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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.

In case you missed it...

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

Ancient fish scales and vertebrate teeth share an embryonic origin

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

In biology, one long-running debate has teeth: whether ancient fish scales moved into the mouth with the origin of jaws, or if the tooth had its own evolutionary inception.

Recent studies on species such as zebrafish showed scales and teeth developing from distinctly different clusters of cells in fish embryos, pouring cold water on ‘teeth from scales’ theories.

However, while most fish in the sea have bones, one ancient lineage – sharks, skates and rays – possess skeletons made entirely of cartilage.

These cartilaginous fish retain some primitive characteristics that have been lost in their bony counterparts, including small spiky scales embedded in their skin called ‘dermal denticles’ that bear a striking resemblance to jagged teeth.  

Now, researchers at the University of Cambridge have used fluorescent markers to track cell development in the embryo of a cartilaginous fish – a little skate in this case – and found that these thorny scales are in fact created from the same type of cells as teeth: neural crest cells.

The findings, published in the journal PNAS, support the theory that, in the depths of early evolution, these ‘denticle’ scales were carried into the emerging mouths of jawed vertebrates to form teeth. Jawed vertebrates now make up 99% of all living vertebrates, from fish to mammals.

“The scales of most fish that live today are very different from the ancient scales of early vertebrates,” says study author Dr Andrew Gillis from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole.

“Primitive scales were much more tooth-like in structure, but have been retained in only a few living lineages, including that of cartilaginous fishes such as skates and sharks.

“Stroke a shark and you’ll find it feels rougher than other fish, as shark skin is covered entirely in dermal denticles. There’s evidence that shark skin was actually used as sandpaper as early as the Bronze Age,” says Gillis.

“By labelling the different types of cells in the embryos of skate, we were able to trace their fates. We show that, unlike most fish, the denticle scales of sharks and skate develop from neural crest cells, just like teeth.

“Neural crest cells are central to the process of tooth development in mammals. Our findings suggest a deep evolutionary relationship between these primitive fish scales and the teeth of vertebrates.

“Early jawless vertebrates were filter feeders – sucking in small prey items from the water. It was the advent of both jaws and teeth that allowed vertebrates to begin processing larger and more complex prey.”

The very name of these scales, dermal denticles, alludes to the fact that they are formed of dentine: a hard calcified tissue that makes up the majority of a tooth, sitting underneath the enamel.  

The jagged dermal denticles on sharks and skate – and, quite possibly, vertebrate teeth – are remnants of the earliest mineralised skeleton of vertebrates: superficial armour plating. 

This armour would have perhaps peaked some 400 million years ago in now-extinct jawless vertebrate species, as protection against predation by ferocious sea scorpions, or even their early jawed kin. 

The Cambridge scientists hypothesise that these early armour plates were multi-layered: consisting of a foundation of bone and an outer layer of dentine – with the different layers deriving from different types of cells in unborn embryos.

These layers were then variously retained, reduced or lost in different vertebrate linages over the course of evolution. “This ancient dermal skeleton has undergone considerable reductions and modifications through time,” says Gillis.

“The sharks and skate have lost the bony under-layer, while most fish have lost the tooth-like dentine outer layer. A few species, such as the bichir, a popular fish in home aquariums, have retained aspects of both layers of this ancient external skeleton.”

Latest findings support the theory that teeth in the animal kingdom evolved from the jagged scales of ancient fish, the remnants of which can be seen today embedded in the skin of sharks and skate. 

This ancient dermal skeleton has undergone considerable reductions and modifications through time
Andrew Gillis
Dermal denticles on the tail of the Little Skate, as used in the latest research.

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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.

New Deputy Head of Department (Teaching)

From Department of Zoology. Published on Oct 17, 2017.

The David Attenborough Building sign is up

From Department of Zoology. Published on Oct 13, 2017.

Conservationists’ eco-footprints suggest education alone won’t change behaviour

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Oct 10, 2017.

Conservationists work to save the planet, and few are as knowledgeable when it comes to the environmental pressures of the Anthropocene.

However, the first wide-ranging study to compare the environmental footprint of conservationists to those of others – medics and economists, in this case – has found that, while conservationists behave in a marginally ‘greener’ manner, the differences are surprisingly modest.

Researchers say their findings add to increasing evidence that education and knowledge has little impact on individual behavior when it comes to major issues such as the environment and personal health.

Conservation scientists from the universities of Cambridge, UK, and Vermont, US, gathered data on a range of lifestyle choices – from bottled water use to air travel, meat consumption and family size – for 734 participants across the three groupings.

They found that fellow conservationists recycled more and ate less meat than either economists or medics, were similar to the other groups in how they travelled to work, but owned more cats and dogs.

The combined footprint score of the conservationists was roughly 16% less than that of economists, and 7% lower than the medics.

Nevertheless the average conservationist in the study’s sample took nine flights a year (half for work; half personal), ate meat or fish five times a week, and purchased very few offsets to their personal carbon emissions.

In fact, researchers found little correlation between the extent of environmental knowledge and environmentally-friendly behavior.

Moreover, greener action in one aspect of a person’s life did not predict it in any others – regardless of occupation. So a positive and relatively simple habit such as recycling did not appear to act as a “gateway” to more committed behaviour change.   

The team suggest that overall improvements might be most effectively achieved through tailored interventions: targeting higher-impact behaviors such as meat consumption and flying through government regulation and by incentivising alternatives. 

“While it may be hard to accept, we have to start acknowledging that increased education alone is perhaps not the panacea we would hope,” said lead author Andrew Balmford, Professor of Conservation Science at the University of Cambridge.

“Structural changes are key. For example, providing more affordable public transport, or removing subsidies for beef and lamb production. Just look at the effect of improved collection schemes on the uptake of recycling.

“The idea of ‘nudging’ – encouraging particular choices through changes in how cafes are laid out or travel tickets are sold, for instance – might have untapped potential to help us lower our footprint,” Balmford said.  

“As conservationists we must do a great deal more to lead by example. Obvious starting points include changing the ways we interact, so that attending frequent international meetings is no longer regarded as essential to making scientific progress. For many of us flying is probably the largest contributor to our personal emissions.”

The study’s four authors offer their own mea culpa: pointing out that, between them, they have seven children, took 31 flights in 2016, and ate an average of two meat meals in the week before submitting their study – now published – to the journal Biological Conservation.

“I don’t think conservationists are hypocrites, I think that we are human – meaning that some decisions are rational, and others, we rationalise,” said study co-author Brendan Fisher from the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Environment and Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources.  

“Our results show that conservationists pick and choose from a buffet of pro-environmental behaviours the same as everyone else. We might eat less meat and compost more, but we fly more – and many of us still commute significant distances in gas cars.”

For the study, researchers distributed surveys on environmental behavior through conservation, economics and biomedical organisations to targeted newsletters, mailing lists and social media groups.

Of the self-selecting respondents, there were 300 conservationists, 207 economists and 227 medics from across the UK and US.

The participants were also asked a series of factual questions on environmental issues – from atmospheric change to species extinction – and ways to most effectively lower carbon footprints.

“Interestingly, conservationists scored no better than economists on environmental knowledge and awareness of pro-environmental actions,” said Balmford.

Overall footprint scores were higher for males, US nationals, economists, and people with higher degrees and larger incomes, but were unrelated to environmental knowledge.

Fisher says the study supports the idea that ‘values’ are a key driver of behaviour. Across the professions, attaching a high value to the environment was consistently associated with a lower footprint: fewer personal flights and less food waste, for example.

“It doesn’t matter if you are a medic, economist, or conservationist, our study shows that one of the most significant drivers of your behaviour is how much you value the environment,” Fisher said. 

“Economists who care about the environment behave as well as conservationists.”

A new study shows that even those presumably best informed on the environment find it hard to consistently “walk the walk”, prompting scientists to question whether relying solely on information campaigns will ever be enough.  

While it may be hard to accept, we have to start acknowledging that increased education alone is perhaps not the panacea we would hope
Andrew Balmford

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Prehistoric humans are likely to have formed mating networks to avoid inbreeding

By tdk25 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Oct 05, 2017.

The study, reported in the journal Science, examined genetic information from the remains of anatomically modern humans who lived during the Upper Palaeolithic, a period when modern humans from Africa first colonised western Eurasia. The results suggest that people deliberately sought partners beyond their immediate family, and that they were probably connected to a wider network of groups from within which mates were chosen, in order to avoid becoming inbred.

This suggests that our distant ancestors are likely to have been aware of the dangers of inbreeding, and purposely avoided it at a surprisingly early stage in prehistory.

The symbolism, complexity and time invested in the objects and jewellery found buried with the remains also suggests that it is possible that they developed rules, ceremonies and rituals to accompany the exchange of mates between groups, which perhaps foreshadowed modern marriage ceremonies, and may have been similar to those still practised by hunter-gatherer communities in parts of the world today.

The study’s authors also hint that the early development of more complex mating systems may at least partly explain why anatomically modern humans proved successful while other species, such as Neanderthals, did not. However, more ancient genomic information from both early humans and Neanderthals is needed to test this idea.

The research was carried out by an international team of academics, led by the University of Cambridge, UK, and the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. They sequenced the genomes of four individuals from Sunghir, a famous Upper Palaeolithic site in Russia, which is believed to have been inhabited about 34,000 years ago.

The human fossils buried at Sunghir represent a rare and highly valuable source of information because, very unusually for finds from this period, the people buried there appear to have lived at the same time and were buried together. To the researchers’ surprise, however, these individuals were not closely related in genetic terms; at the very most, they were second cousins. This is true even in the case of two children who were buried head-to-head in the same grave.

Professor Eske Willerslev, a Fellow at St John’s College, Cambridge, Prince Philip Professor of Ecology and Evolution in the Department of Zoology, and a Professor at the University of Copenhagen, was the senior author on the study. “What this means is that even people in the Upper Palaeolithic, who were living in tiny groups, understood the importance of avoiding inbreeding,” he said. “The data that we have suggest that it was being purposely avoided.”

“This means that they must have developed a system for this purpose. If small hunter–gatherer bands were mixing at random, we would see much greater evidence of inbreeding than we have here.”

Early humans and other hominins such as Neanderthals appear to have lived in small family units. The small population size made inbreeding likely, but among anatomically modern humans it eventually ceased to be commonplace; when this happened, however, is unclear.

“Small family bands are likely to have interconnected with larger networks, facilitating the exchange of people between groups in order to maintain diversity,” Professor Martin Sikora, from the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, said.

Sunghir contains the burials of one adult male and two younger individuals, accompanied by the symbolically-modified incomplete remains of another adult, as well as a spectacular array of grave goods. The researchers were able to sequence the complete genomes of the four individuals, all of whom were probably living on the site at the same time. These data were compared with information from a large number of both modern and ancient human genomes.

They found that the four individuals studied were genetically no closer than second cousins, while an adult femur filled with red ochre found in the children’s’ grave would have belonged to an individual no closer than great-great grandfather of the boys. “This goes against what many would have predicted,” Willerslev said. “I think many researchers had assumed that the people of Sunghir were very closely related, especially the two youngsters from the same grave.”

The people at Sunghir may have been part of a network similar to that of modern day hunter-gatherers, such as Aboriginal Australians and some historical Native American societies. Like their Upper Palaeolithic ancestors, these people live in fairly small groups of around 25 people, but they are also less directly connected to a larger community of perhaps 200 people, within which there are rules governing with whom individuals can form partnerships.

“Most non-human primate societies are organised around single-sex kin where one of the sexes remains resident and the other migrates to another group, minimising inbreeding,” Professor Marta Mirazón Lahr, from the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies at the University of Cambridge, said. “At some point, early human societies changed their mating system into one in which a large number of the individuals that form small hunter-gatherer units are non-kin. The results from Sunghir show that Upper Palaeolithic human groups could use sophisticated cultural systems to sustain very small group sizes by embedding them in a wide social network of other groups.”

By comparison, genomic sequencing of a Neanderthal individual from the Altai Mountains who lived around 50,000 years ago indicates that inbreeding was not avoided. This leads the researchers to speculate that an early, systematic approach to preventing inbreeding may have helped anatomically modern humans to thrive, compared with other hominins.

This should be treated with caution, however: “We don’t know why the Altai Neanderthal groups were inbred,” Sikora said. “Maybe they were isolated and that was the only option; or maybe they really did fail to develop an available network of connections. We will need more genomic data of diverse Neanderthal populations to be sure.”

Willerslev also highlights a possible link with the unusual sophistication of the ornaments and cultural objects found at Sunghir. Group-specific cultural expressions may have been used to establish distinctions between bands of early humans, providing a means of identifying who to mate with and who to avoid as partners.

“The ornamentation is incredible and there is no evidence of anything like that with Neanderthals and other archaic humans,” Willerslev added. “When you put the evidence together, it seems to be speaking to us about the really big questions; what made these people who they were as a species, and who we are as a result.”

The research paper, Ancient genomes show social and reproductive behaviour of early Upper Paleolithic foragers, is published in the October 5 issue of Science

Early humans seem to have recognised the dangers of inbreeding at least 34,000 years ago, and developed surprisingly sophisticated social and mating networks to avoid it, new research has found.

When you put the evidence together, it seems to be speaking to us about the really big questions; what made these people who they were as a species, and who we are as a result
Eske Willerslev
Detail of one of the burials from Sunghir, in Russia.

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Alumni Day 2017

From Department of Zoology. Published on Sep 25, 2017.

Why do female cuckoos risk giving away their big secret?

From Department of Zoology. Published on Sep 07, 2017.

Tropical Field Course

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

Filming Blue Planet 2

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

From microCT scans to microtubules to the food on your plate

From Department of Zoology. Published on Aug 09, 2017.

Professor Sir Patrick Bateson, FRS

From Department of Zoology. Published on Aug 04, 2017.

Two new projects launched by the Conservation Evidence team

From Department of Zoology. Published on Jul 28, 2017.

Unravelling seed dispersal by frugivorous animals

From Department of Zoology. Published on Jul 20, 2017.

BRAINFest 2017

From Department of Zoology. Published on Jun 29, 2017.


From Department of Zoology. Published on Jun 19, 2017.

Janet Moore Prize 2017

From Department of Zoology. Published on Jun 14, 2017.

Dr Hannah Mumby is awarded a Fulbright Scholarship

From Department of Zoology. Published on May 31, 2017.

Speed of animal evolution enhanced by cooperative behaviour

By sjr81 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on May 26, 2017.

Cooperative behaviour is a key part of animal family life: parents help offspring by supplying them with food, and siblings can also work together to acquire food. The Cambridge study, published today in Nature Ecology and Evolution, looked at the burying beetle – unusual in the insect world as the parents feed their offspring.

Larvae in small broods are well supplied with food by their parents and grow large. In the parents’ absence, larvae can also help each other to forage for food. However, in the absence of their parents, small broods of larvae are less effective at helping each other and can never grow as big.

“For our study, we played the role of natural selection. In some experimental beetle populations, we chose only the largest beetles to breed at each generation and in some we chose only the smallest beetles,” said Benjamin Jarrett from the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge, who led the study.

“Crucially, we also changed the social conditions within beetle families. In some populations, we allowed parents to help their offspring, but in other populations we removed the parents, and larvae had to help each other. We found that the social conditions made a big difference to how quickly beetle body size evolves over generations.”

Beetles only evolved a larger body size when parents were present to help rear their young. In stark contrast, smaller body size only evolved when beetle parents were removed, and there were too few larvae to help each other.

The experiment helps explain how different species of burying beetle might have evolved their different body sizes. In general, larger species of beetle have more diligent parents than smaller species.

Burying beetles use the dead body of a small animal, like a mouse or bird, for reproduction. The parents shave and bury the carcass, to make it into an edible nest for their larvae. The larvae can feed themselves on the carrion, but the parent beetles also regurgitate partly digested food to them. The species used in this study has quite variable levels of parental care: occasionally larvae have to fend for themselves on the carcass because they have been abandoned by their parents.

“Previous work has focused on the puzzle of how cooperative behaviour evolves, because natural selection seems to favour animals that are selfish,” said Professor Rebecca Kilner, who is senior author of this paper. “We have shown that what happens next, in evolutionary terms, is just as interesting. Once cooperation has evolved, it can change the way in which evolution then unfolds.”

The researchers now hope to uses experimental evolution to understand what happens across many generations when changing the extent of parental care.

“We can remove parents from caring for their offspring in one generation, and we do this to their offspring too, and their grandoffspring, and so on,” added Jarrett. “We currently have populations of beetles that have not had parents looking after them as they grow up for 25 generations.

