How to do science with the naivety of youth

How to do science with the naivety of youth

Image by Alloporus

Back when I was a bushy-tailed research student, life was a breeze that flew by without a thought. 

It was a time of naivety disguised as the fearlessness of youth. 

There were times I had to make some decisions but, fortunately, most were trivial and few animals were harmed in the making of them. In my case, this was a quirk of the University ethics committee. They decided that the invertebrates that were the subject of my experiments were not animals.

My research that I imagined was significant, attempted to build evidence for the importance of competition for food in the population biology of woodlice. Yes, staggeringly important information destined to change the world order and make a fortune for its finder. 

Well no, neither was ever the intent, for all that I wanted at the time was to stay at University for as long as possible. It was such a cool place. 

I justified this want by claiming to myself that my motivation was part progress up the academic ladder and part avoidance of the real world. And to this day, a stroll through any university campus easily confirms the prevalence of the latter. There is a heap of real world denial in the ivory towers.

But I digress.

The point here is that woodlice are animals and they are important decomposers. 

As they consume dead leaves and other detritus, they recycle organic matter and make nutrients available to plants. They are members of an army of organisms we cannot live without. 

Model woodlice 

In my research, woodlice were model organisms used to test the ecological theory of density-dependent competition. It is as nerdy as it sounds. 

The idea is that competition for food is one of the mechanisms for natural selection that ecologists have tried to prove ever since Darwin first put a name to it. The recycling credentials of woodlice and their soil animal cousins I studied later. At the time of my research degree, I needed a way to test if woodlice compete for food to add some more evidence in support of evolutionary and ecological theory. 

To do this, I had to make a decision on how to manipulate the availability of food on the assumption that it was a limiting resource. If the assumption was correct, theory suggested there would be competition for high-quality food and the woodlice would respond through changes in their patterns of growth and reproduction.

One manipulation option was to exclude (that is to keep out) rabbit grazing from an area of our study site. Rabbits! Where did they come from? Even the ethics dons would say these were animals. In the chalky grasslands of eastern England where woodlice are abundant, rabbits are crucial to the supply of high-quality food to detritivores, the woodlice. 

Rabbit grazing alters the structure of the grassland. The attention of many thousands of cute bunnies grazing on the grasses keeps the coarse grasses from taking over. Grazing opens enough light and space for forbs and herbs to flourish. Exclude rabbits, and tough grasses soon dominate in a thicker, dense layer. Dead herbs are the preferred high-quality food of woodlice so when the rabbits are first removed there is a spike in the availability of high quality detritus. A bonanza for the woodlice. Later when the thicker grasses took over  the herb and forb food source was reduced, so, in theory, the woodlice would become food limited and compete with each other.

So a rabbit-proof fence was constructed around part of the habitat and, sure enough, the grasses grew at the expense of the herbs and forbs sending through the pulse of high quality woodlouse food from the dead herbs and forbs. The area of rabbit exclusion became the Weeting Heath exclosure experiment. The driver we wanted to control was excluded.

Ecological research often works this way. In order to understand one species, you have to change things up with another, apparently unrelated species.

But this was only part of the evidence needed to test the density-dependence hypothesis of food limitation. I was keen to find out what would happen if we increased the numbers of woodlice in habitat with rabbits. The assumption here was that crowding them out would force them to compete for food.

In the second experimental option, rabbits would crop the grass and maintain the supply of herbs, but there would be an artificially high number of woodlice. Would that make these small critters compete for high-quality food?

This experiment is different. 

It required an increase in woodlouse numbers. Such manipulation is not easy to do over large areas. So I decided to create enclosures to keep high numbers of woodlice together with woodlouse proof fences. The fences had to be low enough to let the rabbits in to graze down the grass, high enough to stop the woodlice escaping, and surround an area big enough for the woodlice to behave normally, more or less.

The fenced-in areas became the Weeting Heath enclosure experiment. Here is what it looked like. The rabbit-proof fence of the ‘exclosure’ is in the background.

Keeping things out (the exclosure) and keeping things in (the enclosure) was an obvious solution to an experimental manipulation conundrum — two different ways to manipulate the supply of high-quality food for a wild population of woodlice.  

And just to be sure in some of the enclosures I added extra high-quality woodlouse food in the form of ground up leaf litter from alder trees. They love that stuff and grow exceptionally well on it.

Here you can see the darker colour of the grass in one of the enclosures where the extra food was added.

What happened?

