Leopards, hard-boiled eggs, “yip yip yip”-ping, and faeces collecting – just a typical day in the life of dwarf mongoose field researcher Amy Morris-Drake.
Having spent a holiday in South Africa before starting her undergraduate degree in Biology at the University of Bristol, Amy Morris-Drake fell in love with the noise and colours of the African bush. At the end of 2013, having graduated, she saw an advert seeking a Research Assistant that required the applicant to go to South Africa and study the behaviour of an adorable tiny mammal entirely unknown to Amy at the time, the dwarf mongoose.
The dwarf mongoose is the smallest of the three social mongoose species found in Africa, making termite mounds their home. Collectively known as a business, dwarf mongooses measure 18–30cm from head to tail. But despite their size, dwarf mongooses are hardy creatures who work tirelessly – foraging, grooming and defending one another from rival groups and scores of predators.
Always fascinated by animal behaviour and determined to return to Africa, Amy landed the Research Assistant job in Professor Andy Radford’s Dwarf Mongoose Research Project. She lived on Sorabi Rock Lodge reserve for 6 months, observing the creatures in their natural habitat. “It was originally going to be 3 months but I loved it and didn’t want to leave”, recalls Amy. The dwarf mongooses made such as impression that on her return to the UK, Amy decided to study them for her Masters and then her PhD (which she completed this year). She took a small break in between the Masters and PhD to try something new – observing elephant behaviour, also in South Africa – but that didn’t quite go to plan. “Instead of trying to focus on elephants, I was always scanning termite mounds so my eyes were just tuned in to these mongooses and their lives”.
At Sorabi, the researchers (normally 4 per year) all share a house, eating and sleeping in close quarters before heading out solo to observe the 8 habituated mongoose groups. Because none of the ‘Big Five’ live on this reserve, students can roam on foot. “There may be the occasional leopard that passes through” Amy mentions casually, “but they’re nocturnal so we’re alright”. In her first few days on the reserve back in 2013, Amy recalls being baffled by fellow researchers at the stove every night boiling eggs, but quickly learned the reason. Habituated mongooses adore eggs, and the promise of a mouthful is enough to get the tiny mammals onto some scales for the students to monitor their weight to observe foraging success and pregnancies. And so, for Amy, every day at the researcher house involved waking up, eating breakfast and mashing last-night’s eggs.
Dwarf mongooses rise with the sun at around 8 am, or 9 am if it’s a cold day. Amy would venture out to the burrow she tracked her mongoose family to the night before, kitted up with equipment, scales, a GPS, maps and, of course, eggs. She would sit by the mound with a flask of coffee and wait for the mongooses to emerge from their sleeping quarters. After the family finished up with their cuddles and grooming, Amy weighed them, treating them with a tiny piece of egg as a reward for jumping onto the scales. Repeated morning, midday and in the evening, handing over the egg with a “yip yip yip” to vocalise her thanks in mongoose for their cooperation, Amy could build a picture of how different situations affects the weight of individuals.
The focus of Amy’s PhD was social conflict, including territorial interactions with outsider groups. To simulate the current or recent presence of rival groups, Amy used playback of calls and introduced faeces from rival families to the group and then studied their response. This required collecting hundreds of faecal samples for different experiments. She describes wading through the bushes in gaiters to protect from ticks and thorns, and waiting for the mongooses to do their business, all the while enduring their judgmental stares. In one experiment, Amy stored “outsider” samples and distributed these on cue to the group being studied at the same time every day for a week; in control weeks, she presented herbivore faeces in the same fashion. In total, she managed to complete both trials weeks to 7 of the habituated groups; a feat of perseverance, skill and patience.
“When working with wild animals, things always go wrong”, she says. Sometimes the group would be preoccupied with sporadic territory-marking or birds of prey flying overhead, instead of reacting to the out-group scents and sounds. Due to certain reactions or conditions not going her way, Amy ultimately had to scrap nearly a month’s worth of data from that particular field season. It’s physically demanding work, with long hours spent alone in 35C heat with insects, invertebrates, and reptiles to contend with. Upon collecting the last few faeces samples, Amy remembers “falling on [her] knees and crying” with relief. But it was worth it: she found that, by the end of the week of rival-group faecal presentations, the test subjects were foraging closer together, grooming and scent-marking more, and putting on less weight, providing the first experimental evidence of cumulative effects of intergroup conflict.
According to Amy, to be a good experimental biologist you need an incredible amount of patience. In the early stages of her research, Amy would call up the project’s Principal Investigator, Andy Radford, frustrated that she wouldn’t be able to obtain enough behavioural data to complete her Masters. But with practice, she was able to train her eye to spot the mongoose’s subtle movements, expressions, and vocal responses to outgroup threats, and finished her PhD earlier this year. “Fieldwork isn’t for everyone”, Amy notes, “but it’s amazing seeing cool behaviours that you’ve learned about in lectures happen half a metre away from you”. The dwarf mongooses go about their daily lives as if you’re not even there, and Amy had a first-hand view into this cooperatively breeding society.
Amy visited the reserve every year for 7 years, spending 5 or 6 months out there at a time. She likes to think that the dwarf mongoose families remember her despite the months apart. The mongooses have blatant favourites in the researchers, giving out high-pitched calls to the ones they are most excited to see. Now that Amy has completed her PhD, she continues to work on the theme of outgroup conflict as a postdoc, with 10 years’ worth of mongoose data to sift through to uncover lasting behavioural and fitness impacts. As to the Dwarf Mongoose Research Project, Amy is hopeful that funding will be found so that many other researchers can follow her to Sorabi. One of her most rewarding moments has been to witness the experiences of her fellow scientists on the project as they fall in love with the vibrant beauty of South Africa and the diversity of its animals and landscapes. And the deepest love of all is for the mongooses. Contributors to the project have all stayed in touch, as members of a truly long-term community dedicated to the greater understanding and prosperity of these tiny but fearless creatures.
Rosie recently won the University of Bristol’s 3 Minute Thesis (3MT) competition for her talk on ‘Fungal secondary metabolites: exploring a kingdom of possibilities. Rosie tells us about her experience and some top tips about presenting your research in a virtual world.
3MT® (or Three Minute Thesis) is a competition for doctoral students, originating from the University of Queensland, which stipulates that competitors must present their research in just 3 minutes – any longer and they are immediately disqualified. Normally, the competition is held in person, in front of an audience, but due to COVID-19, in the past two years, the competitions have been moved online, presenting a new challenge – how do you engage an audience who can walk away from their screen at any time?
I decided to take part in Bristol Doctoral College’s 2021 3MT competition for several reasons. The first, to improve my presenting skills, especially in a virtual world I wanted to teach myself how to adapt to this. Secondly, I hadn’t set foot in the lab since December 2020, and I was just about to head back to research after a PIPS placement when I submitted my 3MT application – I needed to refamiliarize myself with my research and what made it so exciting (how better to do this than explaining your project and arguing why it is important in a concise way). Lastly, I’d heard great things from colleagues who had taken part in the Bristol Doctoral College 3MT in the past so why not give it a go myself?
The whole experience was hugely rewarding, and the support is given by the Bristol Doctoral College and the other candidates was key in my success. There were never any feelings of intense competition but rather mutual support and a desire to communicate research in an accessible manner. Potentially winning the competition was simply a bonus to all the skills you picked up along the way. So here are the key things I learnt:
1. Eye contact is crucial – we know that this is true for in-person presentations, you can’t stare at the floor the whole time, but how do you convey this when you’re using a computer or laptop? Look straight into the camera. The temptation is always to look at your audience to see how they are responding to you, as you would normally, but if you are looking at your screen you don’t seem as prepared. Perhaps the easiest way to teach yourself to make eye contact with a virtual audience is to record yourself and watch it back. This also helps you to see what your body language is like and if it adds to or distracts from your talk. Not only this but looking at the camera does actually help with nerves since you can ignore anything else going on in that video call and just focus on presenting.
2. Check your presentation is appropriate for your audience by practising it in front of people in your target group. This could be friends, family, or colleagues, and they don’t have to listen to the whole thing, even just 1 slide or the first 30 seconds would be useful. If you’ve lost them already, you need to rethink things. Even though I was lucky enough to be the winner of this year’s competition, I’m definitely guilty of this too. In my first version of my 3MT talk, the first word I said was “peptide”. Admittedly this was key to my presentation but perhaps not the most exciting way to start off, especially if your audience doesn’t know what a peptide is – something my fellow 3MT competitors pointed out to me. On that note, if you have to include something technical or complex in a presentation to a lay audience, give yourself plenty of time to explain it and metaphors can really help with this – but make sure you use something most people will know (i.e., you shouldn’t need to explain your metaphor too).
I’m looking forward to going onto the next stages of the competition, seeing what other doctoral students across the UK are up to, and picking up some useful skills as I go along.
When the arrival of Covid-19 took overseas fieldwork firmly off the menu, things looked rather bleak for the Micro-Poll project. Our aim was to understand the links between pollinators, climate change and human nutrition in rural Nepal, but with an interdisciplinary team of nutritionists, pollination ecologists and climate change modellers scattered across six different countries and a whole lot of complex fieldwork to be run in Nepal, this looked like a challenge too far. In mid-April however, in the remote hills of western Nepal, a remarkable thing occurred. In the midst of a global pandemic, ten enthusiastic young field assistants from ten local villages were trained in the science of pollination ecology and began a year of data collection – all without a single overseas project partner setting foot in the country.
Where international travel has failed, technology and teamwork have excelled. A data collection app has been developed and translated into Nepali, guiding field assistants through the survey process and helping to identify plants and pollinators. Homemade training videos have been produced in the gardens of New Zealand and projected onto the walls of Nepali villages. Countless Zoom calls have taken place, with nets being waved in front of the camera and the basics of pollination ecology explained to our endlessly adaptable project manager in Nepal. In one particularly memorable moment (halfway through dinner), I was video called from the rocky hills of our field site, with the snowy Himalayas in the background, to watch the field assistants putting their newly-learnt skills into action.
As I sit at my desk, watching the data appear online, freshly uploaded from a transient patch of internet at the top of some remote hill in Nepal, I can’t help but wish this wasn’t all necessary – that I could be out there with them. But perhaps we should start to embrace this remote fieldwork as the new normal, as it does have some major advantages. So far, in the year or so of this project’s life, we have saved around 50 tons of carbon, just from staying put in our own countries. This has also had another important effect – in the absence of overseas staff, the team in Nepal have had to take full ownership of this project, learning, managing and implementing everything for themselves. This embeds the work in Nepal in a much more permanent way, ensuring the skills, capacity and knowledge it has built live on long after the end of the project.
Background to the Micro-Poll Project: Micro-Poll is a 3-year transdisciplinary project led by Professor Jane Memmott, with partners from the University of Harvard, the University of Helsinki and UCL. The project is funded by the Belmont Forum (a consortium of international funders including NERC, NSF and the Finnish Academy) and the Bristol Centre for Agricultural Innovation. Nepal is on the front line of climate change, placing both its people and its pollinators at risk. Pollinator declines are predicted to impact human health as key micronutrients in insect pollinated crops such as vitamin A and folate are lost from the diet. With no viable alternatives to home-grown foods and limited access to vitamin supplements, rural Nepali communities cannot afford to lose their pollinators. Our project aims to predict the impacts of climate change on pollinator communities and the resulting effects on human nutrition. We will use this information to devise mitigation strategies for safeguarding both pollinators and human health in Nepal.
Written by: Tom Timberlake, lead post-doc on the Micro-Poll project
Deep after hours in the Life Sciences Building, the elevator doors closed on the faded light outside. They reopened to the sight of Patrick Kennedy, seated on a chair, perched between the printer, glass panels and offices. He was reading an edition of “Narrow Roads of Gene Land” by W. D. Hamilton, with well-turned pages. I asked him what he was still doing there, but the question didn’t feel like the right one. Why not? Patrick is known by many of his research group to be easily found with books in hand. He reads much and many, remembering snippets and quotes which he weaves through his own work. This particular book, a collection of Hamilton’s papers and theories, formed some of the first written roots to theories that explain how social animals have evolved and they have been the basis of thousands of papers, discoveries, and Patrick’s award-winning PhD thesis.
Hamilton’s rule is well engrained in studies of how social animals navigate their interactions and choices to live within or without their group. Altruism is the effort donated by one individual to another at its own cost. Such selfless acts for others would be favoured by natural selection if the benefit for the related recipient outweighs the cost for the altruist (image 1). Hamilton’s rule explains why animals are altruistic, and his theories were woven with living examples, wasps in attendance from the very beginning. “Hamilton was really taken with wasps” Patrick says smiling. “His revolutionary ideas about social evolution needed to be tested” and wasps were brilliant social insects to do so. Hamilton’s work took stage in 1963 and has inspired generations of social insect biologists ever since.
Insects are the most diverse group of animals, with their species tallying up more than half of all we know to live on this planet. Sifting down the biological behaviours of this incredibly diverse and abundant groups of organisms, we come to the eusocial insects. Their Greek-given name translating as “good” and “social”, these social insects divide labour to support the collective, and this behaviour places them within a small proportion of insect diversity. Of these wasps, ants and bees, the Polistes wasps form just over 300 recognised species and make up a lineage that is almost entirely ‘primitively’ eusocial (meaning members of the group haven’t lost the capacity to reproduce). This small subsection of particular wasps have been the workhorses to test Hamilton’s ideas for at least four decades in terms of inclusive fitness theory and how eusocial insects could have evolved to behave in this way (Nowak et al 2010).
Definitions (from Oxford Languages):
Kin selection: natural selection in which an apparently disadvantageous characteristic (especially altruistic behaviour) increases in the population due to increased survival of individuals genetically related to those possessing the characteristic.
Inclusive Fitness: an individual’s success at spreading copies of its genes in the population, whether by helping close relatives or by reproducing itself,
Altruism: behaviour of an animal that benefits another at its own expense.
Yet even back in 1964, when Hamilton’s theories described how relatedness (the proportion of shared genes) was what held societies together, it was those very societies of social wasps that did not fit the rules. “These are the big themes that we use now to explain social behaviour…” Patrick says. “At the end [of Hamilton’s book] there was a section called “anomalies” and among these anomalies were his observations of the paper wasps of Brazil moving between nests”. The irregular behaviour of these “drifting” wasps did not quite fit expectations of social animal behaviour. Like all animals, Polistes wasps should strive to increase the success of their own genes in the population. They have two options: attempt reproduction themselves or altruistically help their closest relatives who share the same genes.
