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Zoology staff feature on TV and radio

From Department of Zoology. Published on Jan 29, 2015.

Julian Jacobs wins Employee Recognition Award

From Department of Zoology. Published on Jan 26, 2015.

'Going for Gold' with Professor Tom Welton

From Department of Zoology. Published on Jan 21, 2015.

Cambridge Biotomography Centre officially open

From Department of Zoology. Published on Jan 20, 2015.

A very personal perspective on Dengue fever

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Jan 20, 2015.

Aedes aegypti mosquito

Dengue outbreaks, caused by bites from infected mosquitoes, are common in many developing countries. Four billion people live in areas with the disease, although mortality is relatively low. There are 400 million infections a year: 500,000 people develop severe infection symptoms and approximately 25,000 of these die. However, it places a huge burden on the health services of countries where there are major outbreaks. “Epidemics can swamp public health and intensive care services,” says Leah. “They create fear even if there is a low likelihood of death and in many countries virtually everyone knows someone who has died from it, most of whom are children.”

For her PhD she has been working with both human and non-human primate sera in partnership with the US-based National Institutes of Health. Isolates from some of the main strains of the dengue virus are injected and Leah studies the immune sera to chart the inter-relationship between the four main strains of the virus. Dengue only causes mild infection in the non-human primates she works with.

Leah, who majored in anthropology as an undergraduate in the US, travelled to Nicaragua in her third year as part of a summer fellowship programme on international health. Her aim was to learn about different health systems and beliefs about health. Her research involved talking to people in non-governmental organisations (NGOs) about their aims and talking to people on the ground about how the NGOs were perceived. Then she contracted dengue fever and became very sick and was admitted to hospital.

“There is no cure for dengue and only the symptoms can be treated. In the most mild cases dengue is asymptomatic. Normally people suffer from joint ache, headaches, pain behind the eyes and a strange rash on the hands. In the most extreme cases they suffer from haemorrhagic fever and a rapid drop in platelet count and blood pressure which can cause the body to go into shock. Children who go into shock have a high mortality rate, but if they get good healthcare they can survive,” says Leah.

She spent a week in hospital being monitored for possible shock. Her vascular system was so traumatised afterwards that she felt very weak. The experience led to her doing a lot of research on dengue fever and caused her to rethink her future since people who have been exposed to dengue fever before are more likely to suffer the more extreme form the next time round.  As an anthropologist she would have needed to travel and mainly to places where there was dengue fever, but she did not want to risk getting it again.

Leah applied for a fellowship from Williams College in the US to study at Cambridge and spent the summer before in a dengue laboratory in North Carolina estimating transmission of dengue fever in Sri Lanka.

Once at Cambridge, she googled dengue fever research on the university website and the only person she came across who mentioned it was Professor Derek Smith, who studies infectious disease in the Department of Zoology. She read his paper on antigenic cartography and the evolution of flu viruses and felt it could be applied to the four different types of dengue and the complex interaction between those types. She wanted to design an antigenic map for dengue which would show the relationship between the different viruses and how having one might protect you from having that same strain again while having the others could make your feel worse.

She emailed Professor Smith and put her proposal to him. He said there was no funding for a project on dengue. However, Leah’s fellowship allowed her to switch the focus of her studies after a year. That meant she could get funding for a year. She then applied to do a PhD to continue her work and for a Gates Cambridge Scholarship to support her.

Leah began her PhD in 2012 and hopes to complete it next year.  She has been working round the clock on her research and says it was initially terrifying since her background was in anthropology rather than lab-based science. Since then she has been presenting her findings at international meetings such as the World Health Organization and has submitted a paper for review to a top journal. She plans to keep working on dengue fever after her PhD is completed and to better understand the human immune response to dengue virus infection so that scientists can limit its impact.

Leah Katzelnick was all set for a career as an anthropologist until she contracted dengue fever. She was in hospital for a week with severe symptoms. It changed her life. She is now working on a new perspective on dengue fever which involves mapping the complex interaction between different strains of the virus, based on similar work done by Cambridge experts on flu.

There is no cure for dengue and only the symptoms can be treated
Leah Katzelnick
Aedes aegypti mosquito

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The Janet Moore Prize for supervising in Zoology

From Department of Zoology. Published on Dec 22, 2014.

Christmas Library Closure

From Department of Zoology. Published on Dec 17, 2014.

It’s lonely at the top: stickleback leaders are stickleback loners

By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Dec 02, 2014.

Throughout the animal kingdom, individuals often live and move together in groups, from swarms of insects to troops of primates. Individual animals may benefit from being part of groups, which provide protection from predators and help in finding food. To ensure that individuals reap the benefits of togetherness, group members coordinate their behaviour. As a result, leaders and followers emerge.

Within groups, animals differ from each other in how they cope with their environment and often exhibit distinctive traits, such as boldness or sociability. Even three-spined sticklebacks, the ‘tiddlers’ collected from streams and ponds by generations of schoolchildren, can be described in terms of their personalities: some are bolder and take more risks, while others are more timid and spend more of their time hiding in the weeds.

Research carried out in the Zoology Department at the University of Cambridge suggests that observations of these tiny fish, and how they interact with one another, could provide important insights into the dynamics of social groups, including humans. The findings are published today (2 December 2014) in Animal Behaviour.

Jolle Jolles, lead author of the study, said: “Although we now know that the spectacular collective behaviours we find throughout the animal kingdom can often be explained by individuals following simple rules, little is known about how this may be affected by the personality types that exist within the group.

