A dive into the world of dolphin communication

Dolphins are almost celebrities of the animal kingdom, globally adored for their intelligence, personality and aerial displays.

But to what extent do we know why they do what they do? Someone who tries to answer this question is Dr Stephanie King, one of the University of Bristol’s newest senior lecturers who has spent years studying these charismatic mammals. Those of us in this Monday’s seminar were treated to a fascinating look into what life is like studying bottlenose dolphin behaviour, and a sneak peak at Dr King’s new research which investigates the mechanisms behind how dolphins communicate, and the ways in which they can coordinate their behaviour.

Firstly, Dr King introduced us to the social structure of bottlenose dolphin communities.

Her research focuses on males, which congregate in groups called alliances, of either first (2-3 individuals) or second (4-14 individuals) orders. Alliances are aggregates of males, who form lifetime bonds with one another to coerce females into copulation with chosen members of the alliance. Associated behaviours have been analysed by Dr King and her colleagues during follows of the KS alliance, which habituates Shark Bay in West Australia. Currently made up of 7 males, each member can be confidently identified from characteristic nicks and cuts in the dorsal fin of each individual, acting almost like dolphin fingerprints. We were also told that alliance hierarchy is mysteriously complex: there is no linear dominance hierarchy; allied preference is not with kin; and that in fact age (mainly bonding in the juvenile period) can predict alliance formation. The adaptive value of these alliances is high, as male fitness (lifetime reproductive rate) is dependent on alliance formation and membership.

Throughout her talk, Dr King ensured the audience saw the dolphins in action, allowing us to understand and visualise exactly what the behaviours were that she was talking through.

This was done with the use of drone footage that accompanied the explanations, which included incredible birds-eye view shots of phenomenons such as the coordinated butterfly display. Other alliance behaviours explained by Dr King were those such as a ‘tangos‘ and petting.

Not only are visual behaviours important for the efficient functioning of the alliances, but so are acoustics.

‘Pop trains‘, like the name suggests, are a series of successive popping sounds which encourage females to come closer to the males. Dr King and colleagues wanted to know if these pop trains could be synchronised within the alliance. The adaptive value of this was discussed, one idea being that it could possibly encourage bonding through cooperation by promoting oxytocin release. Also posited was that highly synchronous pop trains could be a signal of a high-quality alliance.

Dr King gave the audience a first look at some unpublished research

While the ability of the dolphins to cooperate has been steadfastly proven, the question remains whether the dolphins actually understand what cooperation is; that is, do they understand that they need the exact role of their partner in doing certain tasks (Fig. 1)? Or are individuals actually responding to learned social and environmental cues? Dr King gave the audience a first look at some unpublished research that is pulling apart the possible mechanisms behind previous findings regarding these ideas. Dr King signed off the seminar with other suggested hypotheses for further study, such as whether personality influences cooperative partner choice. The seminar concluded with an animated Q&A and some lively debate, which without doubt continued afterwards in the Sky Lounge over lunch.

Figure 1: Photograph lifted from Jaakkola, Guarino, Donegan and King (2018). An aerial view of a cooperative task apparatus used to test dolphin understanding of cooperation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Written by Esme Hedley, Biology (BSc) Year 2

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A Biography of Professor Jane Memmott

“I’m still smiling!” was Professor Jane Memmott’s reply to being asked her feelings about becoming the newly-elected president of the British Ecological Society. In an office filled with shelves of books, a case of preserved butterflies, feathers from various species and a plant collection to rival the rest of the life sciences building, I interviewed Professor Jane Memmott on her career, interests and her journey towards the prestigious position she holds today.

Like so many of us, Jane’s lifelong fascination with nature began at an early age. It was during her childhood camping trips to County Clare in Ireland that Jane, inspired by her surroundings, developed an interest in ecology. In 1981, Jane began studying zoology at the University of Leeds. She described herself as a “keen and enthusiastic” student but mentioned that she still has “a horror of a few areas of biology from not liking them as a student!”. Jane went on to explain that it wasn’t until her third year at Leeds, when she really enjoyed everything she was studying, that she truly excelled as a student.

Professor Memmott took a year out after her BSc at Leeds, during which she took her first flight to Peru, where she worked as a tour guide in the Amazon rainforest for three months. This was Jane’s first taste of the tropics, and she became captivated by rainforests, leading her to write a PhD to be based in Costa Rica. Jane described one of her most memorable moments during her PhD in Costa Rica, when she encountered a sloth crossing the bridge of the field station. “They’re quite difficult things to catch- you can’t just unhook them from the handrail. We got it into a large dustbin and had the cutlery tray from the dishwasher over the top!” Once captured, the sloth was safely transported to a tree buttress to see what effect it would have on Jane’s experimental phlebotomine sandflies. Professor Memmott explained how she’d spent a lot of her life in tree buttresses, describing them as being “like a series of rooms around a big tropical tree.” The tropics can be a paradise for entomologists, and Jane recalled iridescent Morpho butterflies the size of dinner plates and giant damselflies that fly like helicopters.

