"In Quest of a Mermaid" by J. H. Williams

This final volume by Elephant Bill begins with the delightful story of the mermaid carved on a pew in Zennor church, which he used to watch during the long sermons of his childhood, and of how he used to dream of finding a mermaid. When at last he caught one, with a boathook off the Andaman Islands, she proved so ugly that he let her go.

But in his travels he found many things as strange as mermaids and more beautiful - the sacred turtles of Leiksakan with gold leaf on their heads, the rusty rifle in the tree which brought a message from the dead, the ghost of Crasher the dog that did not die of rabies.

Here are two long stories, the epic of Kayem who swam beneath a mountain and the grim comedy of Pugli and the Pard, rival gardeners in the murderous heat of Shwebo. And there are shorter stories of dogs and pythons, the elephant doctor and Rajah, the pride of Belfast. Perhaps the most tender is the story of Fire Opal the blind mother elephant whose calf was her guide.

'A Hunk of Jade,' the farewell story, tells of the author's struggle to salvage a huge lump of jade as a sort of compensation for the loss of all his material possessions during the war in Burma, and his final discovery that "the riches I had amassed during my years in Burma could never be looted by invading armies. I did not need a hunk of jade, when I possessed a treasury full of experience."

IMG_7378 copy.jpg

Perhaps the most memorable gem, however, was a handwritten letter found amongst the pages while I was reading late one night:

J + J

Angus & Robertson were quite unhelpful about A. L. Rowse’s “Early and Later Churchills” which I want to give you both. So this is just a stop-gap - & I hope a pleasant one - until I can get you the other at home.


to you all, see you soon, & with my love,

IMG_7379 copy.jpg

Camponotus consobrinus

Back in the (Australian) summer of 2009/10 I didn't know I wanted to be a Myrmecologist. I didn't even know I wanted to be a Entomologist! But I had just commenced my Bachelor of Zoology degree and I found some ants I had never seen before.

At the time I was working at a Honda dealership as a personal assistant while studying part-time, and one morning I found a writhing clump of very large yellow and black ants on the floor, and I did what came naturally to me at the time: I killed them. (In hindsight this makes me feel very ashamed and sad.)

Overnight I thought a lot about these ants and convinced myself that they were a quarantine risk because we imported cars from Japan. I Googled various descriptive phrases until I found a species of ant from Japan that vaguely looked like the ants I had found. Remember, I had just started my zoological studies, so I knew nothing about identification keys, ants or even insects for that matter!

The following morning I found another one and popped it into a round takeaway container before submitting an enquiry online to the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS), telling them all about my Japanese ants that must have hitched a ride on a Honda.

I envisaged quarantine officials closing the dealership while the invasive ants were eradicated. I imagined my boss being cranky at the loss of business, but I also imagined the entire Australian population thanking me for averting a biological disaster.

I received a phone call from AQIS shortly afterwards and the woman advised me that she would arrange a vial and reply-paid envelope to be mailed to me so I could sent the ant to AQIS for identification. About a week later, the package had not arrived and my captive had now laid eggs; tiny, shiny, translucent eggs, and she was fiercely protective of them. At least I knew now it was female because, of course, back then I didn't know that the vast majority of ants we come across are female. I called the woman who assured me the vial was on its way. I told her there were now eggs. I asked her how I was supposed to put the ant in the vial. Pickle her in metho? No, something much more straightforward: "Just pop her in the freezer and she'll go to sleep." I did just that and she did just that. Soon she and her eggs were frozen stiff.

The vial arrived and I posted the ant and her tiny, shiny, translucent eggs to AQIS using the reply-paid envelope and within a week or two I received an email. She was a native ant - a queen Camponotus consobrinus. Just a big, fat version of the banded sugar ants that were everywhere and anywhere. I mean, I knew queen ants existed... I had just never seen one before.

I think it's fitting now that one of my research species is Camponotus consobrinus. It feels like I've come almost full circle in the last seven years.

One of my  Camponotus consobrinus  queens |  David Elkins/Flickr  [used with permission]

One of my Camponotus consobrinus queens | David Elkins/Flickr [used with permission]

"The Red Centre: Man and Beast in the Heart of Australia" by H.H. Finlayson - a reflection and review

A Reflection and Review

A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to meet Prof Chris Dickman, who was visiting my university, and I secured about 30 minutes of his time to have a one-on-one chat. He also gave a seminar later that day, which I attended, and a group of us took him out for dinner that night.

The first time I came across his work was in a publication released by the Royal Zoological Society of NSW called Science Under Siege: Zoology Under Threat, which Chris co-edited and co-authored a few chapters for, including "Scientists facing a SLAPP: frivolous litigation stifles public comment" and the final chapter "Zoology under threat: a distressing case of science under siege."

The publication was released online (via open access) in November 2012, and I've read its 180+ from cover to cover, and re-read a few of the chapters that interest me most. As Graham R. Fulton put it is his review:

The authors and editors of this book are scientists - disgruntled ones. They are dismayed at attacks on their science and science in general; attacks that come from outside scientific circles and from outside evidence and reason. The critics are widespread and include: those attending rallies where books are burnt, shock jocks who vilify the science of climate change, politicians who ignore the conclusions and recommendations of good science to see their name against another headline, and anonymous others who make death threats against climate researchers. The scientists involved in the production of this book are drawn predominately from zoological backgrounds - writing and communicating are not skills new to them. The book presents the ideas expressed in talks and posters put forward at a forum in 2008. These talks were subsequently written up, polished and peer-reviewed before being published in November 2012.

I was half expecting Chris to be a grumpy old man, but the reality couldn't have been a stronger contrast. He was approachable and engaging and my nervousness upon meeting him immediately melted away. During our conversation, he talked about the first time him met Charles Krebs, who he somewhat idolised, and I had to stop myself from gushing that to me he was a zoological celebrity.

While we chatted, Chris also mentioned The Red Centre by H.H. Finlayson, and I tracked down and bought a second-hand copy online that very same day. It's a fantastic read and contains such gems as:

The traveller from Adelaide, for example, having cleared the Flinders Range, gazes out from the carriage window on the goat-made desolations which follow. He consults his time table, and, fining that this change from the parklands has been wrought in four hundred miles, and that the Alice is still six hundred miles away, does some mental arithmetic, and concludes that Hades itself awaits him.

Finlayson's prose is engaging and easy to read. It's not a very long book, but its 14 chapters manage to capture and do justice to the Luritja Country, the Ranges, the "Desert", the Tors, Animal Life (two chapters), the Black Man (three chapters), Caloprymnus, the Camel (two chapters), the Car, and the White Man.

The photographs are black and white and numerous and really add something to the experience of reading this book. You have to remember that when The Red Centre was first published in 1935, these photographs were the first (and possibly only) time many people both in Australia and overseas had ever seem ghost gums, giant spinifex, Ayers Rock, Mount Olga, a sand goanna, a bilby, a dunnart, a desert rat-kangaroo (Caloprymnus campestris, which is now extinct), or a potoroo.

A description of a 12-mile, three-horse desert rat-kangaroo chase.

A description of a 12-mile, three-horse desert rat-kangaroo chase.

The edition I have (1952) also includes a detailed map in the back of the book of the south western portion of Central Australia, which was complied by Finlayson himself using existing maps of the early explorers, official surveys, and Chewings, Madigan, Terry and Mackay. It also includes additional data along his own travelling routes.

Finlayson also writes about Australian Aborigines with a respect that was probably unusual for the era, and devotes three chapters to them. At his first reference to the "blackfellow", he includes a footnote disclaimer:

The absence from the literature of the subject and from general usage, of any name to comprehend the whole of the indigenous Australian people, is an embarrassment which leads to the adoption of such terms as this, which, however uncouth, are generally understood without ambiguity. A simple name, preferable derived from their own tongues, is much needed however. Over large portions of the interior the aboriginal distinguishes himself from the white man by the term "waddi" and this might perhaps serve as a name for the race.

All in all, if you can track down a copy of this now out of print book, I highly recommend that you read this masterpiece.

Inside the Dust Cover

This is a new edition (1952) of The Red Centre which, at its first publication (1935), proved to be one of the most interesting and informative books ever written about Australia, and which takes its place as an authoritative work on the geographical features, native inhabitants, and animals of the particular region with which it is concerned - south-western Central Australia.

The striking photographs which previously aroused so much interest are again reproduced. One reviewer wrote: "A feature of the book is its magnificent and educational series of full-page photographs that admirably reinforce the narrative." These photographs, selected with scientific and artistic care, are the work of the artist.

The chapters dealing with the animal life of the region provide some of the most interesting reading in the book. As Honorary Curator of Mammals in the South Australian Museum Mr Finlayson is an authority on the fauna of the Centre. His scientific knowledge and his observations are imparted with a clarity which satisfies the reader with a specialised interest. For a general reader the book is both entertaining and informative.

Hedley Herbert Finlayson (1985-1991)

Hedley Herbert Finlayson (1895-1991), mammalogist, was born on 19 March 1895 in Adelaide, South Australia, sixth of seven children of Ebenezer Finlayson, sharebroker, and his wife Finnetta, née Champion. Hedley attended Kyre (later Scotch) College, Unley, prior to enrolling in science at the University of Adelaide. An explosives accident in 1910 while he was a cadet in the chemical faculty injured his left hand and a more serious explosion in 1913 resulted in the loss of his left hand and right eye. Though he did not graduate, he was sufficiently well regarded to be appointed to the teaching staff of the university in 1914, working largely as a chemistry demonstrator until his retirement in 1958.

From as early as the 1920s Finlayson’s primary academic interest had shifted to Australian mammalogy. He was appointed honorary associate in Mammalia at the South Australian Museum in 1927 and its honorary curator of mammals in 1930, a post he held until 1965.

