology, which is strongly influenced on demography and mathematics as briefly demonstrated above, can be informally tracked back several hundreds, and even thousands of years. Ever since humans have been able to count and interact with the environment, population ecology has likely existed in some form – or so we argue. What evidence do we have for such a claim? Well, for one, old documents reminiscent of demography have been found in ancient Greek, Roman, Indian and Chinese cultures. For instance, the so widely and currently  discussed “caloric restriction” theory, which states that a decrease in caloric intake (without reaching starvation) results in the prolongation of lifespan (e.g. Colman et al. 2014), was already proposed by Aristotle back in 350 B.C. He, in his treatise “On Youth and Old Age, on Life and Death, on Breathing”,  discussed what makes for a long, prosperous life: one where pretty much caloric intake is not abused and one exercises mildly but frequently. In another one of his works, “On Longevity and Shortness of Life”, Aristotle stressed the need to distinguish external vs. internal causes of mortality to best understand longevity (Ross 2012), a topic that is still active focus of research (e.g. Koons 2014).

The 25 manuscripts of the cross-journal virtual issue “Demography Behind the Population” are a testament to how active those connections between classical works and current questions are in the field of population ecology. They range from applications of age- and or size-structure models (Bassar et al. 2015; Chu & Adler 2014; Merow et al. 2014; Metcalf et al. 2013), to classical life history questions (Tachiki et al. 2015 – recent Harper Prize winner, by the way!; Acker et al. 2014; Scheiner 2014), to predator-prey dynamics (Ujvari et al. 2016), transient dynamics (Gaoue 2016; Iles et al. 2015), effects of harvest (Gaoue 2016; Herández-Barrientos et al. 2015), demographic treatment of imperfect data (Sanz-Aguilar 2016; Adams et al. 2015), or evolution of senescence (Giaimo 2014; Pardo et al. 2014), among others. This virtual issue is packed with demographic pearls, and reviewing them all here would (a) turn this “short-ish” blog into a Quijote-length script, and (b) would not do justice to their contributions. We sincerely encourage the readers of the British Ecological Society journals to take a closer look at these fantastic articles. What’s even cooler about these contributions, is that many of them have been led by early career population ecologists (Metcalf, Merow, Plard, Chu, Iles, Tachiki, Martin, Gaoue, Sanz-Aguilar, Adams, and many more). The new cohort of age-structured population ecologists is doing rather well, securing a bright future in the field.  Long live population ecology!

Acknowledgements: We thank Dr Andrew Beckerman for the suggestion to elaborate on a much needed retrospective look at population studies within the context of the British Ecological Society, following our recent prospective take.

Cited references:

Acker, P., Robert, A., Bourget, R. & Colas, B. (2014) Heterogeneity of reproductive age increases the viability of semelparous populations. Functional Ecology, 28, 458–468.

Adams, V.M., Petty, A.M., Douglas, M.M., Buckley, Y.M., Ferdinands, K.B., Okazaki, T., Ko, D.W. & Setterfield, S.A. (2015) Distribution, demography and dispersal model of spatial spread of invasive plant populations with limited data. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 6, 782–794.

Bassar, R.D., Heatherly, T., Marshall, M.C., Thomas, S.A., Flecker, A.S. & Reznick, D.N. (2015) Population size-structure-dependent fitness and ecosystem consequences in Trinidadian guppies. Journal of Animal Ecology, 84, 955–968.

Colman, R. J., Beasly, T. M., Kemnitz, J. W., Johnson, S. C., Weindruch, R. & Anderson, R. M. (2014) Caloric restriction reduces age-related and all-cause mortality in rhesus monkeys. Nature Communications, 5, 3557

Chu, C. & Adler, P.B. (2014) When should plant population models include age structure? Journal of Ecology, 102, 531–543.

Elton, C. S. (1927) Animal Ecology. First edition. Sidgwick and Jackson, London. The University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-20639-4.

Elton, C. S. (1958) The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants. Methuen, London. The University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-20638-6.

Gaoue, O.G. (2016) Transient dynamics reveal the importance of early life survival to the response of a tropical tree to harvest. Journal of Applied Ecology, 53, 112–119.

Giaimo, S. (2014) Evolution of aging through reduced demographic stochasticity – an extension of the pleiotropy theory to finite populations. Ecology and Evolution, 4, 167–173.

Hernández-Barrios, J.C., Anten, N.P.R. & Martínez-Ramos, M. (2015) Sustainable harvesting of non-timber forest products based on ecological and economic criteria. Journal of Applied Ecology, 52, 389–401.

Iles, D.T., Salguero-Gómez, R., Adler, P.B. & Koons, D.N. (2016) Linking transient dynamics and life history to biological invasion success. Journal of Ecology, 104, 399–408.

Koons, D. N., Gamelon, M., Gaillard, J-M., Aubry, L. M., Rockwell, R. F., Klein, F., Choquet, R. & Gimenez, O. (2014) Methods for studying cause-specific senescence in the wild. Methods in Ecology and Evolution  5: 924-933.

MacArthur, R. H. & Wilson, E. O. (1967). The Theory of Island Biogeography. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Malthus T.R. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Chapter 1, p 13 in Oxford World’s Classics reprint.

Metcalf, C.J.E., McMahon, S.M., Salguero-Gómez, R. & Jongejans, E. (2013) IPMpack: an R package for integral projection models. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 4, 195–200.

Oli, K. M. (2004) The fast-slow continuum and mammalian life-history patterns: an empirical evaluation. Basic and Applied Ecology, 5, 449-463.

Pardo, D., Barbraud, C. & Weimerskirch, H. (2014) What shall I do now? State-dependent variations of life-history traits with aging in Wandering Albatrosses. Ecology and Evolution, 4, 474–487.

Pianka, E. R. (1970) On r and K selection. American Naturalist, 104, 592-597.

Ross, G. R. T. (2012) Translation “Aristotle (350 BC) On Youth and Old Age, on Life and Death, on Breathing”. The University of Adelaide.

Salguero-Gómez, R., Jones, O. R.,  Jongejans, E., Blomberg, S., Hodgson, D., Mbeau Ache, C., Zuidema, P. A., de Kroon, H. & Buckley, Y (2016) The fast-slow continuum and reproductive strategies structure plant life history variation worldwide. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 113, 230-235.

Sanz-Aguilar, A., Igual, J.M., Oro, D., Genovart, M. & Tavecchia, G. (2016) Estimating recruitment and survival in partially monitored populations. Journal of Applied Ecology, 53, 73–82.

Sanz-Aguilar, A., Igual, J. M., Oro, D., Genovart, M. & Tavecchia, G. (2016) Estimating recruitment and survival in partially monitored populations. Journal of Applied Ecology, 53, 73–82.

Saruhkan, J. & Harper, J. L. (1973) Studies on plant demography: Ranunculus repens L., R. bulbosus L. and R. acris L. I. Population flux and survivorship. Journal of Ecology, 61, 675-716.

Tachiki, Y., Makita, A., Suyama, Y. & Satake, A. (2015) A spatially explicit model for flowering time in bamboos: long rhizomes drive the evolution of delayed flowering. Journal of Ecology, 103, 585–593.

Ujvari, B., Brown, G., Shine, R. & Madsen, T. (2016) Floods and famine: climate-induced collapse of a tropical predator-prey community. Functional Ecology, 30, 453–458.

[1] This text was written in a transcontinental productive procrastination session.

The Future for Ash Looks Bleak says Journal of Ecology Species Survey


Ashes to ashes: biggest ever survey says future is bleak for ash trees

The future for ash – the tree that gave us food, fuel and the Sweet Track, one of the oldest roads in the world – looks bleak, according to a new survey of its biology and ecology. The review by tree expert Dr Peter Thomas is the largest-ever survey of this much-loved tree and is published today in the Journal of Ecology.

Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) is native throughout most of the British Isles. It is an important urban tree in our towns and cities, is the second most abundant tree (after oak) in woodland, and outside woods there are 2.2 million ash trees in Britain. Ash is our most common hedgerow species and the length of woody linear features (hedgerows and tree lines) composed of ash in Great Britain is almost 100,000 km.

Ash had been thriving in Europe until recently thanks, paradoxically, to air pollution. Nitrogen pollution has acted as a fertiliser and climate change has also aided ash because ash is drought tolerant, able to cope with lower rainfall, and sensitive to spring frosts and so benefits from warmer springs.

But, the survey warns, ash faces several serious problems, including the immediate threat of ash dieback and the ‘potentially devastating’ emerald ash borer, which is spreading west across Europe.

According to Dr Thomas of Keele University: “Between the fungal disease ash dieback and a bright green beetle called the emerald ash borer, it is likely that almost all ash trees in Europe will be wiped out – just as the elm was largely eliminated by Dutch elm disease.”

Ash dieback causes death of leaves, branches and eventually the whole tree. Caused by the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, it was first seen in eastern Europe in 1992 and in Britain in 2012. The disease now covers more than 2 million km2 from Scandinavia to Italy. In assessments of the likely impact of ash dieback in Britain the worst-case scenario is 95% mortality of ash.

Recent research suggests that some ash clones are resistant to ash dieback, offering hope that breeding programmes could produce trees able to survive the fungus. But resistance to dieback will not protect trees against the emerald ash borer if it reaches Britain.

Like ash dieback, the emerald ash borer Agrilus planipennis is native to Asia. It was accidentally introduced to North America in 2002, where it has killed millions of ash trees. Recorded in Moscow in 2003, it is spreading west and is believed to have reached Sweden. The adult beetles feed on ash leaves and do little damage, but the larvae bore under the bark and into the wood, killing the tree.

According to Dr Thomas: “Our European ash is very susceptible to the beetle. It is only a matter of time before it spreads across the rest of the Europe – including Britain – and the beetle is set to become the biggest threat faced by ash in Europe – potentially far more serious than ash dieback.”

The loss of ash would change our countryside and our biodiversity. More than 1,000 species are associated with ash or ash woodland including 12 birds, 55 mammals, 78 vascular plants, 58 bryophytes, 68 fungi, 239 invertebrates and 548 lichen species, many of which are threatened or endangered and likely to decline in number and potentially become locally extinct.

“Of these, over a hundred species of lichens, fungi and insects are dependent upon the ash tree and are likely to decline or become extinct if the ash was gone. Some other trees, such as alder, small-leaved lime and rowan, can provide homes for some of these species but they would look different in the landscape. If the ash went, the British countryside would never look the same again,” he says.