“Jane described her endless fascination with understanding how the architecture of the network can affect pollination interactions and the robustness of the system to species loss.”

After her PhD in Costa Rica, Jane returned to the tropics for her first post doc. The project was to create the first food web to come out of the tropics, putting together a picture of the trophic interactions between the plants, leaf-miners and parasitoids of the rainforest community. This project got Jane hooked on studying ecological networks as a way of sampling whole communities. She explained, “rather than homing in on species x or species y, you kind of look at the whole alphabet at once.” Jane described her endless fascination with understanding how the architecture of the network can affect pollination interactions and the robustness of the system to species loss. Jane spent her second post doc working on the biological control of invasive plants. During this project, Jane spent time in New Zealand, which proved to be a contrast to the hot, sometimes gruelling nature of her project in Costa Rica. She spoke of her time in New Zealand, describing it as one of her favourite places in the world: “I lived a life of eternal summer – it was easy to live in a little house in paradise and travel round the country doing experiments.”

After ten years travelling the world and living out of a rucksack, Jane returned to the UK, where in 1996 she obtained her lectureship at Bristol. Jane stressed that returning to the UK did not mean forfeiting amazing wildlife encounters, mentioning the amazing views of peregrines that can liven up staff meetings in the sky lounge. From 2012 to 2016, she became Head of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Bristol. This position came with some challenges, including leading the movement of the school to the new Life Sciences Building that we know and love today. Nowadays, one of her favourite parts of the job is teaching – especially first year lectures. Jane also enjoys seeing students from all around the world progress through university to do PhDs, and she loves to see the effect that the publishing of a big research paper can have on the young scientists leading the project.

 “I asked Jane what advice she would give to students interested in getting into academia. Her reply was “it’s absolutely worth it!”.”

Outside of her work, Jane enjoys gardening, dog walks and getting out and about in nature with her family; having recently been searching for short-eared owls on the Severn estuary. Professor Memmott describes herself as “always reading”- she enjoys novels, adventure books and books related to ecology. She also mentioned that her two teenagers take up a lot of her attention. I asked Jane what advice she would give to students interested in getting into academia. Her reply was “it’s absolutely worth it!”. She spoke of the “tremendous freedom” associated with being able to do your own research but warned to be prepared to put up with lots of rejection. “You can learn a lot from your rejections – it’s not wasted time.”

The British Ecological Society is the oldest ecological society in the world. The society has six journals including the Journal of Ecology and Ecology and Evolution, and it provides research grants and supports ecologists in their early careers. Jane joined the British Ecological Society as a PhD student and has been a member ever since. She described the society as having been very supportive over the years; providing her with a grant that enabled her to employ a field assistant to help carry out the field work that began all of her pollination research. I asked Jane what it meant to her to be elected as the president of the British Ecological society. She replied, “I’m very honoured – I’m still smiling!”.

Written by Jenny Stewart, MSci Zoology



From protists to whales: predicting the future of biological systems

Complex biological systems are notoriously unpredictable, but forecasting their fate has arguably never been more important. In a recent seminar in the School of Biological Sciences, Dr. Chris Clements describes his latest research in this emerging field at the interface of ecology and conservation science.

The world is facing an unprecedented biodiversity crisis. As mankind’s ecological footprint grows ever larger, the rate of environmental change continues to accelerate. Identifying at-risk populations or ecosystems before they are irretrievably lost or damaged is becoming an increasingly important goal for conservationists, but predicting how complex biological systems will respond to evolving pressures is challenging.

One way of forecasting the future trajectory of biological systems is to use system-specific models founded on a detailed understanding of the underlying ecological processes. In practice however, scientists’ ability to do this is constrained by a scarcity of in-depth knowledge for the vast majority of ecosystems. An alternative strategy is to concentrate on inferring changes in the underlying state of the system from trends in more readily available data, such as estimates of population abundance. This approach is based on detecting statistical patterns or ‘early warning signals’, which can potentially be used to alert conservationists to the imminent danger of a sudden and catastrophic shift within an ecosystem, or the impending collapse of a population. A large part of Dr. Clements’ current research is focused on testing and extending these techniques.

“Under sustained pressure, the system will eventually reach a tipping point where it is so unstable that even tiny disruptions can trigger an abrupt change”

Dramatic shifts within ecosystems can occur when a change in conditions overwhelms the capacity of the system to return to its original state. Under sustained pressure, the system will eventually reach a tipping point where it is so unstable that even tiny disruptions can trigger an abrupt change. A classic example is the rapid transformation of pristine coral reefs due to declines in the abundance of algae-grazing marine life. While transitions to so-called ‘alternative stable states’ are often difficult to reverse, in theory, it should be possible to detect them in advance: as tipping points approach, predictable changes in statistical signals should become apparent.