“What this does is change what evolution is working on. Natural selection is usually acting on the combination of parents and offspring, and now, by removing parents, we have changed the traits on which evolution acts.”

The paper Cooperative interactions within the family enhance the capacity for evolutionary change in body size, published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, can be found here:

A study by scientists from the University of Cambridge has revealed how cooperative behaviour between insect family members changes how rapidly body size evolves – with the speed of evolution increasing when individual animals help one another.

In some populations, we allowed parents to help their offspring, but in other populations we removed the parents.
Benjamin Jarrett

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Dr Claire Spottiswoode is awarded the Linnean Society's Bicentenary Medal

From Department of Zoology. Published on May 26, 2017.

Best Undergraduate Supervisor Award

From Department of Zoology. Published on May 15, 2017.

Athena SWAN Charter Silver Award

From Department of Zoology. Published on May 08, 2017.

Horizon Scan: A new wave of biological invasions is coming

From Department of Zoology. Published on May 05, 2017.

ZSL Prize Winners

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

#EarthOptimism: Recovering species must be celebrated or we risk reversing progress

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

A failure to celebrate conservation successes means we miss vital opportunities to convince the public of “real and practical solutions” they can engage with, says a leading conservationist.

Writing in the journal Oryx, Andrew Balmford, Professor of Conservation Science at the University of Cambridge, argues that any progress risks being reversed if we “let drift the many gains that the conservation movement is making”.

Progress redefines what we consider normal, he says, as in the case of the smoking ban or rights for women. Such “positive shifting baselines” even extend to the green shoots of nature’s recovery through conservation – from birdlife in the UK’s Avalon marshes to monkeys in Brazilian forests.  

However, Balmford says conservation improvements can quickly get taken for granted. When combined with the seemingly endless torrent of bad news about nature, he believes the overall effect can render people hopeless.

“If we forget where we’ve come from, we risk allowing things to slip backwards,” he writes, pointing to examples in the UK and US where early species recoveries have already led to official sanctioning of hunting and culling of partially restored populations. 

In an effort to shift the balance towards celebrating and reinforcing success, Balmford and colleagues from the Cambridge Conservation Initiative are organising Cambridge University’s contribution to a day of global action. #EarthOptimism will promote a much more positive outlook on the future of the natural world.

Taking place on 22 April, Earth Day, #EarthOptimism summits are being coordinated across more than 20 cities including Washington, London, Dallas and Helsinki. The Cambridge event features an open invitation to hear ‘Stories of Hope’ from noted naturalists such as legendary primatologist and University alumnus Jane Goodall, and Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker.

There will also be a ‘Solutions Fair’, with interactive examples of the choices everyone can make in their lives to take positive actions for the planet: from more sustainable eating to smart purchasing.   

“Many of us want to make a difference, but lack credible information about how we can have real impact,” says Balmford. “Empowering people with practical suggestions is key to understanding we are all part of the solution.”

Sir David Attenborough, for whom the new conservation campus building at Cambridge is named, will also be in attendance at Cambridge #EarthOptimism.

“While we cannot ignore the threats to nature, there are a growing number of examples of improvements in the health of species and habitats, along with benefits to human well-being, thanks to conservation action,” said Attenborough.

“But conservation cannot succeed through experts alone. The decisions that we all make in our day-to-day lives are critical for its success.”

Balmford has long argued for the importance of celebrating conservation victories. In 2012, he published a book, Wild Hope, which collected examples of good news from the natural world.

“You have to show people that their actions can change the world,” he says. “You will never motivate people by just giving them bad news.”

In the latest article, Balmford highlights recent reasons to be slightly more cheerful: restored corridors of Brazilian forests leading to a rebound by tiny monkeys called golden lion tamarins; giant pandas no longer categorised as Endangered; and protected areas helping to rebuild fish stocks in the Amazon.   

Cambridge #EarthOptimism will feature more good news from nature, including resurgent seabirds and harmonious human-jaguar coexistence.

However, Balmford warns that such progress can fall victim to complacency if people are not aware of and championing these positive changes.

In the UK, he flags the resurgence of some raptor species such as the red kite – down to under forty birds in the 1960s – and the common buzzard. This partial recovery has already led to legalised culling of buzzards, to protect the economic interests of a shooting industry that annually releases millions of non-native game birds into the countryside.

Similarly, in the US limited recovery of wolf populations – still at less than 2% of historic levels – has led to some states delisting wolves as endangered, opening the animal up to hunting.

“If as a result of positive shifting baselines we fail to remind ourselves and others of where we would be without conservation, the progress we have made risks being reversed,” says Balmford.

“Overturning the huge declines that nature is now experiencing will take a long time, and require fundamental shifts in our behaviour. But if we learn from the successes that conservation has already achieved, we can buy ourselves and the world around us much more time for those changes to take place.”

Cambridge conservationists will unite with colleagues across the globe on Earth Day this Saturday to lionise environmental victories and show there is cause for hope – the decisive component in the fight to save disappearing biodiversity.

