skip to primary navigationskip to content

Latest News

Ancient DNA analysis unlocks secrets of Ice Age tribes in the Americas

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

The results have been published in the journal Science as part of a wide-ranging international study, led by the University of Cambridge, which genetically analysed the DNA of a series of well-known and controversial ancient remains across North and South America.

The research also discovered clues of a puzzling Australasian genetic signal in the 10,400-year-old Lagoa Santa remains from Brazil revealing a previously unknown group of early South Americans – but the Australasian link left no genetic trace in North America.

Additionally, a legal battle over a 10,600-year-old ancient skeleton – called the ‘Spirit Cave Mummy’ – has ended after advanced DNA sequencing found it was related to a Native American tribe. The researchers were able to dismiss a longstanding theory that a group called Paleoamericans existed in North America before Native Americans. The Paleoamerican hypothesis was first proposed in the 19th century, but this new study disproves that theory.

“Spirit Cave and Lagoa Santa were very controversial because they were identified as so-called ‘Paleoamericans’ based on craniometry – it was determined that the shape of their skulls was different to current day Native Americans,” said Professor Eske Willeslev, who holds positions at the Universities of Cambridge and Copenhagen, and led the study. “Our study proves that Spirit Cave and Lagoa Santa were actually genetically closer to contemporary Native Americans than to any other ancient or contemporary group sequenced to date.”

The scientific and cultural significance of the Spirit Cave remains, which were found in 1940 in a small rocky alcove in the Great Basin Desert, was not properly understood for 50 years. The preserved remains of the man in his forties were initially believed to be between 1,500 and 2000 years old but during the 1990s new textile and hair testing dated the skeleton at 10,600 years old.

The Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, a group of Native Americans based in Nevada near Spirit Cave, claimed cultural affiliation with the skeleton and requested immediate repatriation of the remains.

Their request was refused and the tribe sued the US government, a lawsuit that pitted tribal leaders against anthropologists, who argued the remains provided invaluable insights into North America’s earliest inhabitants and should continue to be displayed in a museum.

The deadlock continued for 20 years until the tribe agreed that Professor Willeslev could carry out genome sequencing on DNA extracted from the Spirit Cave for the first time.

“I assured the tribe that my group would not do the DNA testing unless they gave permission and it was agreed that if Spirit Cave was genetically a Native American the mummy would be repatriated to the tribe,” said Professor Willeslev, who is a Fellow of St John’s College.

The team extracted DNA from the inside of the skull proving that the skeleton was an ancestor of present-day Native Americans. Spirit Cave was returned to the tribe in 2016 and there was a private reburial ceremony earlier this year. The tribe were kept informed throughout the two-year project and two members visited the lab in Copenhagen to meet the scientists and they were present when all of the DNA sampling was taken.

The genome of the Spirit Cave skeleton has wider significance because it not only settled the legal and cultural dispute between the tribe and the Government, it also helped reveal how ancient humans moved and settled across the Americas. The scientists were able to track the movement of populations from Alaska to as far south as Patagonia. They often separated from each other and took their chances travelling in small pockets of isolated groups.

Dr David Meltzer, from the Department of Anthropology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, said: “A striking thing about the analysis of Spirit Cave and Lagoa Santa is their close genetic similarity which implies their ancestral population travelled through the continent at astonishing speed. That’s something we’ve suspected due to the archaeological findings, but it’s fascinating to have it confirmed by the genetics. These findings imply that the first peoples were highly skilled at moving rapidly across an utterly unfamiliar and empty landscape. They had a whole continent to themselves and they were travelling great distances at speed.”

The study also revealed surprising traces of Australasian ancestry in ancient South American Native Americans but no Australasian genetic link was found in North American Native Americans.

Dr Victor Moreno-Mayar, from the Centre for GeoGenetics, University of Copenhagen and first author of the study, said: “We discovered the Australasian signal was absent in Native Americans prior to the Spirit Cave and Lagoa Santa population split which means groups carrying this genetic signal were either already present in South America when Native Americans reached the region, or Australasian groups arrived later. That this signal has not been previously documented in North America implies that an earlier group possessing it had disappeared or a later arriving group passed through North America without leaving any genetic trace.”

Dr Peter de Barros Damgaard, from the Centre for GeoGenetics, University of Copenhagen, explained why scientists remain puzzled but optimistic about the Australasian ancestry signal in South America. He explained: “If we assume that the migratory route that brought this Australasian ancestry to South America went through North America, either the carriers of the genetic signal came in as a structured population and went straight to South America where they later mixed with new incoming groups, or they entered later. At the moment we cannot resolve which of these might be correct, leaving us facing extraordinary evidence of an extraordinary chapter in human history! But we will solve this puzzle.”

The population history during the millennia that followed initial settlement was far more complex than previously thought. The peopling of the Americas had been simplified as a series of north to south population splits with little to no interaction between groups after their establishment.

The new genomic analysis presented in the study has shown that around 8,000 years ago, Native Americans were on the move again, but this time from Mesoamerica into both North and South America.

Researchers found traces of this movement in the genomes of all present-day indigenous populations in South America for which genomic data is available to date.

