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Raising the Whale: defining zoology at Cambridge

From Department of Zoology. Published on Apr 29, 2016.

Threat of novel swine flu viruses in pigs and humans

By Anonymous from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Apr 27, 2016.

While swine flu viruses have long been considered a risk for human pandemics, and were the source of the 2009 pandemic H1N1 virus, attention has recently turned to the transmission of flu viruses from humans to pigs.

"Once in pigs, flu viruses from humans continue to evolve their surface proteins, generically referred to as antigens, resulting in a tremendous diversity of novel flu viruses that can be transmitted to other pigs and also to humans," explains first author Nicola Lewis from the University of Cambridge.

"These flu viruses pose a serious threat to public health because they are no longer similar enough to the current human flu strains for our immune systems to recognise them and mount an effective defence. Understanding the dynamics and consequences of this two-way transmission is important for designing effective strategies to detect and respond to new strains of flu."

Humans and pigs both experience regular outbreaks of influenza A viruses, most commonly from H1 and H3 subtypes. Their genetic diversity is well characterised. However, the diversity of their antigens, which shapes their pandemic potential, is poorly understood, mainly due to lack of data.

To help improve this understanding, Lewis and her team created the largest and most geographically comprehensive dataset of antigenic variation. They amassed and characterised antigens from nearly 600 flu viruses dating back from 1930 through to 2013 and collected from multiple continents, including Europe, the US, and Asia. They included nearly 200 viruses that had never been studied before.

Analysis of their data reveals that the amount of antigenic diversity in swine flu viruses resembles the diversity of H1 and H3 viruses seen in humans over the last 40 years, driven by the frequent introduction of human viruses to pigs. In contrast, flu from birds has rarely contributed substantially to the diversity in pigs. However, little is currently known about the antigenic relationship between flu in birds and pigs.

"Since most of the current swine flu viruses are the result of human seasonal flu virus introductions into pigs, we anticipate at least some cross-protective immunity in the human population, which could potentially interfere with a re-introduction of these viruses. For example, the H1N1pdm09 viruses circulating in both humans and pigs are antigenically similar and therefore likely induce some immunity in both hosts," says Lewis.

"However, for the H1 1C, H3 3A, and H3 3B human seasonal lineages in pigs, the risk of re-introduction into the human population increases with the number of people born after the circulation of the human precursor virus, and is increased by the antigenic evolution of these viruses in pigs. Earlier introduced lineages of human H1 and H3 viruses therefore pose the greatest current risk to humans, due to the low or negligible predicted levels of cross-immunity in individuals born since the 1970s."

Swine flu causes symptoms such as coughing, fever, body aches, chills, and fatigue in humans. Pigs can also experience fever and coughing (barking), along with discharge from the nose or eyes, breathing difficulties, eye redness or inflammation, and going off feed - although some display no clinical signs at all.

Vaccination to control flu in pigs is used extensively in the US and occasionally in other regions. Control strategies vary by region, with some countries not using any vaccinations, while others produce herd-specific vaccines for individual producers. There is no formal system for matching vaccine strains with circulating strains, however, and no validated protocols for standardisation and effective vaccine use.

"The significant antigenic diversity that we see in our data means it is highly unlikely that one vaccine strain per subtype would be effective on a global scale, or even in a given region," says co-author Colin Russell, also from the University of Cambridge.

"Our findings therefore have important implications for developing flu vaccines for pigs. They also emphasise the need for more focused surveillance in areas with a high pig population density, such as China, and situations where humans and pigs have close contact, in order to better assess the incidence of transmission between the animals and risk of spreading to humans."

Reference:

The paper 'The global antigenic diversity of swine influenza A viruses' can be freely accessed online at http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.12217.

Originally published as a press release by eLife.

The wide diversity of flu in pigs across multiple continents, mostly introduced from humans, highlights the significant potential of new swine flu strains emerging, according to a new study.

These flu viruses pose a serious threat to public health because they are no longer similar enough to the current human flu strains for our immune systems to recognise them
Nicola Lewis

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Threat of novel swine flu viruses in pigs and humans

From Department of Zoology. Published on Apr 26, 2016.

Does nature make you happy? Crowdsourcing app looks at relationship between the outdoors and wellbeing

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Apr 26, 2016.

NatureBuzz, which is available to download free on iOS and Android platforms, asks participants three times per day to answer questions about how they feel, whether they are outside or indoors, who they are with, and what they are doing. At the same time, it records their location using GPS data.

NatureBuzz also provides information about UK nature reserves and ‘protected areas’ and will provide users with feedback on how their happiness has fluctuated, where it was highest, with whom and during which activities.

“Apps provide a great way of collecting data from thousands – possibly tens of thousands – of users, a scale that is just not possible in lab experiments,” explains research associate Laurie Parma from the Department of Psychology, who coordinates the study. “We’ll use this data to answer some fascinating and potentially very important questions about our relationship with nature.”

Studies have suggested that people are happier and reinvigorated when living in more natural settings. For example, a 2011 study from the United States found that people who live in inner cities were the least happy, while those who live in rural areas are the happiest. However, it is not clear whether all green spaces promote happiness equally.

Diversity – the number and abundance of different species in particular systems – is thought to be important in increasing the resilience of some so-called ecosystem services  - such as climate regulation and pest control – that underpin human wellbeing. However, the more immediate role that biodiversity may play in affecting happiness is unclear.

“We know that people quickly become familiar with – and immune to – happiness-inducing stimuli and one potential way to combat this phenomenon is to provide new and varied stimuli,” adds Professor Andrew Balmford from the Department of Zoology. “Natural environments with greater biodiversity – different flowers, different birds, for example – present a rich variety of stimuli, so it’s possible they will keep the ‘happiness factor’ fresh for visitors.”

The researchers hope that by crowdsourcing data, they will be able to answer questions such as whether the type of green space – gardens, city parks, countryside or nature reserves, for example – have the same impact on an individual’s wellbeing, and whether someone needs to be interested in nature to benefit more from the natural environment. They believe their findings may have important consequences for how policymakers promote biodiversity and how reserve managers enable people to make the most of the happiness-improving potential of access to nature.

The app is part of a broader study of happiness and nature developed by the Departments of Psychology and Zoology, University of Cambridge, RSPB, UNEP-WCMC and Cardiff University. It is funded by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative and is part of a research programme on human happiness.

NatureBuzz is available to download from the iPhone App Store and from Google Play.

A new app will crowdsource data to help scientists understand the relationship between biodiversity and wellbeing. The app, developed at the University of Cambridge, maps happiness onto a detailed map that includes all the UK’s nature reserves and green spaces. 

Apps provide a great way of collecting data from thousands – possibly tens of thousands – of users, a scale that is just not possible in lab experiments
Laurie Parma
La felicità nella luce della sera

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A damn close run thing (as Wellington probably did not say)

From Department of Zoology. Published on Apr 22, 2016.

Baboons watch neighbours for clues about food, but can end up in queues

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Apr 20, 2016.

Latest research on social networks in wild baboon troops has revealed how the animals get information from each other on the whereabouts of food. However, once information reaches a high status baboon, subordinates often end up in a queue for scraps.

A new study, by researchers from the University of Cambridge and the Zoological Society of London, shows how baboons monitor each other for changes in behaviour that indicate food has been found, such as hunching over to scoop it up.

This ‘socially learned’ information gets transmitted through proximity: those with more neighbours are more likely to spot when someone starts feeding. Once they do, baboons will head towards the food.

Information then starts to spread through the troop, as more baboons observe feeding behaviour or notice their neighbours moving in the direction of food. However, troop hierarchy ultimately kicks in – with the most dominant member in the vicinity, usually a male, wading in to claim the spoils. 

At this point, surrounding baboons will often form what can appear to be a queue, to determine who gets to explore that patch of ground next.

These queues reflect the complex interactions within a baboon troop. The sequence of baboons in a queue depends on status – sometimes through birth-right – as well as social and familial relationships to the particular baboon occupying the food patch.

The new research, published in the open access journal eLife, breaks down the transmission of social information through a baboon troop into three stages:

  • Acquiring information: observing behaviour that suggests food.
  • Applying information: exploring the food patch (even if no food is left).
  • Finally, exploiting information: actually getting to eat.

The researchers used social networking models to show how being close enough to spot behaviour change is the only driver for acquiring knowledge.

When it comes to applying and exploiting social knowledge, however, the characteristics of individual baboons – whether its sex, status, boldness, or social ties in grooming networks – determine who gets to eat, or where they are in any queue that forms.

Baboon troops can be sizable, sometimes as many as 100 members, with the troops in the latest study numbering around 70. On average, less than 25% of a troop – around 10 individuals – acquired information of a food patch, with less than 5% of the troop actually exploiting it.

“Who actually gets to eat is only half the story,” says Dr Alecia Carter, from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, who led the research.

“Just looking at the animals that capture the benefits of information, in this case food, doesn’t reflect the real pattern of how information transmits through groups. Many more animals acquire information, but are limited in their use of it for a variety of reasons.”

To conduct the study, researchers snuck handfuls of maize corn kernels, a high-energy baboon favourite (“like finding a stash of chocolate bars”) into the path of two foraging troops of wild chacma baboons in Tsaobis Nature Park, Namibia.

Once a troop member found the food, the researchers recorded the identities of baboons that spotted the animal eating, accessed the food patch, and got anything to eat.

Carter says that the best place for low-ranking baboons is often the peripheries, in the hopes of finding food and grabbing a few kernels before information spreads, and they are supplanted by the local dominant.

“The more dominant a baboon is, the more spatially central in the troop they tend to be – as they can afford to be there. This provides more opportunities to gain information through the wider network,” says Carter.  

Low-rankers that discover food will sometimes try to eat as stealthily or as quickly as they can, but, once a dominant has taken control of the food patch, a queue will often form. Grooming relationships to the feeding dominant can help a subordinate jump up a queue, although much of it is dictated by status.

For females, status is a birth-right that remains fixed throughout a baboon’s life. While human societies historically privilege the firstborn, in baboon troops maternal lineage is ranked by lastborn – with each new female baby replacing the last in terms of hierarchy. 

Young males hold the same rank as their mother until they reach adolescence, usually around the age of six, and start asserting dominance through their bigger size, leading to shifts in status. 

“It is relatively easy to collect dominance data, as baboons are constantly asserting dominance,” explains Carter. “Low-cost assertions of dominance, such as pushing an individual out of small patches of food, help to mitigate high-cost assertions, such as fights, and maintain the order.”

“However, baboons can mediate their status to a minor extent by having good grooming relationships, and low-ranking individuals have a slightly higher chance of applying and exploiting information if they are central in a grooming network. Over a lifetime of food opportunities, this may prove important for fitness.”

While baboons acquire information about food locations from watching others, they can also use social learning to see when that food is likely to be gone. Interestingly, the researchers found that males and females will often use this information in different ways. 

“Baboons are highly vigilant, and constantly pay attention to what their neighbours are up to. When those in a food patch are sifting through dirt and clearly coming up empty-handed, most females will walk off, and won’t waste their time,” says Carter.

“Males on the other hand, particularly young males, are amazingly persistent, and will stay in a patch shifting sand around for a very long time in the hopes of finding a stray kernel.

“We hypothesise that, while males can afford to expend the energy, adult females are lactating or pregnant most of the time, so need to conserve their strength, and often end up using the information in a more practical way as a result.”

Baboons learn about food locations socially through monitoring the behaviour of those around them. While proximity to others is the key to acquiring information, research shows that accessing food depends on the complex hierarchies of a baboon troop, and those lower down the pecking order can end up queuing for leftovers.

The more dominant a baboon is, the more spatially central in the troop they tend to be – as they can afford to be there
Alecia Carter
Baboon troop

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Baboons queue for food - report by Alecia Carter

From Department of Zoology. Published on Apr 20, 2016.

Sonic hedgehog gene provides evidence that our limbs may have evolved from sharks’ gills

By jeh98 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Apr 19, 2016.

An idea first proposed 138 years ago that limbs evolved from gills, which has been widely discredited due to lack of supporting fossil evidence, may prove correct after all – and the clue is in a gene named for everyone’s favourite blue hedgehog.  

Unlike other fishes, cartilaginous fishes such as sharks, skates and rays have a series of skin flaps that protect their gills. These flaps are supported by arches of cartilage, with finger-like appendages called branchial rays attached.

In 1878, influential German anatomist Karl Gegenbaur presented the theory that paired fins and eventually limbs evolved from a structure resembling the gill arch of cartilaginous fishes. However, nothing in the fossil record has ever been discovered to support this.

Now, researchers have reinvestigated Gegenbaur’s ideas using the latest genetic techniques on embryos of the little skate – a fish from the very group that first inspired the controversial theory over a century ago – and found striking similarities between the genetic mechanism used in the development of its gill arches and those in human limbs.

Scientists say it comes down to a critical gene in limb development called ‘Sonic hedgehog’, named for the videogame character by a research team at Harvard Medical School. 

The new research shows that the functions of the Sonic hedgehog gene in human limb development, dictating the identity of each finger and maintaining growth of the limb skeleton, are mirrored in the development of the branchial rays in skate embryos. The findings are published today in the journal Development.

Dr Andrew Gillis, from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology and the Marine Biological Laboratory, who led the research, says that it shows aspects of Gegenbaur’s theory may in fact be correct, and provides greater understanding of the origin of jawed vertebrates – the group of animals that includes humans.

“Gegenbaur looked at the way that these branchial rays connect to the gill arches and noticed that it looks very similar to the way that the fin and limb skeleton articulates with the shoulder,” says Gillis. “The branchial rays extend like a series of fingers down the side of a shark gill arch.”

“The fact that the Sonic hedgehog gene performs the same two functions in the development of gill arches and branchial rays in skate embryos as it does in the development of limbs in mammal embryos may help explain how Gegenbaur arrived at his controversial theory on the origin of fins and limbs.”

In mammal embryos, the Sonic hedgehog gene sets up the axis of the limb in the early stages of development. “In a hand, for instance, Sonic hedgehog tells the limb which side will be the thumb and which side will be the pinky finger,” explains Gillis. In the later stages of development, Sonic hedgehog maintains outgrowth so that the limb grows to its full size.

To test whether the gene functions in the same way in skate embryos, Gillis and his colleagues inhibited Sonic hedgehog at different points during their development.

They found that if Sonic hedgehog was interrupted early in development, the branchial rays formed on the wrong side of the gill arch. If Sonic hedgehog was interrupted later in development, then fewer branchial rays formed but the ones that did grow, grew on the correct side of the gill arch – showing that the gene works in a remarkably similar way here as in the development of limbs.

“Taken to the extreme, these experiments could be interpreted as evidence that limbs share a genetic programme with gill arches because fins and limbs evolved by transformation of a gill arch in an ancestral vertebrate, as proposed by Gegenbaur,” says Gillis. “However, it could also be that these structures evolved separately, but re-used the same pre-existing genetic programme. Without fossil evidence this remains a bit of a mystery – there is a gap in the fossil record between species with no fins and then suddenly species with paired fins – so we can’t really be sure yet how paired appendages evolved.”

“Either way this is a fascinating discovery, because it provides evidence for a fundamental evolutionary link between branchial rays and limbs,” says Gillis. “While palaeontologists look for fossils to try to reconstruct the evolutionary history of anatomy, we are effectively trying to reconstruct the evolutionary history of genetic programmes that control the development of anatomy.”

Paired appendages, such as arms and hands in humans, are one of the key anatomical features that distinguish jawed vertebrates from other groups. “There is a lot of interest in trying to understand the origins of jawed vertebrates, and the origins of novel features like fins and limbs,” says Gillis.

“What we are learning is that many novel features may not have arisen suddenly from scratch, but rather by tweaking and re-using a relatively small number of ancient developmental programmes.”

Gillis and his colleagues are further testing Gegenbaur’s theory by comparing the function of more genes involved the development of skates’ unusual gills and mammalian limbs.

“Previous studies haven’t found compelling developmental genetic similarities between gill arch derivatives and paired appendages – but these studies were done in animals like mice and zebrafish, which don’t have branchial rays,” says Gillis.

“It is useful to study cartilaginous fishes, not only because they were the group that first inspired Gegenbaur’s theory, but also because they have a lot of unique features that other fishes don’t – and we are finding that we can learn a lot about evolution from these unique features.”

“Many researchers look at mutant mice or fruit flies to understand the genetic control of anatomy. Our approach is to study and compare the diverse anatomical forms that can be found in nature, in order to gain insight into the evolution of the vertebrate body.”

This research was funded by the Royal Society, the Isaac Newton Trust and a research award from the Marine Biological Laboratory.

Inset images: Skeletal preparation of an embryonic bamboo shark (Andrew Gillis); A skate embryo that has been stained for expression of the Shh gene - staining can be seen as dark purple strips running down the length of each gill arch (Andrew Gillis); Late stage skate embryo (Andrew Gillis).

Latest analysis shows that human limbs share a genetic programme with the gills of cartilaginous fishes such as sharks and skates, providing evidence to support a century-old theory on the origin of limbs that had been widely discounted.

The branchial rays extend like a series of fingers down the side of a shark gill arch
Andrew Gillis
Head skeletons of skate and shark showing gill arch appendages in red.

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Sir David Attenborough abseils down building bearing his name

From Department of Zoology. Published on Apr 07, 2016.

Best Student Talk prize for Syuan-Jyun Sun

From Department of Zoology. Published on Apr 04, 2016.

Crawling with Life: Flower drawings from the Henry Rogers Broughton Bequest

From Department of Zoology. Published on Apr 01, 2016.

Department of Zoology Seminar Day 2016 - winning posters

From Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 21, 2016.

David Labonte awarded ZSL Thomas Henry Huxley and Marsh Prize

From Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 16, 2016.

520 million-year-old fossilised nervous system is most detailed example yet found

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Feb 29, 2016.

Researchers have found one of the oldest and most detailed fossils of the central nervous system yet identified, from a crustacean-like animal that lived more than 500 million years ago. The fossil, from southern China, has been so well preserved that individual nerves are visible, the first time this level of detail has been observed in a fossil of this age.

The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are helping researchers understand how the nervous system of arthropods - creepy crawlies with jointed legs - evolved. Finding any fossilised soft tissue is rare, but this particular find, by researchers in the UK, China and Germany, represents the most detailed example of a preserved nervous system yet discovered.

The animal, called Chengjiangocaris kunmingensis, lived during the Cambrian ‘explosion’, a period of rapid evolutionary development about half a billion years ago when most major animal groups first appear in the fossil record. C. kunmingensis belongs to a group of animals called fuxianhuiids, and was an early ancestor of modern arthropods – the diverse group that includes insects, spiders and crustaceans.

“This is a unique glimpse into what the ancestral nervous system looked like,” said study co-author Dr Javier Ortega-Hernández, of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology. “It’s the most complete example of a central nervous system from the Cambrian period.”

Over the past five years, researchers have identified partially-fossilised nervous systems in several different species from the period, but these have mostly been fossilised brains. And in most of those specimens, the fossils only preserved details of the profile of the brain, meaning the amount of information available has been limited.

C. kunmingensis looked like a sort of crustacean, with a broad, almost heart-shaped head shield, and a long body with pairs of legs of varying sizes. Through careful preparation of the fossils, which involved chipping away the surrounding rock with a fine needle, the researchers were able to view not only the hard parts of the body, but fossilised soft tissue as well.

The vast majority of fossils we have are mostly bone and other hard body parts such as teeth or exoskeletons. Since the nervous system and soft tissues are essentially made of fatty-like substances, finding them preserved as fossils is extremely rare. The researchers behind this study first identified a fossilised central nervous system in 2013, but the new material has allowed them to investigate the significance of these finding in much greater depth.

Click to enlarge

The central nervous system coordinates all neural and motor functions. In vertebrates, it consists of the brain and spinal cord, but in arthropods it consists of a condensed brain and a chain-like series of interconnected masses of nervous tissue called ganglia that resemble a string of beads.

Like modern arthropods, C. kunmingensis had a nerve cord – which is analogous to a spinal cord in vertebrates – running throughout its body, with each one of the bead-like ganglia controlling a single pair of walking legs.

Closer examination of the exceptionally preserved ganglia revealed dozens of spindly fibres, each measuring about five thousandths of a millimetre in length. “These delicate fibres displayed a highly regular distribution pattern, and so we wanted to figure out if they were made of the same material as the ganglia that form the nerve cord,” said Ortega-Hernández. “Using fluorescence microscopy, we confirmed that the fibres were in fact individual nerves, fossilised as carbon films, offering an unprecedented level of detail. These fossils greatly improve our understanding of how the nervous system evolved.”

For Ortega-Hernández and his colleagues, a key question is what this discovery tells us about the evolution of early animals, since the nervous system contains so much information. Further analysis revealed that some aspects of the nervous system in C. kunmingensis appear to be structured similar to that of modern priapulids (penis worms) and onychophorans (velvet worms), with regularly-spaced nerves coming out from the ventral nerve cord.

In contrast, these dozens of nerves have been lost independently in the tardigrades (water bears) and modern arthropods, suggesting that simplification played an important role in the evolution of the nervous system.

Possibly one of the most striking implications of the study is that the exceptionally preserved nerve cord of C. kunmingensis represents a unique structure that is otherwise unknown in living organisms. The specimen demonstrates the unique contribution of the fossil record towards understanding the early evolution of animals during the Cambrian period. “The more of these fossils we find, the more we will be able to understand how the nervous system – and how early animals – evolved,” said Ortega-Hernández. 

The research was supported in part by Emmanuel College, Cambridge. 

Reference:
Jie Yang et. al. ‘The fuxianhuiid ventral nerve cord and early nervous system evolution in Panarthropoda.’ PNAS (2016). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1522434113

A 520 million-year-old fossilised nervous system – so well-preserved that individually fossilised nerves are visible – is the most complete and best example yet found, and could help unravel how the nervous system evolved in early animals.

The more of these fossils we find, the more we will be able to understand how the nervous system – and how early animals – evolved.
Javier Ortega-Hernández
Top: Complete specimen of Chengjiangocaris kunmingensis from the early Cambrian Xiaoshiba biota of South China. Bottom: Magnification of ventral nerve cord of Chengjiangocaris kunmingensis.

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Opinion: Our 500 million-year-old nervous system fossil shines a light on animal evolution

By Anonymous from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Feb 29, 2016.

The nervous system is the command centre of an animal’s body, carrying all the complex electrical signals for the actions that keep it alive, such as moving and eating. Because of its critical function, the nervous system also contains a lot of information about an animal’s evolution, and can even help us understand how different groups relate to each other. But preserved fossilised nervous systems from extinct creatures are extremely rare.

