skip to content

Department of Zoology


New Lecturer in Animal Ecology

News from this site - Fri, 29/11/2019 - 12:26

lynn_dicks_july_2019_resized.jpg We are delighted to welcome Dr Lynn Dicks as the new departmental lecturer in Animal Ecology. Lynn re-joins us from the University of East Anglia where she was a Reader in the School of Biological Sciences. Lynn is an applied ecologist with a particular focus on sustainable management of...

Categories: Latest News (<front>)

A decade after the predators have gone, Galapagos Island finches are still being spooked

Cam ac uk zoology department feed - Wed, 20/11/2019 - 05:01

The study found that the finches’ fearful responses – known as antipredator behaviour - were sustained through multiple generations after the threat was gone, which could have detrimental consequences for their survival.

The work by Dr Kiyoko Gotanda, a zoologist at the University of Cambridge, is one of the first studies to look at behavioural adaptations in a species following the eradication of invasive predators. The research focused on one species of Darwin’s iconic finches - the small ground finch, Geospiza fuliginosa. Given their estimated life span, today’s finches are not likely to be the same birds that had originally developed the response to defend themselves from predators.

“These surprising results suggest that whatever influences this fearful behaviour is more complicated than just the presence or absence of invasive predators,” said Gotanda, sole author of the paper.

The Galapagos Islands provide a natural stage to compare different predator situations. Some islands have never had invasive predators, others currently have predators like domestic cats and rats that arrived with humans, while others have had these predators in the past and they have now been eradicated.

Gotanda found that finches on islands with predators were wary, and flew away from an approaching researcher - imitating an approaching predator - at a much greater distance than the finches on pristine islands without predators. This increased antipredator behaviour has been maintained on islands where invasive predators have been successfully eradicated, even though eradication happened eight and thirteen years earlier.

“While the mechanism for the transmission of the fearful behaviour through the generations requires further study, this sustained response has consequences for evaluating conservation efforts,” said Gotanda. “The time and energy finches spend spooking themselves by fleeing when they are not in danger could be better spent looking for food, mating, laying eggs, and rearing their young.” 

Conservation management of species of concern on islands often involves getting rid of invasive predators. Understanding how species adapt their behaviour once predators have been eradicated – and how quickly this occurs - could better inform efforts to support the recovery of a target species. Understanding the effects of human influence such as the introduction of invasive predators could help predict how species respond to rapidly changing environments.

Gotanda also looked at the effect of urbanisation on finch behaviour and found - as is generally seen in towns and cities - the birds were less fearful as they became used to the presence of humans. On some islands the urban finches were even bolder than those on islands that had never seen invasive predators at all. This could make them vulnerable to threats like these predators, which are present in urban areas on the Galapagos. This suggests that the effects of urbanisation on species are strong enough to counteract adaptations to other human influences such as invasive predators. 

When Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands during his Voyage of the Beagle in 1835, he could famously get close enough to throw his hat over the birds. The animals were so unused to humans that they did not see Darwin – a potential predator - as a threat. Since then, the arrival of both humans and invasive predators such as cats and rats on many of the islands drove the birds to develop fear, and fly away at the sight of danger. Subsequent eradication efforts have been necessary to protect the iconic finches.

This research was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship).

Gotanda, K.M. “Human influences on antipredator behaviour in Darwin’s finches.” Journal of Animal Ecology (2019). DOI: 10.1111/1365-2656.13127

On some of the Galapagos Islands where human-introduced predators of Darwin’s finches were eradicated over a decade ago, the finches are still acting as though they are in danger, according to research published today in the Journal of Animal Ecology

The time and energy finches spend spooking themselves by fleeing when they are not in danger could be better spent looking for food, mating, laying eggs, and rearing their young.Kiyoko GotandaKiyoko GotandaSmall ground finch Geospiza fuliginosaResearcher Profile: Dr Kiyoko Gotanda

Dr Kiyoko Gotanda is passionate about asking questions and working out how to answer them. She describes the Galapagos Islands as a ‘magical place’, with iconic species that do not exist anywhere else on Earth - such as Darwin's finches and marine iguanas. Her recent research on the Islands involved getting up each day at 4:45am.

“The finches are most active at dawn, so we had to have the mist nets set up to catch them before the sun rose,” she says. “We closed the nets around 10 or 11am, when it gets too hot to handle the finches, and returned later in the afternoon to do more work such as running trials to observe how the finches behave.”

