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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.

The wonders of the animal kingdom: a new Museum of Zoology

By jfp40 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 20, 2014.

The vision is to create a Museum that enchants its visitors and celebrates the amazing diversity of animal life, showcasing the wonders of the animal kingdom and emphasising the importance of conserving biodiversity for the future. From the long extinct Dodo to specimens that inspired Darwin’s theories, the Museum has a distinguished history, reflected in the historical and scientific richness of its collections.

This significant grant will enable the Museum to:

  • create displays and new interpretation to engage people with the wonders of animal diversity;
  • create new stores to ensure that the Museum’s internationally significant collections are cared for to the highest standards;
  • expand the Museum’s learning programmes, reaching out to wider audiences and increasing online resources.

The University Museum of Zoology in Cambridge holds one of the greatest zoology collections in the world. It is designated as being of outstanding historical and scientific importance and forms a major part of one of the leading international research centres for the study of animal biology. Its four million specimens illustrate the diversity of animal life on Earth, tracing its evolution over the past 500 million years into the wonderful variety of life seen today. The collections include many treasures and unique specimens, including fine examples of the extinct Dodo, Great Auk, and Tasmanian Tiger, and many specimens collected by Charles Darwin and other great naturalists of the past.

Professor Michael Akam, Head of the Department of Zoology said: “We are hugely grateful to the HLF for supporting this exciting and far-reaching project which will benefit the collections and visitors alike."

Robyn Llewellyn, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund East of England said “We’re delighted to be supporting this project, and thanks to Lottery players’ money, we can all have the opportunity to discover the treasures of this Museum’s extraordinary collections.”

Professor Paul Brakefield, Director of the Museum of Zoology said: “The Museum is enthusiastically embracing this unique redevelopment opportunity to display the extraordinary richness of our collections in superb new spaces to the benefit of everyone. The creation of a new conservation campus in central Cambridge will mean that scientists and practitioners from across the University, working with NGOs, will be able to showcase the past, present and future of biodiversity on our planet”

The Museum is currently closed as work on the building, funded by Cambridge University, has already started and will create a Conservation Campus in partnership with the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI). Building work will take approximately two years and the Museum plans to reopen in summer 2016.

The £1.8 million grant is in addition to an HLF Development Grant of £180,000, awarded in January 2013 and matched by the Museum, which permitted development of the plans. The total project is currently costed at £4.8 million and the Museum has already launched a major public fund-raising appeal for £3 million.

The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has awarded a grant of £1.8 million to the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge. This funding will support ambitious plans to completely redevelop the Museum of Zoology with displays showcasing the wonders of the animal kingdom, and new stores to preserve its outstanding collections for the future.

We are hugely grateful to the HLF for supporting this exciting and far-reaching project which will benefit the collections and visitors alike.
Professor Michael Akam
View of new entrance with whale skeleton

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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.

To boldly go – how personality predicts social learning in baboons

By jfp40 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 11, 2014.

Working with a well-studied group of baboons in the Namibian desert, Dr Alecia Carter of the Department of Zoology set baboons learning tasks involving a novel food and a familiar food hidden in a cardboard box. Some baboons were given the chance to watch another baboon who already knew how to solve the task, while others had to learn for themselves.

To work out how bold or anxious the baboons were, she presented them either with a novel food or a threat in the form of a model of a puff adder.

She found that personality had a major impact on learning. “The bolder baboons learnt, but although the shy ones watched the baboon with the novel tasks just as long as the bold ones did, they did not learn the task. In effect, despite being made aware of what to do, they were still too shy to act on that information,” said Dr Carter.

The same held true for anxious versus calm baboons: the anxious individuals learnt the task by observing others while those who were laid back did not, even though they spent more time watching.

This mismatch between collecting social information and using it shows that personality plays a key role in social learning in animals, something that has previously been ignored in animal cognition studies.

“Our findings are significant because they suggest that animals may perform poorly in cognitive tasks not because they aren’t clever enough to solve them, but because they are too shy or nervous to interact with it. Individual differences in social learning that are related to personality may thus have to be taken into account systematically when studying animal cognition,” she said.

The results also suggest that the baboons’ social networks may prevent them from learning from others. “I couldn’t test some individuals no matter how hard I tried, because although they were given the opportunity to watch a knowledgeable individual who knew how to solve the task, some baboons simply never went near a knowledgeable individual and thus never had the opportunity to learn from others,” she explained.

The findings may impact how we understand the formation of culture in societies through social learning. If some individuals are unable to get information from others because they don’t associate with the knowledgeable individuals, or they are too shy to use the information once they have it, information may not travel between all group members, preventing the formation of a culture based on social learning.

The study, published in PeerJ, is the result of Dr Carter’s research for her PhD at the Australian National University. Now at the University of Cambridge, Dr Carter will continue to work with the Tsaobis Baboon Project, a long-term project run by the Zoological Society of London’s Institute of Zoology.

She will return to Namibia in April and June to set up a new study examining whether the baboons’ social network really affects from whom they get social information.

Like other social animals, baboons learn from each other about which foods are best to eat. Now, researchers at Cambridge have found that how well they learn from others depends on their personality, bold or anxious baboons learning more than those who are shy or laid back.

Our findings suggest that animals may perform poorly in cognitive tasks not because they aren’t clever enough to solve them, but because they are too shy or nervous to interact.
Dr Alecia Carter
Social learning in baboons

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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.

Prof Michael Akam Awarded Frink Medal by Zoological Society of London

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

Graduate Symposium 2014

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

Cuckoo named after Professor Nick Davies

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

Professor Nick Davies has had a cuckoo named after him as part of the British Trust for Ornithology's cuckoo tracking project.

Part II Zoology student wins first round of University Challenge

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

Students representing Trinity College did battle with Christ Church Oxford on University Challenge last night, winning a place in the second round.

Quest for missing sculpture

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

Why Museum of Zoology in Cambridge dismantled 70ft whale skeleton

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

Cambridge News slideshow of the whale being dismantled

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.

How stick insects honed friction to grip without sticking

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Feb 19, 2014.

When they’re not hanging upside down, stick insects don’t need to stick. In fact, when moving upright, sticking would be a hindrance: so much extra effort required to ‘unstick’ again with every step.

Latest research from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology shows that stick insects have specialised pads on their legs designed to produce large amounts of friction with very little pressure. When upright, stick insects aren’t sticking at all, but harnessing powerful friction to ensure they grip firmly without the need to unglue themselves from the ground when they move.     

In a previous study last year, the team discovered that stick insects have two distinct types of ‘attachment footpads’ - the adhesive ‘toe pads’ at the end of the legs, which are sticky, and the ‘heel pads’, which are not sticky at all. The insect uses different pads depending on direction and terrain. 

By studying the ‘heel pads’ in more detail, researchers discovered the insects have developed a way to generate massive friction when walking upright. They do this through a system of tiny hairs that use combinations of height and curvature to create a ‘hierarchy’ of grip, with the slightest pressure generating very strong friction - allowing stick insects to grip but not stick.

The researchers say the study - published today in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface - reveals yet another example of natural engineering successfully combining “desirable but seemingly contradictory properties of man-made materials” - namely, the best of both hard and soft materials - simply through clever structural design.

“Just by arrangement and morphology, nature teaches us that good design means we can combine the properties of hard and soft materials, making elemental forces like friction go a very long way with just a small amount of pressure,” said David Labonte, lead researcher from the Department of Zoology.

The power of friction relies on ‘contact area’, the amount of close contact between surfaces. In rigid materials, such as steel, even the tiniest amount of surface roughness means there is actually relatively little ‘contact area’ when pressed against other surfaces - so any amount of friction is very small.

On the other hand, soft materials achieve a lot of contact with surfaces, but - due to the larger amount of contact area - there is also a certain amount of adhesion or ‘stick’ not there with hard materials.

To solve this, stick insect’s hairy friction pads employ three main tricks to allow contact area to increase quickly under pressure, creating a scale or ‘hierarchy’ of grip with absolutely no stick:

• Both the pad itself and the tips of the hairs are rounded. This means that, when pressure is applied, more contact area is generated - like pushing down on a rubber ball.
• Some hairs are shorter than others, so the more pressure, the more hairs come into contact with the surface.
• When even more pressure is applied, some of the hairs bend over and make side contact - greatly increasing contact area with very little extra force.