That’s why my colleagues and I were excited to discover one of the most detailed and well-preserved nervous system fossils ever found, from a crustacean-like animal known as a fuxianhuiid that lived more than 500m years ago. These fossils – which come from the Xiaoshiba biota in south China – are so well preserved that you can see individual nerve roots ten times thinner than a human hair. The findings offer the most detailed view of the nervous system in early animals available to date, and inform us about the early evolution of the nervous system in these creatures and their close relatives.

Ancient arthropod

The fuxianhuiids (pronounced foo-see-an-who-eeds) were primitive animals known only to have lived during the early Cambrian period in China, some 515-520m years ago. Fuxianhuiids are widely regarded as being important for understanding the early evolution of the arthropods. This is a large group of animals with jointed limbs and hard exoskeletons that also includes insects, arachnids and crustaceans. So finding preserved nervous tissues in fuxianhuiids tells us a lot about their early evolution and that of their close relatives.

By painstakingly chipping away small pieces of rock from the fossil using a fine needle, my colleagues in China were able to reveal the ventral nerve cord running through their entire body. The ventral nerve cord is part of the nervous system, very much similar to our spinal cord, and it resembles a string of beads.

Each of the “beads” actually corresponds to a ganglion, a condensed mass of nerve cells whose function is to control the legs on each segment of the body in fuxianhuiids and other arthropods. Our fossils also preserve dozens of delicate nerves that emerge at either side of the ventral nerve cord and that would have been connected to the legs and other parts of the body.

 

Ventral cord. Jie Yang (Yunnan University, China) (left) and Javier Ortega-Hernández (University of Cambridge, UK)

 

Finding the fossilised remains of an animal’s nervous system is extremely unusual, as the brain and ventral nerve cord are mainly made of fatty tissues and decay very quickly under normal circumstances. But under exceptional conditions – such as very rapid burial in environments with little oxygen – these delicate structures can be preserved in the fossil record.

In the last five years, various studies, have reported the preservation of brains in Cambrian arthropods, which has greatly improved our understanding of their evolution. But in most cases, we can only recognise the broad outline of the brain and so there are limits to the information that can be extracted from the fossils. Our study is the first time that a complete ventral nerve cord has been described in such an extraordinary level of detail.

More importantly, the ventral nerve cord of fuxianhuiids is rather unique among arthropods. Whereas most arthropods also posses condensed ganglia, they generally lack the dozens of delicate nerve roots that are found in fuxianhuiids. However, this peculiar organisation can be found in velvet worms (or onychophorans), a group of animals resembling worms with legs that are cousins to the arthropods. So the fuxianhuiid ventral nerve cord is an intermediate between the nervous system of arthropods and velvet worms.

Common ancestral link

This means we can interpret the dozens of nerves in fuxianhuiids as an ancient trait inherited from the last common ancestor between velvet worms and arthropods. This is similar to how the the feet of modern birds resemble the feet of dinosaurs, because they were also inherited from their last common ancestor

By contrast, the presence of ganglia on the nerve cord of fuxianhuiids is an innovation that occurred in the evolution of arthropods. Keeping with the analogy, this is like how feathers are an innovation that occurred in the evolution of birds.

The most interesting conclusion we can draw is that the origin of the arthropod nervous system required the dramatic reduction in the number of nerves, and that this event took place after the early Cambrian period. Without fuxianhuiids, it would have been impossible to attain this depth of knowledge on the evolution of the nervous system.

Javier Ortega-Hernandez, Research fellow in palaeobiology, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author(s) and do not represent the views of the University of Cambridge.

Javier Ortega-Hernández (Department of Zoology) discusses what the discovery of the earliest known fossilised nervous system could tell us about evolution.

Top: Complete specimen of Chengjiangocaris kunmingensis from the early Cambrian Xiaoshiba biota of South China. Bottom: Magnification of ventral nerve cord of Chengjiangocaris kunmingensis.

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See inside the David Attenborough Building for the first time after its £59million facelift

By ts657 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Feb 29, 2016.

The new-look David Attenborough Building opens its doors to the public for the first time next week for an art exhibition that celebrates the pioneering partnership between conservationists and the University of Cambridge.

The show features photographs of Museum Of Zoology specimens preserved in alcohol (termed “spirits”) partnered with tree saplings grown from seeds collected from the specimen’s natural habitat.

A second artwork, Seeing Red..Overdrawn, will be an interactive 23ft long, 10ft high printed list of more than 4,700 endangered species, and will be on display beside Stranded, a 19ft long crystal encrusted whale skeleton.

The artists behind them, Ackroyd & Harvey (Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey), are famous for their living artworks including 2007’s ‘FlyTower’ for which they grew seedling grass over part of London’s iconic National Theatre, and History Trees, ten living sculptures marking entrances to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

Ackroyd says: “The tree elements came through our realisation that the building is on the site of the old botanic garden. There is a sense of overlaying history there - zoology and botany - and animals and plants have been very important within our work for the past 25 years.”

The exhibition is part of a drive to open up the University of Cambridge’s New Museums Site, where the David Attenborough Building is based, to the public, which will see three new public courtyards created over the next ten years.

A new public artwork by Ackroyd & Harvey around the new Corn Exchange Street entrance to the building will also be unveiled when the exhibition opens.

The 30ft long by 20ft high spiral slate sculpture will be installed on the facing wall of the stairway leading to the exhibition space and and a new conservation campus created by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI).

CCI is a collaboration between leading biodiversity conservation organisations and the University of Cambridge. The sculpture is inspired by mathematician Fibonacci's “golden ratio” spiral.

Refurbishment work on the David Attenborough Building is due to be completed in April with the Museum of Zoology scheduled to reopen on its lower floors later this year.

The free art show (9 March-17 April) is part of the University of Cambridge’s Science Festival (7-20 March).

As part of the festival, the Museum of Zoology is offering the public a preview of its new galleries, the chance to handle specimens and craft making on Saturday 12 March.