Finlayson travelled widely collecting Australian mammals, most notably in outback South Australia and the Northern Territory. In the period 1931-35 he privately financed four collecting expeditions to these regions during the height of summer over the long university break. Determined and capable, he also had the good fortune to be working at a time when many small- to medium-sized ground-dwelling desert mammals were still to be found, though much of his early success came from working with local pastoralists and Aboriginal people. When he returned to central Australia in the 1950s he found that many of the species he had collected in the 1930s had either declined or disappeared completely, including the desert rat kangaroo and lesser bilby. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Finlayson was one of the earliest advocates of the need for large conservation reserves in outback Australia.

The author of sixty-three scientific papers, the best known of which deal with the taxonomy and ecology of Australian mammals, Finlayson published his first paper in 1920 and the last in 1963; five appeared in Nature. An accomplished landscape and natural history photographer, Finlayson amassed approximately five thousand carefully annotated negatives, now housed in the Northern Territory Archives. His 1935 book, The Red Centre, a popular account of his work in Central Australia, has been reprinted eight times. Reflecting his great love of the inland deserts, it is a compelling evocation of inland Australia and its title has entered the lexicon of literature and the Australian travel industry.

For his scientific work Finlayson was awarded the Royal Society of South Australia’s Verco Medal in 1960 and, for his geographical research and writing, the John Lewis Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (South Australian Branch) in 1962.

Finlayson was a relatively tall man, strong and resourceful in the field, but he was always conscious of both his lack of formal qualifications and his physical disabilities. His private collecting, although self-funded and legitimate at the time for honorary associates and curators, led to some strains in his relationship with the South Australian Museum. Shortly before his death he arranged for much of his private mammal collection to be transferred to Alice Springs, where it is now housed in the Museum of Central Australia. His collection of meticulously registered specimens and his many published papers remain highly regarded by scientists.

Finlayson led a very private life and little is known of his close personal beliefs and values. A bachelor, he died on 29 July 1991 at North Adelaide and was cremated. His ashes were buried at the Mitcham General Cemetery in Adelaide.

Source: Australian Dictionary of Biography

"Lab Girl: A Story of Trees, Science and Love" by Hope Jahren - a reflection and review

A Reflection

Yesterday, I read the last couple of chapters of Lab Girl, which I've slowly been working my way through over the past few weeks. I've been chipping away at it one or two chapters at a time. It's the first book I've read strictly for pleasure in a very long time - mainly because I feel guilty if I'm not reading literature associated with my research - and what a pleasure it was! I didn't even feel guilty because it's partly educational. Even though it wasn't directly related to entomology, it was very much a book about being a scientist, a woman, a friend, a wife, a mother, and everything else that fits into my blog's "life in general" category.

I experienced the gamut of emotions while reading the book, but if I had to choose only one feeling to focus on it would have to be:


Jahren's roller-coaster ride through life is awe-inspiring but also made me hit my panic button as I mapped out my life thus far and the next few years. I get as far as 2020, however, and after that there is a great big question mark. I'll be 42 by the time (I think) I'll be finished my postgraduate research degree/s, which is perhaps fitting given that the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything is 42.

You see, I started on this science journey in 2010, at the age of 32, when I commenced my Bachelor of Zoology (Animal Ecology) undergraduate degree. I guess 10 years to a PhD, if everything goes according to plan, isn't too shabby - but it's the 14 years between leaving high school and starting on my path to entomology that I lament. I wish I had known sooner but hindsight has the benefit of having 20/20 vision. I just didn't know I wanted to embark on this science journey until I was in my early 30s.

And, if Jahren's memoir has reinforced one thing, it's that we have to be relentless in carving out our futures: digging away at materials that some days can feel like dry sand - always falling back in on us; or granite - almost impossible to chip away at, especially if we don't have the best tools for the job. Other days it can feel like clay or quicksand or molten rock, while some days - just some days - it can feel like the lightest, fluffiest soil that barely makes us break a sweat. Whatever metaphorical material we're carving our way through, though, there will always be something we can't shift and we'll just have to go around it, so the path isn't going to be a straight line.

As scientists, we not only have to work hard and prove our worth to what seems to be an increasingly scientifically-illiterate (or distrustful) public, we have to accept that the pool of research money is drying up more and more each year while, paradoxically, the number of scientists competing for that funding is only becoming bigger. Less money for more people.

And scientists are also real people, so we have all the other up and downs that life throws at us to deal with as well.

I wonder if I have it in me to be that relentless. I guess I just have to keep going, and maybe I'll run out of puff or maybe I won't.

Watch this space.

A Review

Jahren's engaging memoir not only allows us to ride along with her on her personal journey, it also allows us to appreciate the natural world though her eyes

Roots and leaves, wood and knots, flowers and fruit. These words may not light a fire in your belly, but they embody everything that makes Hope Jahren tick. As you read her words, you will be opened up to a world you have barely noticed before, and plants and all their parts will cease to be a quiet, green background to life - they will come to life with a mighty roar; their hopeful patience a lesson for us all.

Jahren's passion for the natural world is infectious and her sheer determination to establish and fund her own research laboratory is nothing short of inspiring. But her journey has been neither straight nor smooth, which is a lesson for us all. Her research has included plants both alive and long dead, and she has extracted information from their fossilised tissues to shed light on the environmental conditions that existed when they were living organisms. For those of you who are not familiar with the world of academia, however, the reality is that you may have to turn your hand to projects outside of your preferred area when research funding is scarce, and Jahren dabbled in forensic techniques on occasion, which is only one example of her uncanny ability to create her own opportunities. Scientists have to be flexible.

Her childhood was spent in rural Minnesota in a silent Scandinavian family:

When I was a child, I assumed that the whole world acted like we did, and so it confused me when I moved out of state and met people who effortlessly gave each other simple warmth and casual affection that I had craved for so long. I then had to learn to live in a world where when people don't talk to each other, it is because they don't know each other, not because they do.

From this silent beginning, though, Jahren paints a remarkable picture. Her father, a science teacher, lit the fire in her belly that set her on a path to becoming a scientist. His laboratory was her playground growing up, but she knew it wasn't filled with kids' toys - they were "serious things for grown ups", and as a child her father taught her how to pull things apart to see how they work and then put them back together again, "so that as they inevitably failed [she'd] be able to restore them". Science and play were intermingled. Jahren's mother, an English Literature graduate, instilled in her daughter a love of reading and writing, and this becomes evident from the first chapter of the memoir. Jahren's prose is almost poetic, and the way her words, sentences and paragraphs flow makes every chapter both instantly engaging and incredibly easy to absorb.

As I mentioned in my reflection above, scientists are also people, so Jahren's memoir is equal measure of science and humanity, and she has a distinctive way of writing about both. In one chapter we are engrossed as she explains the process of using the mass spectrometer as a scientific scale; in another she describes her battle with bipolar disorder in painfully exquisite detail. In one chapter she explains how plants transpire; in another she tells us about the birth of her son and how "a bucketful of now-useless placental chum" was afterwards massaged out of her abdomen.

Woven throughout her memoir is a sense of loneliness. Indeed, the life of a scientist can be somewhat lonely and, in Jahren's case, it appears to be a result of her sheer determination to set up her own research laboratory and fund it by constantly applying for grants. She sees it as her responsibility, along with educating and mentoring the members of her lab, and sometimes paying their salary. Not only do others depend on the success of her lab, she does as well because for her it is "home".

She is not alone, however. Early on we are introduced to Bill who becomes her lab manager. Bill is very much a central part of the memoir: he is there for every field trip, every lab experiment, every move to a new university. In his own quirky way, Bill provides support when things go wrong and when funding is scarce. It is a really beautiful relationship.

Also evident throughout the memoir is the challenge faced by Jahren of being a woman in science. While she doesn't dwell on it, the topic raises its head every now and then to remind us that - once again - scientists are real people and they feel emotion. She is surrounded by male colleagues and keenly feels the absence of female role models. When Jahren goes on medical leave due to complications while pregnant, her husband Clint passes on a message from her boss which effectively bans her from entering her own lab because of "some bullshit about liability and insurance". Feeling utterly betrayed by this second-hand news, Jahren hurls her empty coffee cup at the floor with all her strength.

It bounces on the carpet and does not break but instead rocks itself into a smug and leisurely sideways pose. In it I see yet more evidence of my powerlessness, even over things small and meaningless, and I sit down, put my head in my hands, and sob onto my desk.

That sense of betrayal and the death of their affection for that university would be the catalyst for Jahren and her husband gathering their loved ones and few belongings before moving to another university thousands of miles away, where she would have to build up her lab from zero.

Plants play a prominent roles and are interwoven throughout the memoir because not only are they important to Jahren, they are also important to all of us - whether or not we realise it. Plants dominate the Earth and, on land, the ratio of plant to animal life is about a thousand to one. If a central theme had to be identified, however, it is survival. Only five percent of seeds will ever germinate and, of these, only five percent will celebrate their first birthday. The odds are stacked against them from the beginning but, despite this, some grow to maturity and reproduce. Mirroring this to some extent is Jahren's roller-coatser ride through life and, despite her own set-backs, she also survives to fight another day for trees, for science, and for love.

Two nights in Dubbvegas and Rebecca Recommends #10

Some habits are more difficult to break than others. For example, I haven't blogged for almost three months but I still eat when I'm bored.

It has been a busy few months, though: school holidays in mid-July, our engagement party in late-July (my partner and I got engaged at the beginning of May, but the earliest we could celebrate with family and friends was almost three months later!), friends coming to stay for uni intensive schools throughout mid-August, preparing for my Confirmation of Candidature (a six-month milestone for postgraduate research students) at the end of August, travelling to Griffith with my partner to care for my mother for a week in mid-September - we just got through the floodwaters before the Newell Highway between Parkes and Forbes was closed only minutes later, literally - and then an unplanned (and expensive!) two-night pit stop in Dubbo (aka Dubbvegas) on the way home to replace the radiator in my car.