These design features work in harmony to generate large amounts of friction with comparatively tiny amounts of pressure from the insect. Importantly, there is hardly any contact area without some tiny amount of pressure - which means that the specialised ‘frictional hairs’ don't stick.

Arrays of tiny hairs have been found before, for example on the feet of geckos, beetles and flies. However, these hairs are designed to stick, and are used when creatures are vertical or hanging upside down.

Sticky hairs are completely aligned and have flat tips - meaning that they immediately make full contact that hardly changes with additional weight - as opposed to friction hairs, with their higgledy-piggledy height ranges and rounded tips.

“We investigate these insects to try and understand biological systems, but lessons from nature such as this might also be useful for inspiring new approaches in man-made devices,” said Labonte.

He uses the example of a running shoe as a possible man-made item that could be enhanced by stick insect engineering: “If you run, you don’t want your feet to stick to the ground, but you also want to make sure you don’t slip.” 

Adds Labonte: “Stickiness is the force that is needed to overcome when trying to detach one thing from another. If the soles of your feet were made of Scotch tape, it may be helpful when you are walking up walls or hanging upside down, but the rest of the time it would be incredibly frustrating.”

“Stick insects have developed an ingenious way of overcoming the conflict between attachment and locomotion, with a dual pad system that alternates between stick and grip depending on the situation.”

Inset image: Scanning electron microscopy image of conical, micrometre-sized outgrowths that cover the tarsal ‘heel pads’ of some stick insects (false colours). Image by David Labonte & Adam Robinson.

Scientists have discovered that, when upright, stick insects don’t stick. Instead, they deploy special hairy pads designed to create huge amounts of friction from the tiniest of pressure increases - ensuring that the insects grip but don’t stick.

Lessons from nature such as this might also be useful for inspiring new approaches in man-made devices
David Labonte
Stick insect

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Classical connection

By aja43 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Feb 17, 2014.

Also in the Lent Term edition, our lady in the long coat goes behind the scenes at the new sports centre and finds staff and students enjoying everything from wattbikes and trampolining, to weightlifting and fives.

We find out how preparations are going as the city prepares to welcome the 101st edition of the Tour de France, unveil a special cartoon strip telling the story of how zoologist Nick Crumpton teamed up with artist Isaac Lenkiewisz to create a book designed to inspire the next generation of palaeontologists. And, on a more serious note, bring you news of a film exploring Cambridge’s role in supporting exiles from the 1973 military coup in Chile.

Regular sections cover the latest appointments, awards and honours in the University – and there’s even a Tweeting bird box at Murray Edwards.

An in-depth look at why Latin continues to play an important role at Cambridge is just one of the features in the latest University Newsletter, distributed to staff this week.

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Out of Asia: ancient genome lays to rest origins of Americas’ first humans

By jfp40 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Feb 12, 2014.

The young boy’s genetic blueprint reveals that the Americas’ first human inhabitants came from Asia, not Europe, laying to rest a long-standing mystery.

Conducted by a consortium of scientists led by the University of Copenhagen and including Drs Andrea Manica, Anders Eriksson and Vera Warmuth at the University of Cambridge, the study is published in Nature.

The child belonged to the Clovis people. They produced beautiful, distinctive stone and bone tools, and are named after the New Mexico town of Clovis where caches of the tools were first found in the 1920s and 30s.

The Clovis culture moved south through the Americas, but where it came from, how it spread and whether modern Native Americans are descendants of the Clovis people has puzzled scientists.

Until now, two conflicting theories existed. One suggests that humans arrived in North America from Siberian parts of Asia through a corridor between the melting ice sheets, and that these people are the ancestors of modern Native Americans.

A second theory – known as the Solutrean – suggests people first travelled to the Americas from Europe via Greenland across the frozen ocean.

According to Dr Manica: “When we look at arrow and spear heads from the parts of Asia where we think Native Americans originated, we find no such technology, nothing that looked anything like a Clovis arrow head.

“On the other hand if we go all the way to Spain and France, we can find some arrow heads that resemble, to a certain extent, what we find in the Clovis culture.”

Solving the mystery depended on finding a well-preserved Clovis skeleton, from which researchers could extract DNA.

They located a skeleton that had been discovered, together with Clovis tools, in 1968 on a Montana farm. It is the only known Clovis burial site, and carbon-14 dating shows the bones are around 12,600 years old, close to the end of the Clovis culture.

“After obtaining permission from the current Native American tribes who live in the area, we were able to take the bones to the lab and extract the DNA. The bones turned out to be so well preserved that we were able to reconstruct the entire genome of that individual,” said Dr Manica.

The child’s DNA revealed that the Clovis people came from Siberia, laying to rest the Solutrean theory.

“When we looked at this genome, it was definitely Asian; there was no sign of any European DNA, so it seems very clear that the people who made those Clovis artefacts were part of the Asian wave that came into the Americas about 15,000 years ago when the ice sheets started melting. Some stopped in North America, and invented the Clovis technology, and others continued all the way down to South America,” he said.

“As well as having a very clear Asian origin, it’s also very closely related to modern Native Americans. So the Clovis mystery is solved: we now know that Clovis were Asians and part of the group of people who colonised the Americas.”

Although the burial site is on private land owned by the Anzick family, the researchers worked closely with nine Native American groups with reservations in the surrounding area. A Crow tribe representative, together with the Anzick family, is working on an intertribal reburial of the bone fragments.

To see more about the research, view our film here

The genome of a child who died some 12,600 years ago in Montana – the oldest known human remains from North America – has been sequenced for the first time.

As well as having a very clear Asian origin, it’s also very closely related to modern Native Americans. So the Clovis mystery is solved: we now know that Clovis were Asians and part of the group of people who colonised the Americas.
Dr Andrea Manica
Examples of Clovis tools

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

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

Scientists highlight the resurrection of extinct animals as both a strong possibility and a major potential conservation issue

By sj387 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Dec 23, 2013.

Resurrection of several extinct species, the increasingly accelerated loss of wild rhinoceroses and a disastrous financial response to unburnable carbon are just some future global conservation issues flagged up in this year’s Horizon Scan, recently published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

Professor William Sutherland and Dr Mark Spalding are amongst the 18 scientists who took part in this year’s Horizon Scan, seeking to identify potential future conservation issues in order to reduce the “probability of sudden confrontation with major social or environmental changes”.

One such plausible issue is the resurrection or re-construction of extinct species, such as the woolly mammoth, passenger pigeon or the thylacine (a carnivorous marsupial). However, though there may be many benefits to the restoration of these animals, such a high-profile project could lead to attention and resources being diverted from attempts to thwart current threats to non-extinct species’ survival.

Professor Sutherland said ‘There has been discussion of this idea for some time but it is now looking more practical and the idea is being taken seriously. A key issues is whether this is really a conservation priority’.

Though the last woolly mammoth died around 4000 years ago, methods such as back-breeding, cloning and genetic engineering may lead to their resurrection. Not only could these extinct animals, and others such as the thylacine and the passenger pigeon, be re-constructed and returned to their native environments, they could potentially be used to “provide tools for outreach and education”.

However, though this would be a conservational triumph, it could also hamper efforts to protect animals that are currently facing extinction, as both attention and resources would be diverted from preserving existing species and their habitats. Furthermore, there has not been any investigation into the “viability, ethics and safety of releasing resurrected species”, nor the effect their presence may have on indigenous flora and fauna.

Another potential conservational issue identified by the Horizon Scan further highlights the problems facing species today. The loss of wild rhinoceroses and elephants is set to reaccelerate within the next few years, partially stimulated by a growing desire for ivory and horn.

In 2013, it is estimated that over 600 rhinoceroses were poached for their horn in South Africa alone, out of a total global population of less than 26,000. Though an increased human population and proximity to growing infrastructure is partially responsible, organised crime syndicates and intensive hunting carry the weight of the blame. In the Asian countries that use it, rhinoceros horn is more expensive than gold. Demand for the precious horn is ever increasing, resulting in elevated levels of poaching. If attention and resources are diverted from the protection of these majestic animals, we may have yet more candidates for resurrection in the future.

Altogether, this group of scientists identified the top 15 potential conservation issues (out of an initial group of 81 issues). In addition to the above topics, extensive land loss in southeast Asia from subsidence of peatlands, carbon solar cells as an alternative source of renewable energy, and an emerging fungal disease amongst snakes, have also been voted as plausible threats that need to be stopped before they can be realised.

