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Dr Emília Santos - NERC Independent Fellow

From Department of Zoology. Published on Sep 17, 2018.

‘High-yield’ farming costs the environment less than previously thought – and could help spare habitats

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Sep 14, 2018.

Agriculture that appears to be more eco-friendly but uses more land may actually have greater environmental costs per unit of food than “high-yield” farming that uses less land, a new study has found.

There is mounting evidence that the best way to meet rising food demand while conserving biodiversity is to wring as much food as sustainably possible from the land we do farm, so that more natural habitats can be “spared the plough”.   

However, this involves intensive farming techniques thought to create disproportionate levels of pollution, water scarcity and soil erosion. Now, a study published today in the journal Nature Sustainability shows this is not necessarily the case.

Scientists have put together measures for some of the major “externalities” – such as greenhouse gas emission, fertiliser and water use – generated by high- and low-yield farming systems, and compared the environmental costs of producing a given amount of food in different ways.

Previous research compared these costs by land area. As high-yield farming needs less land to produce the same quantity of food, the study’s authors say this approach overestimates its environmental impact.

Their results from four major agricultural sectors suggest that, contrary to many people's perceptions, more intensive agriculture that uses less land may also produce fewer pollutants, cause less soil loss and consume less water.

However, the team behind the study, led by scientists from the University of Cambridge, caution that if higher yields are simply used to increase profit or lower prices, they will only accelerate the extinction crisis we are already seeing.  

“Agriculture is the most significant cause of biodiversity loss on the planet,” said study lead author Andrew Balmford, Professor of Conservation Science from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology. “Habitats are continuing to be cleared to make way for farmland, leaving ever less space for wildlife.”

“Our results suggest that high-yield farming could be harnessed to meet the growing demand for food without destroying more of the natural world. However, if we are to avert mass extinction it is vital that land-efficient agriculture is linked to more wilderness being spared the plough.”

The Cambridge scientists conducted the study with a research team from 17 organisations across the UK and around the globe, including colleagues from Poland, Brazil, Australia, Mexico and Colombia.

The study analysed information from hundreds of investigations into four vast food sectors, accounting for large percentages of the global output for each product: Asian paddy rice (90%), European wheat (33%), Latin American beef (23%), and European dairy (53%).

Examples of high-yield strategies include enhanced pasture systems and livestock breeds in beef production, use of chemical fertilizer on crops, and keeping dairy cows indoors for longer.

The scientists found data to be limited, and say more research is urgently needed on the environmental cost of different farming systems. Nevertheless, results suggest many high-yield systems are less ecologically damaging and, crucially, use much less land. 

For example, in field trials, inorganic nitrogen boosted yields with little to no greenhouse gas “penalty” and lower water use per tonne of rice. Per tonne of beef, the team found greenhouse gas emissions could be halved in some systems where yields are boosted by adding trees to provide shade and forage for cattle.

The study only looked at organic farming in the European dairy sector, but found that – for the same amount of milk – organic systems caused at least one third more soil loss, and take up twice as much land, as conventional dairy farming.

Co-author Professor Phil Garnsworthy from the University of Nottingham, who led the dairy team, said: “Across all dairy systems we find that higher milk yield per unit of land generally leads to greater biological and economic efficiency of production. Dairy farmers should welcome the news that more efficient systems have lower environmental impact.”

Conservation expert and co-author Dr David Edwards, from the University of Sheffield, said: “Organic systems are often considered to be far more environmentally friendly than conventional farming, but our work suggested the opposite. By using more land to produce the same yield, organic may ultimately accrue larger environmental costs.”

The study authors say that high-yield farming must be combined with mechanisms that limit agricultural expansion if it is to have any environmental benefit. These could include strict land-use zoning and restructured rural subsidies.

“These results add to the evidence that sparing natural habitats by using high-yield farming to produce food is the least bad way forward,” added Balmford.

“Where agriculture is heavily subsidised, public payments could be contingent on higher food yields from land already being farmed, while other land is taken out of production and restored as natural habitat, for wildlife and carbon or floodwater storage.”

New findings suggest that more intensive agriculture might be the “least bad” option for feeding the world while saving its species – provided use of such “land-efficient” systems prevents further conversion of wilderness to farmland.

Our results suggest that high-yield farming could be harnessed to meet the growing demand for food without destroying more of the natural world
Andrew Balmford

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Breeder meerkats age faster, but their subordinates still die younger

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Aug 31, 2018.

In many cooperative species, the dominant breeders live longest despite the wear-and-tear of leadership and reproduction.

It has even been suggested these breeders hold the secret of immunity to age-related diseases. Some social insects, such as bees, do have breeders with genetic profiles that delay ageing – but this has never been documented in our fellow mammals.

Scientists from the University of Cambridge have now investigated the lifespans of meerkats: a highly social mammal that lives in groups of up to fifty, where a single dominant couple produce around 90% of the pups.    

The researchers found that the DNA of dominant breeders actually shows signs of accelerated ageing – yet they still consistently outlive the non-breeding subordinates in the group. Their study shows that dominants live an average of 4.4 years compared to subordinates 2.8 years.

This is because meerkat underlings are forced to take the often-fatal risk of leaving the safety of the group to find breeding opportunities, say scientists. Dominants rarely tolerate rival breeders, and violently eject subordinates from the group if they feel threatened.

On reaching the top of the social pecking order, however, meerkats remain ensconced within the group. The study shows an average subordinate spends more than six days each year in the wilderness, with this figure rising year-on-year. Dominant breeders are typically absent for under two hours per year.

