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February 2020 -

An ode to our countryside: Grasslands, meadows and pastures

This blog was written by Esme Ashe-Jepson in the Insect Ecology Group. Please hover over the images for captions.


"Nothing lifts the soul as much as going to a lovely meadow, sitting among the butterflies and looking at the wildflowers. It does something to enrich your life."

Matt Jackson, Head of Conservation Policy at Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust

Growing up in the British countryside in a village bordering the North Downs, I consider myself lucky in my connection to nature, and in particular, our British wildlife. As a child I spent most of my time turning over rocks to find creepy crawlies, climbing hazel trees, and chasing butterflies through golden fields under lazy blue skies. But as a conservationist I find myself torn between our own rolling hills, babbling brooks, and green valleys, and the disappearing tracks of rainforest in the tropics. But how can I leave without first addressing our own needs here in the UK?

I have designed my PhD to work closely with wildlife charities in British nature reserves, some of the last wild spaces left in our country. The reserves I am working in are all grasslands, an ordinary part of our countryside that it is easy to overlook. In the grasslands I have visited I have seen litter, fires, burnt out cars, dismantled motorbikes, abandoned campsites, and dirt bike arenas. As a people have we lost our connection and respect for our own wild spaces? And if so, what chance do they have?

Let’s take a stroll through the green pastures of history, and remind us of the unique story of the British people and our meadows, grasslands, and pastures.


A brief history of grasslands in Britain

Though recent years feel like an avalanche of change, growing in velocity and strength with each passing day, Britain has a long and complex history of change over the last few million years.

It may not come as a huge surprise that Britain has historically had a largely arctic climate, with brief interglacial periods of warm weather for a few thousand years, one of which we are currently in. In those ancient times Britain would have looked very different, with ice covering the land keeping it bleak and bare, void of much life. As the climate warmed the ice retreated northwards, it left behind tundra and moorland where communities of grasses, sedges, and herbs could finally grow. Over time the land was colonised by various tree species from the south; birch, aspen, and sallow, followed by pine and hazel, then oak, alder, lime, elm, holly, ash, beech, hornbeam, and maple; many of the tree species we still associate with the British countryside. As the land thawed and the forests grew, woody-plants pushed out grassland communities to areas where trees could not grow. During this time the only natural grasslands were likely small areas on high mountains, or on exposed maritime cliffs.

Thousands of years passed, and Neolithic human settlers arrived (c. 4000 BC) and started clearing large wooded areas, with evidence of woodland clearing peaking in the early Iron Age. The woodlands would have been cleared to make space for agriculture primarily, but also for growing settlements and grazing pastures. Ancient monuments such as Stonehenge (2800 BC) suggest unobstructed horizons and vast areas of open land. It’s estimated that approximately half of England was cleared of woodland by 500 BC (Rackham, 1990). By 1086 AD, only 15% of England remained as woodland or wood-pasture.

This newly cleared land gave the grasslands a chance to return; a plethora of grasses, shrubs, herbs, and wildflowers emerged in the forms of complex plant communities, meadows, and pastures. Some of these grasslands were used in agriculture, whereby the land must be ‘improved’ to increase growing conditions, for example by adding fertilisers or sowing productive crop seeds, whereas others were left ‘unimproved’.

It is these unimproved grasslands that are particularly species-rich, with complex and diverse flora and fauna communities. What I mean by an ‘unimproved’ grassland is a permanent grassland largely maintained and enhanced by continuous traditional disturbance (e.g. hay making, grazing) with either no fertiliser or low inputs of natural fertilisers (such as manure). Unimproved grasslands have never been subject to agricultural improvement or where improvements have been made, they were insignificant and the effects have disappeared over time. Unimproved grasslands tend to support a wider variety of species than improved grasslands; characterised with more than 15 vascular plant species per metre and over 30% cover of wildflowers and sedges. Improved grasslands tend to have high cover of rye-grasses and white clover, less than 8 vascular plant species per metre, and less than 10% cover of wildflowers and sedges (Plantlife, ‘Save Our Magnificent Meadows’).

Grasslands can only persist where trees cannot establish, many are semi-natural habitats, the result of traditional farming practices that have been used across Britain for centuries that prevent forests reclaiming the land; the first evidence of haymaking in Britain is from the 2nd century in Gloucestershire. What can make grasslands challenging to conserve is they must be disturbed to persist. Disturbing grasslands, such as by cutting, mowing, or grazing, maintains low soil fertility and prevents over-dominance from one or a few species (Figure 1). Though it may sound counter-intuitive, this maintains high levels of species diversity and prevents slow growing trees re-establishing. But this also means in the absence of active management or disturbance, grasslands can become coarse, lose diversity, and develop into scrub and then woodland over time.


Grasslands are a part of our cultural heritage, once playing a part in the lives of almost every rural community; almost every parish in the country used to have a meadow. Grasslands feature in much of our folklore, and were the settings of many historic battles. Village greens remain to this day hotspots of rural community life. Take the time to look and you can see this in how we have named land and communities, with over 2000 roads in Britain including the words ‘meadow’ or ‘dôl’ (Welsh for meadow). As a people we are intrinsically, culturally, and socially linked to our grasslands and meadows.

Today, only 1% of land area in the UK is grassland. Despite taking 6,000 years to create our species-rich grasslands, we have lost an estimated 97% of wildflower meadows since the 1930s, equating to 7.5 million acres, or one and half times the size of Wales. This decline is nothing new, during World War II 6 million acres of grassland were ploughed to grow cereals, and this transition of grassland to arable land remains common to this day. A recent report by Plantlife (2015), a British wild plant conservation charity, found only 26,000 acres of lowland grassland and 2,223 acres of upland grassland remains. What remains is tiny isolated islands of species-rich grasslands in oceans of agricultural land. 

Despite this, few ecosystems in Britain can match the biodiversity found in a grassland. Lowland chalk (calcareous) grasslands can support 50-60 species of vascular plant per square metre, with a further 20-30 species of moss (Smith, 1980). They are prized by conservationists and should be more widely recognised as biodiversity hotspots and high priority areas for conservation in Britain.

"The steady, quiet and under-reported decline of our meadows is one of the biggest tragedies in the history of UK nature conservation; if over 97% of our woodland had been destroyed there’d be a national outcry. Without the roar of chainsaws or the sound of mighty oaks crashing to the ground, meadows with undisturbed floral histories going back generations are being ploughed up in a single afternoon.”

- Dr. Trevor Dines, Plantlife Botanical Specialist


Why are grasslands important?

"Unimproved grasslands are the richest habitats for wildlife in England, supporting more endangered species than any other habitat."

- Ellie Brodie, Senior Policy Manager for The Wildlife Trusts

As biodiversity hotspots, if we protect diverse ancient grasslands we will also be protecting the species that depend on them, including many spectacular and rare animals and plants, many of which are specialists to our grasslands; in Europe, over 50% of our endemic plant species are dependent on grasslands. However there appears to be a mismatch in Britain between what land is protected by law and what needs protection. For example, in Nottinghamshire 10% of the county has been designated as Local Wildlife Sites (LWS), but only 1.5% has been designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), which gives them legal protection.

Unimproved grasslands support many rare and vulnerable plant species (Figure 2), including: the ghost orchid (Epipogium aphyllum) one of our rarest orchids that, interestingly, has no leaves; snake’s-head fritillary (Fritillaria Meleagris), classified as Vulnerable on the Vascular Plant Red Data List for Great Britain; and bastard toadflax (Thesium humifusum), this strangely named hemi-parasitic plant is our only native sandalwood species. Due to the rich plant life supported in grasslands, they are also rich in invertebrates, such as the Duke of Burgundy butterfly (Hamearis lucina), the only member of the Riodinidae family in Britain, and marsh fritillary butterfly (Euphydryas aurinia), a species threatened across Britain and Europe. Both of these are species of principal importance under the NERC Act in England. Invertebrates in turn feed small mammals hunting amongst the tall grasses (such as harvest mice and field voles), reptiles (such as the threatened adder) and birds (such as kestrels, barn owls, and skylarks).


I myself am taking part in a captive breeding program for the reintroduction of harvest mice around Britain, and am currently rearing two 14-week old females (Figure 3). These amazing little gymnasts are inquisitive, athletic, and acrobatic; they are the only animal in the UK to have a prehensile tail, which they use similarly to a monkey to grip branches and blades of grass as they run, climb, and swing through towering blades of grass like trees in a jungle. Having spent the last three months watching them explore their enclosure and grow plump over winter, my love and appreciation for the adaptations of grassland specialists has grown. Britain may not be home to tropical rainforests, but our meadows may not be as far away from them as we previously thought.

The value of grasslands is not limited to wildlife alone. Grasslands provide ecosystem services and functions that benefit us. They sequester carbon from the atmosphere, retain rainwater in the soil to mitigate against flooding, and access to these green spaces is known to improve our own health and wellbeing, reduce crime, strengthen communities, and improve mental health. Furthermore, grasslands play a dominate role in feeding over 45 million livestock animals in the UK, providing a service that would cost the equivalent of nearly £2.75 billion annually. Furthermore, nearly 65% of full-time farmers rely on grassland enterprises as their main source of income (Lazenby & Doyle, 1981). And to top it all off, livestock fed on biodiverse unimproved pastures have higher nutrition in their meat, with a higher content of vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids. We have the potential to transition towards maintaining unimproved grasslands for farming, with benefits such as supporting our declining wildlife, providing income to farmers, feeding our livestock, and improving meat quality. With space limited, populations growing, climate uncertainty looming, and mental and physical health declining, our unimproved grasslands need to a be a part of our future as much as they are a part of our past.

The loss of grasslands to other biomes, such as woodland, changes the ecosystem functions and services provided. A study in North and South America found a 1% increase in woody-plant cover resulted in 2.5% decrease in mean livestock production (Anadon, et al. 2014), not good news for growing populations. However it is important to consider that our demand for ecosystem services changes over time, the demand for livestock forage in the USA in drylands has decreased by 14% over the last 30 years (Sala & Maestre, 2014), whereas demand for tourism and recreation in drylands has increased (Cordell, 2012). Where do our grasslands fit in in this changing world?


What is the future of our grasslands?

“The whole farm – the meadows and the woodland – is European money. That’s enabled us to do this. [U]nless there is some foresight from the government I’m not quite sure where we will end up. I’m not hugely optimistic but we’ll see.” 

Vic Long, farmer in Norfolk

Globally, grasslands and savannas are undergoing a shift from herbaceous to woody-plant dominance (Archer, 2010); in the USA woody-cover is increasing by 0.5-2% per year (Barger, et al. 2011). It is unclear how climate change will affect biome transitions to and from grasslands. Furthermore, many British grasslands are protected under EU law such as the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), it is currently unclear whether this protection will remain in place after Brexit. The Agriculture Bill set before parliament to replace the EU’s common agricultural policy proposes a new system of land management contracts that will be voluntary, including contracts that include protection of protected species (e.g. hedgehogs, nesting birds), and with cuts to the number of farm inspections implying that any kind of enforcement will be challenging. We live in increasingly turbulent times where conservation often takes a back seat. It has never been a more important time to stand up for our wildlife and countryside.

The crux of the problem is that people are rarely, if ever, paid to grow meadows or maintain unimproved grasslands. Farmers are under financial pressure to grow crops. If grassland protection is forced into domestic legislation there would be an incentive for farmers to protect and maintain their grasslands appropriately, and enforcement of some kind. This raises the question, how much are the British public willing to pay to save their grasslands? And can it be done without legislative support?

Luckily, there are many well-established organisations that are working hard to preserve what unimproved grasslands remain. The Wildlife Trust is buying meadowland for restoration; in 2017 they managed to successfully fundraise and purchase Ashes Pasture in the Yorkshire Dales, a rare example of an upland hay meadow. Plantlife has established flagship projects such as ‘Coronation Meadows’ and ‘Save Our Magnificent Meadows’ to improve public attitudes and appreciation towards meadows, with plans to restore and create 6,000 hectares of wildflower meadow. An example of which is ‘Save Our Magnificent Meadows’ creating three new meadows in Gwynedd in North Wales; one of which had five times more species after just one year of restoration.

In these uncertain times our most precious wild spaces are at risk, but we have the potential to create, restore, and protect the last fragments of our wild countryside, if we can convey their value to the decision-makers (Figure 4).


What can I do for my grasslands and meadows?

  • Take part in National Meadow Day on the first Saturday of July each year, with events last year (2019) such as meadow walks, summer fairs, workshops, and art installations. 
  • Reach out to your local MP to share your concern for your local grasslands and meadows and to push for stronger protection. 
  • Consider supporting or promoting the organisations and charities working hard to protect these spaces. 

One of the best things you can do for your local grasslands would be to simply spend time in them. Sit amongst the swaying grasses and wildflowers, listen to the birds trilling and bees buzzing between the thistles. Breathe deeply the scents of wildflowers and spring, and rejuvenate. We live busy productive lives with little time for the simple pleasures our land offers us. If we all took the time to realise how magnificent and special our meadows are, we would be rightly outraged at their decline. If we never lose our connection to the countryside, we could live in a more beautiful world.


“We can’t go back, but there’s no reason we can’t go forwards in a different way, to where the extraordinary can once again become the ordinary in our fields and meadows.”

- Stephen de Vere, Summer in the Meadow – Diary of a Vanishing World (2018)





Anadón, J., Sala, O., Turner, B., Bennett, E. (2014) Effect of woody plant encroachment on livestock production: a comparison of North and South America. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111, 12948–12953.

Barger, N., Archer, S., Campbell, J., Huang, C., Morton, J., Knapp, A. (2011) Woody plant proliferation in North American drylands: a synthesis of impacts on ecosystem carbon balance. Journal of Geophysical Research, 116, G00K07.

Conservation Handbooks, Woodlands. British Trust for Conservation Volunteers. Available from:

Cordell, H. (2012) Outdoor Recreation Trends and Futures: A Technical Document Supporting the Forest Service (ed. R. A. G. T. R. SRS‐150), pp. 167. U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Southern Research Station, Asheville, NC.

Lazenby, A., Doyle. C. (1981) Grassland in the British economy-some problems, possibilities and speculations. In: Grassland in the British economy (L. Jollans. ed.) pp. 14-50.

Rackham, O. (1976) Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape. J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, London, UK.

Sala, O., Maestre, F. (2014) Grass-woodland transitions: determinants and consequences for ecosystem functioning and provisioning of services. Journal of Ecology, 102, DOI:

Save Our Magnificent Meadows, How to identify the type of grassland you have. Plantlife. Accessible from:

Smith, C. (1980) Ecology of the English chalk. AcademicPress, London.




