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Wendy Gu wins first place in BSCB BSDB Student Poster prize competition

From Department of Zoology. Published on Apr 15, 2015.

Red Noses in Zoology

From Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 25, 2015.

Colour-morphing reef fish is a 'wolf in sheep's clothing'

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 19, 2015.

A new study has shown that the dottyback, a small predatory reef fish, can change the colour of its body to imitate a variety of other reef fish species, allowing the dottyback to sneak up undetected and eat their young.

The dottyback also uses its colour-changing abilities to hide from larger predators by colour-matching to the background of its habitat - disappearing into the scenery.

The research, published today in the journal Current Biology, reveals a sophisticated new example of 'mimicry': disguising as a different species to gain evolutionary advantage.

While using mimicry to hunt or hide from other species is commonplace in nature - from cuckoos to butterflies - scientists point out that if the same physical deception is encountered too frequently, species on the receiving end become more vigilant and develop tactics to mitigate the mimics.

The dottyback, however, is able to colour-morph depending on the particular colour of the surrounding species it is currently hunting: different types of damselfish being a popular target.

Scientists say that this flexibility of physical mimicry makes it much harder for the dottyback's prey to develop detection strategies and avoid getting eaten.

"By changing colour to imitate local damselfish communities, dottybacks are able to overcome the predator avoidance behaviour in the juvenile fish they hunt," said Dr William Feeney, co-author of the study from the University of Cambridge's Department of Zoology.

"The dottyback behaviour is comparable to the 'wolf in sheep's clothing' scenario from Aesop's Fables, where distinguishing the predator from the harmless 'flock' becomes increasingly difficult when they look alike - allowing the dottyback to creep up on unsuspecting juvenile damselfish," Feeney said.

Dottybacks are generally solitary and highly territorial predators of around eight centimetres in length, commonly found in Indo-Pacific coral reefs.

While dottybacks can vary their colouration from pink to grey, the researchers focused on two colour 'morphs' - yellow and brown - that both occur on the reefs surrounding Lizard Island, off the coast of north-east Australia. This is because the area has populations of both yellow and brown damselfish, and habitat consisting of live coral and dead coral 'rubble'.

The scientists built their own simulated reef outcrops comprising both live coral and rubble, and stocked them with either yellow or brown damselfish. When released into reefs with damselfish of the opposite colour, scientists found the dottybacks would change from yellow to brown or vice versa over the course of approximately two weeks.

Anatomical study of dottyback skin cells revealed that while the level of 'chromatophores' - pigment-containing cells that reflect light - remain constant, the ratio of yellow pigment cells to black pigment cells shifts to move the dottyback from yellow to brown or back again.

The team conducted lab experiments with adult and juvenile damselfish to test whether this colour change affects dottyback hunting success. They found that once the dottyback matched the colour of the damselfish, they were up to three times more successful at capturing juvenile damselfish.

The scientists also found that the dottyback use their colour-morphing powers to blend into the coral of their habitats to hide from their own predators, such as the coral trout - a predator they share with damselfish, who have also adapted to match the colour of their environment.

The scientists measured the strike rates of coral trout when exposed to images of different colours of dottyback against different habitats. The coral trout had trouble picking out the fish when the colour matched the habitat.

"While the dottybacks change colour to aggressively mimic damselfish, they may also gain a secondary benefit: a reduced risk of being eaten themselves. Damselfish have evolved to blend into their environment, so, by imitating the damselfish, they also colour-match the habitat - making it harder for coral trout to see them," said Feeney.

"This is the first time that an animal has been found to be able to morph between different guises in order to deceive different species, making the dottyback a pretty crafty little fish"

Inset image: dottyback eyeing up damselfish prey, credit Christopher E Mirbach

The dottyback changes its colour to match surrounding damselfish species, enabling it to counter the defences of its damselfish prey by disguising itself as a harmless part of their community, then swoop in to hunt their young.

This is the first time that an animal has been found to be able to morph between different guises in order to deceive different species, making the dottyback a pretty crafty little fish
William Feeney
Brown Vs Yellow Dottyback

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Fossil skull sheds new light on transition from water to land

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 16, 2015.