‘A Horizon Scan of Global Conservation Issues for 2014’ can be read at http://authors.elsevier.com/sd/article/S0169534713002772

Scientists from across the world have “scanned the horizon” in order to identify potentially significant medium and long-term threats to conservation efforts.

There has been discussion of this idea for some time but it is now looking more practical and the idea is being taken seriously
Professor William Sutherland
Thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger

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Flights of fancy: the evolution of plumage patterns in male and female birds

By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Dec 18, 2013.

Ducks, geese and swans are waterfowl, an order known to scientists as Anseriformes. Hens, pheasants, partridges and turkeys are game-birds (Galliformes). Both orders are famous not just for their flesh but also for their striking and elaborate plumages which are sought after as decorative flourishes.  Some members of these orders show marked differences in appearance between the sexes: a phenomenon known as sexual dimorphism. Male and female mallards look so different that for many years they were thought to be different species. In other members of the same orders, there is little apparent difference in the plumage of males and females.

Research by Cambridge PhD candidate Thanh-Lan Gluckman, published today in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, looks afresh at similarities and differences in plumage in almost 300 members of the Anseriformes and Galiformes orders – and focuses on patterning between male and female birds rather than colour. She said: “The colour of plumage has attracted much research interest, but the exquisite patterns of bird plumage, such as the spots of the guinea fowl and the barred patterns of ducks and turkeys, to just name a few, have received much less attention.”

Since the 1980s, differences in the appearances of male and female birds have been seen through a prism of genetic correlation. In other words, it was thought that female birds may have evolved similar patterning to males due to common genes but that female patterns would be subsequently lost as it is not beneficial.

“It was argued that male birds developed their spectacular colours and elaborate patterning as a result of their mating patterns – they used their plumage to compete for and attract females. On the other hand, female birds needed to blend into their surroundings in order to nest safely and protect their young – so they became drab and dull to protect themselves and their young from predators,” said Gluckman.

“My research looked at the plumage patterns of male and female birds on a separate and equal basis – and then went on to identify similarities and differences between them. By tracing the evolutionary pathways in the dimorphism of 288 species of waterfowl and gamebirds, I reconstructed the evolutionary history of plumage pattern sexual dimorphism, which allowed me to demonstrate that plumage patterns in females are not a result of genetic correlation. Essentially, what I found was that plumage patterning is remarkably labile – both male and female birds have the capacity to change between different types of patterns.  What’s interesting is to consider what are the forces driving these changes in male and female plumage patterns – whether they have an environmental basis and/or whether they have a signalling function between birds of different sexes or within the same sex.”

As early as 1780, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London published a paper by John Hunter proposing that plumage differences between the sexes were driven by sexual selection. Ever since, the prevailing view of sexual dimorphism has been one of showy males strutting their stuff to win over demure females. The predominant explanation put forward to explain how differences in dimorphism evolved hinges on mating habits; males of polygamous species (those with more than one mate) had developed spectacular plumage in order to attract a maximum number of females, while monogamous species (those with one mate) retained similar plumage.  

Gluckman said: “Previous research has shown that the traditional argument that differences in plumage between the sexes stem from differences in breeding systems doesn’t always hold up. In many putatively monogamous species, the plumage of the males is significantly different to that of females and, likewise, males and females in many polygamous species have the same type of plumage. This suggests that plumage is not exclusively an outcome of breeding habits – but is a matter of function in a highly complex way.”

In her study of patterning, Gluckman looked at the variations between the sexes of the same species and across species in order to build a picture of the pathways to similarity and differences between male and female bird plumage patterns. She used a classification of four broad types of patterning: mottled, scaled, barred and spotted. Birds exhibit a fabulous number of variations and combinations of these visual patterns in females as well as males.

“By emphasising similarities as well as differences in plumage patterns between male and female birds, rather than whether one sex is the same as the other, I found that sexual dimorphism in the plumage pattern of birds is highly nuanced and that there can be multiple types of sexual dimorphism. In expanding the definition of sexual dimorphism, and reconstructing evolutionary history, I found that changes in sexual dimorphism could be due to changes in males and/or females. In addition, the plumage patterns of birds seem to transition easily between different types of dimorphism, which is congruent with adaptation to fluctuating social and environmental conditions,” said Gluckman.