Janurary 2020 - 

In praise of crop monocultures

This blog was written by William Foster in the Insect Ecology Group. Please hover over the images for captions.


Theresa May probably did more to promote a positive image for crop monocultures than any previous British Prime Minister when she revealed, in a TV interview in 2017, that the naughtiest thing she did as a child was to “run through fields of wheat with a friend”. She was much mocked at the time for the timidity of this disclosure. But I think that she should have been applauded for her boldness in showing the nation’s housebound urban youth how to re-establish contact with nature. Fling aside those laptops! Escape to the countryside, feel the nurturing soil under your feet, the wind in your hair, and the burgeoning grains brushing urgently against your thighs.


It is worth noting that her trailblazing fling took place in a farmed monoculture, rather than in, say, a flower-rich hay meadow or a Caledonian pine forest. Admittedly, such ecosystems might be hard to access for most British children, but she was making the point that  you do not have to go to extreme lengths to reforge your bond with the earth: just find your local crop – oats, barley, wheat, oil-seed rape, but perhaps not rhubarb – and trash it.


Monocultures became part of our world with the invention of farming, in the Levant and a few other areas, at around the same time, about 10,000 years ago. Crops yielded more when freed from competition with other species, now known as weeds. The food surpluses that became available meant that agriculture could eventually be left to a farming caste, paving the way for the evolution of elites - priests, doctors, entomologists etc - and world domination. Humans were of course not the first species to invent agriculture: that honour belongs to the fungus-growing termites and leaf-cutter ants, who made this transition tens of millions of years ago and who, as a result, dominate the tropical ecosystems in which they live. But for humans, farming is awesomely recent: for all but the last 5% of the 200,000-year history of modern humans, we existed as hunter-gatherers.

Unlike us, the farming insect societies have had tens of millions of years to hone their skills in the husbanding of their fungus monocultures – producing perfect growing media, developing ideal pesticides, antibiotics, and symbiotic bacteria, and inventing active recycling and waste management. We are still adjusting to the agricultural way of life. Human history is littered with failed experiments in societies built on agriculture. After agriculture, our brains became smaller, we became shorter, and so too did our lives: in 1900 the average human life-span was 30 years compared with 33 years for our late-Pleistocene hunter-gatherer ancestors. It is only in the last hundred years or so that things have begun to look up a bit.


It is therefore perhaps not surprising that we view the crop monocultures of modern agriculture as a mixed blessing. But it would be, at the very least, discourteous to disown a system that gave us Shakespeare and Darwin, and utter madness to abandon the only method that currently works for feeding the world. 

So how do we best emulate leaf-cutter ants and grow monocultures that will feed us and with which we can live in harmony? This is the most urgent question of our time, but I will continue to over-simplify things, or you will all die of boredom, if you are still there. The land-sparing argument is, in my view, won. We must have high-yielding monocultures covering large areas, and we must spare as much land as we can for reserves of natural vegetation. The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that this is best approach for conserving biodiversity and other important ecosystem services.


I am less certain that land-sparing of crop landscapes will deliver one particular outcome, that is the provision of beauty. This might seem an exceptionally frivolous, even elitist, quality to be striving for, but I have no doubt that it is important to us all. Important, but almost impossible to define. Dame Fiona Reynolds in The Fight for Beauty, her account of landscape conservation over the last 200 years or so in the UK, writes of aesthetic and spiritual experiences, of the nourishment of our souls, but completely fails to provide us with a crisp definition of what it is we are supposed to be fighting for. This is probably a good sign. Beauty will always depend on the unique responses of each of us: I am not entirely sure I would wish to have this handed down to me from a higher authority.


From the painstaking work of W. G. Hoskins, Oliver Rackham and others, it is clear that almost no landscape in England is natural: the hand of man is everywhere. This is probably true of the landscapes of many countries with a long history of agriculture. For most of us, this is what we are used to and this is what we like – what nourishes our souls, and all that. I am not sure that a combination of large areas of high-yielding crops and vast wildernesses will provide this nourishment. But we need to find out, to gather evidence by asking people what they think.

To return to Mrs May. One reason that she enjoyed her romp in the wheat-field quite so much was because she was disordering a highly managed landscape: it would not have been nearly so much fun to trample about in an already messy stand of rose-bay willowherb on a railway embankment. The importance of getting children to get in touch with nature is widely recognized and has spawned numerous initiatives – such as the National Trust’s 50 things to do before you are 11¾. My point in mentioning Mrs May at all is not to encourage armies of children to trash their local farmland. It is merely to suggest that you do not have to make a special trip to a National Nature Reserve or even a National Trust property to experience the natural world. A nearby wheat-field will do: kick off those Nikes, sit back, enjoy your vegan wrap and bottled water, and breathe in the odour of the ripening grains.

Carousel Image: By Geoff Gallice from Gainesville, FL, USA - Leaf-cutter ants, CC BY 2.0, 




December 2019 -

BES 2019 Conference in Belfast

This blog was written by Michael Pashkevich in the Insect Ecology Group. Please hover over the images for captions.

From 9 – 13 December, some members of the Insect Ecology Group attended the British Ecological Society’s annual conference. This year, the conference was in Belfast in Northern Ireland.

BES hosts a wide range of talks, so it was great to hear about on-going research both relevant and dissimilar to my own. Many of the talks I attended described incredibly creative and interesting research, but there were definitely a few highlights. I really enjoyed hearing Lynn Dicks (Twitter:  @LynnDicks) – who recently joined Cambridge’s Zoology Department – discuss how ecological knowledge of crop pollination overlapped with the understandings of farmers and beekeepers across Europe. Another interesting talk came from Miriam Dobson (Twitter:  @MiriamDobson). Miriam is a PhD student at Sheffield University, and she outlined findings from her research into urban farming practices across the UK and how these practices impact farmers’ carbon footprints. Finally, I also really enjoyed hearing Andrew Barnes from the University of Waikato (Twitter:  @BarnesEcoDiv) talk about his research into multi-trophic interactions in grassland food webs. He used data from two large-scale manipulation experiments in the USA and Germany to show that maintaining plant species richness in grasslands is essential to preserving food webs.


Those of us in the Insect Ecology Group also conveyed our research findings at BES. Ed gave an overview of our BEFTA Programme research in oil palm plantations in Indonesia, while Andrew delivered findings from his research on thermoregulation in UK butterflies. I gave a talk on how arthropod communities respond to the replanting of oil palms. We had four group members display really excellent posters:  Martina, Jake, Kate, and Sarah. Sarah, Jake, and Martina focussed on findings from the BEFTA and RERTA Projects (both part of the BEFTA Programme), while Kate outlined early results from her research on benefits of biodiversity in UK primary schools. Seeing all the research being presented in one place made me realise how diverse the projects in our research group are! I feel really lucky to be part of a group conducting so many different projects.


In addition to conferencing, we also took the week to see some of Northern Ireland and hang out as a group. Upon arriving in Belfast, we took cars up north to see Giant’s Causeway, where we got absolutely soaked by the Irish rains in addition to catching some great views and learning about the geological formations. Some group members learned about Belfast history in a Black Cab Tour, while others also took time to learn about the Belfast shipbuilding culture at the Titanic Experience. All-in-all, it was a week of learning, both for science and other disciplines!


Many thanks to those who helped organise the BES Belfast conference, and we look forward to seeing everyone next December in Edinburgh for the 2020 conference!






November 2019 -

Public engagement – what is it good for?

This blogpost was written by Kate Howlett in the Insect Ecology Group. Please hover over images for captions.

Since starting my PhD last October, I’ve found myself heavily involved in public engagement here at the Museum of Zoology, where our group is based. This is partly because public engagement forms a major part of my PhD research and partly because it seemed like a really fun thing to get involved with. As a result, I’ve ended up taking part in several events which I’ve felt really proud to have contributed towards. So I’d like to use this blogpost to wax lyrical about public engagement – about all the benefits it can bring to you and to others, and about why it’s so important.

For my PhD, I’m researching biodiversity in UK primary school grounds: what lives there? How varied is this? And how do the green spaces in children’s schools affect their wellbeing and engagement with the natural world? This involves plenty of visits to schools, talking with teachers and delivering workshops to classes of young children, so I guess I have a vested interest in attending public engagement training sessions. I’ve also always loved Museums and appreciated how a well done exhibition can be powerful in changing perspectives or imparting a surprising amount of knowledge. However, attending public engagement events as a member of the public and being involved in delivering them are two very different things, so I signed myself up to several different training sessions and got stuck in.


Family activity days at the Museum of Zoology

I quickly found myself signed up for several activity days at the Museum, which are aimed at attracting families and children of all ages to become regular visitors here. A space full of well displayed specimens labelled with Latin names runs the risk of coming across as daunting or unwelcoming to those who don’t see the University of Cambridge Museum (UCM) spaces as ‘for them’, so it’s important that we work hard to make the information here accessible and engaging for everyone. Whilst the Museum was originally established for teaching and research, its focus has evolved (sorry) over the years; in my opinion, it would be a waste if the millions of specimens in the Museum’s care were not seen by an interested public and made use of to engage wider audiences with zoology, ecology and science more generally. To that end, the dedicated public engagement and learning team, made up of Roz Wade and Sara Steele, work hard to deliver a programme of talks, events and outreach activities to the public, and family activity days are just one of their many outputs.

Volunteering my time at these events has been an overwhelmingly rewarding experience. You spend many hours on your feet, and it can be quite exhausting at times, but this is only because these days are so popular with the public that the footfall through the Museum is huge. I found myself constantly chatting to people of all ages about the Museum’s work and calendar of events.

Of course, being in the Insect Ecology Group means an opportunity is never missed to bang the drum for the wonder of insects and to try and change the public’s often negative attitude towards them. This means I’ve spent many hours holding stick insects and encouraging willing members of the public to do the same, to take time to watch them and to appreciate what wonderful animals they are. Even those who are at first cautious quickly come around and begin asking all sorts of interesting questions. This is a great way to get people interested in the Museum; seeing live animals reminds people that all of the now-dead specimens were once alive and dynamic, just like the stick insects, and I think this adds an important level of engagement for a new visitor.

Watching how young and older children interact with the stick insects is especially rewarding and fascinating. Many very young children haven’t yet been socially conditioned to dislike insects, so their curiosity means they have no fear; these are often our most enthusiastic visitors to our activity stall! Slightly older children have begun to pick up an aversion to insects or invertebrates in general from adults, so they often need slightly more convincing to hold one, but seeing a parent or a younger sibling do so first usually does the trick; we often end up struggling to persuade them to leave and visit the rest of the Museum since they don’t want to leave their new friends and are quickly asking if they can have some as pets. Teenagers and adults take more convincing still, and, sadly, we don’t always manage to persuade everyone to hold one; many stubbornly maintain a respectful but interested distance. For me, this demonstrates the importance of engaging children with nature and animals at a young age. These personal experiences can result in formative memories, not to mention an association of museums with interesting, active learning rather than boring, difficult-to-understand exhibitions.


Meet the Experts

Being based in the Museum as a graduate student means I also have plenty of opportunity to deliver more structured sessions to school groups who come to visit. I’ve got the chance to lead two ‘Meet the Experts’ sessions to groups of about 20 seniorschool children. I ran one on museum biases, asking the students to think about our biases towards mammals and larger animals, and about how museums often choose to display the sex with the more impressive morphology or colouration. This session illustrated well how science can be discussion-based and how there can be many right answers, in contrast to the impression often given in schools of science being all about learning facts and figures. My other session was based around the Museum’s handling collection of skulls. I asked the students to estimate the volumes of brain cavities of various animals and to think about the relationship between this and the animals’ body masses. Being able to use real skulls from a range of animals is a real privilege. It provides a unique experience for pupils who wouldn’t normally have this access; learning through diagrams and textbooks can be interesting enough, but getting the chance to see things in the flesh (sorry again) and actually handle them really brings a subject to life.


Museum Remix

Without a doubt my favourite event this year has to be the Museum Remix. I was drafted into this project rather last-minute, so I didn’t really understand what I was letting myself in for, but it ended up being two of the best days of the whole of my first year! The idea behind the event was to produce a pop-up exhibition at the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, in which two objects from each of five museums were ‘remixed’ to tell stories and perspectives that have been silenced in the past. This was the second year the event has been run, and each year has a different theme which guides the perspectives and stories we choose to give voice to.

This year, the theme was LGBTQ+, and the museums involved were the Museum of Zoology, the Fitzwilliam Museum, the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, the Scott Polar Museum and the Museum of Classical Archaeology. I was responsible for leading the Museum of Zoology’s offering, so I found myself giving a tour of the Museum to a team of four eager volunteers, choosing objects in the Museum’s collection with which to highlight LGBTQ+ relevant material and illustrating what we can learn from the animal kingdom about labelling and discrimination on the basis of sex, gender and sexuality.

I was apprehensive about giving this tour since I’d never given a tour of the Museum before, let alone one that lasted for 45 minutes and covered LGBTQ+ topics! However, I absolutely loved the experience andlearned a lot from it, both in term of skills and knowledge. Working for two days flat-out to produce the final exhibit was also something I was nervous about since I was somehow supposed to be in charge of the team, despite never having put an exhibition together before. But I really did enjoy a perspective-changing, eye-opening and fabulously fun two days. The resulting exhibition was something I was immensely proud to have contributed towards (very possibly prouder than I felt on completing the first year of my PhD, but we’ll leave that comparison for another day…).

We built our instalment around a quote from the sociologist Eric Anderson: ‘Animals don’t do sexual identity. They just do sex.’ We chose to focus on penguins, who frequently form same-sex pair bonds in which they incubate eggs and raise young, and bonobos, whose societies make no distinction between sexual and non-sexual relationships. We wanted to highlight how the lens through which we look at the rest of the natural world is biased towards heterosexual relationships and how the language we use to describe what we see, as ‘objective’ observers, is gendered and heavy with social constructs and connotations. The response from visitors to the exhibit was fascinating (and positive), culminating in what can only be described as an unprecedented conversation between the directors of two of UCM’s museums about the frequency of necrophilia in humans…. (a success!?)