A new 3D reconstruction of skull of one of the earliest four-footed vertebrate – which differs from earlier 2D reconstructions – suggests such creatures, which lived their lives primarily in shallow water environments, were more like modern crocodiles than previously thought.

The researchers applied high-resolution X-ray computed tomography (CT) scanning to several specimens of Acanthostega gunnari, one of the ‘four-footed’ vertebrates known as tetrapods which invaded the land during one of the great evolutionary transitions in Earth’s history, 380-360 million years ago. Tetrapods evolved from lobe-finned fishes and display a number of adaptations to help them survive on land. 

An iconic fossil species, Acanthostega gunnari is crucial for understanding the anatomy and ecology of the earliest tetrapods.  However, after hundreds of millions of years in the ground fossils are often damaged and deformed.  No single specimen of Acanthostega preserves a skull that is complete and three-dimensional which has limited scientists’ understanding of how this key animal fed and breathed – until now.

Researchers from Cambridge and Bristol University used specialist software to ‘digitally prepared’ a number of Acanthostega specimens from East Greenland, stripping away layers of rock to reveal the underlying bones.  

They uncovered a number of bones deep within the skull, including some that had never before been seen or described, resulting in a detailed anatomical description of the Acanthostega skull. 

Once all of the bones and teeth were digitally separated from each other, cracks were repaired and missing elements duplicated.  Bones could then be manipulated individually in 3D space.  Using information from other specimens, the bones were fitted together like puzzle pieces to produce the first 3D reconstruction of the skull of Acanthostega, with surprising results.

Co-author Dr Laura Porro, formerly of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology and Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences (now at the Royal Veterinary College) said: “Because early tetrapods skulls are often ‘pancaked’ during the fossilization process, these animals are usually reconstructed having very flat heads.  Our new reconstruction suggests the skull of Acanthostega was taller and somewhat narrower than previously interpreted, more similar to the skull of a modern crocodile.”

The researchers also found clues to how Acanthostega fed.  The size and distribution of its teeth and the shape of contacts between individual bones of the skull (called sutures) suggest Acanthostega may have initially seized prey at the front of its jaws using its large front teeth and hook-shaped lower jaw.

The team say that these new analyses provide fresh clues about the evolution of the jaws and feeding system as the earliest animals with limbs and digits began to conquer the land.

The researchers plan to apply these methods to other flattened fossils of the earliest tetrapods to better understand how these early animals modified their bones and teeth to meet the challenges of living on land.

“This work is the first stage of a study towards understanding how the earliest tetrapods fed, and that might lead us to what they fed on, and give further clues as to when and how they started to feed on land,” said co-author Professor Jennifer Clack from Cambridge’s Zoology Department.

Digital models of the original fossils and the 3D reconstruction are also useful in scientific research and education.  They can be accessed by researchers around the world, without risking damage to fragile original fossils and without scientists having to travel thousands of miles to see original specimens. Furthermore, digital models and 3D printouts can be easily and safely handled by students taking courses and by the public during outreach events. The study is published recently in the journal PLOS ONE.

Adapted from a Bristol University press release.

Inset image: 3D model showing the complete skull on top with ‘exploded’ views of the upper and lower jaws below.

The first 3D reconstruction of the skull of a 360 million-year-old near-ancestor of land vertebrates has been created by scientists.

This work is the first stage of a study towards understanding how the earliest tetrapods fed, and that might lead us to what they fed on
Jennifer Clack
Left: 3D model with the jaws open; the individual bones are colour-coded to show the boundaries between them. Right: Original fossil skull of Acanthostega gunnari

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.


MPhil student wins bursary

From Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 09, 2015.

Nick Davies’ new book, Cuckoo: Cheating By Nature

From Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 06, 2015.

Baby mantises harness mid-air ‘spin’ during jumps for precision landings

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 05, 2015.