Thanh-Lan Gluckman is a PhD candidate in the Evolutionary genetics group at the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge. She carried out this research during her MPhil in the Department of Zoology, University of Melbourne, Australia.

Research published today looks at the evolutionary pathways to differences in bird plumage patterns between males and females – and concludes that birds are able to adapt their appearance with remarkable ease. 

In expanding the definition of sexual dimorphism, and reconstructing evolutionary history, I found that changes in sexual dimorphism could be due to changes in males and/or females.
Thanh-Lan Gluckman
Waterfowl and gamebirds

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"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.

Research reveals details of how flu evolves to escape immunity

By sj387 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Nov 21, 2013.

Scientists have identified a potential way to improve future flu vaccines after discovering that seasonal flu typically escapes immunity from vaccines with as little as a single amino acid substitution. Additionally, they found these single amino acid changes occur at only seven places on its surface – not the 130 places previously believed. The research was published today, 21 November, in the journal Science.

“This work is a major step forward in our understanding of the evolution of flu viruses, and could possibly enable us to predict that evolution. If we can do that, then we can make flu vaccines that would be even more effective than the current vaccine,” said Professor Derek Smith from the University of Cambridge, one of the two leaders of the research, together with Professor Ron Fouchier from Erasmus Medical Center in The Netherlands.

The flu vaccine works by exposing the body to parts of inactivated flu from the three major different types of flu that infect humans, prompting the immune system to develop antibodies against these viruses. When exposed to the actual flu, these antibodies can eliminate the flu virus.

However, every two or three years the outer coat of seasonal flu (made up of amino acids) evolves, preventing antibodies that would fight the older strains of flu from recognising the new strain. As a result, the new strain of virus escapes the immunity that has been acquired as a result of earlier infections or vaccinations. Because the flu virus is constantly evolving in this way, the World Health Organisation meets twice a year to determine whether the strains of flu included in the vaccine should be changed.

For this study, the researchers created viruses which had a variety of amino acid substitutions as well as different combinations of amino acid substitutions. They then tested these viruses to see which substitutions and combinations of substitutions caused new strains to develop.

They found that seasonal flu escapes immunity and develops into new strains typically by just a single amino acid substitution. Until now, it was widely believed that in order for seasonal flu to escape the immunity individuals acquire from previous infections or vaccinations, it would take at least four amino acid substitutions.

They also found that such single amino acid changes occurred at only seven places on its surface – all located near the receptor binding site (the area where the flu virus binds to and infects host cells). The location is significant because the virus would not change so close to the site unless it had to, as that area is important for the virus to conserve.

“The virus needs to conserve this, its binding site, as it uses this site to recognize the cells that it infects in our throats,” said Bjorn Koel, from Erasmus Medical Center in The Netherlands and lead author of the paper.

Seasonal flu is responsible for half a million deaths and many more hospitalizations and severe illnesses worldwide every year.

Study shows that seasonal flu escapes immunity with single amino acid substitutions.

This work is a major step forward in our understanding of the evolution of flu viruses, and could possibly enable us to predict that evolution
Professor Derek Smith

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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.

Winners of the Graduate Poster Competition!

From Department of Zoology. Published on Oct 24, 2013.

Cuckoos impersonate hawks by matching their 'outfits'

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Oct 17, 2013.

New research shows that cuckoos have striped or “barred” feathers that resemble local birds of prey, such as sparrowhawks, that may be used to frighten birds into briefly fleeing their nest in order to lay their parasitic eggs.

By using the latest digital image analysis techniques, and accounting for “bird vision” - by converting images to the spectral sensitivity of birds - researchers have been able to show for the first time that the barred patterns on a cuckoo’s breast may allow it to impersonate dangerous birds of prey. This might enable cuckoos to frighten other avian hosts into leaving their nests exposed.

The latest findings, published today in the journal Animal Behaviour, expand the cuckoo’s arsenal of evolutionary deceptions, which include egg mimicry and chick mimicry that allow it to trick other birds into incubating its eggs.

Importantly, the study shows that a wide variety of cuckoos have adapted different plumage patterns depending on the area they inhabit so that they match a local bird of prey species.

