The power of stories (a call for arts-science collaboration)

beta-life-websiteIn my previous blog post I put out a call for collaborations to adopt a citizen science approach to studying mimicry. I’m delighted to say that is going very well (thanks, everybody!), and I’ll provide an update soon. However, there is another area of collaboration that I thought might be interesting to discuss. I lecture in the School of Biology, and I am interested in broadening the scope of my MSc research projects. In particular, I’m becoming more and more interested in cross-faculty and interdisciplinary projects that expose students to different ways of thinking about their research topic.  I came across the Comma Press science-into-fiction concept through Martyn Amos from Manchester Met (a computer scientist and public engagement lead).Read More »

Help us understand mimicry!

Picture1I have written about mimicry before, describing why most mimics are imperfect and how some mimics imitate not only the appearance of other animals but also their sounds and behaviour. Now, I need your help with an ambitious experiment to test theories about the evolution of mimicry. Most people know that there are harmless animals that have yellow and black stripes to look like stinging bees and wasps. But did you know that there are many thousands of such species, all with different degrees of “bee-ness” or “waspiness”? The new experiment is designed to compare 56 harmless hoverflies with 42 wasps and bees to measure how similar they are. That’s 2,352 unique comparisons! This information will allow us to test exciting new ideas about the evolution of mimicry. There’s only one catch…

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With his beard and odd dress sense, Uncle Sam would have made a fine entomologist!

This particular experiment will use the human brain as a processing tool and the power of the crowd to generate data. It’s a bit like “Strictly Come Mimicking” (or “Mimicking with the Stars“, if you’re in the US): you just need to rate how similar you think the two insects appear out of 10. I’d appreciate it greatly if you could take some time to run through the experiment below. Don’t do it thinking that there is an end, though – there are 2,352 combinations, remember, and the images are randomly paired on each screen! You can access the experiment here:

www.mimicryexperiment.net

My goal is to reach 10 ratings of each pair of insects. That means a total of 23,520 ratings. I know this is a long shot, but that’s the aim, people! Please do share it far and wide! I’ll share regular updates on the blog as the ratings come in (however many or few there are!).

“Noble nature”…?

20161231_184514Walking home after a few drinks on New Year’s Eve, I spotted a small sign in a shop window. The text says:

“As the bee collects nectar and departs without injuring the flower, so should a man behave in his village”

– Dhammapada (1st Century BC)

Two things sprang immediately to mind. The first was the tendency that we have to attribute greater emphasis to quotes from older civilisations, despite the fact that those civilisations are less developed. Older civilisations are not wise like older people – they are actually younger in an absolute sense (as pointed out by Eliezer Yudkowsky). It is as if being from a time far distant to our own confers wisdom that we perceive lacking in contemporary society.

However, the second thing that occurred to be was that “that’s not how bees work”… Pollination is a mutualism most of the time, but not always. By offering a nectar resource in exchange for the transfer of pollen, flowers have evolved relatively straightforward paths to that nectar for their respective pollinators. Sometimes that is a big, open flower that can be accessed by many species, but other times the flower has a peculiar shape or the nectar well is particularly inaccessible. The latter cases often result in very specific species that are able to access the nectar using particular behaviours or very long tongues.Read More »

My run of luck

It is easy to look back and see those little (and sometimes not so little) moments that have caused great changes in your life. Being in academia (and having survived this far) means that I have been immensely lucky. There is no other way to describe it. Some of that luck has been self-made, or at least I have seen and taken opportunities when they presented themselves. However, there were a lot of cases where I benefitted from sheer serendipity. I thought it might be useful to highlight some of those:

  1. I was born this way – Straight off I need to acknowledge my privilege. I’m white and male (among other awesome things) and that gives me a massive headstart straight away.
  2. A casual conversation with a lecturer – After an ecology lecture in 2004 I approached my lecturer and asked about PhDs. In my mind, he asked “How do you feel about dragonflies?” although I have a feeling I have made that up. He wrote a PhD project up, I applied, and started working with him the next year.
  3. A transoceanic link – My PhD supervisor happened to have a former student working at a university in Canada. He put me in touch, we found a slightly unusual funding source, and I ended up moving over shortly after finishing my PhD.
  4. Helping out around the lab – As the senior postdoc in the lab in Canada, I chipped-in with supervision of MSc and PhD students. The upshot was that I was helping a student analyse and write-up her data. That analysis produced a Nature paper.
  5. Government policy on research assessment – Because I hadn’t held a faculty position before, if I joined a UK university and was a part of their Research Excellence Framework submission I would only have to submit one paper. The fact that I was looking for a faculty position just as our Nature paper came out made me very attractive as a new hire.
  6. Having a big mouth – Someone in the department realised that I never say “no” to anything. One day I was called into my Head of School’s office and shown an email from Random House publishers saying that the chair of a local event had pulled out and could they suggest someone to fill in. The event was an Evening With Richard Dawkins (of whom I am a massive fan) in front of a sell-out crowd at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. I said yes (inevitably), met Richard, we shared a couple of hours on stage, and I have been told that the evening went extremely well (it was hard to tell from under the spotlight!).

That’s not saying that I haven’t worked hard. I’ve done what most academics do, which is to sacrifice a degree of work-life balance until reaching a permanent position. I have published a LOT and the ideas that I have been nurturing for a number of years (urban pond research networks, projects on environmental education, pedagogical research, and dragonfly evolution) are coming to fruition. However, there were key points in my career when luck was a deciding factor. There are probably academics out there who had no luck and got to where they are purely on the basis of hard work. However, I imagine they are in the minority!