Ash thrives best on chalky, alkaline soils. The trees can be male, female or hermaphrodite. The bark is grey – smooth in young trees, furrowed in mature trees – and the buds black. Ash coppices strongly after felling and is a prolific seed former. Its seeds can form the majority of the diet of bullfinches.

Ash, along with other deciduous trees, is thought to have occupied northern Europe including Svalbard and Greenland during the Cretaceous period, spreading into central Europe following periods of cooling. By 5000 years ago, ash was common in Britain, especially in northern England.

Ash has a long cultural history, and in Norse mythology forms the world ash tree of Yggdrasil. Ash was commonly used as firewood by Neolithic and Mesolithic people in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and the UK. Today, it is still highly prized as firewood because of its high levels of oleic acid, a flammable fatty acid that means it burns even when green.

Ash has also served us well in other ways, originally through the use of coppiced wood. Some 10% of the coppiced wood used in the Sweet Track was ash. The Sweet Track is a 6,000 year-old causeway that ran for 2km across the Somerset Levels. The wooden walkway was supported by wooden poles driven into the waterlogged soil.

The naturalist Oliver Rackham believed ash was a low-status building material, since it was not used in church carpentry. Instead it was used in wattle. Ash was also used for shipbuilding (boat frames and tenon pegs) and musical instruments, particularly guitars. A relative of the European ash – the North American swamp ash – was used to make the legendary 1950s Fender Stratocaster used by Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix and Hank Marvin of The Shadows.

Ash figured in our diets and that of our livestock. Ash foliage was used as a year-round fodder for sheep and goats, ash keys (fruits) were pickled in vinegar for human use, and humans have also eaten a sweet exudate – manna – from damaged bark, which acts as a sweetener and mild laxative.

Used in herbal medicine since the time of Hippocrates, its leaves and bark have been used to treat rheumatism, inflammation, diarrhoea, dysentery, gout, gallstones and intestinal worms. Soluble glycosides from ash seeds and fruits can reduce blood glucose levels without significantly affecting insulin levels, so can be used to treat hypertension, obesity and diabetes.

Peter A Thomas (2016). ‘Biological Flora of the British Isles: Fraxinus excelsior, doi: 10.1111.1365-2745.12566, is published in the Journal of Ecology on 23 March 2016.

– ends –

Notes for editors

  1. For more information contact Dr Peter Thomas, Keele University, tel: +44 (0)1782 733497, email: Dr Thomas is also a Bullard Fellow at Harvard Forest, where he wrote the paper.
  2. For copies of the paper contact Becky Allen, British Ecological Society Press Officer, mob: +44 (0)7949 804317, email: or Chris Stone, Press Officer, Keele University, mob: 01782 733375,
  3. Journal of Ecology is published by Wiley-Blackwell for the British Ecological Society. Contents lists are available at The paper is part of the Biological Flora of the British Isles series, which since 1941 has published detailed reviews of more than 300 British plant species from the Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) to the the Ghost Orchid (Epipogium aphyllum), Britain’s rarest plant.
  4. The British Ecological Society was founded in 1913 and is the oldest ecological society in the world. A learned society and registered charity, the BES supports ecological science through its five academic journals, other publications, events, grants and awards. For more information visit

Editor’s Choice 104:2

Issue 104:2 of Journal of Ecology is available online. The latest Editor’s Choice paper is Herbivore intoxication as a potential primary function of an inducible volatile plant signal by Veyrat et al. 

Senior Editor Amy Austin has written a commentary on what makes the paper so important below.

Far from indolent, maize plants work to emit volatiles that signal bad news for herbivorous insects

A Spodoptera littoralis larvae feeding on a maize leaf. Picture: Thomas Roder.

A Spodoptera littoralis larvae feeding on a maize leaf. Picture: Thomas Roder.

There has been a virtual explosion of studies and interest in herbivore induced plant volatiles (HIPVs) in the last three decades since the publication of the original ‘talking trees’ articles that focused on  interplant communication and upregulation of plant defenses when neighboring trees were attacked (Baldwin & Schultz 1983; Rhoades 1983).  Since that time, the evolution of the field of plant-plant signaling has been a hotbed of controversy and discovery (Fowler & Lawton 1985; Heil 2014) with the dawning realization for many plant ecologists that plants have a hidden arsenal of chemical responses to attack from their worst enemies – herbivores. HIPVs can function as a warning for neighboring plants, but have also been shown to be important as an attractant for natural enemies of herbivorous arthropods (Dicke & Sabelis 1988; Vet & Dicke 1992; Rasmann et al. 2005).

First author Nathalie Veyrat is inducing maize plants by wounding the leaves and applying Spodoptera littoralis oral secretions. This treatment triggers indole release similar to real herbivory. Picture: Christelle Robert.

First author Nathalie Veyrat is inducing maize plants by wounding the leaves and applying Spodoptera littoralis oral secretions. This treatment triggers indole release similar to real herbivory. Picture: Christelle Robert.

The Editor’s Choice for this issue of Journal of Ecology, authored by Nathalie Veyrat, Christelle Robert, Ted Turlings and Matthias Erband titled Herbivore intoxication as a potential primary function of an inducible volatile plant signal concretely demonstrates a less well-established role for  HIPVs: volatile compounds, in this case indole, directly affected the metabolism and behaviour of the herbivores themselves.  Indole has been recently identified as a key HIPV, shown to be a priming agent in maize (Erb et al. 2015), meaning that plants exposed to indole compounds produced under herbivore attack in neighbors are better defended prior to actual herbivory events.  The creative insight of these authors in this study is that they demonstrate another role for indole in plant-insect interactions: plants may benefit from the emission of indole by directly altering herbivore fitness and behaviour. Using wild-type maize plants and maize plants that were indole-deficient, the researchers conducted a series of choice and growth experiments with some interesting results: insects growing on wild-type plants that emitted indole had lower survival and reduced leaf consumption; caterpillars chose indole-deficient plants when provided with a choice; and even at a distance, caterpillars directly avoided leaves that were emitting indole. Perhaps more importantly, however, was that the attraction and choice of the indole-deficient mutants could be reversed for all variables by the addition of synthetic indole, and direct application of indole to the caterpillars resulted in rapid, negative effects on caterpillar survival and consumption of leaf material.

Larval preferences between wild type and indole-deficient mutants were determined using a custom made setup. Picture: Nathalie Veyrat.

Larval preferences between wild type and indole-deficient mutants were determined using a custom made setup. Picture: Nathalie Veyrat.

What to make of these effects of indole? Taken together, the experiments suggest what appears to be a direct effect of indole through toxicity or induction of metabolic changes in the caterpillars themselves.  This highlights a novel function for this HIPV, and speaks to the tripartite role for indole in plant-interactions – as a repellant for herbivores, as a priming signal for neighboring plants (Erb et al. 2015) and with additional direct toxic impacts on herbivore survival and performance.  This is not trivial, given that indole is a common plant volatile in a number of plant species.  The authors highlight that these results also speak to one of the largest unanswered questions in current researchof plant volatiles, which is the evolutionary origin of these compounds as signaling cues (Dicke & Baldwin 2010; Heil 2014). This study suggests that the evolution of plant indole emission could have originated not due to volatile signaling for plant-plant communication, but rather due to the fitness benefits for plants of herbivore toxicity.

Amy Austin
Senior Editor, Journal of Ecology


Baldwin, I. T. & Schultz, J. C. (1983) Rapid changes in tree leaf chemistry induced by damage: evidence for communication between plants. Science, 221, 277-279.

Dicke, M. & Baldwin, I. T. (2010) The evolutionary context for herbivore-induced plant volatiles: beyond the ‘cry for help’. Trends in Plant Science, 15, 167-175.

Dicke, M. & Sabelis, M. (1988) How plants obtain predatory mites as bodyguards. Netherlands Journal of Zoology, 38, 148-165.

Erb, M., Veyrat, N., Robert, C. A., Xu, H., Frey, M., Ton, J. & Turlings, T. C. (2015) Indole is an essential herbivore-induced volatile priming signal in maize. Nature communications, 6, 6273

Fowler, S. V. & Lawton, J. H. (1985) Rapidly induced defenses and talking trees: the devil’s advocate position. The American Naturalist, 126, 181-195.

Heil, M. (2014) Herbivore‐induced plant volatiles: targets, perception and unanswered questions. New Phytologist, 204, 297-306.

Rasmann, S., Köllner, T. G., Degenhardt, J., Hiltpold, I., Toepfer, S., Kuhlmann, U., Gershenzon, J. & Turlings, T. C. (2005) Recruitment of entomopathogenic nematodes by insect-damaged maize roots. Nature, 434, 732-737.

Rhoades, D. F. (1983) Responses of alder and willow to attack by tent caterpillars and webworms: evidence for pheromonal sensitivity of willows. Plant resistance to insects (ed P. A. Hedin), pp. 55-68. American Chemical Society, Washington D.C.

Vet, L. E. & Dicke, M. (1992) Ecology of infochemical use by natural enemies in a tritrophic context. Annual Review of Entomology, 37, 141-172.

Interview with Honor Prentice #IWD2016

As part of Journal of Ecology’s continued International Women’s Day celebrations Associate Editor Honor Prentice has done a Q&A for the our blog. As expected lots of brilliance below.

Lauren Sandhu
Assistant Editor, Journal of Ecology

What made you want to pursue a career in science?

I’ve always been interested in natural history: one of my earliest memories is going along the lane with my grandmother to pick the first celandines. As a child, I made endless lists of birds and plants (and confess that I still enjoy making a good list). I couldn’t decide between English and Biology at school, and it wasn’t until the end of my second undergraduate year at Cambridge that we had a series of field courses and lectures that unexpectedly revealed that academic biology could also include “real” biology.

I definitely never thought in terms of pursuing a career in science. It would have been presumptuous to imagine that I was aiming for something that was so obviously out of my league. I had zero self-confidence and just pushed myself from one short-term goal to the next. But I was obstinate. The setbacks and problems that I experienced as a PhD student and as a young postdoc somehow made me even more stubborn. I needed to convince myself (not easy), as well as my family and peers, that I could get a PhD. Then I felt driven to deal with the next challenge, and the next.

Were there any female scientists who inspired you?

Simple answer. “No”. The very few women scientists that one glimpsed from afar as an undergraduate were impossibly remote. I never even considered the possibility that I might seek support from other women scientists! Now, many years later, I’m inspired and impressed by lots of female scientists. Things have got better.

Why do women abandon ship?