Sadly, the exhibition could only be left up for a day, but there are plans afoot to incorporate some of the ideas into the University of Cambridge Museum’s permanent spaces. There is also now a shiny online version of the exhibition which you can view here:



I’ve loved my experiences with public engagement so much this year that I seem to be getting even deeper into it; I’ve now signed up to be a Bridging Binaries tour guide for 2020, so I’ll be giving the LGTBQ+-themed tour of the Museum on a more permanent basis. And I haven’t even touched on the events that the Museum runs jointly with the University Botanic Gardens, such as the annual BioBlitz (which this year battled heroically with Biblical winds, adding a bonus level of challenge to the whole affair) and Science Detectives (at which I spent a solid 90 minutes pretending to police a crime scene and bury animal bones in a pit of sand only to discover them and re-bury them a good six times).

So, I guess what I’m saying is, if public engagement is your thing, I can’t think of a better place to be based as a graduate student, and if public engagement isn’t your thing, then please pay the Museum a visit and allow us to change your mind…

I know there are those who think it isn’t the responsibility of scientists to communicate why their research or subject is interesting, and they’re probably right, but I definitely wouldn’t have discovered the wonders and delights of the animal kingdom, the complexity of ecology or the creativity and challenges of science had it not been for some brilliant and engaging communicators and teachers, so I think it’s worth giving it a good go.






October 2019 -

My first visit to the tropics

This blog was written by Jake Stone in the Insect Ecology Group. Please hover over images for captions.

My PhD research focuses on how management in tropical palm oil landscapes impacts on ant communities, and involves visiting and collecting data from both Malaysia and Indonesia.

On August 14th, I set off on my first explorative trip to Malaysia, it was also my first ever visit to the tropics and my first chance to see palm oil plantations in the flesh. I had a real mix of feelings on the outbound flight, some nerves and trepidation, but also plenty of anticipation and excitement. The destination for my visit was the town of Banting, located in the state of Sengalor, around 45 kilometres South-West of Kuala Lumpur. This is an area of peninsular Malaysia that is dominated by oil palm plantations, something that although I was prepared for, still shocked me with its sheer scale.

The aim of my trip was to locate, screen and open dialogue with as many small holdings/ holders in the town as possible, thus hopefully allowing me to identify a robust number of suitable sites for future data collection. This involved myself and my field assistant Syafiq (from University Putra Malaysia) seeking out and noting down the locations of any potential smallholdings as we explored the town on the back of his motorbike. Then the following morning, with the added assistance of my local counterpart Wak, we would set about tracking down the owners of the plots. We would conduct interviews with them and sometimes all head for breakfast at a local restaurant. It only took a few days of this routine and familiarising myself with my new surroundings for me to feel settled and eager to make the most of my visit.

Through visiting the smallholder plantations, it became clear that oil palm landscapes had the real potential to support high levels of biodiversity. This is largely due to the fact an average palm will have a lifespan of 25-30 years, meaning surrounding floral communities can become well established. I observed high coverage and complexity of both epiphytes (plants that can grow solely on the surface of another species) and understory vegetation within many of the smallholdings. However, management strategies aimed at boosting biodiversity within smallholdings are hugely understudied. My project will be focussing on ants, this is because ants are considered to be one of the most important and dominant taxonomic groups within tropical ecosystems. It will aim to quantify the influence of management practices on ant communities and assess their impact on ecosystem functioning and oil palm yield. The results of this work will be of direct relevance to the development of more-sustainable tropical agricultural management strategy.

Aside from interviewing smallholders, I really enjoyed having the time to get to know Malaysia. It was the season for a whole load of tropical fruits, and I sampled as many different types as I could. I also think I ate out at virtually every restaurant in the town! I also saw so much amazing wildlife, both during my time at the smallholdings and on my daily walks and runs. This included silver leaf monkeys, monitor lizards, pythons, wild boar and ahost of incredible dragonflies, birds and butterflies. Although I didn’t get to see much non-agricultural landscape on the trip, visiting a patch of intact tropical forest was a particular highlight.

It is great being back in Cambridge, however I am really looking forward to heading back out to Malaysia early next year when I will conduct the bulk of the physical data collection for my project. I will ensure that I make time for a longer visit to a tropical forest, and will most definitely add many more new fruits to my list. 
















September 2019 -

Butterflies through time: Using wildlife of the past to guide conservation of the future.

This blog was written by Matt Hayes in the Insect Ecology Group.


September has been an exciting month for me as I officially re-joined the Insect Ecology Group to start on a new project. Financed by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, ‘Butterflies through time’ aims to make use of the huge number of insects stored at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge (UMZC). The project will engage people with the natural world and environmental change, both past and present, by linking historical collections with contemporary conservation initiatives.

Over two years we aim to:

1)    Use records of long-term declines in local wildlife, stored within museum collections, to engage new audiences with museums and the natural world.
2)    Use historical museum data to guide habitat restoration work on reserves in collaboration with local conservation organisations, such as the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust (BCNWT).
3)    Catalogue and digitise the Museum’s UK butterfly collection, making these records widely accessible for the first time.


The collection

The UMZC has around 5,000 specimens on display in the public galleries, but this is only a small fraction of what is stored on site. It is estimated that the Museum actually houses around 2 million specimens, with the majority held behind the scenes for preservation and research.  Of these, around half are insects and these form the last major collection in the Museum left to be digitised and electronically catalogued - this is where I come in! Giving wider access to over 1million specimens for the first time and publishing their data online is a colossal task. That’s why we are starting with a single group, butterflies of the UK, which will be achievable over a two-year time frame.


Why butterflies (Aside from them obviously being the best)?

We hope that a focus on butterflies will lead the way to engaging public audiences with broader insect diversity, their importance and their conservation. Insects are often unpopular with the public, commonly being regarded as pests. However, insects are amazingly diverse and represent more than half of all known species. They are also crucial for the proper functioning of ecosystems. For example, many visit flowers and are important pollinators, whilst others are decomposers, helping to break down organic matter and return nutrients to the soil. They are also a vital food source for other animals. Without insects many larger species, including ourselves, would struggle to survive as crops and other food sources would no longer be so productive. Due to their bright colours and association with Summer, butterflies are popular and act as a flagship for other insect species, making butterflies the perfect target for increasing public understanding and appreciation of this important group.

Butterflies are also sensitive to human-induced habitat change and can act as indicators for wider habitat deterioration. Therefore, declines recorded in butterfly populations can indicate declines in other species, and conservation action for butterflies can benefit many other animals and plants.


Public engagement

Globally, biodiversity loss is continuing at a rapid rate, due to conversion of natural habitats into agricultural areas. However, in the UK this conversion of biodiverse habitats was largely complete 150 years ago, meaning most people are unaware of how much their local environment has changed. Even apparently “natural” British landscapes have been extensively altered as a result of our agricultural and industrial heritage. Museum collections are required to view these long-term differences and increase awareness of this global problem.

The Museum’s insect collection represents a unique long-term dataset, which allows the scale of biodiversity change in the UK to be tracked into the past. The collection contains an extensive record of insects collected from the local area, extending back nearly 200 years, including specimens from some of the country’s oldest nature reserves, many of which are still actively managed for conservation. Some of the earliest specimens were collected during the first half of the 19th century by accomplished naturalists of the day, such as Charles Darwin, and are particularly valuable in allowing an assessment of wildlife’s slow decline.

For example, some of the species stored in the Museum were caught in Cambridgeshire but are now locally or nationally extinct, like the Swallowtail (Image 1) and Large Copper butterflies (Image 2). These are wetland specialists and the fact that they can no longer be found in the area indicates that large changes have taken place. After these Museum specimens were caught, some of the last extensive wetlands in Cambridgeshire were drained and many of the species that relied on them disappeared. Over the last few hundred years it is estimated that as much as 99% of this biodiverse habitat has been lost across the UK. Observing extinct species in museum collections is one of the clearest ways to convey the negative effects this has had.

However, it is not all doom and gloom and the collections also contain butterfly species such as the Chequered Skipper (Image 3) and Large Blue (Image 4). These species went extinct in England but have since been reintroduced. Specimens from the original populations can be used to tell the story of their decline but can also engage people with the positive impact of conservation.

This project’s public engagement programme will bring new audiences to the Museum, where they can learn about the history of local wildlife and many of the species that have sadly been lost from the area. We will also be visiting schools and Wildlife Trust nature reserves, to show people how they can still engage with wildlife and the natural world today.



In addition to increasing awareness of long-term declines, we also want to highlight some of the fantastic conservation work being undertaken to help species bounce back. Local organisations such as the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire (WTBCN) are undertaking large-scale habitat restoration projects. Working alongside them, we hope to publicise and gain wider public support for these projects, as well as use historical museum data to help inform restoration.

Large-scale restoration activities represent a rare opportunity to reverse some of the catalogued declines in species diversity and an exciting way to engage diverse audiences in conservation action. For example, as a result of wetland restoration at sites such as the WTBCN’s Great Fen, it may be possible to restore populations of some of the previously mentioned wetland butterfly species, such as the Swallowtail and Large Copper. The ‘Butterflies Through Time’ project will provide a record of historical species distributions and represents a permanent, lasting enrichment of our scientific context, informing habitat restoration and allowing its success to be gauged from a long-term perspective.

In this way, we will help ensure that these insects are not just a thing of the past and that in the future, a larger audience will get to enjoy them.



August 2019 -

Things are hotting-up for biodiversity conservation

By Ed Turner

(Please hover cursor over photos for image descriptions.)

Late last month (the 25th of July) the University Botanic Garden in Cambridge logged the hottest ever temperature recorded in the UK, at 38.7C. Although individual events like this can’t be linked directly to climate change, extremes are becoming ever more common and are likely to increase as global warming continues.

While this sort of extreme weather has big impacts on people, it also has far-reaching effects on biodiversity and particularly insects. For example, warmth-loving species are becoming increasingly common in the UK and species at the northern-edge of their range are shifting ever north. Meanwhile montane and cold-loving species are declining. Within a habitat, less mobile species have to find a more suitable microclimate to survive or disappear. They can do this by moving under denser vegetation or perhaps towards more northerly facing slopes where conditions are cooler. Understanding how to manage habitats to allow species to cope with change is now a key part of global conservation.

Our research group is investigating ways to help species cope with temperature change in both the UK and, as part of the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Function in Tropical Agriculture (BEFTA) Programme, in Riau, Indonesia. For example, in the UK Andrew Bladon is currently carrying out a study in collaboration with the BCN Wildlife Trust investigating how well different species of butterflies are able to buffer their temperature in response to temperature change and how slope and aspect on a reserve can change the temperature profile for species found there.

In the BEFTA Programme, we are also interested in understanding how changes in management, such as allowing understory vegetation to grow or restoring forest areas along river margins, can alter local temperatures, potentially benefitting biodiversity. In particular, both the BEFTA Understory Management Project and the Riparian Ecosystem Restoration in Tropical Agriculture (RERTA) Project are using a network of watch battery-sized dataloggers to record soil temperature across the study areas and test whether management can alter temperature profiles. If different ways of managing the landscape can help buffer soil temperature, then it could also protect species living there from the impacts of warming.

Although the work that the Insect Ecology Group in Cambridge carries out is diverse and based in very different parts of the globe, it is striking how certain aspects of the projects meet when it comes to managing for biodiversity. Luckily Cambridge will never reach the temperatures that the BEFTA Programme sites reach every day, but in both places management has the potential to reduce extremes of temperature and potentially help a wider range of species thrive in our ever-changing world.



August 2019 -

A new paper from the BEFTA Programme considers the diversity of plant communities in oil palm plantations

Lead author Dedi Purnomo conducting plant surveys in ground and oil palm trunk quadrats. Photo credit: Jaka Irawan

A recent study conducted by members of the Insect Ecology Group and collaborators from Sinar Mas Agro Resources and Technology Institute (SMARTRI), Indonesia, is one of just a handful to consider the diversity of plant communities within oil palm plantations, and has found that a wide range of species can be supported.

The team surveyed mature oil palm plantations near the SMARTRI office site in Riau, Sumatra, Indonesia. A total of 120 different plant species were recorded, which comprised a mixture of native and non-native species, some that were considered ‘beneficial’ for the plantation – because they are hosts for helpful parasitoids, they’re nitrogen fixers, or they help to maintain soil moisture – and others that were considered to be ‘problem species’ – because they inhibit the growth of the oil palms or other beneficial plants.

Different areas of the plantation were found to support different species, with the plant community found growing on the ground at the edge of planting blocks being different from that found growing within the core areas of the oil palm plantation blocks. Both of these ground areas had different plant communities from those growing on the trunks of oil palms. It was found that both ground and trunk communities were affected by drought, with changes in either biomass, percentage cover, or species richness seen in all habitats during low-rainfall periods.

There were also significant impacts on plant communities as a result of the management strategies that are chosen within the plantation. As part of the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Function in Tropical Agriculture (BEFTA) Understory Vegetation Project experiment (, herbicide-use and levels of manual cutting were adjusted to replicate different types of management commonly used within the oil palm industry. These treatments had substantial impacts on ground plant communities, but there were no spillover effects of herbicide-use and cutting on plant communities growing on oil palm trunks.

Together, this shows that despite being a single-age, monoculture crop, the oil palm plantation surveyed was able to support a mixed plant community, made up of a range of different microhabitats and species. Plant communities within the landscape vary as a result of microhabitat, drought, and because of plantation management decisions. This variation in plant communities is likely to have important influences on the overall complexity of the landscape and therefore other species – including insects, and other animals – that can be supported within the plantation.

To view the full paper, please visit:

June 2019 -

Filming for BBC's Countryfile

(Please hover mouse over photos for image descriptions.)




May and June have been busy months for the UK butterfly team. As well as working hard to collect more data on the fantastic collection of early season butterflies (Dingy Skipper, Orange-tip, Green Hairstreak and Duke of Burgundy) at our field sites, we’ve been visited by not one but two film crews keen to show off our work.





In May, we were joined by Louise Hubball from BBC Look East, who reported on our research into the Duke of Burgundy’s habitat preferences (, and our ongoing work establishing the ability of individuals of each species to “buffer” their thoracic temperature against changes in air temperature ( This project is aiming to understand to what extent different species are able to respond to fine-scale temperature changes, as this will tell us about how each species might respond to climate change. The story was picked up by a number of other news channels, including BBC Beds, Bucks & Berks (, BBC Three Counties Radio and CBBC Newsround (






This week, BBC Countryfile visited our field site at the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire’s Totternhoe reserve ( to film a few of the many important monitoring and research projects ongoing at the site. This included the slow worm survey conducted weekly by Research Officer Dr Gwen Hitchcock, who is monitoring the survival and spread of the slow worm population which was translocated to the site as mitigation for the Luton-Dunstable guided busway, and the orchid surveys led by Reserves Officer Richard Knock, who is keeping track of the three species of nationally rare orchids found across the site, counting flower spikes and recording pollination rates.