Despite the potential usefulness of abundance-based early warning signals, the inherently noisy nature of population estimates can sometimes lead to unreliable predictions. Animals living in complex and inaccessible landscapes are usually elusive, and it can be tricky to estimate population sizes with confidence. One possible solution to this problem is to combine or replace abundance-based early warning signals with information on trends in key individual traits, such as body size, which can be estimated more reliably. Crucially, shifts in the distribution of body sizes within the population at-risk can be indicative of deteriorating environmental conditions, and of a population under strain.

“Dramatic shifts in the variability of body size also predicted plummeting worldwide populations of blue, fin, sei and sperm whales during the historical period of commercial whaling”

By describing his recent experiments on microcosm populations of the predatory protist Didinium nasutum, Chris showed that the collapse of stressed populations was preceded by a sharp decline in mean body size. Switching focus to an analysis of whale populations during the 20th century, Chris went on demonstrate how dramatic shifts in the variability of body size also predicted plummeting worldwide populations of blue, fin, sei and sperm whales during the historical period of commercial whaling. In both cases, trait-based early warning signals produced more accurate predictions about timing of population collapses, compared to those based on measures of abundance.

While our understanding of trait-based early warning signals is progressing rapidly, there is still much to learn about how these techniques can be applied to identify at-risk biological systems in the real world, where populations differ markedly in the rate of environmental change they are exposed to. Using both mathematical models and experimental microcosms, Chris’s research group is currently focused on tackling a range of unresolved questions in this area.

Written by Andrew Szopa-Comley, PhD student in Biological Sciences



Ageing in a social world; what can animals tell us?

A prominent voice in the field of animal behaviour, Dr Lauren Brent discusses her research into the interaction of ageing and sociality with a fascinating look at the lives of two charismatic social mammals.

Dr Lauren Brent seems to live an animal behaviourist’s dream. Not only does she travel the world studying some of the world’s most interesting animals, but she also shines a light on the physiological and evolutionary explanations behind their behaviour. This Monday students and staff were treated to a look at how age affects an individual’s engagement with the social world, and on the flipside of this, how the pace at which individuals age is affected by social processes. These two themes were neatly explored using Dr Brent’s research on the southern killer whales of British Columbia and the charismatic rhesus macaques of Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico.

It became immediately apparent in the seminar how passionate Dr Brent is about her work and how carefully she selected the subjects for her research. Breaking the talk into two sections, she first spoke about how aged based differences in these two animal groups affect their social interactions. The killer whales were followed to see how this impacted on their collective movement, questioning whether, and if so why, older, post-reproductive females led group movement. On the other side of the world, data associated with grooming and aggressive encounters between female rhesus macaques were collected to see whether age affected the frequency and reciprocity of these social interactions.

“Southern resident killer whales are one of only five species known to undergo menopause”

Southern resident killer whales are one of only five species known to undergo menopause, and there is no sex-based dispersal in populations, with the family unit choosing to stay together for life and outbreeding. The long post-reproductive period of females (lasting any time up to fifty years) is similar to humans’ in its length, and it was unknown what influence this had on the sociality of the older females. In Dr Brent’s 2015 paper, a study of over nine years’ worth of video footage of the whales was visualised into leadership networks. This resulted in the discovery that in comparison to males, females were more likely to lead and that relative to younger females, post-reproductive female whales were the most likely leaders. To understand these results, further study was undertaken to find the situations in which the older females were more likely to lead. This research revealed that older females were more likely to lead when populations of chinook salmon (the species making up at least 85% of southern killer whale diet) were low. It was apparent then that as their age increased female whales became more important in directing the collective movement of the pod, perhaps a clear indicator that the enhanced world experience that comes with age influences how these individuals engage with their social world.

“The population of rhesus macaques on Coyo Santiago was perfect for her research because of its extensive life history records and closed gene pool”

Described by Dr Brent as ‘despotic and nepotistic’, the population of rhesus macaques on Cayo Santiago was perfect for her research because of its extensive life history records and closed gene pool. Like the killer whales, the social structure of the population was explained as being a close-knit community in which the females stay (philopatry) but where the males disperse. Habituating a predator-free, food-rich environment exposed the social pressures of group living and highlighted the aggressive, competitive nature of the macaques. To see if the age of the individuals affected the frequency and intensity of their social interactions, the exposure of females to grooming and aggressive encounters was studied. No evidence was found to show older females received less grooming than younger females, and no evidence was found that they ‘gave’ less aggression. However, it was discovered that older females gave out less grooming and received less aggression, clearly showing at some level age is affecting social engagement. Dr Brent discussed with us the questions left to answer as a result of this research; these older females were still active and engaged with the group, but what were the consequences of age in relation to this interaction which meant they were received differently by their relatives?

To analyse the interaction between ageing and sociality from the opposite direction, Dr Brent now wanted to see whether the pace at which individuals age is affected by social processes. In the macaques, it as was hypothesised that more socially integrated females lived longer. In this study, as a proxy for social integration, the number of close relatives in the troop was recorded for each of the 276 females in the study. Dr Brent revealed to us that for ‘prime-aged females between the ages of 6 and 17, every relative added decreased the probability of dying the next year by 2.3 %’. Interestingly, this was not the same for older females, where their level of social integration had no effect on their survival the next year. Again, this poses the question of why; as Dr Brent proposed, “do females have an alternative route to success?’.

The lecture was rounded off with an exclusive look at some of Dr Brent’s unpublished research and a first look at the new projects she has coming up, including investigating the possible evolutionary drivers behind sociality and ageing. The audience was also left with some questions to think about regarding the physiology behind ageing in a social world. Do all tissues age at the same pace? Are they equivalently impacted by sociality? And is this ageing the same for males and females? While ageing may be the focus of this field, it is young in its development and there are many exciting questions yet to be answered.

Written by Esme Hedley, Biology (BSc)



University of Bristol researchers embark on a programme to develop crop production technology

Dr Antony Dodd, whose internationally leading research at the University of Bristol focuses on circadian rhythms, plant physiology and environmental signalling, has been awarded a Royal Society Industry Fellowship to contribute to product development at the Bristol-based start-up company LettUs Grow.

LettUs Grow was co-founded by University of Bristol alumni Charlie Guy, Ben Crowther and Jack Farmer in 2015. Since then, they have become rising stars in the world of green technology, winning multiple awards for their application of innovative technology to creating more sustainable food production. They have developed novel aeroponic technologies for application in greenhouses and “vertical farms,” which are systems for crop production using stacked indoor systems. Vertical farms reduce water use by up to 95% compared to traditional growing methods, significantly boost yields outside traditional growing seasons and allow crop production in densely populated urban areas.

Dr Dodd will be working closely with LettUs Grow to apply fundamental plant sciences to the advancement of their vertical agriculture technologies. This will involve combining Dr Dodd’s expertise in circadian rhythms and plant physiology with the work of LettUs Grow’s biologists and engineers to design optimal aeroponic cultivation recipes. This will enable LettUs Grow to optimise their systems for individual crop species and consistently increase yields.

Dr Dodd said, “This represents an outstanding opportunity to apply fundamental plant sciences to the development of the next generation of technologies for food production by vertical agriculture.”

Jack Farmer said, “The alignment of plant circadian rhythms with lighting photoperiod represents a real opportunity to improve yields, whilst reducing the cost of production. We’re very excited to work with Dr Antony Dodd to optimise a wide range of indoor farming techniques.”

The year-long Fellowship provides funds to allow Dr Dodd to dedicate time to working closely with LettUs Grow.

Written by Jess Bowers-Martin (year 3 Biology)



New degree will train next generation of plant biologists

A new Plant Sciences degree that will train the next generation of plant researchers to tackle major issues such as global food security for a growing population has been launched by the University of Bristol.

Bristol is home to world-class plant science, with over a third of the research at the School of Biological Sciences related to plants in areas ranging from evolution, growth and development, plant pathology, ecology, plant environmental interactions and precision agriculture. Bristol students also benefit from having a Botanic Garden at the University.

Students will be taught by experts from different areas of plant science including Dr Antony Dodd, who investigates how plants respond to their environment and have evolved ways to tell the time.

Dr Dodd, Senior Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences, commented: “Plants underpin all of the food that we eat. Therefore, understanding how they interact with the environment at scales ranging from cellular to ecological processes is fundamental to securing our future food supply.”

Another lecturer on the course is Professor Alistair Hetherington whose research focuses on stomata, tiny pores on the surface of leaves, which mediate the movement of gas and water between plants and their environment. Studying this is important in the context of global food security – if plants can be engineered to improve the efficiency of how they use water, perhaps crops can be grown in deserts.

Professor Hetherington, Melville Wills Chair in Botany, added: “Providing the world with a sustainable supply of healthy food in the face of global environment change is one of the greatest challenges to face society in the 21st century.

“Graduates from this degree will be well-equipped to help produce the new varieties of crop which can thrive under changing environmental conditions and thereby contribute significantly towards meeting the requirements of a sustainable supply of healthy food for future generations.”

The new degree is launched the same day [Thursday 21 February] that Simon Pugh-Jones MBE will be awarded an honorary degree from Bristol, for his development of the Writhlington School Orchid Project. The project, which has been running for over 20 years, has involved secondary students in research, expeditions, horticulture and conservation of orchids. They maintain a nationally important collection of orchids and have been gold medal winners at the Chelsea Flower show.