Science is a challenging profession … for both sexes. A lot of the obstacles that are recognized as being a problem for women are also just as much a problem for men. The adage about “hungry wolves” (beloved of research councils and politicians) always enrages me. We all like to measure ourselves against others in our field and to push ourselves to do better. But I would like to see the evidence that “good” science is best promoted by keeping workers on short-term contracts and making them compete for every krona of research funding.

Sweden has solved many of the problems that hold back women academics in other countries. There is good child-care provision. Longer periods of parental leave (for men as well as women) are the norm, and the periods of leave are taken into consideration when job applications are evaluated. Sweden is relatively well along the road to gender-equality … but not that well along. The ratios look fine until the postdoc level, and then the wastage begins. The bottleneck is recognized and efforts are being made (albeit slowly) to open up junior academic positions that give women a chance to get established. Thirty years ago, the situation was definitely better in Sweden than in Britain. Had I stayed in Britain, there is little chance that I would still be a scientist.


The support that I received within the academic system in Britain at the beginning of my career was non-existent. And I also experienced some really crass and openly-expressed discrimination when applying for the few jobs that were available in Britain in the late seventies. It didn’t exactly help when friends and relatives asked me, as I lurched to and fro across Europe from one postdoc to the next, “when are you going to get a proper job?”.

The support that has been helpful has come from colleagues that I trust and respect and who have given me the chance to rant on about my problems. It’s important to be able to moan and rant in confidence!

As I said, the Swedish system is making some progress with gender equality in science and there are some marvellous mentoring programmes available for young and mid-career women. However, there is a risk that younger women are over-exploited when it comes to, for example, committee-work and evaluations … situations where the Swedish rules demand, at worst, a 60:40 gender ratio. It took me a long time to realize that being one of the 40% female representatives on a committee, at a time when the actual proportion of available women in the available pool was around 10%, meant that I was bolstering the system rather more than was reasonable! These kinds of problems get overlooked if gender equality is simply viewed in terms of head-counts.

Mentoring programmes are brilliant! They are a real contribution to the empowerment of young scientists. I love being a mentor … and I would have loved to have had an early-career mentor myself. Some years ago, our Dean was trying to persuade me to do my duty on yet another committee. I was bogged down with administration, grant applications, long-distance commuting and a family tragedy. I had an extremely short fuse and totally lost my cool. “I want a mentor!”. “Okaaay” … says the Dean. “I’ll see what I can do” (what a star!). And he conjured up the most amazing and wise lady who categorically refused to be my mentor but said that she would be delighted to have regular conversations with me. Now that she’s retired, we talk mainly about gardening but our conversations are still very important to me. As the number of women in the system gradually grows, we can increasingly gather support from our own networks … but some late-career support for women would also be appreciated.

Why is there still a problem?

This is definitely not the first time I’ve been asked to reflect about gender equality in science. Have my reflections become better structured or more penetrating over time? Alas, no. I still have difficulty understanding why there is still a problem and exactly where the problem lies. The problem has elusive depths that involve “informal structures”. For example, the inertia of the immense network of brotherhood that underlies the academic system. I’m absolutely not talking about a sexist maffia that is bristling with ill-will towards women. It’s just that we‘ve inherited our academic system from a time when scientists were men. If your research supervisor is a man, you start off by acquiring your supervisor’s network of male colleagues. You then link into their networks … and so on. Most senior women scientists have had male supervisors, so we also started off with a male-biased network. Ask colleagues (male and female, graduate students or seniors) to suggest an outstanding scientist who could be invited to give a seminar, and 90% of the proposed names will be men. Ask again, but allow only suggestions for women speakers. Then the response to the suggested names is typically “… yes, wow, she’s really good … why didn’t I think of her? “. We need to get better at mentally accessing alternative networks.

Advice to early career researchers …

Among the biologists I know, the people who seem to survive best in the academic system are those who do research because they want to know what is going on in nature and are motivated by a curiosity about how it all works. These people are happy and professionally fulfilled as long as they have some funding and enough time to do active research. The people who get disappointed and discouraged are often the ones who were originally motivated by career goals. Without a real passion for biology, it’s maybe less easy to keep alive an interest in research and to use research as a “reward” when the going gets tough and one’s career isn´t as stellar as one had hoped.

Be certain that you really want to do research and that you are strongly-motivated. You need to be pretty stubborn as well! Otherwise, follow your own moral codes and convictions: don’t let other people or the system force you into behaving in a way that doesn’t feel right for you. Your own integrity is important. And you CAN change the system! You may not be able to change it much, but every little helps.

Looking back …

I’m so glad that I was stubborn enough, and lucky enough, to be able to become a scientist. Being a biologist has made me both supremely happy and very unhappy … and I expect it to continue to do so. The natural world is totally amazing and we’ve got a tough job ahead of us.

Honor Prentice
Lund University
Associate Editor, Journal of Ecology

Honor Prentice
Honor’s current research centres on the mechanisms involved in the maintenance or loss of biodiversity on different scales – from genes and populations to species and landscapes. Much of her work focuses on semi-natural grassland ecosystems and the old cultural landscape on the Baltic island of Öland. She also has a long-standing interest in patterns of differentiation, evolution and systematics within the genus Silene

Happy International Women’s Day

As the Assistant Editor of the Journal of Ecology every day I get to work with a huge number of amazing female ecologists and from day one it has always been a privilege.

A view shared by other members of the Journal of Ecology senior editorial team.

Journal of Ecology’s Executive Editor David Gibson fell in love with biology because of the brilliant Dr. Cynthia Millband.

“I was inspired to pursue science by a woman. My Secondary School biology teacher, the late Dr. Cynthia Millband was a brilliant and inspiring teacher that persuaded three boys (the ‘three Davids’) to take our GCE ‘O’ level Biology exam a year early. She volunteered to tutor us after school for the exams and as a result we all were awarded Grade A passes. The next year when we would have been taking our ‘O’ level Biology exams we instead took ‘O’ level Human Biology, again passing with the top grade. I haven’t looked back in biology since then.”

Specifically over the last few years the Journal’s senior editorial team has been working to increase the diversity of our editorial board. And as a result of this more women than ever, based at institutions around the world, work on the Journal in their capacity as Associate Editors. As always though we recognise that there is still work to be done but it is always at the forefront of the senior editorial team’s mind when new Associate Editors are appointed to the board.

Tomorrow on the Journal blog there will be an interview with Associate Editor Honor Prentice about her experiences as a female ecologist and the barriers she has faced. Stay tuned!

Below I have listed some highlights of the work of women ecologists for the Journal of Ecology. I can’t emphasise enough though that this list is by no means exhaustive. Follow Journal of Ecology on Twitter for more highlights via @JEcology.

At the start of 2016 our inaugural Harper Review, Does the biogeographic origin of species matter? Ecological effects of native and non-native species and the use of origin to guide management, was authored by Yvonne Buckley and Jane Catford.

Last year Journal of Ecology Senior Editor Amy Austin and Associate Editor Amy Zanne guest edited a special feature on how plants affect biogeochemical cycling. All of the lead authors on this special feature were women at varying stages of their academic career something that Amy Austin and Amy Zanne are keen to celebrate. Pamela Templer et al.’s special feature paper Fog as a source of nitrogen for redwood trees: evidence from fluxes and stable isotopes was chosen as the editor’s choice for issue 103.6 and a commentary is available online here.

Working on special features is probably my favourite part of working on Journal of Ecology admittedly. However, this special feature was a particular joy to facilitate. Courtney Stepien and her colleague Orissa Moulton provided some great images, which ended up being used on the front cover of the Journal and on our postcards that are available at conferences (see below).


On the Journal blog we publish a category of post entitled ‘ecological inspirations’. Last November after winning the Argentine L’Oréal-UNESCO fellowship for Women in Science Amy Austin’s ecological inspiration celebrated women in ecology. It. is a great piece and I would encourage anyone who hasn’t read it to read because of the important issues Amy addresses when discussing what has inspired her throughout her career in ecology.

Our most popular piece on the Journal of Ecology blog (Should ecologists be banned from using p-values?) was written by Associate Editor Caroline Brophy. It has been viewed in excess of 2000 times and really got people talking.

Our latest Editor’s Choice paper, Herbivore intoxication as a potential primary function of an inducible volatile plant signal, was picked by Amy Austin and is by Nathalie Veyrat.

Last October Associate Editor Carol Thornber guest edited a virtual issue celebrating marine ecology. We would still like to encourage the best submissions in both marine and freshwater plant ecology to the Journal. For more details on the types of paper we have already published check out the virtual issue.

Finally at the end of last year I co-organised an Athena SWAN Biosciences best practice event with colleagues from the Biochemical Society, Microbiology Society, Royal Society of Biology, and Society of Experimental Biology. A highlight for me was Prof. Jane Hill’s talk on her work at the University of York when she took the lead on her department’s gold Athena SWAN award. A video of this event will be available this week. I will update this post and tweet the link from the Journal of Ecology Twitter account when it is available.

Thank you to all the women who work with us on Journal of Ecology in their capacity as authors, reviewers, and editorial board members.

Happy International Women’s Day.

Lauren Sandhu
Assistant Editor, Journal of Ecology

Demography Beyond the Population

Last March I had the pleasure of attending the British Ecological Society’s annual symposium “Demography Beyond the Population”, which was coordinated by Alden Griffith.

There was a real buzz surrounding the event and it was a really great few days. See Rob Salguero-Gómez post for the Journal of Ecology blog for more info about the event in full.

During the symposium I met with the extended group of organisers (see below) to discuss the possibility of a cross-journal special feature. And less than 12 months later here it is.

Organisers 2

Yesterday all 5 of the BES journals, along with our partner journal Ecology & Evolution, published a special feature highlighting the interdisciplinary nature of the field of demography. It is the first time that all of the journals have collaborated in this way.


Five of the papers (and the editorial) were published in Journal of Ecology.

On Tuesday 1 March at 1pm GMT the BES journals will be hosting a webinar in association with the special feature. Registration for the webinar is free.

Lauren Sandhu
Assistant Editor, Journal of Ecology

Southern Connection Congress 2016

Editor’s note

The southern hemisphere is home to some unique ecosystems that have long been understudied. Today, it is clear that some of the most compelling and important ecological studies are being conducted in the southern hemisphere. The Southern Connection Congress, created slightly more than two decades ago, aims to bring together scientists from the south to strengthen this research. Matt McGlone, Associate Editor of Journal of Ecology and member of the scientific committee of the Southern Connection Congress 2016, kindly agreed to share his impressions on this year’s conference (below). To celebrate this event, Wiley-Blackwell also produced a Virtual Issue entitled “Natural Sciences and the Southern Hemisphere” led by Martin Nuñez, Senior Editor of Journal of Applied Ecology. This Virtual Issue compiles 26 articles highlighting new advances and challenges in southern hemisphere research.