Alongside this we were able to introduce presenter Ellie Harrison to three aspects of the butterfly project, first looking again at the research into species’ thermal buffering ability, and then introducing our investigation into the impacts of habitat management on thermal patterns across the reserves. Combined with our understanding of each species’ thermal requirements, this project aims to inform future habitat management, by determining how to provide thermally suitable patches for each species.






Finally, we showed off our innovative project attempting to track Duke of Burgundy caterpillars to their pupation sites. Duke of Burgundy pupae have never been studied in the wild, so we have no idea what habitat they use. Given that individuals spend nine months of the year as pupae, including over winter, provision of suitable sites for high survival rates during this life phase may be crucial to maintaining or even expanding the population at the site.






This project has strong visual appeal, as we are painting non-toxic UV dust onto the hairs of the caterpillars, which slowly falls off as they move and leaves a trail along the vegetation. By tagging large caterpillars in this way, and following this trail with a UV torch, we hope to be able to find where they go to pupate.






It was great to see how interested the film crews were in our research, and you can look out for the Countryfile episode on Sunday 14th July.






  1. Hayes, M.P., Rhodes, M.W., Turner, E.C. et al. J Insect Conserv (2018) 22: 329.


April 2019-

Attending the Student Conference on Conservation Science (SCCS)


I had a great time last week at the 20th Student Conference on Conservation Science (SCCS) here in Cambridge. There were so many amazing student talks that the judges broke with 20 years of tradition and invented new awards to supplement the original three! The atmosphere was great, tea breaks buzzed with conversation and at the end of every talk there were more questions than could be answered in the allotted time.

There were so many interesting talks I’d be here all day if I tried to describe them all. Jenis Patel inspired us with his tale of rediscovering the Forest Owlet in India. It was thought to be extinct for 113 years before he happened upon it! He’s now found 82 of them, mostly inhabiting farmland. Hugo Costa taught us about how important seasonal flooding is for vertebrate populations in Brazil, and Marsya Sibarani showed us that Sumatran tigers are a better umbrella species than elephants, orangutans or rhinos. Lizzie Jones quantified shifting baseline syndrome using long-term data on garden bird abundances, and Victor Cazalis showed us how some proenvironmental behaviours increase with proximity to protected areas in France. Emily Madsen’s fascinating project in Kenya demonstrated the value of interview surveys for quantifying carnivore distributions by comparing GPS collar data with survey data. Sasha Pakarsky taught us about the many ingenious ways that crops are being protected from migrating Eurasian cranes. Tactics include using flashing mirrors, active chasing, or diversionary feeding (although this last tactic is adversely affecting their gut microbiomes). H S Sathya Chandra Sagar demonstrated the enormity of the threat of bird trapping for the pet trade to biodiversity in Sumatran rainforest. Tom Timberlake quantified nectar production on farms in South-West England and found a sparsity in September. He showed that this was one of the main drivers of bee colony density, and recommended planting more flowers that flower late season, such as red clover, knapweed, scabious, birds foot trefoil and ivy.

The plenary speakers were fantastic too. Christiana Figueres revitalised our optimism, Amy Hinsley taught us about the market for bear bile in China, we learned about Carlos Perez’s extraordinary research in the Amazonian rainforest, and Sir David Attenborough was, as always, mesmerizingly charming. When asked where he would go if he could go back in time, he said to an Australia when it was first discovered by UK explorers. How could one make sense of a large mammal bouncing around on two large legs with a baby in a pouch in its belly? Or the platypus, for that matter? Shortly after that he was asked which animal, other than a bird of a mammal, he thought would make a good charismatic species for conservation. This stumped him for a brief moment, but then he exclaimed “I actually love spiders” and told us about a pet spider he had kept until it was unfortunately cleared away by his cleaner. I was delighted with this answer, as invertebrates are obviously adorable (just sometimes misunderstood). Unfortunately, Sir David didn’t stop at my poster, which was on my ant exclusions in the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Function in Tropical Agriculture (BEFTA) Project. However, I am absolutely confident that his eyes glanced over it as he walked by and that he digested it entirely in that brief second, and that’s the story I’m sticking to.

I found the three days very refreshing. Sometimes the task ahead of us can feel overwhelming, so it was really special to spend time with so many passionate people from all over the World. SCCS works hard to get a diversity of delegates, and this year there were delegates from 50 countries! It’s this diversity which makes it so special. Finding commonalities between projects which are on the opposite side of the World is comforting, and finding differences helps me to understand how my situation is unique. More specifically, many of the solutions people had found for tackling the issues that they had were things I’d never considered. It’s this creativity that I find most inspiring.

So a huge thanks to everyone involved for such a brilliant conference, including all 150 talk and poster presenters, the volunteers, sponsors, and organisers. A special thanks to Andrew Balmford (and family for the delicious cake), Rhys Green, Shireen Green, Ana Rodriguez, Rosie Trevelyan and Ed Turner. And to whoever made all those cheese sandwiches, they were great.


January 2019-

Identifying insects – An introduction to an important skill

By Michael Pashkevich


I think most people are fond of categories. They help us make sense of a world that is pretty multifaceted. For instance, there are many categories of movies, such as horror, romance, and thrillers.

Scientists are fond of categories, too, and we often categorise living things. There is an entire branch of science that deals with placing organisms into categories, and this is called taxonomy. Scientists who study taxonomy are called taxonomists. Taxonomists are important because they categorise living things based on shared characteristics such as evolutionary histories, morphological traits, behaviour, and genetics. This helps us understand and predict how organisms interact with each other and with their surroundings.

All of us in the Insect Ecology Group use taxonomy in our research. Our research workflow can be summarised in four steps:

  1. Identify or cause changes in ecosystems;
  2. Collect data from the changed ecosystems and study them in the laboratory;
  3. Analyse these data using various techniques;
  4. Write-up and communicate results to our colleagues and the public.

It’s in step 2 that we typically use taxonomy, usually because our data collection focusses on surveying large numbers of insects, which we then study under microscopes in the lab. When we study these insects, we often sort them into categories called “orders” which are broad categories into which insects and other organisms can be placed. There are about 30 insect orders.

Scientists use different techniques to sort insects into orders, but I use morphological traits. Morphological traits are structural. These include body shape, presence/absence of wings, and colour. I often use a microscope to look at insects’ morphological traits, because many insects are small and therefore the morphological traits cannot be seen with the naked eye.

Some insects have very small morphological traits that are characteristic of their order. For instance, insects in the order hemiptera (true bugs) all have sucking mouthparts that look like drinking straws. Diptera (flies) have a reduced pair of second wings, which are much smaller than the first pair and are called halteres. Some insect orders have more obvious morphological traits. Take dermaptera. These are commonly called earwigs and, as I’m sure you know, the majority of dermapterans have pincer-like structures at the ends of their bodies.


From top left, moving clockwise: An ant-mimicking spider; Coleoptera (beetle); Hemiptera (true bug); Lycosidae (wolf spider). Photo credits- Michael Pashkevich.


Currently, I am practising more taxonomy than usual. This is because I am sorting to order some insects found in oil palm plantations in Sumatra, Indonesia. In total, I’ll sort about 500 samples. The number of insects in each sample varies, and we’ve had a range of 0 insects in a sample to over 2000 insects! In total, we will probably look at over 30,000 insects. I have two excellent research assistants named Yan and Habi who help me. Together, we sit at microscopes and, after two weeks of sorting, are about halfway through the samples. After we finish sorting, I will analyse the data and then write-up the results in a publication. My samples will help researchers and policy makers understand how management of oil palm plantations affects important insects and arachnids that affect oil palm growth.

The great thing about taxonomy is that it can be practised anywhere. There are various guides that teach scientists and non-scientists alike how to place organisms into categories. For insects, I recommend checking out the guide below, which was made by the American Natural History Museum. There are also various tools, such as the phone app iNaturalist, to which you can post photos of organisms and other users will help identify them.



January 2019-

The EFForTS Symposium – presenting our research on oil palm management practices and riparian restoration at a conference in Bali

By Sarah Luke


In October 2018, Insect Ecology group members Sarah Luke and Michael Pashkevich attended the “Socio-ecological Transformations of Tropical Lowland Rainforest” International Symposium, in Bali, Indonesia. The symposium was organised by researchers from the “Ecological and Socioeconomic Functions of Tropical Lowland Rainforest Transformation Systems (Sumatra, Indonesia)” Project (EFForTS Project).

EFForTS is a large, highly collaborative project which is based in the neighbouring province to where our group’s BEFTA Programme research is based. They are also investigating questions relating to oil palm sustainability, and so it was very interesting to hear more about their work, and to meet researchers within their project. In particular, we met several new students who had recently started working on the EFForTS project, as well as a large number of Indonesian scientists who we had not had the opportunity to meet before.

The symposium included three full days of talks and poster sessions, and both Sarah and Michael gave presentations on their work within the BEFTA Programme. On the final day there were field trips around Bali, and Sarah visited West Bali National Park for the first time – an area of savanna, mangroves, and mixed forest in the north-western tip of the island.


Photo credits: Sarah Luke and Michael Pashkevich


October 2018 - 

The Riparian Buffers Across Age (RAGE) Project

By Michael Pashkevich


Previously, our blog focussed on the importance of riparian buffers, particularly in oil palm plantations in Southeast Asia. Insect Ecology Group postdoc Sarah Luke explained how the Riparian Ecosystem Restoration in Tropical Agriculture (RERTA) Project is testing how reforested riparian buffers affect oil palm biodiversity, ecosystem processes, and yield. The RERTA Project studies the impact of riparian buffers during an important phase of the oil palm life cycle: when oil palm is replanted.

Riparian buffers are not only important when oil palm is replanted, however. Indeed, riparian buffers affect oil palm throughout its life cycle. Despite this, much remains to be understood about how riparian buffers affect oil palm across the crop’s life cycle.


The research question: How do mature oil palm riparian buffers affect biodiversity and ecosystem processes across the oil palm life cycle?

The Insect Ecology Group and our industry partners Sinar Mas Agro Resources and Technology Research Institute are seeking to answer this question in our Riparian Buffers Across Age (RAGE) Project. The RAGE Project is studying the effect of riparian buffers (all composed of mature oil palm) on oil palm biodiversity and ecosystem processes at four key ages of the oil palm life cycle. These ages are: one year (recently replanted), three year (the first age to be harvested for fruit), eight year (nearing maturity), and mature palms. In each of these ages, we measure data on biodiversity and ecosystem processes at three distances from riparian buffers. These distances are: immediately within the buffer (an area maximally affected by buffers), just outside the buffer (where a spillover effect may occur), and far away from the buffer (where we expect buffers to have no effect). By sampling at different distances from riparian buffers, we are better able to understand how riparian buffers affect biodiversity and ecosystem processes across the oil palm landscape.

RAGE Project data were collected from February – May 2018. I sampled arthropod communities living on the ground, in the understory vegetation, and within the oil palm canopy. I have a particular research interest in spiders, so I collected additional data on them such as their web size, how many insects were within webs, and to what plant types their webs were attached. Other data were collected by Helen and Martina, who are two exceptionally brilliant Insect Ecology Group MPhil students. Helen studied predation and herbivory in RAGE Project sites, while Martina studied insect pollinators. All three of us are now processing and analysing our collected data. Currently, I am back in Indonesia and using a microscope to look at insects from about 500 samples! I will identify these insects to order, and I'll eventually ID spiders to morphospecies. Watch this space for a forthcoming blog post on identifying insects!



June 2018 - 

The Feel in Fieldwork -

By Michael Pashkevich


It’s been nearly four months since I was last in Cambridge. This week, I returned from fieldwork in Sumatra, Indonesia.

My research focusses on tropical spider communities. Particularly, I’m interested in how spiders respond to different oil palm management strategies. It is important to study spiders in agricultural systems – such as oil palm – because spiders are generalist predators. This means that they eat a wide variety of prey. In oil palm, spiders consume both harmful pests and beneficial insect pollinators and, therefore, spiders may both assist and damage oil palm growth and yield. How we manage oil palm affects spider community composition and, also, the ecosystem functions contributed by spiders. We should implement oil palm management strategies that amplify beneficial pest management services that spiders provide.

This field season, I focussed on spider community response to strips of conserved land alongside oil palm plantation rivers. These strips are called riparian buffers, and their enhanced vegetation complexity and highly shaded understory may benefit spiders. My research is part of two larger studies. The RERTA project is experimentally testing how restoration in riparian buffers affects oil palm ecosystems during the important replanting process. The second project, winningly named the rAGE project, is studying how riparian buffers  affect oil palm ecosystems across the plant’s life cycle. Both projects are focussed on oil palm biodiversity, ecosystem services, and yield. My research focusses on those elements relating to spiders.

Fieldwork is my favourite part of being a researcher and, despite the many stresses that accompany fieldwork, this field season was no different. Most of my days were spent with Indonesian collaborators surveying spiders in a variety of different study sites. Study sites were located in differently aged oil palm and at varying distances from riparian buffers. At each site, my team and I surveyed spiders using three methods. Each method targeted a different subset of the oil palm landscape in which spiders live. We used pitfall traps to target ground-dwelling spiders, fogged the canopy for spiders living among oil palm fronds, and also surveyed spiders located in understory vegetation.



Top left: The oil palm canopy is fogged. Right: Michael gets a better view of a spider (yellow circle) by reeling it in via its dragline silk. Bottom left: A pitfall trap is set. Photo credit: Michael Pashkevich.


In total, my research assistants and I surveyed an estimated 3000 spiders! As my PhD progresses, I’ll identify these spiders and compare spider abundance and species richness between different study sites. This will allow us to determine how riparian buffers affect oil palm spiders. Already, I’m excited that we found several different species of ant mimic spiders! These jumping spiders (Salticidae) impersonate ants both in looks and behaviour.


ant mimic spider

An ant mimic spider photographed in Sulawesi, Indonesia (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons).


I’m certainly happy to be back in Cambridge, although I will miss the nice days of fieldwork I enjoyed these past four months. It won’t be too long until I’m back in Indonesia, though. I’ll return to my field sites in the autumn to continue surveying spiders and to analyse the individuals I surveyed since February. To these ends, I was grateful to not say, “Selamat tinggal, Indonesia!” (“Bye, Indonesia!”) when leaving Sumatra. I said a cheerful, “Sampai jumpa!” (“See you later!”) instead.



May 2018 - 

A Q & A with Group Member Dr Amy Eycott

By William Foster


Can you briefly outline what your role is in the Insect Ecology Group?