“Dominant meerkats typically die due to internal stresses on their bodies, resulting in gradual, predictable declines until death. In humans we might describe this as ‘natural causes’,” said Dr Dominic Cram from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, lead author of the study published today in Current Biology

“Subordinate meerkats die due to sudden, unpredictable circumstances such as exposure to predators, killing them instantly. A meerkat’s place within the social group shapes the mortality risks it faces,” he said.

“The secret of long life for meerkats is not to battle the inevitable declines of ageing, but to be the ruler of your community, profiting from social support and cracking down on would-be rivals.”

Cram conducted the research as part of the Kalahari Meerkat Project: a long-term study of social behavior and ecology, run for over twenty years at the University of Cambridge by Professor Tim Clutton-Brock – a leading figure in the study of mammal societies.

The project has helped train generations of zoologists through the observation of generations of meerkats, resulting in a wide range of data on the life histories of over 3000 meerkat individuals in over 100 groups.

The team collected blood samples from the meerkats, and measured DNA sections called telomeres that help protect DNA from damage – much like the plastic caps on shoe-laces. As they erode over time, the chance of unravelling increases, so the length of telomeres can be used to estimate “biological age”.

While the telomeres of subordinate meerkats remained stable, dominant telomeres shrunk by a third in just 18 months – suggesting accelerated ageing caused by the toils of raising young and fending off rivals.

Yet the dominant meerkats still lived an average of 60% longer than subordinates, as the lower ranking meerkats were increasingly forced to risk more and more time outside the group as they grew older.

“Each year the subordinates spend over triple the amount of time outside the group as the previous year, reaching a peak of 35 days per year, or 10% of their time, outside the social group,” said Cram.

For subordinate males, all females in the group are their sisters or mother, so they must court females away from the group to avoid inbreeding. Subordinate females are bullied and chased away by the dominant when they become a reproductive rival.

Of all those that leave, some return – or try to – after a few days or weeks. A lucky few start their own group and become dominant breeders. Many are never seen again.

“Within a group, a sentinel always keeps look-out and sounds the alarm, allowing the meerkats to flee into burrows or bolt-holes. Each meerkat takes a turn on sentinel duty,” said Cram.

“Away from the group there is no early warning system, and meerkats are easy prey for eagles, goshawks and caracal. Letting down their guard to dig for food is too risky, so many starve for fear of being eaten.”

“Lone meerkats have even been known to be torn apart by members of a rival group. It’s a dangerous world for a solo meerkat.”

Despite rapidly ageing, dominant animals live longer because their underlings are driven out of the group – becoming easy targets for predators. The secret of a long meerkat life is to be “ruler of your community… cracking down on would-be rivals,” say scientists.

A meerkat’s place within the social group shapes the mortality risks it faces.
Dominic Cram

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The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.


Dr Rosie Trevelyan wins a British Ecological Society Award

From Department of Zoology. Published on Aug 24, 2018.

Colombia peace deal brings new threat to country’s rainforest

From Department of Zoology. Published on Aug 23, 2018.

Dr Rahia Mashoodh - BBSRC Future Leader Fellow

From Department of Zoology. Published on Aug 01, 2018.

Francis Crick Medal and Lecture 2019

From Department of Zoology. Published on Jul 19, 2018.

Vice-Chancellor’s awards showcase Cambridge researchers' public engagement and societal impact

By Anonymous from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Jul 09, 2018.

Hundreds of post-war peace settlements were trawled through by a team at Cambridge’s Lauterpacht Centre for International Law to build this innovative research tool. Outputs from the work have been used to assist mediators engaged with some of the world's most violent and tragic conflicts.

The announcement was made at a prize ceremony held at the Old Schools on 9 July, during which a number of other awards were also presented to Cambridge researchers for projects that have made significant contributions to society – including work on prisons, pandemics, and pollution.

Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, says: “This award scheme, now in its third year, received nearly a hundred nominations from all areas of research within the University, which were of an extremely high calibre across the board.”

“Impact is at the heart of the University’s mission. Engaging the public is crucial to helping our University deliver on its mission, and to be a good citizen in our city and community. Institutions such as ours have a vital role to play in restoring trust and faith in expertise and ways of knowing.”

Vice-Chancellor’s Impact Awards

The Vice-Chancellor’s Impact Awards were established to recognise and reward those whose research has led to excellent impact beyond academia, whether on the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life. Each winner receives a prize of £1,000 and a trophy, with the overall winner – Prof Marc Weller from the Faculty of Law – receiving £2,000.

This year’s winners are:

Overall winner: Marc Weller (Faculty of Law)

Making and sustaining international peace

Drawing on a ten-year research programme addressing self-determination and ethnic conflicts, the Legal Tools of Peace-making project presents, for the first time, the vast practice revealed through peace agreements on an issue-by issue basis, making it instantly accessible to practitioners and academics.

The project, led by Weller, uses this repository to derive realistic settlement options for use in actual peace-negotiations, and making these available to the United Nations, the African Union, the EU and other mediating agencies. The work has had immediate impact on on-going, high-level peace negotiations in the inter-ethnic negotiations in Myanmar, the UN-led negotiations on Syria, discussions on Catalonia, the independence of Kosovo, Sudan and South Sudan, Somalia and several others.   

Marko Hyvönen (Department of Biochemistry)

Production of growth factors for stem cell research

‘Growth factors’ are proteins that regulate many aspects of cellular function – including proliferation. These complex proteins are essential for stem cell research, to differentiate stem cells into the specific cell types found in our bodies.  

Hyvönen and colleagues have used their expertise as structural biologists to develop methods to efficiently produce growth factors in extremely high quality: reducing cost to the stem cell community locally, and facilitating world-class research. They have spun out a company to supply these proteins for researchers around the globe and secured an Innovate UK grant for the company.  