“Our research shows that personality plays an important role in collective behaviour and that boldness and sociability may have significant, and complementary, effects on the functioning of the group.”

In the study, the researchers studied the behaviours of sticklebacks in tanks containing gravel and weed to imitate patches of a riverbed. The tanks were divided into two lanes by transparent partitions and randomly-selected pairs of fish were placed one in each lane. Separated by the see-through division, the fish were able to see and interact with one another.

The positions and movements of the individual sticklebacks were recorded using sophisticated tracking technology, enabling accurate comparisons to be made of each fish’s role in the collective movement of the pair.

“We found that individuals differed considerably and consistently in their tendency to approach their partner,” said Jolles. The study showed that more sociable individuals tended to be coordinated in their behaviour while less sociable individuals were more inclined to lead.

Dr Andrea Manica, reader at the Department of Zoology and co-author of the paper, added: “Our research revealed that the tendency of fish to approach their partner was strongly linked to their boldness: bolder fish were less sociable than their more timid group mates.”

Jolles explains that sociability may form part of a broader behavioural syndrome. “Our results suggest that bolder, less sociable individuals may often lead simply because they are less reluctant to move away from their partners, whereas shyer, more sociable, individuals become followers because they prioritise staying close to others,” he said.

“Differences in boldness and sociability may be expressions of underlying risk-prone or risk-averse behavioural types, as risk-averse individuals may be more motivated to group together and to respond to other individuals in order to avoid predation.”

The findings of this study suggest that leadership and group coordination can be strongly affected by personality differences in the group and that boldness and sociability may play important but complementary roles in collective behaviour.

“Now we know these personality traits affect the collective movements of pairs of fish, the next step is to understand their role in the functioning and success of larger, more dynamic groups,” said Jolles.

“Although our study was conducted with fish and its results are therefore not directly applicable to humans, it provides new insights into the mechanisms that underlie group behaviour and may therefore even tell us something about ourselves.”

The study, ‘The role of social attraction and its link with boldness in the collective movements of three-spined sticklebacks, is published today (2 December 2014) in Animal Behaviour.


Research reveals that sticklebacks with bolder personalities are not only better leaders but also less sociable than more timid fish. The behaviour of these bolder fish shapes the dynamics of the group.

Our results suggest that bolder, less sociable individuals may often lead simply because they are less reluctant to move away from their partners, whereas shyer, more sociable, individuals become followers because they prioritise staying close to others.
Jolle Jolles
Three-spined sticklebacks

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By cleh3 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Nov 28, 2014.

By developing BioBullets – an elegant and environmentally-sensitive way of controlling one of the world's most invasive freshwater pests – University of Cambridge scientists will help utility companies save millions of pounds.

On target

Since Dr David Aldridge and Dr Geoff Moggridge set up BioBullets in 2000, the company has achieved remarkable success in developing products to combat zebra mussels. One of the world's most invasive freshwater pests, the zebra mussel costs utility companies worldwide billions of dollars to control.

Today, BioBullets boasts a unique patented product, a UK-based manufacturing plant in Bristol capable of producing 3,000 tonnes a year, plus UK Drinking Water Inspectorate approval for two of its key products – Silver Bullets 1000 and Silver Bullets 2000.

BioBullets products have been successfully tested in full-scale trials in three of the UK's largest water companies including Thames Water, which in 2010 alone spent £1m clearing zebra mussels from its raw water pipes.

BioBullets is now developing products aimed at other economically and ecologically important aquatic pests, such as Asian clams and sea squirts. And, because behind BioBullets is a new and innovative way of delivering molecules to filter feeders, it is also being harnessed to boost productivity in shellfish aquaculture – a major market with a key role in global food security.

Invasive mussel

Native to the Caspian and the Black seas, the zebra mussel has invaded most of western Europe and large parts of North America. Unlike native mussels, zebra mussels have a beard-like thread that makes them adept at attaching to solid surfaces from other shellfish to water pipes.

As a result, zebra mussels are causing major ecosystem change around the world, driving native species to extinction, and having a major economic impact on water companies and powers plants. In North America alone, zebra mussels cause damage costing an estimated US$5 billion a year.

Current control methods rely on chlorine, but as a means of killing zebra mussels, chlorine is far from efficient. When they detect chlorine in the water, the mussels close their shells, and can remain shut for up to four weeks, meaning continual dosing with chlorine is required.

Chlorine is also dangerous to store and handle, damages other freshwater organisms, and because it reacts with organic matter to produce carcinogens, its use in raw water is being outlawed worldwide.

Lethal weapon

Imagining a better solution, in 1998 Aldridge and Moggridge began experimenting with ways to encapsulate a biocide that would evade zebra mussels' defences. Their aim was to design a Trojan horse – a lethal particle that the zebra mussel thought was a food item, and that would kill the zebra mussel without harming non-target species.

Key to success was learning more about how zebra mussels feed, something Aldridge uncovered using a tiny endoscope.

Then came the clever chemistry needed to disguise a biocide as a tasty morsel for a zebra mussel, finding not only the right size of particle, but the correct shape, surface texture and buoyancy.

Finally they found a manufacturing partner who could help them build a plant and produce products with reliable formulations, and packaging that would give BioBullets the correct shelf life as well as making them safe and easy to handle and deliver.

We believe BioBullets will save hundreds of thousands of pounds in operational costs in a way that has no adverse impact on the environment

Dr Piers Clark, Thames Water

Amazing feet of science: Researchers sequence the centipede genome

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Nov 25, 2014.

