Yet another post about gender and academic conferences

genderThis is becoming something of a cottage industry recently – it is fairly straightforward to calculate the gender ratio of presenters at academic conferences and to evaluate that ratio against some theoretical baseline. However, these sorts of questions are important to look at because the work is highly complex and so requires a large number of people looking at the diverse kinds of conferences to provide a bigger picture. A number of previous studies have shown a range of different patterns in gender and academic conferences (references at the bottom):Read More »

British dragonflies are emerging earlier in the year under climate change

Background: A variety of responses to climate change have been detected in a variety of taxa.  Among these is a change in phenology – the timing of the life cycle (like the emergence of an adult dragonfly from its larval case as shown on the right). Since some species use temperature as a cue for when to develop, as the environment warms there is a signal of earlier development in these species.

What we did: I analysed an extensive dataset of sightings of dragonflies and damselflies (Odonata) over a 50-year period in the UK.  These 450,000 sightings were of around 40 species and provided a detailed record of dates on which different Odonata species were emerging from their aquatic habitats.  I found that there was a significant shift towards earlier emergence which was consistent with that observed in terrestrial species.  I further demonstrated that there was a difference between two groups of species that varied in what stage they over-wintered.  Those species that sat in the water over winter as eggs did not show a response to climate change while those that were larvae over winter did show a response.  I infer from this that the response to climate change is caused by a decline in mortality associated with cooler temperatures in the more vulnerable larval stages.

Importance: As I mention above, a number of studies have demonstrated an effect of climate change on the phenology of animals and plants.  This study showed that the signal was present even for animals that occupy aquatic habitats, suggesting that temperature changes influences aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems in much the same way.

This is part of a series of short lay summaries that describe the technical publications I have authored. This paper, entitled “Historical changes in the phenology of British Odonata are related to climate”, was published in the journal Global Change Biology in 2007 (my first paper!). You can find this paper online at the publisher, or on Figshare.

Image credit: Sally Crossthwaite, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0,

The Science of the Sunday Assembly

[From the outset, it’s worth stating that I’m an atheist (in the soft sense), an agnostic (in a firmer sense), but probably best-described as a Humanist]

Humanists, skeptics, and atheists like to pride themselves on being rational and evidence-based. However, the Sunday Assembly (which I have been helping to organise a bit in Leeds) seems to have brought out the worst kind of ignorant twaddle that I have heard from the community in some time. Most of this seems to centre on “you’re doing something that looks a bit like what people do in church, and that makes it bad”. No attempt at understanding why churches do those things, nor why churches have (until recently) been very successful. With that in mind, here is some science behind the Sunday Assembly:Read More »

I did a map!

I have been playing with R’s capacity to produce interactive maps and (after much trial-and-error) have finally come up with something that shows an interesting pattern.  The data plotted below are the species richness of dragonflies and damselflies from the British Dragonfly Society‘s database in West Yorkshire over the last 20 years.  The data are summarised to 1km grid squares on the British National Grid.  Below is a screenshot because WordPress doesn’t like iframes, but click it to go to the full map.


The scale is a bit odd to emphasise the range of the data, and there are many neater ways to do this.  In particular, R gives the option to render in interactive 3D using OpenGL, create actual interactive maps using Shiny, and use the Leaflet jscript packages.  There are more details on the plotGoogleMaps package that I used for this little map here.  The code is below:

Dragonfly.grid <- read.table("Dragonfly data.txt",header=TRUE)
proj4string(Dragonfly.grid) <- CRS('+proj=tmerc +lat_0=49 +lon_0=-2 +k=0.9996012717 +x_0=400000 +y_0=-100000 +ellps=airy +datum=OSGB36 +units=m +no_defs')
m=plotGoogleMaps(Dragonfly.grid,zcol='Species',at=c(0,2,3,4,6,8,12,21),colPalette= rev(rainbow(7,start=0,end=4/6)))

Created by Pretty R at

PhD opportunities in ecology and evolution

As part of the new NERC Doctoral Training Program at the University of Leeds, I have two PhD projects to advertise that are now (as of 15th November 2013) open to applicants:

1: DragonFlight: Linking the mechanics and energetics of flight to conservation status and responses to climate change in dragonflies

dragonfly-177338_1280The DragonFlight project builds on my earlier interests in dragonfly dispersal (1), macroecology (2), and flight morphology (3).  There has quite a bit of work done on the flight of dragonflies, but much of this has taken place in the laboratory and has not considered what goes on in the field.  Similarly, there has been quite a lot of landscape-scale work done in the form of mark-recapture studies or analyses of historical records (including my own), but none of this has really tested for the traits that underlie flight ability.  This project will link detailed biomechanical measurements of dragonfly flight to our knowledge of responses to climate change (i.e. range shifts) or conservation status.

2: Teaching old beetles new tricks: applying novel genetic techniques to re-establish a classic ecological model system, Tribolium

I’m really excited about this project.  Andrew Peel, a colleague at Leeds, has been working on the evolution of beetles (and animals in general) for a while and uses Tribolium as a model system.  I have been interested in the ecology of this system for some time and this project represents us banging our brains together. In particular, there are lots of nice ways that we can incorporate Andrew’s contemporary genomic techniques (e.g. RNAi) to test for genetic drivers of ecological phenomena.  The species is also an important pest species of stored grain, making any advances potentially applicable to pest control.

Note that both of these are “competitively funded”, which means that there are more projects than we can fund.  We interview candidates for all projects and then award the best candidates the projects that they applied for.  There are more details on the website, including how to apply.  Deadline is 24th January 2014.

(1) Hassall C, Thompson DJ (2012) Study design and mark recapture estimates of dispersal: a case study with the endangered damselfly Coenagrion mercuriale. Journal of Insect Conservation, 16, 111-120.
(2) Hassall C, Thompson DJ (2010) Accounting for recorder effort in the detection of range shifts from historical data. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 1, 343-350.
(3) Hassall C, Thompson DJ, Harvey IF (2008) Latitudinal variation in morphology in two sympatric damselfly species with contrasting range dynamics (Odonata: Coenagrionidae). European Journal of Entomology, 105, 939-944.

PubMed Commons is a huge leap forward

For me, PubMed Commons came out of nowhere.  I was aware of some innovations in publishing (check out journals like Cryosphere for examples of progress in academic publishing) but to have a huge group like PubMed involved in pro-actively pushing boundaries is a real game-changer. Here’s why it’s so important: academic publishing as it currently exists is broken. We have been using a model for publishing that is built around a century-old method for the dissemination of information.  This involves (i) the submission of articles to an editor, (ii) the selection of a small number (usually 2-3) of referees to review the paper and make sure it is adequate, and (iii) a judgement made by the editor and the referees as to whether or not the paper should be accepted.  At that point, the paper is either published (in which case it becomes a matter of record) or rejected (in which case it is never heard of unless published elsewhere).  What this means is that ENORMOUS amounts of scientific information is never seen, and that information that is released in given a sometimes-cursory review by a small number of people who may not be experts in the area.  The internet should already have changed that in a number of ways:Read More »

“Camouflage on the edge” – a new paper on concealing colouration

In 2012, the US Government cancelled a $5 billion camouflage project under which it had already supplied uniforms to soldiers in Afghanistan.  The pattern of camouflage, called the “universal camouflage pattern” (UCP) was supposed to allow soldiers to blend in equally well in forests, deserts, and urban environments but had been deployed but never properly tested to ensure that it provided proper protection.  When this testing was finally carried out, it demonstrated that the camouflage performed poorly, and was actually putting soldiers at unnecessary risk.  It got so bad that US Army soldiers were trading their uniforms with locals so that they could wear something with appropriate colouration.  What this goes to show is how poorly we understand the mechanisms underlying camouflage, even while we spend enormous amounts of money attempting to exploit the phenomenon.  A new paper that my colleagues (based at Carleton University) and I published today in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters adds a key piece to the camouflage puzzle by illustrating for the first time the mechanism behind “disruptive colouration“.  The paper can be viewed for free at the journal homepage, as can all Biology Letters articles, until 30th November 2013 – go browse, it’s a fascinating journal with short, varied, interesting papers.

Read More »