While on the subject of Dubbo, I can highly recommend Crowley's Automotive if you ever find yourself in need of mechanical help, but I would never stay at Quest Apartment Hotel ever again - I'd rather sleep under the nearby LH Ford Bridge beside the Macquarie River. It started out well enough - we checked-in early on a Sunday and were given an upgrade to a one-bedroom apartment as no studio apartments were ready, and I explained to the receptionist that we would probably need to stay a second night but had to wait for the mechanic's verdict on Monday morning, so would confirm around expected check-out time. She checked availability: "no problem". The following morning, the mechanic said he would let us know by 11:00 am at the latest with regard to sourcing a radiator overnight for my Honda MDX (no easy feat, by the way), so I popped down to reception and arranged a late check-out time and re-iterated that is was likely we'd have to stay another night: "no problem". We finally heard from the mechanic and a new radiator was on its way from Sydney and would arrive first thing Tuesday morning so, at 10:53 am, I advised reception that we would be requiring accommodation for another night only to be told: "Sorry, ma'am but all our rooms are booked." What the...? When I dared to challenge their lack of customer service, I was curtly informed (and this is the exact phrase): "We are in the business of selling hotel rooms." There was a half-hearted offer from the receptionist to browse the internet and find alternative accommodation on our behalf, which provoked in me a sudden urge to leap over the counter and punch him in the face, but I resisted and declined his offer and we found alternative accommodation ourselves. The good news was, the radiator did arrive early the following morning, thanks largely to the efforts of Patrick Crowley, and we were on the road again at lunch time and home in Armidale later that afternoon.

Oh, and while we were stuck in Dubbvegas, we had some great coffee at Press, some tasty fish and chips at the Milestone Hotel (and while my partner's steak was cooked perfectly to his liking the "beetroot relish" was nothing more than some mashed up beetroot), and truly amazing burgers at the Old Bank Restaurant. But the highlight had nothing to do with food: it was The Book Connection, Dubbo's independent family bookstore that boasts "books on a large range of subjects from agriculture to zoology". Need I say more? A picture speaks a thousands words, after all...

I want all the books.

I want all the books.

Yes, this blog may be titled Zoological Musings, but I've always promoted it as containing news from the zoological, entomological and sciences worlds, as well as life in general. That last paragraph was the "life in general" bit.

Now, onto the other stuff...

Trophy hunting of lions can conserve the species

One year after the worldwide controversy when an American dentist killed Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe, the DICE (the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology) team says hunting works but only when hunting companies are given long-term land management rights.

Cecil the lion |  Daughter#3 /Wikimedia Commons [   CC BY-SA 2.0   ]

Cecil the lion | Daughter#3/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 2.0]

Source/read more University of Kent

A new dragonfly species discovered in Brazil

Diogo Vilela and colleagues discovered a new species of dragonfly in the genus Erythrodiplax (Odonata: Libellulidae) in southwestern Brazil, and they described it in the journal Zootaxa. They started studying it in 2011 at a palm swamp area in Uberlândia, Minas Gerais State, and after comparing it with several species from the same genus, they confirmed in 2014 that it was new and started the description.

Source/read more Entomology Today

Fate of turtles and tortoises affected more by habitat than temperature

Habitat degradation poses a greater risk to the survival of turtles and tortoises than rising global temperatures, according to new research.

Source/read more University of Bristol

More than one in ten UK species threatened with extinction, new study finds

Climate change, urban expansion and agricultural intensification blamed for risk to some of Britain’s best loved species.

Water vole |  Peter G Trimming /Wikimedia Commons [   CC BY 2.0   ]

Water vole | Peter G Trimming/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.0]

Source/read more University of Exeter

Tsetse flies are strange and dangerous insects

Tsetse flies are the scourge of Central Africa. The flies are vectors for the disease nagana, also known as African animal trypanosomiasis (AAT), in wild and domestic animals, and a similar disease among humans that is known as sleeping sickness, or human African trypanosomiasis (HAT). The agents of the diseases are trypanosomes, protozoa that live within the tsetse fly. Parts of Africa are uninhabitable because of the presence of tsetse flies and their effects on people and livestock.

Source/read more Entomology Today

The moral cost of cats

Pete Marra is haunted by cats. He sees them everywhere: slinking down alleys, crouched under porches, glaring at him out of wild, starved eyes.

People assume that Marra, head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and author of the recent book Cat Wars, hates cats. This is not the case. “I love cats,” he says, calling them “fascinating, magnificent animals,” that seem to have a “freakish love for me.” He’s even considered a pet cat, despite being mildly allergic. “This is the thing people don’t realize,” Marra told me recently at a café near his office in Washington, D.C. “I’m both a wild animal advocate and a domestic animal advocate. If my mother thought I wasn’t supporting cats, she’d be flipping in her grave.”

Source/read more Smithsonian

Junkie ants show that insects can be addicts, too

The temporary euphoria associated with opioids comes at a steep price: heroin, oxycodone, opium, morphine and other painkilling drugs are some of the highly addictive culprits fueling the drug epidemic that is sweeping America. On average, opioids claim the lives of 78 people in the U.S. each day. Now, in a bid to understand more about substance abuse and how it affects people neurochemically, researchers are turning to some unlikely addicts: Ants.

Source/read more Smithsonian

What is a trophic cascade?

Emergence of the ‘trophic cascade’ concept was an important step toward the ways in which ecologists have come to view and understand the structure and dynamics of populations, communities, and ecosystems. The term has since resonated strongly with scientists, managers, and even the general public because of its relevance to a range of topics in theoretical and applied ecology, ecosystem management, and biological conservation [1, 2]. Yet, the term has also been variously defined (Box 1), thus resulting in an increasingly inconsistent usage, much as terms such as ‘habitat’ [3 and ‘keystone species’ [4 were loosely used in the past. Accordingly, the study of trophic cascades has come to an important juncture. The thrust to resolve mechanisms, to expand the spatial and temporal scales of analysis, and to broaden the number of studied systems and species considered, creates the need for a clear definition, from which testable criteria for trophic cascades follow. Our objective here is to advance a historically grounded definition that offers easy and consistent interpretation, thereby leading to more coherent conclusions from research and a broader utility of published research for scientists, managers, and the general public.

Trends in the Number of Articles Published on Trophic Cascades by Ecosystem Type. Around the turn of the 21st century, trophic cascades research shifted from being freshwater dominated to being dominated by studies in both terrestrial and marine systems. The articles counted in this figure are based on a Web of Science search for articles with topic (title, abstract, or keyword) ‘trophic cascade(s)’ published between 1965 and 2015. Each of the 2244 articles returned in this search was categorized according to ecosystem type using the article title, journal, and abstract. We used the ‘other’ category in cases when the ecosystem type was not clear, the article was purely theoretical, or the article covered multiple ecosystem types.

Trends in the Number of Articles Published on Trophic Cascades by Ecosystem Type. Around the turn of the 21st century, trophic cascades research shifted from being freshwater dominated to being dominated by studies in both terrestrial and marine systems. The articles counted in this figure are based on a Web of Science search for articles with topic (title, abstract, or keyword) ‘trophic cascade(s)’ published between 1965 and 2015. Each of the 2244 articles returned in this search was categorized according to ecosystem type using the article title, journal, and abstract. We used the ‘other’ category in cases when the ecosystem type was not clear, the article was purely theoretical, or the article covered multiple ecosystem types.

The call of the dung

Like many other insects, vinegar flies produce pheromones to call their conspecifics to an interesting food source. A research team of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany, demonstrated in a new study that the flies’ frass also contains these pheromones. Fruits that have been covered by the insects’ fecal excretions seem to be especially attractive to other flies. These fruits are probably a more easily digestible food after many flies have been feeding on them. The new results are a first step toward understanding the importance of feces in the communication of vinegar flies.

Source/read more Max-Planck-Gesellschaft

Eight new stiletto fly species discovered in Australia

Two new genera and eight new species of stiletto flies have been discovered in Australia, and are described in the journal ZooKeys.

Adult male  Zelothrix yeatesi  sp. n.; Warrumbungle National Park, New South Wales |  Shaun L. Winterton /ZooKeys

Adult male Zelothrix yeatesi sp. n.; Warrumbungle National Park, New South Wales | Shaun L. Winterton/ZooKeys

Source/read more Entomology Today

Is it too late to save Red Sea sharks?

As the first known person to dive into several coral systems in the Red Sea, Julia Spaet expected to encounter some surprises. Over several years, she sighted dolphins, rays, moray eels, sea turtles, loads of fish and the most colorful smattering of coral species she’d ever witnessed. But the most surprising thing was what she didn’t see: sharks.

Source/read more Smithsonian

Wildlife monitoring: Lure gamers into citizen science

Ecologists who are interested in using Pokémon Go to find new species (see Nature 535, 323–324 (2016) and F. de Oliveira Roque Nature 537, 34; 2016) could also adopt the gameplay concept to set up wildlife-monitoring schemes that are fun for the public.

Source/read more Nature

Science and inequality

A special issue of Nature explores the study of inequality, and how socio-economic divides affect the science workforce.

Source/read more Nature

Australian tree range threatened

Climate change could shrink the geographic range of most of Australia's eucalyptus species within the next 60 years.

Source/read more Nature

Climate change and ecological science

One dominant paradigm of the ecological literature at the present time is what I would like to call the Climate Change Paradigm. Stated in its clearest form, it states that all temporal ecological changes now observed are explicable by climate change. The test of this hypothesis is typically a correlation between some event like a population decline, an invasion of a new species into a community, or the outbreak of a pest species and some measure of climate. Given clever statistics and sufficient searching of many climatic measurements with and without time lags, these correlations are often sanctified by p< 0.05. Should we consider this progress in ecological understanding?