Strigamia maritima male, Loch Linnhe, Scotland

An international team comprising more researchers than the arthropod has legs (106 researchers) has sequenced the genome of Strigamia maritima, a Northern European centipede, and found that its genome, while less than a tenth the size of a human’s, has around two-thirds the number of genes, distributed across one pair of large chromosomes and seven pairs of tiny ones, including X and Y sex chromosomes. The results are published today in the journal PLOS Biology.

Arthropods are the most species-rich group of animals on Earth. There are four classes of arthropods alive today: insects, crustaceans, chelicerates (which include spiders and scorpions) and myriapods. This latter class, which includes centipedes, is the only class for which no genome has yet been sequenced.

Myriapods arose most likely from marine ancestors that invaded the land more than 400 million years ago. All myriapods have a large number of near-identical segments, most bearing one or two pairs of legs. However, despite their name, centipedes never have a hundred legs. Strigamia maritima, which lives in coastal habitats, can have from 45 to 51 pairs – but the number of pairs is always odd, as it is in all centipedes.

Credit: Carlo BrenaThe team found that the centipede genome is more conserved than that of many other arthropods, such as the fruit fly, with less gene loss and scrambling. This suggests that the centipede has evolved slowly from their common ancestor and should allow researchers to draw comparisons between very different animals, which are not obvious when working with fruit flies or other fast evolving insects.  For example, the researchers found parallels in the way that the brain is patterned between centipedes and other very distantly related animals such as marine worms.  Such comparisons will enable scientists to build an overall picture of how genetic changes underlie the diversity of all animals.

“With genomes in hand from each of the four classes of living arthropod, we can now begin to build a picture of the genetic make-up of their common ancestor,” says Dr Frank Jiggins, of the Department of Genetics at the University of Cambridge, one of the researchers involved “For example, by comparing flies and mosquitoes with centipedes, we have shown that the innate immune systems of insects are much older than previously appreciated.”

One of the most surprising findings is that these centipedes appear to have lost the genes encoding all of the known light receptors used by animals, as well as the genes controlling circadian rhythm, the body clock.

“Strigamia live underground and have no eyes, so it is not surprising that many of the genes for light receptors are missing, but they behave as if they are hiding from the light. They must have some alternative way of detecting when they are exposed,” says Professor Michael Akam, Head of the Department of Zoology at Cambridge and one of the lead researchers. “It’s curious, too, that this creature appears to have no body clock – or if it does, it must use a system very different to other animals.”

The centipede’s genome sequence is of more than just scientific interest, argues Professor Akam. “Some of its genes may be of direct use.  All centipedes inject venom to paralyse their prey,” he explains. “Components of venom often make powerful drugs, and the centipede genome will help researchers find these venom genes.”

Chipman, AD et al. The First Myriapod Genome Sequence Reveals Conservative Arthropod Gene Content and Genome Organisation In the Centipede Strigamia maritima. PLOS Biology; 25 Nov 2014

What it lacks in genes, it certainly makes up for in legs: the genome of the humble centipede has been found to have around 15,000 genes – around 7,000 fewer than a human.

Strigamia live underground and have no eyes, so it is not surprising that many of the genes for light receptors are missing, but they behave as if they are hiding from the light
Michael Akam
Strigamia maritima male, Loch Linnhe, Scotland

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Staying ahead of the game: Pre-empting flu evolution may make for better vaccines

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Nov 20, 2014.

Flu vaccine

In a study published today in the journal Science, the researchers in the UK, Vietnam, The Netherlands and Australia, led by the University of Cambridge, describe how an immunological phenomenon they refer to as a ‘back boost’ suggests that it may be better to pre-emptively vaccinate against likely future strains than to use a strain already circulating in the human population.

Influenza is a notoriously difficult virus against which to vaccinate. There are many different strains circulating – both in human and animal populations – and these strains themselves evolve rapidly. Yet manufacturers, who need to produce around 350 million doses ahead of the annual ‘flu season’, must know which strain to put in the vaccine months in advance – during which time the circulating viruses can evolve again.

Scientists at the World Health Organisation (WHO) meet each February to select which strain to use in vaccine development. Due to the complexity of human immune responses, this is decided largely through analysis of immune responses in ferrets to infer which strain best matches those currently circulating. However, vaccination campaigns for the following winter flu season usually start in October, by which time the virus may have evolved such that the effectiveness of the vaccine match is reduced.

“It’s a real challenge: the WHO selects a strain of flu using the best information available but is faced with the possibility that the virus will evolve before the flu season,” explains Dr Judy Fonville, one of the primary authors on the paper and a member of WHO Collaborating Centre for Modelling, Evolution and Control of Emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of Cambridge. “Even if it does, though, it’s worth remembering that the flu vaccine still offers much greater protection than having no jab. We’re looking for ways to make an important vaccine even more effective.”

According to the WHO, seasonal influenza causes between 3 and 5 million cases of severe illness each year worldwide, up to 500,000 deaths, as well as significant economic impact. Vaccination policies vary per country, but are typically recommended for those at risk of serious complications, such as pregnant women and the elderly. The seasonal flu vaccine has been described as one of the most cost-effective measures of disease prevention, and vaccination therefore has a large health economic benefit. Currently 350 million people partake in annual vaccination programmes. Yet there is room for improvement.

After gathering an extensive amount of immunological data, the team modelled the antibody response to vaccination and infection using a newly developed computer-based method to create an individual’s ‘antibody landscape’. This landscape visualises an individual’s distinct immune profile like a three dimensional landscape with mountains in areas of immune memory and valleys in unprotected areas. The technique enables a much greater understanding of how our immune system responds to pathogens such as flu that evolve and re-infect us.