Who are “Adjacent Government”?

Having just given a talk on science communication and the merits of public engagement to a group of undergraduate students, I was delighted to receive a phone call out of the blue from someone asking me to write about my research for “Adjacent Government Main Document”. The gentleman who called (and who spoke with a delightfully posh English accent) assured me that it was read by 145,000 key decision makers, politicians, and research councils, with a >30% read rate on their email and 28,000 views of each email in the previous issue. I was informed that Miguel Cañete, the EU Commissioner for Climate Action, had specifically requested a piece to go opposite his editorial on climate, to highlight “climate change impacts nature’s mimicry system research”. That sounds a bit strange, I thought, but fine – the EU had just published a short piece on my work (which they fund) and so I figured this was some sort of follow-up. I was asked if I could provide 1,000 words by 10th January 2017 for inclusion in a later issue. I said “yes” – I can eat 1,000 words for breakfast! Then I was informed that this was wonderful and that all that was left was to negotiate the fee. There was discussion of fees in the £1000s, and possible discounts. A bargain!Read More »

Can you recognise individual dragonflies from their faces?

bug-189906_1920Dragonflies are beautiful, alien-looking animals. They have bits that move and bend in ways that you wouldn’t expect, enormous eyes, and intricately patterned wings. I have written about the hydraulic gill system of dragonfly larvae, which powers both their jet propulsion and their “mask” that grabs prey. Meanwhile, dragonfly adults have basket-like legs to ensnare prey, as well as flexible abdomens which they use to form mating “hearts”. I’ve been interested in why dragonflies look the way they do, and that that means for their evolution, for a number of years.

I was intrigued, therefore, to read a paper that described how a pair of scientists had been able to tell dragonflies apart just by looking at the markings on their bodies. I do not remember how I first came across it, but the work is described in this German paper published in 2009 in the journal Entomo Helvetica by Schneider and Wildermuth*. The paper described a population of the southern hawker (Aeshna cyanea) in which a substantial number of animals could be identified from their facial markings. The paper is not creative commons so I can’t share the document, but you can see for yourself if you download the manuscript from the public link above and look at Figure 2 (it’s worth it – the pictures are stunning!). The title of the paper translates as “Dragonflies as individuals: the example of Aeshna cyanea“. So why might these markings occur?

There are lots of reasons why it might be advantageous for animals to be able to identify individuals. You might be trying to identify mates of high quality to increase your chances of reproduction. Many social animals (including humans, but also ants, meerkats, and molerats) distinguish relatives from non-relatives or friend from foe using sight or smell. Many theories of how cooperation evolved rely on animals having repeated interactions with one another, and remembering who has scratched whose back so that the favour can be repaid in the future. However, none of this applies to dragonflies. Dragonflies rarely have any structure to their mating (it’s usually first-come-first-served, and a mad scramble if many males are involved), they are not social (while they live in groups they do not necessarily act together), and they do not cooperate (apart from mobbing of predators such as hawks, but that’s probably not true cooperation).

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A spandrel Photo by Maria Schnitzmeier, CC-BY-SA, http://bit.ly/2czvygt

More likely what we are seeing is not the evolution of a trait, but the by-product of another trait. In a provocative article written in 1979, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin wrote about this idea**: that some things we observe in nature are not the product of evolution directly, but occur as a result of some adaptation. Gould and Lewontin gave the example of “spandrels” from Rennaisance architecture. Spandrels (like the example on the right, from the Basilica de San Marco in Venice) were the accidental byproduct of the way that arches were designed – a small curved area was left in the corner of the arch, and this was often filled with artistic renderings. However, the spandrel itself was never the focus of the design.

In the case of dragonfly faces, the same is likely true. Dark patches on insects are usually caused by a substance called “melanin” (which is the same pigment that produces darker skin in humans). Melanin is involved when insects fight off infections or heal injuries. It is most likely that the patterns on the faces of the dragonflies are due to some kind of damage, perhaps during emergence from the water, or perhaps as a result of conflict between territorial individuals. What is most interesting, though, is that Schneider and Wildermuth seem to have found a population in Switzerland that has an unusually high number of animals with such markings. When I went to Flickr to look through other photographs of this species, I found very very few examples. Below is a gallery of some of the creative commons photos, and there are many more if you go to Flickr yourself and search for “aeshna cyanea”.

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That’s not to say there are no other examples. See here and here for examples of the markings in other photographs (but note that many of the most striking examples are taken by the same photographer).

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Photo by Zak Mitchell.

The researchers who published the original paper offered an interesting addition to the literature on understanding individual insects. Usually, we do this by marking the animals (with dragonflies you can write on their wings, for instance, as you can see on the right) or more recently by attaching radio transmitters. There are some species that use natural markings to identify individual animals, including work on whales, dolphins, and killer whales. The technique is also used for some amphibians where the underside of the animals is often mottled in unique ways. However, given the fact that the markings are not always present, that we don’t know how long they last, and that the method requires some very specific (and challenging!) photography, it is unlikely that this particular method will be used widely in insect ecology. Instead, the study highlights an interesting example of unexplained variation in dragonflies, which deserves more study in its own right.

References

*Schneider, B. and Wildermuth, H. (2009) Libellen als Individuen – zum Beispiel Aeshna cyanea (Odonata: Aeshnidae), Entomo Helvetica, 2: 185-199.

*Gould, S.J. and Lewontin, R.C. (1979) The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme” Proc. Roy. Soc. London B, 205: 581–598