Here are two of the conclusions we published in the Journal of Animal Ecology

(5) When an experimental exclosure was erected which prevented rabbit grazing, the availability of high-quality foods increased. Isopods within the exclosure grew larger, became more fecund, and consequently increased in density.

(6) In isopod enclosures to which high-quality food was added, growth rates of isopods also increased. In other enclosures to which sub-adult A. vulgare were experimentally added,  growth rates of  new recruits decreased. 

Hassall, M., & Dangerfield, J. M. (1990). Density-dependent processes in the population dynamics of Armadillidium vulgare (Isopoda: Oniscidae). The Journal of Animal Ecology, 941-958.

In less jargonese, the woodlice were bigger, reproduced more and their numbers increased in the exclosure without rabbits. 

Adding food in the enclosure also got the woodlice to grow faster but they grew more slowly when they were crowded.

Amazing, just the confirmation bias we were looking for and here is how we summed it up in the journal article

We conclude that intra-specific competition is important in regulating the density of this population and that populations of this macro-decomposer are more likely to be regulated from ‘below’ by competing for limited food than from ‘above’ by natural enemies. The relaxation of competition at low densities with the consequent positive effects on natality rates provides an effective ‘floor’ which-reduces the probability of population extinctions.

This is all a little grandiose. It initially seemed remarkably that these animals are sensitive to food supply but as every organism is the idea seems trite. Proof of sorts was worthy of a formal statement.

What I learned from exclosures and enclosures

Ecology is a messy subject with many challenges to the principles behind the scientific method. Experiments are never easy and here will always be criticism of most attempts.

My woodlouse attempts at experimentation were pseudo replicated, failed to measure controlling variables (food availability in the exclosure) and needed a much long run of observations. Just three obvious criticisms.

But I learned a great deal about these innate complexities and the difficulties of real world experiments. That was, after all, one of the reasons to take on a research degree.

I also learned that the theory holds. Organisms can be food limited with consequences for their survival, growth, and reproduction. Homo sapiens take note.  

Mostly though I found that scratching intellectual itches is great fun and immensely satisfying, so much so that I have kept doing it to this day and am unlikely to stop until my faculties do.

What a blessing it is to have an enquiring mind.

Comment below if you feel the urge and please share with your online folks

Hard work is the answer

Hard work is the answer

I’m currently in a bit of a quandary.

I’m on a roll and my words per day have been through the roof.

As a writer such bouts of productivity are to be cherished because they dry up as fast as they flood, the block kicks in, and suddenly you’ve got nothing to say.

My problem is that this particular spurt of enthusiasm has lasted the best part of a year. There is a lot of material that needs to be tidied up.

The writing gig is a long process. Only the first part, maybe 20%, is origination. The inspiration strikes and the first splurge of vomit makes a splatter on the page. The next phase is to tidy up the mess.

Making sense of the first draft takes numerous waves of editing and rejigging in order to shape a narrative that is, at least in the writer’s mind, comprehensible.

After that, the process involves third parties engaged with structural and copy editing, as well as preparation of material into the various format to share with the world.

The process of writing is a mechanical one, way more drudge than inspiration and creativity.

My current quandary is, do I stop writing and begin the real work?

Whilst I’m on a roll this seems like a mistake. I must keep going whilst the muse is dancing away in front of me. Only, where will the time come from to clean up the mess?

I really don’t know what to do.

The process of science

Science is the same.

As a student, I was always told that science is 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration. A quote pilloried from elsewhere no doubt but no less true for lack of originality.

The process of science goes something like this.

An idea worth testing springs to mind, typically on a topic that you find fascinating. Maybe you spot a gap in knowledge that an experiment or a set of observations can fill.

That moment of clarity will set in train several months worth of hard work pulling together the evidence through experiment or observation. More often than not the procedures need development and fine-tuning, it can take a week to calibrate a measurement. Once the set up is done the data collection begins and last as long as the test requires. A while if the subject is the gestation period of an elephant. Then comes the collation, analysis and interpretation of the data into evidence. This in itself can take months with the prospect that the hypotheses will need clarification and another experiment or two completed before the evidence is clear. All this must then be condensed into a short communication that peers will tear apart before an editor maybe gives the green light to publication.

All up, an equally long and laborious process as writing. More a slog than an inspiration.

Few research scientists have the luxury of hanging about in the fun of speculation and hypothesis generation. In science, there is no substitute for the effort needed to generate evidence. There is no evidence without the hard yards in the laboratory or the field.

Even if you are the theorist who looks to the mathematics of it all, there is drudgery in the proof.