Source/read more Ecological Rants

Gut bacteria explain insects’ tolerance to a toxic diet

Scientists at the Universitat de València’s Cavanilles Institute have studied the microbial communities of toxic plant feeders in the Albufera lake in Valencia, Spain. Aside from explaining the insects’ tolerance to a toxic diet, their findings may have applications in bioremediation: a waste management technique that involves the use of organisms to remove or neutralise pollutants from a contaminated materials.

Source/read more R&I World

Plectocarpon lichenum

Lichens can be found all over the world, even in the most barren and inhospitable environments (even near active volcanoes). They grow on exposed surface like moss, but they are very different to those plants. Lichens are the outcome of a highly successful conglomerate resulting from the fusion of a pair of very different lineages of fungi combined with a photosynthetic alga. Together they form a beneficial tripartite that has allowed lichen to colonise environments all over the globe.

Source/read more Parasite of the Day

Effect of some honeybee diseases on seasonal mortality of Apis mellifera intermissa in Algeria apiaries

With a view to identify the pathogens and to establish the role of these pathogens in regulation of the density of honey bee population occurring in the apiaries of the area concerned samples of honeybee were collected from the beekeepers in some parts of central Algeria It is revealed that Nosema sp., Varroa destrutor, Peanibacillus larvae are associated with the disease manifestation in honey bees. The presence of Nosema sp., Varroa destrutor, Peanibacillus larvae was analyzed using standard OIE methods. Spores of Paenibacillus larvae were detected in 56.6 % in winter 52.32 % in spring. 29.33 % in autumn and 11.25 % in summer. Nosema infestation was recorded in 47.91 % bee individuals during spring. Varroa infestation rate was maximum 12.57 % in summer and lowest 3.44 % in spring. Analysis of data indicates that Boumerdes and Tipaza, diseases induced mortality exceeds 10 % in honeybee. There exists a significant correlation between Nosema disease and mortalities in honeybees. Seasons play significant role, irrespective of pathogens, in disease manifestation.

How the Australian galah got its name in a muddle

Galahs are the pink and grey cockatoos that are one of the most familiar of all Australian birds. They’ve been at the centre of a curious debate: what should their scientific name really be?

It’s a tale that spans centuries and continents, and has clues hidden in museums, diaries of 19th century travellers and evolution’s own diary of DNA sequences.

When biologists formally publish a scientific description of a new species, they give it a unique scientific name that is forever linked to a single, preserved specimen in a natural history collection. This specimen is known as the holotype.

The galah’s scientific name is Eolophus roseicapilla. Its holotype was collected in Australia in 1801 by biologists on the Expedition led by France’s Nicolas Baudin and is held in the Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle, in Paris.

Galah |  Richard Taylor /Wikimedia Commons [  CC BY 2.0  ]

Galah | Richard Taylor/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.0]

Source/read more CSIRO

It’s not all about tigers and criminals – illegal wildlife trade responses need nuance

Responses to illegal wildlife trade need to be more nuanced and not only focused on high-profile species if we are to truly tackle the problem, say researchers.

Across the globe, the illegal wildlife trade threatens thousands of species, including fish, fungi and plants, along with the more familiar ‘charismatic’ animals such as tigers, rhinoceroses and elephants.

Despite widespread recognition of the problem, science and policy has concentrated on a few high-profile species.

Source/read more Lancaster University

Edible crickets can be reared on weeds and cassava plant tops

To become a sustainable alternative to meat, reared crickets must be fed feeds other than the chicken feed that is most commonly used today. Researchers from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences now present a study which shows that there are weeds and agricultural by-products that actually work as single ingredients in feeds for crickets. The study was conducted in Cambodia, where many children suffer from malnutrition and where the need for cheap protein is large.

Survival in crickets fed chicken feed or one of twelve weeds, agricultural and food industry by-products for 70 days. The twelve treatments were single product diets. Standard error was for cassava tops 5.6, chicken feed 5.7,  Cleome rutidosperma  5.0,  Cleome viscosa  3.5,  Synedrela nodiflora  4.1, residue from mungbean sprout production 5.2,  Commelina benghalensis  4.2, spent grain 6.1, water spinach 4.2, rice bran 4.2,&nbsp;  Boerhavia diffusa  2.5,  Alternanthera sessilis  8.1 and  Amaranthus spinosus  3.4.

Survival in crickets fed chicken feed or one of twelve weeds, agricultural and food industry by-products for 70 days. The twelve treatments were single product diets. Standard error was for cassava tops 5.6, chicken feed 5.7, Cleome rutidosperma 5.0, Cleome viscosa 3.5, Synedrela nodiflora 4.1, residue from mungbean sprout production 5.2, Commelina benghalensis 4.2, spent grain 6.1, water spinach 4.2, rice bran 4.2,  Boerhavia diffusa 2.5, Alternanthera sessilis 8.1 and Amaranthus spinosus 3.4.

How natural selection acted on one penguin species over the past quarter century

Biologists of all stripes attest to evolution, but have debated its details since Darwin’s day. Since changes arise and take hold slowly over many generations, it is daunting to track this process in real time for long-lived creatures.

Source/read more University of Washington

Three-Minute Thesis Competition at the University of New England, Armidale

For me, it’s important that I can clearly see the relevance and application of what my research is aiming to achieve – the bigger picture, so to speak.

It may seem ironic then that I’m studying a family of animals that can often only be identified to species level using a microscope – ants!

E. O. Wilson has done for myrmecology what Sir David Attenborough has done for natural history, but many of you may not know who he is.

Wilson coined the phrase “the little things that run the world” and wrote perhaps one of the most sobering paragraphs I’ve ever read. You can read it yourself below.

These 46 words have cemented my decision to undertake a Masters research project about the impact a novel or warmer environment might have on ant nest development and, by extension, on the ant-mediated ecosystem services and disservices provided by native and invasive species.

Broadly, ants provide a range of benefits, such as provisioning, regulating, cultural, and supporting services, including soil structure and aeration, nutrient cycling, seed dispersal, decomposition, and they are also useful as bioindicators.

But ants – especially invasive species – can also have negative impacts on human health, our food, our plants and crops, infrastructure, native ants, other invertebrate taxa, vertebrates, seed dispersal, and soil properties.

These little critters are toiling away under our feet, in our walls, in our sugar bowls, all in the face of climate change, and I don’t think we – as in the human species – quite understand what services we stand to lose and what disservices we might unwittingly gain.

I don’t propose to answer all of these questions – I’m only one person after all – but through my research I hope to bring more attention to these issues, starting with a field transplant experiment, where we are going to relocate native meat ant colonies from the New England region into hotter-wetter and hotter-drier climates along a new east-west transect from Coffs Harbour to the Warrumbungles.

We also aim to do the same along the North Australian Tropical Transect, an established north-south transect that is part of the national Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network.

From these experiments, I hope to gather information about how our translocated meat ants compete for resources with local populations of meat ants, as well as other species that may be present, both native and invasive. We’re also planning to measure ant metabolic rates – apparently it can be done – and I hoping to be able to tell you all about it at the next Three-Minute Thesis competition.

Cold or 'flu??? Plus, Rebecca Recommends #9

I'm one of those people who cringes when I hear people say "I've got the flu" when, really, they've got a common cold. Firstly, it's not the flu, it's just 'flu or even the 'flu virus if you really insist on using the "the" word. Secondly, the influenza virus and the common cold virus are two different things.

Over the years I've suffered countless colds, some years more than others, and particularly when I became a stepmother to two boys - one in primary school and one in preschool. It's only taken me about three or four years to not contract every single sniffle the kids come home with! For me, the common cold usually starts with a scratchy throat - right up behind my nose - which gets progressively worse until it feels like it's on fire, then the blocked nose and headaches start before it finishes in my chest. Pretty standard.

But I've had 'flu only three times in my 38 years that I recall - once in high school when I was about 15 years old, another time when I was in my mid-20s, and most recently just last month. The first time, I had no idea what was happening; I was shivering so much and couldn't stop and was bed-ridden for a number of days. The second time I was at a friend's wedding and had to be driven home because I felt so unwell; I recall trying to repeatedly telephone my mother and sister because I was convinced I was dying. The third time I remember vividly: hallucinations, chills, sweats, fevers, joint aches, five days in bed, and asking my partner to come home from work to check on me because I felt so terrible. All three times the onset was very sudden. In hindsight, I might say that I felt lethargic the day before, but once the symptoms started they just snowballed.

Influenza virus, magnified approximately 100,000 times | [public domain]

Influenza virus, magnified approximately 100,000 times | [public domain]

Why am I telling you all of this? Well, I was sick with 'flu so I missed a couple of editions of Rebecca Recommends, so here is the next installment...

In this edition, for the entophiles, insect camouflage; Asian tiger mosquitoes; honeybee circadian rhythms; bee condos; insect consciousness; insects of south-eastern Australia; Australian longhorn beetles; the similarities between bee and mammal social organisation; the Emerald Valley; and (for some great photos) midsummer in a German Forest.

What about penguins? If you like penguins, I've curated three stories for you about the world's first successful artificial insemination; how climate change in Antarctica affecting Adélie penguins; and "shooting" penguins to save them.

Sticking with the watery theme, if you love sharks you should check out Sharks and Humans: A Love-Hate Story from Smithsonian. Also from Smithsonian, protecting the Amazon's biodiversity; the past, present and future of agriculture; readers' questions answered; and plastic is forever.

CSIRO Publishing's journal, Wildlife Research, has some great, thought-provoking articles worthy of further investigation including:

  • Successional changes in feeding activity by threatened cockatoos in revegetated mine sites
  • Priorities for management of chytridiomycosis in Australia: saving frogs from extinction
  • Identification of kill sites from GPS clusters for jaguars (Panthera onca) in the southern Pantanal, Brazil
  • Fire and grass cover influence occupancy patterns of rare rodents and feral cats in a mountain refuge: implications for management
  • Control of the red fox in remnant forest habitats
  • Brown hyena population explosion: rapid population growth in a small, fenced system
  • An assessment of animal welfare for the culling of peri-urban kangaroos
  • A review of biodiversity outcomes from possum-focused pest control in New Zealand

Then there are two interesting articles from Nature about interdisciplinary science, as well as articles about junior researchers, Dolly the sheep, and the Devils Hole pupfish. And, rounding off a big week: the northern hopping-mouse, coexisting with large carnivores, and science communication.