A key finding from the work is that upon infection, a response is seen not just to the infecting influenza strain, but to all the strains that an individual has encountered in the past. It is this broad recall of immunity, that they term the ‘back-boost’, that is the basis for the proposed vaccine improvement.

Dr Sam Wilks, one of the primary authors, explains: “Crucially, when the vaccine strain is updated pre-emptively, we see that it still stimulates better protection against future viruses yet this comes at no cost to the protection generated against currently circulating ones.

“Faced with uncertainty about how and when the flu virus might evolve, it’s better to gamble than to be conservative: if you update early, you still stimulate protection against current strains – much worse is if you update too late. Rather than trying to play ‘catch-up’, it’s better to anticipate and prepare for the likely next step of influenza evolution – and there is no penalty for doing it too soon.”

Professor Derek Smith, also from Cambridge, adds why this may lead to improved vaccines in a relatively short timeframe: “The beauty of this approach is that it would not require any change to the current manufacturing process. From the point that the new strain has been selected through to an individual receiving their shot, the steps will be exactly the same. The only difference would be greater protection for the recipient.”

The team is now combining this research with their other work on predicting the way in which the virus will evolve, and plan to combine these two major pieces of work in prospective clinical trials.

The international collaboration included researchers from: the Erasmus Medical Center, the Netherlands; the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit & Wellcome Trust Major Overseas Programme and the National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology, Vietnam; and the WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza at the Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory in Melbourne. Its principal funders were the Wellcome Trust and the US National Institutes of Health Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance (CEIRS).

Fonville, JM et al. Antibody landscapes after influenza virus infection or vaccination. Science; 20 Nov 2014

An international team of researchers has shown that it may be possible to improve the effectiveness of the seasonal flu vaccine by ‘pre-empting’ the evolution of the influenza virus.

Faced with uncertainty about how and when the flu virus might evolve, it’s better to gamble than to be conservative
Sam Wilks
Flu Vaccination Grippe (cropped)

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Females protect offspring from infanticide by forcing males to compete through sperm instead of violence

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Nov 13, 2014.

Previous research has shown that infanticide by males is widespread in many mammal species, but most commonly occurs in those species where females live in social groups dominated by one or a few males.

Outsiders will fight dominant males for access to females. When a rival male takes over a group, they will kill the infants of previously dominant males to render the females ‘sexually receptive’ again, so that they can sire their own offspring. This may be the main cause of infant mortality in some species, such as Chacma baboons.

Now, a new study published today in the journal Science shows that these brutal acts are strategic; males may only have a short time in charge before they themselves are deposed, and want to ensure the maternal investment of females is directed towards their own future offspring for the longest time possible.     

However, the females of some species - such as the mouse lemur - have evolved a highly-effective counter-strategy to stop males from killing their offspring: by having as many mates as possible in a short amount of time. By confusing the paternity of the infants, known as ‘paternity dilution’, any male act of infanticide risks the possibility of killing his own offspring.

In such species, reproductive competition shifts to after copulation, not before - so that the most successful male is the one whose sperm outcompetes those of the others. This leads to males producing ever larger quantities of sperm, leading in turn to increases in testis size. The testes of male mouse lemurs swell 5-10 times larger during the breeding season.

“In species in which infanticide occurs, testis size increases over generations, suggesting that females are more and more promiscuous to confuse paternity,” said lead author Dr Dieter Lukas, from University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

“Once sperm competition has become so intense that no male can be certain of his own paternity, infanticide disappears - since males face the risk of killing their own offspring, and might not get the benefit of siring the next offspring.”

Closely related species that differ in infanticide and testes size include chimpanzees (males commit infanticide) versus bonobos (males have not been observed to kill offspring). Bonobos have testes that are roughly 15% larger than those of chimpanzees.

Male Canadian Townsend voles don’t commit infanticide, and have 50% larger testes compared to infanticidal males of close relatives the North American meadow voles, says Lukas.

He conducted the research with colleague Dr Elise Huchard, who is now based at the CNRS Centre d’Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive in Montpellier.

Fifty years ago, observations of wild Hanuman langurs shattered previous depictions of monkey groups as peaceful, supportive societies, says Lukas, as new males that had just taken control of a group of females frequently killed all juveniles.

Subsequent observations have accumulated over the years on various mammals to show that infanticide by males is a widespread phenomenon, occurring in species from house mice to lions and gorillas. In some species, he says, the biggest risk faced by infants might not actually be predators or diseases, but the adult males of their own species.

In the latest study, Lukas and Huchard compiled and compared detailed field observations for 260 mammalian species to show that male infanticide occurs in species where sexual conflict is most intense, and reproduction is monopolised by a minority of males. The researchers’ findings indicate that infanticide is a manifestation of sexual conflict in mammalian social systems.

“While it had previously been suggested that infanticide might be an evolutionary driver in mammalian societies - leading to females allying themselves with other females or forming bonds with a specific male in order to defend their offspring - we’ve now shown that this isn’t the case: male infanticide is a consequence of variation in sociality, most commonly occurring in species where both sexes live together in stable groups,” said Lukas. 

The researchers say the new study supports the idea that infanticide isn’t a general trait present in all species, but is strategic and occurs only when it is advantageous to males. The study reveals the reversible nature of male infanticide, and that it is successfully prevented by the ‘paternity dilution’ strategy of female sexual promiscuity.