You have to show people that their actions can change the world. You will never motivate people by just giving them bad news.
Andrew Balmford
Golden Lion Tamarin, an endangered species that has grown from 200 to more than 3,200 individuals in three decades.
#EarthOptimism: a few reasons to be cheerful
  • Asian rhino have long been hunted for their horns. However, numbers in Kaziranga National Park in India have increased from less than 500 in the sixties to over 2,500 today thanks to strong conservation protection.  
  • India completed the world’s largest solar park in September last year. In January this year, China unveiled one 30% bigger.
  • Europe's large carnivores are making a comeback: Sustainable populations of brown bear, Eurasian lynx, grey wolf, and wolverine persist in one-third of mainland Europe, with many populations increasing.
  • Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has reduced by two-thirds since its peak in 2004. Forest conservation has thus prevented 3.2 Gt of CO2 being emitted into the atmosphere.
  • A release earlier this year brought to 35 the number of scimitar-horned Oryx – declared Extinct in the Wild in 2000 – that are now free-ranging in Chad, with the first wild birth this century just reported.
  • Marine Protected Areas now cover over 5% of the world’s oceans – up from around 1% just a decade ago.
  • Restoration of key forest corridors in Brazil has helped the wild population of the endangered golden lion tamarin grow from 200 to more than 3,200 individuals in three decades. 

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Good conservation news from the wide blue yonder

From Department of Zoology. Published on Apr 12, 2017.

Student Conference on Conservation Science

From Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 29, 2017.

Can a major extinction event in Brazil be prevented?

From Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 27, 2017.

Departmental Seminar Day 2017

From Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 27, 2017.

Celebrating 10 years of European research excellence

By ag236 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 13, 2017.

When European government representatives met in Lisbon in the year 2000, and expressed an aspiration that Europe should become the world's leading knowledge economy by 2010, they agreed on the need to create a body to “fund and co-ordinate basic research at European level”.

This was the impetus underlying the creation, in 2007, of the European Research Council (ERC).

Ten years after its foundation, the ERC has become a European success story. It has supported some 6,500 projects through its prestigious grants, and has become a unique model for the fostering and funding of innovative academic research.

To mark the anniversary, events are being held across Europe during ERC Week, running from 13-19 March. At the University of Cambridge, various recipients of ERC grants will be sharing their findings with a wide audience in talks scheduled as part of the Cambridge Science Festival.

The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research will be joining in ERC Week celebrations by hosting a conference on Thursday, 16 March.

On the same day, a reception for Cambridge recipients of ERC grants, attended by ERC president Prof. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, will be held at the Fitzwilliam Museum, which is currently showing the ERC-supported exhibition, “Madonnas and Miracles: The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy”.

The ERC supports outstanding researchers in all fields of science and scholarship. It awards three types of research awards (Starter, Consolidator, Advanced) through a competitive, peer-reviewed process that rewards excellence. Its focus on “frontier research” allows academics to develop innovative and far-reaching projects over five-year periods.

The United Kingdom has been the largest recipient of ERC awards –between 2007 and 2015, it received 24% of all ERC funding.

To date, the ERC has supported 1524 projects by UK-based academics. Researchers at the University of Cambridge have won 218 of those grants, in fields ranging from Astronomy to Zoology.

“What is special about an ERC grant?”, asks Dr Marta Mirazón Lahr, who was awarded an ERC Advanced Investigator Award for her project “IN-AFRICA”, which examines the evolution of modern humans in East Africa.

“An obvious side is that it’s a lot of money. But I think it’s more than just the money. Because it’s five years, the ERC grant allows you to get a group and build a real community around the project. It also allows you to explore things in greater depth.”

An ERC grant allowed Dr Debora Sijacki, at the Institute of Astronomy, to attract “a really competitive and international team, which otherwise would have been almost impossible to get.”

Being funded for a five-year period, she adds, “gives you time to expand and really tackle some of the major problems in astrophysics, rather than doing incremental research.”

It also allowed her access to facilities: “In my case, it was access to world-leading supercomputers. And without the ERC grant this would have been difficult.”

“Real progress in research is made when researchers can tackle big important questions," says Prof David Baulcombe, of the Department of Plant Sciences, the recipient of two ERC grants. "The ERC programme invites researchers to submit ambitious, blue-skies, imaginative proposals. There aren’t many others sources of funding that allow one to do that sort a thing.”

Dr Christos Lynteris, of the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH), is the recipient of an ERC Starting Grant for his project “Visual representations of the third plague pandemic.

“An ERC is a unique opportunity," he says: “it fosters interdisciplinary work. It also fosters analytical tools and the creation of new methods.”

“It offers a great opportunity to work with other people, over a period of 5 years, which is something very unusual, and with quite a liberal framework, so you are able to change and shift your questions, to reformulate them. For me, it means freedom, above everything.”

For Prof. Ottoline Leyser, Director of the Sainsbury Laboratory, it is the “ERC ethos” and its “emphasis on taking things in new directions” that has made all the difference.

The ERC values an innovative, risk-taking approach “in a way that conventional grant-funding schemes don’t –they usually want to see that slow build rather than the risky step into the unknown.”

Prof. Simon Goldhill, Director of CRASSH, was awarded an ERC Advanced Investigator Award for his project “Bible and Antiquity in 19th Century Culture”. It has given him “the unique opportunity to do a genuinely interdisciplinary collaborative project with the time and space it takes to make such interdisciplinarity work.”

“Most importantly,” he adds, “the financial model offered by this sort of project enables us to do work that is 15 or 20 years ahead of the rest of the world, and Britain and Europe are all the stronger for it.”

The sentiment is echoed by Prof. Ruth Cameron, of the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy. The impact of an ERC grant for her project “3D Engineered Environments for Regenerative Medicine” has, she says, “exceeded expectations”.

So what has the ERC ever done for us? Quite a lot, say Cambridge academics, as they mark the 10th anniversary of Europe’s premier research-funding body

The financial model offered by this sort of project enables us to do work that is 15 or 20 years ahead of the rest of the world. Britain and Europe are all the stronger for it.
Prof. Simon Goldhill, CRASSH

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Deeper origin of gill evolution suggests 'active lifestyle' link in early vertebrates

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Feb 09, 2017.