Normally closed to the public, the CCI campus will also be open to visitors on 12 March for a day of hands-on activities and talks. Access to all events at the David Attenborough Building will be via the Corn Exchange Street entrance.

For more information, visit www.sciencefestival.cam.ac.uk

Visitors can view the refurbished building (formerly the Arup Building) for the first time when exhibition Conflicted Seeds + Spirit opens to the public on 9 March.

The tree elements came through our realisation that the building is on the site of the old botanic garden. There is a sense of overlaying history there - zoology and botany - and animals and plants have been very important within our work for the past 25 years.
Artist Heather Ackroyd
An image of a scaly anteater (pangolin) specimen from the Museum of Zoology collection

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Yes

Pollinator species vital to our food supply are under threat, warn experts

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Feb 26, 2016.

Delegates from almost 100 national Governments have gathered in Kuala Lumpur to discuss how to address the threats facing animal pollinators: the bees, flies, birds, butterflies, moths, wasps, beetles and bats that transport the pollen essential to the reproduction of much of the world’s crops and plant life.

It is the first time the global community has gathered on this scale to focus on the preservation of the small species that help fertilise more than three quarters of the leading kinds of global food crops and nearly 90% of flowering wild plant species.

A report on pollinator species produced over two years by an international team of 77 scientists, including Cambridge’s Dr Lynn Dicks, has been adopted by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) today. IPBES has 124 member Governments.

The report is the first assessment ever issued by IPBES, and the first time that such an assessment has brought together multiple knowledge systems comprehensively, including scientific, and indigenous and local knowledge. It will highlight the threats to animal pollinators, and the major implications of these species’ declines for the world’s food supply and economy.

But the report also details the ways that pollinator power can be used for the benefit of biodiversity, food security and people: by harnessing natural relationships between plants and animals to improve agricultural yields and strengthen local communities.    

“It is incredible to see international Governments coming together to discuss the problem of pollinators in this way,” says Lynn Dicks, from Cambridge University’s Department of Zoology.  

“Without pollinators, many of us would not be able to enjoy chocolate, coffee and vanilla ice cream, or healthy foods like blueberries and brazil nuts. The value of pollinators goes way beyond this. People’s livelihoods and culture are intimately linked with pollinators around the world. All the major world religions have sacred passages that mention bees.”

The volume of pollinator-dependent food produced has increased by 300% over the past 50 years, including most fruits from apple to avocado, as well as coffee, cocoa, and nuts such as cashews. This shows an increasing dependence of agriculture on pollinators.  

Such crops now occupy around 35% of all agricultural land. While these crops rely on animal pollination to varying degrees – along with, for example, wind-blown pollination – the scientists estimate that between 5 and 8% of all global crop production is directly attributable to animal pollinators, with an annual market value that may be as much as 577 billion US dollars.

However, the experts warn that a variety of agricultural practices are contributing to steep declines in key pollinating species across Europe and North America. In Europe, populations are declining for at least 37% of bee and 31% of butterfly species.

A lack of data for Africa, Latin America and Asia means we are currently in the dark about the status of pollinators in many parts of the world, say the scientists. Where national ‘red lists’ are available, they show that up to 50% of global bee species, for example, may be threatened with extinction.

For some crops, including cocoa, wild pollinators contribute more to global crop production than managed honey bees. Wild bee populations are of particular concern, as bees are “dominant” pollinators, say scientists, and visit over 90% of the leading global crop types.

Changes in land-use and habitat destruction are key drivers of pollinator decline. Increasing crop monocultures – where the same plant is homogenously grown across vast swathes of land – mean that the plant diversity required by many pollinators is dwindling.

Increased use of pesticides are a big problem for many species – insecticides such as neonicotinoids have been shown to harm the survival of wild bees, for example – and climate change is shifting seasonal activities of key pollinators, the full effects of which may not be apparent for several decades.    

The decline of practices based on indigenous and local knowledge also threatens pollinators. These practices include traditional farming systems, maintenance of diverse landscapes and gardens, kinship relationships that protect specific pollinators, and cultures and languages that are connected to pollinators.

Everyone should think carefully about whether they need to use insecticides and herbicides in their own gardens

Many livelihoods across the world depend on pollinating animals, say scientists. Pollinator-dependent crops include leading export products in developing countries (such as coffee and cocoa) and developed countries (such as almonds), providing employment and income for millions of people.

If the worst-case scenario – a complete loss of animal pollinators – occurred, not only would between 5 and 8% of the world’s food production be wiped out, it would lower the availability of crops and wild plants that provide essential micronutrients to human diets, risking vastly increased numbers of people suffering from Vitamin A, iron and folate deficiency.

However, the assessment says that by deploying strategies for supporting pollinators, we could not only preserve the volume of food they help us produce, but we could boost populations and in doing so could even improve production in sustainable farming systems, so-called “ecological intensification”.

Many pollinator-friendly strategies are relatively straightforward. Maintaining patches of semi-natural habitats throughout productive agricultural land would provide nesting and ‘floral resources’ for many pollinators. This could be as simple as strips of wild flowers breaking up crop monocultures, for example, and identifying and tending to nest trees in farming settings.

Certain traditional crop rotation practices using seasonal indicators such as flowering to trigger planting also help to maintain diversity – and it is diversity that is at the heart of flourishing pollinator populations.

There are actions that Governments around the world could take, says Dr Dicks, such as raising the standards of pesticide and GMO risk assessment, or supporting training for farmers in how to manage pollination and reduce pesticide use. National-level monitoring of wild pollinators, especially bees, would help to address the lack of long term data on pollinator numbers.

“There are many things individual people can do to help pollinators, and safeguard them for the future,” says Dr Dicks.

“Planting flowers that pollinators use for food, or looking after their habitats in urban and rural areas, will help. Everyone should also think carefully about whether they need to use insecticides and herbicides in their own gardens.”

