An impromptu sampling trip at Lago di Maggiore …


Sampling diatoms from Lago di Maggiore.  Nigel Willby (left) and Sebastian Birk and, in the foreground, the sample collected in a plastic cup with a disposable toothbrush.

One of the inevitable quirks of the high-level overview of Europe’s ecology that intercalibration provided was that we spent most of our time staring at spreadsheets and relatively little time out in the field. The irony struck me as Lago di Maggiore came into view on the drive from the airport to JRC’s campus at Ispra: I’ve been here several times, always to discuss intercalibration, but I’ve never actually taken a sample from this huge lake right on JRC’s doorstep.

There was, however, a problem to overcome: I had travelled light so had nothing with which to collect or store a sample. Last night I had been given an emergency pack of toiletries by KLM, which included a toothbrush, but I had blithely discarded this. I did wonder if my own toothbrush could be pressed into service but there, waiting in my otherwise basically-equipped room at the Europa Hotel, was a toothbrush. What better sign did I need that this sampling trip was Meant To Happen?

In the gap between the end of the meeting and dinner, I pressed two colleagues who had the forethought to bring swimming trunks into service to collect stones from the littoral zone just in front of the hotel. Each had a thin slimy layer on the surface (the stones, not Nigel and Sebastian). I brushed this into a plastic cup, again filched from the hotel room, then left this on a shelf in the bathroom whilst we went to dinner so that the algae would settle at the bottom. When I got back, I poured off most of the overlying water and decanted the brown sludge at the bottom into a shampoo bottle which I had rinsed out thoroughly. A shot of grappa could have been pressed into service as a temporary preservative, but I did not think of that until it was too late.

The only obstacle that remains is airport security. I’ll have to hope that no-one questions this strange brown “shampoo” in my luggage and that, if forced to admit it is diatoms, the security staff don’t recall that fossil diatoms are a constituent of the soft, sedimentary rock “kieselguhr”, and, more particularly, that no-one ever told them that kieselguhr is one ingredient of TNT.


Still travelling … still thinking …


Lago di Maggiore, photographed on Thursday evening, after my protracted journey. 

My hopes of a lazy morning looking at the alps reflected in the calm water of Lago di Maggiore as I sipped an espresso were dashed by the French strike and, instead, I spent most of the morning in transit and reflecting on the purpose of the meeting.

My trips to JRC have all been associated with the EU’s intercalibration exercise. Because the EU operates under a principle known as “subsidiarity”, every state has developed its own approaches to implementing the Water Framework Directive (and all other Directives). Consequently, the ecological targets that each country sets for itself may differ and this, in turn, will have knock-on effects for subsequent investment. If there is to be a “level playing field”, in other words, we first need to calibrate all these national targets. Imagine a row of ecologists peering over the edge of a bridge and comparing notes on the condition of the river flowing beneath them. That’s intercalibration. Except that the ecologists are more likely to be looking at a tray full of bugs, or down a microscope or, to disrupt my Arcadian image yet further, staring at enormous spreadsheets. And an ecologist from Scandinavia might be standing next to one from Cyprus, each of whom will bring very different experiences with them.

It has been, as a result, a huge challenge and, though the results are sometimes a little more ragged around the edges than we would have liked, enormously satisfying. As ever in science, many of the successes come from applying rigorous and objective processes to the data but, as we emerge from the end of the process, I wonder how much differences in approach between countries reflect deeper currents of culture and economy that scientists tend to overlook?

Does a country with a tradition of high taxation and public spending produce methods that are more resource-intensive than one where the public sector is less well financed? Does a country in the midst of economic recession have the budgets to develop methods as advanced as those in the wealthier parts of Europe? Does a country with a high population density (and, as a result, less wilderness) have lower expectations for the state of its freshwaters than one with a low density? The answer to all those questions is “perhaps” and, hopefully, the intercalibration exercise has given us an opportunity to iron out the major differences – whether scientific or cultural – and bring us closer to this “level playing field”.

However, because so many new methods have been developed over the past few years in response to the demands of the Water Framework Directive, I have one extra concern: many of these new methods have emerged “box fresh” from academia and are still not fully tried and tested in the real world. My long-term worry is that academic science generally sets high standards for “data” whereas end-users are more focused on “information”. Between the two there can be much redundancy yet, at the same time there is a fine line between “streamlining” data collection to increase efficiency, and “cutting corners”, which might lead to poor decisions. Maybe a state that has not been hit hard by the Eurozone crisis and which has a tradition of a genorously funded public sector will not be unduly concerned by this but, elsewhere, costs of implementation are a real concern.

I am convinced that the relationship between data and information follows the law of diminishing marginal utility (the “Pareto principle”) whereby we get most of the information we need to inform a judgment relatively quickly, and then spend a lot more time dancing the stately pavanes as decreed by the traditions of our academic sub-disciplines. I also suspect (from the quality of “applied” ecology papers I read) that few journals have sufficient stakeholder/end-user engagement to challenge these traditions. The risk is not just higher costs of ecological assessment, but that the process will remain in the hands of a “priesthood” of elite scientists and that this will, ultimately, limit our ability to communicate with stakeholders. They, ultimately, pay the bills, so we ignore them at our peril.

En route to Milan: more musings about Leonardo

How better to follow a post about Leonardo da Vinci than with a trip to Milan? I am not actually going to Milan itself, but landing at the airport and then travelling about 50 km north of Milan to the shore of Lago di Maggiore and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. I’ve been here about half a dozen times in total and, so far, other commitments have always conspired to prevent me from having time to travel into Milan itself. The one time I did have the opportunity to fulfil a long-held desire to see the Last Supper, I did not realise until too late that it was necessary to book weeks or even months in advance. There was a happy ending of sorts because a month or so after this abortive trip, I saw a contemporary copy of the Last Supper in an exhibition at the National Gallery. Ironically, this full-size oil on canvas copy had survived rather better than Leonardo’s original fresco, so I had the last laugh.

The Last Supper encapsulates the reasons why the borderlands between art and science fascinate me. The exhbition at the National Gallery had many of Leonardo’s preliminary sketches and these, along with his anatomical sketches, show how his finished works are built on a foundation of understanding, borne out of observation, of the human form. Behind a large work such as the Last Supper there is also a deep understanding of the mathematical principles of perspective. Add in a knowledge of pigments and we have three distinct areas of science combining in Leonardo’s mind to inform the finished work.

But why? The Last Supper fills one wall of the refectory at the Convent of Santa Maria fella Grazie. The monks saw lifesize and anatomically-accurate depictions of Jesus and his disciples eating as they ate. Leonardo had brought all that science and art together to evoke the presence of Christ, with all the complex symbolism of the eucharist. This is not “fine art” that exists in a vacumn, but a work with a very clear function: an ever-present reminder to the monks of their vocation.

Ours may be a less superstitious world, but it is no less mysterious and one of the roles art can still play is to fill in some of the gaps when the “hard” evidence upon which science depends runs out. Some of the best examples are the reconstructions of the worlds inhabited by dinosaurs, when the meagre anatomical evidence is extrapolated into plausible entities. Just as the monks were pulled into the Last Supper as they ate their meals, so we can use these “imagined but not imaginary” landscapes as ways to enter (or, at least, come closer to) prehistoric worlds or, in my case, microscopic ones.

Postscript: I didn’t make it to Milan today after all. An air traffic control strike in France disrupted flights all over Europe and I’m writing this from a hotel close to the airport at Amsterdam. It’s not just me: go to for more travelling misadventures today.

I am only trying to teach you to see …

Reading back through my last post recalled a visit to an exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace about a year ago. The blend of art and science in these small but highly detailed drawings gains added piquancy because the motivation, albeit somewhat obliquely, was partly religious: a better understanding of anatomy fuels Leonardo’s artistic endeavours which, mostly, result in paintings with a devotional context (The Last Supper, Madonna of the Rose …). Leonardo would have been perplexed by our modern divisions between the arts and sciences (C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures etc.) and by the science and religion divide perpetuated by Dawkins and others.


A page from one of Leonardo’s notebooks, showing a human foetus in the womb, derived in part from his dissection of a cow.

The struggle I had had with the anatomy of chironomid larvae mirrored Leonardo’s own explorations of the human body. The cultural significance of these drawings is that his own observations were replacing, and sometimes challenging, the notions handed down from Galen and other classical authorities. Yet even Leonardo was not a totally dispassionate observer of the human body: the exhibition notes examples where his drawings included non-existent elements borrowed from classical books whilst his famous drawings of human embryos are based, in part, on bovine anatomy. As I tried to capture the chironomid mouthparts, I was moving between direct observation and illustrations and diagrams in textbooks. The latter informed my interpretation of the former but, at the same time, there is a real risk that I might carry any errors from these diagrams into the interpretation of my own observations.

Perhaps the fault lies with us, looking at Leonardo’s drawings with a 21st century perspective and forgetting the constraints under which he worked? These pictures are the result of close observation of unembalmed human corpses in Milan. Working in winter made the task slightly easier but the benefits were offset, to some extent, by shorter days.  Animal corpses were much more widely available, hence the occasional tendency to extrapolate from bovine to human anatomy.

Drawing is a useful reminder of how far science – even ecology – has drifted from observation, and how quantification is, too often, an abstraction of reality as anything that can’t be counted or measured falls off the agenda. I’m reminded of Ruskin’s statement about the motivation behind his drawing classes: “I am only trying to teach you to see”.

More about Very Hungry Chironomids

I wrote about a Very Hungry Chironomid in a post back in March after watching a midge larva munch its way through a patch of diatoms in the River Ehen.  I’ve spent the time between then and now trying to capture the image in paint.  This is partly to remind myself of the artificiality of all that we look at under the microscope, because so much disruption is involved in getting microscopic organisms from their natural habitats on river beds to a microscope slide.  But it is also serves partly as a meditation on the organisms themselves, what they look like in their natural habitat, and how they interact with the organisms around them.

My problems are intensified because it is a long time since I looked at insect larvae in any detail.   The last time was, I am fairly sure, practical classes as a second year undergraduate, and I had to do a lot of background reading to remind myself just how different the insect mouthparts are to the vertebrates.  I had my own videos and others I found on YouTube as source material, as I tried to work out how a midge larva would work its way through a patch of diatoms.  My sketchbook now has page after page of sketches, annotated with diagrams cut from papers and textbooks on insect mouthparts, and I exchanged emails with Les Ruse, a colleague who is an expert on this group.


A chironomid (non-biting midge) larva feeding on diatoms in the River Ehen.

My picture is an approximation of the view that I saw back in early March.  Though only a couple of millimetres long, a chironomid is still two orders of magnitude larger than the algae on which it was feeding.  This is approximately the same size ratio as a cow and the grass on which it feeds and, consequently, it is difficult to capture both the intricacy of the diatoms and the immensity of the larva.   The picture shows the two prolegs at the front of its body.  These are unjointed stumpy projections which are capable of limited movement, and enable the larva to drag itself along.  The front prolegs have a ring of hooks with which it held onto the stalks of the diatom as it pulled itself into a position where its mandibles could shear through the stalks.  The rear-view here is deliberate as it is hard to see the other mouthparts in sufficient detail to draw them, forcing me to search for books and papers with illustrations that I could use as source material.