Jane Memmott, Professor of Ecology said: “Plants are important for people for many reasons – for food, shelter, culture and wellbeing; they are also the foundation of biodiversity with many species of animal dependent on them too.”

Nicholas Wray, Curator of the Botanic Garden, added: “Training the next generation of plant biologists will be key if we are to meet the challenges caused by climate change and the pressures of growing food and conserving wild habitats in an uncertain and unpredictable environment.”

Plants are soon to hit the spotlight as the BBC have recently announced the production of Green Planet, their latest documentary series and Blue Planet’s equivalent for plants. Sir David Attenborough will narrate the surprisingly emotional stories of the plant world to wider audiences, promising to inspire the plant scientists of the future.

Studying at Bristol

The new BSc Plant Sciences degree will welcome its first students in September 2019.

Further information

Simon Pugh-Jones MBE is the founder of the Writhlington School Orchid project, which since 1993 has been leading conservation education initiatives in Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia.

Simon will be awarded a Doctor of Science on Thursday 21 February at the 1.30 pm degree ceremony.

  • In recent years there has been huge investment in life sciences in Bristol, including the £56 million Life Sciences Building with state-of-the-art research facilities and the launch of the new Faculty of Life Sciences led by Dean, Professor Jeremy Tavaré.

Written by Freya Cohen (Biology MSci)



Elephant Attack in Botswana

 

I had decided that I wanted to be a Zoologist by the time I was five years old. My love for animals had started with my dad telling me about different bird songs as we walked through the park on the way back from school and had progressed into Christmases filled with new wildlife books and animal-themed stationary. I then became obsessed with dinosaurs after my mum had taken me to the London Natural History Museum for the first time. All I wanted was to finish school so that I could learn about the things that I wanted to study for the rest of my life. And there was one continent that I wanted to travel to. Africa. My dad had spent his younger years living in different countries in Africa carrying out advertising and business work. He often used to tell me stories about the animals he would come across driving back from the office and how the sky was beautiful in the evening, filled with crystal-clear stars. He would tell me of the people, the culture, and the laughs he had had with the local people. David Attenborough’s BBC show on Africa only mesmerised me more. I needed to go.

“The savannah was all around me, the gold sunlight I had thought about for so long was enveloping the vehicle that drove us to the camp”

I took a gap year and worked in a hotel in my hometown. I was working 70-hour weeks and I wanted to quit almost every day. The only thing that was keeping me going was the thought that in a few months, I would book a trip of a lifetime with the money I had saved. Finally, it was arranged. I was heading off for nine weeks with a charity to carry out a conservation internship, specifically looking at herbivore numbers and human-wildlife conflict. The day I arrived was surreal. The savannah was all around me, the gold sunlight I had thought about for so long was enveloping the vehicle that drove us to the camp. I was about to embark on an experience of a lifetime; meeting new people from around the world, becoming immersed in African culture, and seeing some of the animals I had only seen on TV and in my dreams. Although I could spend many hours writing about my trip, I am going to tell you about one incident that changed me in ways I could have never imagined.

“The animals we were seeing were incredible”

Our days consisted of being woken up at 6am either by our supervisor Hollie, or by the whooping hyenas outside our tents. Winter had hit Botswana, and the mornings were freezing. We stumbled around in our tents trying to change into warm clothes before heading to the main cabin for breakfast. Everyone else in our group seemed to struggle to eat anything at this time in the morning, but I was always hungry and would butter two large pieces of toast while making the strongest coffee that my stomach could handle. We would clamber into our white Land Rover and make our way into the bush. Mornings were dedicated to bird surveys; one person would sit with binoculars calling out every species of bird they saw, whilst the rest of us wrote the time and birds seen on our small notepads. The rest of the day was spent going to different areas and taking herbivore surveys. We would also sometimes test our skills at scat and track identification. The sun would start heating the ground at about 12, and the rest of the day was hot and intense. The animals we were seeing were incredible. Only a 5-minute drive from our camp, we would see elephants, warthogs, zebras, buffalo, giraffes, to name only a few, and hear the roars of lions in the distance.

“His tusks were magnificent, and it was only in this moment that the true tragedy of poaching and diminishing elephant numbers hit me.”

Botswana has the largest density of elephants compared to anywhere else in the world. The first time we saw an elephant I was in awe. We had come across an enormous lone bull on the side of a dirt road and we stayed for about 30 minutes just staring and taking him in. His size was intimidating, yet fascinating. His ears slowly flapped against his head while his trunk coiled around branches of a tree before he pulled it out with ease, spending the next minute munching away. He often raised his head to get a good look at us, but there was only curiosity in his small eyes. His tusks were magnificent, and it was only in this moment that the true tragedy of poaching and diminishing elephant numbers hit me. They are beautiful and captivating creatures. In the days after this sighting, we were lucky enough to see herd after herd of elephants.

