skip to primary navigationskip to content

Latest News

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

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. If you use this content on your site please link back to this page. For image rights, please see the credits associated with each individual image.

Yes

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

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. If you use this content on your site please link back to this page. For image rights, please see the credits associated with each individual image.

Yes

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

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. If you use this content on your site please link back to this page. For image rights, please see the credits associated with each individual image.

Yes

Economic success drives language extinction

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Sep 03, 2014.

New research shows economic growth to be main driver of language extinction and reveals global ‘hotspots’ where languages are most under threat.

The study’s authors urge for “immediate attention” to be paid to hotspots in the most developed countries – such as north Australia and the north-western corners of the US and Canada – where conservation efforts should be focused.

They also point to areas of the tropics and Himalayan regions that are undergoing rapid economic growth as future hotspots for language extinction, such as Brazil and Nepal.

The study is published today in the journal Proceedings of Royal Society B.

The researchers used the criteria for defining endangered species to measure rate and prevalence of language loss, as defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The three main risk components are: small population size (small number of speakers), small geographical habitat range and population change – in this case, the decline in speaker numbers.

By interrogating huge language datasets using these conservation mechanisms, the researchers found that levels of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita correlated with the loss of language diversity: the more successful economically, the more rapidly language diversity was disappearing.

“As economies develop, one language often comes to dominate a nation’s political and educational spheres. People are forced to adopt the dominant language or risk being left out in the cold – economically and politically,” said Dr Tatsuya Amano, from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

“Of course everyone has the right to choose the language they speak, but preserving dying language is important to maintaining human cultural diversity in an increasingly globalised world.”

In the northwest corner of North America, the languages of the indigenous people are disappearing at an alarming rate. Upper Tanana, for example, a language spoken by indigenous Athabaskan people in eastern Alaska, had only 24 active speakers as of 2009, and was no longer being acquired by children. The Wichita language of the Plains Indians, now based in Oklahoma, had just one fluent speaker as of 2008.

In Australia, aboriginal languages such as the recently extinct Margu and almost extinct Rembarunga are increasingly disappearing from the peninsulas of the Northern Territories.

As the researchers point out, “languages are now rapidly being lost at a rate of extinction exceeding the well-known catastrophic loss of biodiversity”. Major international organisations such as the United Nations and Worldwide Fund for Nature are now actively engaged in the conservation of linguistic diversity.

Amano says the global meta-analysis produced by the team using the species criteria is designed to complement the more specific, localised examples featured in many linguistic and anthropological research.

Unlike species extinction, however, language diversity has a potentially saving grace – bilingualism. Previous research from Cambridge’s Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics has shown that children who speak more than one language have multiple advantages in education, cognition and social interaction.

“As economies develop, there is increasing advantage in learning international languages such as English, but people can still speak their historically traditional languages. Encouraging those bilingualisms will be critical to preserving linguistic diversity,” added Amano.

Thriving economies are the biggest factor in the disappearance of minority languages and conservation should focus on the most developed countries where languages are vanishing the fastest, finds a new study.

People are forced to adopt the dominant language or risk being left out in the cold
Tatsuya Amano
Himalayan Shaman

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. If you use this content on your site please link back to this page. For image rights, please see the credits associated with each individual image.

Yes

Study shows where on the planet new roads should and should not go

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Aug 28, 2014.

More than 25 million kilometres of new roads will be built worldwide by 2050. Many of these roads will slice into Earth’s last wildernesses, where they bring an influx of destructive loggers, hunters and illegal miners.

Now, an ambitious study has created a ‘global roadmap’ for prioritising road building across the planet, to try to balance the competing demands of development and environmental protection.

The map has two components: an ‘environmental-values’ layer that estimates that natural importance of ecosystems and a ‘road-benefits’ layer that estimates the potential for increased agriculture production via new or improved roads.  

The authors of the new study, recently published in the journal Nature, write that by combining these layers they have identified areas where new roads have most potential benefit, areas where road building should be avoided, and conflict areas “where potential costs and benefits are both sizable”.

“It’s challenging but we think we’ve identified where in the world new roads would be most environmentally damaging,” said co-author Professor Andrew Balmford from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

“For particular regions the approach can be improved by adding detailed local information but we think our overall framework is a powerful one.”

“Roads often open a Pandora’s Box of environmental problems,” said Professor William Laurance of James Cook University in Australia, the study’s lead author. “But we also need roads for our societies and economies, so the challenge is to decide where to put new roads - and where to avoid them.”