Patrick mentions that biologists have observed what would be 10% of 10,000 wasps drifting between their nests. He leans forward: “We all like to think to be a wasp is quite simple, you just have to help at home, help your own family and be mean to everyone else”. But these wasps fly out of their own nest and go babysit for the neighbours, constantly moving between the nests next-door and helping each other. Patrick opens his palms “what on earth are these wasps doing? It’s like they haven’t read the textbook”. Some wasps may be moving for selfish reasons, such as attempting to lay eggs in other nests or attempt to inherit the role of queen. However, most of the wandering wasps show little interest in personal reproduction, and instead appear to lend a hand. Why waste effort on more distant relatives next-door when your closest relatives are in your home nest? This was part of what Patrick investigated.
Patrick initially learnt of this from a 2007 paper by Seirian Sumner, documenting the extraordinary extent of nest drifting observed in tagged wasps moving between the walls of a leprosy hospital near Panama City (Sumner et al 2007). As the study demonstrated, 56% of the observed wasps became drifters, but not due to mistaken nest identity, social parasitism, or bids for a succession of queens. So why this altruistic self-sacrifice of your own survival and reproduction to help less related neighbours? Patrick had read Sumner’s paper whilst working as a research assistant on a beetle project in the Panamanian rainforest and contacted Seirian to learn more. It was an enquiry borne out of curiosity, but then became the very questions nested into his PhD. Patrick explains how almost all other social insects are very hostile to other colonies, “bristling with rivalry”, earning colonies the title of ‘social fortresses’. The mystery of neighbourliness, generosity and babysitting in the wasps of South America earnt the drifting workers the title of ‘anomaly’ in Hamilton’s work in the 1960s.
The first question of Patrick’s PhD was to explore why the paper wasps of South America drifted. At first, it seemed like drifting might be a clever response to risk in a world of rapid changes and harsh consequences. “These wasps live in a really risky world. One day their nest is fine and the next it’s collapsing because all the babies are being eaten alive by flesh-fly maggots”. These wasps might therefore also invest in the nests of more distant relatives as a form of ‘bet-hedging’ (Sumner et al 2007). From the perspective of the drifter, your home brood and closest relatives might not make it from one day to the next, so spreading helping effort to your (albeit less-related) nesting neighbours could become more beneficial overall. When the stakes are high, “investment bankers would hedge their bets”. No one puts all their eggs in one basket, and no Polistes wasp drifter all their energy into one nest. Yet Patrick found that though this seemed so inherently logical, it did not work so neatly when modelled mathematically. So why drift, Polistes? Together with biologists at UCL and Exeter, he investigated another possibility. Using long-term observations of broods, the team showed that as the number of workers in a colony rose, their relative contribution to the home brood diminished. With nest sizes varying from 10s to 100s of individuals, a drifter might simply be more useful to its distant kin in neighbouring nests than those in a busy home, and therefore might replace its bet-hedging ideas with calculations of diminishing returns (Kennedy et al 2021).
This volatile reality of a wasp’s world, however, did snag in Patrick’s thinking. How might a variable environment tilt the equation of Hamilton’s rule and thereby impact the choice to be altruistic? This formed Patrick’s second question for his PhD thesis. Reaching out to various gurus of evolutionary biology, Patrick dove into theoretical modelling and resurfaced with the idea that altruism in a volatile world may not directly impact the expected quantity of related offspring produced, but increase the certainty that those offspring will survive (Kennedy et al 2018). Patrick concluded this section of his thesis saying “sheilding relatives from a volatile world can drive the evolution of sociality”. This showed that these ‘rule-defying’ wasps may not be defending their fortresses as viciously as other insects, but they fly as an example of how variable conditions can, and do, affect the evolution of altruism.
What Patrick seems reluctant to accept is praise for the unique quality and creativity of his work. A sheepish smile admits to the awards he won for best PhD thesis. He enjoyed the unravelling of function as a form of appreciation of the natural beauty of the biological world. “It’s great you can explain animal behaviour in this way”.
“The breadth of approaches adopted by Patrick for his PhD alone is unusual” says Professor Andy Radford, one of Patrick’s PhD supervisors. “Through a combination of wide reading, deep thinking and detailed discussions with academics in several different research fields, he drove forward a theoretical reworking of Hamilton’s rule”. This formed part of first winning the University of Bristol prize for the best thesis in the Faculty of Life Sciences 2018/2019, followed by being awarded the Zoological Society of London Thomas Henry Huxley Award and Marsh Prize for the best PhD thesis submitted by a university in the UK. “By focusing on important, profound questions (rather than getting distracted by low-hanging peripherals), drawing together disparate research fields, and combining theoretical and empirical work, Patrick produced a thesis of rare quality” Andy says, and this goes along more generally with him being “interested, and interesting”.