But there was something in the air. Elephants had started to mock-charge our vehicle. They would trumpet with wild and terrified looks in their eyes, running at us and then stopping before impact. Sometimes this would go on for an agonising ten minutes. Although these events were terrifying, we had been reassured that actual elephant attacks were incredibly rare, and often the sound of their tusks against hard metal scared them away. Hollie had lived in Africa her whole life and had never seen anything like it. Nevertheless, we carried on with our daily routine.

“We came around a corner on the sand track. Suddenly there was an elephant.”

One evening we were driving back to our camp later than usual. Hollie had decided to take a different route home as we had heard about a family of lions in the area. We drove around for a while but unfortunately didn’t see a single paw or whisker. Our Landy picked up speed as we made our way back to camp. It was my time to cook that evening, and I was planning ingredients and spices in my head as we drove. We came around a corner on the sand track. Suddenly there was an elephant. I think we were more surprised than she was. She trumpeted and then jogged off. Hollie quickly reversed as we realised that there was, in fact, a whole herd of elephants ranging from babies to grandparents in front of us. The elephants seemed agitated. Suddenly a young male came running through the herd towards us. His eyes were wild, and he held is trunk high, trumpeting like mad. The other elephants started responding to him, their deafening calls getting louder and louder. He mock-charged the vehicle, charging at us then stopping a few metres ahead. We had started to become accustomed to this behaviour, and we expected him to eventually leave with his herd. But one charge later, he hit us. He charged will full force and smashed into the vehicle. We all screamed as his tusks came through the windscreen and missed Hollie’s head by only a centimetre. I had never felt such terror before. He stepped back and then rammed into the vehicle once more, pushing us back at full speed. Hollie desperately tried reversing the vehicle off his long tusks, but it was no use. He pushed us about 100 metres and then we slammed into a tree, our necks were flung forwards and the seats of the vehicle punched into our backs. My breathing was erratic and that’s when it struck me. We might die. I am all the way in Africa, miles away from home and I might die. The elephant was going mad. He came around the side of the vehicle and began rolling us. Amidst my terror-stricken thoughts, I heard Hollie’s voice. “Out! Get out! Everyone out!” We used the incline to drop us out of the vehicle and then we ran. I set my eyes on a nearby tree and aimed my shaky run towards it. Three of us ended up behind the same tree, and Hollie had to hold her hand over my mouth to try and quieten my breathing. The elephant was crushing and breaking our vehicle in front of us. The glass had shattered everywhere, the front doors had been torn off, and the metal was crumpled. It felt like an eternity, but he finally walked away after hearing numerous calls from his herd in the distance. And just like that he was gone.

“We had to walk slowly and quietly so that we wouldn’t disturb any other animals.”

We slowly started to come out from behind our trees in stunned silence. Some of us began to cry, and others were sick from the shock. We had nothing to protect us anymore. The Land Rover was in ruins, and there was nobody for miles around. Hollie grabbed the emergency box from inside the vehicle which had, fortunately, survived the force of the elephant’s feet crushing the metal doors. Inside was the satellite phone that was designed to work anywhere, even without signal. But it didn’t work. This spot seemed to be the only place in all of Botswana that was completely dead. We took it in turns to carry on trying, while Hollie paced around the vehicle working out what we should do. We had two options; we could stay there and hope that the nearest camp was taking tourists out on a safari that afternoon, or we could walk back to the lodge, which is rule number one of the things to never do when in the African bush. We had no water left and it would soon start to get dark. Hollie made the decision to walk. We had to walk slowly and quietly so that we wouldn’t disturb any other animals. If we were to see another elephant, we had to climb up trees. We must have walked for only 15 minutes when we heard a vehicle. Suddenly around the corner, the other camps Land Rover came racing towards us. One of the men looked terrified and relieved when he realised that we were OK, “You’re alive! The condition of the car! What happened?”

The rest of the trip was of course affected by this event as anything like this was completely unheard of in the area. We concluded that this herd was migrating from an area of intense poaching and on seeing the vehicle, had associated it with danger, pain, and loss. I had no anger towards the elephants. In fact, I felt proud of them. Proud that they were revolting against our monstrous race and taking control. It is estimated that 100 African elephants are killed for their ivory and meat every day. The attack was a stark reminder of what this really means and how this affects the elephants. Just like us, they were terrified. The attack changed me in a way I had not expected. I felt closer to elephants than I had ever done before, and I had felt their power and rage which had been created by our own species. I now devote time to educating people about poaching and conservation. If everyone had the experience I have had, perhaps we would think differently before messing around with these beautiful animals.

This story has been published in the February issue of the BBC Wildlife Magazine, written by my team leader Hollie in her own words. Get your copy now online.

And remember. We don’t own animals. It is not our right to abuse or use them. We live together on this planet and we should be building a future based on respect and harmony. Conservation matters. Let’s spread the word.