Added Huchard: “Male infanticide appears and disappears over evolutionary times according to the state of the evolutionary arms race between the sexes. Although infanticide may not have contributed to shape the diversity of mammalian social systems, it has deeply influenced the evolution of sexual behaviour and sex roles.

“This study also highlights that some of the greatest challenges faced by mammals during their lifetime come from others of their own species.”

Inset images: A male mouse lemur with large testes (credit: Cornelia Kraus). A Chacma baboon with dead infant (credit: Alice Baniel)

Latest research shows the females of some mammal species will have many mates to ensure unclear paternity, so that males can’t resort to killing their rival’s offspring for fear of killing their own. This forces males to evolve to compete through sperm quantity, leading to ever-larger testicles. Scientists find that as testis size increases, infanticide disappears.

Once sperm competition has become so intense that no male can be certain of his own paternity, infanticide disappears
Dieter Lukas
Baboon fight

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Ancient DNA shows earliest European genomes weathered the ice age, and shines new light on Neanderthal interbreeding and a mystery human lineage

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Nov 06, 2014.

A ground-breaking new study on DNA recovered from a fossil of one of the earliest known Europeans - a man who lived 36,000 years ago in Kostenki, western Russia - has shown that the earliest European humans’ genetic ancestry survived the Last Glacial Maximum: the peak point of the last ice age.

The study also uncovers a more accurate timescale for when humans and Neanderthals interbred, and finds evidence for an early contact between the European hunter-gatherers and those in the Middle East – who would later develop agriculture and disperse into Europe about 8,000 years ago, transforming the European gene pool.

Scientists now believe Eurasians separated into at least three populations earlier than 36,000 years ago: Western Eurasians, East Asians and a mystery third lineage, all of whose descendants would develop the unique features of most non-African peoples - but not before some interbreeding with Neanderthals took place.

Led by the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, the study was conducted by an international team of researchers from institutions including the University of Cambridge’s Departments of Archaeology and Anthropology, and Zoology, and is published today in the journal Science

By cross-referencing the ancient man’s complete genome – the second oldest modern human genome ever sequenced – with previous research, the team discovered a surprising genetic “unity” running from the first modern humans in Europe, suggesting that a ‘meta-population’ of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers with deep shared ancestry managed to survive through the Last Glacial Maximum and colonise the landmass of Europe for more than 30,000 years.

While the communities within this overarching population expanded, mixed and fragmented during seismic cultural shifts and ferocious climate change, this was a “reshuffling of the same genetic deck” say scientists, and European populations as a whole maintained the same genetic thread from their earliest establishment out of Africa until Middle Eastern populations arrived in the last 8,000 years, bringing with them agriculture and lighter skin colour.

“That there was continuity from the earliest Upper Palaeolithic to the Mesolithic, across a major glaciation, is a great insight into the evolutionary processes underlying human success,” said co-author Dr Marta Mirazón Lahr, from Cambridge’s Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies (LCHES).

“For 30,000 years ice sheets came and went, at one point covering two-thirds of Europe. Old cultures died and new ones emerged - such as the Aurignacian and the Grevettian - over thousands of years, and the hunter-gatherer populations ebbed and flowed. But we now know that no new sets of genes are coming in: these changes in survival and cultural kit are overlaid on the same biological background,” Mirazón Lahr said. “It is only when famers from the Near East arrived about 8,000 years ago that the structure of the European population changed significantly.”

The Kostenki genome also contained, as with all people of Eurasia today, a small percentage of Neanderthal genes, confirming previous findings which show there was an ‘admixture event’ early in the human colonisation Eurasia: a period when Neanderthals and the first humans to leave Africa for Europe briefly interbred.

The new study allows scientists to closer estimate this ‘event’ as occurring around 54,000 years ago, before the Eurasian population began to separate. This means that, even today, anyone with a Eurasian ancestry – from Chinese to Scandinavian and North American – has a small element of Neanderthal DNA.   

However, despite Western Eurasians going on to share the European landmass with Neanderthals for another 10,000 years, no further periods of interbreeding occurred.

“Were Neanderthal populations dwindling very fast? Did modern humans still encounter them? We were originally surprised to discover there had been interbreeding. Now the question is, why so little? It’s an extraordinary finding that we don’t understand yet,” said co-author Professor Robert Foley, also from LCHES.      

Unique to the Kostenki genome is a small element it shares with people who live in parts of the Middle East now, and who were also the population of farmers that arrived in Europe about 8,000 years ago and assimilated with indigenous hunter-gatherers. This early contact is surprising, and provides the first clues to a hereto unknown lineage that could be as old as – or older than – the other major Eurasian genetic lines. These two populations must have interacted briefly before 36,000 years ago, and then remained isolated from each other for tens of millennia.   

“This element of the Kostenki genome confirms the presence of a yet unmapped major population lineage in Eurasia. The population separated early on from ancestors of other Eurasians, both Europeans and Eastern Asians,” said Andaine Seguin-Orlando from the Centre for GeoGenetics in Copenhagen.

Mirazón Lahr points out that, while Western Eurasia was busy mixing as a ‘meta-population’, there was no interbreeding with these mystery populations for some 30,000 years – meaning there must have been some kind of geographic barrier for millennia, despite the fact that Europe and the Middle East seem, for us at least, to be so close geographically. But the Kostenki genome not only shows the existence of these unmapped populations, but that there was at least one window of time when whatever barrier existed became briefly permeable.

“This mystery population may have remained small for a very long time, surviving in refugia in areas such as the Zagros Mountains of Iran and Iraq, for example,” said Mirazón Lahr. “We have no idea at the moment where they were for those first 30,000 years, only that they were in the Middle East by the end of the ice age, when they invented agriculture.”

Lead author and Lundbeck Foundation Professor Eske Willerslev added: “This work reveals the complex web of population relationships in the past, generating for the first time a firm framework with which to explore how humans responded to climate change, encounters with other populations, and the dynamic landscapes of the ice age.”

Inset images (top-bottom): Russian archeologist Mikhail Mikhaylovich Gerasimov taking the Kostinki skull out of the ground in 1954; the Kostinki skull; Marta Mirazón Lahr and Robert Foley

A genome taken from a 36,000 year old skeleton reveals an early divergence of Eurasians once they had left Africa, and allows scientists to better assess the point at which ‘admixture’ - or interbreeding - between Eurasians and Neanderthals occurred. The latest research also points to a previously unknown population lineage as old as the first population separations since humans dispersed out of Africa.

These changes in survival and cultural kit are overlaid on the same biological background
Marta Mirazón Lahr
Kosenki fossil skull, and and illustration of the Kosteni find

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Britain on brink of freshwater species ‘invasion’ from south east Europe

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Oct 13, 2014.

Top: quagga mussel hitching a ride on a zebra mussel. Bottom: killer shrimp

Five of the most high-risk freshwater invaders from the Ponto-Caspian region around Turkey and Ukraine are now in Britain - including the quagga mussel, confirmed just two weeks ago on 1 October in the Wraysbury River near Heathrow airport.

Researchers say that, with at least ten more of these high-risk species established just across the channel in Dutch ports, Britain could be on the brink of what they describe as an ‘invasional meltdown’: as positive interactions between invading species cause booming populations that colonise ecosystems - with devastating consequences for native species.    

The authors of a new study on 23 high-risk invasive species, published today in the Journal of Applied Ecology, describe Britain’s need to confront the Ponto-Caspian problem - named for the invaders’ homelands of the Black, Azov and Caspian seas - as a “vital element for national biosecurity”.

They say monitoring efforts should be focused on areas at most risk of multiple invasions: the lower reaches of the Rivers Great Ouse, Thames and Severn and the Broadlands, where shipping ballast water and ornamental plant trading is most likely to inadvertently deposit the cross-channel invaders.

All of these areas are projected to see an influx of up to twenty Ponto-Caspian invading species in the near future.

“Pretty much everything in our rivers and lakes is directly or indirectly vulnerable,” said Dr David Aldridge, co-author from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, who confirmed the quagga find.

“The invader we are most concerned about is the quagga mussel, which alarmingly was first discovered in the UK just two weeks ago. This pest will smother and kill our native mussels, block water pipes and foul boat hulls. We are also really worried about Ponto-Caspian shrimps, which will eat our native shrimps.”

The most aggressive invasive shrimp have ominous monikers: the demon shrimp, bloody red shrimp and the notorious killer shrimp - dubbed the ‘pink peril’.

These organisms have already been recorded in Britain, and experts warn they will act as a gateway for further species due to favourable inter-species interactions that facilitate invasion, such as food provision and ‘commensalism’ - in which one species obtains benefits from another’s place in an ecosystem.

The researchers point to the example of the zebra mussel, a Ponto-Caspian outrider and relation of the quagga first seen in the UK in 1824 and now widespread. Zebra and quagga mussels smother Britain’s native mussels, preventing them from feeding and moving. The invading mussels also provide an ideal home for Ponto-Caspian amphipods such as killer and demon shrimps, which have striped patterns to blend in with the mussels’ shells.

These amphipods, in turn, provide food for larger invaders such as goby fish. Ponto-Caspian gobies have now made their way down the Rhine, one of the main “corridors” to Britain, with populations exploding in the waterways of western France over the last few years. The invading gobies eat native invertebrate and displace native fish such as the already threatened Bullhead.       

Once the Ponto-Caspian species reach coastal areas of The Netherlands, they are transported across the channel in ballast water taken on by cargo ships, or hidden in exported ornamental plants and aquatic equipment such as fishing gear.  

“If we look at The Netherlands nowadays it is sometimes hard to find a non-Ponto-Caspian species in their waterways,” said Aldridge.

“In some parts of Britain the freshwater community already looks more like the Caspian Sea. The Norfolk Broads, for example, typically viewed as a wildlife haven, is actually dominated by Ponto-Caspian zebra mussels and killer shrimps in many places.”

“Invasive species – such as the quagga mussel – cost the UK economy in excess of £1.8 billion every year,” said Sarah Chare, deputy director of fisheries and biodiversity at the UK Environment Agency.

“The quagga mussel is a highly invasive non-native species, affecting water quality and clogging up pipes. If you spot one then please report it to us through the online recording form.”

Through an in-depth analysis of all reported field and experimental interactions between the 23 most high-risk invasive Ponto-Caspian species, the researchers were able to identify 157 different effects - the majority of which enabled positive reinforcement between species (71) or made no difference (64).  

Dates and locations of the first British reports of 48 other freshwater invaders from around the world show that 33% emerged in the Thames river basin, making it the UK hot spot for invaders, followed by Anglian water networks (19%) and the Humber (15%).

The time between a Ponto-Caspian species being reported in The Netherlands and Britain has shrunk considerably - from an average of 30 years at the beginning of the 20th century to just 5 in the last decade.