Gotanda’s research aims to understand and predict how wild animals will respond to human influences such as urbanisation, domestication, and the introduction of invasive species. 

“Humans are changing our environment so rapidly that wildlife must respond and adapt, or potentially run the risk of going extinct,” she says. “I hope my research will lead to us being able to mitigate the negative effects humans can have.” 

Before research, Gotanda had a career as a ballet dancer with the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. When she retired from dancing, she took an undergraduate degree in biology and volunteered in research labs. She went on to do her PhD and is now a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Behavioural Ecology group of the University’s Department of Zoology.

Being awarded her Fellowship at Cambridge was an exciting prospect. “It was a new country, new university, new supervisor, and new colleagues,” she says, and she has never looked back. “It's been an absolute joy being able to work at Cambridge - it has allowed me to interact and work with some amazing researchers, and provided fantastic opportunities I would not have elsewhere. The exchanges I've had here have really helped me to grow and develop as a scientist.”


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.

YesLicense type: Attribution
Categories: Latest News (<front>)

Consumer markets, companies linked to habitat loss for rare species in Brazil’s savannah

News from this site - Thu, 31/10/2019 - 08:44

Overseas consumer markets could be responsible for more than half of the impact of expanding soy production on rare species in one of the world’s most biodiverse regions, the Cerrado savannah in Brazil, according to a new article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The paper, “ Linking global...

Categories: Latest News (<front>)

Extent of human encroachment into world’s protected areas revealed

Cam ac uk zoology department feed - Mon, 28/10/2019 - 19:01

A study of human activity within thousands of conservation spaces in over 150 countries suggests that – on average across the world – protected areas are not reducing the “anthropogenic pressure” on our most precious natural habitats.

Protected areas are vital to preserving diverse life on Earth, as well as mitigating climate change by conserving carbon-sequestering vegetation, say Cambridge scientists. They argue that the findings show the effects of chronic underfunding and a lack of involvement of local communities.

“Rapidly establishing new protected areas to meet global targets without providing sufficient investment and resourcing on the ground is unlikely to halt the unfolding extinction crisis,” said lead author Dr Jonas Geldmann from the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute.  

The research, published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is by far the largest analysis of its kind to date. Scientists used satellite evidence of night lights and agriculture, as well as census and crop yield data, to assess levels of human encroachment in 12,315 protected areas between 1995 and 2010.

The scientists matched every satellite "pixel" (64 square kilometres) of each protected area to a local pixel of commensurate soil type, elevation, and so on – but without conservation status. This allowed researchers to gauge the effect of protected areas when compared to an “appropriate sample” of unprotected land.

The majority of protected areas in every global region had suffered increases in human pressure. However, across the Northern Hemisphere and Australia, protection had – on average – proved effective at slowing human encroachment when compared with unprotected habitats.

In regions such as South America, Sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia, home to the world’s richest biodiversity as well as some of its poorest communities, pressure from damaging human activity inside protected areas was “significantly higher” on average than in matched areas across fifteen years of data.

The researchers found a link between increased human encroachment on protected areas and nations with fewer roads and a lower rank on the Human Development Index. 

“Our study suggests that protected areas in more remote and wild parts of the tropics have experienced alarming increases in human pressure since 1995,” said Geldmann. “These places house a disproportionately high amount of the Earth’s biodiversity, and play an irreplaceable role in maintaining our most threatened species.”

Previous studies to compare protected and unprotected land have been limited to forests, and shown that protected areas reduce deforestation. The new research confirms that protected areas are more effective in places like the Amazon, but have struggled to safeguard many other habitats such as savannahs.

Rises in human activity were found to be particularly acute in the protected areas of East and Central Africa. In Sub-Saharan grasslands, for example, cropland inside protected areas had increased at almost double the rate seen in matched unprotected land. In African mangroves, pressure from agriculture had increased by around 13% more inside protected areas than outside.

While in the remote grassland habitats of South East Asia, agriculture had increased by 8% more in protected areas compared to similar non-protected areas. Likewise, some forested areas in South America, particularly outside the Amazon, saw agricultural encroachment increase around 10% more in protected areas.

“Our study shows that agriculture is the driving force behind threats to protected areas, particularity in the tropics,” said Geldmann. “Our data does not reveal the causes, but we suspect factors that play a major role include rapid population growth, lack of funding, and higher levels of corruption. Additionally, most unprotected land suitable for agriculture is already farmed.”