Ryan Williams (Centre of Islamic Studies)

Re-imagining Citizenship

Williams’ research on Islam and society works on the borderlines of religious studies and criminology, challenging practitioners and policy-makers to think holistically about social inclusion and the role of religion in contemporary society.

His research has been incorporated into: guidelines on countering prison radicalisation, adopted by the European Commission in 2017; the evidence base for the Lammy Review on equality and implementing its recommendations; a course on the Good Life Good Society, adopted in 2016 in a high security prison. Read Ryan's This Cambridge Life here. 

Florin Udrea (Department of Engineering)

Cambridge CMOS Sensors

Sensors that sniff the air can warn us of pollution in city streets, offices and homes. Breathe on these sensors and they can check our health. But they are normally big, heavy and drain batteries quickly.

Florin Udrea and his team set out to create environmental micro-sensors that are ultra-efficient and small enough for smart phones, watches and air purifiers in smart homes. Their spin-off, Cambridge CMOS Sensors, was acquired by AMS in 2016, which is now shipping products.

Julia Gog (Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics)

Harnessing mathematics to help control influenza

Predicting the evolution of the seasonal human influenza virus to better inform vaccination selection is critical to controlling the spread of influenza each year. Moreover, a rarer global outbreak pandemic would have severe consequences on loss of life and the economy, and is viewed by the UK government as a major threat to the UK due to both its high likelihood and severity of outcome.

Julia Gog worked with data gathered through the BBC’s Pandemic project to produce mathematical modelling that helps predict how UK populations move and interact, and consequently how and where a virus would spread.  

Tim Cox (Department of Medicine)

Innovative Treatments for Lysosomal diseases

Niemann-Pick C, Tay-Sachs, Sandhoff and Gaucher diseases are genetic lysosomal diseases that affect several organs, including the brain, resulting in painful symptoms, neurological complications and early death. Tim Cox is a leading UK clinical investigator for Lysosomal diseases, exploring the rebalancing of excess production of the toxic sphingolipids, which cause these diseases.

His work has developed effective treatments that have been introduced into the clinic, improving patient outcomes. This research has also identified a definitive correction of the cruel children’s condition, Tay-Sachs disease, through gene transfer. After successful preclinical work, a University spin-out, Cambridge Gene Therapy, is accelerating the clinical programme for this disease.

Vice-Chancellor’s Public Engagement with Research Awards

The Vice-Chancellor’s Public Engagement with Research Awards were set up to recognise and reward those who undertake quality engagement with research. Each winner receives a £1000 personal prize and a trophy. This year’s winners are:

Sophie Seita (Faculty of English)

Seita produced a collaborative multi-media creative project that combined experimental performances, lecture performances, poetry, publications, and installations; both emerging from and feeding back into research. Presented as star-gazing conversations with a number of Enlightenment writings in English, French, and German, from tragedies, melodramas, philosophical treatises to proto-romantic romances of the period, the work investigates which aspects of the Enlightenment still speak to us today, and was performed at the University’s Festival of Ideas.

Anna Spathis and Stephen Barclay (Department of Public Health and Primary Care)

Fatigue, an extreme tiredness that affects the mind as well as the body, is the single most common and distressing symptom experienced by teenagers and young adults with cancer. Spathis and Barclay worked with these young patients to co-design a treatment for fatigue that meets their unique needs. Read Anna and Stephen discuss how public involvement contributed to the research outcomes here. 

Charlotte Payne (Department of Zoology)

Working together with farmers and scientists at every stage, Payne developed a participatory research project on the sustainable use of edible caterpillars in southwestern Burkina Faso, and has explained the methods, aims and results to a variety of public audiences of all ages and backgrounds. Read Charlotte discussing edible insects on the BBC here.

Ragnhild Dale (Scott Polar Research Institute)

Dale was a researcher and assistant dirtector on a three-day staging of a mock trial version of the ground-breaking lawsuit where Norwegian environmental organisations Greenpeace and Nature and Youth are suing the Norwegian Government for allegedly allowing unconstitutional oil exploration in the Barents Sea. The project inviting expert witnesses from academia, industry and NGOs to testify in our production in Kirkenes, bringing the drama of the trial directly to the people who live and work in the north. 

The first major repository of legal practices for mediators and conflict parties to draw on when negotiating peace has won the top prize in this year’s Vice-Chancellor’s Impact Awards at the University of Cambridge.

Impact is at the heart of the University’s mission
Stephen Toope

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The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.


Congratulations to all our Part II students

From Department of Zoology. Published on Jun 27, 2018.

Museum of Zoology reopens on 23 June 2018

From Department of Zoology. Published on Jun 19, 2018.

Janet Moore Prize 2018

From Department of Zoology. Published on Jun 15, 2018.

Dr Andrea Manica - ZSL Scientific Medal Winner

From Department of Zoology. Published on Jun 12, 2018.

Social complexity and kinship in animal societies

From Department of Zoology. Published on May 30, 2018.

What Works in Conservation

From Department of Zoology. Published on May 23, 2018.

Oldest genetic evidence of Hepatitis B virus found in ancient DNA from 4,500 year-old skeletons

By Anonymous from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on May 09, 2018.

A pioneering study has identified the oldest evidence of HBV in the ancient remains and proved that viruses can become extinct. The scientific significance of the research has been described as ‘truly remarkable’ and compared to the discovery of the first fossils.

Today the Hepatitis B virus affects millions of people worldwide. In 2015 it was estimated that approximately 257 million people were chronically infected with HBV and 887,000 died due to associated complications such as liver cancer.

The new research, led by a group of academics at the Centre for Pathogen Evolution in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge and the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, took genetic samples from skeletons across Europe and Asia from the Bronze Age to the Medieval period, and found 25 HBV-positive skeletons amongst the remains. In 12 of these skeletons, they found enough of the HBV genome to perform detailed analyses - the oldest of which was 4,500-years-old.

From this data they were able to extract the genetic sequences of HBV that infected the individuals thousands of years ago.

The findings, published in the journal Nature, present new insights into the origins and evolution of HBV. The genetic makeup of this strain could have implications for improving vaccines for HBV.

Before this study, the oldest human viruses to be discovered were approximately 450-years- old but most are no more than 50-years-old. The research now forms the oldest and largest datasets scientists have of ancient human viruses.

Barbara Mühlemann, joint first author on the research paper and a graduate student at the University of Cambridge, said: “People have tried to unravel the history of HBV for decades - this study transforms our understanding of the virus and proves it affected people as far back as the Bronze Age. We have also shown that it is possible to recover viral sequences from samples of this age which will have much wider scientific implications.”

Although HBV is a global health issue, little is known about its origin and evolution. As with many human viruses, this is largely due to a lack of historical evidence which has been difficult to locate and identify.

Dr Terry Jones, joint first author who is based at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, explained: “Scientists mostly study modern virus strains and we have mainly been in the dark regarding ancient sequences – until now. It was like trying to study evolution without fossils. If we only studied the animals living today it would give us a very inaccurate picture of their evolution – it is the same with viruses.”

Understanding more about HBV may now be possible. Showing that the virus has been circulating in humans since at least the Bronze Age is a big scientific advancement, as previous attempts to estimate how long the virus has infected humans have ranged from 400 years to 34,000 years.

The study was led by Professor Eske Willerslev, who holds positions both at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, and the University of Copenhagen.

He said: “This data gives us an idea of how this virus behaves, and it provides us with a better idea of what is biologically possible in the future. Analysis of other ancient DNA samples may reveal further discoveries and this pioneering study could have huge implications for how the virus affects humans today.”

The research also shows the existence of ancient HBV genotypes in locations incompatible with their present-day distribution, contradicting previously-suggested geographical origins of the virus.

Professor Willerslev initially suspected that it might be possible to find viruses in human remains based on previous research during his role at the University of Copenhagen. He approached Mühlemann and Jones who have specialised in identifying and studying the evolution of viruses.

The research approach the group used in the study, called ‘shotgun sequencing’, looks at all genetic material present in a sample, as opposed to ‘genome bio-capture’ which focuses only on the human genome.

Professor Willerslev said: “This study is just the start. We’re talking about one virus here, but there are a lot of other viruses we could look for.”

Barbara Mühlemann et al. 'Ancient Hepatitis B viruses from the Bronze Age to the Medieval period.' Nature (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-018-0097-z

An extinct strain of the human Hepatitis B virus (HBV) has been discovered in Bronze Age human skeletons found in burial sites across Europe and Asia.

This study could have huge implications for how the virus affects humans today.
Eske Willerslev
Mass burial of battle victims from the Xiongnu period in Omnogobi, Mongolia, from which scientists extracted ancient DNA from for the study.

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Two Zoological Society of London honours

From Department of Zoology. Published on Apr 23, 2018.

Departmental Seminar Day 2018

From Department of Zoology. Published on Apr 23, 2018.

"King of the scuttle flies"

From Department of Zoology. Published on Apr 12, 2018.

Student Conference on Conservation Science 2018

From Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 29, 2018.

Lower Gallery of the University Museum of Zoology reopens

From Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 28, 2018.

David Attenborough Building Synergy Project

From Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 16, 2018.

Conservationists gather to mark International Women's Day

By ed515 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 09, 2018.

The event, jointly organised by the Museum and the Cambridge Conservation Forum’s Women in Conservation Leadership Network, was held to mark International Women’s Day and included a keynote lecture by Professor Rebecca Kilner from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

Kilner said; “Events like this are important for showing the next generation that anyone with a spark for science can work in science subjects. They are designed to excite and encourage young people to pursue their interests - and not to be held back by their gender, race or background.”

The Museum welcomed over 100 visitors to the event, which included ‘meet the scientist’ stalls, a poster exhibition, and a sneak-peek at the newly refurbished Whale Hall.

More than 30 women working in different scientific fields took part, from organisations including the United Nations’ Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre, the RSPB and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. They were joined by staff and volunteers from the museum, and Cambridge postgraduate students.

Dr Rosalyn Wade, the Museum’s Interpretation and Learning Officer, helped to coordinate the event. She said; “A key role for the Museum is engaging with the public and raising awareness of work in biological and environmental sciences.

“It’s important to raise awareness of the different kinds of careers available in scientific fields. A number of our visitors were GCSE and A-Level students, and it was a great opportunity for them to see the range of roles that might be available to them in the future.

“We also had lots of new mums who are thinking about a career change and were interested to learn more about different areas. It was great to see such a diverse range of people.”

The Museum has undergone a massive redevelopment, and will officially re-open to the public on 23 June.

Scientists from around the world gathered at the Museum of Zoology yesterday to celebrate and promote the work of women in conservation.

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Annual Equalities and Wellbeing Lecture 2018

From Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 08, 2018.

Regulation of DNA replication during early embryogenesis

From Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 05, 2018.

Ancient genome study identifies traces of indigenous “Taíno” in present-day Caribbean populations

By tdk25 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Feb 19, 2018.

Researchers were able to use the tooth of a woman found in a cave on the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas to sequence the first complete ancient human genome from the Caribbean. The woman lived at some point between the 8th and 10th centuries, at least 500 years before Columbus made landfall in the Bahamas.