Pierre Mariotte

Associate Editor, Journal of Ecology

Southern Connection Congress 2016

Punta Arenas is a wind-swept city of about 125 000 inhabitants, perched on the side of the Strait of Magellan at 53°S, close to the southern tip of Chile. This year’s Southern Connection Congress – the 8th – was held there on January 18-23, at the University of Magallanes. Southern Connection is a rather strange organisation. Virtually its sole purpose is to organise a gathering about every three to four years of natural scientists who work in Gondwanan lands, mainly Australia, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand and South Africa. Formed in 1991, it is an extremely informal organisation: at one time had a set of rules, but apparently they have been lost. As far as the old hands understand its mission, it exists to foster latitudinal links across the southern ocean, which are weak in relation to the meridional flow to the great scientific centres of the north. It provides a rare chance then to focus entirely on a southern perspective. One of the special features of Southern Connection is the way the congress takes on the colour of its host nation. Rather than being a typical scientific gathering in which outsiders jet in for a few days, it is always dominated scientifically and socially by locals. And so it was in Punta Arenas: Spanish was just as likely to be heard in the breaks as English. The local organizers certainly rose to the occasion providing a well-run, welcoming event. Not many scientific conferences are held in Punta Arenas so it was a rather big deal. The senator for Magallanes attended the opening ceremony, as did the USA ambassador to Chile.

An exceptionally wide range of sessions focussed on the southern end of the world or on southern ecological problems (see Program). Tree invasion was a broad theme that featured in several symposia, and one of the most interesting concerned pines. The south has no native pines but these fast-growing, stress-resistant trees form the backbone of the southern timber industry. Pine invasions have in recent years become a huge problem. The main new finding across from studies in Chile, Argentina, and New Zealand was that during an invasion irreversible ecosystem change (mycorrhizae, altered soil chemistry) occurs that facilitates rapid reinvasion after control operations. Complicating control is the intriguing finding that pines may undergo extraordinarily rapid evolution and increased invasiveness in their initial spread from plantations (Rafael Zenni, University of Brasilia). Given the location of the congress, it was fascinating to get an update on megafaunal extinctions in Última Esperanza, southwestern Patagonia by Natalia Villavicencio and colleagues. Nearly all of the extinctions took place between 18 and 7 kiloannum mainly after human arrival, but with prolonged co-existence in many cases and coinciding with change from steppe grassland to forest. It seems clear that extinctions would not have occurred without human arrival, but equally clear that the timing depended also on a range of ecological factors.

Did the Congress succeed in its main aim of connecting the south? Certainly to this participant it did. Being small, and in a remote setting with most attendees therefore staying for the duration, it had a village atmosphere with very little of the rather impersonal nature of large international conferences. Making contacts and renewing old ones was therefore simple. And it will continue: an enthusiastic Brazilian, Lucia Lohmann has taken up the challenge of hosting the next congress in three years time in southern Brazil.

Matt McGlone

Associate Editor, Journal of Ecology

Harper Prize 2014: Pierre Mariotte interviews Michiel Veldhuis

The Harper Prize 2014 for the best paper published in Journal of Ecology by a young author has been officially awarded to Dr. Michiel Veldhuis during the last BES annual meeting in Edinburgh (Fig.1). His paper, “A novel mechanism for grazing lawn formation: large herbivore-induced modification of the plant–soil water balance”, provides new insights into herbivores’ effects on plant community composition by proposing an alternative water-based pathways to the existing nutrient-based pathways. Michiel did his work in savannas in South Africa (Fig. 2) and highlighted the drying effects of large herbivores, through decreased vegetation cover and soil compaction, especially during the dry season, which shape plant community composition of grazing lawns.

We conducted an interview with Michiel (below) to discuss and share with you the results of his research.

Pierre Mariotte

Associate Editor, Journal of Ecology


Michiel Veldhuis

Fig 1.

Fig 2.

Fig 2.

Final instalment of #BES2015

I’ve been to quite a few BES meetings and, for me, this was by far the best! Three days of exciting talks and posters where everyone could discover the latest news in their own field but also mind-broadening and engaging stories elsewhere that are relevant to all of us.

My favourite of the first day was the session on ecological and evolutionary risks to agriculture and food production. We heard great examples of how seemingly basic ecological research and evolutionary theory can help answer pressing questions in environmentally sustainable agriculture and inform policy and practice. Even better, Lynn Dicks came on stage with good news: scientists, industry and government generally agree what the priority areas are, so it seems that scientists are being heard as never before. Will we make the most of this opportunity? Jonathan Leake concluded the session with powerful images of our dependence on finite soil resources in a talk that should certainly help to mobilise the crowds. As a counterbalance to the good news, Paul Johnson’s talk reminded us how ill-equipped our research is to give a good advice: due to low (but sometimes also excessive) statistical power, much research probably produces misleading results. But it seems that we are reluctant to do anything about it. My New Year’s resolution will be to learn more about power analysis! The day ended with a fun talk by Bob O’Hara on what exactly we mean by biotic interactions. His presentation can be found online (, so have a look.

