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Profile (1)

Dr Jenni Stockan, James Hutton Institute…

Profile (1)

Dr Jenni Stockan

Research Scientist at the James Hutton Institute


Not many people have such a clear idea of what they want to do in life at such a tender age, but when she was just 12 years old, Stockan had already decided to become an entomologist, after getting involved in a school project on butterflies. As she progressed through school, she worked at the Edinburgh Butterfly and Insect World, then moved to Aberdeen to complete a BSc in Ecology, followed by an MSc (Wildlife Biology and Conservation) and PhD (Riparian Ecology) whilst working for the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute, now the James Hutton Institute. In 2012, she received the Marsh Award “for early-career entomologists” and was made a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society. She is currently employed as a Research Scientist at the James Hutton Institute, where she has worked for the last 15 years. One of Stockan’s proudest achievements so far is her work on the book Wood Ant Ecology and Conservation, co-edited with Dr Elva Robinson and published by Cambridge University Press in 2016, which she describes as “a massive collaborative effort involving more than 20 myrmecologists around the world.”

Why insects?

According to Stockan, insects are a fundamental component of any ecosystem, and she is involved in a number of projects in which insects can be used to tell us something about the health, functioning and future prospects of that ecosystem. For example, how tree origin, climate change and disease will impact on the biodiversity, ecosystem function and services associated with those trees. She is also investigating, via long-term experiments, how insects respond to changes in grazing and the environment and the impact that may have on species further up the food chain.

“This research provides evidence-based policy and practical advice that can be used to mitigate some of the unintended consequences of changes in the environment,” says Stockan. “However, my work is incredibly diverse and also involves looking at insect pests associated with wastewater treatment, edible insects and invasive species.”

Biggest threat?

Stockan believes that one of the biggest threats to the environment is the loss of biodiversity. “There is ever-increasing evidence that species-rich communities are more resilient to change than species-poor ones,” she explains. “The loss of species can greatly affect how an ecosystem functions, leading to a degradation or loss of essential ecosystem services. With regard to insects, we are seeing this particularly strongly with pollinators.”

If Stockan had a magic wand, she would probably turn the clock back 100 years – but hold on to the knowledge we have today. “Ecological and environmental problems are often more difficult to solve retrospectively,” she says. “If we could have prevented these problems in the first place, then we would now be living in a very different world.”

Looking forward, Stockan thinks the major long-term challenge is the strain of an increasing human population on our natural resources. “We need a collective change in mindset to value and appreciate the natural world much more highly than we currently do,” she says.

Endangered species?

Asked to name the one endangered species she would save, Stockan answers “the taxonomist.” Taxonomy is rarely taught in universities now, she continues, and even with the development of molecular methods, those basic skills are still important.

Stockan was greatly encouraged, however, when she recently met an 11-year old who can identify the two species of wood ant we have in Scotland, “something only a handful of other people in Scotland can do.” If she was to save one species, she would choose the freshwater pearl mussel – Scotland is home to about 50% of the world’s breeding population, and this invertebrate can live for up to 250 years.

Biodiversity heroes

Stockan is also encouraged by recent progress in ecology: “I think there is a lot of exciting work currently being carried out in the area of ecological networks – the idea that no species exists in isolation, and that all those within a community are connected through their interactions. I recently read with interest a paper by Gatti, Hordijk and Kauffmann, which combined two recent theories to attempt to answer why so many species can coexist in the same ecosystem. They proposed that biodiversity can be considered a system of ‘autocatalytic sets’ – a self-sustaining network.”

A major influence on Stockan is Dr Mark Young of Aberdeen University, now retired. “He has been an amazing inspiration to many people in northeast Scotland, myself included,” she says. As well as supervising Stockan's BSc project and PhD, Young ignited Stockan’s specialist interest in ants, and she is still working with him on a project to understand the habitat requirements of a rare damselfly.



"Profile (1)". Science Scotland (Issue Twenty-one)
Printed from on 03/07/20 10:21:15 PM

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