“Due to globalisation and increased travel and freight transport, the rate of colonisation of invasive species into Britain from The Netherlands keeps accelerating - posing a serious threat to the conservation of British aquatic ecosystems,” said co-author Dr Belinda Gallardo, now based at the Doñana Biological Station in Spain.       

“Cross-country sharing of information on the status and impacts of invasive species is fundamental to early detection, so that risks can be rapidly assessed. A continuing process for evaluating invasive species and detecting new introductions needs to be established, as this problem is increasing dramatically.”

Inset image: quagga mussels found in Wragsbury river by David Aldridge. Killer shrimp by Thomas Smith/Environment Agency

New research shows multiple invasive species with the same origin facilitate each other’s ability to colonise ecosystems. By studying how these species interact as well as current population locations, researchers believe that Britain is heading for an ‘invasion meltdown’ of freshwater species from south east Europe.

Pretty much everything in our rivers and lakes is directly or indirectly vulnerable
David Aldridge
Top: quagga mussel hitching a ride on a zebra mussel. Bottom: killer shrimp

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Putting a value on what nature does for us

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Sep 11, 2014.

A new online resource, developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge in collaboration with other organisations based in Cambridge, helps those in both the public and private sector see how changes to an ecosystem can affect its value, in order to make more informed decisions about how the natural environment should be developed.

The Toolkit for Ecosystem Service Site-based Assessment (TESSA) was launched online this week to coincide with the 7th Annual Ecosystem Services Partnership Conference in Costa Rica, and allows users to make a direct comparison of the value that an ecosystem can provide to a community in different states, by providing access to state of the art information about their financial value.

Ecosystems provide us with an extensive range of benefits for free, often described as ‘ecosystem services’. These benefits include the provision of food and clean water, erosion control and carbon storage. A reduction or loss of these services can have severe economic, social and environmental impacts. However, methods for obtaining such data are frequently too expensive, or too technically demanding, to be of practical value.

TESSA has been developed by a consortium of experts from six institutions, including staff at the Departments of Geography and Zoology. It allows non-experts to derive reasonable estimates that an individual location provides to society, both locally and globally. TESSA provides guidance and methods to value the services provided by an ecosystem at a specific location compared to the likely provision of such services under different management decisions. This allows the consequences of alternative management decisions to be assessed.

“If a mangrove forest was cut down and turned into a shrimp farm, or a forest was converted to grassland - what is the value of each of those habitats and what is the impact of such a change on different people? We can now provide a quantitative way of determining the value of the many ways in which an ecosystem works for us,” said Dr Iris Möller of the Department of Geography, one of the leaders of the project. “A thirsty forest may help prevent flooding in an area, but it can also contribute to drought. This tool allows us to determine what would happen to that water if the forest were to be cut down.”

TESSA addresses the gap in valuation tools available for non-expert use at the site level and to date has been used at 24 sites spread across five continents. Most users have been conservation practitioners, although the methods are applicable to a wide range of users, including natural resource managers, land-use planners, development organisations and the private sector.

“We hope that by making TESSA more intuitive to use, and available both on- and offline, many more people will be able to assess the ecosystem service values of sites and how they might change under different land use decisions,” says Jenny Merriman, BirdLife’s Ecosystem Services Officer and TESSA Coordinator.

“This information is critical for informing decision-making at the local level and when scaled up, can demonstrate the social and environmental consequences of our actions,” said Möller.

Building on previous funding from other sources, including the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI), the development of the interactive TESSA manual was funded by an ESRC Impact Acceleration Account pilot grant awarded to Cambridge University. TESSA is an evolving resource and, subject to continued funding, more content will be added in future versions.

TESSA is the result of a collaboration between the University of Cambridge, Anglia Ruskin University, BirdLife International, Tropical Biology Association, RSPB, and UNEP-WCMC.

Interactive online tool allows the value of an ecosystem to be calculated, and allows users to determine how altering a habitat can affect its economic, social and environmental worth.

We can now provide a quantitative way of determining the value of the many ways in which an ecosystem works for us
Iris Möller
West Summerland Key Mangrove Ecosystem, Florida Keys

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Fish as good as chimpanzees at choosing the best partner for a task

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Sep 09, 2014.

Coral trout with modal of moray eel during experiment

Coral trout are fast when chasing prey above the reefs of their habitat, but can’t pursue their quarry if it buries itself into a hard-to-reach reef crevice.

When this happens, the trout will team up with a snake-like moray eel to flush out the unfortunate fish in a remarkable piece of interspecies collaboration: either the eel takes the prey in the reef, or scares it back into the open so the trout can pounce.

Coral trout - along with close relative the roving coral grouper - will use gestures and signals to flag the location of prey to an eel, including head shakes and headstands that actually point the eel in the right direction. Field observations also suggested that they have a startling ability to assess when a situation needs a collaborator and to pick the right partner in the vicinity to get the best hunting results.

Now, for the first time, researchers at the University of Cambridge have cross-examined the collaborative capacities of these trout with the highly-intelligent chimpanzee using comparably similar experiments, and found that the fish perform as well - if not better - than humankind’s closest evolutionary relative when it comes to successful collaboration.

The trout even match chimpanzees in the ability to learn at speed which possible collaborator is the best candidate for the job. The study is published today in the journal Current Biology

The researchers caught wild coral trout and recreated hunting scenarios in set-ups that mirrored their natural environment, with the aim of creating experiments analogous to those previously conducted using chimpanzees - known as the rope-pull experiments - except relevant to the trout’s habitat.