“We think that what we are seeing are the effects of establishing protected areas on paper, but not following through with the right funding, management and community engagement that is needed,” Geldmann said.

“Important ambitions to protect 17% of land by the end of this decade, expected to increase to 30% at a pivotal meeting next year in China, will not mean much if not accompanied by enough resources to ensure the preservation of precious habitats.”

The research team argue that protected area designation can sometimes undermine the rights of local communities, which in turn can end up encouraging over-exploitation and paving the way for opportunistic “outsiders”. Other studies have shown that supporting indigenous people to manage reserves themselves can reduce habitat loss.

A bold response to the world’s greatest challenge
The University of Cambridge is building on its existing research and launching an ambitious new environment and climate change initiative. Cambridge Zero is not just about developing greener technologies. It will harness the full power of the University’s research and policy expertise, developing solutions that work for our lives, our society and our biosphere.

Largest study yet to compare protected with “matched” unprotected land finds “significantly higher” increases in human pressure – primarily through agriculture – in protected areas across the tropics.

Our study shows that agriculture is the driving force behind threats to protected areas, particularity in the tropicsJonas GeldmannMokhamad Edliadi/CIFORForest transition in Cameroon.

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.

YesLicense type: Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike
Categories: Latest News (<front>)

John Johnson, 1945-2019

News from this site - Wed, 16/10/2019 - 09:38

john_johnson_christmas_party.jpg The Department is sorry to announce the death of John Johnson on 26th September 2019. John joined the Department at the age of 16 in 1961 as a junior technician. The knowledge he gained from his time as a technician allowed him to move into purchasing and procurement. By the time he left...

Categories: Latest News (<front>)

New University Lecturer

News from this site - Fri, 04/10/2019 - 12:26

james_herbert-read.jpg We are delighted to welcome Dr James Herbert-Read as the new departmental lecturer in Marine Biology. Dr Herbert-Read joins us from the University of Bristol where he was a Research Associate in the School of Biological Sciences. James has a broad interest in behavioural ecology and marine biology...

Categories: Latest News (<front>)

New NERC Independent Research Fellow

News from this site - Fri, 04/10/2019 - 10:33

mitchell_profile2.jpg We are excited to welcome Dr Emily Mitchell to the Department. Dr Mitchell won her NERC Fellowship to work on a project to assessing the consequences of Ediacaran ecology on early animal evolution. For the uninitiated, the Ediacaran time period is 631-541 million years ago and it is at this time that...

Categories: Latest News (<front>)

An extra vegetarian option cuts meat consumption without denting food sales

Cam ac uk zoology department feed - Tue, 01/10/2019 - 09:26
Shorthand Story: fH0mrM983ZShorthand Story Head: An extra vegetarian option cuts meat consumption without denting food sales " + "ipt>"); } })(navigator, 'userAgent', 'appVersion', 'script', document); //--> */ Shorthand Story Body:  Veg
An extra vegetarian option cuts meat consumption without denting food sales A study of over 94,000 cafeteria meal choices has found that doubling the vegetarian options – from one in four to two in four – increased the proportion of plant-based purchases by between 40-80% without affecting overall food sales.

The results are from the first major study to look at whether tweaking food availability can “nudge” people towards better decision-making for both human health and preservation of the planet.

Scientists from the University of Cambridge's departments of Zoology, Geography and Public Health gathered over a year’s worth of mealtime sales data from three Cambridge college cafeterias. Two provided data on days with different menu set-ups, and a third college helped the researchers conduct a “choice architecture” experiment.

The research team found the biggest increases in plant-based dining among the most carnivorous quartile of customers: those who had consistently picked meat or fish prior to the addition of a second veggie option.

Moreover, the team detected no “rebound effect”. Opting for a vegetarian lunch did not make a compensatory meat-heavy dinner any more likely. The findings are published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Diets full of meat are leading drivers of species loss and climate change, say scientists. Livestock and aquacultures behind meat, fish, dairy and eggs are responsible for some 58% of the greenhouse gas created by global food, and take up 83% of farmland despite contributing just 18% of the world’s calorie intake.

Cattle raising in the Amazon forest. Credit: Bruno Kelly/Greenpeace.

Cattle raising in the Amazon forest. Credit: Bruno Kelly/Greenpeace.

“Shifting to a more plant-based diet is one of the most effective ways of reducing the environmental footprint of food,” said study lead author Emma Garnett, a conservationist and PhD candidate from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology. 