Despite being awarded particular recognition for his PhD thesis, Patrick has had to learn comebacks to justify the worth of his work. Friends and strangers alike, awaiting their pint at the pub, have challenged the “usefulness” of understanding wasp behaviour. “I once was cornered in a bar in Clapham by a plumber who told me I should be ashamed of wasting taxpayer’s money on something as completely pointless as wasps”. He smiles and says that it is important to “eye each other with a questioning suspicion”, as this challenge pushes you to justify the question of ‘why’, especially “in the context of a 6th mass extinction where I’m fiddling about with wasps”. People often carry the assumption that research has to be immediately practically useful to be valuable, but Patrick argues that it is important to keep asking these evolutionary and ecological questions. If we cannot answer them in wasps, then where is our basis for further and perhaps deeper understanding?
34 years ago, the ecologist E. O Wilson started his address to an audience at an invertebrate exhibit: “Let me say a word on behalf of these little things that run the world”. Enter the jungles of Brazil (where Patrick’s study species also roam) and gather up 200kg of dry weight of animal tissue per hectare – 93% of that will be invertebrate (Wilson 1987). We live in an invertebrate world. They were the masters for some 100 million years before we vertebrates evolved, their small size enabling them to divide up niches into domains of countless little specialists. This 500-million-year-long co-existence should remind us that we humans are not the only movers and shakers of our planet and “the truth is that we need invertebrates but they don’t need us. If human beings were to disappear tomorrow, the world would go on with little change… but if invertebrates were to disappear, I doubt that the human species could last more than a few months” (Wilson 1987). Patrick laughs: understanding the many unanswered questions about these creatures, their behaviour and how it evolved to be so is at least as useful as fixing the burst pipes of London.
An important part of Patrick’s work is his openness with fascination. In his thesis he quotes monks and their biological theories from the 1800’s as readily as new publications on theoretical models of animal behaviour. When pestered for his advice to PhD researchers, Patrick hesitantly responded “I suppose my one bit of advice would be to never feel guilty for reading something that doesn’t obviously link to your PhD title”. He shares ideas, he writes, both academic and not, on the story in the research and he is a favourite amongst his research group to delve into any idea for the fun of exploring it. Surely this passion to question plays a major part in his successes? It is definitely an aspect of Patrick’s way of thinking and doing that encourages those around him.
Richard Dawkins describes in his book “Unweaving the Rainbow” that to better understand nature is to better place ourselves within life’s wonders. Many people feel explaining the world’s mysteries removes the very marvel and magic they possess, while many scientists would argue the very opposite (Dawkins 2006). Patrick says, “we live in such a mind-bogglingly weird universe and it is boggling to think we even evolved at all”. Evolution links us all to common ancestors, and so studying how and why we are, as we are, allows us to reweave the world, which is not only meaningful, but it is beautiful. Patrick not only sees that but recognises the need to convey that in his work. Perhaps it is in the telling of these unravelled mysteries wherein lies the opportunity to inspire, ignite or re-kindle the fascination with what we perceive on this planet.
Written by Isla Keesje Davidson (PhD)
To learn more about papers that have been published as part of Patrick’s thesis see:
Sumner, Seirian., Lucas, Eric., Barker, Jessie., & Isaac, Nick. (2007). Radio-Tagging Technology Reveals Extreme Nest-Drifting Behavior in a Eusocial Insect. Current Biology, 17(2), 140-145. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2006.11.064
Wilson, E. (1987). The Little Things That Run the World (The Importance and Conservation of Invertebrates). Conservation Biology,1(4), 344-346. Retrieved February 22, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2386020
We launched the University of Bristol Hedgehog Friendly Campus (HFC) campaign on a cold November day in 2019 just in time to raise bonfire awareness. The newly formed campaign team worked hard to promote the campaign amongst our campus community and to engage with as many staff and students as possible. The Bronze initiatives were met and submitted by the 2019 deadline with an ease that we all took for granted. The campus was buzzing with hedgehog news, our diverse mix of university staff and students met regularly and all looked forward to 2020 and being awarded our entry-level Bronze status and developing the creative ideas we had for Silver.
2020 had so much promise and like many campuses, we celebrated our first award and launched‘Waking up to Bronze’ in the early Spring. We started looking at ways to fundraise and the student group, Bristol University Conservation Group (BUCG) held a fabulous quiz night.Our team applied for Provost funding overseen by Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Judith Squires and were delighted when funding was approved to support our Silver campaign and ambitious plans to develop both public awareness and landscape improvements for our prickly friends.
Littledid we know that our planned large scale event for Hedgehog Awareness Week in May, with scheduled talks, comedy, a quiz, drinks, and nibbles with VIP guests from the university, city council and local wildlife charities would be postponed due to the first lockdown for Covid-19. Like so many other postponed events we are still waiting to confirm when this can run.
Covid-19 has impacted on the campaign and our path is not as straightforward as it once was. We have not lost sight of the values and the changes we are trying to make to be more hedgehog friendly. Our landscape managers have been reviewing rodent control and consulting with the HFCfor advice to recognise the sightings that have taken place since the campaign began and more appropriate traps used.
The landscape team are also currently surveying our groundsalong withcommunity outreach projects installing hedgehog houses and feeding stations on a shared garden site on campus, and the construction of more hedgehog houses ready for installation next year. Our Facebook group continues to shine a light on the campaign and the BUCG are running a baking competition this month. Grassroots events like this are popping up more and more as we all adapt to the current situation.
