The man who played with dinosaurs

We had some sad news in the department earlier in the week. We heard from his son that Professor R McNeill Alexander FRS had passed away at the age of 81. I didn’t know Neill very well, but we had chatted a few times over coffee in the department, which he still visited regularly until a year or two ago. We also lived in the same area of Leeds and I saw him often at the local farmers market. However, there was one particular encounter with Neill that I remember vividly, and I wanted to share the anecdote:

dinosaur-470161_960_720I was at a local Cafe Scientifique in 2013 when I saw Neill give a short presentation and demonstration of some of his world-leading research on dinosaur locomotion. However, rather than this being in front of an auditorium full of people (as would befit a Fellow of the Royal Society, former President of the Society for Experimental Biology, former President of the International Society for Vertebrate Morphologists, author of countless books and articles, the list goes on…), Neill gave an informal presentation to a group of four young children, their parents, and me. Sat in the cafe at Leeds Museum, Neill quietly explained to the small audience the history of his discoveries: how dinosaur models could be used to evaluate mass and centre of gravity, how dinosaur tracks could be used to infer gait, stride, and speed. I don’t recall him taking any personal credit, although it was his to claim, but rather he discussed the ideas as having been a communal advance. Then, at the end of the talk, Neill sat with the children and played with them using the same toys from which he had drawn such inspiration as a researcher and through which he had revolutionised so much of what we know about animal biomechanics and locomotion. I don’t know who the children were, and I don’t know whether they or their parents were aware that they were sat playing with dinosaurs alongside one of the greatest scientists of his generation, but for me that is perhaps the purest example of science communication that I have ever witnessed.

RIP Robert McNeill Alexander (1934-2016)

Avoiding Attack! (a classroom kit)

I blogged some time ago about a Cafe Scientifique talk I gave on the topic of “Avoiding Attack” (broadly mimicry and camouflage in animals). I stole the title of the talk wholesale from the excellent book of the same name written by former colleagues Mike Speed and Tom Sherratt along with Graeme Ruxton). After giving that talk, I was asked to contribute to the Leeds Festival of Science – a great initiative where University of Leeds staff engage local people (particularly schools) with their research through on-campus and external events. As part of that event this year I took part in the “schools roadshow” where researchers go out into schools to teach about their work. I thought I would post the resources that I used here with some notes so that teachers can make use of the materials that I produced. Everything here is released on a Creative Commons license (CC-BY 4.0).

20150318_094110Read More »

The lost art of foraging

wild-strawberry-523882_1280I had a fantastic day out recently at the Great British Food Festival, held at Harewood House in Yorkshire. However, tucked away in the line-up among the hog roasts, cooking demos, and coffee kiosks was a little treat: a guide to foraging. Foraging for food in the wild has enjoyed something of a resurgence in the last decade, after two generations (really since rationing ended in the mid-1950s) of neglect. This has been helped by high profile chefs such as René Redzepi at Noma, a restaurant which has been awarded the title of “best restaurant in the world” in four years out of the last five, where locally-sourced and foraged ingredients are given centre-stage. Suddenly an innocuous-looking green weed growing up between the flags in your garden path has become haute cuisine!

I wanted to share a few interesting points that our foraging guide (Adele Nodezar) offered to the group:Read More »

Is battling biodiversity decline like tackling terrorism?

brain-512758_640I attended a talk recently given by Dr Sara Savage from Cambridge University entitled “Bad Religion: when is faith healthy or unhealthy?”. The title was a bit of a misnomer, as there was little discussion of religion per se, but there was a greater deal of fascinating psychological research on the drivers of extremist ideology. Dr Savage outlined the theory of “integrative complexity“, developed by Peter Suedfeld over the past 30 years. Integrative complexity is a method of metacognitive reasoning (i.e. being aware of how and what you are thinking, and why) that incorporates empathic and diverse approaches towards the views of others in an attempt to construct a coherent and objective view of a given situation. The argument has been made that extremist ideologies (whether these are religious, political or social) tend to stem from a narrowing of perspectives (a drop in integrative complexity, or “IC”), and that conflict resolution is best achieved by those who “see complexity”. Indeed, Suedfeld and colleagues have published analyses of IC within the context of the Cuban missile crisis and surprise attacks.Read More »

Dragonfly mind control?

For those of you not familiar with Cordyceps fungus, that’s the one that attacks insects (and other arthropods) by infecting and then spreading through the whole body. The result is something like what you see below:

Dragonfly with Cordyceps infection (Ophiocordyceps odonatae)

Each one of those little growths is a “fruiting body” and that is where the fungus releases its spores in order to found new patches of fungus. The most famous of these kinds of fungi is perhaps Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which infects ants and influences their behaviour. The fungus forces an ant to climb a blade of grass or a twig and then attach there until it dies. Meanwhile the fungus produces a series of fruiting bodies that release spores from the new vantage point – the height helps those spores to disperse a greater distance. Apparently fossilised plants from 50m years ago also bear the marks of these Cordyceps-related attachments by insects, suggesting that this is an old battle.

What we don’t know is the extent to which Cordyceps influences the behaviour of other hosts. I posted the image above because it is the first time that I have seen a dragonfly infected in this way. It would make more sense (to me, at least!) for Cordyceps infecting a dragonfly to make it fly upwards while the fruiting bodies are releasing spores to broadcast those offspring as far as possible. However, the only image I have seen is this one where the animal is firmly rooted to the perch.

If it was a parasite that affected dragonfly flight then it wouldn’t be the first. A few recent studies (e.g. Suhonen et al. 2010) have suggested that dragonflies infected with parasitic mites that cling to the outside of the animal result in greater movement. It has been suggested that this could be an attempt to get out of an area with a high parasite population – after all, that’s not a great place to raise your little dragonfly family. However, we think this response has evolved to help the host and not the parasite, which is the opposite to the response elicited by the manipulative Cordyceps.

References

Suhonen, J., Honkavaara, J., Rantala, M.J. (2010) Activation of the immune system promotes insect dispersal in the wild, Oecologia, 162 (3): 541-547.


Image credit: Paul Bertner, https://flic.kr/p/qodUNR, all rights reserved, used with permission.

PhD funding for biological research at the University of Leeds

book-631748_1280If you are interested in doing a PhD but are struggling to find funding that fits your project or have been unsuccessful in applications to the funding schemes that are scattered around (e.g. the NERC DTP schemes that are interviewing at the moment) then don’t despair! There are always funny little pots of money that you can apply to.  The University of Leeds has three such scholarships available that can be used to fund PhD research in biological sciences (and some other areas). These all close on 1st June but if you are interested in applying please do get in touch with me (or one of my colleagues in the Ecology and Evolution Research Group) to discuss a potential project.  The sooner the better!Read More »

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a monk!

I am fascinated by the field of “biomimetics” – attempting to find solutions to problems by looking to the natural world. Sometimes this involves buildings that work like termite nests, swimsuits that use tiny hooks like those found on shark skin, or Velcro that uses the same principles as seed burrs as an inspiration. However, among the most celebrated examples of biomimetics are those involving flight.

Charles_Le_Brun_-_Daedalus_and_Icarus_-_WGA12535There have been a great many legends describing early attempts at flight, with perhaps the most famous being that of Daedalus and his son Icarus. Daedalus created the Labyrinth on Crete for King Minos and the king imprisoned Daedalus in a tower so that he could not spread the knowledge of labyrinth-building to other kingdoms. Daedalus escapes with Icarus, but Icarus flies too close to the sun causing the wax holding his feathers melts and he falls into the sea and drowns. Daedalus, meanwhile, reaches Sicily (750km away). Ovid’s description of the myth states that Daedalus “…flexed each [feather] into a gentle curve, so that they imitated real bird’s wings”, and so this is clearly a calculated (if legendary) attempt to mimic bird flight.Read More »

Ecology and Evolution PhD Opportunities at the University of Leeds

I’m delighted to announce a suite of additional PhD projects in the School of Biology at the University of Leeds (scheme details are here).  These are in addition to the dozen or so competitively-funded projects through our NERC DTP, so please do check there as well if you are interested.  Most titles are indicative of the broad research area, but there will usually be a great deal of flexibility in the nature of the project depending on the interests of the student.  The deadline for all projects is Thursday 29th January 2015, and applicants will need to have submitted a research degree application form (see our “How to apply” page) and be in receipt of a student ID number prior to application for the scheme. Briefly, the titles are:

  • The Evolution of Plant Form
  • Marine microbial processes and interactions
  • Improving piglet survival and subsequent performance
  • Managing soil plant processes to enhance the sustainable intensification of agriculture
  • Emerging Infectious Diseases
  • Continental trends in, and drivers of, the spread of European aquatic invasive species
  • Biomimicry, biophilia, and urban design solutions
  • Identifying and investigating factors which improve sow performance in Irish pig herds

See the project summaries below for more details.Read More »

Do dragonflies give birth to live young?

Heliocypha perforataSomething strange seems to be happening in one particular species of damselfly, the common blue jewel Rhinocypha perforata (pictured right). Or at least it has been caught on video for the first time… Aside from being a particularly attractive species of damselfly found in China, Thailand, Laos, Malaysia and Vietnam, the common blue jewel seems to adopt a rather unusual form of reproduction (for an insect, at least). Read More »

Why has the blog been so busy recently…?

typewriter-407695_1280For the two or three people who actually pay any attention to what I get up to here, you might have noticed a bit of a theme over the past couple of months: large numbers of posts (an anomaly in itself!) summarising some of my papers. I set myself the task of writing these lay summaries to try to make my work a little bit more accessible to people who might be interested in the topic but who might not have access to the paper, have the technical skills needed to interpret the findings, or who simply don’t have time to go and read a 7,000 word scientific article.

I’m pleased to say that I am (nearly) up to date now, and you can see the fruit of my labour here or click the green links labelled “lay summary” next to each of my papers on my publications page. There are 30 summaries in total, with a couple missing for the most recent papers. Trying to make research more open and accessible is a personal passion, and so I’d love to hear what you thought of this. Is it useful? Is anything still unclear? Drop a note in the comments and let me know.