While scientists have previously looked at links in plumage patterns between the common cuckoo and Eurasian sparrowhawk, the new research shows that this type of impersonation of a more dangerous animal – called ‘Batesian mimicry’ – may be far more widespread in cuckoos. In addition, the dangerous bird of prey that cuckoos resemble goes beyond sparrowhawks to include such raptors as bazas and harrier-hawks - depending on the species prevalent in the cuckoo’s neighbourhood.    

“There is no benefit in looking like a dangerous species your target is not familiar with,” said lead researcher Thanh-Lan Gluckman from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.      

“We first established similarity in plumage pattern attributes between cuckoos and raptor species, and then showed that cuckoos look nothing like species from a different geographical area.”

The cuckoos also use their crafty ‘hawk impression’ to allow them to fly ‘under the radar’, undetected as they scope out potential nests in which to deposit their parasitic eggs.

“The barring on their plumage helps cuckoos conceal themselves while searching for potential nests, then when they approach, the host of the nest may mistake a cuckoo for a raptor coming to get them – giving them unfettered access to lay eggs,” Gluckman said. 

While previous studies have focused on Batesian mimicry in the common cuckoo and Eurasian sparrowhawk, this is the first time that the plumage patterns of cuckoos have been analysed using digital image analysis techniques. The study suggests that this form of mimicry may be widespread among many cuckoo species, and that they may be mimicking a variety of different types of birds of prey. 

The researchers were surprised to find no pattern matching between cuckoos and raptors that live in different geographical areas, showing that the visual similarity is highly localised to species in the immediate vicinity.

“These findings underscore the importance of using digital image analysis to objectively quantify plumage patterning in mimicry – it is important not to make assumptions about even simple patterns such as these,” added Gluckman.

“We hope this encourages other researchers to examine the function of barred plumage in parasitic cuckoos and raptors the world over.”

Another interesting finding is that of the African cuckoo-hawk, a raptor so named because of its visual resemblance to cuckoos. This study objectively shows that the naming was an apt one, given that a local cuckoo matched the African cuckoo-hawk in all of the pattern attributes measured.

One of the earliest observers of the cuckoos’ invasive guile was Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who noted some 2,300 years ago that it “lays its eggs in the nest of smaller birds”.

Evolutionary trick allows cuckoos to ‘mimic’ the plumage of birds of prey, and may be used to scare mothers from their nests so that cuckoos can lay their eggs. Mimicry in cuckoos may be more much more widespread than previously thought.

There is no benefit in looking like a dangerous species your target is not familiar with
Thanh-Lan Gluckman
Left: Cuckoo compared to cuckoo-hawk plumage. Right: Cuckoo

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Amazonia at a crossroads

By sj387 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Oct 17, 2013.

The numbers associated with the Amazon are truly staggering. It encompasses nine countries; contains at least a tenth of the known species in the world; provides a home and resources to 31 million people; stores the equivalent amount of carbon to a decade of human-induced emissions for the entire planet; and discharges a fifth of the world’s fresh water.

However, rapid social and ecological change, borne on the back of deforestation, harvesting of natural resources and a changing climate, has left the future of the world’s largest remaining tropical forest uncertain – Amazonia, today, is “standing at a crossroads”, as Dr Toby Gardner describes.

He points to the existence of tough trade-offs that underpin the region’s challenges: “The demand for land and natural resources is driven by the development needs of one of the world’s largest emerging economies, as well as by the insatiable global food and commodities market. Understanding what management practices can best achieve both economic development and environmental conservation is central to addressing this challenge and shepherding the creation of a more sustainable Amazon.”

Gardner leads a new research programme that is motivated by helping to solve this dilemma – the Sustainable Amazon Network – alongside colleagues at Lancaster University, the Goeldi Museum in Belém (Brazil) and the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), with funding from the Brazilian and UK governments and The Nature Conservancy, among others.

The Network’s 100-strong group of researchers and students from over 30 institutions are working with conservation organisations, farmers and government officials. Their approach is to assemble an evidence base on the sustainability challenges and ecological consequences associated with land uses and management strategies, and to use this to test the effectiveness and risks of alternative policy choices facing local people and regional governments.