A new study has revealed that gills originated much deeper in evolutionary history than previously believed. The findings support the idea that gills evolved before the last common ancestor of all vertebrates, helping facilitate a "lifestyle transition" from immobile filter-feeder to actively swimming predator.

The research, published today in the journal Current Biology, shows that gills develop from the same embryonic tissue in both jawed and jawless vertebrates - a lineage that split very early in our ancestral tree.

Jawed vertebrates - such as fish, birds and mammals - make up 99% of all living vertebrates, including us. Jawless vertebrates include the parasitic lamprey and scavenging hagfish: eel-like creatures that diverged from the ancestral line over 400 million years ago.

Previous work in this area involved slicing thin sections of fish embryos to chart organ growth. These "snapshots" of development led scientists to believe that gills were formed from different tissues: the internal 'endoderm' lining in jawless vertebrates, and the 'ectoderm' outer skin in the jawed.

As a result, since the mid-20th century it was thought that the ancient jawed and jawless lines evolved gills separately after they split, an example of 'convergent evolution' - where nature finds the same solution twice (such as the use of echolocation in both bats and whales, for example).

Biologists at the University of Cambridge used fluorescent labelling to stain cell membranes in skate embryos, and tracked them through the dynamic development process. Their experiment has now shown that the gills of jawed vertebrates emerge from the same internal lining cells as their jawless relatives.

The researchers say this is strong evidence that gills evolved just once, much earlier in evolutionary history - before the jawless divergence - and that the "crown ancestor" of all vertebrates was consequently a more anatomically complex creature.

The findings pull the invention of gills closer to the "active lifestyle" shift in our early ancestors: the evolution from passive filter feeders to self-propelled ocean swimmers. Scientists say that gill development may have been a catalyst or consequence of this giant physiological leap.

"These findings demonstrate a single origin of gills that likely corresponds with a key stage in vertebrate evolution: when some of our earliest relatives transitioned from filtering particles out of water pumped through static bodies to actively swimming through the oceans," says lead author Dr Andrew Gillis, a Royal Society University Research Fellow in Cambridge's Department of Zoology, and a Whitman Investigator at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, US.

"Gills provided vertebrates with specialist breathing organs in their head, rather than having to respire exclusively through skin all over the body. We can't say whether these early animals became more active and needed to evolve a new respiratory mechanism, or if it was gill evolution that allowed them to move faster.

"However, whether by demand or opportunity, our work suggests that the physiological innovation of gills occurred at the same time as the lifestyle transition from passive to active in some of our earliest ancestors."

While the jawed vertebrate lineage spawned the majority of vertebrate life that exists on Earth today - "evolutionarily speaking, we are all bony fish," says Gillis - lamprey and hagfish are the living remnants of a once extensive assemblage of primitively predatory jawless vertebrates.

"Lamprey are eel-like parasites that use their tooth-like organs and raspy tongue to latch onto fish and suck out the blood, while hagfish scavenge by taking bites out of dead matter," he says.

Gillis and colleagues used embryos of the little skate to track early gill development through cell tracing. The skate is a cartilaginous fish - an early-branching lineage of jawed vertebrates that includes the sharks and stingrays.

This made skate an excellent comparison point to try and infer the primitive anatomical and developmental conditions in the last common ancestor of jawed and jawless vertebrates.

The embryonic work of the Gillis laboratory neatly complements paleontological research from their Cambridge colleague Prof Simon Conway Morris, who has spent much of his career studying fossils of the Cambrian period of rapid evolution - when most major animal groups originated.

In 2014, Conway Morris was part of the team that discovered Metaspriggina: one of the oldest-known vertebrate fossils, perhaps over 500 million years old, which displayed hints of a gill structure, as well as the muscle arrangement of an active swimmer.

"Our embryological research helps us understand exactly how the gill structures in early vertebrates such as Metaspriggina relate to the gills of living forms," says Gillis.

"Embryology can tell us about the evolutionary relationship between anatomical features in living animals, while palaeontology can pinpoint precisely when these features first appear in deep time. I think that this work nicely illustrates how these two areas of research can inform one another."

Fish embryo study indicates that the last common ancestor of vertebrates was a complex animal complete with gills – overturning prior scientific understanding and complementing recent fossil finds. The work places gill evolution concurrent with shift to self-propulsion in our earliest ancestors.

Our work suggests that the physiological innovation of gills occurred at the same time as the lifestyle transition from passive to active in some of our earliest ancestors
Andrew Gillis
Left: Early skate embryo labeled with fluorescent dye. Right: Image of a hatchling skate

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Baltic hunter-gatherers adopted farming without influence of mass migration, ancient DNA suggests

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Feb 02, 2017.

New research indicates that Baltic hunter-gatherers were not swamped by migrations of early agriculturalists from the Middle East, as was the case for the rest of central and western Europe. Instead, these people probably acquired knowledge of farming and ceramics by sharing cultures and ideas rather than genes with outside communities.

Scientists extracted ancient DNA from a number of archaeological remains discovered in Latvia and the Ukraine, which were between 5,000 and 8,000 years old. These samples spanned the Neolithic period, which was the dawn of agriculture in Europe, when people moved from a mobile hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a settled way of life based on food production. 

We know through previous research that large numbers of early farmers from the Levant (the Near East) – driven by the success of their technological innovations such as crops and pottery – had expanded to the peripheral parts of Europe by the end of the Neolithic and largely replaced hunter-gatherer populations.

However, the new study, published today in the journal Current Biology, shows that the Levantine farmers did not contribute to hunter-gatherers in the Baltic as they did in Central and Western Europe.