In the 2006 rope-pull experiments, chimps were shown fruit placed on a plank parallel to but out of reach of their cage. At each end of the plank a rope was attached that trailed within reach. Two chimps would have to coordinate the simultaneous tugging of the rope to reel in the fruit.

Similarly, the trout were presented with out-of-reach food in the form of prey secreted in a crevice, and the possibility of a collaborator that took the shape of a model moray eel as fashioned by the researchers.

The trout undertook the same number of trials as the chimps over a similar time frame. When conditions required collaboration, i.e. when the food was out of reach, the trout were at least as proficient as chimps at determining when they needed to recruit a collaborator, doing so in 83% of cases, and learned more effectively than chimps when the collaborator was not necessary.

When the trout were given the choice between two fake moray eels - one a successful collaborator that flushed out prey and the other which swam in the opposite direction - the trout’s ability to pick the successful partner was identical to that of the chimps.

For both trout and chimps, six subjects participated in six trials per day for two days. On the first day, while they were learning about the collaborators’ effectiveness, the trout choose each collaborator an equal number of times. But by day two they were over three times more likely to choose the effective hunting partner over the ineffective partner, a significant increase that matches the selection prowess of the chimps in the rope/pull experiment and appears to demonstrate rapid learning in the fish.

“Our results show that, like chimpanzees, trout can determine when a situation requires a collaborator and quickly learn to choose the most effective one,” said Alexander Vail, a Gates Scholar from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, who led the study.

“This study strengthens the case that a relatively small brain - compared to warm-blooded species - does not stop at least some fish species from possessing cognitive abilities that compare to or even surpass those of apes.”

The study’s authors caution that the processes underlying such “superficially similar” cognitive behaviour are not known, and that - as previous commentators have stated - complex behaviour doesn’t always reflect a complex mind.

However, the researchers say that the increased effectiveness of the trout’s ability to judge when to employ an eel collaborator would suggest that the accessibility of each prey was being assessed. In fact, it was the same research team which recently demonstrated that coral trout and grouper use the intentional headstand communication to summon and signal morays and other partner species towards prey, published in Nature Communications last year.

“Perhaps the biggest question is whether the processes underlying collaborative partner choice in humans, chimpanzees and trout are the result of common ancestry or an evolutionary convergence,” added Vail. “Convergence - where species of different lineages evolve similar features - has been suggested as the reason for other superficially similar ape and human abilities, and is the most likely reason why trout would seem to share this one too.”

Inset image: Coral trout with moray eel in the wild. Credit: Alex Vail

Latest research shows that coral trout can now join chimpanzees as the only non-human species that can choose the right situation and the right partner to get the best result when collaboratively working.

Perhaps the biggest question is whether the processes underlying collaborative partner choice in humans, chimpanzees and trout are the result of common ancestry or an evolutionary convergence
Alex Vail
Coral trout with model of moray eel during experiment

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Croonian Lecture awarded to Prof Nick Davies

From Department of Zoology. Published on Aug 04, 2014.

Professor Ron Laskey awarded CRUK Lifetime Achievement Prize

From Department of Zoology. Published on Jul 31, 2014.

Professor Jenny Clack awarded Honorary Doctor of Science Degree

From Department of Zoology. Published on Jul 10, 2014.

Butterflies show how patterns evolve on the wing

From Department of Zoology. Published on Jul 10, 2014.

Neal Maskell – retirement party

From Department of Zoology. Published on Jun 26, 2014.

Professor Michael Akam Awarded Frink Medal by Zoological Society of London

From Department of Zoology. Published on Jun 20, 2014.

Part II Zoology Class List

From Department of Zoology. Published on Jun 16, 2014.

Academic Promotions 2014

From Department of Zoology. Published on Jun 11, 2014.

Many congratulations to two members of the Department who have received awards in this year's Academic Promotions exercise, to take effect from 1 October 2014:

Philine zu Ermgassen awarded a CUSU Teaching Excellence Award

From Department of Zoology. Published on May 27, 2014.

Paul Brakefield elected member of EMBO

From Department of Zoology. Published on May 09, 2014.

A view from the roof: Arup works are progressing well

From Department of Zoology. Published on May 07, 2014.

Compressed and Cryogenic Gas Safety Training Course

From Department of Zoology. Published on Apr 08, 2014.

Two recent prizes for Sarah Luke

From Department of Zoology. Published on Apr 04, 2014.

Claire Feniuk wins first prize at the Student Conference on Conservation Science

From Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 31, 2014.

Gerit Linneweber wins 3rd prize in GSLS image competition

From Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 25, 2014.

Museum wins £1.8 million grant from Heritage Lottery Fund

From Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 20, 2014.

Alex Hackmann wins Graduate School of Life Sciences Image Competition

From Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 17, 2014.

David Williams wins first prize at Clare Graduate Symposium

From Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 17, 2014.

The Department launches a mentoring scheme for post-docs

From Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 12, 2014.

Dr Nancy Lane featured in Dalhousie University Alumni magazine

From Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 11, 2014.

Wendy Whitmore visits the Department

From Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 06, 2014.

Nick Crumpton appears on BBC 4 series about the vertebrate skeleton

From Department of Zoology. Published on Feb 26, 2014.

Graduate Symposium 2014

From Department of Zoology. Published on Feb 26, 2014.

Museum of Zoology specimens on display in London

From Department of Zoology. Published on Feb 26, 2014.

BBC TV News: Launch of New Museum of Zoology Appeal

From Department of Zoology. Published on Feb 26, 2014.