Written by Octavia Brayley, Zoology (BSc)

 



Our newest lecturer, Dr. Jordi Paps Montserrat, talks to us about his latest research

Introduced to us by his long-time friend and now co-worker Dr. Davide Pisani, Dr. Jordi Paps showed us how he analyses ancestral genomes to reveal bursts of novelties associated with major evolutionary transitions.

Originally from Barcelona, Dr. Paps moved to England in 2010 to work with Peter Holland at the University of Oxford. He then continued his work at the University of Essex in 2015, to finally join our team at Bristol, to the delight of his friend Dr. Pisani.

“Animals are one of my favourite clades”

Specialising in animal phylogenetics, Dr. Paps said he had been inspired by the work of Ernst Haeckel. He declared from the start of the seminar: “animals are one of my favourite clades”. Indeed, he went on to remind us that animals are but a small branch of the “tree of life”. However, animals distinguish themselves by being multicellular. Several functions derive from multicellularity, for example cell differentiation or immunity (i.e. differentiating self from non-self).

For the last 5 years, Dr. Jordi Paps has been investigating the origins of those functions. Having access to ancient genomes enabled Dr. Paps to run comparative analyses on 64 genomes. Combining BLAST search and MCL analysis, Dr. Paps wrote his own Pearl script humorously entitled Phylogenetically Aware Parsing Script (PAPS).

His analysis revealed 6331 homology groups in the genome of the first animals. Using gene ontology, Dr. Paps then classified the functions of these homology groups to reveal that most of them are associated with gene regulation and metabolism. Moreover, 60% of the human genome descends from these homology groups. In the words of Dr. Paps, the first animal genomes were already “quite animaly”.

Number of new homology groups

However, what set the animal genomes apart was the number of new homology groups. Indeed, animals had twice the number of homology groups that other ancestral genomes did. By considering homology groups that are retained in all present animals, Dr. Paps identified 25 “essential new animal homology groups”. Of these 25 “essential groups”, 15 predated animals, differing in the processing of input and output. However, the rest were completely novel groups associated with cell adhesion, cell cycle, receptors and synaptic exocytosis. All of these functions are associated with multicellularity.

Thus, Dr. Paps presented evidence that genomic novelty is associated with the major evolutionary transition that led to the advent of the animal kingdom.

What about other multicellular groups?

But he did not stop at that. “What about other multicellular groups?”, he asked the audience. Dr. Paps then went on to describe how, in association with Alexander Bowles, he ran a similar analysis to investigate the origin of plants (streptophytes) and land plants (embryophytes). This time running the analysis on more than 200 genomes, Dr. Paps said that “the amount of novelty puts animals to shame”. Functional characterization of homology groups then revealed that most of the novelty was associated with multicellularity functions for streptophytes and terrestrialisation for embryophytes.

Associated with Cristina Guijarro, Dr. Paps used this analytical method once more to investigate the role of novelty inside the animal kingdom. They found that the novel homology groups were associated with cephalisation in ancestral Bilaterians. However, surprisingly, losses were also important at a finer scale. At phylum level, nematodes and tardigrades were “major losers”. Dr. Paps says that this is to be expected due to their simplified morphologies. Nevertheless, these phyla are amongst the most successful animals. Therefore, Dr. Paps demonstrated that loss of genomic groups is more important than previously thought when considering major evolutionary transitions.

On another humoristic note, Dr. Paps mentioned press releases relating his findings to evidence for creationism or panspermia. He sarcastically declared he appreciates the attention.

Through the use of his novel analytical tools for phylogenetics, Dr. Paps has been able to shed light on not only the origins of animals, but also the origins of plants and other animal clades. Finally, he concluded the seminar by announcing that he will now be working on the genomic evolution of parasitism.

Wielding sharp wits and a bright mind, Dr. Jordi Paps is undoubtedly a brilliant addition to the academic team of the University of Bristol. Welcome aboard Jordi!

Written by Violette Desarmeaux (year 4 MSci)

“Rewilding is active, controversial, exciting and happening”

One of the frontiers in the UK, Dr. Paul Jepson outlined his journey engaging with the process of rewilding, beginning in 2005, when he heard about work being undertaken in the Netherlands.

Rewilding is the process of restoring ecosystem dynamics and function at various levels; it can be condensed into the ‘3 C’s’;

 

  1. Securing core areas
  2. Connecting these core areas
  3. Re-introducing large carnivores

The loss of micro-habitat diversity due to the reduction of megafauna and large herbivores brings into focus the severe need to restore ecosystem function around the world on a large scale. Rewilding has been suggested as a solution to this. It aims to generate new natures that are ecologically richer than those before. As Paul said – it’s all about moving forward.

The study and application of rewilding has become much more prevalent in recent years with many articles and scientific papers being released on the subject. Despite being still in its relative infancy, there are many current cases of rewilding such as species reintroduction in the UK and the development of hybrid ecosystems in Australia.