We may have had to gear down our approach in 2020 and the University of Bristol Silver Award may feel elusive, but our determination to do what we can, when we can to help hedgehogs hasn’t changed. Our coordinator Jo Wilkinson at HFC deserves a special mention, as without her guidance and support we would not have the knowledge we do now. We have shared and engaged the plight of hedgehogs on campus across our many divisions of staff, students and our local community and together we are all fighting to save hedgehogs in Bristol.
The Friends of the University of Bristol Botanic Garden welcomed 3rd-year UoB PhD student Nick Tew to discuss his findings on “Food for Insect Pollinators in Towns and Cities”. Nick focused on an optimistic outlook on the effects of urbanisation on pollinator species numbers in Bristol, and the unique conservation opportunities we can do in the city. He began by showing the plant experts, gardeners and local enthusiasts alike the delights of the ‘Bee Movie’, with a clip from the film representing our love for bees and apparent fast approaching doom as their numbers continue to dwindle.
Nick began with an interesting thought that media representations of plant pollinating species tend to focus on bees. ‘Pollinator Movie’ is a criminally underappreciated film idea, with other amazing pollinator species of wasp, fly, beetle and many more not enjoying the same media attention. The importance of pollinators in the sexual reproduction of flowering plants affects our natural world from our day to day lives to the scope of an entire ecosystem. For example, 76% of leading food crops have some degree of reliance on animal pollinators and is often key in producing good quality food rich in micronutrients. Plants have their own intrinsic value, and pollinators are vital in preserving the high diversity of plant species for future generations.
And this is why the figures showing a decline in our pollinator species are so impactful, with some habitats in Britain having a measured 55% drop in the number of pollinator species. Nick focused on the impact of land-use change, where natural wild grassland is converted for other, human-specific use. The most extreme land-use change is urbanisation. The building of cities leads to the removal of native plant species, warmer temperatures, and impervious surfaces. In general, land-use change is a hard and fast method in destroying biodiversity.
Nick’s own passion for allotment gardening and animal behaviour led him to his PhD thesis. Though urbanisation will negatively affect some pollinator species, bees appear to be particularly resilient to land-use change and can even find new opportunities. He theorises that this is because the larval and adult forms in bees feed on the same food sources, therefore do not need a specific plant to survive the juvenile stages. As generalised feeders, they can extract nectar and pollen from a variety of plants.
Nick began the first steps of his research in 2018 and measured the nectar content of over 200 flower species, including in the university’s own botanical garden. The measurements revealed that most of the nectar in urban areas are provided for by gardens. He found that urban areas had a more diverse array of pollinator species than farmland and nature reserves.
The second stage of his research found Nick visiting 59 different gardens in Bristol and measuring an estimated nectar production in individual gardens for each season. The gardens highly differed from one another, from their species types to the densities of plants. Generally, July was found to have the highest nectar production, with a drop in production starting in October.
However, Nick’s results showed the continuity of nectar when combining gardens together. As people plant different flowers from native and non-native species, a bee that may be able to forage in over 1000 gardens will likely be able to source nectar at each point of the year from at least a few gardens, even if the average output is minimal. The vivid pink and purple flowers of Fuchsia are a popular staple of UK gardens and are incredibly important in producing nectar in the Summer to Autumn months. In their native Americas, Fuchsia is pollinated by hummingbirds, so they produce high quantities of nectar. For UK insect pollinators, they present an absolute buffet. With this, Nick is able to present how the unique opportunity of gardens with a diverse range of flowering plants and non-native species in urban areas can actually lead to a more stable food source for pollinators.
So, what can people in cities do to help conserve our pollinator species? The opportunities presented by gardens in urban areas ride on a high diversity of flowering plants. Plant unusual flowers, ones that flower at different types of year. Think about planting 3D structure flowering plants, such as Fuchsia shrubs which can produce many flowers in one season. And, perhaps the easiest option, save your weeds! This means not pulling dandelions, clovers, and daisies that pop up in your lawn. If each available garden, green and allotment spaces are cared for with these points in mind, and with Nick’s expert opinion on which plants are best arranged together, we can help sustain our pollinators.
Are you passionate about ending world hunger, tackling global warming and finding ways to sustainably grow crops on our planet? Well, the Bristol Centre for Agricultural Innovation (BCAI) is offering an opportunity for you to discover solutions to the big issues that humanity faces, through studying plant and agricultural science.
The new flagship Lady Smyth Studentship scheme from the BCAI has just launched offering two fully-funded Master of Research studentships at the University of Bristol. This award provides students with the opportunity to engage in hands-on ground-breaking plant science research and covers the full cost of fees, stipend, expenses, and a supplement to support the dissemination of the research. Some of the potential projects that can be tackled are listed below, but for full details and further information about the scheme visit: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/biology/bcai/lady-emily-smyth-studentships/
How can farming methods help to mitigate climate change?