The research team, which includes scientists from the University of Cambridge and Trinity College Dublin, say their findings instead suggest that the Baltic hunter-gatherers learned these skills through communication and cultural exchange with outsiders.

The findings feed into debates around the ‘Neolithic package’ – the cluster of technologies such as domesticated livestock, cultivated cereals and ceramics, which revolutionised human existence across Europe during the late Stone Age.

Advances in ancient DNA work have revealed that this ‘package’ was spread through Central and Western Europe by migration and interbreeding: the Levant and later Anatolian farmers mixing with and essentially replacing the hunter-gatherers.

But the new work suggests migration was not a ‘universal driver’ across Europe for this way of life. In the Baltic region, archaeology shows that the technologies of the ‘package’ did develop – albeit less rapidly – even though the analyses show that the genetics of these populations remained the same as those of the hunter-gatherers throughout the Neolithic.

Andrea Manica, one of the study’s senior authors from the University of Cambridge, said: “Almost all ancient DNA research up to now has suggested that technologies such as agriculture spread through people migrating and settling in new areas.”

“However, in the Baltic, we find a very different picture, as there are no genetic traces of the farmers from the Levant and Anatolia who transmitted agriculture across the rest of Europe.”

“The findings suggest that indigenous hunter-gatherers adopted Neolithic ways of life through trade and contact, rather than being settled by external communities. Migrations are not the only model for technology acquisition in European prehistory.”

The researchers analysed eight ancient genomes – six from Latvia and two from Ukraine – that spanned a timeframe of three and a half thousand years (between 8,300 and 4,800 years ago). This enabled them to start plotting the genetic history of Baltic inhabitants during the Neolithic.

DNA was extracted from the petrous area of skulls that had been recovered by archaeologists from some of the region’s richest Stone Age cemeteries. The petrous, at the base of the skull, is one of the densest bones in the body, and a prime location for DNA that has suffered the least contamination over millennia. 

While the sequenced genomes showed no trace of the Levant farmer influence, one of the Latvian samples did reveal genetic influence from a different external source – one that the scientists say could be a migration from the Pontic Steppe in the east. The timing (5-7,000 years ago) fits with previous research estimating the earliest Slavic languages.

Researcher Eppie Jones, from Trinity College Dublin and the University of Cambridge, was the lead author of the study. She said: “There are two major theories on the spread of Indo-European languages, the most widely spoken language family in the world. One is that they came from the Anatolia with the agriculturalists; another that they developed in the Steppes and spread at the start of the Bronze Age.

“That we see no farmer-related genetic input, yet we do find this Steppe-related component, suggests that at least the Balto-Slavic branch of the Indo-European language family originated in the Steppe grasslands of the East, which would bring later migrations of Bronze Age horse riders.”

The researchers point out that the time scales seen in Baltic archaeology are also very distinct to the rest of Europe, with a much more drawn-out and piecemeal uptake of Neolithic technologies, rather than the complete ‘package’ that arrives with migrations to take most of Europe by storm.

Andrea Manica added: “Our evidence of genetic continuity in the Baltic, coupled with the archaeological record showing a prolonged adoption of Neolithic technologies, would suggest the existence of trade networks with farming communities largely independent of interbreeding.

“It seems the hunter-gatherers of the Baltic likely acquired bits of the Neolithic package slowly over time through a ‘cultural diffusion’ of communication and trade, as there is no sign of the migratory wave that brought farming to the rest of Europe during this time.

“The Baltic hunter-gatherer genome remains remarkably untouched until the great migrations of the Bronze Age sweep in from the East.”       

Ancient DNA analyses show that – unlike elsewhere in Europe – farmers from the Near East did not overtake hunter-gatherer populations in the Baltic. The findings also suggest that the Balto-Slavic branch of the Indo-European language family originated in the Steppe grasslands of the East.

The Baltic hunter-gatherer genome remains remarkably untouched until the great migrations of the Bronze Age sweep in from the East
Andrea Manica
The shores of Lake Burtnieks in Latvia, near where the human remains were discovered from which ancient DNA was extracted for this study.

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Ancient DNA reveals 'genetic continuity’ between Stone Age and modern populations in East Asia

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Feb 01, 2017.

Researchers working on ancient DNA extracted from human remains interred almost 8,000 years ago in a cave in the Russian Far East have found that the genetic makeup of certain modern East Asian populations closely resemble that of their hunter-gatherer ancestors.

The study, published today in the journal Science Advances, is the first to obtain nuclear genome data from ancient mainland East Asia and compare the results to modern populations.

The findings indicate that there was no major migratory interruption, or “population turnover”, for well over seven millennia. Consequently, some contemporary ethnic groups share a remarkable genetic similarity to Stone Age hunters that once roamed the same region.     

The high “genetic continuity” in East Asia is in stark contrast to most of Western Europe, where sustained migrations of early farmers from the Levant overwhelmed hunter-gatherer populations. This was followed by a wave of horse riders from Central Asia during the Bronze Age.  These events were likely driven by the success of emerging technologies such as agriculture and metallurgy

The new research shows that, at least for part of East Asia, the story differs – with little genetic disruption in populations since the early Neolithic period.

Despite being separated by a vast expanse of history, this has allowed an exceptional genetic proximity between the Ulchi people of the Amur Basin, near where Russia borders China and North Korea, and the ancient hunter-gatherers laid to rest in a cave close to the Ulchi’s native land.

The researchers suggest that the sheer scale of East Asia and dramatic variations in its climate may have prevented the sweeping influence of Neolithic agriculture and the accompanying migrations that replaced hunter-gatherers across much of Europe. They note that the Ulchi retained their hunter-fisher-gatherer lifestyle until recent times.