Evidence takes hard work.

Now for an apparent non sequitur

The process of sustainability

The conundrum of ideas versus hard work applies to a whole range of our sustainability problems.

We know that ideas are inspirational and they can come together in a flash. They are fun and full of promise and there are lots of sustainability ideas around. Google delivers 290 million results for the search term ‘sustainability ideas’.

The conversion of ideas into practical solutions is the hard part. Actions that are actually going to make a difference to human use of natural resources on the ground and at scale. Most of this is just a lot of hard work.

Check any list of ideas for sustainability like these

They are all fantastic options. Societies everywhere should be onto them and thousands of others like them.

All these ideas have one thing in common. They take effort to implement.

The wondrous inspirations need hard work to achieve their desired outcomes.

Sometimes there is more work required all the time, sometimes just in the transition, but the core message is that sustainability is not an easy task. It’s particularly difficult against the current technological advances that generate cheaper unsustainable products and services.

Being sustainable is not really about the sustainability concept itself, it’s more about the fact that society exists in this process of inspiration and hard work.

We can’t just make a call on the inspiration. There’s a lot of hard work involved in making sustainability solutions stick.

Worth remembering when the next idea to save the planet comes along.

Now I have some editing to do.

Why we forget to ask if its fake or fact

Why we forget to ask if its fake or fact

Here is a list of some of the choicest statements from the president of the United States, the so-called head of the free world, about then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton…

  • She has a serious chronic illness
  • She is sleeping all the time
  • She founded ISIS “literally” with President Obama
  • Trump blamed the tax code that allowed him to not pay millions in taxes on her
  • She wants to eliminate the second amendment
  • She started the birther movement
  • She will be indicted (after Comey’s letter to Congress)
  • Her Emails (in relation to Anthony Wiener’s computer) are worse than Watergate

Founded ISIS, always asleep, started the birther movement… for goodness sake. And it helped get him elected. What is wrong with people?

This stuff is just ugly and anyone should know that it is fake.

Each one either a blatant falsehood or hugely disrespectful drivel that I really shouldn’t be printing again.

No matter what your political allegiance nobody should have anything to do with such nonsense. It demeans everyone, especially the person who went on the be the president. Please, heaven help us all.

These choice examples are easy to spot as fake. There is not even a loose fact among them.

Source: US academic Professor David Ross

What about these…

  • Urgent: Koalas could be extinct in NSW as early as 2050. We can’t let this happen — WWF website
  • “Climate change has not caused the [2019-20] bushfires, unprecedented arson has” — Australian Liberal MP Craig Kelly
  • An electric vehicle won’t tow your trailer. It’s not going to tow your boat. It’s not going to get you out to your favourite camping spot with your family.” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison
  • I want to stress that for the vast majority of the people of this country, we should be going about our business as usual.” UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on 3 March 2020

How do you decide if these claims are fake or fact? Do you even bother? It is hard after all.

Most information comes at us all polished and convincing. The presenters are slick, the writers persuasive and the messages short. Why wouldn’t we believe such well-rounded packets of influence?

All of those in the list above are false with only modest provisos.

There are many reasons for our failure to spot fake claims and fake news

Information overload

An average smartphone owner in a mature economy is exposed to more information in a day that many of our ancestors saw in their lifetimes.

Here is what one set of information scientists think goes on…

In 2011, Americans took in five times as much information every day as they did in 1986—the equivalent of 174 newspapers. During our leisure time, not counting work, each of us processes 34 gigabytes, or 100,000 words, every day. The world’s 21,274 television stations produce 85,000 hours of original programming every day as we watch an average of five hours of television daily, the equivalent of 20 gigabytes of audio-video images.

The reliability of these numbers is not important here. The point is that we are all awash in information, all the time we are awake.

This can swamp our filters and certainly our reflection time so a lot of information is believed to be true because there is not time to decide otherwise before the next packet of critical information arrives.

Much of the information we receive is true

When your phone beeps an alert that your 9 am meeting is in 10 minutes, it is true. There is no reason to ever doubt it.

When you press the icon in your favourites tab to ring your better half and its answered, hostile takeover or the cleaner being helpful notwithstanding, it will be your better half who answers.

If my phone rings and the icon says it is my sister, I answer. When she tells me that my mother passed away in the night, I believe her.

Read a tweet from Brixton Barry that says “Holy shit, here is a riot going on” and, well, maybe there is, Brixton has had riots before… And why would he call himself Brixton Barry unless he… well, you get the idea.

But hold on, that was a long time ago and who is Barry? In this case I would be sceptical unless more tweets began rolling through the feed, perhaps with an image or two, before I believe what Barry is saying.

It is more likely that the tweet from Brixton Barry passes by my sceptic filter because so much information already has and has not caused an issue.

Plus if I live in Detroit or Hounslow, a riot in Brixton might not be worth a fact check.

An endnote

Here is what the late, great author Terry Pratchett said about the spread of fake news on the Internet back in 1995…

“Let’s say I call myself the Institute for Something-or-other and I decide to promote a spurious treatise saying the Jews were entirely responsible for the second world war and the Holocaust didn’t happen and it goes out there on the Internet and is available on the same terms as any piece of historical research which has undergone peer review and so on. There’s a kind of parity of esteem of information on the net. It’s all there: there’s no way of finding out whether this stuff has any bottom to it or whether someone has just made it up”.

Terry Pratchett

That was 1995 remember, near to the beginning of the whole internet age. It was prescient certainly but it was also sage advice.

Go to the source for any information that is important and if there is no source, go generate that information yourself.

Comment below if you feel the urge and please share with your online folks

Teaching ecology

Teaching ecology

Peer-reviewed paper series

Dangerfield, J.M., Boar, R.R. & Montgomery, P., 1987. Teaching ecology to undergraduates: a practical course using projects. Journal of Biological Education, 21(4), 251–258.

“In these practicals students learned how to derive facts through experimentation.”

This is a quote from my first ever peer-reviewed publication that appeared in the Journal of Biological Education, exactly 30 years ago. The irony that it wasn’t strictly research but some pedagogy gleaned from an undergraduate practical course I designed and delivered with my colleague Ros Boar that we thought would get students familiar with the process of research by experimentation. We were young and idealistic at the time but had a passion for education that was, and still is, a good thing.

The course began with some facts about three species of woodlice. One was common everywhere in the UK and the other two, whilst closely related (classified in the same genus) were rare. We presented the students with vast numbers of live specimens of each species from laboratory cultures along with some instructions on how to look after them responsibly, then asked students to test the hypothesis that it was the behaviours of these species affected their recorded distributions.

Screen Shot 2017-10-19 at 8.41.25 AM.png

Next we said, ‘Well, there you have it folks. Form small groups and go conduct some experiments.”

It was a bold plan even for the University of East Anglia that, at the time, had a reputation for innovation in teaching. We were trying to put the ‘open needed learning’ paradigm that we believed in, to the test and, almost without realising it, I have followed this approach throughout my time as an educator.

Open-ended explorations of carbon budgets, all taxa biodiversity inventories, the spatial distribution of plants and animals, and even millipede mating behaviours found their way into subsequent teaching efforts. I am not sure that all students benefit from being thrown in at the deep end of the scientific method without any flotation devices. In later years I became convinced that the approach exposed secondary school education that no longer teaches “thinking” to any useful purpose. But in those heady days, we just knew it was worthwhile.

Between them, the UEA students interpreted behaviours with experiments on habitat preference, vertical distribution, survivorship, feeding and growth, and palatability. All the likely suspects for the global hypothesis you would have to agree. Only this was a learning exercise and so we did not expect much light on what makes Porcellio scaber so ubiquitous. That said, it almost certainly has to do with the weaker physiologies of its congeners, and out students were on that track.

We did ask the students how they went and from what they said we concluded

The majority of students (80 per cent) initially expected their conclusions to support the ecological theory that they had explored during their lecture course. Interestingly, only 25 per cent subsequently claimed that they would expect this if they were to begin another piece of work. All of the students who replied to our questionnaire that they would now be less accepting of theory.

So we created sceptics.

An inspired outcome, even if I do say so myself.

Are scientists ready?

Are scientists ready?

The peer-reviewed publications series of posts based on my personal reminiscences from my time as an academic has triggered a number of thoughts and emotions. One is the dubious relevance of the work to anything beyond a young academics career path.

Research is intellectual fun and throughout the time I was a researcher, and at intervals later, along with the endorphins I thought that I had helped add another straw onto the haystack of human knowledge. This banal thinking readily justified the most esoteric of studies, including the sex life of millipedes. And there is some logic here, for should the haystack become large enough then any number of problems are crushed under the sheer volume of evidence. At least that is what we used to tell ourselves.

There are people who have rumbled this ruse including Dr Bhaskar Vira of the University of Cambridge who summed it up as “time for university leaders to double down on the interdisciplinary, solution-oriented work that this complex, problem-filled world needs”.