Insects were already using camouflage 100 million years ago

Those who go to a masked ball consciously slip into a different role, in order to avoid being recognized so quickly. Insects were already doing something very similar in the Cretaceous: They cloaked themselves in pieces of plants, grains of sand, or the remains of their prey, in order, for example, to be invisible to predators. An international research team, with participation from the University of Bonn, has now investigated such "invisibility cloaks" encased in amber. The custom-tailored "costumes" also permit conclusions about the habitat at the time. The results have now been published in the journal "Science Advances".

Source/read more University of Bonn 

Free Articles Provide Insight on the Asian Tiger Mosquito, Aedes albopictus

This week is National Mosquito Control Awareness Week, and the Entomological Society of America is supporting the effort with a special collection of articles about the Asian tiger mosquito.

Aedes albopictus  |&nbsp; James Gathany/Wikimedia  Commons [public domain]

Aedes albopictusJames Gathany/Wikimedia Commons [public domain]

Source/read more Entomology Today 

World's first successful artificial insemination of southern rockhopper penguin

DNA tests have confirmed that one of the three southern rockhopper penguin chicks born at Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan between June 4 and 6 was conceived through artificial insemination. This is the result of a project led by Kaiyukan with the collaboration of Associate Professor KUSUNOKI Hiroshi (Kobe University Graduate School of Agricultural Science). It is the world’s first successful case of a southern rockhopper penguin being conceived through artificial insemination.

Rockhopper penguins |  Chris Huh/Wikimedia Commons  [ CC BY-SA 4.0 ]

Source/read more Kobe University 

Honeybee circadian rhythms are affected more by social interactions

Field study shows for the first time that social time cues override influence of light and darkness in regulating the natural body clock of honeybees, highlighting the complexity of clock regulation in natural habitat.

Source/read more The Hebrew University of Jerusalem 

Controlling the Asian Tiger Mosquito, a Potential Zika Vector, is Possible but Difficult

Is there a tiger lurking in your neighborhood? The Asian tiger mosquito, Aedes albopictus, is spreading in the U.S. and its preferred habitat is urban and suburban areas. Unfortunately Ae. albopictus is not simply a nuisance at backyard barbecues — the mosquito is a potential vector for Zika as well as other viruses which pose serious health threats. And many of the techniques that we have successfully used to control other species of mosquitoes are ineffective against Ae. albopictus. U.S. mosquito control programs need to adopt a new toolkit, and fast.

Source/read more Entomology Today 

More Drama at the Bee Block

I was going to write at some point about how one of the other benefits of putting up a bee block ("bee condo") for solitary bees and wasps is that their parasites have a harder time finding them there than in a more natural situation. Well, last week I was proven completely wrong about that. On the positive side, I identified two new tenants in the block in our backyard.

Source/read more Bug Eric 

Penguin population could drop 60 percent by end of the century

It’s a big question: how is climate change in Antarctica affecting Adélie penguins?

Climate has influenced the distribution patterns of Adélie penguins across Antarctica for millions of years. The geologic record tells us that as glaciers expanded and covered Adélie breeding habitats with ice, penguin colonies were abandoned. When the glaciers melted during warming periods, this warming positively affected the Adélie penguins, allowing them to return to their rocky breeding grounds.

But now, University of Delaware scientists and colleagues report that this beneficial warming may have reached its tipping point.

Source/read more University of Delaware 

Sharks and Humans: A Love-Hate Story

If you’ve watched Jaws or the newly released shark thriller The Shallows lately, you’d be forgiven for considering sharks as the universal symbol of human fear. Actually, our relationship with these ancient predators is long and complex: sharks are revered as gods in some cultures, while in others they embody terror of the sea. In honor of Shark Week, the Smithsonian’s Ocean Portal team decided to show how sharks have sunk their teeth into almost every aspect of our lives.

Watson and the Shark (1776) |&nbsp;John Singleton/National Gallery of Art

Watson and the Shark (1776) | John Singleton/National Gallery of Art

Source/read more Smithsonian 

Shooting Penguins in the Falkland Islands to Save Them

Its unmistakable shape and crisp color scheme make the penguin one of nature’s most effective ambassadors — a fact not lost on Neil Ever Osborne, whose photograph of king penguins in the Falkland Islands emphasizes the sinuous lines and sculptural form of this second-largest penguin species. “My primary focus was the geometry of these animals,” Osborne says. This colony of kings, which the Toronto-based photographer visited at the height of breeding season in February, exists at the northern extreme of the species’ range, where warming oceans threaten the krill that form the base of the marine food chain — and thus threaten the penguins, which mostly eat fish. Osborne is planning a speaking tour with the photos to spur conservation efforts. The scientific argument for tempering our impact on the planet is crucial, he says, but he prefers reaching out “in a way that’s less about statistics and pie charts...and more about heartbeats and goosebumps.”

Source/read more Smithsonian 

Interdisciplinary research has consistently lower funding success

Interdisciplinary research is widely considered a hothouse for innovation, and the only plausible approach to complex problems such as climate change. One barrier to interdisciplinary research is the widespread perception that interdisciplinary projects are less likely to be funded than those with a narrower focus.

Source/read more Nature 

Junior researchers: Fewer papers would scotch early careers

Daniel Sarewitz argues that the pressure to publish is fuelling irreproducibility, but we disagree that the solution is to publish fewer papers (Nature 533, 147; 2016). In today's competitive arena, asking this of scientists — particularly junior ones — is to ask them to fall on their swords.

Source/read more Nature 

Dolly at 20: The inside story on the world’s most famous sheep

From incubation in a bra to an afterlife under glass, how a cloned sheep attained celebrity status.

Source/read more Nature 

When pupfish got to Devils Hole

A rare fish species living in an isolated cavern pool probably originated when the cavern first opened to the surface around 60,000 years ago.

Devils Hole, Death Valley NP, Nevada |  Ken Lund/Wikimedia Commons  [ CC BY-SA 2.0 ]

Devils Hole, Death Valley NP, Nevada | Ken Lund/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 2.0]

Source/read more Nature 

Meet the challenge of interdisciplinary science

To tackle society’s challenges through research requires the engagement of multiple disciplines.

Source/read more Nature 

Unfortunately, Reducing Deforestation Isn’t Enough To Protect Amazon Biodiversity

Forest loss in the Amazon continues, but over the last decade, it has largely been slowing down in Brazil. That may seem like a win for the region’s unique biodiversity, but simply halting deforestation won’t be enough to stem the loss in species, a new study in Nature contends. That’s because human disturbance — such as wildfires and selective logging, which can continue even when clearcutting stops — have an outsized impact on biodiversity loss, the study finds.

Source/read more Smithsonian 

The Past, Present and Future of Agriculture

Modern American supermarkets are filled with a dizzying array of products, ranging from ultra-processed to freshly picked.  But even as grocery stores in remote areas are beginning to sell exotic produce from halfway around the world, an increasing amount of our calories are coming from a smaller number of crops, staples like wheat, rice, and corn.

Source/read more Smithsonian 

What's the Difference Between Invasive and Nonnative Species? Plus, More Questions From Our Readers

The distinction between native and nonnative species does not disappear over time; if a plant or animal was introduced with human help, according to the Department of Agriculture, it is nonnative. There’s also a crucial distinction between nonnative species and invasive ones, notes Vicki Funk, senior research botanist and curator at the Museum of Natural History. To be considered invasive, a nonnative animal or plant species has to displace one or more natives. Chicory, introduced from Europe as a flavoring agent in the 19th century, grows wild in the United States but does not displace native plants; but kudzu, introduced from Asia for erosion control in the mid-20th-century South, does, and is considered therefore invasive.

Source/read more Smithsonian 

Do Insects Have Consciousness?

Amid the usual parade of creeping horrors — super lice, mayfly plagues and a “troll-haired insect discovered in remote Suriname” — the exterminator news site PestWeb recently shared a piece of unsettling intelligence.

“Insects Have Consciousness, Self-Awareness and Egos,” the headline read.

Source/read more Smithsonian 

Successional changes in feeding activity by threatened cockatoos in revegetated mine sites

Provision of key habitat resources is essential for effectively managing species that have specific ecological requirements and occur in production landscapes. Threatened black cockatoos in the jarrah (Eucalyptus marginata) forest of Western Australia have a wide range, so their conservation requires support from all land tenures, not just reserves. Mining in the jarrah forest temporarily removes cockatoo feeding habitat, so it is important to understand how cockatoos exploit revegetated areas for food resources.

Source/read more Wildlife Research 

Priorities for management of chytridiomycosis in Australia: saving frogs from extinction

To protect Australian amphibian biodiversity, we have identified and prioritised frog species at an imminent risk of extinction from chytridiomycosis, and devised national management and research priorities for disease mitigation. Six Australian frogs have not been observed in the wild since the initial emergence of chytridiomycosis and may be extinct.

Source/read more Wildlife Research 

Identification of kill sites from GPS clusters for jaguars (Panthera onca) in the southern Pantanal, Brazil

Understanding predator–prey relationships is important for making informed management decisions. Knowledge of jaguar (Panthera onca) predation on livestock and native prey is imperative for future conservation of jaguars in Central and South America.

Panthera onca  | [public domain]

Panthera onca | [public domain]

Source/read more Wildlife Research 

Fire and grass cover influence occupancy patterns of rare rodents and feral cats in a mountain refuge: implications for management

Feral cats (Felis catus) are implicated in the ongoing decline of Australian mammals. New research from northern Australia suggests that predation risk from feral cats could be managed by manipulating fire regimes to increase grass cover.

