Dinosaurs, Animal Farts and Pterosaur Sex: Tet Zoo Con 2017

Although I’m studying for a PhD in ornithology, I’m a big fan of all things zoology. I had heard good things about the “TetZooniverse” over on Twitter, so this October I took the plunge and hopped on a train down to London from Glasgow for the 4th TetZoo (Tetrapod Zoology) Convention, an extension of the famous podcast of the same name. I had no real idea of what to expect and was travelling alone, so was pleasantly surprised to find a friendly, down-to-Earth crowd made up of scientists, artists and hobbyists to chat to!

As the name of the convention would suggest, the day was filled with a variety of great talks relating to tetrapod zoology, with particular focus on prehistoric creatures. The highlight of the day for me was a unique, engaging talk from Dani Rabaiotti on her new book: “Does it Fart?” Dani told the story behind the book – how one tweet about whether or not a snake could fart generated a big discussion that ultimately led to a book collaboration between two scientists and an artist (who still haven’t actually met)! I really enjoyed the illustrations from Ethan Kocak, especially the one of the sea cucumber… but you’ll need to buy the book to see it.

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Apparently, dinosaurs did fart… (Art by Ethan Kocak @blackmudpuppy)

Another highlight for me was an informative talk by Beth Windle on thylacines – did you know that they made “yappy” sounds like dogs?! Beth discussed the public and scientific engagement with her popular Twitter hashtag #thylastream and also gave an emotional account of the story behind the last remaining thylacine “Benjamin” and its demise as a species overall. A sombre ending that made me think of the many other species that are unfortunately heading this way. On a happier note though, Beth baked an amazing thylacine cake for the convention!

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Beth Windle’s thylacine cake (Photo credit Darren Naish)

TetZoo master Darren Naish gave a talk on Hunting Monsters and cryptozoology, debunking the photographic “evidence” behind Nessie (mostly overturned boats and models), and a discussion around the Patterson film/bigfoot. I really enjoyed Darren’s talk, although I admit I am still hoping to photograph Nessie when I visit Loch Ness 😉

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Darren Naish talking about Heuvelman’s 9 species of sea monster

The last talk of the day was by Ben Garrod of BBC fame, who gave a talk called “You can please some of the people all of the time“, during which he shared his secrets on being a science presenter on TV. Ben talked about the need for having a “thick skin” against critics, and how the language used to communicate science is adapted for different channels such as BBC One, Two and Four. He also talked about how it is important to have a niche if you want to get noticed… Ben is apparently the BBC’s “bone guy”!

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Ben Garrod on being a scientist on TV

During the day there was an art workshop, which I thought was a great way to break up a day of talks (academic conferences take note)! On entry to the convention, we were all given a Mesozoic animal to draw on one of two timelines on gigantic reels of paper. I was given Ouranosaurus, an early Cretaceous ornithischian. I enjoyed the workshop, but I think I need to start practising for next year already given that everyone’s drawings were so good. I sadly forgot to take a picture of mine…but have one by paleoartist Mark Witton instead!

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A rather awesome pterosaur sketch by artist Mark Witton

After the convention, a large group of us headed on down to a nearby pub. Some beers and conversations later, I ended up chatting with paleoartist John Conway, and set him the challenge of drawing me a scene involving pterosaurs. I somehow ended up with a sketch of a “failed mating” of two Quetzalcoatlus on the wing… not entirely sure how that happened 😉

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A sneak peek of the Quetzalcoatlus “failed mating” sketch by John Conway to ignite your curiosity

I was a bit nervous during the run-up to the convention – would I be accepted into the TetZoo clan? I am glad to say that I now feel part of the TetZoo group! Having learned a lot and made some fellow nerdy friends, I am very much looking forward to next year’s #TetZooCon already. I hear that it might even be two days of convention instead of one 😉 If you’re at all interested in zoology, I highly recommend you come along.

Can’t wait to see you there in 2018!

 

Check out the Tetrapod Zoology Podcast

More on TetZoo Con 2017

Info on the Tet Zoo Convention

Dani’s book: Does it Fart? A Definitive Field Guide to Animal Flatulence (Available in the UK)

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PhD Diaries: A PhD is never boring!

Since starting my PhD back in October 2015, I’ve had quite the whirlwind experience! This post is my way of reflecting on the past two years of my studies, as well as thinking about the future. So, here are a few of the things that have happened to me since I began on this PhD adventure:

  • Spent three months working in a chronobiology (clock biology) and sleep lab in Zurich, Switzerland.