The smaller you are, the harder it is not to spin out of control when you jump. Miniscule errors in propulsive force relative to the centre of mass results in most jumping insects – such as fleas, leafhoppers and grasshoppers – spinning uncontrollably when they jump.

Until now, scientists worked under the hypothesis that such insects can’t control this, and spin unpredictably with frequent crash landings.

But new high-speed video analysis of the jumps of wingless, baby praying mantises has revealed a technique which actually harnesses the spinning motion, enabling them to jump with accuracy at the same time as repositioning their body mid-air to match the intended target – all in under a tenth of a second.

Researchers used a thin black rod distant from the platform on which the mantises sat as a target for them to jump at.

During the jumps, the insects rotated their legs and abdomen simultaneously yet in varying directions – shifting clockwise and anti-clockwise rotations between these body parts in mid-air – to control the angular momentum, or ‘spin’. This allowed them to shift their body in the air to align themselves precisely with the target on which they chose to land.

And the mantises did all of this at phenomenal speed. An entire jump, from take-off to landing, lasted around 80 milliseconds – literally faster than the blink of a human eye.

At first, scientists believed the mantis had simply evolved a way to mitigate the natural spin that occurs when such small insects jump at speed.

On closer inspection, however, they realised the mantis is in fact deliberately injecting controlled spin into the jump at the point of take-off, then manipulating this angular momentum while airborne through intricate rotations of its extremities in order to reposition the body in mid-air, so that it grasps the target with extreme precision.

For the study, published today in the journal Current Biology, the researchers analysed a total of 381 slowed-down videos of 58 young mantises jumping to the target, allowing them to work out the intricate mechanics used to land the right way up and on target virtually every time.  

“We had assumed spin was bad, but we were wrong – juvenile mantises deliberately create spin and harness it in mid-air to rotate their bodies to land on a target,” said study author Professor Malcolm Burrows from Cambridge University’s Department of Zoology, who conducted the research with Dr Gregory Sutton from Bristol University.

“As far as we can tell, these insects are controlling every step of the jump. There is no uncontrolled step followed by compensation, which is what we initially thought,” he said.

In fact, when the researchers moved the target closer, the mantises spun themselves twice as fast to ensure they got their bodies parallel with the target when they grasped it. 

For Sutton, the study is similar to accountancy, only with distribution of momentum instead of money. “The mantis gives itself an amount of angular momentum at take-off and then distributes this momentum while in mid-air: a certain amount in the front leg at one point; a certain amount in the abdomen at another – which both stabilise the body and shift its orientation, allowing it to reach the target at the right angle to grab on,” he said.

The researchers tested what would happen if they restricted the ability of the mantis to harness and spread the ‘spin’ to its extremities during a jump. To do this, they glued the segments of the abdomen together, expecting the mantis to spin out of control.

Intriguingly, the accuracy of the jump wasn’t impeded. The mantises still reached the target, but couldn’t rotate their bodies into the correct position – so crashed headlong into it and bounced off again.

The next big question for the researchers is to understand how the mantis achieves its mid-air acrobatics at such extraordinary speeds. “We can see the mantis performs a scanning movement with its head before a jump. Is it predicting everything in advance or does it make corrections at lightning speed as it goes through the jump? We don’t know the answer between these extreme possibilities,” said Burrows.
Sutton added: “We now have a good understanding of the physics and biomechanics of these precise aerial acrobatics. But because the movements are so quick, we need to understand the role the brain is playing in their control once the movements are underway.”

Sutton believes that the field of robotics could learn lessons from the juvenile mantis. “For small robots, flying is energetically expensive, and walking is slow. Jumping makes sense – but controlling the spin in jumping robots is an almost intractable problem. The juvenile mantis is a natural example of a mechanical set-up that could solve this,” he said.

Professor Malcolm Burrows and Dr Gregory Sutton

High-speed videos reveal that, unlike other jumping insects, the juvenile praying mantis does not spin out of control when airborne. In fact, it both creates and controls angular momentum at extraordinary speeds to orient its body for precise landings.