Source/read more Wildlife Research 

Control of the red fox in remnant forest habitats

The European red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is subject to control by poison baiting in many parts of its range in Australia to protect both native and domestic species. Assessments of baiting programs can improve their effectiveness and help ensure that long-term control outcomes are achieved.

Source/read more Wildlife Research 

Brown hyena population explosion: rapid population growth in a small, fenced system

In the past 200 years, many carnivores have experienced a widespread decline in numbers and range reductions. Conservation interventions include the use of small, fenced reserves that have potential restoration benefits for conservation. Over the past 25 years, the Eastern Cape province of South Africa has seen the establishment of many small (≤440 km2) game reserves, and the reintroduction of the larger, indigenous wildlife that had been extirpated by the early 20th century, including brown hyenas (Hyaena brunnea). These game reserves have restored the environment to a more natural state but little information exists concerning the benefits and implications of introducing elusive animals that are seldom seen after reintroduction. Fenced reserves have the potential to provide surplus animals that can be relocated for restoration purposes (where applicable) or serve as a buffer to the extinction of naturally occurring populations, but careful management is required to monitor populations appropriately, so as to avoid the costs of rapid population increase.

Source/read more Wildlife Research 

An assessment of animal welfare for the culling of peri-urban kangaroos

Shooting is used to reduce the abundance of kangaroo (Macropus sp.) populations in many peri-urban areas in Australia, but there is uncertainty surrounding the animal welfare outcomes of this practice.

Source/read more Wildlife Research 

A review of biodiversity outcomes from possum-focused pest control in New Zealand

Worldwide, introduced vertebrate pests impact primary production, native biodiversity, and human health. In New Zealand, extensive pest control (~10 million ha) is undertaken to protect native biota and to prevent losses to the primary sector from wildlife vectors of bovine tuberculosis (TB), primarily possums (Trichosurus vulpecula). 

Source/read more Wildlife Research 

BOOK - Insects of South-Eastern Australia: An Ecological and Behavioural Guide

A walk in the bush reveals insects visiting flowers, patrolling the air, burrowing under bark and even biting your skin. Every insect has characteristic feeding preferences and behaviours. Insects of South-Eastern Australia is a unique field guide that uses host plants and behavioural attributes as the starting point for identifying insects. Richly illustrated with colour photographs, the different species of insects found in Australia’s temperate south-east, including plant feeders, predators, parasites and decomposers, are presented.

Source/read more CSIRO Publishing 

BOOK - Australian Longhorn Beetles (Coleoptera: Cerambycidae) Volume 2: Subfamily Cerambycinae

Longhorn Beetles — Cerambycidae are one of the most easily recognised groups of beetles, a family that worldwide encompasses over 33 000 species in 5200 genera. With over 1400 species classified in 300 genera, this is the sixth largest among 117 beetle families in Australia.

Source/read more CSIRO Publishing 

Ecology and conservation of the northern hopping-mouse (Notomys aquilo)

The northern hopping-mouse (Notomys aquilo) is a cryptic and enigmatic rodent endemic to Australia’s monsoonal tropics. Focusing on the insular population on Groote Eylandt, Northern Territory, we present the first study to successfully use live traps, camera traps and radio-tracking to document the ecology of N. aquilo.

Source/read more Australian Journal of Zoology 

Plastic is Forever: The Art of Mass Consumption

This July 3 marks International Plastic Bag Free Day, a global event organized by Zero Waste Europe and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives dedicated to the reduction of single-use bags. But for photographer Chris Jordan, every day is an opportunity to spread awareness about the devastating impacts of disposable plastics. For the past decade, Jordan has dedicated his photography career to making abstract stories of environmental degradation visceral.

A gutted albatross at Midway Island | Chris Jordan

A gutted albatross at Midway Island | Chris Jordan

Source/read more Smithsonian 

Co-Adaptation Is Key to Coexisting with Large Carnivores

There is a pressing need to integrate large carnivore species into multi-use landscapes outside protected areas. However, an unclear understanding of coexistence hinders the realization of this goal. Here, we provide a comprehensive conceptualization of coexistence in which mutual adaptations by both large carnivores and humans have a central role.

Source/read more Trends in Ecology & Evolution 

Coexistence with Large Carnivores Informed by Community Ecology

Conserving predators on an increasingly crowded planet brings very difficult challenges. Here, we argue that community ecology theory can help conserve these species in human-dominated landscapes. Letting humans and predators share the same landscapes is similar to maintaining a community of predatory species, one of which is humans.

Source/read more Trends in Ecology & Evolution 

Science Communication Through Art: Objectives, Challenges, and Outcomes

The arts are becoming a favored medium for conveying science to the public. Tracking trending approaches, such as community-engaged learning, alongside challenges and goals can help establish metrics to achieve more impactful outcomes, and to determine the effectiveness of arts-based science communication for raising awareness or shaping public policy.

Source/read more Trends in Ecology & Evolution 

Similarities found in bee and mammal social organisation

New research shows similarities in the social organisation of bees and mammals, and provides insight into the genetics of social behavior for other animals. These findings, published in PLOS Computational Biology, use sociogenomics - a field that explores the relationship between social behaviour and the genome - to show strong similarities in socially genetic circuits common in honey bees and mammals.

Source/read more PLOS 

Emerald Valley, 2016

For several years now, Heidi and I have been making an annual pilgrimage to Emerald Valley, which lies in the northwest corner of Cheyenne Mountain here in El Paso County, Colorado, and at over 7,500 ft. in elevation. Every third or fourth Monday in June, weather and Old Stage Road conditions permitting, we have joined or led the Aiken Audubon Society outing affectionately titled "Blooms, Birds, and Butterflies.” They added “bugs” when I came along in 2012.

Source/read more Bug Eric 

Midsummer week in a NW German forest

After growing up with camera in hand since I was 4 years old, I discovered insect photography while I was still in high school in Dortmund, Germany. I bought what was then professional quality equipment: A nice Canon A1 SLR and the 100 mm dedicated Canon macro lens. Then I spent most of my money from allowance and working at a book store on slide film. I sold some images to nature magazines and gave slide talks at the zoo and our birding group. So I thought a lot of my slides.

Source/read more Arizona: Beetles, Bugs, Birds and more 

Rebecca Recommends #8

This week's edition of Rebecca Recommends is a big one because it's actually two weeks' worth of news from the world of zoology, entomology, science and life in general. I'm fairly certain there will be something for everyone in this collection:

  • Primo Levi on the spiritual value of science and how space exploration brings humanity closer together
  • Equipping eco-guards in the Dja reserve
  • Sharing traditional knowledge to protect farmland from climate effects
  • Hope spots: an actionable plan to save the ocean
  • Marine ecologists take to the skies to study coral reefs
  • Onlookers boost mouse chatter
  • Dark satanic wings
  • The man who can map the chemicals all over your body
  • Science illustration: picture perfect
  • Butterflies: change of identity is not in the air
  • Elephant poaching: track the impact of Kenya's ivory burn
  • A young kissing bug doesn't need much
  • Eight Illinois wasp and bee mimics in twenty minutes
  • Strange behaviour explained (sort of)
  • What’s life like on an RV Investigator voyage?
  • The ecology of sex explains patterns of helping in arthropod societies
  • The world’s deepest flying insect lives in complete darkness with no food or sex
  • Harvester ants have a taste for exotic seeds
  • Where do shield-back katydids fit within the katydid evolutionary tree?
  • Comparative assessment of metrics for monitoring the body condition of polar bears in western Hudson Bay
  • The rise of ocean optimism
  • Podcast: how humans caused mass extinctions thousands of years ago
  • The lost opportunity cost of overcommitment 
  • Why not double-blind grant reviews?
  • Slow conservation
  • Effects of inertial power and inertial force on bat wings
  • What are head cavities? A history of studies on vertebrate head segmentation
  • Vladimir Nabokov's butterfly art – in pictures
  • Zoo news: this month's animal antics from round the globe – in pictures
  • Australia’s egg-laying mammals provide clues to our earliest ancestor
  • Is burning poached ivory good for elephants?
  • Harbour porpoises are skilled hunters and eat almost constantly
  • Hydropower dams worldwide cause continued species extinction
  • Dancing hairs alert bees to floral electric fields
  • Stick insects produce bacterial enzymes themselves
  • The mysterious sexual life of the most primitive dragonfly
  • More than just hippos and crocs: the hidden biodiversity of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park
  • Roads “a serious threat” to rare bats
  • Pandas don’t like it hot: temperature, not food is biggest concern for conservation
  • Marine invertebrate larvae actively respond to their surroundings


Primo Levi on the Spiritual Value of Science and How Space Exploration Brings Humanity Closer Together

“It seems that in a few days common consciousness has changed, as always happens after a qualitative leap: you tend to forget the cost, the effort, the risks and sacrifices. They were there undoubtedly, and they were enormous: nevertheless, today we still ask ourselves whether it was “money well spent.” We can see it today, and yesterday we could see it less well: the enterprise was not to be judged on a utilitarian scale, or not chiefly in those terms. In the same way, an inquiry into the costs encountered in building the Parthenon would seem jarringly out of place; it is typical of man to act in an inspired and complex manner, perhaps adding up the costs beforehand, but not confining himself to the pure, imminent, or distant advantage, to take off for remote goals, with aims that are justification in themselves: to act in order to challenge a secret, enlarge his frontiers, express himself, test himself.”
Primo Levi c. 1950s | [public domain]

Primo Levi c. 1950s | [public domain]

Source/read more Brain Pickings 

Equipping eco-guards in the Dja reserve

New techniques implemented by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) have increased prosecutions for poaching in the Dja Biosphere Reserve in Cameroon, writes Paul de Ornellas of the Zoological Society of London, a grantee with IUCN’s SOS – Save Our Species initiative.