A sketch of the mouthparts of a chironomid larva similar to that found in the River Ehen.   The head is approximately 1/10th of a millimetre across

Even this was complicated because there are almost 600 species of chironomid recorded from Britain and Ireland alone, and mouthparts vary from species to species, depending on their habitat and food preferences. The diagrams in books are often very generalised so I had to go back and forth between these and my photographs and videos to try to work out how the various parts fitted together.   The second image in this post is the last of the 13 pages of sketches that I made.   The mandibles (a) are impressive shear-like organs on either side of the head which move obliquely and which, in this species, seemed to be hacking through the diatom stalks.  The movement of the mandibles carried the food towards the mouth where other mouthparts, the maxillae (b), mentum (c), which roughly equates to the lower lip, and the labium (d), the upper “lip”, direct these into the mouth.  Note the fine hair like structures on the maxillae which assist in this process.  Finally, there are maxillae palps (e), which are jointed, mobile structures which sense the characteristics of potential foods.   Compare this arrangement with our own mouths, where the jaws work vertically and where the taste receptors are inside rather than outside.   It is no wonder that I needed 13 pages of my sketchbook to figure it all out.



Things we’ve forgotten to remember …

I’ve lived in northern England now for almost thirty years, and still remember the exuberating sensations of my first few months here, with dramatic historical monuments (Durham Cathedral, Hadrian’s Wall) and wild countryside (Weardale and Teesdale) so much more accessible than when I was in London.  This was, in retrospect, a reaction to my formative years spent in the outer London suburbs but, over the intervening years, my feelings towards suburbia have mellowed. The history and wildlife are there, though they do not necessarily reveal themselves as readily.

A case in point: I’m standing beside a busy road on the outskirts of Dagenham, a kilometre or so from the Ford Works, with some blocks of flats on my left and a post-war housing estate to my right.  Some of the houses sport flagpoles from which hang limp St George’s flags.  You get the picture.

Between the flats and housing estate there is a ribbon of green land, through which a dark, unprepossessing river flows.   This is the River Beam, one of many small tributaries of the Thames and the strip of green land is nominally a “country park” though actually part of a wider flood alleviation project, providing a natural reservoir to hold floodwaters and prevent them from damaging houses and businesses in the vicinity.   What interests me is neither the river nor even the profusion of wild flowers growing on the grassland in the country park, but the narrow, rectangular strip of open water alongside the river, the long-abandoned Romford Canal. Romford_Canal_130531

The Romford Canal at the Beam Parklands in east London.   Left hand view shows the rectangular strip of open water close to Rainham Road whilst the right hand picture shows a stretch just to the south that is now overgrown.

My interest in the Romford Canal comes from snippets I’ve learned from books and the internet about it’s role in the evolution of public health policy.  London, at the start of the 18th century, had a population of about one million people but no sewerage system.   It also had a huge population of domestic livestock – not just horses but also cattle, pigs and fowl – and the sheer quantity of excrement produced presented a major logistical challenge.   There were health consequences too, but these were of less immediate relevance, as it would be another 50 years or so before the link between human wastes and disease was recognised.  The Romford Canal was one of the earliest schemes to deal with this, aiming to replace the traditional “night soil” collectors, who carried the excrement to the farmland on the outskirts of the city for use as fertiliser.   The plan was to carry this in bulk by barge from central London, along the Thames then up the Romford Canal to be used as fertiliser on the farmland around Romford, whilst the barges could, in turn, transport agricultural produce back to the capital.  Unfortunately, this grand conceptual thinking all occurred in the first two decades of the nineteenth century but construction of the canal did not start until 1875.  By this time Joseph Bazalgette’s sewer network for central London had solved the problem of accumulating night soil whilst the rapidly growing rail network had wiped out the economic benefits that the Romford Canal might have brought and the plan was eventually abandoned.

Bazalgette, by removing our effluvia, unwittingly ushered in a new, less pungent, era.  But sewers, in turn, created many of our modern water quality problems.   The old night soil men represented a means of tight ecological cycling that the sewers disrupted.  On the other hand, the growth of cities in the 18th century magnified the scale of their task and the idea of using canals to transport human waste out of cities did make practical sense. Indeed, the painter John Martin devised a very similar plan also rendered obsolete by Bazalgette’s sewers.  There are more glamorous aspects of London’s history, just as there are more attractive areas of London than Dagenham.  However, we are now so used to living in a fragrant world with a low risk of waterborne disease that it is easy to forget just how much of an achievement this was.