Postdocs are the jack-of-all-trades in research groups: we gather data, analyse it, write publications, talk to specialist and non-specialist audiences alike, and we often get involved in advising and supervising students.


Which aspect of your research activities gives you the most satisfaction?

Communication. Whether it’s telling Ed (the boss) about the latest results or explaining the difference between a grasshopper and a cricket to a teenager, talking about science is where the fun’s at.


Which piece of research that you have done so far are you most proud of?

I got deep into systematic review and meta-analysis when I worked at the Forestry Commission and the resulting finding (that animals consistently move more easily through habitats which have a similar 3D-structure to their ‘home’ habitat) got cited in an IPCC report.


What is it like to be a plant scientist in an insect ecology group?

While not strictly a botanist, I’ve done far more on botany than I ever did on insects. Ed had to teach me rather a lot of simple facts at the start! But it means I have a slightly different way of looking at things. It has also proved handy in bringing new methods to the group – only once so far, but I’m working on it…


What first sparked your interest in biology?

My grandfather took me down to the seashore of south Devon and we played in the rockpools, poking sea anemones and disturbing crabs for hours on end.


What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning?



How do you cheer yourself up after a bad day at the office?

Cider, or a bike ride, or both.


Ideal evening out?

A long, cider-fuelled session geeking out about science in a cosy pub, followed by enthusiastic cheesy dancing – preferably with Millie (Insect Ecology group’s Amelia Hood, ant queen and party lynchpin).


Who would you like to play you in a Hollywood film of your life?

Me! Only I know what actually happened. Also, I haven’t acted for decades but I miss it. I wasn’t particularly good though, so perhaps my story should remain in my head.


What is your favourite TV programme? or novel? or film?

I don’t own a telly, or a Netflix account. So it’ll have to be a book and at the risk of feeling guilty about not mentioning all my other books, I’ll go for The Chrysalids by John Wyndham. It’s speculative post-nuclear-apocalyptic fiction in the same sort of vein as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (which comes a close second).



April 2018 -

What is the Insect Ecology group? And a Q & A with Group Leader Dr Edgar Turner

By William Foster


The group is currently made up of fourteen people, including academic, research and support staff. Our core mission is to study the ecology of insects in their natural habitats, focussing on their biodiversity, behaviour and function in ecosystems. In addition to research, members of the group take part in teaching, in curating the insect collections of the Museum, and in developing the outreach and public engagement work of the Department of Zoology. Below is a list of the current members of the group.

Dr Edgar Turner          Lecturer, Curator of Insects, Group Leader

Dr Amy Eycott             Post-doctoral Research Associate

Dr Sarah Luke              Post-doctoral Research Associate

Dr Andrew Bladon      Post-doctoral Research Associate

Dr Henry Disney          Affiliated Researcher

Dr William Foster       Emeritus Curator of Insects

Matthew Hayes          Research Assistant in The Insect Room

Russell Stebbings       Museum Assistant (Invertebrates)

Alice Fairnie                PhD student on rotation

Martina Harianja        MPhil student

Julie Hinsch                 PhD student

Amelia Hood               PhD student

Michael Pashkevich    PhD student

Helen Waters              MPhil student


Q & A with Dr Edgar Turner

Can you briefly outline what your role is in the Insect Ecology Group?

I am a University Lecturer and Curator of Insects in the University Museum of Zoology, head of the Insect Ecology Group, and a Fellow at Clare College. As you can tell from my job titles, mine is quite a diverse role! A lot of my work involves collaborating with other members of the group, including our graduate students, on ongoing research. For example, we currently have several projects running in Indonesia, working with collaborators from the oil palm industry, investigating ways to make tropical agricultural systems more sustainable. In the Department of Zoology, I give lectures for first, second and third year undergraduate students on a range of subjects, from evolution to urban biodiversity. I am also interested in science communication and help to coordinate the public engagement events in the Museum of Zoology, as well as school liaison activities at Clare College.


Which aspect of your research activities gives you the most satisfaction?

It is quite hard to choose one particular thing. All of the different aspects of my job relate to each other. For example, the research that we carry out in Southeast Asia feeds through into my undergraduate teaching and I’ve found that one of the best ways to engage public audiences in biology is to talk to them about your own research. Flipping this on its head, teaching a class of undergraduates is a wonderful way of really understanding a subject and talking to people about your work always generates new ideas!


What first sparked your interest in insect natural history?

I’ve always loved the natural world. My older brother says that his earliest memory of me is sitting in the garden with my arms covered in snails. I think I owe my parents a huge debt for being amazingly tolerant of my interests. As a child, they let me fill my room with cages of stick insects and caterpillars, fish, newts and frogs. There is nothing like actually watching living insects to develop a fascination of them, whether this be in a nature reserve, a park or a garden. Keeping some of them and seeing how they grow really adds to this. I’m worried that many young people growing up today have few of these opportunities, perhaps making it harder and harder for younger generations to really engage with wildlife.


Which piece of research that you have done so far are you most proud of?

It is not a particularly ground-breaking study, but my favourite piece of research was investigating the habitat needs of a threatened UK butterfly called the Duke of Burgundy on a Wildlife Trust-managed chalk grassland reserve in Bedfordshire. Over the course of two or three years, we got to know the behaviour and habitat needs of the butterfly really well. In particular, we discovered how critically important shelter was for the butterflies and were able to work with the Wildlife Trust to tweak their management of the reserve in response.


Which scientist in the past few decades has had the most impact in your area of research?

Probably Andrew Balmford and Rhys Green here in Cambridge, for developing the ideas around land-sharing (low intensity agriculture/highish biodiversity over large areas) and land-sparing (highly intensive agriculture in small areas and pristine areas of protected habitat for wildlife) approaches for conservation.


What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning?

Our toddler waking up and saying ‘daddy’ repeatedly.


Which two figures from the past would you invite for a weekend of research with you at Libo?

If I am completely honest, probably Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection with Darwin. I think he would be very easy to get on with, but would probably be extremely depressed when he saw the lack of forest left in the areas he knew. Can I have Poirot as my second?


Are there any character traits that all successful field biologists must have?

No – I think that anyone can do field biology and it takes a range of different people and approaches. Not minding sharing space with rats and cockroaches also helps.


Apparently, you love the stories of the "Golden Age" of detective fiction. Why? What's wrong with Morse?

They are the perfect novel – a gripping story, interesting characters, a problem to solve and a satisfying conclusion. I quite like Morse too, but it is a bit too close to my real life.


Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers?

Neither. My first love is Margery Allingham, for her impeccable limpid prose.


What is your favourite TV programme?

The Detectorists. I love the quiet, understated, piercing humour and the fact that it is set in Essex: God's Own County.


Who should succeed David Attenborough?

No-one: he isn't The Queen. I think there is a huge pool of talented science communicators out there who should be given freer reign to communicate aspects of the natural world to new audiences.




March 2018 - 

The El Niño Study Tour and Across the Continents School Outreach projects

By Amy Eycott


Over February and March, BEFTA joined up with three other projects from the southeast Asia/Oceania region to share their results on ecosystem recovery from the 2015/16 El Niño drought. Six young scientists from the region, plus two UK scientists and an education specialist from the University of Cambridge Museum of Zoology, toured the southeast Asian research sites to present findings, exchange knowledge and build networks. We visited Danum Valley Field Centre and the Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystems project in Malaysian Borneo and the BEFTA location at SMARTRI in Libo, Sumatra. At each site we made presentations and visited field experiments. We visited schools around Libo to deliver sessions on habitat change and give the tour participants training in dissemination to schools which they will take back to their own sites. The tour rounded off with a workshop at Pekanbaru, Sumatra, attended by industry, academic and Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) representatives.

The results from BEFTA are looking interesting, with El Niño drought disrupting both decomposition of frond litter in the soil and the predator-prey dynamics in the oil palm canopy. (Here, we won’t ‘give away’ the headline findings from the other projects). This post is mostly to highlight the communications we’ve put out about the tour in other places. On our ‘Fieldwork Adventures’ blog there are three posts describing in detail what we got up to, including the videos we’ve made for school-age children in the UK. Read, and for more, including pictures of some very cool wildlife spottings!



January 2018 -

A Friend of the Fens: The Large Copper Butterfly

By Matt Hayes


As we gear up for the reopening of the University Museum of Zoology here in Cambridge (UMZC), we thought it would be a good time to give you a sneak peek behind the scenes. There is a huge amount to be seen at the museum but not all of our extensive collections can be put on display. Some of our stored material includes the millions of specimens held in our insect room, many of which were collected from around Cambridgeshire almost 200 years ago by the likes of Darwin and his contemporaries. These give us an important glimpse into the past and offer us insight into just how much our local area has changed.

For the species we want to talk to you about today, the large copper butterfly, this is particularly relevant as it is now extinct in this country and one of the last recordings of the species in the UK comes from Cambridgeshire; at Bottisham Fen in 1851.  Sadly, the British population of the large copper can now only be seen in museum collections like the ones stored here at the UMZC. However, by looking back at what we have lost we have the opportunity to better understand the causes of past declines and protect other species into the future.

The large copper butterfly used to range across the wetlands of south east England but leading up to its extinction, numbers had been falling for some time. Huge areas of fenland had been progressively drained in order to clear land for agriculture and with the loss of this habitat the species that relied on it had also began to disappear. When wind powered drains were replaced by sophisticated steam pumps, even previously inaccessible areas were now under threat of drainage. Leading up to 1851, this resulted in the loss of the few remaining large fenlands in Cambridgeshire and meant that the large copper butterfly could no longer be supported. Fortunately, not all fenland species suffered the same fate and despite being lost locally, the beautiful swallowtail butterfly was able to hold on in the surviving wetlands of the Norfolk Broads. With hard work and a little luck, it will hopefully be possible to draw these charismatic species back to Cambridge in the future.

Using the knowledge gained from our past mistakes, extensive efforts have now been undertaken to manage and restore areas of Cambridgeshire’s fenland.  As part of The Great Fen Project a vast landscape has been reflooded and with time, swallowtails may be able to recolonise these areas. If enough fenland can be reclaimed, it may even be possible to reintroduce the large copper from populations abroad. Let us hope that our museum specimens will soon be re-joined by their free flying relatives.



November 2017 - 

Restoring riparian areas in oil palm plantations, and an introduction to the RERTA Project in Sumatra, Indonesia

By Sarah Luke


Riparian zones are areas of land next to water bodies, including the banks of rivers, and streams, and the sides of lakes and ponds. They are a highly important habitat as they act as an interface between land and water. This means that they can often support a wide range of both land and water-associated species, as well as providing essential regulation of conditions within water bodies including inputs of leaves, woody material, sediment, nutrients, water flow, and control of water temperature through shading.

In agricultural areas, riparian zones are often protected in order to help protect water bodies from the impacts of agriculture. Strips of natural, or non-cultivated vegetation around waterways known as riparian buffers (or reserves, or margins) can help to trap soil and flood water that is washed off bare fields, prevent chemicals reaching waterways, and maintain natural conditions within the water body. They can also provide valuable natural habitat for both riparian and terrestrial species, areas of carbon storage, and contributions towards services such as pest control and maintenance of a clean water supply. Given their numerous benefits, multiple crop certification criteria, as well as government regulations, require that riparian buffers should be preserved in agricultural areas.

Forested riparian buffers within an oil palm landscape. Photo credit: Ed Turner

Much of the Insect Ecology Group’s research work is based in oil palm plantations in Southeast Asia. Although natural forest buffers have been retained in some oil palm plantations, they vary in terms of habitat quality, and are completely absent in some areas. There is therefore a widespread need for restoration of riparian buffers. However, little research has been done into how best to do this in oil palm plantations. Along with collaborators from the Sinar Mas Agro Resources and Technology Research Institute (SMARTRI) in Sumatra, Indonesia, researchers from the Insect Ecology Group are establishing a large scale, long term experimental project to test different strategies for riparian restoration in oil palm plantations: the Riparian Ecosystem Restoration in Tropical Agriculture (RERTA) Project.

The RERTA Project is making use of planned replanting within Sinarmas estates in Riau Province, Sumatra, to establish four different replicated riparian restoration treatments:

  1. Replanting oil palm right up to the river’s edge and leaving no riparian buffer (control treatment)
  2. Removing all oil palm and planting native tree seedlings within a 50m wide riparian buffer
  3. Leaving mature oil palms in place and allowing natural regrowth within a 50m wide riparian buffer
  4. Leaving mature oil palm as well as planting native tree seedlings within a 50m wide riparian buffer

The RERTA Project set-up before and after the experiment begins in early 2018

We will be assessing the impacts of these different treatments on a wide range of environmental variables, biodiversity of key taxa, ecosystem processes, and economic factors. We will be taking measurements before and after establishment of riparian experimental treatments using a before-after-control-impact (BACI) design. The RERTA Project began in September 2017. We are currently taking baseline, “pre-treatment”, measurements at our first RERTA site before experimental treatments are set up in February/March 2018. We then plan to take follow-up, “post-treatment” measurements soon after treatment set-up (June-July 2018), over a year after treatment set-up (late 2018), and in the longer term (pending additional funding).

Watch this space for updates as the RERTA Project unfolds!


November 2017 – Insects and Wine tasting evening.

By Amy Eycott and Michael Pashkevich

We ate insects! And it wasn’t (all) bad!

Five members of the Insect Ecology Group went on an ‘Insects and Wine Pairing’ evening at St John’s College on the 1st November. Courses included cheese scones made with 30% cricket flour, a maple, pecan and locust tart, chocolate worms (which were mealworms, larvae from the darkling beetle family Tenebrionidae), ant crème fraiche and insect fudge (more mealworms). Everyone was very brave and tried all the courses, though not everyone finished each item! It turns out that Helen doesn’t actually like maple and pecan pie in the first place, while Amy has not recovered from an unpleasant mealworm experience on fieldwork… It was good, thought-provoking fun and has started plenty of discussion around the likelihood that insects will form an increasing part of our food supply in the next 50 years.


A maple and pecan pie featuring a locust. Amy says of the experience “The locusts were less chewy and more crunchy than I anticipated.” However, everyone agreed that the texture could be improved by removing the wings beforehand. Photo by Michael Pashkevich.


Michael takes on a chunk of mealworm fudge. Michael described the evening as ‘life-changing’, but added “It was surprising to have mealworms floating around my mouth after the fudge itself dissolved. I can't decide if it was an entertaining culinary surprise or jolting shock.” Photo by Helen Waters.