At the heart of the research is an appreciation of the complex array of interactions and feedbacks that characterise the changing face of Amazonia. The project takes as its ‘laboratory’ two regions of the eastern Amazon: Paragominas, a region infamous for lawlessness, violence, land grabbing, illegal sawmills and rampant forest clearance until the 1990s; and Santarém-Belterra, once a centre of pre-Colombian civilisation, with a long history of farming and now home to smallholder farms and larger agricultural enterprises.

What makes the project distinct from many other research initiatives is the collection of matched data from the same network of landholdings on changes in both the ecological and the socio-economic characteristics of different land and forest use systems. The team’s survey design has enabled information to be collected across the full wealth spectrum, from the poorest to the richest farmers, while allowing comparisons at multiple spatial scales – between different farms, catchments and regions.

The result is one of the most comprehensive field assessments ever undertaken in the tropics. Critical issues that are being addressed include the identification of potential threshold effects of deforestation on the degradation of ecological systems, and the identification of strategies at both farm and municipality scales that can effectively reconcile conservation and development goals.

“In addition, one of the longer term implications of any initiative like this is the fact that a large group of students and researchers, many of whom are Brazilian, have been exposed to new ideas and new ways of thinking about sustainability problems, and this, perhaps above anything else, will be the most valuable legacy of our project,” added Gardner.

Can the world’s largest tropical forest biome be transformed into a sustainable ecological system? “There is a short window of opportunity and there is potential for recovery,” said Gardner. “But we cannot afford to be complacent.”

The Amazon rainforest faces an uncertain future – one that an international research network hopes to help steer towards sustainability.

There is a short window of opportunity and there is potential for recovery, but we cannot afford to be complacent
Toby Gardner

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Dr Claire Spottiswoode - European Commission FP7 MC International Incoming Fellowship

From Department of Zoology. Published on Aug 07, 2013.

HONEYGUIDE IMMUNITY - The evolution of immune defences in avian brood parasites and their hosts

Dr Nicola Lewis - Defence Threat Reduction Agency Research Grant

From Department of Zoology. Published on Aug 07, 2013.

Ecology and evolution of avian influenza virus (AIV) in wild birds in Georgia and the establishment of the population genetics structure of a host species

Dr Judith Fonville - MRC Fellowship

From Department of Zoology. Published on Aug 07, 2013.

Quantifying pandemic risk caused by within-host evolution of influenza A/H5N1 viruses

Dr Torsten Krude - BBSRC Research Grant

From Department of Zoology. Published on Aug 07, 2013.

Purification and characterisation of a novel dominant initiation factor for chromosomal DNA replication

Dr Lynn Dicks - NERC Fellowship

From Department of Zoology. Published on Aug 06, 2013.

Supporting ecosystem services on commercial farms: using evidence to inform land management decision

Dr Chris Jiggins - BBSRC Research Grant

From Department of Zoology. Published on Aug 06, 2013.

Building a genome analytic resource for the lepidopteran community

Professor Rufus Johnstone - Leverhulme Trust Research Grant

From Department of Zoology. Published on Aug 06, 2013.

Adaptive modeling of human infant growth

Dr Claire Spottiswoode - Leverhulme Trust Research Grant

From Department of Zoology. Published on Aug 06, 2013.

The role of phenotypic plasticity in driving a remarkable adaptive radiation

Dr Rose Thorogood - Society In Science Research Grant

From Department of Zoology. Published on Aug 05, 2013.

Dr Rose Thorogood - NERC Fellowship

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

Landscapes of information: how information use affects ecological communities

Academic Promotions 2013

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

Many congratulations to five members of the Department who have received awards in this year's Academic Promotions exercise, to take effect from 1 October 2013:

Recent Postgraduate Awards

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

Two awards

From Department of Zoology. Published on Aug 01, 2013.

Professor Jenny Clack awarded Glasgow Geological Society's T. Neville George medal; Dr Henry Disney awarded Honorary Membership to the Freshwater Biological Association

Nick Crumpton co-authors children's book

From Department of Zoology. Published on Jul 29, 2013.

A new children's activity book co-authored by the Department's Nick Crumpton has been published by Flying Eye books.

New Undergraduate Certificate in Evolutionary Biology

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

Institute of Continuing Education offers new year-long, part-time Undergraduate Certificate in Evolutionary Biology