Source/read more IUCN 

Sharing traditional knowledge to protect farmland from climate effects

West African farmers are losing productive land as reduced rainfall and rising sea levels contribute to growing land salinisation and drought. An IUCN-facilitated exchange has enabled farmers from Burkina Faso and Senegal to pool their traditional knowledge as they try to adapt to these climatic changes, writes IUCN’s Fabiola Monty.

Source/read more IUCN 

Hope spots: an actionable plan to save the ocean

The immense problems facing the ocean often leave us feeling powerless. But what if there was a concrete, actionable strategy to nurse the ocean back to health? Dr. Sylvia Earle argues that there is. As a result, Mission Blue and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) are opening up nominations for ‘Hope Spots’ – marine areas in a network targeted for enhanced protection that are critical to the health of the ocean.

Source/read more IUCN 

Marine ecologists take to the skies to study coral reefs

Eric Hochberg has studied coral reefs for two decades, but the marine ecologist is about to see them in a fresh light. Beginning on 6 June, Hochberg and his colleagues will use a specially outfitted NASA aeroplane to map the spectra of sunlight reflecting off reefs spread across the Pacific Ocean far below. The scientists aim to tease out the spectral signatures of coral, algae and sand — and to check the health of the reefs.

Source/read more Nature 

Onlookers boost mouse chatter

Male mice communicate more in front of an audience than when they are alone.

Source/read more Nature 

Dark satanic wings

Not for nothing was the region of the English midlands north of Birmingham called the Black Country during the late nineteenth century. It was the dark polluted heart of the industrial revolution, according to a railway guide from 1851:

“The pleasant green of pastures is almost unknown, the streams, in which no fishes swim, are black and unwholesome; the natural dead flat is often broken by high hills of cinders and spoil from the mines; the few trees are stunted and blasted; no birds are to be seen, except a few smoky sparrows; and for miles on miles a black waste spreads around, where furnaces continually smoke, steam engines thud and hiss, and long chains clank, while blind gin-horses walk their doleful round.”

Source/read more Nature 

The man who can map the chemicals all over your body

Apart from the treadmill desk, Pieter Dorrestein's office at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), is unremarkable: there is a circular table with chairs around it, bookshelves lined with journals, papers and books, and a couple of plaques honouring him and his work.

Source/read more Nature 

Science illustration: Picture perfect

On canvas, a 390-million-year-old forest springs to life. Massive tree trunks jut into a sunlit clearing from a crowded forest floor. Stubby green branches battle with frilly leaf-like filaments to touch the pink-tinged sky. Palaeobotanist Chris Berry had worked for years with samples from the Gilboa Fossil Forest in New York, but had never before seen what the living forest might have looked like so many millennia ago.

Left: Frank Mannolini/New York State Museum. Right: Victor Leshyk. Scientific illustrator Victor Leshyk used a sketch from researchers (left) to create a conception of the Gilboa Fossil Forest for a cover of Nature (right) |  Nature

Left: Frank Mannolini/New York State Museum. Right: Victor Leshyk. Scientific illustrator Victor Leshyk used a sketch from researchers (left) to create a conception of the Gilboa Fossil Forest for a cover of Nature (right) | Nature

Source/read more Nature 

Butterflies: Change of identity is not in the air

Change is indeed in the air for many butterflies — at least in their ecology, if not in their outer appearance.

Source/read more Nature 

Elephant poaching: Track the impact of Kenya's ivory burn

Kenya's government delivered a powerful message against elephant poaching and the illegal ivory trade on 30 April by burning 105 tonnes of ivory, worth up to US$220 million. With stockpile destruction on the rise, it is important to evaluate the impact of this strategy on elephant populations.

Source/read more Nature 

A young Kissing Bug doesn't need much

In late November 2015, I found a nymph of Triatoma rubida marching across the bedroom carpet between two dog beds. My reaction was 'Oh, no, already'? and I caught it in a jar. It looked like it had just had a good meal.  Rather young, not much indication of wings yet. 4th instar?

Source/read more Arizona: Beetles Bugs Birds and More 

Eight Illinois Wasp and Bee Mimics in Twenty Minutes

One of the few entomologically-rewarding stops on our recent road trip was at the National Trail Rest Area on Interstate 70 near Altamont, Illinois, on May 16. A brief bit of sunshine warmed the woodland edges enough to bring out a wealth of fly diversity, many of which were mimics of various wasps and bees. There were even a few real wasps.

Source/read more Bug Eric 

Strange Behavior Explained (Sort of)

The other day (Monday, June 6 to be exact) I was exploring Adams Open Space behind the public library in Fountain, Colorado with my wife. I happened to notice a small ichneumon wasp on the underside of a leaf and snapped a couple of images. This was the best one, and I was shocked to see a cluster of eggs beneath the wasp's abdomen. What was going on?

Ichneumon wasp with cluster of eggs |  Bug Eric

Ichneumon wasp with cluster of eggs | Bug Eric

Source/read more Bug Eric 

What’s life like on an RV Investigator voyage?

Following on from the success of her first blog, Madi Rosevear of the University of Tasmania tells us about some of the challenges of the current voyage and provides a few personal tips for life at sea.

Source/read more CSIRO 

The ecology of sex explains patterns of helping in arthropod societies

Across arthropod societies, sib-rearing (e.g. nursing or nest defence) may be provided by females, by males or by both sexes. According to Hamilton's ‘haplodiploidy hypothesis’, this diversity reflects the relatedness consequences of diploid vs. haplodiploid inheritance. However, an alternative ‘preadaptation hypothesis’ instead emphasises an interplay of ecology and the co-option of ancestral, sexually dimorphic traits for sib-rearing. The preadaptation hypothesis has recently received empirical support, but remains to be formalised. Here, we mathematically model the coevolution of sex-specific helping and sex allocation, contrasting these hypotheses. We find that ploidy per se has little effect. Rather, the ecology of sex shapes patterns of helping: sex-specific preadaptation strongly influences who helps; a freely adjustable sex ratio magnifies sex biases and promotes helping; and sib-mating, promiscuity, and reproductive autonomy also modulate the sex and abundance of helpers. An empirical survey reveals that patterns of sex-specific helping in arthropod taxa are consistent with the preadaptation hypothesis.

Source/read more Ecology Letters 

The World’s Deepest Flying Insect Lives in Complete Darkness with No Food or Sex

Deep below the Velebit mountains of Southern Croatia, 1,431 meters underground, lies the Lukina Jama cave system, the 14th deepest cave in the world.

In the last decade, this cave has received much attention by cave scientists for its comparatively rich fauna of strictly subterranean animals, including subterranean leeches and a translucent snail species that does not occur anywhere else in the world. The most recent addition to the list is a small insect that has the distinction to be the world’s only blind cave insect that flies.

The Lukina Jama–Trojama cave system |&nbsp; Alexander M. Weigand/Wikimedia  [ CC BY-SA 3.0 ]

The Lukina Jama–Trojama cave system | Alexander M. Weigand/Wikimedia [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Source/read more Entomology Today 

Harvester Ants Have a Taste for Exotic Seeds

Harvester ants live up to their name. Like a farmer bringing in a crop of grain, the ants are busy seed collectors. In some habitats, they are the dominant seed predators. But do harvester ants play favorites? When faced with a cornucopia of seeds, do they select certain species over others like a kid picking all of the chocolate chips out of the trail mix?

Source/read more Entomology Today 

Where Do Shield-back Katydids Fit within the Katydid Evolutionary Tree?

With more than 7,000 species globally, the katydids are the second most diverse group within the insect order Orthoptera, after the grasshoppers. Katydids are members of the taxonomic family Tettigoniidae, and though familiar to people throughout the world for their musical mating call, the specifics of many aspects of the evolutionary relationships within the katydid group remain a mystery.

Source/read more Entomology Today 

Comparative assessment of metrics for monitoring the body condition of polar bears in western Hudson Bay

Many species experience prolonged periods of fasting due to changes in habitat and food availability. Metrics that quantify energy reserves available during these periods allow for a better understanding of the interaction between environmental change and species survival. Body condition of polar bears has been assessed using morphometric and subjective indices, lipid content of adipose tissue, body composition models and, recently, bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA). We assessed the utility of BIA and examined correlations among condition metrics for 134 free-ranging polar bears on shore in western Hudson Bay in fall 2012–2013 and spring 2013–2014. We also examined long-term inter-annual and seasonal trends from 736 bears handled in 2004–2014. Total body fat, as estimated from BIA, was correlated with adipose tissue lipid content, energy density and fatness index, but not storage energy or skull width. Body condition was higher in adult and subadult females than males, consistent with energetic demands of gestation and lactation. Adult females had higher body fat in the fall than spring, and body fat decreased with increasing number of dependent offspring. Long-term trends indicated a decline in body condition for all adult and subadult males and females. Although there were similar patterns among BIA and other established metrics, its limitations in the field suggest that BIA may not be the most efficient method of monitoring body composition in polar bears in comparison to other modeled metrics, such as energy density. Declines in polar bear body condition over time may be a reflection of contemporaneous changes in sea ice availability and population demography, and thus have implications for the long-term conservation of this subpopulation.

Source/read more Journal of Zoology 

The Rise of Ocean Optimism

Things are far more resilient than I ever imagined. Me, green sea turtles, coral reefs blown to bits by atomic bombs. In a twist of fate that even surprised scientists, Bikini Atoll, site of one of the world’s biggest nuclear explosions, is now a scuba diver’s paradise. Bikini Atoll located in the Pacific’s Marshall Islands didn’t just inspire the famous bathing suit; the US Army detonated the first hydrogen bomb there. Between 1946 and 1958, 23 nuclear explosions were carried out, at an incalculable cost to the people and the marine environment. Fifty years later, scientists record a thriving coral reef habitat that includes large tree-like branching coral formations with trunks the diameter of dinner plates. “It’s made a brilliant recovery,” says Zoe Richards, a scientist at the Australian Museum.