Paul Talling (2011) London’s Lost Rivers.  Random House, London.

Ecology in an age of austerity …

I have mixed feelings about the announcement earlier this week of a further round of spending cuts to government departments.  As government agencies are my principal customers, the prospect of smaller budgets brings with it a sense of foreboding.  But there is another part of me that is intrigued by the challenge of keeping organisations functioning in times such as these.  How, in particular, do you maintain a high standard of evidence based on naturally variable data – when you have fewer resources?

The most senior tiers of management need to maintain the illusion that the organisation is delivering an equivalent level of service to previous years.  This means that effort has to spread more thinly.  We have two broad options: collect fewer samples (or conduct fewer surveys), which means either visiting fewer sites or visiting the same number of sites less frequently, or put less effort into each sample or survey. Most of us ecologists have an obsessive streak (think Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory) which recoils at the latter prospect but, given finite resources, maybe we need to think again?

I spend hours hunched over my microscope producing data of a standard that is consistent with all the other analysts who do the same type of analyses as me.  Nonetheless, I usually have a pretty good idea of the outcome within five minutes or so of starting the analysis.  I could tell you, at this stage, whether the river from which the sample was collected was clean or polluted, acid or neutral, hard or soft.  In other words, the information content of the sample is not linearly related to the amount of effort I expend.  Economists refer to this as the law of Diminishing Marginal Utility, and the principle is common in many disciplines.  You may have heard it called the 80:20 rule: that 80 percent of the solution to any problem comes with the first 20 percent of the effort.

Might it be possible to harness this principle in ecological analyses, to unravel exactly what it is that helps us form those quick impressions of a sample, and then to focus on just those elements, in order that the organisation as a whole can continue to function?  It seems obvious when put in these terms but is riven with complications, not least because it means accepting that there is a parting of the ways between the data-hungry attitudes of academic science and a fit-for-purpose pragmatism.   I’ve started working on this with a small group of colleagues from the Environment Agency and SEPA and have a rapid assessment technique almost ready to trial over the summer.

The danger is always that the need for cost savings forces you to find justifications for “cutting corners”; however, as I’ve explored this topic, I have found support from unlikely perspectives.  The first was in a philosophy journal, in a paper discussing how we understand complex systems (reference below).  Robust understanding, argued the author, came from having evidence from several sources.  Effort spread between a number of bite-sized nuggets of information, in other words, added up to more than mining a single vein of data intensively.  Of course, if you have spent years developing a very narrow expertise you might, naturally, argue for the merits of a more intensive approach but, sometimes, we all need to stand back and look at the bigger picture.

The second perspective came from my recent involvement in a public consultation exercise and the realisation during this that many of the methods we had developed were incomprehensible to all but a small coterie of experts.  As we were working on the rapid assessment techniques, I imagined myself teaching it to a group of students. Could I get the principles across in an afternoon’s practical class?  If so, I reasoned, the method was not just providing us with information, it may also be a means by which we could engage with stakeholders.

The final perspective was simply that most of the techniques used by family doctors are quick, robust high-level screening methods that allow them to home in on the problem that the patient presents.  They might prescribe a treatment directly, or they might refer the patient on for more tests, or to see a specialist.   Part of the essence of these high-level methods is that we all know their limitations and when more detail is required. It is all about efficiency, again. Environmental professionals often use metaphors from the medical professions yet, at the same time, we pay too much heed to the wannabe “consultant surgeons” who write in academic journals.  Somewhere along the way we forgot that the environment needs its “family doctors” too.


Wimsatt, W.C. (1994). The ontology of complex systems: levels of organization, perspectives and causal thickets.  Canadian Journal of Philosophy 20: 207-274.