Professors Laurance and Balmford worked with colleagues from Harvard, Cambridge, Melbourne, Minnesota and other universities for nearly two years to map out the world’s most important ecosystems and biodiversity.

After mapping out the priority areas for conservation, the team then tried to decide where roads would have the greatest benefits for humanity.

In general, areas that would benefit most from new roads are those that have largely converted to agriculture but are currently relatively low-yielding but not too distant from urban markets. All continents have regions that fit this bill - including parts of central Eurasia, Central America and Mexico, and the Atlantic region of South America.   

“We focused on agriculture because global food demand is expected to double by mid-century, and new or improved roads are vital for farmers,” said Dr Gopalasamy Reuben Clements from James Cook. “With better roads, farmers can buy fertilisers to raise their yields and get their crops to markets with far less cost and waste.”

“The good news is that there are still expanses of the world where agriculture can be greatly improved without large environmental costs,” said Dr Nathan Mueller of Harvard University, USA.

Areas with carbon-rich ecosystems with key wilderness habitats, such as tropical forests, were identified as those where new roads would cause the most environmental damage with the lease human benefit, particularly areas where few roads currently exist.

“Our study also shows that in large parts of the world, such as the Amazon, Southeast Asia, and Madagascar, the environmental costs of road expansion are massive,” said Christine O’Connell from the University of Minnesota, USA.

The authors emphasise that there will be serious conflicts in the coming decades.

“We’re facing a lot of tough decisions,” said Irene Burgues Arrea of the Conservation Strategy Fund in Costa Rica. “For instance, there are huge conflict areas in sub-Saharan Africa, because it has vital wildlife habitats but a very rapidly growing human population that will need more food and more roads.”

The study’s authors say that this new global road-mapping scheme can be used as a working model that can be adapted to for specific areas. They say that proactive and strategic planning to reduce environmental damage should be central to any discussion about road expansion. 

“We hope our scheme will be adopted by governments and international funding agencies, to help balance development and nature conservation,” said Professor Laurance.

“So much road expansion today is unplanned or chaotic, and we badly need a more proactive approach. It’s vital because we’re facing the most explosive era of road expansion in human history,” he said.

Given that the total length of new roads anticipated by mid-century would encircle the Earth more than 600 times, the authors point out that there is “little time to lose”.

Inset image: An Asian tapir (/Tapirus indicus/) killed on a highway in Peninsular Malaysia (© WWF-Malaysia/Lau Ching Fong).

Researchers have created a ‘large-scale zoning plan’ that aims to limit the environmental costs of road expansion while maximizing its benefits for human development.

We think we’ve identified where in the world new roads would be most environmentally damaging
Andrew Balmford
A caravan of logging trucks along a forest road in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. If you use this content on your site please link back to this page. For image rights, please see the credits associated with each individual image.

Yes

Secrets of animal camouflage: Video reveals how predator vision works

By jfp40 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Aug 06, 2014.

The researchers, from the University of Exeter and the University of Cambridge, travelled across Zambia and South Africa and took over 14,000 images and many hours of video footage as part of Project Nightjar. The aim was to work out which predators are able to see the hidden eggs of different ground-nesting birds. Back in the lab, they used specially customised software to recreate the visual world of the predators, analysing what makes objects blend in or stand out from their backgrounds, based on real field data – the first time that camouflage data has been directly linked to survival rates of real animals in the field.

The researchers have taken the analysis one step further by recruiting another predator: humans. By playing the ‘citizen science’ game Egglab, people can take their place in the evolutionary tree and spot eggs in images derived from the research. The eggs even ‘evolve’ as the game progresses, yielding yet more data on how types of camouflage evolve in different habitats.

Dr Jolyon Troscianko from the University of Exeter’s Sensory Ecology and Evolution group says Project Nightjar came about because theories about how camouflage works hadn’t been tested in the wild. “It’s very difficult to find a study system where you can link predation with the quality of an animal’s camouflage,” he said.

Along with co-principal investigators Dr Martin Stevens, also from the University of Exeter, and Dr Claire Spottiswoode from the University of Cambridge, the team developed a study system using two classes of ground-nesting birds inspired by Spottiswoode’s previous encounters with nightjars in Africa. “I was bowled over by their camouflage, which led to discussions with Martin about how we could take advantage of these birds for camouflage research, leading to our collaboration on the current project,” she said.   