“Replacing some meat or fish with more vegetarian options might seem obvious, but as far as we know no one had tested it before. Solutions that seem obvious don’t always work, but it would appear that this one does.”

Co-author Theresa Marteau, Professor of Behaviour and Health at Cambridge, said: “Education is important but generally ineffective at changing diets. Meat taxes are unpopular. Altering the range of available options is more acceptable, and offers a powerful way to influence the health and sustainability of our diets.”

The researchers have contributed to food policy at the University of Cambridge, where the catering service has reduced meat options – including the removal of beef and lamb, the biggest contributors to meat-related greenhouse gas – and increased the range of vegetarian meals.

Earlier this year, University cafeterias (separate from the colleges) announced a 33% reduction in carbon emissions per kilogram of food purchased, and a 28% reduction in land use per kilogram of food purchased, as a result of the changes.

“Universities are increasingly at the forefront of providing plant-based options that are affordable and delicious, making it easier to choose a more sustainable diet,” said Garnett. “I think that’s what really has to change.”

A vegetarian burger being served in the Main Dining Hall of the University Centre at Cambridge.

A vegetarian burger being served in the Main Dining Hall of the University Centre at Cambridge.

“We’re not saying all cafeterias and restaurants should turn vegan overnight. But if food were the film industry, vegetarian meals need to land more starring roles, and meat dishes have got to stop hogging the limelight.”

A video from the 2017 launch of Cambridge's Sustainable Food Policy, which set out the University’s intentions to minimise the environmental impact of its catering operations. It includes interviews with some of those involved, such as researcher Emma Garnett.

The new study had an observational and experimental component. For the observational, two colleges provided data on weekday term-time meal selections at both lunch and dinner during 2017.

Meals were purchased using university cards topped up with credit, allowing researchers to analyse anonymised data that tracked what individual diners ate for each meal on every day.

This dataset contained 86,932 hot meals (excluding salads and sandwiches) and 2,140 repeat diners. The range varied between occasional days with no vegetarian or vegan dishes, to days where 75% of the options were veggie.

"One of the exciting things about this study is the scale of information on individual diners' choices,” said co-author Andrew Balmford, Professor of Conservation Science at Cambridge. “It allowed us to test for rebound effects, when customers compensate for less meat at lunch by eating more in the evening. We found little evidence of this.”

Researchers built statistical models to show that doubling the vegetarian offering, from a quarter to half of possible meals, increased the proportion of vegetarian sales by 62% in the first college, and 79% in the second college. (A real-terms increase of almost 15 percentage points in both colleges.)

Two vegetarian dishes on offer in the cafeteria of 'College C' - where researchers worked with the catering team to conduct a "choice experiment".

Two vegetarian dishes on offer in the cafeteria of 'College C' - where researchers worked with the catering team to conduct a "choice experiment".

Caterers at a third college worked with researchers to conduct an experiment during the autumn term of 2017: lunchtime menus that alternated fortnightly between one veggie option (control) and two (experiment). Doubling availability increased the proportion of vegetarian sales by 41%, or almost 8 percentage points.

Data from the summer term allowed researchers to assign 121 regular diners to a quartile based on their vegetarian meal consumption. “We discovered that changing the relative availability of vegetarian options had the strongest effect on those who usually eat more meat," said Balmford*.

Garnett argues that vegetarian options have been an “afterthought” on menus for too long. “Flexitarianism is on the rise. Our results show that caterers serving more plant-based options are not just responding to but also reshaping customer demand.”   

“Simple changes such as increasing the proportion of vegetarian options could be usefully scaled up, helping to mitigate climate change and biodiversity loss,” she said.  

* Least vegetarian quartile: likelihood of picking a veggie meal, going from 25% to 50% veg availability:
College A (observation): 6.2% to 18.1%
College B (observation): 2.3% to 8.2%
College C (experiment): 10.5% to 17.4%
(All data, including the names of the Cambridge colleges involved in the study, have been anonymised as part of the scientific research.)

Top Summary: 

First major study on “nudging” people towards sustainable diets shows replacing a meat or fish dish with another veggie option in college cafeterias dramatically increases herbivorous dining.