More information about how to help wild pollinators can be found at the Bees Needs website, which is part of the National Pollinator Strategy for England. 

Inset image: Lynn Dicks at the IPBES meeting in Kuala Lumpur. 

A new report from experts and Government around the world addresses threats to animal pollinators such as bees, birds and bats that are vital to more than three-quarters of the world’s food crops, and intimately linked to human nutrition, culture and millions of livelihoods. Scientists say simple strategies could harness pollinator power to boost agricultural yield.

People’s livelihoods and culture are intimately linked with pollinators around the world. All the major world religions have sacred passages that mention bees
Lynn Dicks
Carpenter bee (Xylocopa flavorufa) visiting coffee flower (Coffea arabica)

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Yes

The reed warbler and the cuckoo: an escalating game of trickery and defence

By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Feb 22, 2016.

Reed warblers are a little smaller than sparrows and each one weighs no more than a large envelope. As autumn begins they migrate some 5,000 km from Britain to West Africa, a journey they might make just two or three times in their short lives. In April they fly north to breed in the watery landscapes of northern Europe where they raise their young in nests suspended from reeds. Sometimes they are tricked into raising cuckoo chicks which grow to four times their size. 

In his book  Cuckoo - Cheating by Nature, Nick Davies (Department of Zoology) describes what it’s like to watch reed warblers at the Cambridgeshire nature reserve of Wicken Fen. He carefully parts the reeds until he can see a pair of warblers feeding their young in a nest. He senses the parents’ urgency in collecting insects for their chicks while keeping them warm and staying alert for signs of danger. When several hours later he stands up, the intimate world of the warbler disappears into the great expanse of fenland and the wide East Anglian skies.

Observation remains vital to learning more about the world, believes Davies. “There’s still plenty more to learn from going out into nature and watching carefully,” he says. “I get most of my ideas by watching animals and simply asking ‘I wonder why they’re doing that?’ The key to research is coming up with a good question and devising an experiment to answer it.”

Davies, who gives this week's Darwin Lecture (Games Animals Play), has been studying reed warblers at Wicken Fen for more than 30 years. He thinks of them as ‘his’ warblers and calls his interest in their lives, and their fragile niche within a changing environment, a kind of obsession. In the process of countless early mornings, and dozens of experiments, he and his colleagues have gradually unlocked some of the secrets of warblers’ interactions with cuckoos, who ‘parasitise’ other birds.

In an endless game of trickery and defence, the cuckoo and its hosts engage in an ‘arms race’ involving mimicry of many kinds – from the patterning of eggs to the demanding twittering of chicks – as the two species weigh up the risks of being duped and discovered. Reed warblers sometimes reject eggs that don’t look like their own – but what evidence does a warbler need before it takes such drastic action?  Recent research reveals that warblers eject suspect eggs from their nests only when local information is reinforced by signals from a wider ‘neighbourhood watch’.

Davies’s fascination for birds stems from a childhood spent on the Lancashire coast where the skies were full of skeins of pink-footed geese and the sand dunes were home to croaking natter jack toads. He got his taste for patient observation, for asking difficult questions (why, for example, does the reed warbler accept a cuckoo chick so obviously different to one of its own?), and interest in detective work from Niko Tinbergen, a pioneer of scientific studies of animal behaviour. As an evolutionary biologist, Davies is also respectful of the observational studies of the early naturalists who laid the foundations for subsequent experimental work.

The remarkable insights explored so vividly in Cuckoo - Cheating by Nature would have been impossible without research collaborations, often international. Birds migrate vast distances: to understand them, and how they’re shaped by evolution, requires an investigation of every aspect of their lives. Within the same species, there are behavioural variations which offer clues to their evolutionary pathways. To get a picture of the different ‘races’ of cuckoos (categorised by the species they parasitise to host their young) Davies has worked with biologists across the world.

He says: “Some of the most exciting discoveries are now being made in Africa by Claire Spottiswoode and in Australia by Naomi Langmore. In both places, the arms race between cuckoos and hosts has been going on much longer and has escalated to new levels. For example, in Australia some hosts reject chicks unlike their own and their cuckoo has combated this by evolving a mimetic chick. And in Africa, cuckoo hosts have the most remarkable egg signatures in the form of individual spots and squiggles which makes it easier for them to detect a foreign egg.”

In the accompanying podcast, Davies talks about the games animals play with particular reference to the dunnock, a small brown bird with a surprisingly inventive sex life.  

The lecture Games Animals Play will take place in the Lady Mitchell Hall, Sidgwick Site, University of Cambridge, on Friday, February 26, 2016 - 17:30 to 18:30. No booking required, no charge. Arrive in good time to secure a seat.

Main image: a reed warbler feeds a cuckoo fledgling (http://www.richardnicollphotography.co.uk/) Inset images: a clutch of reed warbler eggs with a larger cuckoo egg (Nick Davies); a meadow pipit feeds a cuckoo fledgling (Charles Tyler).

Professor Nick Davies, who gives this week’s Darwin Lecture, has been studying reed warblers for more than 30 years – and has unlocked many of the secrets of their interactions with the cuckoo. His work shines light on the evolutionary games played out in nature as species compete with environmental pressures, with other species, and with the opposite sex, to pass on their genes.

I get most of my ideas by watching animals and simply asking ‘I wonder why they’re doing that?’ The key to research is coming up with a good question and devising an experiment to answer it.
Nick Davies
A reed warbler feeds a cuckoo fledgling

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Yes

Opinion: How fruit flies can help keep African scientists at home

By Anonymous from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Feb 15, 2016.

The humble fruit fly is being put to an unusual use in sub-Saharan Africa: it’s being used as bait. Its intended lure? It’s hoped that the tiny creature, whose scientific name is Drosophila melanogaster, can stop the exodus of researchers from Africa.