The results provide unprecedented insights into the genetic makeup of the Taíno – a label commonly used to describe the indigenous people of that region. This includes the first clear evidence that there has been some degree of continuity between the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and contemporary communities living in the region today.

Such a link had previously been suggested by other studies based on modern DNA. None of these, however, was able to draw on an ancient genome. The new research finally provides concrete proof that indigenous ancestry in the region has survived to the present day.

Comparing the ancient Bahamian genome to those of contemporary Puerto Ricans, the researchers found that they were more closely related to the ancient Taíno than any other indigenous group in the Americas. However, they argue that this characteristic is unlikely to be exclusive to Puerto Ricans alone and are convinced that future studies will reveal similar genetic legacies in other Caribbean communities.

The findings are likely to be especially significant for people in the Caribbean and elsewhere who have long claimed indigenous Taíno heritage, despite some historical narratives that inaccurately brand them “extinct”. Such misrepresentations have been heavily criticised by historians and archaeologists, as well as by descendant communities themselves, but until now they lacked clear genetic evidence to support their case.

The study was carried out by an international team of researchers led by Dr Hannes Schroeder and Professor Eske Willerslev of Cambridge's Department of Zoology within the framework of the ERC Synergy project NEXUS1492. The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Schroeder, from the University of Copenhagen who carried out the research as part of the NEXUS1492 project, said: “It’s a fascinating finding. Many history books will tell you that the indigenous population of the Caribbean was all but wiped out, but people who self-identify as Taíno have always argued for continuity. Now we know they were right all along: there has been some form of genetic continuity in the Caribbean.”

Willerslev, who has dual posts at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, and the University of Copenhagen, said: “It has always been clear that people in the Caribbean have Native American ancestry, but because the region has such a complex history of migration, it was difficult to prove whether this was specifically indigenous to the Caribbean, until now.”

The researchers were also able to trace the genetic origins of the indigenous Caribbean islanders, showing that they were most closely related to Arawakan-speaking groups who live in parts of northern South America today. This suggests that the origins of at least some the people who migrated to the Caribbean can be traced back to the Amazon and Orinoco Basins, where the Arawakan languages developed.

The Caribbean was one of the last parts of the Americas to be populated by humans starting around 8,000 years ago. By the time of European colonization, the islands were a complex patchwork of different societies and cultures. The “Taíno” culture was dominant in the Greater, and parts of the Lesser Antilles, as well as the Bahamas, where the people were known as Lucayans.

To trace the genetic origins of the Lucayans the researchers compared the ancient Bahamian genome with previously published genome-wide datasets for over 40 present-day  indigenous groups from the Americas. In addition, they looked for traces of indigenous Caribbean ancestry in present-day populations by comparing the ancient genome with those of 104 contemporary Puerto Ricans included in the 1000 Genomes Project. The 10-15% of Native American ancestry in this group was shown to be closely related to the ancient Bahamian genome.

Jorge Estevez, a Taíno descendant who works at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York and assisted the project team, said that as a boy growing up in the United States, he was told stories about his Taíno ancestors at home, but at school was taught that the same ancestors had died out. “I wish my grandmother were alive today so that I could confirm to her what she already knew,” he added. “It shows that the true story is one of assimilation, certainly, but not total extinction. I am genuinely grateful to the researchers. Although this may have been a matter of scientific inquiry for them, to us, the descendants, it is truly liberating and uplifting.”

Although indigenous Caribbean communities were island-based, the researchers found very little genomic evidence of isolation or inbreeding in the ancient genome. This reinforces earlier genetic research led by Willerslev, which suggests that early human communities developed surprisingly extensive social networks, long before the term had digital connotations. It also echoes ongoing work by researchers at the Faculty of Archaeology in Leiden and others indicating the connectedness of indigenous Caribbean communities. 

Professor Corinne Hofman from Leiden University and PI of the NEXUS1492 project, said: "Archaeological evidence has always suggested that large numbers of people who settled the Caribbean originated in South America, and that they maintained social networks that extended far beyond the local scale. Historically, it has been difficult to back this up with ancient DNA because of poor preservation, but this study demonstrates that it is possible to obtain ancient genomes from the Caribbean and that opens up fascinating new possibilities for research."

A thousand-year-old tooth has provided genetic evidence that the so-called “Taíno”, the first indigenous Americans to feel the full impact of European colonisation after Columbus arrived in the New World, still have living descendants in the Caribbean today.

It has always been clear that people in the Caribbean have Native American ancestry, but it was difficult to prove whether this was specifically indigenous to the Caribbean, until now.
Eske Willerslev
First encounter. Columbus landing in the New World

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Shoals of sticklebacks differ in their collective personalities

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Feb 07, 2018.

For centuries, scientists and non-scientists alike have been fascinated by the beautiful and often complex collective behaviour of animal groups, such as the highly synchronised movements of flocks of birds and schools of fish. Often, those spectacular collective patterns emerge from individual group members using simple rules in their interactions, without requiring global knowledge of their group.

In recent years it has also become apparent that, across the animal kingdom, individual animals often differ considerably and consistently in their behaviour, with some individuals being bolder, more active, or more social than others.

New research conducted at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology suggests that observations of different groups of schooling fish could provide important insights into how the make-up of groups can drive collective behaviour and performance.

In the study, published today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the researchers created random groups of wild-caught stickleback fish and subjected them repeatedly to a range of environments that included open spaces, plant cover, and patches of food.