As far as we can tell, these insects are controlling every step of the jump
Malcolm Burrows
A juvenile praying mantis

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Amazon deforestation ‘threshold’ causes species loss to accelerate

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 04, 2015.

One of the first studies to map the impact of deforestation on biodiversity across entire regions of the Amazon has found a clear ‘threshold’ for forest cover below which species loss becomes more rapid and widespread.    

By measuring the loss of a core tranche of dominant species of large and medium-sized mammals and birds, and using the results as a bellwether, the researchers found that for every 10% of forest loss, one to two major species are wiped out.

This is until the threshold of 43% of forest cover is reached, beyond which the rate of biodiversity loss jumps from between two to up to eight major species gone per 10% of disappeared forest.

While current Brazilian law requires individual landowners in the Amazon to retain 80% forest cover, this is rarely achieved or enforced. Researchers say that the focus should be shifted to maintaining 50% cover – just half the forest – but over entire landscapes rather than individual farms, in a bid to stop whole regions losing untold biodiversity by slipping below the 43% threshold at which species loss accelerates.

Unless urgent action is taken to stem deforestation in key areas that are heading towards or have just dipped below the forest cover ‘threshold’ – which, according to the research team’s models, amounts to a third of the Amazon – these areas will suffer the loss of between 31-44% of species by just 2030.  

“These results support the need for a major shift in the scale at which environmental legislation is applied in Brazil and the tropics,” said Dr Jose Manuel Ochoa-Quintero, from Cambridge University’s Department of Zoology, who led the study, published recently in the journal Conservation Biology.

“We need to move from thinking in terms of compliance at a farm scale to compliance at a landscape scale if we are to save as many species as we can from extinction."
The researchers worked across an area of the North West Amazon over three million hectares in size. They then divided the region into 1,223 squares of 10,000km, and selected 31 squares representative of the spectrum of forest cover across the region (12-90% cover). 27 squares consisted of private land; only four were protected areas (PAs). PAs were only areas in region with almost complete forest cover. 

Within the 31 squares, researchers analysed the presence of 35 key species of mammals and birds for which these regions are natural habitats, such as pumas, giant anteaters and red howler monkeys. This was done through a combination of direct observation and recording evidence such as footprints and faeces, as well as in-depth interviews with landowners and residents, who were quizzed about species presence through photographs, animal noises and local knowledge.  

The researchers found a cut-off, conservatively given as 43% forest cover, below which the squares held “markedly fewer species”, with up to eight key species lost for every 10% of further deforestation beyond this threshold.  

“This is not just a result of overall loss of habitat, but also reduced connectivity between remaining forest fragments, causing species to hunt and mate in ever-decreasing circles,” said Ochoa-Quintero. “This fragmentation may be the key element of the ‘threshold’ tipping point for biodiversity.”

Encroaching agriculture – from beef to soya production – to feed a growing and more affluent human population means that, at the current rates, the number of 10,000km2 landscapes in the Amazon that fall below the species loss threshold of 43% forest cover will almost double by just 2030. At current rates, by 2030 only a mere 22% of landscapes in the region will be able to sustain three quarters of the key species surveyed for the study.        

The expansion of agriculture in recent decades means that around 41% of the original forest in the study region – some two million hectares – has been lost over just the last 40 years. 

Researchers say that while PAs can counter agricultural expansion – and many have increasingly called for PAs to expand across the planet amid dire evidence of rapid species decline – the limits on land that can be set aside for PAs means that biodiversity conservation success depends on protecting native vegetation on private lands.

The highest priority landscapes, some 33% of land in the region, are those that either just dipped below the 43% threshold in 2010, or are expected to in the next 20 years.

“Avoiding deforestation and focusing reforestation in the areas that teeter on the species loss threshold will be the most direct and cost-effective way to prevent further species loss in the Amazon region,” added Ochoa-Quintero.

Inset image: Local farmer with a Scarlet Macaw (Credit: JM Ochoa-Quintero)

One of the largest area studies of forest loss impacting biodiversity shows that a third of the Amazon is headed toward or has just past a threshold of forest cover below which species loss is faster and more damaging. Researchers call for conservation policy to switch from targeting individual landowners to entire regions.