Questions should be asked about the relevance of university research and there should be suggestions made for change. Bluntly, get real or stop wasting taxpayers money.

And why wouldn’t this happen? Surely this is a given and is not a question that should even be asked. After all, academics are smart folk. They ought to know what is needed and how to make the best use of their considerable intellectual bandwidth. But Dr Vira’s argument is that Universities are not structured to allow this to happen and I have to agree.

It was one of the reasons I left the academic system that always felt too lethargic to be part of the real world. There was currency in research output but no requirement for any of it to be relevant and in my discipline of ecology many a long nose was peered down at anything applied to a real-world problem.

No doubt there are pockets of innovation and nimble responses here and there but collectively the system is not delivering on most of the wicked problems. And all that esoteric research on millipedes didn’t either.

Dr Vira asks for interdisciplinary, solution orientated work. Getting people to cooperate outside their specific area of expertise — read ‘comfort zone’ — and to look for solutions through applied research is asking more than most can give. It takes great courage and self-confidence to walk into a room of specialists from another discipline and ask them to work with you. Not many people can do it.

The narcissists, bullies, and fools can, but they are not the source of effective collaboration.

Humans fake cooperation when it is a requirement for a paycheck, so industry and commerce can build teams of sorts, but even when the incentive is clear, businesses need small armies of project managers and change consultants to make sure output happens.

So, can academics work together to save the world from its woes?

Unfortunately, my friends, not in a million years.

Cubitermes sankurensis

Cubitermes sankurensis

Peer reviewed paper series

Dangerfield, J. M. (1990). The distribution and abundance of Cubitermes sankurensis (Wassmann) (Isoptera; Termitidae) within a Miombo woodland site in Zimbabwe. African Journal of Ecology, 28(1), 15–20.

Early in 1987 all efforts to finish my doctoral thesis seemed fruitless. The data were in and the structure agreed with an array of supervisors delivering comments and instructions all taken on board. I recall that the first few chapters were written and re-written any number of times before they were deemed satisfactory. The process was rigorous and arduous as each chapter was given painful birth. I was over it.

A choice was needed to fight or flee the adversity. Such moments happen to everyone at points in their lives. I don’t recall the exact day but the decision happened to cease prevarication, lose the perfectionism excuses, and push the thing over the line. It worked. Within a couple of months my thesis was submitted for approval and for the first time I realised what can be done when the brain actually pays true attention to a task.

Much later I also found out that you couldn’t force this focus. It comes on its own when it’s good and ready. Uncannily, but only if you let it, focus arrives in plenty of time to meet deadlines.

The problem with the burst of energy on my thesis was that I finished it. Now it was time to find something to do with all the education.

NHM South Kensington

The Natural History Museum in South Kensington is a true wonder. It has some startling public galleries with homages to the Victorians who established and built its edifices and its reputation. You can feel very small standing beneath the blue whale skeleton and minuscule in front of the marble statue of Charles Darwin.

What the public don’t see and very few visitors will know is that the building also houses biological specimens from every corner of the globe. These vast collections are all immaculately curated and stored in thousands of drawers and jars in rooms that smell of naphthalene. This wealth of biodiversity is the raw material for systematics, the branch of biology that deals with classification and nomenclature.

Among these many specimens are termites.

For a week in the late summer of that thesis year my eyes were glued to a microscope trying to find the teeth on the left mandible of major soldiers. Thanks to an uncanny alignment of the stars my immediate future was to be as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Zimbabwe, the opportunity of a lifetime. And what else could a soil ecologist study in Africa than termites. They have, after all, eaten the continents architectural heritage and ruined any number of crops.

So here in the corridors that the public don’t see, I was doing my homework, cramming for a taxonomy test like no other and, thankfully, meeting some taxonomists who would be a huge help when it mattered.

My focus was the fungus growing species, the Macrotermes, whose soldiers have mandibles big enough to be sutures on wounds and whose workers build mounds literally the size of a house. So it was inevitable that the first research was on the soil feeding species Cubitermes sankurensis that was not on my homework list and builds soccer ball sized homes.

‘The distribution and abundance of Cubitermes sankurensis (Wassmann) (Isoptera; Termitidae) within a Miombo woodland site in Zimbabwe’ is not the most erudite contribution to ecological science ever made. In fact, it is a huge surprise that it was published at all.