Dr Jolle Jolles, lead author of the study, now based at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, said: “By filming the schooling fish from above and tracking the groups’ movements in detail, we found that the randomly composed shoals showed profound differences in their collective behaviour that persisted across different ecological contexts. Some groups were consistently faster, better coordinated, more cohesive, and showed clearer leadership structure than others.

“That such differences existed among the groups is remarkable as individuals were randomly grouped with others that were of similar age and size and with which they had very limited previous social contact.”

This research shows for the first time that, even among animals where group membership changes frequently over time and individuals are not very strongly related to each other, such as schooling fish or flocking birds, stable differences can emerge in the collective performance of animal groups.

Such behavioural variability among groups may directly affect the survival and reproductive success of the individuals within them and influence how they associate with one another. Ultimately these findings may therefore help understand the selective pressures that have shaped social behaviour.

Dr Andrea Manica, co-author of the paper from the University of Cambridge, added: “Our research reveals that the collective performance of groups is strongly driven by their composition, suggesting that consistent behavioural differences among groups could be a widespread phenomenon in animal societies.”

These research findings provide important new insights that may help explain and predict the performance of social groups, which could be beneficial in building human teams or constructing automated robot swarms.

The research was supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

Jolles, JW et al. Repeatable group differences in the collective behaviour of stickleback shoals across ecological contexts. Proceedings of the Royal Society B; 7 Feb 2018; DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2017.2629

Research from the University of Cambridge has revealed that, among schooling fish, groups can have different collective personalities, with some shoals sticking closer together, being better coordinated, and showing clearer leadership than others.


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Launch of Cambridge ZooCasts

From Department of Zoology. Published on Feb 05, 2018.

Think of honeybees as ‘livestock’ not wildlife, argue experts

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Jan 25, 2018.

The ‘die-off’ events occurring in honeybee colonies that are bred and farmed like livestock must not be confused with the conservation crisis of dramatic declines in thousands of wild pollinator species, say Cambridge researchers.

Writing in the journal Science, the conservationists argue there is a “lack of distinction” in public understanding – fuelled by misguided charity campaigns and media reports – between an agricultural problem and an urgent biodiversity issue.

In fact, they say domesticated honeybees actually contribute to wild bee declines through resource competition and spread of disease, with so-called environmental initiatives promoting honeybee-keeping in cities or, worse, protected areas far from agriculture, only likely to exacerbate the loss of wild pollinators.

“The crisis in global pollinator decline has been associated with one species above all, the western honeybee. Yet this is one of the few pollinator species that is continually replenished through breeding and agriculture,” said co-author Dr Jonas Geldmann from Cambridge University’s Department of Zoology.

“Saving the honeybee does not help wildlife. Western honeybees are a commercially managed species that can actually have negative effects on their immediate environment through the massive numbers in which they are introduced.

“Levels of wild pollinators, such as species of solitary bumblebee, moth and hoverfly, continue to decline at an alarming rate. Currently, up to 50% of all European bee species are threatened with extinction,” Geldmann said.  

Honeybees are vital for many crops – as are wild pollinators, with some assessments suggesting wild species provide up to half the needed “pollinator services” for the three-quarters of globally important crops that require pollination.

However, generating honeybee colonies for crop pollination is problematic. Major flowering crops such as fruits and oilseed rape bloom for a period of days or weeks, whereas honeybees are active for nine to twelve months and travel up to 10km from their hives.

This results in massive “spillover” from farmed honeybees into the landscape, potentially out-competing wild pollinators. A recent study by the co-author of today’s Science article, Dr Juan P. González-Varo, showed honeybee levels in woodlands of southern Spain to be eight times higher after orange tree crops finish blooming.

“Keeping honeybees is an extractive activity. It removes pollen and nectar from the environment, which are natural resources needed by many wild species of bee and other pollinators,” said González-Varo, also from Cambridge’s Zoology Department.

“Honeybees are artificially-bred agricultural animals similar to livestock such as pigs and cows. Except this livestock can roam beyond any enclosures to disrupt local ecosystems through competition and disease.”

As with other intensively farmed animals, overcrowding and homogenous diets have depressed bee immune systems and sent pathogen rates soaring in commercial hives. Diseases are transferred to wild species when bees feed from the same flowers, similar to germs passing between humans through a shared coffee cup.

This puts added pressure on endangered wild European bee species such as the great yellow bumblebee, which was once found across the UK but has lost 80% of its range in the last half century, and is now limited to coastal areas of Scotland.

Both wild and cultivated pollinators are afflicted by pesticides such as neonicotinoids, as well as other anthropogenic effects – from loss of hedgerows to climate change – which drive the much-publicised die-offs among farmed bees and the decline in wild pollinator species over the last few decades.

“Honeybee colony die-offs are likely to be a ‘canary in the coalmine’ that is mirrored by many wild pollinator species. The attention on honeybees may help raise awareness, but action must also be directed towards our threatened species,” said Geldmann.

“The past decade has seen an explosion in research on honeybee loss and the dangers posed to crops. Yet little research has been done to understand wild native pollinator declines, including the potential negative role of managed honeybees.”

Geldmann and González-Varo recommend policies to limit the impact of managed honeybees, including hive size limits, the moving of colonies to track the bloom of different crops, and greater controls on managed hives in protected areas.

“Honeybees may be necessary for crop pollination, but beekeeping is an agrarian activity that should not be confused with wildlife conservation,” they write. 

Contrary to public perception, die-offs in honeybee colonies are an agricultural not a conservation issue, argue Cambridge researchers, who say that manged honeybees may contribute to the genuine biodiversity crisis of Europe’s declining wild pollinators.