We need to move from thinking in terms of compliance at a farm scale to compliance at a landscape scale if we are to save as many species as we can from extinction
Jose Manuel Ochoa-Quintero
Corn plantation nearby remaining forest in the Amazon region

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Museum of Zoology plans boosted

From Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 02, 2015.

Congratulations to Nick Crumpton and Robert Brocklehurst

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

World’s protected natural areas receive eight billion visits a year

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Feb 24, 2015.

The world’s national parks and nature reserves receive around eight billion visits every year, according to the first study into the global scale of nature-based tourism in protected areas. The paper, by researchers in Cambridge, UK, Princeton, New Jersey, and Washington, DC, published in the open access journal PLOS Biology, is the first global-scale attempt to answer the question of how many visits protected areas receive, and what they might be worth in terms of tourist dollars.

The authors of the study say that this number of visits could generate as much as US$600 billion of tourism expenditure annually - a huge economic benefit which vastly exceeds the less than US$10 billion spent safeguarding these sites each year.

Scientists and conservation experts describe current global expenditure on protected areas as “grossly insufficient”, and have called for greatly increased investment in the maintenance and expansion of protected areas – a move which this study shows would yield substantial economic return – as well as saving incalculably precious natural landscapes and species from destruction.

“It’s fantastic that people visit protected areas so often, and are getting so much from experiencing wild nature – it’s clearly important to people and we should celebrate that,” said lead author Professor Andrew Balmford, from Cambridge University’s Department of Zoology.

“These pieces of the world provide us with untold benefits: from stabilising the global climate and regulating water flows to protecting untold numbers of species. Now we’ve shown that through tourism nature reserves contribute in a big way to the global economy – yet many are being degraded through encroachment and illegal harvesting, and some are being lost altogether. It’s time that governments invested properly in protected areas.”

Dr Andrea Manica, a corresponding author also at Cambridge, said these are ballpark estimates based on limited data, so the researchers have been careful not to overstate the case: “These are conservative calculations. Visit rates are likely to be higher than eight billion a year, and there’s no doubt we are talking about hundreds of billions of tourism dollars a year,” he said. 

The attempt to calculate these figures was in part borne from frustration, said Balmford. “We study what people get out of nature, so-called ‘ecosystem services’. While some ecosystem services are difficult to measure – such as cultural or religious benefits – we thought that nature-based recreation would be quite tractable: there’s a market and tangible visits you can count.   

“However, when we started to investigate we found no-one had yet pieced the data together. So we got to work trawling for figures ourselves. After a few months we had constructed a database from which we could build our models. It’s limited, but it’s the best there is at the moment,” Balmford said. 

The database consists of visiting figures for 550 sites worldwide, which were then used to build equations that could predict visit rates for a further 140,000 protected areas based on their size, remoteness, national income, and so on.

The results surprised even seasoned conservation researchers. Nature tourism expert and team member Dr Matt Walpole of the UN’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre calls their cautious estimate of eight billion annual visits an “astonishing figure that illustrates the value people place on experiencing nature”.

Visit rates were highest in North America, where protected areas receive a combined total of over three billion visits a year, and lowest in Africa, where many countries have less than 100,000 protected area visits annually.

The Golden Gate National Recreation Area near San Francisco had the highest recorded visit rate in the database with an annual average of 13.7m visits, closely followed by the UK’s Lake District and Peak District National Parks, with 10.5m and 10.1m. By contrast, Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park got an annual average during the study period of 148,000 visits.

Team member Dr Jonathan Green, based in Cambridge, points out that it is far from just exotic places and large national parks that contribute to the visitation value of protected areas. “For many people, it’s the nature reserve on their doorstep where they walk the dog every Sunday”. Fowlmere nature reserve, a few miles south of Cambridge University, receives an average of almost 23,000 visits a year. 

By combining regional visit rates with region-specific averages for visitor spending – on everything from entry fees to transport and accommodation – the researchers were able to derive the most complete picture yet of the global economic significance of protected area visitation.  