At the moment most of the biomedical research being done in African laboratories is performed using rats. Now a project called DrosAfrica is underway to promote the use of the fruit fly as a model organism for research into human diseases.

There are several reasons for this. Firstly, rats are far more expensive to keep than fruit flies. As an affordable alternative, the fruit fly requires fewer resources to maintain and not as much expensive preparation for experiments.

Also, as a model system, Drosophila enables researchers to perform sophisticated genetics, live imaging, genome-wide analysis and other state-of-the-art approaches. Drosophila research has identified thousands of genes with human equivalents. This has provided key insights into cancer biology, pathology, neurobiology and immunology.

Drosophila is a prime model organism with tens of thousands of researchers working on every aspect of their biology. This work is aided by electronic open resources such as Flybase and stock centres like the one in Bloomington, Indiana in the US. The centre will send Drosophila to any lab in the world for the cost of shipping. These stock centres are funded by governmental grants enabling 100 000s flies to be kept alive in warehouses.

And entire research unit has been built with a focus on understanding a specific aspect of the fly. The most famous is called Janelia Farm, founded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the US.

A bigger agenda

The project that’s using fruit flies as bait for scientists is known as DrosAfrica. It wants to drive the paradigm shift from rats to flies as experimental organisms. To do this, project leaders have organised workshops to share fruit fly techniques with universities and research institutes across sub Saharan Africa.

But there’s more to the work than merely extolling the virtues of fruit flies.

We also try to provide basic equipment such as dissecting microscopes, buffers, slides and antibodies for labelling proteins to facilitate the creation of local research communities. Such strong communities will ultimately be able to provide PhD programmes and research opportunities for African researchers. This will mean students don’t automatically feel they have to emigrate when seeking research opportunities.

Powerful local research programmes will also help to place the continent in the spotlight of international research. This could ultimately lead to a return of expatriates with a strong scientific background.

Activities organised by DrosAfrica: Past and Future

During the last three years, DrosAfrica has organised three workshops at the Institute of Biomedical Research Kampala International University-Western Campus, Uganda. Two focused exclusively on the use of Drosophila for biomedical research. The other concentrated on image and data analysis techniques.

 

Attendants and faculty members of the first DrosAfrica workshop ‘Drosophila in Biomedical Research: Affordable AND Impacting!’ (Summer 2013)

 

The workshops' participants came from sub-Saharan Africa and included Nigerians, Kenyans, Ugandans and a delegate from South Sudan. They were able to work on several common projects and then networked after the workshops using information and resources on a dedicated website. These interactions planted the seed for developing an African Drosophila research community. At this institute, we’ve been lucky to build on the work that the non-profit organisation Trend has already done. Their team of volunteer scientists equipped the institute’s lab and introduced insect research models to the local scientists.

In 2016 the project plans to deliver workshops at Kenya’s International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology. The team is also visiting Nigeria during the second half of February to pave the way for future research collaborations.

The work done over the past few years has already paid dividends. Alumni from the workshops have presented their work at international scientific conferences and supervised undergraduate, Masters and PhD projects. PhD candidates have graduated on the basis of their research done on flies. One student has submitted an abstract to the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

DrosAfrica vision

The DrosAfrica project is taking important steps to increase the African contribution to scientific advancement. In the coming years we hope to further boost local research opportunities to promote genuine African research led by African researchers, all of them investigating matters of interest to Africans.

And to think: it all started with a tiny little fruit fly.

*DrosAfrica would like to acknowledge the generosity of Faculty members and sponsors, without whom the workshops described above wouldn’t have been possible. They are:

(Cambridge Africa, Sayansi, Wellcome Trust, TWAS, KIU, Pembroke College-Cambridge, St John’s College-Cambridge, Emmanuel College-Cambridge, EMBO, Fruit4Science, and very specially to FRS Tony Kouzarides).*

Silvia Muñoz-Descalzo, Lecturer in Biology & Biochemistry; Developmental Biology Theme, University of Bath and Timothy Weil, Lecturer, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author(s) and do not represent the views of the University of Cambridge.

Timothy Weil (Department of Zoology) and Silvia Muñoz-Descalzo (University of Bath) discuss the project that aims to make the fruit fly a model organism for research in Africa.

Actin cables in Drosophila nurse cells during late-oogenesis. At this stage, nurse cells die and extrude their cytoplasm into the developing oocyte.

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Yes

Simon Laughlin's book wins a Prose Award

From Department of Zoology. Published on Feb 09, 2016.

Defending larvae from microbial attack

From Department of Zoology. Published on Jan 28, 2016.

Professor Jenny Clack awarded the Palaeontological Association's Lapworth Medal

From Department of Zoology. Published on Dec 18, 2015.

Nancy Lane awarded Doctorate of Science by Heriot-Watt University

From Department of Zoology. Published on Nov 23, 2015.

Pevensey giant whale remembered 150 years on

From Department of Zoology. Published on Nov 16, 2015.

Tom Evans awarded the John Ray Science Prize 2015

From Department of Zoology. Published on Sep 01, 2015.

Hugh Cott - master of camouflage

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

Isabel Palacios helps African universities reap fruits of fly research

From Department of Zoology. Published on Jul 10, 2015.

Why insects are marvels of engineering

From Department of Zoology. Published on Jul 03, 2015.

Emeritus Professor Sir Pat Bateson awarded the ZSL Frink Medal 2014

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

Richard Preece and Roz Wade on 'Wildlife Wednesday'

From Department of Zoology. Published on Jun 18, 2015.

Prof. Simon Laughlin publishes new book on brain design

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

Nick Davies appears on 'Springwatch'

From Department of Zoology. Published on Jun 12, 2015.

Janet Moore Prize for Supervising in Zoology

From Department of Zoology. Published on Jun 12, 2015.

All Museum creatures great and small

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

Henry Disney paper chosen as Science Editor's Choice

From Department of Zoology. Published on May 18, 2015.