Nightjars sit tight on their eggs and rely on the camouflage of the adult bird to outwit their predators. As a result, their eggs are less camouflaged because the adults do the work. In contrast, plovers and coursers run from their nests when danger approaches. Their much more exposed eggs have therefore evolved better camouflage to blend in with their backgrounds, saving the developing chick inside. In each case, it’s an arms race between the patterns, colours and contrast of the eggs and the visual acuity of the predators.

Hidden cameras were used to see which predators were eating the eggs. Troscianko recalled that this was a more difficult task than first appeared: “Predation events are unpredictable, which is why this is such a difficult project that has never been done before.”

So far, the researchers have found that colour and contrast are often linked, and both are important. As Dr Stevens explained, “What seems to be happening is that disruptive coloration often arises on a range of background types, but is especially common when the background is more variable. Background matching seems especially important on backgrounds that are more uniform (for example open ground), and when individuals are generalist and eggs evolve against two background types, the camouflage takes longer to improve.”

Stevens explained that the citizen science games and rigorous fieldwork are complementary. “The fieldwork looks at how camouflage of real animals in the wild affects how likely they are to be eaten by a range of predators, and how camouflage is influenced by behaviour and nesting strategies of the birds. The egg game looks at how camouflage evolves against different habitats under controlled conditions.”

Initial data analysis of both the fieldwork results and the citizen science games suggests that egg patterning involves trade-offs between hiding eggs from mammalian eyes or from bird eyes – a classic case of not being able to fool everybody all of the time.   

How do animals see? It’s a question that vexes biologists and fascinates anyone who has watched animals go about their business: what does the world look like through their eyes? In a new video, BBSRC-funded scientists are attempting to answer some of these fundamental questions by studying  the success of bird and egg camouflage.

It’s an arms race between the patterns, colours and contrast of the eggs and the visual acuity of the predators
Mozambique Nightjar

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. If you use this content on your site please link back to this page. For image rights, please see the credits associated with each individual image.

Yes

Royal Society honours Cambridge scientists

By pbh25 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Aug 06, 2014.

Professor Jeremy Baumberg

Three Cambridge scientists are among those honoured by the Royal Society this week.

Professor Jeremy Baumberg FRS, Department of Physics, received the Rumford Medal “for his outstanding creativity in nanophotonics, investigating many ingenious nanostructures, both artificial and natural to support novel plasmonic phenomena relevant to Raman spectroscopy, solar cell performance and meta-materials applications.”

The medal is awarded biennially for important discoveries in the field of thermal or optical properties of matter and their applications.

Professor Clare Grey FRS, Department of Chemistry, was awarded the 2014 Davy Medal for further pioneering applications of solid state nuclear magnetic resonance to materials of relevance to energy and the environment.

This medal is awarded annually “for an outstandingly important recent discovery in any branch of chemistry”.

In the lecture prizes Professor Nicholas Davies FRS, Department of Zoology, was awarded the Croonian Lecture for his work on the co-evolved responses of brood parasitic cuckoos and their hosts, the process of co-evolution and adaptation and the biology of the birds.


 

The Royal Society has announced the recipients of its awards, medals and prizes for 2104.

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. If you use this content on your site please link back to this page. For image rights, please see the credits associated with each individual image.

Yes

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.

Birds evolve ‘signature’ patterns to distinguish cuckoo eggs from their own

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Jun 18, 2014.

For some birds, recognising their own eggs can be a matter of life or death.

In a new study, scientists have shown that many birds affected by the parasitic Common Cuckoo - which lays its lethal offspring in other birds’ nests - have evolved distinctive patterns on their eggs in order to distinguish them from those laid by a cuckoo cheat.

The study reveals that these signature patterns provide a powerful defense against cuckoo trickery, helping host birds to reject cuckoo eggs before they hatch and destroy the host’s own brood.

To determine how a bird brain might perceive and recognize complex pattern information, Dr Mary Caswell Stoddard at Harvard University and Professor Rebecca Kilner and Dr Christopher Town at the University of Cambridge developed a new computer vision tool, NATUREPATTERNMATCH. The tool extracts and compares recognizable features in visual scenes, recreating processes known to be important for recognition tasks in vertebrates.

“We harnessed the same computer technology used for diverse pattern recognition tasks, like face recognition and image stitching, to determine what visual features on a bird’s eggs might be easily recognised,” explained Stoddard.

Using the tool, the researchers studied the pigmentation patterns on hundreds of eggs laid by eight different bird species (hosts) targeted by the Common Cuckoo.