A few mounds were mapped and the number of termites estimated by correlating mound dimension with the number of termites counted in soil cores taken from a sample of mounds. Around 1,000 termites per square meter, the numbers said but what this actually meant it was hard to say. There was no evidence at all really.

It is hard to know how many peer-reviewed papers are like this one. Nothing obviously wrong and yet little, if any, knowledge gained.

There were plenty more termite mounds to measure and later work produced more useful information than no obvious pattern between vegetation structure and the distribution of termite mounds.

By the way, for those sharp-eyed naturalists the header image is, of course, not Cubitermes but a species of Odontotermes, a fungus growing genus, that needs the wide vents to keep the fungus garden moist.

Millipedes in Zimbabwe

Millipedes in Zimbabwe

Peer-reviewed paper series

Dangerfield, J. M., & Telford, S. R. (1991). Seasonal activity patterns of julid millipedes in Zimbabwe. Journal of Tropical Ecology, 7(2), 281-285.

This is a cute little paper, one of the first to come out of a brief but very fruitful collaboration with my colleague and friend, the late Steven Telford.

It reads like it was squeezed out of the smallest amount of data possible, then imbued with youthful enthusiasm and naivety. Which is exactly what happened.

Steve and I worked together in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Zimbabwe in the late 1980’s. It was a time of transition from old colonial times to a more modern independence for the country and long before the University conferred a doctorate for being the president’s wife. Apparently, use of the ‘Dr’ moniker lends gravitas even without completing the research or writing a thesis.

Back then there were still a few old timey academics wandering the halls musing on the number and size of parasites you could find in an elephant carcass or the physiology of crocodiles that leaves them in a near death oxygen debt after a charge to catch prey. We had access to these singular minds and to their eccentricities but not the rocking chair in the corner office that was always reserved for lunchtime siestas.

Steve was a fine zoologist who knew a great deal about the mating behaviours of frogs, particularly the painted reed frog, Hyperolius marmoratus, and he was very popular with the students who liked his teaching style and his up to date eccentricities. Many an hour was spent shuffling cards on a makeshift table under a marula tree having first taught the honours class how to play.

For a long time, we had just said hello or had an occasional brief exchange in the tearoom. Then one day Steve invited me to help on a field trip he was planning for his third-year zoology students to the Zambezi Valley. I think I said ‘thank you, happy to help’ but in hindsight, I should have rained gratitude from the heavens.

We stayed at the Rukomichi Research Station and messed around with some field work of various types and I had my first real elephant encounter. Steve was after some ecological insights and techniques so we taught sampling specifics (the how to do it) and some of the statistical logic (how many samples do you need to make an inference) for dung beetle numbers.

Moving nearer to the Zambezi, the students marveled at, and Steve commented on, the zoology of the prolific wildlife in Mana Pools where the warden’s office was flanked by rhino skulls. And everyone played cards.

It was idyllic.

Inevitably there was science talk. What, why and how questions about everything from the impenetrability of jesse bush to the mating system of impala — territorial males holding harems in case you were wondering. And then millipedes because I had already clocked them as a fascinating option for a soil ecologist to work on given they were prolific, huge, diverse and, most importantly, barely studied. The fact that their mating habits were readily observable did it for Steve.

We conjured up any number of hypotheses about their ecology and evolutionary biology and started to test many of them in the lab and on many a field excursion. Foraging activity was one of the behaviours we observed and this paper came from the first data we collected.

It was obvious that these animals were seasonal, holding out deep in the soil during the dry season and emerging after the first or sometimes the second major rain event in October. They walked around on the surface after rain stopping to eat and mate. Then as the soil dried they sheltered in shallow burrows or under the wooden blocks we scattered through the miombo woodland and degraded habitats in our study area.

The seasonal pattern of abundance was refined in later work but this first graphic was pretty close.

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Probably the most interesting number from this work was 30.6%, our estimate of the proportion of annual leaf litter fall consumed by millipedes.

How did we get from a graph of activity to food eaten? Activity plus density multiplied by the amount of food eaten per animal compared against the annual litterfall. It takes a lot of information to get to even a vaguely useful number. It was easy enough to publish observations it takes much more to make them helpful.

I continued to watch these animals walk around after rain for nearly a decade. Several more papers followed that we might get to later, but this one was the start of something that only happens occasionally. A professional relationship that was truly synergistic and produced far more than it should.


Steve passed away in Mozambique a few years after I moved to Australia. We had stayed good friends but lost contact and I was unable to find out any of the circumstances. It is a regret and a sadness. Part of the reason for revisiting some of our work is to remember him.