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 »

How to write a scientific paper

writing-427527_1280When we teach students how to write papers, we take it for granted that they have already absorbed the basic format of a scientific article from their reading of the primary literature. They should be familiar with abstract-intro-methods-results-discussion-references, for example, and the content that goes into each section in order to lead the reader through the work. However, it is easy to see how students might fail to grasp the general structure of a scientific paper. For example, we often hold up the high impact journals as models of scientific research, but journals such as Nature, Science, Current Biology and PNAS have a structure and a style that is really quite different from other journals (referenced abstracts, methods at the end, extremely brief structure). I have been teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students how to write scientific papers and theses for a few years now, and I thought I would share my personal method (I think I can credit Phill Watts, now at the University of Oulu, for suggesting this to me years ago):

I hope it’s useful and please do let me know if it helps, either in the comments here or on the YouTube page. The video is released under Creative Commons.

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 »

Pedagogy and a Pint

bar-406884_1280Academics have many draws on their time: research (grant applications, writing papers, speaking at conferences), teaching (planning lectures and workshops, delivering teaching, marking), and administration (committees on all of the above and more – admissions, marketing, student education, research, outreach). Most of that is just keeping things afloat, and so we sometimes lack the time to develop new ideas and discuss interesting and novel ways of working. Over the past couple of years I have been the “Academic Champion for Blended Learning” in the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds, and that has meant that I have spent a fair amount of time horizon scanning for teaching technology and working with early adopters. However, trying to roll-out big initiatives (like our brilliant new lecture capture system) can be hard because staff have limited time to engage. Recently, I tried something new to give colleagues an opportunity to talk about teaching: “Pedagogy and a Pint”.

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.

How big is a damselfly, and why?

Calopteryx_maculata_mating_(crop)Background: Body size is among the most important characteristics of animals and plants. Larger animals are capable of buffering against their environment (think big polar bear vs tiny chihuahua in the snow!) so that they can survive in a wider range of locations, are capable of eating a wider range of prey, and consume more prey than smaller animals leading to a stronger impact on ecosystems. However, we are still trying to understand the factors that influence body size, both ecologically and evolutionarily.

What I did: A number of previous studies have compared body size in particular animals across different locations to see whether or not there are consistent patterns in that variability. I wanted to collect specimens of a single species (the ebony jewelwing damselfly, Calopteryx maculata) for analysis from across its entire range in North America, but the range is so large (Florida to Ontario, and New York to Nebraska) that I wouldn’t have been able to travel to sufficient sites within the one season that I have available.  Instead, I asked a lot of local dragonfly enthusiasts to catch and send me specimens from their local sites. I am extremely grateful to all of them for helping, as this could not have been done without their kind volunteering of time and energy.  I ended up with a substantial dataset of animals from 49 sites across the range.  I showed that there was a general increase in size further north, but that this was not a simple increase. Instead, there was a U-shaped relationship between latitude and size with larger animals in the south and the north with an intermediate size in the middle. When I looked at the drivers of this trend, it appeared that warm temperatures resulted in higher body sizes in the south. In the north, the animals use shortening days as a signal to accelerate their development and so in the most northern regions animals were developing very quickly despite the cold.

Importance: Large scale (across the whole of an animal’s range) measurements of body size are essential to provide an ecologically relevant test of explanations for changing body size. These findings support previous laboratory work which suggested a twinned role for temperature and photoperiod in driving development in damselflies.

This is part of a series of short lay summaries that describe the technical publications I have authored.  This paper, entitled “Time stress and temperature explain continental variation in damselfly body size”, was published in the journal Ecography in 2013. You can find this paper at the publisher’s website or for free at Figshare.

Image credit: Kevin Payravi, http://bit.ly/1q7B2Ph, CC BY-SA 3.0