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 »

Clayton Woods and Woodside Quarry

I’m lucky to live in one of the leafier parts of Leeds, and there is a reasonable amount of green space within an hour’s walk from my home. Yesterday I made my first visit to one such area: Clayton Woods, which turned out to be much more interesting than I was expecting. The woods themselves are pleasant enough to walk through – small dirt tracks weaving through trees and speckled with boulders. There is enough tree cover that the sound from the nearby road is almost blotted out. However, what was most fascinating was what lies at the centre: an abandoned quarry. I had heard about this quarry, but there doesn’t seem to be much information on it aside from a small number of mentions on web forums about the Leeds area. I thought it was worth trying to pull some of that information together here in one place.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.

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A new MOOC from Leeds: “Fairness and Nature: When Worlds Collide”

Picture1It’s a pretty exciting time to be teaching in higher education.  There has been a wave of critical evaluation (mostly by the teachers themselves) which has led to a great deal of progress over the past couple of years.  This has led to a recognition that lecture-based courses are not the “be all and end all” of university teaching, and that there are better ways to do things.  Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs for short) are playing quite a large role in redefining how university teachers engage with their students and how we think about delivering the student experience.

The new MOOC from the University of Leeds is called “Fairness and Nature: When Worlds Collide”, and is being run by Professor Jon Lovett in the School of Geography. Jon is a charismatic and passionate guy with a wide range of experiences in the interaction between people and the nature world, and it is these themes that are explored in the course.  If you want to find out more, head over to the FutureLearn site and sign up (it’s free!).  Here’s a taster:

There are some key characteristics of MOOCs that make them different from conventional university courses:

  • Variable length – MOOCs can be anything from 1 week to 12 weeks, with the breadth and depth of content varying accordingly.
  • Entirely online – with no need to rely on built infrastructure, MOOCs can (and, indeed, do!) cater for tens of thousands of students, rather than the usual hundred or so.
  • Flexible study – because of the online nature, students can participate whenever is convenient for them.  Sometimes this means that students drop-off entirely (completion rates are relatively low) but that isn’t really the point of MOOCs.  MOOCs are frequently designed to provide access to education for as many people as want it, and any learning is a bonus.
  • Flexible structure – the online platform allows a wide variety of multimedia, interactive, connected resources to form the backbone of a course.  These make for a very engaging learning experience.

All these factors combine to make a new and interested way of teaching and engaging a wider range of students, and I look forward to seeing where the MOOC movement goes.

Gardens and roofs as nature reserves in cities

I just heard about this brilliant initiative at Sharrow School in Sheffield (less than a mile from the hospital where I was born!).    One of the school buildings has a roof garden which was specifically designed to represent the various habitats that can be found in the local area.  The garden was so successful that the school was able to have it designated as a local nature reserve under UK law.  You can see more details of the school and the building (including the description of the LNR itself and the justification for the designation).  The roof garden was organised by the Green Roof Centre, an organisation based within the University of Sheffield, when building was created in 2007 during the merger of two local schools to form Sharrow School.Read More »

Dead ducks, homosexual necrophilia, and the importance of anecdotes

The wonderful world of anecdotes is often scorned by scientists.  Leading journals demand tightly controlled studies with a priori justifications, and this approach has sidelined some of the more interesting and peculiar aspects of academic.  For example, I have a couple of articles that describe trends through space and time in the presence of dragonflies using databases that were collected by enthusiasts in the field.  These kinds of observations are the bedrock of natural history, for example, where initial anecdotes spur pilots studies which result (if the data is supportive) in fully-fledged grants. Another important anecdote was recorded on 5th June 1995, and it has been immortalised with its own (admittedly slightly niche) holiday.  You can see Dr Kees Moeliker talking about his homosexual necrophiliac mallard here: