Obituary: Roy (L. R.) Taylor (1924–2007)
Article first published online: 10 APR 2007
Journal of Animal Ecology
Volume 76, Issue 3, pages 630–631, May 2007
How to Cite
Taylor, R. A. J. (2007), Obituary: Roy (L. R.) Taylor (1924–2007). Journal of Animal Ecology, 76: 630–631. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2656.2007.01243.x
- Issue published online: 10 APR 2007
- Article first published online: 10 APR 2007
L. R. Taylor, past President (1984–85) and editor of the Journal of Animal Ecology (1976–89), died on 26 January 2007 at his home in Devon after a prolonged illness. He will be remembered by ecologists and agricultural scientists around the world for his many contributions to insect ecology and his commitment to agricultural entomology. But it is Taylor's Power Law – the power law scaling relationship that describes the ‘fat tails’ of the distribution of abundance of nearly all organisms – that is the contribution for which he will be remembered by scientists in many disciplines. The power law is one of several fundamental scaling relationships in ecology. The 1961 Nature publication announcing the discovery is one of the most widely cited publications in all of ecology and agriculture. It has generated considerable discussion as to its origins, its generality, which seems to be very wide, and what exactly it describes. It has defied satisfactory derivation and placement in population ecology theory, but has proven to be very useful both in basic ecology and in agriculture and statistics, providing a powerful means for making data obey the mathematical assumptions underlying statistical analysis.
Born on 14 December 1924, only child of Ethel and Leslie, Roy showed a keen interest in natural history from a very early age. He collected butterflies and moths, and learned to rear them in his parents’ terraced house in Manchester. He joined the RAF on his 17th birthday and originally trained as bombardier; he was reassigned and retrained as a radar technician. Roy entered the war only after D-Day, serving first in Belgium and then in India installing air defence systems. In India, where he spent his off-duty time collecting butterflies, the enormous diversity of insect life further stimulated his childhood hobby, leading him to seek employment in entomology on his return to England in 1947. Roy applied for and was offered the position of Experimental Officer at Rothamsted Experimental Station to work with C. B. Williams and C. G. Johnson, who were investigating the population biology of insects of agricultural importance.
Roy's experience in the air force was instrumental in the development with ‘Johnny’ Johnson of very large insect samplers hoisted aloft by barrage balloons at RAF Cardington to determine the density of aphids (important carriers of plant viruses) in the atmosphere. It was while analysing these data of aphid abundance that Roy discovered that statistical distributions of insect abundance have ‘fat tails’ characteristic of power law scaling relationships. This discovery was to have a profound impact on Roy's career. It brought him to the attention of agricultural scientists in the USA and the US National Science Foundation. Awarded one of NSF's first Senior Foreign Fellowships in 1964, Roy spent a sabbatical year at Kansas State University, the first of three visiting professorships he was awarded; the others at Queen Elizabeth College, London and The Ohio State University.
In 1960, Roy resumed sampling moths at Rothamsted with Williams’ light traps, followed soon after by light traps at other experimental stations around the country. This was the beginning of the Rothamsted Insect Survey. In 1963, the government, concerned over pesticides in the environment, made funds available for research in what we now call integrated pest management. Taking advantage of this initiative, Roy proposed a feasibility study for an early warning system for migratory aphid pests that could be sampled in the air before they reached epidemic proportions in the field. When the pest is a migrant capable of being monitored before it reaches the crop, it is possible to reduce the number of applications, and therefore the environmental exposure to pesticides, by applying insecticides at the time most likely to be effective in protecting the crop. Taylor's solution, literally sketched on the back of a postcard, was to establish a network of traps to sample the air for aphids, the largest homogeneous group of insect pests in northern Europe. A far-sighted Agricultural Research Council gave the scheme funds that eventually permitted the entire British Isles to be sampled. Using the techniques pioneered by Roy's mentors, Williams and Johnson, the Rothamsted Insect Survey was conceived to tackle complex questions about population dynamics and abundance, aggregation, migration and distribution, as well as provide a service to British agriculture.
Today, the Rothamsted Insect Survey monitors over 800 insect species of aphids and moths, and not just pest insects but also insects indicative of environmental health. It is one of the largest and longest long-term studies on the planet, providing data for monitoring environmental health and for basic ecological research, as well as early warning for pest management. The output from the British trap network is a weekly Pest Advisory Bulletin showing the aphid abundance and waves of migration across Britain. The pest advisory bulletin for migratory aphid pests of cereals, sugar beet, potatoes, beans and hops provides information to improve the timing of insecticide applications, reducing the need for preventive applications. The cost of this highly professional aphid monitoring scheme is estimated to be less than the savings in pesticide costs of a single commodity, hops. The aphid early warning system has been extended into Europe, from Scandinavia to Italy and as far east as Poland.
During his early years at Rothamsted, Roy received a B.Sc. from London University and he met and married Jean Bathgate, who was working on insect resistance to DDT. He was awarded a D.Sc. from London University in 1966 while he was planning one of the Institute of Biology's symposia, Optimum Population for Britain. The symposium delegates, in 1968, agreed that Britain's optimum population had already been exceeded. This conference received governmental and parliamentary attention and contributed to the growing awareness of environmental issues in this country. For his contributions to ecology, the environment and education, Roy was made a Fellow of the Institute of Biology, and he was the 1977 recipient of the Royal Agricultural Society of England's Research medal for developing the pest warning system.
Roy retired from Rothamsted in 1984 and continued to edit the Journal of Animal Ecology for a further 5 years, during which time he was a Distinguished Visiting Professor at The Ohio State University. He continued to publish and during this tenure in Ohio published an important summary of long-term ecological studies. Roy's wife Jean died in 1994 and from then on his health, never very strong after his time in India, declined. Daughter Kathryn, two grandchildren and I survive him. Along with many in the ecological world, we will miss him.