They discovered that some hosts, like the Brambling, have evolved highly recognisable egg patterns characterised by distinctive blotches and markings. By contrast, other hosts have failed to evolve recognisable egg patterns, instead laying eggs with few identifiable markings. Those hosts with the best egg pattern signatures, the researchers found, are those that have been subjected to the most intense cuckoo mimicry.

The Common Cuckoo and its hosts are locked in different stages of a co-evolutionary arms race. If a particular host species – over evolutionary time – develops the ability to reject foreign cuckoo eggs, the cuckoo improves its ability to lay eggs that closely match the color and patterning of those laid by its host.

“The ability of Common Cuckoos to mimic the appearance of many of their hosts’ eggs has been known for centuries. The astonishing finding here is that hosts can fight back against cuckoo mimicry by evolving highly recognisable patterns on their own eggs, just like a bank might insert watermarks on its currency to deter counterfeiters,” said Stoddard.

“The surprising discovery of this study is that hosts achieve egg recognition in different ways” said Kilner, from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

Some host species have evolved egg patterns that are highly repeatable within a single clutch, while other species have evolved eggs with patterns that differ dramatically from female to female in a population. Still other host species produce egg patterns with high visual complexity. Each strategy is effective, increasing the likelihood that a given host will identify and reject a foreign egg. “Some species use two of these strategies, but none uses all three,” continued Kilner. “A signature like this would be too complex to be easily recognised”.

The patterns on bird eggs are just one type of visual signature. Identity signatures are common in the animal world, but how they are encoded and recognised is poorly understood. In the future, computational tools like NATUREPATTERNMATCH - which account for important aspects of visual and cognitive processing - will be crucial for understanding the evolution of visual signals in diverse biological populations.

The findings of this study are reported in the journal Nature Communications.

Inset image: Reed Warbler caring for Cuckoo chick. Credit: David Kjaer

Using new ‘pattern recognition algorithm,’ latest research highlights how birds are ‘fighting back’ against the parasitic Common Cuckoo in what scientists describe as an evolutionary ‘arms race’. They found that birds with the most sophisticated and distinctive egg patterning are those most intensely targeted by the cuckoo’s egg mimicry.

The surprising discovery of this study is that hosts achieve egg recognition in different ways
Rebecca Kilner
NATUREPATTERNMATCH extracts visual features, here represented by magenta vectors (left). Three eggs each (represented in different rows) laid by three different Great Reed Warblers are shown here (right).

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. If you use this content on your site please link back to this page. For image rights, please see the credits associated with each individual image.

Yes

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:

New EU reforms fail European wildlife

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Jun 05, 2014.

Latest reforms of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) have been declared significantly “greener” by the Members of the European Parliament, following promises to make the environment and climate change ‘core issues’ for the new CAP.

However, leading conservation experts writing in the journal Science warn that after three years of CAP negotiations the environmental reforms are so diluted they will be of no benefit to European wildlife, and biodiversity will continue to decline across the continent.

Under the new CAP almost a third of direct payments to farmers are now subject to conditions relating to ‘greening measures’. However, disagreements over the measures have led to a wide range of exemptions being put in place.

After analysing the details of the reformed CAP, experts from a number of major organisations revealed that about half of all farmland and 80-90% of all the farmers in the EU could be exempt from having to abide by two of the three new environmental requirements. At the same time, budgets to support voluntary ‘greening measures’ have been reduced.

Individual member states must use the flexibility offered by the reforms to design national plans for sustaining ecosystems, say the experts. Unless member states take serious steps beyond those required for the CAP, the EU’s own biodiversity targets for 2020 are very unlikely to be met.

The experts – who range from scientists to policy analysts and conservationists – offer six ‘immediate actions’ that states should take. These include comprehensive mapping of existing grasslands and increasing the availability of ecological expertise to farmers. They also list six recommendations for the EU to consider towards the next, still-much-needed revision of the CAP.

They hope these recommendations encourage individual states and the EU as a whole to move towards sustainable agriculture, securing vital ecosystems for “current and future generations”.

“The targets implicitly assume that the biodiversity-related measures under the CAP are effective at protecting wildlife. While some specific, carefully designed actions – such as planting flowers for pollinators, restoring species-rich grassland, or providing nesting areas for ground-nesting birds – have been shown to work when properly implemented, these are not included as options under the new compulsory greening elements,” said Dr Lynn Dicks, a co-author from the Department of Zoology in the University of Cambridge.

