In the business of dwarf mongooses

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. 

Written by: Agatha Hewitt 

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



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)