This was a really challenging time for me moving to a new country and lab, but I loved the lab group, loved living in Switzerland and having the opportunity to travel around. My travel highlights were the departmental skiing trip, visiting Lucerne/Bern/Beckenried and getting to visit Milan with a friend. During my time in Switzerland I was working in cell culture, so I was in the lab most days during those few months – cells can be very demanding! I had to squeeze in some travelling… one time I remember going into the lab late on Good Friday to feed the cells, hopping on an early morning bus to Milan on the Saturday, getting back on the Easter Sunday and going into the lab at 10PM to feed my cells again! whew!

More about my time in Switzerland can be found on the old blog here and here

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Me and a friend from the lab group on the department skiing trip, Flims Laax, Switzerland
  • Took part in a sleep and clock biology summer school at the University of Oxford

This course was exhausting (so much information!), but it was an amazing experience learning clock biology from professors leading the field of chronobiology, getting to meet other clock PhD students from around the world and exploring the city of Oxford. Plus it was the first time I got to present my research, in the form of a poster!

More information about the summer school can be found on my old blog.

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My first poster presentation at the Chronobiology and Sleep Summer School, University of Oxford (2016)
  • Presented my research at an international conference in ornithology

The highlight of my PhD so far was definitely this conference in Turku, Finland, where I got to give my first oral presentation on my research. I had a great time with friends from my lab group, but also made new friends from around Europe who also work on birds! I honestly can’t wait for the next European Ornithological Union meeting in Cluj, Romania, but I have to wait for another two years… I am now part of the “Fledgelings Council” group for early career bird researchers, so hopefully we can have a meeting before Cluj 2019!

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  • Fractured my ankle and had two operations to fix it

So my PhD hasn’t all been smooth running! I have spent the best part of this year recovering from falling off of a bouldering wall, and my ankle injury meant that I couldn’t do any of my fieldwork this year during the great tit breeding season. I was very very lucky in that one of my supervisors found some funding to hire a field assistant for me so that my project could go ahead as planned. Still, it was really tough going, mostly because I spent a large amount of time indoors, and I obviously had to plan fieldwork and organise equipment and people so that my experiments could be carried out! Looking back though, I definitely wouldn’t change anything!

Posts about my accident and recovery can be found on the old blog here, here and here.

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When this photo was taken, I hadn’t been outside my flat in two weeks… and I could just about crutch to here which was 2 minutes normal walk away! aaand then i was tired so had to go home and sleep lol

Other things that have happened include: showing kids how ornithologists tag wild birds with ID rings during a demonstration at a science festival, becoming the second author on a scientific publication on fish genetics, delivering field workshops to undergraduate students, acting as teaching assistant for an undergraduate zoology anatomy class, being assessed on my ability to pick up a chicken (for Home Office licencing) and of course, watching wild baby birds grow up during the field season.

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During the ringing demonstration at MoSSFest Science Festival (2017)

Now, just when I thought my PhD couldn’t get any more crazy, two more things have happened to me this month which will change everything…

  1. My main supervisor told me she is moving away, to take up a position at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. This is an amazing opportunity for her and I am very happy she is taking it! As for me, it is a little uncertain right now as to what will happen, but it looks like I will be (mostly) moving too, spending part of my time here in Glasgow and part of my time in Groningen. This means I would end up having a dual PhD, with a “Dr” certificate awarded from both institutions (and two theses/vivas…). Sadly, I won’t end up as Dr Dr Womack, though…
  2. I have just discovered that my DNA samples collected from my experiments during the field season this year are basically, um, useless for what we wanted to do with them. All 300 of them. Whoops. Hopefully, it is a solvable issue, as we also collected another blood sample in a different medium called RNAlater to be able to measure gene activity and I may be able to extract DNA from this. I will be trialling this labwork next and praying that it works out… yelp. Wish me luck.

I could never have imagined when I started my PhD that it would be so much of a rollercoaster experience! There really aren’t many jobs out there where you feel constantly challenged or pushed out of your comfort zone. Every experience is different and contains highs and lows, but one thing is for sure: a PhD is never boring!

 

 

Species Spotlight #2: “Dancing” Yeti Crab

If you haven’t seen the prequel for the upcoming nature documentary series BBC Blue Planet 2, where have you been? The trailer features a mixture of stunning clips from the new series, narrated by zoology icon David Attenborough and overlaid with an epic soundtrack blending vocals from rock band Radiohead and music from Hans Zimmer. Just from the trailer, we can see how far the technology available for filming creatures underwater has come since the last big underwater series, The Blue Planet (2001). If you’re a nature documentary nerd like me (and even if you’re not), it is super exciting. To celebrate the new series, this week’s Species Spotlight features a species that starred in the Blue Planet 2 prequel, the “newly discovered dancing yeti crab“, in the words of Sir David.