Dr Moreno-Mayar added: “The older genomes in our study not only taught us about the first inhabitants in South America but also served as a baseline for identifying a second stream of genetic ancestry, which arrived from Mesoamerica in recent millennia and that is not evident from the archaeological record. These Mesoamerican peoples mixed with the descendants of the earliest South Americans and gave rise to most contemporary groups in the region.”

J. Victor
Moreno-Mayar et al. 'Early human dispersals within the Americas.' Science (2018). DOI: 10.1126/science.aav2621

Adapted from a St John's College press release.

Inset image: Skulls and other human remains from P.W. Lund's Collection from Lagoa Santa, Brazil. Kept in the Natural History Museum of Denmark. Credit: Natural History Museum of Denmark

Scientists have sequenced 15 ancient genomes spanning from Alaska to Patagonia and were able to track the movements of the first humans as they spread across the Americas at “astonishing” speed during the last Ice Age, and also how they interacted with each other in the following millennia.

Our study proves that Spirit Cave and Lagoa Santa were actually genetically closer to contemporary Native Americans than to any other ancient or contemporary group sequenced to date
Eske Willeslev
Professor Eske Willerslev with Donna and Joey, two members of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone tribe.

Creative Commons License
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.


Mammalian Evolution, Diversity and Systematics

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

Top Student Award

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

On the (mucous) trail of a coral killer

From Department of Zoology. Published on Oct 10, 2018.

Why a ‘cuckoo in the nest’ can go undetected

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

New portraits in the Library

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

Neglected baby beetles evolve greater self-reliance

By ta385 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Sep 28, 2018.

Sexton beetle and larva.
In gardens, parks and woods across the UK, the Sexton burying beetle Nicrophorus vespilloides quietly buries dead mice and other small vertebrates to create edible nests for its young.
Most parents remove the animal’s hair and slash the flesh of the carcass to help their newly-hatched larvae crawl inside. Typically they also stay on to defend and feed them, but levels of care vary and larvae can survive without their parents.
In a laboratory in Cambridge’s Zoology Department, researchers exploited the insect’s unusual natural history to establish two starkly different experimental populations and explore how parental behaviour drives evolution.
The study, published today in the journal Nature Communications shows that larvae evolve distinctive adaptations in response to the different levels of parental care.

The scientists behind the research exposed hundreds of beetles to two levels of parental care, over 13 generations. In a No Care environment, parents were removed as soon as they had prepared their mouse carcass nest but before their larvae had hatched. By contrast, in the Control environment, the parents were allowed to care for their young until they were ready to leave home. 
The researchers found that when parents fed meat to their babies’ mouth-to-mouth, the larvae evolved relatively smaller mandibles. These horizontally-aligned bladelike jaws play a vital role in the larva’s life, enabling them to enter the carcass and feed on the flesh once inside, but they are less important when parents help their young to feed. 
“By contrast, when the parents were removed from their young and larvae were forced to self-feed, the larvae evolved significantly larger jaws to compensate for the lack of help,” said Benjamin Jarrett, who led the study. 
Many previous studies have shown that social interactions in animals can drive evolutionary change through arms races which cause traits to become increasingly exaggerated. But animals also cooperate and it has been argued that when one individual contributes more, this can diminish traits in the less active social partner. Rarely, however, has direct evidence of this process been obtained.
So what are the larval mandibles like in natural populations, where the level of parental care is very variable from family to family? Here the researchers found that larval jaws are consistently large on average, regardless of the size of the larva. 
“They seem to be anticipating the worst possible scenario of receiving no help at all. This looks like a conservative bet-hedging strategy for survival,” said Jarrett. 
“Whether parents eventually decide to stay or go, the larva are equipped with large jaws and so can fend for themselves if necessary.” 
The laboratory’s experimental populations of beetles are continuing to evolve and are now in the 35th generation of experiencing different levels of parental care.
“Our ongoing research investigates the importance of the social environment in evolution. We are watching the way that evolution unfolds in these experimental populations and they constantly teach and surprise us,” said Professor Rebecca Kilner, senior author of the paper.
“The better our understanding of how evolution works, the better able we are to predict how animals will evolve in a changing world”. 

Benjamin Jarrett et al. 'A sustained change in the supply of parental care causes adaptive evolution of offspring morphology.' Nature Communications (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-06513-6

A new study reveals that when burying beetle larvae are denied parental support, they evolve bigger jaws to compensate.

Our ongoing research investigates the importance of the social environment in evolution
Rebecca Kilner
Sexton beetle and larva

Creative Commons License
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.

License type: 

First Part II Zoology Tropical Field Course: a student's view

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

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

Creative Commons License
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.

License type: 

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

Creative Commons License
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

Creative Commons License
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.

Creative Commons License
The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. For image use please see separate credits above.


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.

Creative Commons License
The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. For image use please see separate credits above.


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

Creative Commons License
The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. For image use please see separate credits above.


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.


Creative Commons License
The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. For image use please see separate credits above.

License type: 

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.

Creative Commons License
The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. For image use please see separate credits above.

License type: