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Dr Emília Santos - NERC Independent Fellow

last modified Sep 18, 2018 02:05 PM

Dr Emília SantosWe are delighted to welcome Dr Emília Santos to the Department as a NERC Independent Fellow. Emília joins us from the Gurdon Institute after studying at the University of Lisbon, the Institute Gulbenkian de Ciência, the University of Basel and more recently a postdoc position at the  Institute of Functional Genomics in Lyon. She will be located in the David Attenborough Building.

Dr Santos' research addresses the evolution and diversification of morphological traits using Cichlid fish. She uses a mix of cellular and development biology with quantitative and population genetics. Current projects focus on eggspot pigmentation patterning, neural crest cells diversification and regulatory evolution.   Emília is part of the growing Cambridge Cichlid community, collaborating with Eric Miska (Gurdon Institute) and Richard Durbin (Genetics Department) groups as well as with members of this department. Prior to working on Cichlids Emília did some beautiful work on the evolution of the evolution of swimming fans in water striders of the genus Rhagovelia.

Her more recent paper discussed the genetic and adaptive bases underlying the emergence of a novel cuticular structure in a genus of water walking insects - the Rhagovelia fan. Her work showed that a lineage restricted gene is involved in the development and evolution of this structure, which in turn was required to the invasion of a novel environment.

Find out more about Morphological Evolution

Uncovering the genetics of rice resilience to environmental stressors: An ancient genomics approach

last modified Aug 31, 2018 12:45 PM

The Carlsberg Foundation has awarded 19m DKK Professor Eske Willerslev from the GeoGenetics Group at Cambridge University and the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen for this Semper Ardens project. The project will map the genome of past rice with the intention of identifying genes that can be used to make the rice of today stronger and more resilient.

Bowl of riceRice is the world’s second-most important crop; yet every year, vast amounts of the harvest are lost due to disease and extreme weather. By identifying useful genes that can heighten the resilience to these circumstances in the current rice, it will be possible to make a focused effort to nurture these genes during the plant breeding process, hereby increasing the harvest, securing food supply, and fighting famine.

 “By mapping the genome of cultivated rice through the last 10,000 years, it will be possible to find the genetic variants, which have been important to the survival and reproduction of rice during extreme climate changes and epidemics but have gone lost in the breeding of today’s strains. These genetic variants, then, can be introduced into current rice strains to make them more resistant to changes in the environment. Potentially, it could help fight hunger and increase food security all over the world,” says director for Centre for GeoGenetics, Eske Willerslev.

Regarding the grant, chairman of the Carlsberg Foundation, Professor Flemming Besenbacher, says: “Eske Willerslev and the researchers at the Centre for GeoGenetics have developed a powerful approach, which in great detail will tell us how the rice types of the past survived disease outbreaks or climatic changes through natural selection. The perspectives are far-reaching and will be able to help solve major global challenges.”

The research project arises from the discovery that Eske Willerslev made during his PhD-project, which was, that ancient DNA from plants and animals can be extracted directly from old sediments (environmental DNA). In addition to environmental DNA, the study will extract and sequence rice genomes from individual pollen grains.

Dr. Ana Prohaska, from the Department of Zoology, who is developing this novel method with Professor Willerslev, says:

“We will collect sediment cores from lakes in China, close to the areas where rice cultivation started approximately 10,000 years ago and extract the DNA of ancient rice from pollen grains preserved in these sediments. We will use pollen DNA along with eDNA to search for, now lost, genetic variants, which have previously granted rice resilience to pathogens and climatic extremes, e.g., long spells of drought. Following this, the best candidate variants will be introduced into modern rice strains. We will do this by incorporating the genetic variants directly into the modern rice genome and, afterwards, growing the modified rice plants in different controlled environments to identify the most well-qualified types.” 

Professor Martin Jones, a co-investigator on the project and an expert in archaeobotany and archaeogenetics says: 

"This is a really exciting opportunity to bring together Eske WIllerslev's world leading group on sedimentary ancient DNA with one of China's foremost quaternary science groups under Fahu Chen. Together, researchers from across the world will assemble a deep time genetic history of one of the world's leading crops, rice. The implications, both for understanding the past, and contributing to food science in the future, are immense."

Dr Rosie Trevelyan wins a British Ecological Society Award

last modified Aug 24, 2018 10:15 AM

We were delighted to hear that our good friend and colleague Dr Rosie Trevelyan has received this year’s Equality and Diversity Champion award from the British Ecological Society. This award recognises an individual or group who has made significant, innovative and cumulatively outstanding contributions to enhancing the practice of equality and diversity in the ecological community.

Dr Rosie Trevelyan
“Meeting so many dedicated conservationists from around the world is the most rewarding and inspiring part of my work.” Dr Rosie Trevelyan (right) Photo credit: Dr Gorm Shackelford

The Tropical Biology Association, of which Rosie is the Director, has been closely linked with the Department since it was established in 1993, and Rosie has been a part from the start.  Through cutting-edge field courses and tailored training programmes the TBA gives people the skills and confidence they need to manage natural resources in tropical regions effectively and sustainably. Under Rosie’s leadership TBA has trained over 2000 scientists – half of them from Africa and Madagascar, supported alumni groups in 15 African countries, and created an enduring legacy of greatly enhanced conservation capacity across the tropics.

The TBA is also one of the organisers of our annual Student Conference on Conservation Science, about to celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2019. Rosie has been pivotal in the success of the conference, which has welcomed students to Cambridge from over 130 countries, and has now spawned sister conference series in India, USA, Australia, China and Hungary.  Rosie also helped establish the Cambridge Conservation Forum, is a key figure in the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, and helped lead last year’s Earth Optimism event in the David Attenborough Building.

Rosie and the other prize winners will be presented with their prizes during a ceremony held at the Society’s annual conference in December, which will bring together 1,200 ecologists from around 60 countries to discuss the latest advances in ecological research across the whole discipline.


Colombia peace deal brings new threat to country’s rainforest

last modified Aug 23, 2018 11:32 AM

Chris Jiggins and colleagues from Colombian Universities are urging Colombian policymakers and international conservationists to come together to find ways of saving the Andes-Amazon 'biodiversity bridge', currently threatened by massive deforestation, while at the same time helping local communities to develop after years of civil war.  

Read more from St John's College

Peace in Colombia is a critical moment for Neotropical connectivity and conservation: Save the northern Andes–Amazon biodiversity bridge. Nicola Clerici, Camilo Salazar, Carolina Pardo‐Díaz, Chris D. Jiggins, James E. Richardson, Mauricio Linares
Conservation Letters



Dr Rahia Mashoodh - BBSRC Future Leader Fellow

last modified Aug 01, 2018 09:40 AM

Dr Rahia MashoodhWe are delighted to “welcome” Dr Rahia Mashoodh to the Department as a BBSRC Future Leader Fellow.  Rahia has actually been in the department as a CIHR Research Fellow for 1.5 years and has already made a considerable impact on the department.  We were very pleased when she won this prestigious fellowship earlier this year, which will allow her to stay in the Department for a further 3 years.

Rahia is a behavioural epigeneticist and is interested in parental effects and how social experiences acquired across the lifespan could be inherited by, and impose specific developmental trajectories upon, future generations of offspring.  

Rahia plans to investigate the link between parental effects, epigenetic variation and behavioural adaptation and evolution. She proposes to tackle these questions using a combination of behavioural, physiological and high-throughput epigenomic and genomic sequencing methods using the burying beetle as a model system.  Find out more about Rahia’s research.

Her most recent paper Maternal modulation of paternal effects on offspring development. Proc Roy Soc B showed that while paternal experiences can influence offspring development via epigenetic mechanisms in the germline, maternal factors can modulate the extent to which these effects can have a negative impact on development.

Francis Crick Medal and Lecture 2019

last modified Jul 19, 2018 04:56 PM

Dr Greg JefferisMany congratulations to Dr Greg Jefferis who has been awarded the Royal Society's Francis Crick Medal and Lecture 2019 for his discoveries concerning the developmental and functional logic of sensory information processing.

Greg has a long association with the University of Cambridge and with the Department of Zoology.  He started as an undergraduate Natural Sciences student, graduating in 1998 before joining Stanford University to study for his PhD in Neurosciences with Liqun Luo. In 2004 he returned to Cambridge as a research fellow in the Department. He then joined the Neurobiology Division of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB), receiving tenure in 2014. Greg also directs the Wellcome Trust funded Connectomics Group based in the Department.

Greg’s research focuses on the neural circuit basis of behaviour, using the fruit fly, Drosophila, as a model. Drosophila, has a miniature brain the size of a poppy seed containing about 100 thousand neurons, but is still capable of surprisingly sophisticated behaviour. During his time as research fellow in Zoology, Greg developed brain mapping techniques with single neuron resolution and used them to show that odour representations of different biological significance are spatially segregated in higher brain areas. After starting a group at the LMB, Greg and his collaborators were the first to identify widespread sex differences in the neuroanatomy of the fly brain; they were also the first to uncover a sex-specific switch in connectivity and information flow in an animal brain. Most recently they have identified how learned and innate sensory representations are combined and how this interaction is critical to memory recall. This work leveraged the efforts of the Connectomics Group who are mapping connections between individual nerve cells across the fly brain.

Greg’s group is trying to understand basic principles of how innate and learned behaviours emerge from brain networks in a relatively simple organism. However it is very likely that these principles are shared across evolution, so this work should eventually help us to understand the function of bigger brains in health and disease.

Upon receiving the award Greg said: I’m extremely happy that my area of research – genetic approaches to neural circuits – is being recognised. I’d also like to emphasise that while it’s lovely to receive a personal award, neuroscience is a wide-ranging and highly collaborative field: at the last count I have 131 co-authors all of whom made a significant contribution to the body of work being recognised.

Dr Gregory Jefferis' LMB profile

Dr Gregory Jefferis' Zoology profile



Congratulations to all our Part II students

last modified Jun 27, 2018 12:36 PM

General AdmissionCONGRATULATIONS! 

To all of our Part II Zoologists who will be graduating over the next few days.  We are delighted to say that out of 67 students, 19 were awarded a first, 47 received upper seconds and one a lower second.

The Frank Smart Prize for best undergraduate performance in Zoology was awarded to Andrew Catherall, Homerton.  Andrew will be rejoining the department in October as a PhD student in Professor Rebecca Kilner's research group where he as a member last summer as a Summer Project student.

Congratulations to all, students and teachers alike!

Museum of Zoology reopens on 23 June 2018

last modified Jun 19, 2018 01:10 PM

The University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge is one of the largest and most important natural history collections in the UK, with an extraordinarily rich history dating back to 1814. On 23rd June 2018 the Museum reopens after a five-year, £4.1million redevelopment – including nearly £2 million of funding raised by National Lottery players – to reveal thousands of incredible specimens from across the animal kingdom. 

The refurbished galleries bring the Museum into the 21st century and are designed to engage and inspire a new generation of visitors. The National Lottery awarded a grant through the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) of £1.96 million towards a total of £4.1 million for the redevelopment. This funding has supported ambitious plans for a complete renovation of the Museum, including the construction of new stores to preserve its outstanding collections, and a dramatic new glass entrance hall where the fin whale skeleton resides. The creation of the Whale Café, shop and Learning Lab further help modernise the Museum.

Professor Paul Brakefield, the Museum’s Director, said, “We are so excited to open the doors to the public and share the amazing specimens and stories with our visitors. Museums like ours play such an important role in inspiring awe and excitement in the natural world, as well as helping to answer genuinely world-changing challenges like climate change and biodiversity loss. The incredible objects and displays we have here at our new museum are perfectly placed to do just that.”

Robyn Llewellyn, Head of HLF East of England, said: “It's exciting to see the Museum’s doors reopening, enabling even more people to experience these wonderful collections. Thanks to National Lottery players, amazing stories about our natural world are now on display. There's inspiration here for everyone.”

Moa FeathersDuring the five-year redevelopment, the Museum’s collection of two million animal specimens were moved into new purpose-built storerooms. In the process, the team discovered some incredibly rare objects that no-one knew existed. One such case was tucked at the back of a wooden cabinet – a plain-looking frame of around 30 dull brown feathers. On closer inspection, technician Stuart Turner noticed that the faded label read, “Feathers of Moa”. Moas were a group of massive flightless birds from New Zealand, with some species exceeding three metres tall. They were hunted to extinction after Polynesian people settled, disappearing 6-700 years ago. As a result, moa feathers are incredibly rare in museum collections worldwide: typically only partially fossilised bones are found. The feathers appear to be what they say they are, and the Museum plans to undertake genetic testing to confirm their identity. If they are proven to be moa feathers it would represent a significant addition to the global collection, and could help us understand more about these extinct giants.

To celebrate the opening, the Museum is running the Zoology Live! Festival, a weekend of free activities on Saturday 23rd and Sunday 24th June 2018. An exciting new programme of events and temporary exhibitions runs throughout the year. 

Janet Moore Prize 2018

last modified Jul 19, 2018 02:03 PM

Riva Riley and Tim WeilThe winner of this year’s Janet Moore Prize for supervising in Zoology is Riva Riley.  Riva received her award from Dr Tim Weil, Deputy Head of Department (Teaching), at the annual Part II Zoology finalists' party.  

The prize is awarded on the basis of nominations from Zoology students and module organisers. One student commented "Her knowledge of and enthusiasm for the subject are both wonderful!  The discussion we have in supervisions are always enjoyable, Riva really helps me to think about the lecture material from new perspectives and I think this has contributed greatly to how much I've got out of the course."

Her enthusiasm is obviously greatly appreciated as another student said "Superbly enthusiastic and initiates very thought provoking discussions.  Gives really helpful essay feedback and is generally very lovely :)"

Riva is a PhD student in the Evolutionary Ecology Group and is researching "Leadership and group structure in Cory catfish". She is the fourth winner of the Janet Moore Prize, which is awarded to non-UTO supervisors in Part II Zoology. 

Previous winners were:

2015       Emma Garnett and Rick Thompson

2016       Jenny York

2017       Benno Simmons

2018       Riva Riley

Dr Andrea Manica - ZSL Scientific Medal Winner

last modified Jun 20, 2018 11:05 AM

Dr Andrea Manica with the ZSL Scientific MedalThe Department offers its congratulations to Dr Andrea Manica on the award of the Zoological Society of London’s Scientific Medal, given to those with less than 15 years postdoctoral experience, for distinguished work in Zoology.

Andrea started life in the department as a Part II Zoology student.  He graduated in 1997 with the Department’s Frank Smart prize for best undergraduate performance that year. He then went on to complete his PhD with Tim Clutton-Brock and collected another prize: the ZSL’s Thomas Henry Huxley and Marsh prize.  After his PhD he took up a Junior Research Fellowship at Clare College before re-joining the Department as a lecturer in 2005.  Just three years later, he won the Philip Leverhulme Prize in Zoology.

Andrea now has a large, successful research group (the Evolutionary Ecology Group), authored over 150 peer-reviewed papers, and been successful in attracting substantial grant awards.  This has led to him achieving an international reputation in his field of evolutionary ecology and population biology.

He has built an international reputation based on his research into understanding patterns of individual movement, with an emphasis on disentangling its proximate mechanisms (e.g. grouping behaviour, territoriality, migratory behaviour, etc.) and its ultimate causes (e.g. fitness benefits, selection in metapopulations).

This has also led him into pioneering work understanding the role of population structure when reconstructing past demography and selection in a number of species. The importance of population structure is increasingly recognised and tractable and Andrea has been instrumental in demonstrating the importance of incorporating such structure into analyses.

Andrea is a pro-active and effective collaborator working closely with people from a wide range of fields including behavioural ecologists, population geneticists and anthropologists. By doing this, he is able to integrate evidence from a range of sources and sciences using for example paleoclimatic data and the palaeontology together with models of population genetics to improve our knowledge of the past.

Andrea has gone from strength to strength over the last 20 years or so and this award is well-deserved recognition of his work.

Social complexity and kinship in animal societies

last modified May 30, 2018 10:16 AM

In a recently published article Dr Dieter Lukas and Prof Tim Clutton-Brock describe how differences in family structure across mammalian species influence aggressive and cooperative interactions, with potential implications for the understanding of the development of our own societies.

Meerkat group by Dieter LukasComplex animal societies can be divided into two types. There are those where all group members pull together, helping to rear young produced by one of their members while suffering costs to their own individual breeding success and survival by doing so. Then there are those where group members compete frequently, aggressive interactions are common and individuals often form transitory alliances with each other to compete with other members of their group.

Lukas and Clutton-Brock's recent analysis shows that mammalian societies of the first kind are ones where average kinship between group members is high, while those of the second kind are those where average kinship is low. Unsurprisingly, cognitive abilities and brain size appear to be more highly developed in species with the second type.

Most of the social primates live in groups where average kinship between group members is low, competitive interactions are common, cooperation is based on exchange, manipulative tactics are well developed and unselfish helping to rear young is rare, so it is likely that the common ancestor of apes and hominids showed all these characteristics.


Social complexity and kinship in animal societies.  Ecology Letters, (2018) doi: 10.1111/ele.13079


Homepage image: Baboon fight by Elise Huchard 
Image above: Meerkat group by Dieter Lukas.

What Works in Conservation

last modified May 23, 2018 02:52 PM

The latest edition of ‘What Works in Conservation’, the flagship book from the Conservation Evidence project based here in the Department of Zoology at Cambridge, has just been launched and is now available to purchase or to download for free.

‘What Works in Conservation’ is a summary of the evidence for the effectiveness of 1,277 different interventions  -- i.e., things you might do to try and conserve a species or habitat. Each intervention is scored by experts for effectiveness (based on the evidence available), the quality and quantity of the evidence (i.e. the strength of the evidence), and any harms that might arise from the intervention to the target habitat or taxa. These scores lead to each intervention being assigned a colour-coded category from ‘Beneficial’ to ‘Likely to be ineffective or harmful.’ This allows you to get a feel for the effectiveness of an intervention at a glance. To dive deeper into the details of the evidence, links are provided to the free online resource.

The 2018 edition of this book is over 50 percent larger than the 2017 edition, reflecting the new taxa and habitats reviewed by the CE team in the last year. The brand-new chapters in the 2018 edition cover the global conservation of primates, shrublands and heathlands, and peatlands. There’s also a smaller chapter covering ways to manage some animal species in captivity. The existing chapter on controlling freshwater invasive species has been expanded to add more species. Chapters carried over from the 2017 edition cover the conservation of amphibians, bats, birds, and forests, conservation of European farmland biodiversity, and some aspects of enhancing natural pest control and soil fertility. Free, informative and solutions-focused, 'What Works in Conservation' is a must-have resource for conservationists of all types.

Two Zoological Society of London honours

last modified Apr 25, 2018 08:50 AM

We are delighted to announce that the Zoological Society of London has awarded two honours to members of our department.

Dr Andrea Manica has been awarded the prestigious Scientific Medal 2018 for research scientists with up to 15 years postdoctoral experience for distinguished work in Zoology. 

Andrea’s research focuses on understanding patterns of individual movement and has covered an impressive range of topics including recent contributions on human migration, evolution and population structure.

Dr Claire Spottiswoode, who won the Scientific Medal in 2017, has been chosen to deliver The Stamford Raffles Lecture.  The lecture is the foremost event in the ZSL's annual programme of Science and Conservation events. Claire follows a series of distinguished speakers and will give a lecture entitled “Collaborators and con-artists: coevolution as an engine of biodiversity”. Further details and tickets are available at

Many congratulations to them both.

Optimistic new paper shows global agreement on conservation science-policy barriers and solutions: a call for action

last modified Apr 23, 2018 12:26 PM

A new paper in Conservation Letters, produced collaboratively by individuals across the Cambridge Conservation Initiative in the David Attenborough Building, provides an optimistic message on how to improve the chances of evidence-informed conservation policy. Based on a global, multi-language survey of 758 research scientists, policy-makers, and practitioners, the paper finds agreement between groups on the main barriers preventing the use of evidence in policy, as well as agreement on possible solutions. Although this finding may perhaps be contrary to expectations, it provides a compelling call for action.

The top-ranked barriers to the use of evidence in conservation policy relate to the low priority of the environment on the policy agenda. Top-ranking solutions are focused on convincing the wider public, including policy-makers (the two are, of course, linked through voting), of the importance of long-term conservation-compatible policies. We suggest that this adds to the growing calls for a new kind of conservation science that seeks to be more trans-disciplinary, reaching beyond the siloes of academia, and out to the wider public who are not currently convinced about the need to tackle conservation challenges.

The paper is available open access here:

For more information on how trans-disciplinary collaboration is happening in the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, see here:

Please address all correspondence to lead author, Dr David Rose, who is now at the University of East Anglia (

List of authors: David C. Rose, William J. Sutherland, Tatsuya Amano, Juan P. González-Varo, Rebecca J. Robertson, Benno I. Simmons, Hannah S. Wauchope, Eszter Kovacs, América Paz Durán, Alice B. M. Vadrot,  Weiling Wu, Maria P. Dias, Martina M. I. Di Fonzo, Sarah Ivory, Lucia Norris, Matheus Henrique Nunes, Tobias Ochieng Nyumba, Noa Steiner, Juliet Vickery, and Nibedita Mukherjee

Departmental Seminar Day 2018

last modified Apr 23, 2018 10:42 AM

The last day of the Easter vacation saw the department come together for its annual Seminar Day.  Short talks were given from across the broad range of subjects currently researched in the department.   The talks provide an opportunity for researchers, from all levels, to highlight their work to the rest of the department; whether it be some data they had just brought back from the field or things they have been working on for some time. 

This year five of our MPhil and PhD students were persuaded to give “PechaKucha” talks, ie 20 powerpoint slides, 20 seconds per slide.  All five students did a fantastic job, giving clear, interesting and to the point talks.  The talks were judged by a small panel with Syuan-Jyun Sun’s talk on “Hot under the collar: a thermal by-product mutualism between burying beetles and their phoretic mites” winning first prize.  Vix Franks was runner-up with her talk on “Copy parents or follow friends? Juvenile forage behaviour changes in response to social environment”

There were poster presentations by PhD students again covering a large array of subjects.  The posters were also judged.  First prize went to Charlotte Payne on The contribution of the edible caterpillar Cirina butyrospermi to the food security of smallholder famers in Burkina Faso.  Runner-up went to Emma Garnett on “Less meat, less heat: serving more vegetarian options increase vegetarian sales in self-serve cafeterias”.

The seminar day programme schedules in ample break time to give the speakers and poster presenters an opportunity to talk about their work with the members of the department they might not normally meet.  This year these discussions spilled out into the Old Divinity School courtyard, bathed in glorious sunshine.

This year’s Seminar day was expertly organised by Dr Kiyoko Gotanda and Dr Stephen Montgomery.

Prize winners
The prizewinners with Dr Matthias Landgraf

"King of the scuttle flies"

last modified Apr 12, 2018 10:04 AM

As part of series of interviews about people in the University This Cambridge Life has interviewed Henry Disney from the Insect Ecology Group:

The “king of scuttle flies” who continues to discover new species

Henry Disney admits that the task of classifying hundreds of species of scuttle fly has sometimes seemed a crazy undertaking. But his deteriorating eyesight hasn’t stopped him from becoming a world expert in the taxonomy of possibly the most challenging genus in the animal kingdom.

Read more

Student Conference on Conservation Science 2018

last modified Mar 29, 2018 04:38 PM

This year’s Student Conference on Conservation Science has been another wonderful event that has brought together conservation students and practitioners from around the world.  This year, for the very first time, the conference welcomed students from Saudi Arabia, putting the total up to 64 nations who have attended the conference over the years.

As usual, the conference covered a range of issues currently facing conservation scientists and organisations. Students provided papers for sessions on "Applying new technologies", "Signs of success" "Lessons from Listening" to name a few.  Inspirational plenary lectures were given by a number of leading practitioners including Paula Kahumu (WildlifeDirect, Kenya) on "Rethinking the future of Africa's wildlife"; Rahsid Sumaila (University of British Colombia, Canada) on "The conservation and fair sharing of ocean fishery resources: contributions from fisheries economics"

The conference also had more student posters than ever before – over 100.  The posters even inspired one of our PhD students to write some haikus.  

The conference drew to a close with the award of prizes and the announcement that next year would see the conference celebrating its 20th Anniversary.  The conference organisers are already busy making special arrangements for that conference so so keep an eye on the website: over the next few months to find out what is happening.

Lower Gallery of the University Museum of Zoology reopens

last modified Mar 28, 2018 10:01 AM

Yesterday, 27 March 2018, the University Museum of Zoology opened the lower gallery doors to visitors for the first time since 5 pm on 3rd June 2013.   

The whole Museum will open with a flourish in late June but until then visitors can enjoy the brilliant new galleries that showcase the amazing diversity of animal life, from mice to monkeys, mammoths to manatees.

The “Welcome to the Museum of Zoology” sign that greets visitors is made up of photographs of animal life taken by members of the whole Department of Zoology in the course of their travels.

The Museum now has a shop, selling a wide array of things, including toys, books, cards and ornaments.  Upstairs from the Museum is the Whale Café filling in the once windswept podium where the Fin Whale used to reside.

Not only has the fabric of the building and the galleries been refurbished, so has their website:

We are looking forward to the grand re-opening in June, which will be the final piece in the refurbishment of the David Attenborough Building.

David Attenborough Building Synergy Project

last modified Mar 17, 2018 11:54 AM

David Attenborough Building Synergy Project © Toby Smith

Slow-motion jumping fleas, a fly-over of Cameroonian rainforests, and David Attenborough abseiling down a living wall: new installation at the David Attenborough Building

The David Attenborough Building in central Cambridge home to academics and practitioners engaged in many aspects of understanding and conserving the natural world, ranging from zoological research through to work to protect the world’s pristine habitats and precious species from destruction. The University of Cambridge’s amazing Museum of Zoology, with over 3 million specimens, is also located within the building, and will reopen later in the year, following extensive refurbishment funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Now a new, publicly-accessible installation on the outside of the David Attenborough Building provides a dynamic window into the activities of those working within its walls. Photographer Toby Smith, in collaboration with 104 contributors from Cambridge and beyond, has adapted, created and curated over 75 unique multimedia segments. Fourteen large HD screens are embedded within the fabric of the David Attenborough Building displaying layers of diverse content to form an engaging and informative media show. The bespoke animations and short films work in harmony to showcase and reveal the work being undertaken within the Building and across Cambridge more generally.

The installation offers the viewer unique glimpses of Cambridge’s best-loved spaces, with one film showing a birds-eye-view of the Botanic Garden, while others reveal objects and spaces not normally visible to the public, such as behind the scenes in the Museum of Zoology’s collections, and research being conducted in the Department of Zoology. The diversity of nature within and around Cambridge is highlighted by films of people searching for bats on the River Cam at night, time-lapse footage of Wicken Fen through the seasons, and nature reserves in the Cambridgeshire countryside.

As many of the people working in the Building, which include leading internationally-focused biodiversity conservation organisations, work on biodiversity issues around the world, a number of the films take the viewer around the world, from albatross fisheries in the Southern Pacific to workshops training future conservation leaders in Africa. David Attenborough, as befits a building that bears his name, has his career history and achievements featured on a number of screens.

The screens are located on the east side of the David Attenborough Building, on the podium walkway that surrounds the Building, close to the entrance on Corn Exchange Street. Once the Museum of Zoology, and the new café, have opened on 27 March, access to the screens will also be possible through the café; this latter route will be step-free.

Annual Equalities and Wellbeing Lecture 2018

last modified Mar 08, 2018 10:34 AM

Baroness YoungLast week Barbara, Baroness Young of Old Scone, visited the department to give the third annual Equalities and Wellbeing lecture.  

Before the lecture, she met members of the Equalities and Wellbeing Committee and then went on to lunch with a selection of our Postdoc community.  Lunch was a lively affair that discussed career paths for postdocs, the future of research funding, the impact of governmental changes, the successes and pitfalls for NGOs.  It became even more interesting when the topic of conversation turned to Brexit, Trump, and Bush, among others. The thread of birds and environmentalism ran throughout!

For the lecture itself, entitled Tap dancing on the glass ceiling, Baroness Young talked about her illustrious career, which started in the NHS before moving into the conservation and environment sector and then later into the world of politics at the House of Lords.  The lecture tracked this career and the things she had learnt that made her a successful woman. 

What had made her successful?  She claimed that in first place serendipity had played a part.  Early in her career in the NHS, she had been in the right place at the right time.  However, she went on to say that what got her noticed was asking a pertinent question at a lunch-time meeting that then led to a new opportunity. 

Self-awareness, networking and confidence were all attributes that had helped her progress in her career. Passion and being distinctive were two key elements that contributed to her confident attitude.  However, she admitted that for her she stood out in her early career largely because she was the only woman in a male-dominated world. 

She congratulated the department on attaining their Athena SWAN Silver Award and said that this kind of initiative instigates change and progress.  She admitted that in terms of gender equality and ethnic diversity universities were lagging behind other institutions, and there was still much work to do.

She detailed the House of Commons recommendations for gender diversity in recruitment: unconscious bias training, mentoring schemes, flexible family working patterns, exit interviews, gender parity on shortlists.  Many of these the department does already, largely because of the Athena SWAN process it has undertaken. 

She also said we should celebrate our successes more…

Regulation of DNA replication during early embryogenesis

last modified Mar 05, 2018 05:36 PM

Accurate replication of chromosomal DNA is essential for cell proliferation and the development of multicellular organisms. The mechanistic principles of chromosomal DNA replication are evolutionarily conserved in eukaryotes at the molecular level. However, the regulation of the initiation of replication changes considerably during early vertebrate development. A collaborative team of researchers from the Francis Crick Institute, the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology and the Department of Zoology, led by Dr Torsten Krude, have discovered and characterised a new macromolecular protein complex that is essential for rapid DNA replication and cleavage cycles in very early embryos.

In the amphibian model organism Xenopus laevis, the mid-blastula transition (MBT) marks a turning point for several features of DNA replication: in early embryos before the MBT, cell division cycles are very fast and tens of thousands of DNA replication forks initiate at random positions on the genome, in the absence of transcription. After the MBT, cell division cycles become much longer, and DNA replication initiates at defined replication origins in the presence of efficient transcription. Previous work by the team members had established that small non-coding Y RNAs are required for DNA replication after the MBT, but not before. It was unknown, how DNA replication initiates efficiently without requiring Y RNAs in the early embryos.

In their paper, the research groups of Jim Smith (Francis Crick Institute), Julian Sale (MRC-LMB) and Torsten Krude (Zoology) now report the identification, purification and functional characterisation of the chromatin remodelling complex xNuRD as an essential DNA replication factor in eggs and early embryos of Xenopus laevis. They demonstrate that xNuRD can initiate DNA replication in the absence of non-coding Y RNAs. Inactivation of xNuRD after fertilisation results in the inhibition of DNA synthesis, in developmental delay and embryonic lethality in early embryos.

 Dying embryos after xNuRD inactivation

This can be seen on the photograph: while the embryos on the left and right columns are controls that have proceeded to the mid-blastula stage, different subunits of xNuRD have been inactivated in the embryos dying, shown in the central two columns. (Photo by Dr Kevin Dingwell)

Christov, C.P., Dingwell, K.S., Skehel, M., Wilkes, H.S., Sale, J.E., Smith, J.C., and Krude, T. (2018). A NuRD Complex from Xenopus laevis Eggs Is Essential for DNA Replication during Early Embryogenesis. Cell Rep 22, 2265-2278. 

Launch of Cambridge ZooCasts

last modified Mar 02, 2018 10:52 AM

Cambridge ZooCast: What's it like to be a Graduate student in the Department of Zoology in Cambridge?

A group of postgraduates is producing some short videos about being a student in the Zoology Department. In each five-minute episode, two postgraduate students have a casual conversation on topics ranging from their research and academic work to extracurricular activities within the department and the university. 

Each student filmed took a turn as the interviewee in one episode and the interviewer in another.  In this first episode, Julie Sarmiento-Ponce talks to Matt Hayes about her work researching the acoustic signalling of crickets. 


Further information about Julie's work can be found on the Neurobiology Acoustic Communication Group web pages.

Future episodes will be released fortnightly via our YouTube Channel and the students hope to cover many of the research themes in the department.

The team of postgraduate students that put this together are: Matt Hayes, Liisa Hämäläinen, Amrita Mukherjee, Marie-Yon Strücker, Victor Kang and visiting student and film-maker Manasse Pinsuwan.

Are insects a credible food source?

last modified Jan 24, 2018 08:37 AM

One of our PhD students, Charlotte Payne, has recently written an article for the BBC and appeared on the BBC World Service programme "Crowd Science" discussing edible insects. In her BBC article she investigates communities around the world who already eat different insects and, crucially, what they taste like.  Cooked hornet larvae taste like sweet mussels whereas palm weevil larvae taste like a buttery pate.  So as Charlotte says they are not eaten "out of desperation but because they are there and they taste good". 

To find out more read Charlotte's article: Edible insects: Do insects actually taste any good?

The World Service programme, "Crowd Science", takes questions from people all around the world about life, Earth and the universe and puts them to researchers hunting for answers at the frontiers of knowledge.  The latest episode featured Charlotte and a colleague, Kahitouo Hien from Burkina Faso on the subject "Are crunchy caterpillars the food of the future?".  Questions included "If we eat insects what will happen to the rest of the food chain?" "How do you eat insects that can sting you?"

Find out the answers and much more on the World Service podcast: Are Crunchy Caterpillars the Food of the Future?

The image below shows the remains of the insects that were on offer at the Departmental Christmas Party in December 2017. Judging by the fact they are they are nearly empty, they were quite popular or at least Zoologists were willing to try them out!

Waterbugs and Sago Pupae

Charlotte is currently a third year PhD student, based in the Conservation Science group, working on "The economic, environmental and health impacts of harvesting edible caterpillars". She is supervised by Professor Andrew Balmford.

Bolivian biodiversity hotspot on road to deforestation

last modified Jan 15, 2018 12:18 PM

In August 2017, the Bolivian government passed a contentious law that paved the way for construction of a new 190-mile road cutting through one of the country’s most iconic and biodiverse protected rainforests. A recently released report in Current Biology, written by a group of scientists from Bolivia, Finland, Spain and our own Conservation Science Group, shows that the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (or TIPNIS, as the area is commonly known) has been subject to alarming levels of deforestation within its borders for many years, a reality that is too often overlooked.

Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous TerritoryTIPNIS, which is also the ancestral homeland of four lowland indigenous groups, lost more than 46,000 hectares of forest from 2000 to 2014, according to the report. (To put that in perspective, one hectare is about the size of a standard sports field.) The researchers say they hope the findings will help to give public debate on the matter a stronger foundation based on the best knowledge available.

While many discuss the potential impacts that the planned road could have in the future, very little is spoken about current ecological impacts in the area,” said Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares from the University of Helsinki, Finland. “Our analyses show that TIPNIS is already facing rampant levels of deforestation.”

It is well established that roads in tropical forests frequently lead to additional habitat conversion. In the case of TIPNIS, the researchers including Mónica Moraes at Bolivia’s Universidad Mayor de San Andrés report that more than 58 percent of deforestation is found within five kilometres of existing roads. This trend suggests that the planned road will only “magnify the current scale and pace of deforestation in TIPNIS.”

We were surprised to discover that one of Bolivia’s most iconic national parks could be facing such alarming levels of deforestation,” Moraes said. That TIPNIS has lost more than 46,000 hectares of forest since the year 2000 “is simply unbelievable, considering that the park is not only one of the main biodiversity hotspots in Bolivia, but also one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth.”

She noted the area harbours many plant species that do not live anywhere else. It is also home to emblematic wildlife species, such as the jaguar, marsh deer, and giant otter.

While food security is often noted as justification for roads in the Tropics, the researchers add that most of the deforestation to date in TIPNIS is associated with coca cultivation, not food crops. With expanded coca cultivation and new incentives for oil and gas exploration throughout Bolivia, they say downgrading the legal protection of TIPNIS will likely spur even greater biodiversity losses. The authors call on Bolivia’s Government to revisit the road plans.

Bolivian delegations have been very active in climate change negotiations and have vehemently advocated for the codification of the rights of Mother Earth in several international policy frameworks,” Fernández-Llamazares said. “The road would most likely open a Pandora’s box of environmental problems that, as a signatory of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Bolivia cannot afford.

Fernández-Llamazares, Á., Helle, J., Eklund, J., Balmford, A., Moraes R., M., Reyes-García, V., Cabeza, M. 2017. New law puts Bolivian biodiversity hotspot on road to deforestation. Current Biology. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.11.013

Photo by Oriol Massana & Adrià López-Baucells




Meerkat morning weights

last modified Dec 07, 2017 01:51 PM

Ecology in Action category winner - Dominic Cram - Meerkat morning weights

Many congratulations to Dr Dominic Cram, a Research Associate in our Large Animal Research Group, whose photograph Meerkat morning weights has won the "Ecology in Action" category of the British Ecological Society's "Capturing Ecology" photography competition.

The photograph was submitted along with the following description: "At the Kalahari Meerkat Project, wild meerkats are habituated to the presence of human observers, and are trained to climb onto electronic balances. Close observation of meerkats, and regular collection of weight data, allow researchers to investigate behaviour and growth in a natural ecological context."

The Kalahari Meerkat Project was created by Professor Tim Clutton-Brock over twenty years ago, and has followed the daily lives of thousands of wild meerkats. The resulting data have advanced our understanding of the evolution and development of cooperation in wild animal societies.

More of Cram's research, along with more wonderful photographs can be found on his website:

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

last modified Nov 24, 2017 01:29 PM

As part of their degree third year undergraduate Zoology students have to complete one or two projects that have been devised by researchers in the Department.   One of the exciting things that can lead from the projects is the possibility of having the results of the work published.  Papers of former students are displayed on the wall of the lecture theatre and on our project work webpage.

One such paper has come out in PeerJ today:  The relationship between egg size and helper number in cooperative breeders: a meta-analysis across species by Dixit T., English S., Lukas D.  The Part II Zoology student was Tamnay Dixit (St John’s) who graduated in June 2017.

The initial project was devised by Dr Sinead English (now at the University of Bristol) and Dr Dieter Lukas (now at Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology) and was framed as such: 

Sociable Weaver (credit Jessie Walton)

Does the presence of helpers affect maternal investment in cooperative breeders? There is increasing evidence in species-specific studies that mothers adjust offspring size in response to helper presence. This project will extract data from online life history databases and the published literature to investigate if, across species, mothers produce smaller offspring in cooperative compared to non-cooperative species, controlling for phylogeny and other aspects of ecology.

From the work done by the authors the results of the study found that cooperatively breeding birds and fish may have evolved the adaptive ability to reduce the size of their eggs when helpers are available to lighten the parental load, a new study suggests. The findings indicate that in some species, the social environment may influence female reproductive decisions even prior to the birth of offspring. Dixit went on to say: “While this paper does not provide conclusive evidence as it is based on a small sample of studies and species, it suggests that it is at least possible that the females of certain cooperatively breeding species may be able to adapt their reproductive decisions to changes in the social environment by reducing investment in current broods to prioritise future survival and reproduction.”

One of Dixit’s supervisors said “Tanmay did an amazing job, and he is the first and corresponding author on the manuscript. We were always inspired by the papers from undergraduates hanging in the Part II lecture theatre and being listed on the website.”

Dixit is currently on a year abroad studying avian brood parasitism in South Africa and Zambia. He hopes to return to the UK to study for a PhD in 2018.

Dixit T, English S, Lukas D. (2017The relationship between egg size and helper number in cooperative breeders: a meta-analysis across speciesPeerJ 5:e4028




In case you missed it...

last modified Nov 22, 2017 12:09 PM

Over the course of the last couple of months several members of the department have been interviewed by various local media  talking about their passion for Zoology.  Four of them give a really good insight into their work and their hope for the future.

Dr Ed Turner, Curator of Insects in the University Museum of Zoology and a University Teaching Officer in the Department, was interviewed by Alex Buxton for the "This Cambridge Life" section of Research Horizons.   The interview explores Ed's first forays into biology as a small boy, his last minute application to Cambridge and his exciting new project in Sumatra.

The zoologist who looks after more than a million dead insects  

Dr Jenny York, a NERC-funded Associate Research Fellow, gave a similar interview in the "This Cambridge Life" series. The interview also includes Jenny's early encounters with the animal world this time in Zimbabwe, the skills you need to do work in the field and the people that have inspired her.

The behavioural ecologist whose first word was spider

Dr Jason Head, Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology in the University Museum of Zoology and a University Teaching Officer in the Department gave an interview to the student run magazine Bluesci.  In the interview Jason gives some insights into the refurbishment of the Museum, where his love of natural history museums comes from and his claim that "natural history museums can save the world".

The University Museum of Zoology: Behind the scenes 

Professor Bill Sutherland was recently "In Conversation" with the Science Editor of Varsity on the subject of "Making conservation work".   In the article Bill discusses current issues and challenges facing conservation science, including "rewilding", habitat loss, Brexit, and "evidence complacency".

Making conservation work



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

last modified Nov 09, 2017 02:01 PM

Many congratulations to Professor Tim Clutton-Brock whose book Mammal Societies  has been awarded the 2017 Marsh Book of the Year prize by the British Ecological Society.

The Marsh Book of the Year Award acknowledges the important role that books have on ecology and its development. This prize is funded by the Marsh Christian Trust and is awarded to the book published in the last two years that has had the greatest influence on ecology or its application.

Mammal Societies provides the first synthesis of research on social behaviour, integrating comparative, observational and experimental studies within the explanatory framework of evolutionary and ecological theory.  The book shows how the distribution of resources and the foraging strategies of individuals affect the size of groups; how they interact with contrasts in reproductive behaviour and contrasts in breeding systems to affect patterns of kinship; and how contrasts in kinship affect social relationships, competitive interactions and cooperation.  It explains how similar principles apply in contrasting taxonomic groups, sometimes generating similar correlations between ecology and behaviour but sometimes interacting with contrasts in demographic parameters to generate contrasting patterns.  Read more.

The winners of the 2017 BES awards will be presented with their prizes during a ceremony held at our annual meeting in Ghent, Brussels next month, which will bring together 1,500 ecologists from around 60 countries to discuss the latest advances in ecological research across the whole discipline.

Teaching and the Museum of Zoology

last modified Oct 30, 2017 01:57 PM

As the Museum approaches the end of its redevelopment, undergraduate students are again being taught in the Museum space for the first time in five years. Sadly a generation of Natural Sciences (and other) undergraduates have missed the opportunity to access the collection and discover the treasures and stories within.  One such undergraduate recognised this disconnect and has created three short films that highlight aspects of the Museum collection that can be related to undergraduate teaching. 

Bruce Miller, now a final year Biological and Biomedical Sciences Zoology student, worked with Museum staff, curators and university lecturers to create three stories from the Museum collection that enhance and compliment Natural Sciences courses taken in all three years of an undergraduate degree.


This first film documents the evolution of brood parasitism in bird and insect systems and traces similarities in the parallel co-evolutionary arms races that emerge in both these systems.  This film extends ideas presented in the first year course: Part IA Evolution and Behaviour, second year course Part IB Animal Biology and the third year Part II Zoology module:  Evolution and Behaviour: populations and societies.


The second film highlights the conservation challenges presented by island endemic birds, making use of some of the rarest specimens in the collection.  Again this film provides several case studies relevant to material covered in Part IB Ecology and the Part II Zoology module Conservation Science.


This final film focuses on the threats facing Lake Malawi, its endemic populations of cichlid fishes, and its people. The film compliments Part IB Ecology, Part II Zoology modules Conservation Science and Applied Ecology and Part II Pathology.

Bruce says that creating these three films was challenging work but ultimately extremely rewarding. One of the highlights was the chance to talk with researchers from the Sanger Institute who recently brought the collection of cichlids to the Museum that tell the story of Lake Malawi. This experience highlighted that there are many more untold stories surrounding the history of the collections and the ongoing research in the Museum.

The project was funded by the J Arthur Ramsay Fund and the Selwyn College Master's fund.

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

last modified Oct 18, 2017 11:25 AM

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

For several decades there has been considerable  debate as to whether domestic mammals are paedomorphic (juvenilised) forms of their wild ancestors. The most iconic of all domesticated animals, the dog, has been at the centre of this controversy, with reports of selection for a juvenile appearance resulting in a paedomorphic skull shape. A recent study rejected this hypothesis, claiming dogs are ‘neomorphic’, i.e. having a whole new skull shape.

Dr Madeleine Geiger, a visiting postdoctoral researcher in the department, along with other colleagues contends that the paedomorphosis hypothesis in domestic dogs has not yet been tested with proper methods and data, for example comparing the ontogenetic series of both the wild ancestor and the domesticated form. This new study does precisely this.   

The group sampled a unique data set, including dog, wolf and archeological dog data, crucial for comparing patterns of growth, and applied state-of-the-art geometric morphometric methods. They show that patterns of juvenile-to-adult change are largely similar in wolves and domestic dogs, but differ in two ways. First, dog skulls show unique (neomorphic) features already shortly after birth, and these features persist throughout life. Second, at any given age, juvenile dogs exhibit skull shapes that resemble those of consistently younger wolves, even in dog breeds that do not exhibit a ‘juvenilized’ skull shape as adults.

These patterns exemplify the complex nature of evolutionary changes during dog domestication: the skull shape of adult dogs cannot simply be explained as either neomorphic or paedomorphic.

Domestication of dogs and skull size

Neomorphosis and heterochrony of skull shape in dog domestication, Madeleine Geiger, Allowen Evin, Marcelo R. Sánchez-Villagra, Dominic Gascho, Cornelia Mainini & Christoph P. E. Zollikofer, Scientific Reports 7, doi:10.1038/s41598-017-12582-2