“Genetically speaking, the populations across northern East Asia have changed very little for around eight millennia,” said senior author Andrea Manica from the University of Cambridge, who conducted the work with an international team, including colleagues from Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology in Korea, and Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin in Ireland. 

“Once we accounted for some local intermingling, the Ulchi and the ancient hunter-gatherers appeared to be almost the same population from a genetic point of view, even though there are thousands of years between them.”

The new study also provides further support for the ‘dual origin’ theory of modern Japanese populations: that they descend from a combination of hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists that eventually brought wet rice farming from southern China. A similar pattern is also found in neighbouring Koreans, who are genetically very close to Japanese.

However, Manica says that much more DNA data from Neolithic China is required to pinpoint the origin of the agriculturalists involved in this mixture.


The team from Trinity College Dublin were responsible for extracting DNA from the remains, which were found in a cave known as Devil’s Gate. Situated in a mountainous area close to the far eastern coast of Russia that faces northern Japan, the cave was first excavated by a soviet team in 1973.

Along with hundreds of stone and bone tools, the carbonised wood of a former dwelling, and woven wild grass that is one of the earliest examples of a textile, were the incomplete bodies of five humans.

If ancient DNA can be found in sufficiently preserved remains, sequencing it involves sifting through the contamination of millennia. The best samples for analysis from Devil’s Gate were obtained from the skulls of two females: one in her early twenties, the other close to fifty. The site itself dates back over 9,000 years, but the two women are estimated to have died around 7,700 years ago.

Researchers were able to glean the most from the middle-aged woman. Her DNA revealed she likely had brown eyes and thick, straight hair. She almost certainly lacked the ability to tolerate lactose, but was unlikely to have suffered from ‘alcohol flush’: the skin reaction to alcohol now common across East Asia.  

While the Devil’s Gate samples show high genetic affinity to the Ulchi, fishermen from the same area who speak the Tungusic language, they are also close to other Tungusic-speaking populations in present day China, such as the Oroqen and Hezhen.

“These are ethnic groups with traditional societies and deep roots across eastern Russia and China, whose culture, language and populations are rapidly dwindling,” added lead author Veronika Siska, also from Cambridge.  

“Our work suggests that these groups form a strong genetic lineage descending directly from the early Neolithic hunter-gatherers who inhabited the same region thousands of years previously.”

In contrast to Western Europeans, new research finds contemporary East Asians are genetically much closer to the ancient hunter-gatherers that lived in the same region eight thousand years previously. 

The Ulchi and the ancient hunter-gatherers appeared to be almost the same population from a genetic point of view, even though there are thousands of years between them
Andrea Manica
Right: Exterior of Devil’s Gate, the cave in the Primorye region near the far eastern coast of Russia. Left: One of the skulls found in the Devil’s Gate cave from which ancient DNA used in the study was extracted.

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Cooperation helps mammals survive in tough environments

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Jan 24, 2017.

Cooperatively breeding mammal species, such as meerkats and naked-mole rats, where non-breeding helpers assist breeding females in raising their offspring, are better able to cope with living in dry areas than related non-cooperative species, new research reveals.

A comparative study of mammals, by University of Cambridge researchers Dieter Lukas and Tim Clutton-Brock, shows that cooperatively breeding species occur in dry areas, yet are absent in tropical climates - even though these are the places on earth with the highest biodiversity.

Researchers have found that most cooperatively breeding mammals live in areas where it might not rain for weeks. While many have long argued that climate and social behaviour are linked, the Cambridge team say these findings provide a detailed understanding of how helping behaviour is connected to the environment individuals live in.

“Rainfall often affects food availability, and cooperatively breeding mammals appear better able to cope with the uncertainties of food availability during periods of drought,” said Lukas, from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

In this study, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, the researchers mapped the global occurrence of mammalian species living in different social systems to determine how averages and variation in rainfall and temperature explain species distributions.

They found that although the presence of non-breeding adults in breeding groups is not associated with contrasts in climate, non-breeders commonly play an important role in raising the offspring of breeders in species living in dry environments.

“Long-term field studies show that helpers improve offspring survival, and our findings highlight that such cooperation is particularly important under harsh conditions,” said Clutton-Brock. Previous studies of birds show that here, too, non-breeding adults often help breeders to raise their young in species living in dry unpredictable environments.

Researchers say the activities of helpers in groups of cooperative mammals may ensure that infants and juveniles born in the group (who are usually closely related to them) are adequately fed, even when resources are scare.

In turn, non-breeders may gain future benefits from helping because it increases their chance that their group will survive adverse years, giving them a chance of inheriting the breeding position.

Groups of cooperative breeders occupy territories year-round. During droughts, mortality can be high, and only the largest groups might persist. “However, females in cooperatively breeding mammals can have very high rates of reproduction as soon as conditions are suitable. Populations can rebound, and dispersers move to fill vacant territories,” said Lukas.

By contrast, he says that many other mammals that live in arid areas are migratory, moving as resources are exhausted, such as the large ungulate herds roaming across the African savannahs.  

Researchers say the new study also indicates that cooperation enables cooperative breeders to occupy a wider range of habitats than non-cooperative species which are limited to more favourable habitats.

Cooperative breeders are also twice as likely as non-cooperative mammals to occupy human-modified habitats suggesting that cooperative breeding may make it possible to colonize new environments. “Cooperative breeders may also persist in areas where changes in climate make life increasingly difficult,” said Clutton-Brock. 

New research suggests that cooperative breeding makes mammal species such as meerkats better suited to dry, harsh climates.  

Cooperative breeders may also persist in areas where changes in climate make life increasingly difficult
Tim Clutton-Brock

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