This project is concerned with the increasing temperatures worldwide, inefficient usage of land and the increasing demand for food due to the steadily growing population. It seeks to understand how farming systems can lead to a solution. To do so, it aims to engage with stakeholders and create discussions and case studies. The project pairs societal responses together with science to give a broader picture of the issues humanity faces today.
Function and development of super-hydrophilic slippery plant surfaces
Understanding the mechanics behind the secretion of fluid on the trapping surface of some carnivorous plants may encourage the invention of more resilient plant crops with the help of high-tech equipment. The project uses morphometrics, time-lapse video and micro-imaging to give an insight on the surface development inside the hollow pitcher bud. This project will introduce you to a wide range of skills in the imaging and 3D reconstruction tech.
Understanding what role different ecological matrices have on the health and productivity of clove trees based on observations from the biodiversity and interviews from clove-producers. The results from this project are crucial to dealing with food cost of land conversion and introduction of endemic island species.
Leaf senescence controls the aging in plants and reduces the shelf life of postharvest plant crops. Phytochrome Interacting Factors (PIF) play huge role in this process. This project focuses on the manipulation and control of these transcription factors with the purpose of reducing food waste.
Identifying DNA sequences in crops with the potential to reduce soil erosion
The goal of this project is to find a way to sustainable agriculture by avoiding soil erosion from crop plants. The selection of plants that are able to hold roots and soil together is important in achieving this. Through applying genetics and proteomics, genes that promote soil erosion can be identified.
The gene regulatory logic of plant stem cell function
The objective of the research is to examine the basic requirements needed for plant stem cells to perform different functions in Arabidopsis. This is approached through looking into the interactions between different parts of the gene regulatory networks for stem cell function in a moss model.
Map the gap – making palm oil more sustainable by mapping yield gaps across tropical landscapes
Oil palm has the highest productivity out of all vegetable fats; however, it comes with a tremendous environmental cost. This project aims to identify ways to harvest oil palm more sustainably by using remote sense technologies to map different conditions under which oil palm grows best, giving more space for rainforests to be restored.
New approaches to sustainably increase the food supply are needed to support the steadily growing population. Organelle movement is important in determining plant biomass and is linked to responding to pathogens. This project focuses on the mechanisms of organelle movement, specifically peroxisomes. Experiments will try to identify how changes in movement can affect cell size.
What is BCAI?
The Bristol Centre for Agricultural Innovation (BCAI) aims to support agricultural sciences within the University of Bristol through innovation, application and research. The centre is funded by the Lady Emily Smyth Trust, established in university in 2003. To preserve the legacy of Lady Emily Smyth, the BCAI has become the pioneer of agricultural research. To learn more visit: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/biology/bcai/
3rd – 7th February 2020 marked the first-ever Life Sciences Building Careers Week… five days of presentations, panel discussions and employer stands! Here’s what went on and some useful things you may have missed…
The low down…
The week kicked off with talks and stalls for those who wanted to explore postgraduate study options, from the new MSc bioinformatics degree to informal chats with current postgraduate students, this proved a valuable day to clarify the next steps for those who aren’t ready to leave university just yet! With most undergrads eligible for 10% off postgraduate tuition fees, there may not be a better time to continue your studies at Bristol and enhance your future prospects.
Tuesday marked a day of invaluable CV advice and application help, from a CV cafe in the LSB atrium to awareness of some of the great resources that the careers service website has! Be sure to check out CV360 on the career’s website, a simple tool in which you upload your CV and get instant feedback. This service uses similar parameters to recruitment companies, giving you the same feedback as hiring managers receive!
Did you know…
You can use the careers service for up to three years after graduating!
On the penultimate day of what proved to be a very informative week, the careers service ran a ‘Careers Options and Resource’ workshop. Designed to show students the many doors that a science degree can open, this session also notified us about some great resources available to find your perfect job.
And finally, Friday, the best day of the week for many reasons, with three excellent panel discussions from a range of speakers (lawyers to cameramen, teachers to data scientists), these sessions were a great way for students to gain an insight into a typical day in their life and ask questions. Many listeners left these talks feeling very inspired to go out and find a job they love!
ALTERNATIVE CAREERS WITH A SCIENCE DEGREE
Speakers included:Kathryn (Lawyer, Friends of the Earth); Vilas (Director, IES Consulting Ltd); Vondy (Data Scientist, Talking Money); Naomi (Environmental Monitoring Officer, Environmental Agency); Helena (Head of Media Solutions, Merkle)
Top tips: (1) Research a company and find out what they do, who their competitors are etc. before an interview. (2) Use gaps in your time to teach yourself a skill.
CAREERS IN THE MEDIA
Speakers included: Mark (Producer, Director and Camera Operator), Pete (Documentary Cameraman), Theo (Wildlife Filmmaker), Louise (Sustainable Food Documenter), Ross (Zoologist and Entomologist).
Top tip: Find what exact part of wildlife filmmaking you like best e.g. cameraman, producer etc.
TEACHING AND SCIENCE COMMUNICATION
Speakers included: Maddy (Public Engagement Associate), Chris (Teaching Associate), Helena (Head of Science), Kyle (Teacher) and Sophie (Science Communicator).
Top tip: Volunteer at any events you can such as the Edinburgh Science Festival or British Science Festival.
Key messages from some of the speakers:
“Find what fascinates you then follow this to help you navigate a route through”
“Don’t ever think of a job as a forever job – do what makes you happy now”
“Wildlife filmmaking is a competitive industry but it’s undergoing a boom so there have never been more opportunities”
“Teaching is a very rewarding job, don’t be afraid to ask schools for some work experience or a shadow day, they’ll be more than happy to help”
Many thanks to all the organisers, LSB careers week was an excellent way to gain more clarity on navigating the world post-university. If you’re still unsure and want to know more visit the careers website online (http://www.bristol.ac.uk/careers) or in-person and check out the useful links above – GOOD LUCK!!
Typically, you’d expect to see a lot of red and green at Christmas, but on Tuesday 3rd December, black and white took centre stage for the Biological Sciences 2019 Christmas Lecture. Professor Tim Caro spoke to provide the answers to questions such as why zebras are striped and why giant pandas are black and white.
Pandas were the opening act, and Professor Caro walked us through the possible hypotheses behind their striking, and seemingly eye catching, colouration. Were the black and white patches a form of aposematism, like it is thought to be the case with skunks?
Comparative analyses suggested this was not the case. Contrary to human assumption, Tim showed that the contrasting patches are adapted for crypsis in both shade and snow, and that markings on the head are used in communication.
Tim also stressed the importance of evolutionary time in understanding the believability of this theory. While nowadays they do not have any natural predators, thousands of years ago pandas cohabited with tigers, bears and wild dogs. Camouflage would thus likely have been highly beneficial in the panda’s snowy mountain habitat.
Explaining the adaptive significance of zebra stripes was next. Logically and methodically dissecting all well-known theories that attempted to solve the riddle of this famous equid’s stripes, he left the audience wondering what was left.
The first theory to fall was camouflage. Research shows that the stripes of zebras do not, as previously thought, make them harder to spot at moonlight. Stripes as an anti-predator defence is therefore unlikely. Cooling was also shown to be an improbable answer, as it has been proven that the temperature of zebras compared to other non-striped equids is higher in the summer months.
Perhaps the stripes facilitate social stimulation? Probably not. Grooming rate in zebras is low compared to other equids, so it looks unlikely neck stripes encourage social bonding this way. Furthermore, in many equid species individuals can accurately recognise each other without striped hair. The last to receive a grilling was the confusion effect hypothesis as an anti-predator defence mechanism. It turns out that in assessing the number of individuals in a herd, difficulty doing so depends only on the size of the herd, and not if members are striped or not.
Like a magician revealing his final trick, Tim explained the missing piece of the puzzle was ectoparasite avoidance. His team discovered a striking correlation between the geography of striped equids and the distribution of tabanids (biting flies).
Originally proposed in 1940, this theory wasn’t investigated until Tim and his team used a multi factorial analysis to track the distribution of zebras and other equids to see if there was a pattern. They found there was a strong association between the presence of striped equids and the presence of tabanids. Further experiments dressing up horses in striped coats (yes, you read that correctly) showed that flies struggled more, in landing on and biting, those with striped coats.
Tim’s parting message was one that focused on conservation. He stressed that children should not be told fairy tales to explain how animals came to be and why they look the way they do. Rather, we should explain to them the science behind it, so that the public can understand and be convinced to do something about the biodiversity crisis.
Following the talk, I caught up with Tim over a class of mulled wine to find out a bit more about him, and why he chooses to study such charismatic and recognisable animals.
So, Tim, why did you decide to study biology?
My mother gave me the Observer’s Book of Birds when I was three years old and ever since then I was hooked.
Was there a particular teacher or tutor that inspired you?
There is one that definitely stands out. He was called Mr Harlen and I think he taught Biology. I remember one day he drew a diagram of an alimentary canal in such a simple, logical way, and I thought, ‘this is makes so much sense’.
Why have you chosen such recognisable and charismatic animals to study, such as cheetahs, zebras and pandas?
I like that there are thorny issues surrounding these species, their behaviour and the way they look, which everyone has some interest in understanding.
Which animal has been your favourite to work with and why?
It would have to be cheetahs. For four years I was alone in the Serengeti studying their mating systems and I learned a lot.
Is there anything you wished you had done differently in the field?
I would say that dressing up in a zebra-striped onesie and walking through the territory of the local lion pride wasn’t my greatest idea.
Do you have any advice for third years, or anyone considering postgraduate study?
Absolutely. Find the thing you are really interested in and research it. Really get into a system or get to know a species or group really well, so that you become the ‘go to’ person about that area. I wish I had done that, and I think it can really help inspire and direct your study.
Written byEsme Hedley (3rd Year Biology BSc)
Esme Hedley is a third-year year biology student with a passion for behavioural ecology, science communication and scientific illustration.