Drawing of "Yeti" crab (Kiwa hirsuta) discovered south of Easter Island
Yeti crab illustration by Karen Jacobsen

Discovered in 2005 by scientists conducting a deep-sea expedition onboard the submarine Alvin, this peculiar crustacean spends its time blindly ambling along the hydrothermal vents that line the Pacific-Antarctic ridge, near Easter Island (Macpherson et al., 2005). Its name means “Hairy guardian of the sea“, so called for its arms covered in colonies of filamentous bacteria.

Not much is currently known about the ecology of the yeti crab, or indeed why they wave their hairy arms about as if they were dancing. Perhaps the crabs are farming their arm bacteria to use as a food source, or to detoxify poisonous minerals emitted by the vents in their habitat. Or, given that the crabs are thought to be blind, the filaments on their arms could be used for sensory navigation through the darkness of their habitat. Maybe they are simply waving to submarine passers-by. Without a doubt, the new series of Blue Planet will shed some light on the many mysteries of the yeti crab.

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“Dancing Yeti Crabs” from BBC Blue Planet 2 (2017)

Binomial Name: Kiwa hirsuta

Common Name: Yeti Crab

Taxonomy: Animalia – Arthropoda – Crustacea – Malacostraca – Decapoda – Anomura – Kiwaidae – Kiwa – K. hirsuta

Size: ~15cm long

Lifespan: unknown

Reproduction: unknown

Beauty:  Despite lack of pigmentation, yeti crabs manage to look adorable. With their arms all covered in silky blond bacteria, they look almost fluffy. Still, this is only the second Species Spotlight post, and we don’t want to get carried away here, so I’ve given them a modest score.

Animal Beauty Pageant Score: 20/100 

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Yeti crab claw (2005 Ifremer / A. Fifis)

Deadliness: Although these crustaceans do have pincers, the crabs themselves are just 15cm (5.9 inches) long. Not quite so deadly. 

Deadliness Score: 10/100

Potential for World Domination: As far as we know, yeti crabs are confined to living along the hydrothermal vents of the Pacific-Antarctic ridge, at a depth of around 2,200 metres. It seems like these crabs are just down there doing their thing and occasionally, you know, dancing. Like no-one is watching. (See below for video evidence).

World Domination Score: 10/100

 

 

Relationship with Humans: Perhaps luckily for the yeti crabs, human visits to their deep sea habitat are rare. However, hydrothermal vents and the surrounding seabed areas are currently under threat from deep-sea mining for minerals and metals such as silver, copper, manganese and zinc. Currently, it is not known how mining may affect deep-sea ecosystems, but care ought to be taken to preserve these fantastic communities of species that live on the vents, such as the yeti crab.

“Getting Along With Homo sapiens” Score: 40/100

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Alvin, the submarine used for deep-sea expeditions, in 1978 (NOAA)

Fame Factor: As they have only recently been discovered, yeti crabs have been out of the limelight. However, once the upcoming episode of BBC Blue Planet 2 where yeti crabs strut their stuff airs, you bet that these funky crabs will be the talk of the town. I think it’s only fair to give these cool crustaceans a high score in this category, in anticipation of their future fame.   

Fame Factor Score: (soon to be) 70/100 

Total Species Spotlight Score: 150/500

The first episode of Blue Planet 2, One Ocean, officially airs on BBC One this Sunday 29th October at 20:00. I. CAN’T. WAIT.

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Check out more about the upcoming series Blue Planet 2 on the BBC Earth Website

Find out more about Deep Sea Mining

E. Macpherson, Jones, W., and Segonzac, M. (2005). A new squat lobster family of Galatheoidea (Crustacea, Decapoda, Anomura) from the hydrothermal vents of the Pacific-Antarctic Ridge. Zoosystema, 27:4.

Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute “Discovery of the Yeti Crab” (2006) http://www.mbari.org/discovery-of-yeti-crab/

Feature Image Credit: Ifremer / A. Fifis (2005)

Species Spotlight #1: Great Tit

This blog is all about showcasing the wonderful diversity of animal species, by shining the spotlight on one particular animal every week and ranking them in some kind of knock-off zoological Top Trumps fashion. To kick off the blog and Species SpOtlight post series, it makes sense to start with a feature on my PhD study species. So, here I’d like to introduce you all to the great tit, the largest, and second feistiest (the blue tit takes the crown here) tit species in the United Kingdom!

Binomial Name: Parus major

Common Name: Great Tit

Taxonomy: Animalia – Chordata – Aves – Passeriformes – Paridae – Parus – P. major

Size: Weight 16-20 g, Length 12.5-14.0 cm

Lifespan: 2-3 years

Reproduction: 5-11 eggs per clutch, 1-2 clutches per year. Female incubates the eggs, and then both parents usually work together to rear chicks from hatching to fledging!

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Beauty:  With a glossy black head, bright white cheeks and sunshine yellow belly feathers, the great tit is one of the most handsome passerines around. Am I biased? Possibly. Great tits are truly stunning birds, and therefore IMO they deserve a fairly high score in this category.

Animal Beauty Pageant Score: 80/100 

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One ~*~super glamorous~*~ great tit. [Credit: Stanislav Harvancik]
Deadliness: Great tits mostly chow down on insects, nuts and seeds. However, there have been some recorded cases of tits scavenging on carcasses left by predators, while other food is scarce. These seemingly innocent birds have even been documented killing small bats and then eating their brains (Estók et al., 2010). Great tits are also often aggressive towards other passerines, forcefully fighting off other smaller bird species at feeders. For their size, great tits are powerful and can do quite some damage using their beaks – if you happen to be a small bird or a bat, that is. 

Deadliness Score: 60/100

Great tits scavenging on a wolf kill [Credit: Nadleśnictwo Baligród, Poland]

Potential for World Domination: Great tits are currently listed on the IUCN database as Least Concern, with a rough estimate of the world population standing at 433,300,000-703,300,000 mature individuals. The species is widespread in Europe and its range is large, stretching throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. Great tits can be found in a range of habitats from urban parks to oak woodlands and scrubland, making it a fairly versatile species. 

World Domination Score: 30/100

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Map of current Great tit distributions [Wikipedia]
Relationship with Humans: This species has adapted fairly well to life in urban environments and is commonly sighted in cities like Sheffield, UK, where the great tit population has been estimated to be upwards of 17,000 individuals (Fuller et al., 2009). Still, reproductive success for great tits raising their young in the city is often lower than those living in forest environments. There is still much to be discovered about the impacts of urban factors such as light pollution, noise, environmental toxins and habitat fragmentation on the health of great tits that live in and share our cities.

“Getting Along With Homo sapiens” Score: 75/100

 

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A wee Glaswegian great tit

Fame Factor: Great tits are important in the scientific field of ornithology (bird studies). Due to their ubiquitousness and willingness to nest in nest boxes, great tits make ideal models for ecological field studies. In fact, from 1969 to 2002, an estimated 1,349 scientific articles were published relating to great tits (Kvist et al., 2003)!  Moreover, in the UK the great tit is one of the most common garden birds sighted, so as far as garden birds go, great tits are pretty darn famous.

Fame Factor Score: 90/100

Total Species Spotlight Score: 335/500

 

Estók, P., Zsebők, S. & Siemers, B. M. 2010. Great tits search for, capture, kill and eat hibernating bats. Biology Letters, (6), 59-62.

Fuller RA, Tratalos J, Gaston KJ (2009). “How many birds are there in a city of half a million people?”. Diversity and Distributions15 (2): 328–337. 

Kvist, Laura; Martens, Jochen; Higuchi, Hiroyoshi; Nazarenko, Alexander A; Valchuk, Olga P.; Orell, Markku (2003). “Evolution and genetic structure of the great tit (Parus major) complex”Proceedings of the Royal Society B270 (1523): 1447–1454. 

 

 

 

PhD Diaries: The Halfway Point

There comes a time in every PhD student’s life when realisation hits that the number of months spent studying for the PhD so far roughly equal the number of months to go until the final deadline. That is, you’re at the halfway point, and there’s still so very much to get done before that final binding of the PhD. It feels a little bit like finding yourself standing at the bottom of a huge mountain called the Thesis. But don’t worry, you came equipped with a polar fleece, walking sticks and a fully insulated sleeping bag. The Thesis is climbable. Not quite an Everest, but more of a Ben Nevis.

Of course, it is daunting to know that the deadline is starting to become not something in the far future but something in the kinda-sorta-near future. This is where I am at right now. Although I’m obviously a little scared, I am also hugely excited to be heading in the direction that I am with my project. I feel like the loose strands of my research are slowly but surely coming together over time to form a whole project. Like a reverse Big Bang, or something.

Right now, I’m working in the lab alongside another PhD student with our samples (bird blood) collected from the 2016 and 2017 field seasons. I am really enjoying getting stuck into lab work, extracting DNA and running PCRs. There is something very satisfying about gradually working through samples day by day! I am hoping to be done with the first part of lab work by Christmas, but we shall see how it goes. Looking forward to having some good data so that I can start tackling the first chapter of my thesis.

Wish me luck!

– Robyn

Follow my PhD updates on Instagram: @pixie.zoologist