The development of rewilding may signify a new environmental narrative in which people can readily challenge governments to take actions to change the recovery and wellness in nature to surpass previous standards. Dr. Jepson’s narrative structure of ‘Recoverable Earth’, in which recovery of the environment was the final outcome, was a refreshing notion.

Paul spoke briefly about the rewilding poster child project in Nijmegen in the Netherlands:

This project was highly successful and created a huge diversity of habitats within the small area which boosted the public opinion of the scheme. Dr Jepson also spoke about the vast socio-economic benefits of rewilding with its positive impact on property values, life quality and job opportunities in Nijmegen.

Controversies surrounding rewilding included the mention of the starvation of large herbivores that were reintroduced into the Oostvaarderplassen nature reserve and the consequent public outrage in the Netherlands. Paul spoke about ‘kept wild’ animals in rewilding schemes as wild animals under management by humans (as is the norm in Southern Africa) being the most viable way to tackle current restrictions faced by domesticated animal laws; such the legal requirement to remove a carcass of a domestic animal within 3 days of death. This restricts the processes associated with carcass and scavenger ecology, which in turn restricts trophic expansion within the rewilding environment. De-domestication policies are being thought up that will enable rewilding schemes to have maximum success in trophic expansion through carcasses of ‘kept wild’ animals being reintroduced into food chains.

The seminar was closed with some thoughts on the future of rewilding. Paul spoke about the exciting future projects that rewilding has to offer and the likelihood that they will interlink with advances in technologies within the ever-expanding areas of biological sciences.

Written by Nina Blampied (year 2 Zoology BSc)



Rainbow Meadow supporting the Bees’ Needs

The beautiful Rainbow Meadow outside Royal Fort House has won the Bees Needs Champion 2018 award!

The annual wildflower meadow is part of the ‘My Wild City’ project – a scheme by Avon Wildlife Trust launched in 2015 as part of the #GetBristolBuzzing campaign. The #MyWildUniversity initiative, works within the #MyWildCity framework and is a commitment set out by the External Estates Department to work within and adopt this strategically across our landscapes within the University of Bristol. This exciting collaboration has combined research from the Life Sciences department at the University and the National Pollinator Strategy for England, and has been brought about by the wonderful Royal Fort Estates Team and students from Roots Community Gardening – a student-led volunteering group who promote positive mental health and wellbeing by encouraging more students to connect with nature and their local community.

The recognition by DEFRA and Keep Britain Tidy for the project’s contribution to pollinators and the local community has been a huge honour. The award ceremony was hosted by the Royal Botanic Gardens (Kew) on the 13th November 2018, during which representatives from 26 Green Flag awarded projects were presented with the Bees Needs Champion award by Lord Gardiner (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for rural Affairs and Biosecurity):

“I urge everyone to be inspired by this year’s Bees Needs Champions and take pollinator protection into their own hands through simple actions such as growing more flowers, cutting grass less often and thinking carefully about using pesticides.”

It was hugely inspiring to see the wide range of groups, organisations and individuals (councils, conservation charities, academic institutions and the Pollinator Advisory Steering Group) from across the country taking action to help pollinators and conserve the crucial ecological service they provide. The day included a number of speeches about the work that is being done to protect our pollinating insects, including; Philip Turvil and Richard Pollard from Grow Wild; Huw Merriman from the All Party Parliamentary Group for Bees; Hauke Koch and Phil Stevenson conducting scientific research projects at Kew; the Northumberland Honey company; and Dr Lynn Dicks from the University of East Anglia.

“The economic value of pollination is currently estimated at between $235-577 billion globally. A study in 2011 found that two-thirds of the crop pollination service is provided by wild pollinators, not by managed honey bees (Breeze et al., 2011). It is therefore important that we work to preserve landscapes that support common wild pollinators in the long term, by providing the food and nesting resources they need at the appropriate scale.” – Dr Lynn Dicks

We are extremely proud of the work that’s gone into achieving this award and want to say thank you and well done to all involved. Furthermore, whether you are a farmer, a gardener, or a manager of urban or amenity spaces, there is something you can do to help support our valuable insect pollinators.

There are five simple steps you can take to help pollinators in your area:

  1. Plant for pollinators
    Grow more nectar- and pollen-rich flowers, shrubs and trees
  2. Leave patches of land to grow wild
    Wildflowers are important for insects and undisturbed areas make good nesting sites
  3. Put away the pesticides
    They can harm bees and other beneficial invertebrates
  4. Leave your mower in the shed
    Cut grass less often to allow plants to flower. If possible remove the cuttings after you mow longer grass.
  5. Make a bee house
    Drill holes in a log or bundle up lengths of bamboo to provide nesting sites for solitary bees

Visit the Avon Wildlife Trust website to find out more about the Greater Bristol Pollinator Strategy and how you can become part of Get Bristol Buzzing campaign.