Image: Affiliation (schools and institutions): Department of ZoologyDepartment of GeographyDepartment of Public Health and Primary CareCambridge Conservation InitiativeUniversity of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute (UCCRI)People (our academics and staff): Emma GarnettAndrew BalmfordTheresa MarteauSubject (including Spotlight on ... where applicable): VegetariandietsustainabilitySustainable Earth
Categories: Latest News (<front>)

Women in STEM: Dr Alexis Braun

Cam ac uk zoology department feed - Thu, 26/09/2019 - 07:00

The major turning point in my career as a scientist happened only a couple of years ago during my first postdoc. I was given the freedom to develop my own project with the support of my current boss/mentor, Professor David M Glover. I was evaluating whether or not I wanted to continue on in academia when I approached him with a project idea and asked if he could teach me how to be a primary investigator. He taught me how to write a grant and we were eventually successful in getting funding for my project. With his advice, I have been given the freedom to design my own project and choose the methodology I use in answering the questions that I have. He also supported me in mentoring students and is currently helping me build the career I want. Without this opportunity, I would not have gotten the chance to see if the track I was on was what I really wanted.

I initially became interested in biology growing up in my First Nations/Native American community in the Great Bear Rainforest. My grandfather taught me about many of the animals and plants in the region we are from (Bella Coola, Canada). I continued on this interest throughout my undergraduate studies and into my postgraduate studies, where I became more focused on animal development. I continued on the academic route and became a scientist because I could not picture my life any other way. I cannot think of any other career that offers the type of freedom and creativity that science offers. To anyone interested in becoming a scientist, I will pass on the same advice that I was given: if you love it then do it. Nothing is ever set in stone, if you try something and don't like it then you can always do something else. Additionally, don't be afraid of not fitting the mould. Anyone can be a scientist.

I switched fields of study between all of the degrees that I have obtained, as well as during my postdocs. You are never stuck studying only one thing. I am Canadian, and I completed a double major in Biology and Biochemistry at the University of Victoria. I moved to Sweden and completed my Masters in Biotechnology at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. I completed my PhD in developmental biology in the Department of Zoology in Cambridge with Dr Isabel Palacios. I stayed in Cambridge to do my first postdoc in the Department of Genetics with Dr Yuu Kimata, studying cell cycle regulation and the role of centrosomes within the female germline of Drosophila. I am now on my second postdoc in the lab of Professor David M Glover, still in the Department of Genetics. I am now focused on female reproduction and evolution.

My research sets out to understand one of the fundamental principles of animal fertility, asexual reproduction, using different species of Drosophila as a model. I am interested in this topic because although there are huge differences in the development and intimate body structure that animals have, there are key principles that all animals abide by during their development and how they produce offspring. I hope that my research will help understand fertility in animals and potentially aid in conservation efforts.

One of the unexpected fun parts of my job is collaborating with friends who have complementary skill sets. Since starting my current project, I have found that I enjoy discussing my work more and have built new collaborations with people doing a wide variety of different work. These collaborations have helped my work but also made me enjoy it more fully.

Cambridge is a great place to study and work because of the freedom I have always felt to research 'out-of-the-box' things. In my experience, there is a respect for independent thought and creativity that I have not noticed to such a degree in other universities. A lot of other competitive research institutes put emphasis on productivity, whereas here I feel like there is a lot more emphasis on the overall question one is approaching. There are also very few places in the world where you have access to great thinkers in so many different disciplines. I feel like I can talk to anyone because of the sense of community here. Additionally, there are also amazing facilities and huge support for fledgling scientists.

Dr Alexis Braun is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Genetics. Here, she tells us about the importance of mentors, how her research might aid in conservation efforts, and how growing up in a First Nations community in Canada spurred her interest in biology. 

Alexis Braun

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.

Categories: Latest News (<front>)

William T Stearn Student Essay Prize winner

News from this site - Wed, 25/09/2019 - 15:36

h_t_soppitt_-_courtesy_of_tolson_memorial_museum_huddersfield.jpg We are delighted to offer congratulations to our PhD student Nathan Smith who has won the Society for the History of Natural History’s William T Stearn Student Essay Prize. William T Stearn, CBE, born in Chesterton, Cambridge, became an outstanding botanical...

Categories: Latest News (<front>)

‘Game-changing’ research could solve evolution mysteries

Cam ac uk zoology department feed - Wed, 11/09/2019 - 18:00

Researchers identified an almost complete set of proteins, a proteome, in the dental enamel of the rhino and the genetic information discovered is one million years older than the oldest DNA sequenced from a 700,000-year-old horse.

The findings by scientists from the University of Copenhagen and St John’s College, University of Cambridge, are published in Nature. They mark a breakthrough in the field of ancient biomolecular studies and could solve some of the biggest mysteries of animal and human biology by allowing scientists to accurately reconstruct evolution from further back in time than ever before.

Professor Enrico Cappellini, a specialist in Palaeoproteomics at the Globe Institute, University of Copenhagen, and first author on the paper, said: “For 20 years ancient DNA has been used to address questions about the evolution of extinct species, adaptation and human migration but it has limitations. Now for the first time we have retrieved ancient genetic information which allows us to reconstruct molecular evolution way beyond the usual time limit of DNA preservation.

DNA data that genetically tracks human evolution only covers the last 400,000 years. But the lineages that led to modern humans and to the chimp – the living species genetically closest to humans – branched apart around six to seven million years ago which means scientists currently have no genetic information for more than 90 per cent of the evolutionary path that led to modern humans.

Scientists also don’t know what the genetic links are between us and extinct species such as Homo erectus – the oldest known species of human to have had modern human-like body proportions – because everything that is currently known is almost exclusively based on anatomical information, not genetic information.

Researchers have now used ancient protein sequencing – based on ground-breaking technology called mass spectrometry – to retrieve genetic information from the tooth of a 1.77 million year old Stephanorhinus – an extinct rhinoceros which lived in Eurasia during the Pleistocene. Researchers took samples of dental enamel from the ancient fossil which was discovered in Dmanisi, Georgia, and used mass spectrometry to sequence the ancient protein and retrieved genetic information previously unobtainable using DNA testing. 
Tooth enamel is the hardest material present in mammals. In this study researchers discovered the set of proteins it contains lasts longer than DNA and is more genetically informative than collagen, the only other protein so far retrieved from fossils older than one million years.

Professor Jesper V. Olsen, head of the Mass Spectrometry for Quantitative Proteomics Group at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research, University of Copenhagen, and co-corresponding author on the paper, said: “Mass spectrometry-based protein sequencing will enable us to retrieve reliable and rich genetic information from mammal fossils that are millions of years old, rather than just thousands of years old. It is the only technology able to provide the robustness and accuracy needed to sequence tiny amounts of protein this old.”

Professor Cappellini added: “Dental enamel is extremely abundant and it is incredibly durable, which is why a high proportion of fossil records are teeth.

“We have been able to find a way to retrieve genetic information that is more informative and older than any other source before, and it’s from a source that is abundant in the fossil records so the potential of the application of this approach is extensive.”

Lead author Professor Eske Willerslev, who holds positions at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, and is director of The Lundbeck Foundation Centre for GeoGenetics, Globe Institute, Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, at the University of Copenhagen, said: “This research is a game-changer that opens up a lot of options for further evolutionary study in terms of humans as well as mammals. It will revolutionise the methods of investigating evolution based on molecular markers and it will open a complete new field of ancient biomolecular studies.”

This rearranging of the evolutionary lineage of a single species may seem like a small adjustment but identifying changes in numerous extinct mammals and humans could lead to massive shifts in our understanding of the way the world has evolved.

The team of scientists is already implementing the findings in their current research. The discovery could enable scientists across the globe to collect the genetic data of ancient fossils and to build a bigger, more accurate picture of the evolution of hundreds of species including our own.


Enrico Cappellini et al. 'Early Pleistocene enamel proteome from Dmanisi resolves Stephanorhinus phylogeny.' Nature (2019). DOI: ​10.1038/s41586-019-1555-y


Originally published by St John's College, Cambridge


An evolution revolution has begun after scientists extracted genetic information from a 1.7 million-year-old rhino tooth – the largest and oldest genetic data to ever be recorded.

This new analysis of ancient proteins from dental enamel will start an exciting new chapter in the study of molecular evolution.Enrico CappelliniMirian Kiladze, Georgian National MuseumStephanorhinus skull from Dmanisi

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.

Categories: Latest News (<front>)

British Ecological Society honours Professor Bill Sutherland

News from this site - Wed, 28/08/2019 - 10:25

We are delighted to offfer our congratulations to Professor Bill Sutherland who has been awarded Honorary Membership of the British Ecological Society . This is the highest award the BES gives, recognising exceptional contributions at international level to the generation, communication and promotion of ecological...

Categories: Latest News (<front>)

Mismatch between Global Conservation Priorities and Effort

News from this site - Wed, 21/08/2019 - 12:47

Research by the University of Cambridge and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has identified some key mismatches between global biodiversity conservation priorities and global conservation effort. Conservation resources are scare, biodiversity loss is occurring at an unprecedented rate, and there is...

Categories: Latest News (<front>)