September 2017 - A trip to visit another oil palm-based research project in Sumatra, Indonesia

By Millie Hood

An Effortless Trip to EFForTs


It was with much excitement that Insect Ecology Group members William Foster, Ed Turner, Amy Eycott, Sarah Luke, Millie Hood and Eleanor Slade (University of Oxford), set off to meet the EFForTS group in Jambi, Indonesia, this August. Despite the early hour on a Sunday morning, we were welcomed most-warmly by Dr Aiyen Tjoa and Prof Bambang Irawan­­­­ at the airport, and our journey passed quickly with interesting conversation, muffins and pastries aplenty.

Dr Clara Zemp showed us around her biodiversity enrichment project, graciously answering our battery of questions. We enjoyed exploring the forested islands, where the oil palm matrix has been enriched by the planting of local trees. It was fortunate timing for us too, as Sarah Luke will soon be planting local trees in her riparian buffers for the RERTA project at the BEFTA programme, so we gained a lot from Clara’s good advice.

After a quick rest and a delicious dinner, we headed out in the dead of night to hunt for the consumers of fig fruits. We were armed with a UV torch, as the fruits had already been dyed with UV dust. Unfortunately, we did not catch the fruit forager this time. However, as we were also equipped with night vision goggles, it hardly mattered.

The next day we were whisked off to meet Dr Christian Stiegler, who dazzled us with the complexities of his climate tower. Then we made a quick pit stop at their herbicide experiment, which was very interesting in light of our understory vegetation manipulations at the BEFTA programme. The weekend was wrapped up by a series of talks, a stroll along the pedestrian bridge in Jambi, and (somehow) we even fitted in more muffins!

A huge thank you to the EFForTS programme, particularly Dr Aiyen Tjoa, for your great hospitality. We look forward to working with you in the future. To learn more about the Ecological and Socioeconomic Functions of Tropical Lowland Rainforest Transformation Systems (Sumatra, Indonesia) (EFForTS) Programme visit their webpage:


 A group photo with Aiyen and Clara in one of their research plots.



September 2017 - Insect Identification Course in Sumatra, Indonesia

By Amy Eycott


We ran an insect identification and curation course!

This August, Insect Ecology Group members Ed Turner, Amy Eycott, Sarah Luke and Amelia Hood, and Eleanor Slade, from the University of Oxford, ran an insect identification course titled “An Introduction to Insects”. We ran the five-day course in Sumatra, Indonesia, with our collaborators at SMART Research Institute. There were eighteen participants, from SMARTRI, the Center for Natural Resources Conservation, and the State Quarantine in Riau. We started by looking at the insect orders, then more closely at dung beetles and ants, which are both really important groups for ecosystem function in oil palm plantations. Eleanor Slade explained just how the world would look without dung beetles (clue: not pleasant….). Then Millie Hood talked about the diversity and importance of ants, which are the subject of her PhD research. We also demonstrated sampling methods: pitfall traps, bowl traps to attract pollinators, beating (the palms not the insects!), soil searching, transect walks, and the use of baits for ants and for dung beetles. Everyone on the course had a go at learning to pin a specimen and at pointing, which is mounting an insect on a tiny piece of card when it is too small for pinning. It was great fun and everyone learned something, even the teachers. We hope to do more of this capacity-building work in the future.


Millie helping with ant identifications.

Amy demonstrating the beating technique for sampling insects on palm fronds.


A group photo of everyone involved in the course.


 September 2017 - news from the recent Insect Collection Managers Group meeting in Edinburgh

By Ed Turner. This blog post also appears on the University of Cambridge Museums (UCM) website (

"I took over as Curator of Insects in the Museum of Zoology less than a year ago, so there is still a lot I need to learn when it comes to managing the Museum of Zoology’s collection of over a million insect specimens. My colleague, Russell Stebbings, and I therefore jumped at the opportunity of meeting other insect collection managers from across the UK at the Twenty-fifth meeting of Insect Collection Managers Group, held at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh earlier this month. Not only is this a chance to meet old friends and new colleagues, but it is a fantastic way of sharing knowledge across museums and starting up new collaborations.

When I first started as Curator of Insects, one of the things William Foster, my predecessor, recommended most was attending the Insect Collection Managers Group Meeting. “It is probably the most useful meeting I attend all year” were his exact words. This annual event includes attendees from insect collections across the UK. The style of the meeting is informal, with a social event in the evening and then a day’s session, discussing ongoing collections issues, such as making insect collection information available online, staff and volunteer training, controlling pests, and updates on best practice for collecting insects and managing newly-donated specimens. There is also a chance to look around a different collection each event, as the location of the meeting changes from year to year.

This year’s meeting didn’t disappoint. Not only was it based in the spectacular National Museum of Scotland (NMS) in Central Edinburgh, but it also included attendees from ten other institutions across the UK, including the World Museum in Liverpool, Manchester Museum, the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of Wales, and the Natural History Museum in London. Representatives from the Food and Environment Research Agency and the British Entomological and Natural History Society were also present. For me, one of the best things about the meeting was the time given to chat to people informally and to find out about successes and issues people had experienced with their collections during the year. As the Museum of Zoology is currently being renovated, it was particularly useful to talk to other museums who had already been through renovation projects and to compare notes. A highlight was certainly the chance to look around the new NMS insect collection facilities, located just outside of the city centre. Housed in a new custom-built room, these are beautifully laid out, easily accessible and include lots of room for visiting researchers to carry out their work. There were also some spectacular insects of course!

This year has certainly convinced me to make these meetings a regular fixture in my calendar. Building connections and collaborations with other museums from across the UK and sharing knowledge and good practice benefits all of the collections involved.  In fact, we have offered to host the event in Cambridge next year!"


 Preparing for the meeting. Photo Russell Stebbings


Looking around the newly housed collection in Edinburgh. Photo Russell Stebbings



June 2017 - Oil palm plantations: a beginner’s guide to invertebrate interactions

By Amy Eycott


The Golden silk orb weaver, Nephila, was cause for some excitement. Photo credit: Ed Turner.

I’ve just joined the Insect Ecology Group as a postdoc studying oil palm biodiversity as part of the El Niño project, but until three weeks ago I’d never been to an oil palm plantation, or even Southeast Asia, before. So when I took a two-week trip in May to meet the project staff and see the sites, there was the potential for everything to be a little overwhelming. Fortunately, after a few days relaxing in Bogor I arrived at the BEFTA site in Sumatra at a time when pretty much the whole Cambridge team were there.

Now, as well as having no experience of Southeast Asia, I also had rather limited experience with insects. So it was an intense but a very fun two weeks, as I got to ask as many silly questions as I wanted, the team always ready with a patient reply. Here’s a potted summary of the main things I learnt which I think might be interesting for people as uninformed as I was. I’m interested in interactions, so the focus is on ecology rather than taxonomy!

There are lots of grasshoppers, crickets and bush crickets (katydids) in oil palm plantations. If you hold a bush cricket badly, it can give you quite a nip for such a peaceful herbivore. Rhino beetles are a big pest in oil palm plantations because the adults can damage young palms. They don’t bite but instead pinch you between two sections of leg that have spines, which can puncture your skin. They also make a strange hissing sound by rubbing their wings against their wing-cases (elytra). The other main pest is a moth called a bagworm; they have caterpillars which live in little cases made of dead leaves to protect them from predators.

The main invertebrate predators of these pests in the plantations are ants, assassin bugs and parasitic wasps. The number and diversity of ants is pretty impressive and some of them have crazy jaws – BEFTA PhD student Millie works on how useful ants are. Assassin bugs are ‘true bugs’ with sucking mouthparts and while many true bugs are sap-sucking, assassin bugs use their very extended mouthparts to stab the soft bodies of invertebrate prey and suck them to death from the inside out. The parasitic wasps lay eggs on or inside their hosts. They must be effective at pest control because the plantations have started planting nectar-rich flowers to give the adults an energy boost, which should help them to live longer and produce more eggs – see work by Julie Hinsch to find out more.

Of course, this is a simplified version of what goes on, even in oil palm monocultures. There are praying mantids, scorpions, aphids, dragonflies sporting funky 1980s looks, and spiders including the very cool Golden silk orb weaver, Nephila. I look forward to writing more informed contributions as the year goes on!

80s style for the Orthetrum sabina dragonfly. Photo credit: Amy Eycott.

This little planthopper caught my eye. It’s a derbid planthopper, a pest of palms. Photo credit: Amy Eycott.

These eye-catching grasshoppers were everywhere. Yellow and black seems to be a common warning colouration in tropical grasshoppers. Photo credit: Amy Eycott.



May 2017 - Mapping Duke of Burgundy butterfly habitat in Totternhoe Quarry Reserve, Bedfordshire

By Matt Hayes


A rare Duke of Burgundy in Totternhoe Quarry. Photo credit: Matt Hayes.

In early January I returned to Totternhoe Quarry to carry out the finishing touches to my GPS map of the reserve. In just two days I was able to record the last few habitat areas on site, before finally adding the overall reserve boundary and a series of criss-crossing footpaths. With these individual features now recorded all that remained to produce the map of the reserve was to stitch them together. Unfortunately, this small step turned out to be anything but simple!

Despite having access to sophisticated mapping software, it soon became apparent that it could not recognise the files that I had produced with my handheld GPS unit. Even more worryingly, after some research I found that the software I had used with my handheld GPS was now obsolete and out of production! This put me in an awkward situation where I had the entire reserve mapped out but no way to view any of my work, putting a small hitch in an otherwise well-laid plan…

Fortunately, after some email correspondence, the company that sold the GPS unit offered to convert my feature files for me and then email them back to me. Finally, after a few months of fearing it would never be completed, I assembled all of my recorded features together to produce the map of Totternhoe Quarry Reserve for the Winter of 2016.

This map then enabled me to start work analysing distribution data of the endangered Duke of Burgundy butterfly; the target species I am researching in my MPhil project. GPS locations of butterfly sightings can be laid on top of my map and hotspots of clustering on the reserve can be determined. With data I collected and a decade of recordings from volunteers and workers of the Wildlife Trust, I was able to analyse the first long term data set on the distribution of the Duke of Burgundy butterfly within a reserve. The GPS map allowed key habitat features within hotspots, locations used year on year by this butterfly, to be identified.

This information will be vitally important for informing better management for the Duke on our reserves and give us a more detailed idea of the conditions we should be trying to create in order to maintain stable, healthy populations of this species. 


March 2017 – A new paper by Amelia Hood and colleagues from their research on ant-plant mutualisms in Papua New Guinea

By Amelia Hood


 “Network reorganization and breakdown of an ant-plant protection mutualism with elevation”

Photo credit: Tom Fayle. Domatia of the most abundant myrmecophytes in this study. (a) Myristica subalulata with ant genus Anonychomyrma, (b) Chisocheton lasiocarpus and (c) Ryparosa amplifolia with ant genus Podomyrma.


Ant-plant mutualisms are common in the tropics, and some of the best-studied mutualistic networks. The benefits of such mutualisms are most often a safe nesting space or food for the ants, and protection from herbivores or encroaching vegetation for the plants. However, these benefits and their associated costs vary for both partners depending on several biotic and abiotic factors.

A team of researchers from the Czech Republic (University of South Bohemia & Biology Centre CAS), Papua New Guinea (New Guinea Binatang Research Centre & University of Papua New Guinea) and the Insect Ecology Group have assessed the effect of elevation on ant-plant interaction networks, ant protection behaviour and the correlated changes in plant herbivory damage in primary tropical rainforest in Papua New Guinea.

They identified all myrmecophytes and their inhabitants within ten 0.15ha transects from 700 to 1600 m.a.s.l. They found that as elevation increased there were fewer ant-plants and the species richness of both partners decreased. Connectivity increased and specialization decreased more than could be accounted for by the reduction in ant-plant abundance alone.

Ant protection behaviour was measured for the most common ant-plant mutualism, between Myristica subalulata and ant genus Anonychomyrma, by observing the ants’ response to a surrogate herbivore. Ants recruited less often and spent less time attacking this herbivore at higher elevations due to a turnover of ant species, as opposed to changes in within-species behaviour. Herbivory damage, which was scored visually, increased with elevation due to changes in ant and plant species.

This study shows that abiotic factors, such as decreasing temperature along an elevational gradient, can cause mutualistic networks to break down due to a reduction in the number of available partners and a decrease in ant protective behaviour. These findings highlight the vulnerability of these complex mutualistic networks to increasing anthropogenic disturbance such as climate change.

This work is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (available at by Nichola S Plowman, Amelia S C Hood, Jimmy Moses, Conor Redmond, Vojtech Novotny, Petr Klimes and Tom M Fayle.


February 2017 - A recent publication from the Insect Ecology Group

By Sarah Luke


"The impacts of habitat disturbance on adult and larval dragonflies (Odonata) in rainforest streams in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo"

Photo credit: Sarah Luke 

Dragonfly communities in tropical rainforest streams in Malaysian Borneo are heavily affected by selective logging and conversion of surrounding land to oil palm plantations.

A study led by researchers in the Insect Ecology Group, and carried out at the Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystems (SAFE) Project in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, found that communities of both adult dragonflies and their larvae were substantially different in oil palm and logged forest streams compared to streams in old growth forests.

The team surveyed adult and larval dragonflies across 16 streams, including streams surrounded by old growth forest, selectively logged forest of different qualities, and oil palm plantations. Some of the oil palm plantation streams had narrow strips of forest left along their banks (riparian buffers), whilst others had oil palm growing right to the water’s edge.

Very different sets of species were found across the sites, with more widespread and common dragonflies, and fewer forest-dependent and range-restricted damselflies, found at sites surrounded by oil palm or heavily logged forest, compared to old growth forest streams. There were also fewer larvae in oil palm plantation streams, than in streams surrounded by higher quality forest, suggesting that dragonflies and damselflies are using these streams much less for breeding, or that larvae are surviving less well in oil palm streams.

Having riparian buffers around streams in oil palm seems to offer s­ome protection for forest-associated dragonflies, but only if the buffers are wide, and mostly for adults rather than larvae. Efforts to protect forest dragonfly communities should therefore focus on conserving remaining forest areas, but good management and preservation of forested riparian buffers in oil palm plantations could also be highly valuable.

This work is published in the open access paper “The impacts of habitat disturbance on adult and larval dragonflies (Odonata) in rainforest streams in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo” in the journal Freshwater Biology (available at by Sarah H Luke, Rory A Dow, Stephen Butler, Chey Vun Khen, David C Aldridge, William A Foster and Edgar C Turner.