“The weak environmental reforms in the CAP put the fate of Europe’s declining biodiversity in the hands of the individual member states,” said Dr Guy Pe’er, lead author from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, who collaborated with Lynn Dicks and William Sutherland from Cambridge, as well as experts from RSPB, the Society for Conservation Biology and others.

“The EU should openly communicate this dependency, and encourage member states to make responsible decisions, rather than pretend that the reform allows meeting the EU’s important ecological targets,” he said.

Expansion of the EU and its common market continues to drive agricultural intensification across Europe at the expense of wildlife and natural habitats, say the experts.

The Common Agricultural Policy – which uses almost 40% of the EU’s budget and influences the management of half of its entire territory – provides subsidies that increase the scale of farming throughout the EU. This has led to increased grassland conversion and peatland drainage. The situation is particularly severe in new member states, where the use of agri-chemicals such as fertilizers has shot up.

This continues to take a heavy toll on wildlife, with dramatic declines in everything from the farmland bird index to ‘permanent’ grassland that, in newer member states, has shrunk over 11% in just the last decade.  

To address this, the new CAP made 30% of all direct payments to farmers conditional on compliance with three ‘greening measures’: establishing Ecological Focus Areas, maintaining permanent grasslands, and setting minimum requirements on number of crops grown to stop areas slipping into homogenous ‘monocultures’.

However, following thorough analysis, experts have found that the large number of clauses introduced to the greening measures exempt over 88% of farmers in the EU, and over 48% of its agricultural areas from having to incorporate Ecological Focus Areas. 81% of arable farmers are now exempt from the crop diversity measure, and the grassland measure allows another 5% decline in area.

“The measures themselves do not include quality criteria for what counts as green,” said Pe’er. “The thresholds set will allow on-going intensification under a green label”.

They conclude that the CAP reforms fail to fulfil Target 3A of the EU Biodiversity Strategy, which explicitly requires the EU to “maximise areas […] covered by biodiversity-related measures under the CAP”.

“The CAP should pay for ‘public goods’ associated with sustainable farming: thriving wildlife, beautiful landscapes, clean water, fertile soils, land that contributes to a stable climate, and diverse communities of wild insects to pollinate crops or regulate pest outbreaks. These are things enjoyed by everyone but not so easy to pay for through food sales,” added Dicks.

“Finding a way to produce enough food for humanity without losing these assets is perhaps the biggest challenge of the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, the latest CAP reform has not found a way to secure them.”

Inset image: Common Blue Butterfly by Matt Clark

Despite political proclamation of increased environmental focus, experts argue that the European Union’s recent agricultural reforms are far too weak to have any positive impact on the continent’s shrinking farmland biodiversity, and call on member states to take action.

The targets implicitly assume that the biodiversity-related measures under the CAP are effective at protecting wildlife
Lynn Dicks
Lets Play a Game:)!

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. If you use this content on your site please link back to this page. For image rights, please see the credits associated with each individual image.

Yes
License type: 

‘Extreme sleepover #13’ – the wet-nursing meerkats of the Kalahari

By jfp40 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Jun 04, 2014.

I never thought I would be quizzing people over a radio about the sandiness of nipples. Then again, I never foresaw that for many months my days would start with a bump, lurching over sand dunes in a Land Rover, heading off to find meerkats, to whom those nipples belong. Life in the Kalahari is inherently full of surprises.

My PhD research with Professor Tim Clutton-Brock has brought me here, to the far northern reaches of South Africa, where I study the phenomenon of allolactation – essentially, wet-nursing. In each of the 16 groups of meerkats scattered across our large reserve, only one dominant female will breed. The other females in the group will help her to raise her young, sometimes even lactating for them. This year though, those females are not being forthcoming, and their nipples, which will have wet, sandy rings around them if they are allolactating, remain dismally dry.

The radio crackles as the network of volunteers spread out in separate cars and on foot to begin the task of monitoring different meerkat groups. I’m dropped off, and suddenly am in a state of solitude that I’ve come to find blissful. At the top of Sandy Hill, a large dune and one of our main landmarks, I leave grey flat scrub behind me and come to my favourite part of the reserve. Here the grass is a dry platinum, and dunes tumble gently into wide valleys. Tall trees, now erupting into a lush green after the first rains, are dotted evenly like a wild orchard. I love best the southward vista, where the dunes drop so suddenly to the flats that it looks like the edge of the world.