“Our US$600 billion figure for the annual value of protected area tourism is likely to be an underestimate – yet it dwarfs the less than US$10 billion spent annually on safeguarding and managing these areas,” said Dr Robin Naidoo of World Wildlife Fund, another author of the study. “Through previous research, we know that the existing reserve network probably needs three to four times what is currently being spent on it”.

“While that may seem a lot of money, it’s a fraction of the economic benefit we get from protected areas – nature-based tourism is just one part,” said Balmford.

By way of context, he points to the recent announcement by computing giant Apple of record profits of US$18 billion in a single quarter. “Stopping the unfolding extinction crisis is not unaffordable. Three months of Apple profits could go a long way to securing the future of nature. Humanity doesn’t need electronic communication to survive. But we do need the rest of the planet.”

Researchers say that the first study to attempt to gauge global visitation figures for protected areas reveals nature-based tourism has an economic value of hundreds of billions of dollars annually, and call for much greater investment in the conservation of protected areas in line with the values they sustain – both economically and ecologically.

We’ve shown that through tourism nature reserves contribute in a big way to the global economy – yet many are being degraded through encroachment and illegal harvesting
Andrew Balmford
Visitors in Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia
Top ten most visited Protected Areas:
Protected Area Average annual visit numbers
Golden Gate National Recreation Area, US 13.7m
Lake District National Park, UK 10.5m
Peak District National Park, UK 10.1m
Lake Mead National Recreation Area, US 7.7m
North York Moors National Park, UK 7.3m
Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, US 5m
Dartmoor National Park, UK 4.3m
New Forest National Park, UK 4.3m
Grand Canyon National Park, US 4.29m
Cape Cod National Seashore, US 4.1m

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Museum of Zoology on BBC Look East

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

New CT imaging facility reveals 'internal secrets'

By lw355 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Feb 15, 2015.

CT Scan

The Cambridge Biotomography Centre (CBC), which launched early in 2015, houses the latest high-resolution computed tomography (CT) scanner available on the market. One of only a handful in the country, the CT scanner uses X-rays to measure density differences within objects, generating a precise three-dimensional reconstruction of the internal and external architecture of almost any object or specimen.

Already being used to scan everything from ancient Egyptian leg bones and fossils hidden inside rocks, to the muscle and skeletons within dead rats, the facility has been launched with the intention of providing not just Cambridge researchers but also the wider international research community with the chance to unlock their material’s closely held secrets.

“Although CT is frequently used in hospitals, this type of imaging has only recently become available to researchers,” explained Dr Colin Shaw, one of the leaders of the facility.

His work in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology is analysing the behaviour of our prehistoric ancestors through the analysis of their bones. “A continuum of different behaviours that stretches from couch potato to ultramarathon runner puts stresses and strains on bones which can be measured to reconstruct what our lives were like in the past,” he explained.

However, the information is hidden deep within the honeycomb-like structure of the bone itself, and the ancient remains he studies are too precious to be broken open. “For objects like these, the ability to do this non-invasively without cutting or slicing is a real benefit,” he added. “It means we can carry on studying the object long after the measurements have been made.”

The CBC houses a Nikon Metrology XT H 225 ST High Resolution CT Scanner and is a multi-user research facility that supports Cambridge researchers as well as the broader national and international academic community. The Center resides in the Department of Zoology, and was funded by the School of the Biological Sciences, the Departments of Zoology and Physiology, Development and Neuroscience, and the PAVE Research Group of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology.

A new imaging facility offers researchers in Cambridge and beyond the chance to see what lies within objects, without breaking them open.

A continuum of different behaviours that stretches from couch potato to ultramarathon runner puts stresses and strains on bones which can be measured to reconstruct what our lives were like in the past.
Colin Shaw
CT Scan

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Ants prefer to pick on ants their own size

From Department of Zoology. Published on Feb 11, 2015.

Graduate student discovers new species of dragonfly in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo

From Department of Zoology. Published on Jan 30, 2015.

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.

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

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.


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.

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.