Honeybees are artificially-bred agricultural animals similar to livestock such as pigs and cows
Juan P. González-Varo
Commercial honeybee hives in the Teide National Park, Tenerife, Spain.

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Are insects a credible food source?

From Department of Zoology. Published on Jan 22, 2018.

Bolivian biodiversity hotspot on road to deforestation

From Department of Zoology. Published on Jan 15, 2018.

Direct genetic evidence of founding population reveals story of first Native Americans

By tdk25 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Jan 03, 2018.

The data, which came from archaeological finds in Alaska, also points to the existence of a previously unknown Native American population, whom academics have named “Ancient Beringians”.

The findings are being published in the journal Nature and present possible answers to a series of long-standing questions about how the Americas were first populated.

It is widely accepted that the earliest settlers crossed from what is now Russia into Alaska via an ancient land bridge spanning the Bering Strait which was submerged at the end of the last Ice Age. Issues such as whether there was one founding group or several, when they arrived, and what happened next, are the subject of extensive debate, however.

In the new study, an international team of researchers led by academics from the Universities of Cambridge and Copenhagen sequenced the full genome of an infant – a girl named Xach'itee'aanenh t'eede gay, or Sunrise Child-girl, by the local Native community - whose remains were found at the Upward Sun River archaeological site in Alaska in 2013.

To their surprise, they found that although the child had lived around 11,500 years ago, long after people first arrived in the region, her genetic information did not match either of the two recognised branches of early Native Americans, which are referred to as Northern and Southern. Instead, she appeared to have belonged to an entirely distinct Native American population, which they called Ancient Beringians.

Further analyses then revealed that the Ancient Beringians were an offshoot of the same ancestor population as the Northern and Southern Native American groups, but that they separated from that population earlier in its history. This timeline allowed the researchers to construct a picture of how and when the continent might have been settled by a common, founding population of ancestral Native Americans, that gradually divided into these different sub-groupings.

The study was led by Professor Eske Willerslev, who holds positions both at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, and the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

“The Ancient Beringians diversified from other Native Americans before any ancient or living Native American population sequenced to date. It’s basically a relict population of an ancestral group which was common to all Native Americans, so the sequenced genetic data gave us enormous potential in terms of answering questions relating to the early peopling of the Americas,” he said. 

“We were able to show that people probably entered Alaska before 20,000 years ago. It’s the first time that we have had direct genomic evidence that all Native Americans can be traced back to one source population, via a single, founding migration event.”

The study compared data from the Upward Sun River remains with both ancient genomes, and those of numerous present-day populations. This allowed the researchers first to establish that the Ancient Beringian group was more closely related to early Native Americans than their Asian and Eurasian ancestors, and then to determine the precise nature of that relationship and how, over time, they split into distinct populations.

Until now, the existence of two separate Northern and Southern branches of early Native Americans has divided academic opinion regarding how the continent was populated. Researchers have disagreed over whether these two branches split after humans entered Alaska, or whether they represent separate migrations.

The Upward Sun River genome shows that Ancient Beringians were isolated from the common, ancestral Native American population, both before the Northern and Southern divide, and after the ancestral source population was itself isolated from other groups in Asia. The researchers say that this means it is likely there was one wave of migration into the Americas, with all subdivisions taking place thereafter.

According to the researchers’ timeline, the ancestral population first emerged as a separate group around 36,000 years ago, probably somewhere in northeast Asia. Constant contact with Asian populations continued until around 25,000 years ago, when the gene flow between the two groups ceased. This cessation was probably caused by brutal changes in the climate, which isolated the Native American ancestors. “It therefore probably indicates the point when people first started moving into Alaska,” Willerslev said.

Around the same time, there was a level of genetic exchange with an ancient North Eurasian population. Previous research by Willerslev has shown that a relatively specific, localised level of contact between this group, and East Asians, led to the emergence of a distinctive ancestral Native American population.

Ancient Beringians themselves then separated from the ancestral group earlier than either the Northern or Southern branches around 20,000 years ago. Genetic contact continued with their Native American cousins, however, at least until the Upward Sun River girl was born in Alaska around 8,500 years later.

The geographical proximity required for ongoing contact of this sort led the researchers to conclude that the initial migration into the Americas had probably already taken place when the Ancient Beringians broke away from the main ancestral line. José Víctor Moreno-Mayar, from the University of Copenhagen, said: “It looks as though this Ancient Beringian population was up there, in Alaska, from 20,000 years ago until 11,500 years ago, but they were already distinct from the wider Native American group.”

Finally, the researchers established that the Northern and Southern Native American branches only split between 17,000 and 14,000 years ago which, based on the wider evidence, indicates that they must have already been on the American continent south of the glacial ice.

The divide probably occurred after their ancestors had passed through, or around, the Laurentide and Cordilleran ice sheets – two vast glaciers which covered what is now Canada and parts of the northern United States, but began to thaw at around this time.

The continued existence of this ice sheet across much of the north of the continent would have isolated the southbound travellers from the Ancient Beringians in Alaska, who were eventually replaced or absorbed by other Native American populations. Although modern populations in both Alaska and northern Canada belong to the Northern Native American branch, the analysis shows that these derive from a later “back” migration north, long after the initial migration events.

“One significant aspect of this research is that some people have claimed the presence of humans in the Americas dates back earlier – to 30,000 years, 40,000 years, or even more,” Willerslev added. “We cannot prove that those claims are not true, but what we are saying, is that if they are correct, they could not possibly have been the direct ancestors to contemporary Native Americans.”


Willerslev, E, et al. Terminal Pleistocene Alaskan genome reveals first founding population of Native Americans. Nature. 3 Jan 2018. DOI: 10.1038/nature25173

Direct genetic traces of the earliest Native Americans have been identified for the first time in a new study. The genetic evidence suggests that people may have entered the continent in a single migratory wave, perhaps arriving more than 20,000 years ago.

It’s the first time that we have had direct genomic evidence that all Native Americans can be traced back to one source population, via a single, founding migration event
Eske Willerslev
Excavations at the Upward Sun River archaeological site in Alaska. The new study shows that the remains found there belonged to members of a previously unknown Native American population, whom academics have named “Ancient Beringians”.

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Political instability and weak governance lead to loss of species, study finds

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Dec 20, 2017.

A vast new study of changes in global wildlife over almost three decades has found that low levels of effective national governance are the strongest predictor of declining species numbers – more so than economic growth, climate change or even surges in human population.   

The findings, published in the journal Nature, also show that protected conservation areas do maintain wildlife diversity, but only when situated in countries that are reasonably stable politically with sturdy legal and social structures.

The research used the fate of waterbird species since 1990 as a bellwether for broad biodiversity trends, as their wetland habitats are among the most diverse as well as the most endangered on Earth.

An international team of scientists and conservation experts led by the University of Cambridge analysed over 2.4 million annual count records of 461 waterbird species across almost 26,000 different survey sites around the world.

The researchers used this giant dataset to model localised species changes in nations and regions.  Results were compared to the Worldwide Governance Indicators, which measure everything from violence rates and rule of law to political corruption, as well as data such as gross domestic product (GDP) and conservation performance.

The team discovered that waterbird decline was greater in regions of the world where governance is, on average, less effective: such as Western and Central Asia, South America and sub-Saharan Africa.

The healthiest overall species quotas were seen in continental Europe, although even here the levels of key species were found to have nosedived.

This is the first time that effectiveness of national governance and levels of socio-political stability have been identified as the most significant global indicator of biodiversity and species loss.   

“Although the global coverage of protected areas continues to increase, our findings suggest that ineffective governance could undermine the benefits of these biodiversity conservation efforts,” says Cambridge’s Dr Tatsuya Amano, who led the study at the University’s Department of Zoology and Centre for the Study of Existential Risk.

“We now know that governance and political stability is a vital consideration when developing future environmental policies and practices.”

For the latest study, Amano worked with Cambridge colleagues as well as researchers from the universities of Bath, UK, and Santa Clara, US, and conservation organisations Wetlands International and the National Audubon Society.

The lack of global-level data on changes to the natural world limits our understanding of the “biodiversity crisis”, say the study’s authors. However, they say there are advantages to focusing on waterbirds when trying to gauge these patterns.

Waterbirds are a diverse group of animals, from ducks and heron to flamingos and pelicans. Their wetland habitats cover some 1.3 billion hectares of the planet – from coast to freshwater and even highland – and provide crucial “ecosystem services”. Wetlands have also been degraded more than any other form of ecosystem.

In addition, waterbirds have a long history of population monitoring. The annual global census run by Wetlands International has involved more than 15,000 volunteers over the last 50 years, and the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas bird count dates back to 1900.

“Our study shows that waterbird monitoring can provide useful lessons about what we need to do to halt the loss of biodiversity,” said co-author Szabolcs Nagy, Coordinator of the African-Eurasian Waterbird Census at Wetlands International.

Compared to all the “anthropogenic impacts” tested by the researchers, national governance was the most significant. ”Ineffective governance is often associated with lack of environmental enforcement and investment, leading to habitat loss,” says Amano.

The study also uncovered a relationship between the speed of GDP growth and biodiversity: the faster GDP per capita was growing, the greater the decline in waterbird species.

Diversity on a localised level was worst affected on average in South America, with a 0.95% annual loss equating to a 21% decline across the region over 25 years. Amano was also surprised to find severe species loss across inland areas of western and central Asia.  

The researchers point out that poor water management and dam construction in parts of Asia and South America have caused wetlands to permanently dry out in counties such as Iran and Argentina – even in areas designated as protected.

Impotent hunting regulations can also explain species loss under ineffective governance. “Political instability can weaken legal enforcement, and consequently promote unsuitable, often illegal, killing even in protected areas,” says Amano.

In fact, the researchers found that protected conservation areas simply did not benefit biodiversity if they were located in nations with weak governance.

Recent Cambridge research involving Amano suggests that grassroots initiatives led by local and indigenous groups can be more effective than governments at protecting ecosystems – one possible conservation approach for regions suffering from political instability.   

Amano, T et al. Successful conservation of global waterbird populations depends on effective governance. Nature; 20 December 2017; DOI: 10.1038/nature25139

Big data study of global biodiversity shows ineffective national governance is a better indicator of species decline than any other measure of “anthropogenic impact”. Even protected conservation areas make little difference in countries that struggle with socio-political stability.

We now know that governance and political stability is a vital consideration when developing future environmental policies and practices
Tatsuya Amano
Black-tailed godwit (Limosa limosa), a waterbird with habitats ranging from the Russian far-east to Europe, Africa, and Australasia.

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Meerkat morning weights

From Department of Zoology. Published on Dec 01, 2017.

Does the presence of helpers affect maternal investment in cooperative breeders?

From Department of Zoology. Published on Nov 24, 2017.

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From Department of Zoology. Published on Nov 22, 2017.

2017 Marsh Book of the Year prize awarded to Tim Clutton-Brock

From Department of Zoology. Published on Nov 06, 2017.

Teaching and the Museum of Zoology

From Department of Zoology. Published on Oct 30, 2017.

New evidence shows that domestication of dogs has changed their skull shapes

From Department of Zoology. Published on Oct 18, 2017.