It is the edge of the world for my favourite group of meerkats, the Sequoia group. I find their burrow just in time – the first to rise, just as the sun is coming up, is Bruce. He’s the dominant male of the group, a well-built and handsome meerkat easily recognisable from his striking left shoulder and left thigh dye marks, our means of identifying each individual. Bruce is a local hero for his audaciously bold guarding of his group – he can often be seen high up in some tree, watching the horizon with a fierce expression. The dominant female, Ru, is a big, good-natured girl, and her cohort are characterful and a pleasure to wander in the dunes with.

After weighing each individual and conducting a roll-call, I follow the females I’m interested in – the dominant female and the potential allolactators – and collect detailed data on their every move, as well as staying aware of what’s going on with the whole group. Summer in the Kalahari is a time to watch your step too. I walked past the same bush dozens of times in Sequoia territory last week before we heard the telltale deflating-football sound of a deadly poisonous puff adder coiled menacingly at its base. It raised a lazy head at a young male venturing too close, who thankfully alerted the group, and me, to its presence.

Watching my step is also important for happier reasons – to avoid the plucky little pups who dart around the adult females that I’m following in the hope of getting fed a juicy grub. The pups at Sequoia are obsessed with shoes, and play-forage around my heels as I record observations on their mother. If I sit down, there’s soon an investigation of my hems, laces and pockets. The pups are still the size of my palm, though getting heavier by the day.

There is a time somewhere between 11 o’clock and midday when the Kalahari turns from a balmy, soft-edged paradise to a hell that crackles underfoot and becomes alien and angry, with a sudden fierce heat. Time to head home, and sleep off our early morning.

I’m back out again mid-afternoon though, this time looking for Pandora, a group at the far edge of the land we cover. I find them using signals from a tiny radio collar that the pregnant dominant female, Toblerone, wears around her neck. But something odd is going on this evening  and I find I’m getting a strong signal for Toblerone below ground, at the group’s burrow. Luckily most of the rest of the gang, including a lovable adult male called Cecil – an incorrigible lothario with neighbouring groups – are foraging fairly nearby.

It’s cooling now, but it’s been a long, hot afternoon, and when we return to the burrow at dusk, they are all eager to jump on my scales and be weighed, and then receive the gulps of water we reward them with.

After a few moments, I discover the reason for Toblerone’s absence is just as I expected – she emerges, sleek and placid, with the suckle marks on her belly of some strong and healthy pups, born this afternoon. And even better news for me, the oldest subordinate female also appears, and by the sandy rings around her nipples, it looks like she has also started lactating – the first allolactator of my study. Like I said, the Kalahari is full of surprises – the tiny bundles of life produced in this dry, hot world are the best of them all.

Kirsty MacLeod

Kirsty MacLeod is a PhD student with Professor Tim Clutton-Brock In the Department of Zoology.

Reporting back from her time spent in the Kalahari Desert, PhD student Kirsty MacLeod describes the fascinating life of a gang of meerkats that includes an audacious boy called Bruce and a good-natured girl called Ru.

Bruce is a local hero for his audaciously bold guarding of his group – he can often be seen high up in some tree, watching the horizon with a fierce expression.
Kirsty MacLeod
Kirsty MacLeod and meerkats

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. If you use this content on your site please link back to this page. For image rights, please see the credits associated with each individual image.

Yes

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.

Science lessons for MPs

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

Dr Denholm doesn't just study flies...

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

Seven of the more unusual areas of scientific research

Professor Derek Smith on global pandemics

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

Radio 4 'Frontiers' programme available now

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.

Science's Invertebrate of the Year: Top-Gear Planthopper

From Department of Zoology. Published on Jan 28, 2014.

"Merry Crypsis" Christmas Party

From Department of Zoology. Published on Dec 17, 2013.

Professor Marlene Zuk discusses women and science

From Department of Zoology. Published on Dec 04, 2013.

The Professors’ Award for Outstanding Contribution

From Department of Zoology. Published on Nov 20, 2013.

Ian Goldstone and Matt Lowe are joint winners of this year’s Award for Outstanding Contribution. They were presented with the awards at the Newcomers’ Party on Thursday 14th November. This annual award is to recognise and reward a member of staff who has gone that extra mile for the Department in the last year.

Prize-winning work published in Developmental Cell Nov 11th 2013

From Department of Zoology. Published on Nov 12, 2013.

Tip cells act as dynamic cellular anchors in the morphogenesis of looped renal tubules in Drosophila by Helen Weavers and Helen Skaer.

Dr Rose Thorogood - NERC Fellowship

From Department of Zoology. Published on Aug 02, 2013.

Landscapes of information: how information use affects ecological communities