February 2017

By Sarah Luke

The European Conference of Tropical Ecology, Brussels


The Insect Ecology group, and collaborators from the University of Southampton, recently attended and presented their work at The European Conference of Tropical Ecology in Brussels. The conference was hosted by the Society for Tropical Ecology (formerly Gesellschaft für Tropenökologie e.V., gtö) – Europe’s largest tropical ecology society – and was attended by over 360 delegates, from 37 different countries. The theme of the conference was “(Re)connecting biodiversity in space and time”, and symposia topics included issues relating to traits, functions, genetics, animal behaviour, land-use impacts, and conservation, across a wide range of tropical biomes.

The BEFTA Project team – including Ed Turner, Sarah Luke, Millie Hood and Julie Hinsch from the University of Cambridge, and Jake Snaddon from the University of Southampton – gave presentations on recent findings from the BEFTA Project in the “Human-modified tropical forests” symposium. Masters students from the University of Southampton – Frances Mullany and Georgina Hollands – also presented a poster on their work looking at the impacts of a hurricane on butterfly and ant communities in Belize.

Sarah began by introducing the topic of oil palm, and the need to strike a balance between the demands of production and protecting ecosystems. She introduced the BEFTA Project, discussing its aim of testing the effects of understory vegetation complexity in oil palm plantations on biodiversity, ecosystem function, and yield; and also explained the experimental design of the BEFTA Project (more information here: She then presented some early results looking at the effects of manipulation of the understory vegetation at BEFTA on canopy ants, caterpillars, and herbivory of oil palm leaves. Results so far suggest that oil palm ecosystems are more complex than we might think, with high variability over time, including in response to rainfall. No effects of understory treatments are yet evident on canopy communities, but there has also not yet been a drop in yield as a result of the treatments. It will be interesting to keep monitoring effects over time.

Ed was the next to speak, and took a closer look at the effects of the BEFTA understory treatments on predators within the understory. He presented findings of Cambridge Masters students – Dave Kurz and Dakota Spear – along with his work from the project. They found that there was lower frog, assassin bug, and spider abundance and richness in the understory of reduced complexity plots compared to normal and enhanced plots. This included lower abundance of large golden orb web spiders (Nephila spp) in reduced complexity plots, and a consequent drop in prey consumption across these plots. However, they found no difference in the diversity or abundance of ground or canopy spiders between plots with different understory treatments. Altogether this shows that having more complex understory vegetation helps to support a wider range of predators, which could be a key part of pest management within plantations.  

Julie continued the theme of pest management within oil palm plantations, by presenting results from her Masters and PhD projects on the value of planting nectar-rich plants within oil palm plantations to help promote beneficial insect predators. These beneficial insects include parasitic and predatory wasps that feed on caterpillars and other herbivores that eat the oil palm leaves. Extensive loss of leaves has been shown to harm oil palm yield, and so plantations are keen to control herbivores. Julie is testing whether the nectar-rich plants can help boost the beneficial insect populations, and therefore reduce the need for pesticides to be used in the plantations. Her results so far suggest that nectar-rich plants show great potential for increasing the abundance of beneficial insects, and consequently, reducing herbivory of palms. There is also a lot of potential for this pest management strategy to be rolled out on a larger scale across plantations by planting flowers in existing gaps in the plantations. 


Alongside the above-ground work the team have collected data on how the BEFTA treatments and habitat complexity is affecting the below-ground biodiversity and processes. Jake presented an overview of this work selecting some results from Adham Ashton-Butt ( and Hsaio-Hang Tao’s ( PhD projects. Adham’s initial measurements of chemical and physical properties have shown that while soil nutrients change little across the sites, soil moisture is decreased in the reduced vegetation cover BEFTA plots. This impact on soil moisture is also apparent in the data from the replanted areas, which show that as the vegetation cover matures, soil moisture increases at the sites. To complement this, Hsiao’s work on the impact of empty fruit bunch (EFB) application on soil biodiversity and soil properties shows a positive impact of EFB on soil moisture, leading to a positive relationship between soil moisture under the EFB plots and oil palm yield. Work is continuing on the identification and analysis of the soil biodiversity from the plots, and it will be interesting to see how the diversity contributes to this system. 


Millie continued the theme of below-ground ecosystem functions, presenting results on soil bioturbation and leaf litter decomposition from her PhD. She has found that oil palm plots that had been replanted, and currently have young palms growing (4 years old at time of study), had no termite mounds and lower rates of leaf litter decomposition compared to mature (25-30 year old) plantation. In the mature plantation, there were more active termite mounds and higher rates of leaf litter decomposition where levels of understory vegetation were higher. She also showed that herbivore abundance is higher in mature plots that do not have understory vegetation, and that herbivory is higher in replanted plots than in mature plots. By comparing a range of ecosystem functions, she was able to show that mature plots with enhanced or normal levels of understory vegetation are functioning more optimally than mature plots with reduced understory vegetation, or replanted plots. Millie plans to test these functions further by conducting ant and termite exclusion experiments, to assess the role of these insects in ecosystem processes within the plantation.



January 2017

By Sarah Luke

Cambridge Science Festival


In under two months time Cambridge will host its annual Science Festival - fourteen days of talks, films, and interactive events celebrating science, maths, technology. For more information about Science Festival 2017 please visit:

Work from Amelia Hood - a PhD student in the Insect Ecology Group - featured in last year's festival. Her close-up image of nine species of Polyrhachis ants, created using microscopes and image stitching technology, was presented in an exhibition of scientific images that celebrated the use of techniques beyond just a simple camera shot. 



A full description of Amelia's photographs, along with some of the other work presented in the "Beyond Images" exhibition can be found here:



December 2016

Mapping Totternhoe Quarry Reserve

By Matt Hayes



Totternhoe reserve is home to many butterfly species, including the rare Duke of Burgundy

After being taught the basics it was time to put my new GPS mapping skills to the test. Over the course of a week I began to record all of the different areas of habitat present at Totternhoe Quarry. I was helped by an undergraduate student, Marcus Rhodes, and whilst one of us walked the perimeter of the habitat areas, the other recorded slope, aspect, vegetation type and shelter.

Slightly frustrating periods of time would elapse as the GPS recorder could suddenly lose accuracy, giving measurements with several metres of potential error. However, with a bit of patience we were able to wait for the GPS to behave and we made good progress. In all we mapped around 80% of the 14-acre reserve in just 4 days.

Once the last few habitat areas are recorded the final pieces of GPS work will involve mapping the overall reserve boundary and a series of pathways that crisscross the site. After that I will attempt to use Geographic Information Software to stitch the mapped features together into a cohesive representation of the reserve. In the Summer, behavioural sightings of the Duke of Burgundy butterfly can then be added to the map and hopefully this will help us see which habitat features promote mating and flight activity in this threatened species.

Matt Hayes, MPhil student


Matt (top picture) and Marcus (middle picture) busy mapping the reserve



November 2016

Winter fieldwork at Totternhoe Quarry

By Matt Hayes


During the Summer the main part of my research project will be looking at how temperature change affects the territorial and mating behaviour of the Duke of Burgundy butterfly (Hamearis Lucina). However, those warm Summer days are still some way off and the adults won’t be on the wing until late April. Luckily this gives me plenty of time to prepare and also gives me the chance to try my hand at learning some new GPS mapping skills!

Over the Winter I plan to map Totternhoe Quarry reserve into areas of homogenous habitat. I will record vegetation type, slope, aspect and shelter and log how these features change across the site. Then come the Summer, when I view the adult behaviour of the Duke of Burgundy, I will be able to place my findings in an environmental context. When I observe a butterfly, I will be able to record its GPS coordinate and simply overlay this data onto my map of the reserve, giving us information on behavioural distributions. This could help us to identify key habitat features that promote a suitable microclimate for this charismatic butterfly and aid us in performing suitable management for it into the future.

The weather (29th November) was set to be cold so I was prepared for difficult working conditions. However, I woke to a beautiful frosty morning with the sun shining at Totternhoe. I then met up with Colin Lucas, formerly of the Wildlife Trust and a veteran of using GPS equipment, who had very kindly offered to teach me how to map the reserve. After a tricky initial hour, where the GPS appeared incapable of record anything other than error messages, we began to make progress. When working correctly the mapping equipment allows you to efficiently note down key habitat features and assign them to real geographic locations by walking around the perimeter of the area in question.  By the end of the day I had successfully mapped my first dozen habitat areas and learn’t the basics of producing a GPS version of the reserve. However, my real test will come when I return to the reserve and have to finish the mapping without the help of Colin….!



March 2016 - Edgar Turner to become next Curator of Insects

Dr Edgar Turner will become the next Curator of Insects and Insect Ecology Group Leader when William Foster retires in September 2016. He will continue his current research on ecology and conservation in the UK, Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as developing new projects related to the insect collections, outreach and teaching in the department.

Ed recently got this special mention in the Zoology Alumni magazine:



February 2016 - Visit to local school

Ed Turner and Amelia Hood went to the University of Cambridge Primary School for a morning to teach four classes of young students the value and fascinating nature of insects. Ed’s collection of live stick insects incited particularly high levels of enthusiasm, with the female Malaysian jungle nymph (Heteropteryx dilatata) being the most gasp-worthy. The children enjoyed handling the smaller species, such as the Indian stick insects (Carausius morosus). The class finished with a lesson in camouflage and aposematism, and the students coloured in their own insect drawings in light of this exercise.



February 2016 - Insect specimens loaned to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, to support their upcoming exhibition 'Crawling with life'

The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, has just opened a new exhibition of watercolours by the 17th century German naturalists and illustrators Maria Sibylla Merian and Jacob Marrel. They produced a series of highly detailed watercolours of insects, amphibians, reptiles and plants. These works are supported by illustrations of carnivorous plants by German born scientist and illustrator Georg Dionysius Ehret and the French artist and engraver Nicolas Robert.

The Zoology Museum has loaned several of its insect specimens to help support this exhibition.

The exhibition has Free Entry and runs from Tue 2 February 2016 to Sun 8 May 2016.

For more information please visit:



September 2015 - Session on oil palm in Southeast Asia accepted for the European Conference on Tropical Ecology, 2016

Insect Ecology group members will be running a conference session entitled 'Managing oil palm landscapes for biodiversity and production: lessons from SE Asia' at the European Conference on Tropical Ecology being held in Gottingen, Germany, in February 2016.

This session will bring together researchers from multiple institutions and countries to discuss research on biodiversity and function of oil palm ecosystems in Southeast Asia, and possible strategies for management and conservation. 

For more information about the conference please visit:



May 2015 - "Thirty new fly species in Los Angeles" - a special mention in Science Editors' Choice for work by Henry Disney


(Photo taken from the Science Editors' Choice article, linked below, and originally taken by Kelsey Bailey)

Along with collaborators Emily Hartop and Brian Brown from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, Insect Ecology group's Henry Disney has described 30 new species of Megaselia (Phorid flies) found in gardens in Los Angeles.

The species are described in a recent paper in the journal Zootaxa: 

The work has also been highlighted in the Editors' Choice section of the high profile journal Science where they note that even seemingly unpromising urban habitats can yield biodiversity surprises, however it's still uncertain whether these flies are native or exotic species that have been brought in by container shipping.

You can read more here:



 April 2015 - More recent high profile publications for Insect Ecology group members!

A new paper in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution (TREE) led by former group member Tom Fayle, and co-authored by current group member Ed Turner, reviews the recent increase in whole-ecosystem experimental manipulations of tropical forests. They discuss how experimental manipulations, and particularly those on a large scale, offer an important opportunity for trying to tease apart the highly complex interactions between environmental conditions, species and the functions of a complex rainforest system, and therefore offer a crucial first step towards conservation.

The paper published in TREE this week is available here: 


A second paper out this week co-authored by Ed Turner and led by group collaborators from Imperial College and the SAFE Project in Borneo, presents data on the carbon stocks held in deadwood in logged forests. From studies of forest plots in selectively logged forest in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, they found that more than half of the above-ground carbon in the forests was in deadwood rather than living trees, and so was likely to soon decompose and emit carbon dioxide. This figure is over twice the amount predicted previously in literature, suggesting that the large deadwood stocks in logged forests have previously been overlooked, and therefore a large source of carbon emissions may have been missed out of emissions estimates. 

Lead author, Dr Marion Pfeiffer, said:

"It means that a large proportion of forests worldwide are less of a sink and more of a source, especially immediately following logging, as carbon dioxide is released from the dead wood during decomposition.”

The paper published in Environmental Research Letters is available here:

Articles that discuss this work further are available here:



April 2015 - Graham Prescott wins 'best student talk' prize at the gtoe European Tropical Ecology Conference, Zurich

Insect Ecology group member Graham Prescott recently picked up the prize for 'best student talk' at the German Society for Tropical Ecology conference, held in Zurich. The conference was attended by over 300 people from 37 countries, and addressed the theme of 'Resilience of Tropical Ecosystems: Future challenges and opportunities'.

Graham presented results of his work studying avian phylogenetic diversity in forest, oil palm and pasture land in Colombia. His PhD considers the impacts of oil palm agriculture on bird, ant and epiphyte communities, and how plantations can be managed more sustainably to help protect biodiversity.



 April 2015 - "Logging cuts the functional importance of invertebrates in tropical rainforest" - a new Nature Communications publication

Termites on the move. Photo credit: Sarah Luke

Insect room researchers Ed Turner and Sarah Luke are co-authors on a new paper published in Nature Communications that considers the changing role of invertebrates in ecosystem functions in logged tropical forests.

The research is a collaborative project led by Dr Rob Ewers, Imperial College London, that uses work by multiple scientists working at the SAFE Project ( in Malaysian Borneo to consider how logging affects ecosystem function. In pristine forests many ecosystem functions are completed by invertebrates, but in logged forests invertebrate communities are reduced and their role in ecosystem functions declines significantly. Instead, ecosystem functions in logged forests are maintained largely by vertebrates. Although this might be working in the short term, it means that logged forest are likely to be very vulnerable and have little resilience to further changes.

Dr Ewers says: “The forest will keep maintaining itself, but it will be much more susceptible to further change. Relying on vertebrates is a bad tactic – they are less diverse and vulnerable to new challenges such as land use change.”

For example, if logged forest is further converted to oil palm, vertebrates are especially likely to be affected, meaning that ecosystem functioning will change substantially. “Knocking out one or two invertebrates might not be too bad, as there are many others to take their place, but knocking out one or two vertebrates could now be disastrous,” said Dr Ewers.

The rainforest of Malaysian Borneo appears to have shown resilience to selective logging, with vertebrates maintaining functions previously provided by invertebrates. But with large areas of rainforest in Southeast Asia already selectively logged, or cleared for oil palm, and further conversion still underway, we must consider whether this resilience can be maintained and how vulnerable logged forest ecosystems now are.

A press-release with further discussion of the study is available here:

The original journal article is freely available here:


Image is a screen shot taken from the Nature Communications link above



February 2015 - William Foster in BBC's 'Great British Railway Journeys'

Curator of Insects and head of the Insect Ecology Group, William Foster, discusses the work of Charles Darwin and his love of insect collecting with Michael Portillo in this week's episode of 'Great British Railway Journeys'.

The programme covers the journey from Oakham to Cambridge, and considers the beetle collecting of young Charles Darwin when he was a student at Christ's College, Cambridge. William Foster goes on to discuss Darwin's work in the Galapagos and his long term study of barnacles that led him to develop the theory of evolution.

The programme was first shown on BBC2 on 30th January and is available to watch again on BBC iPlayer at the link below. The discussion of Cambridge and Darwin's work starts at 22 minutes into the programme:

Image is a still from the programme taken from the BBC iPlayer link above.



February 2015 - "Can biodiversity make us happy?"

A collaborative project with the Simon Langton Girls' Grammar School in Canterbury funded by a Royal Society Partnership Grant 

Ed Turner, affiliated researcher in the Insect Ecology Group, has just been involved as Scientific Partner in a winning Royal Society Partnership Grant with the Simon Langton Girls’ Grammar School in Canterbury. The project ‘Can biodiversity make us happy’ will foster collaboration between Cambridge and the school, to increase the school student’s understanding of biodiversity and the well-being benefits of the natural world.

As well as visiting the University’s Institute of Continuing Education to receive training in biodiversity monitoring in the Madingley Hall grounds, students will also be encouraged to actively monitor biodiversity in the school’s newly-designed wildlife area.

Lead teacher on the project, Mrs Samantha Goodfellow, said ‘this project will really inspire our students and will give them a chance to design their own methods for monitoring biodiversity and well-being. These are difficult concepts even for experienced researchers and will allow our students to develop their scientific skills in key areas including using keys, books and technology (apps) to identify species. They will also be encouraged to use equipment to measure blood pressure and pulse and they will work to design their own questionnaires and interpret written and verbal communication. We will also be encouraging other students from junior and secondary schools to actively engage in the project.’

Ed Turner said ‘This is an exciting project, which I am very keen to be involved with. As a research biologist studying the impacts of environmental change on the natural world, it is clear that we are experiencing rapid rates of species loss worldwide. Although this is driven by a range of anthropogenic changes, among the most insidious underlying factors exacerbating these losses is people’s increasing disconnection with the natural world, meaning that extinctions may go unnoticed and unchallenged. This project embodies an approach to addressing this issue by explicitly engaging young people in the natural world through an inspiring research and conservation project.’

The project begins in March 2015 and runs for seven months.



January 2015 - A new species of dragonfly – ‘the SAFE clawtail’, Phaenandrogomphus safei – discovered in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo

Insect Ecology group member Sarah Luke and her collaborator Rory Dow have discovered a species of dragonfly that is new to science during work at the Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystems (SAFE) Project in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. It is the first time this species has ever been found, and the first species within its genus, Phaenandrogomphus, to be recorded within the island of Borneo. It has been named formally as Phaenandrogomphus safei after the SAFE Project – the research project and site where it was found - and given the common name ‘the SAFE clawtail’ because of the distinctive claw-like appendages at the end of its abdomen.

A single male was found at one of the SAFE Project streams during standardised dragonfly transect samplings conducted by Sarah Luke as part of her PhD work studying freshwater macroinvertebrates. The dragonfly is a small member of the family Gomphidae and has a mainly black thorax and abdomen, with pale green stripes.


 Left: Phaenandrogomphus safei in the field. Top right: Phaenandrogomphus safei holotype. Bottom right: Phaenandrogomphus safei head, dorsal view. Photo credits Sarah Luke and Rory Dow.


The discovery of this dragonfly also sheds light on the taxonomy of another gomphid species, Onychogomphus treadawayi. The most morphologically similar species to the new Phaenandrogomphus safei is not in fact any mainland Phaenandrogomphus species, but actually O.treadawayi which is known from a single male specimen found in the Philippines. It has therefore been decided that O.treadawayi should be reclassified within the genus Phaenandrogomphus.

This is the first new species described from the SAFE Project – a large, long-term study monitoring the impacts of forest disturbance and fragmentation on ecosystems – but it is hoped that as work continues at the site more of Borneo’s unknown fauna will be discovered. First author, Rory Dow said:  “Discoveries such as this demonstrate how much there is still to learn about the dragonfly fauna of Borneo. Very large areas of Borneo have never been systematically surveyed, or in many cases surveyed at all, for dragonflies; it is very likely that there are numerous discoveries still to be made.”

However, Dow also commented that “habitat is being changed by human activities at a rapid rate across Borneo, so that time may be running out for many of these fascinating insects, whilst at the same time there is an almost total lack of funding for the kind of survey work needed to find them, and the taxonomic work needed to identify and describe them.”

The type specimen will be deposited at the Forest Research Centre, Sepilok – a research institution in Sabah. The paper discussing this discovery “Phaenandrogomphus safei, a new species from Sabah, northern Borneo (Odonata: Anisoptera: Gomphidae)” written by Rory A Dow and Sarah H Luke is published open access in the journal Zootaxa and is available here:  



November 2014 - Insect sorting with Masters student Dave Kurz

Following my field work in the oil palm plantations of Sumatra last February and March, I found myself back in Cambridge with hundreds of tubes of invertebrates that my team and I had collected from frog stomachs. As each tube contained up to 100+ partially-digested arthropods that needed identifying, it was clear I needed help. Fortunately, three all-star undergraduates - Christine Corlet (left), Sophus Zu Ermgassen (center), and Jamie Cranston (bottom right) - were willing and eager to help. Together we plowed through the tubes and identified 4,633 invertebrates to order.



September 2014 - "Termites suffer in logged forests and palm oil plantations"

An article recently published on the conservation website, discusses work by current group members Sarah Luke and Ed Turner, and former group member Tom Fayle:

(Sarah Luke collecting ants and termites with a research assistant. Photo by Tim Harvey-Samuel)

The study, published in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation, considered the impacts of rain forest logging and oil palm plantations on ant and termite communities in rain forest in Borneo.

Termites showed substantial declines in abundance in disturbed habitats, but ants appeared much more resilient, with high numbers still found in logged forest and oil palm. However, both groups showed changes in assemblages and the functional groups that were found. Soil feeding termites in particular declined in disturbed habitats, whilst opportunist and behaviourally dominant ants increased in numbers.

Ants and termites are two of the most ecologically important insect groups in tropical rain forests and play crucial roles in breaking down leaves, dead wood and soil, dispersing seeds, and as predators and prey in food webs. They also interact with each other through predation, nest sharing or through changing the surrounding habitat. Changes in their abundance are therefore likely to have wide ranging effects on ecosystems.

This work is published in the open access paper “Functional structure of ant and termite assemblages in old growth forest, logged forest and oil palm plantation in Malaysian Borneo” in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation (available at, Volume 23, Issue 11, pp 2817-2832, online from 30th July 2014) by Sarah H Luke, Tom M Fayle, Paul Eggleton, Edgar C Turner and Richard G Davies.



April 2014 – A fieldwork update from Masters student, Dave Kurz, working at the BEFTA Project in Sumatra, Indonesia

Oil palm, frogs, and conservation on the margins

On my way to Sumatra in January, I read in my Lonely Planet guidebook that Indonesia is a kaleidoscope – geographically, culturally, and linguistically. Three months later, I’m happy to report that this charming country also contains a wonderful diversity of natural life, even in the very heart of its oil palm plantations.

Throughout February and March, I was carrying out my Masters research at the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Function in Tropical Agriculture (BEFTA) ( project in the Riau province of Sumatra. My work examined the effect of oil palm management on frog assemblages and frog-invertebrate food webs. Specifically, I focused on the effects of two forms of plantation management: understory clearing and re-planting of oil palm trees. Understory clearing is the chemical or mechanical removal of plants that grow between palms and is widely practised by oil palm estate managers seeking to keep pathways within plantations clear of vegetation. Re-planting of oil palm happens roughly every 25-30 years as trees reach the end of their productive lives. After this period, older palms produce lower yields and plots must be re-planted with young palms, beginning a new growth cycle.

These two management practices may have significant effects on the way the oil palm ecosystem works. That is, the way nutrients are cycled, the way different animals and plants interact, and even the productivity of the oil palms; these essential processes are likely influenced significantly by management choices. Many scientists have noted the importance of a diverse suite of life forms for healthy ecosystem functioning, and hopefully my project will contribute in a small way to that body of data by assessing the diversity and function of frogs in oil palm.

Aside from providing important data that we hope will make the oil palm industry more biodiversity-friendly, my fieldwork was a lot of fun! Because I was studying frog diets in oil palm, my field assistants and I had to stomach-flush hundreds of frogs. By “stomach-flush” I mean that we gently placed a silicon tube into the mouth of each frog in order to squirt water into its stomach, which allowed us to collect its most recent meal. If this sounds completely nuts to you, that’s ok – I’m used to that response from my friends! Check out the picture below to see what stomach-flushing looks like.

In addition to stomach-flushing, I conducted frog surveys, which allowed me to see a number of very cool frog species, as well as an assortment of other wildlife including spiders, kingfishers, barn owls, rodents, leopard cats, palm civets, and (my favourite) – snakes! I was fortunate to see a number of Sumatran cobras and blood pythons. Here is a picture of me with a beautiful red blood python (Python curtus brongersmai).

My fieldwork helped me appreciate the value of conserving wildlife in unlikely contexts like agriculture. When people I meet find out I am a biologist, they tend to think I work in steamy jungles dripping with giant snakes and deadly jaguars. Rainforests really are awesome (although it is much harder to find huge predators in them than popular culture suggests), but they are not the only locations important for conservation. Indeed, my time in Indonesia, partnering with an oil palm industry very concerned about sustainability, has helped me appreciate the real necessity of doing conservation “on the margins” and fighting to protect wildlife in all types of areas. That is, I think, the way forward to a future that ensures that we preserve the natural kaleidoscope we have been entrusted with…and the way to continue giving Lonely Planet a lot to write about.



February 2014 – recent conference presentations

Several members of the group recently presented their work at international conferences. The International Conference on Oil Palm and Environment (ICOPE), held in Bali, considered issues of oil palm sustainability and how the joint demands of oil palm growth and biodiversity conservation can be met.

William Foster and Ed Turner presented their work from the BEFTA Project in Sumatra which investigates whether habitat complexity within oil palm plantations, including understorey planting, can help preserve biodiversity and in turn, what the impacts of this are on ecosystem functioning and productivity.


Graham Prescott and Sarah Luke presented work from their PhDs at the Annual Conference for the Society of Tropical Ecology (gtö) conference held in Freising/Munich, Germany. Graham presented results from his study of oil palm systems in Colombia. Oil palm agriculture looks set to expand in Colombia and this growth needs to be done as sustainably as possible. Graham considered the relative biodiversity value of forest, pasture and oil palm habitats, and therefore the likely impacts for wildlife if different habitat types were converted to make way for oil palm.

Sarah won the Merian Award for the best student talk, presenting results from her work on the impacts of rainforest logging and oil palm plantations on freshwater macroinvertebrates, and the potential role of riparian buffer strips in their conservation. 


(Image credits, in order: Jake Snaddon; gtö conference website; Claudia Gray; Claudia Gray)



December 2013 - a blog from Ed Turner, recently returned from fieldwork at the BEFTA Project in Indonesia

Conservation grows up?

For the general public, I think the word ‘conservationist’ still evokes an image of woolly jumpers, unwashed ponytails and sandals. The reality today is that conservationists can be everything from Greenpeace activists to government officials. Perhaps the key uniting factor is a drive towards more sustainable use of the world’s resources; development without or with a reduced loss of natural habitats and biodiversity. Central to this is integrating conservation activities and decisions within industry. Not only can this link research, policy and implementation, but it can also help to change the way that people think on the ground. It can centralise rather than peripheralize conservation decisions within industry and make sure that conservation practice is realistic, understandable and practical.

I’ve just come back from my latest fieldtrip as part of the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Function in Tropical Agriculture (BEFTA) Project (link), which aims to do just that. By working closely with the oil palm industry, the project is able to experimentally test different management strategies to benefit biodiversity within oil palm plantations on a scale that would be impossible without industry involvement. The project set up includes large 150m by 150m blocks of oil palm plantation in which the understory and epiphytic plants are allowed to regrow, are removed, or are kept the same. By studying a wide variety of different species of animals and plants in these areas, as well as ecosystem processes such as leaf litter decomposition, dung removal, herbivory and even oil palm yield, we will be able to assess the role of local habitat complexity in supporting biodiversity and the potential for more biofriendly management practices. Key to this is that any recommendations made must not reduce yield. Not only is this important for industry productivity, but it also ensures that conservation management in plantations doesn’t increase pressure on remaining natural areas.

Although the project is only at the end of its first year it is already yielding interesting results. In particular we have found that oil palm plantations are more variable and diverse than might be expected. More open areas along roads and near rivers contain different communities of insects than plantation interiors. Not just that, but these species are doing things – litter decomposition occurs at a more rapid rate when insects are involved. This doesn’t mean that plantations are in any way comparable or as diverse as the rainforests they replaced, but rather that they still contain species. These probably aren’t forest species, but they’re still species that make the ecosystem function. Working alongside industry also means that information on herbicide, pesticide and fertiliser applications as well as oil palm yield can be linked to biodiversity measurements, allowing the economic impacts of different management strategies to be tested.

So when you think about conservationists, I hope that you won’t just consider the baggy jumpers and hairstyle choices. A conservationist could just as well be a wildlife reserve manager in the Lake District or an oil palm grower in Malaysia. Conservation shouldn’t just check up on industry practice, although this is very important, it should also be working with and within industry to influence and implement decisions. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have a ponytail. Or wear woolly jumpers.



November 2013 - insect collections and art

Local school children have recently made use of the Insect Room Collection in their art classes. Insect Room curator, Russell Stebbings, arranged for students to work with the museum's 'handling collection' - specimens that are not scientifically useful because of missing information about their collection date and location, but are still beautiful and make brilliant subjects for drawing.

Information and photographs taken from:

Students drawing an 'Exotic Butterfly'  from University Museum of Zoology, Insect Room, Handling Collection

Student Drawing 'Stag Beetle' from the University Museum of Zoology Handling Collection