The highlight of the second day for me was definitely the thematic topic session Digging Deeper-Advancing Our Understanding of How Soil Biota Drive & Respond to Plant Invasions, which has already been mentioned in previous blog posts. I’m really looking forward to seeing this session presented as a special feature in Journal of Ecology!

For those who had to leave the meeting early, the third day was full of exciting talks. I tried to run between different sessions in the morning to get a taste of what was going on in different rooms. In the Global Change Ecology session, Camille Parmesan gave an excellent talk and you could feel the weight of responsibility when faced with difficult decisions – as climate change is steadily wiping out suitable habitats for different species and subspecies, are we ready to decide whether to let species go extinct, to assist their movement to remaining suitable habitats and/or let them hybridize with other species? I popped into the Hidden Herbivory thematic topic session and heard the exciting story of how Mario Schumann and colleagues searched for a novel biocontrol to manage wireworms on potatoes; it turns out that behavioural ecology came in handy. Last but not least, exciting results and novel approaches in the field of plant-soil feedback were presented across different sessions. I particularly enjoyed the talk by Reagan Early who took a novel approach of looking at climate data, species ranges and fungal pathogens in native and naturalised ranges and found that climate may not directly affect species range shifts as much as it does via biotic interactions.

Three massively enjoyable days in Edinburgh, and I’m already looking forward to Liverpool 2016!

Marina Semchenko
Associate Editor, Journal of Ecology

Ecological Society of Australia Annual Meeting 2015

Recently I attended the Ecological Society of Australia’s annual meeting in Adelaide (Nov 29 – Dec 3, 2015), which is always one of my favourite conferences. There were ~650 delegates which is large enough for interest and diversity and small enough that you can catch up with all the friends and colleagues you want to and not be totally overwhelmed with choice of talks. The conference delegates were largely from the Australian ecological community with a scattering from New Zealand, Malaysia, UK, Papua New Guinea, South Africa, China, Canada, Finland and the Middle East. The mix of people were probably pretty typical for an ecological conference – many from universities and Australia’s national scientific research institution CSIRO, others from national and state government natural resource management agencies and a few from ecological consulting companies and other private companies.

The theme of the conference was interconnectedness, which seems entirely appropriate for an ecological conference. Ecology of course is about connections between species and between species and their environment, but the conference also covered connectedness on a larger scale – between ecologists, other scientists, indigenous people, the general public and the media. Much of the conference was organised into themed symposium sessions, including the big issues for ecology in Australia – fire management, climate change, off-reserve and private reserve conservation and urban ecology. Although there were a few marine and freshwater presentations, by far the majority were terrestrial. I’ve been going to these conferences for over 20 years now and one of the major changes I’ve seen is the shift towards applied ecology – many of the talks and posters focused on conservation and management, from environmental decision-making to management of productive landscapes for conservation, climate change impacts and species-level management. The only small disappointment that I confess to is the paucity of evolutionary research presented.

The conference had the usual mix of plenaries and concurrent sessions. Plenaries included conservation decision-making, the use of drones for ecological research, species interactions and human dependence on natural systems, with one of the most closely followed (in twitter space anyway) being ‘Gender equity in ecology’ by Emma Johnston and Mark Burgman. This excited a deal of attention over the typical scissor-graphs of proportion females and males against seniority (typically lecturer to professor positions). More surprising to me was the data showing the proportion of female and male authors in relation to journal prestige, with larger proportions of female authors publishing in the more local and regional journals and greater proportions of male authors publishing in higher-impact journals such as Trends in Ecology & Evolution. Come on women scientists – be brave and submit your best work to the best journals!

There were interesting discussions on data accessibility including a session on the different aspects of data accessibility that ecologists are now grappling with – open access, databases, open code, etc and the increasing importance of managing widespread collaborations and data sharing. I personally found fascinating several talks that covered the relationships between Australian vegetation, the arrival of humans, loss of the megafauna and changes in fire regimes. These have been vexed issues among Australian researchers for many decades but it appears as if new methods are bringing some consensus that the arrival of Aboriginal people on the Australian continent 40-50000 years ago resulted directly in the extinction of the megafauna which resulted in shifts in vegetation and fire regimes, with variability in these shifts across the continent. Why there were different vegetation and fire responses to absence of the megafauna raises a whole series of new questions!

I often find the talks on areas outside my own research area (plant ecology) the most fascinating. I was enthralled by a talk by Sonia Kleindorfer (Flinders University) on calling behaviour of parent Superb Fairy-wrens to their chicks while still in the egg – the chick embryos learn their parents’ call and are able to mimic the call once hatched, which I find amazing. This may be a way for parent birds to assess offspring quality and also identify which chicks in the nest are the cuckoo usurpers.

The conference hashtag was #ESA15 and there were almost 10000 tweets from 1100 contributors throughout the week of the conference. There were also great Storify posts covering some of the talks, including on insect biodiversity of a pop-up grassland in Melbourne, tracking foxes and wildlife restoration. There was even cartoon coverage of some of the talks #ESA15comic, which were hilarious.

It’s always great to see student and early career researcher talks and I often find that these are the most interesting. About one third of the delegates were students but it certainly felt like a greater proportion than this were student talks and posters. The standard was high, with many vying for the range of prizes on offer this year. The ESA should be congratulated for its consistent support of students through travel grants and conference awards. All in all, another great gathering of ecologists in Australia and looking forward to Fremantle next year!

Michelle Leishman
Associate Editor, Journal of Ecology