Bikini Atoll | [public domain]

Bikini Atoll | [public domain]

Source/read more Smithsonian 

Podcast: How Humans Caused Mass Extinctions Thousands of Years Ago

Source/read more Smithsonian 

The lost opportunity cost of overcommitment

My sabbatical officially started a few days ago. I was half-expecting a kind of weight to lift. But my brain isn’t letting me have any of that.

For the last year or so, I’ve been stockpiling things “for sabbatical.” Now, I’m looking at the weight of that list.

I’m betting that you don’t want to hear the list. (But hey, I wrote a post in 2013 describing my manuscripts in the works. Most of them are still in the works, and for each that has been done, it’s been replaced with new one.)

Source/read more Small Pond Science 

Why not double-blind grant reviews?

In some academic fields, double-blind reviews of manuscripts for peer-reviewed publication is the norm. It’s no surprise that people who study human behavior use double-blind review. They must be on to something that most of us in the “hard” sciences haven’t picked up yet.

Some journals in my field have double blind review. Behavioral Ecology has been doing it for a good long while now. My latest paper in Animal Behaviour was a double-blind review, but I don’t know when they started. A couple years ago, American Naturalist went double-blind, too.

Researchers studied the consequence of Behavioral Ecology going double-blind, and found that it increases representation, resulting with more women as first authors, with no detectable negative effects.

Source/read more Small Pond Science 

Slow Conservation

The word ‘stakeholder’ dates back to the 18th century, when it referred to individuals who held money during financial transactions or bets. During the 19th and 20th centuries, it expanded to include people or companies dedicated to the success of a business or sector. Given the financial roots of the word, it is no wonder that conservationists have eyed the term with suspicion. Can you be a stakeholder for a group of whales or a deep-sea ecosystem? Or do we need a new term?

Source/read more Trends in Ecology & Evolution 

Effects of Inertial Power and Inertial Force on Bat Wings

The inertial power and inertial force of wings are important factors in evaluating the flight performance of native bats. Based on measurement data of wing size and motions of Eptesicus fuscus, we present a new computational bat wing model with divided fragments of skeletons and membrane. The motions of the model were verified by comparing the joint and tip trajectories with native bats. The influences of flap, sweep, elbow, wrist and digits motions, the effects of different bones and membrane of bat wing, the components on vertical, spanwise and fore-aft directions of the inertial power and force were analyzed. Our results indicate that the flap, sweep, and elbow motions contribute the main inertial power and force; the membrane occupies an important proportion of the inertial power and force; inertial power on flap direction was larger, while variations of inertial forces on different directions were not evident. These methods and results offer insights into flight dynamics in other flying animals and may contribute to the design of future robotic bats.

Big brown bats ( Eptesicus fuscus ) |  Connor Long/Wikimedia Commons  [ CC BY-SA 4.0 ]

Big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus) | Connor Long/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Source/read more Zoological Science 

What are Head Cavities? — A History of Studies on Vertebrate Head Segmentation

Motivated by the discovery of segmental epithelial coeloms, or “head cavities,” in elasmobranch embryos toward the end of the 19th century, the debate over the presence of mesodermal segments in the vertebrate head became a central problem in comparative embryology. The classical segmental view assumed only one type of metamerism in the vertebrate head, in which each metamere was thought to contain one head somite and one pharyngeal arch, innervated by a set of cranial nerves serially homologous to dorsal and ventral roots of spinal nerves. The non-segmental view, on the other hand, rejected the somite-like properties of head cavities. A series of small mesodermal cysts in early Torpedo embryos, which were thought to represent true somite homologs, provided a third possible view on the nature of the vertebrate head. Recent molecular developmental data have shed new light on the vertebrate head problem, explaining that head mesoderm evolved, not by the modification of rostral somites of an amphioxus-like ancestor, but through the polarization of unspecified paraxial mesoderm into head mesoderm anteriorly and trunk somites posteriorly.

Source/read more Zoological Science 

Vladimir Nabokov's butterfly art – in pictures

Author and passionate lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov once said: ‘Literature and butterflies are the two sweetest passions known to man.’ His scientific drawings and watercolours of butterflies have now been collected into one volume, Fine Lines.

Nabokov's Butterflies | [public domain]

Nabokov's Butterflies | [public domain]

Source/read more The Guardian 

Zoo news: this month's animal antics from round the globe - in pictures

A collection of zoological wonders from May 2016, featuring brave new rhinos, brand new pandas, earthworm engineers and more.

6 May: Panda birth with Ai Bang. Giant panda Ai Bang was the first captive panda to give birth this year, the event broadcast on  Pandapia   HD . The male cub weighed 145g, but died on 10 May.  GiantPandaGlobal.com  |  The Guardian/China Daily/Reuters

6 May: Panda birth with Ai Bang. Giant panda Ai Bang was the first captive panda to give birth this year, the event broadcast on Pandapia HD. The male cub weighed 145g, but died on 10 May. GiantPandaGlobal.com | The Guardian/China Daily/Reuters

Source/read more The Guardian 

Australia’s egg-laying mammals provide clues to our earliest ancestor

The platypus is famous for being one of the world’s strangest animals. When specimens were first shipped back from Australia, it was thought to be a taxidermic hoax. “Of all the Mammalia yet known”, wrote George Shaw in 1799, assistant keeper of the natural history department at the British Museum, “it seems the most extraordinary in its conformation; exhibiting the perfect resemblance of the beak of a duck engrafted on the head of a quadruped.”

Source/read more The Guardian

Is burning poached ivory good for elephants?

At the end of April, Kenya incinerated 105 tonnes of confiscated elephant ivory, aiming to send a clear signal to the poachers and public alike: killing elephants for their tusks and buying ivory-based products is simply not acceptable.

But do such spectacles really help conserve elephants? Or could they, in fact, be counterproductive?

Source/read more The Guardian 

Harbour porpoises are skilled hunters and eat almost constantly

Harbour porpoises have sometimes been described as "living in the fast lane." Being smaller than other cetaceans and living in cold northern waters means that the porpoises require a lot of energy to survive, making them prone to starvation. Now researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on May 26 have monitored harbour porpoises in the wild with tiny computers attached to them by suction cups show that the animals hunt and eat almost constantly.

Source/read more Cell Press 

Hydropower dams worldwide cause continued species extinction

New research led by the University of Stirling has found a global pattern of sustained species extinctions on islands within hydroelectric reservoirs. 

Scientists have discovered that reservoir islands created by large dams across the world do not maintain the same levels of animal and plant life found prior to flooding.

Source/read more University of Stirling 

Dancing hairs alert bees to floral electric fields

Tiny, vibrating hairs may explain how bumblebees sense and interpret the signals transmitted by flowers, according to a study by researchers at the University of Bristol.

Although it's known that flowers communicate with pollinators by sending out electric signals, just how bees detects these fields has been a mystery - until now.

Source/read more University of Bristol 

Stick insects produce bacterial enzymes themselves

Many animals depend on their microbiome to digest their food. Symbiotic microorganisms produce enzymes their hosts cannot, and these work alone or together with the animals’ own enzymes to break down their food. Many plant-feeding insects need microbial enzymes, such as pectinases, that degrade plant cell walls; yet some insects have overcome this dependency in a surprising way. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany, found that stick insects make microbial enzymes themselves. From an ancestral gut microbe, the genes for the essential enzymes simply “jumped” as they are to their insect host. The researchers report this newly discovered “horizontal gene transfer” in a paper recently published in Scientific Reports. (Scientific Reports, May 2016, DOI: 10.1038/srep26388)

Source/read more Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology 

The mysterious sexual life of the most primitive dragonfly

The dragonfly considered the most primitive in the world lives in Australia and Tasmania, and was believed to be extinct four decades ago. But it is far from being so. A Spanish researcher has observed thousands of these insects in one of the few habitats in which it has been detected and it displays sexual behaviour that is unique, not only directed towards reproduction.

Source/read more Plataforma SINC 

More than just hippos and crocs: The hidden biodiversity of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park

iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the sub-tropical north-eastern corner of South Africa has become famous for its birdlife, crocodiles and hippopotamuses that frolic in the warm estuarine waters of Lake St Lucia. However, there’s more to the park than the “big and hairy”, according to aquatic ecologist Prof Renzo Perissinotto at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) in Port Elizabeth, whose research is published in the open access journal ZooKeys.

iSimangaliso Wetland Park |  Darren Glanville/Wikimedia Commons  [ CC BY-SA 2.0 ]

iSimangaliso Wetland Park | Darren Glanville/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 2.0]

Source/read more Pensoft Publishers 

Roads “a serious threat” to rare bats

The University of Exeter experts studied data collected across Europe and concluded that roads present “a real and growing danger” to protected bat populations. The research, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), concluded bats were often reluctant to cross roads, disrupting their ability to reach feeding and roosting areas. The group also identified more than 1,000 bat fatalities caused by collisions with cars.

Source/read more University of Exeter 

Pandas Don’t Like It Hot: Temperature, Not Food is Biggest Concern for Conservation

Although a new Drexel study found that the metabolism of giant pandas is higher than previously reported, there is more than enough bamboo in nature to keep pandas healthy and happy for years.

That is, until rising global temperatures kill the plants off.

Source/read more Drexel University 

Marine invertebrate larvae actively respond to their surroundings

Many marine invertebrates have complex life histories in which the planktonic larval phase acts as the vehicle to connect otherwise disjointed benthic adult populations which are mostly non-mobile. Larval swimming behaviors in response to various chemical, biological and physical cues have important implications for the adult populations, but to date, most studies on larvae-flow interactions have focused on competent larvae near settlement.

Source/read more Hong Kong University of Science & Technology 

Traditional lectures versus active learning - what it means to me as a wannabe academic

Recently, I happened to be in Brisbane when the EduTECH conference was on. In addition to the eight “congresses” that focused on various aspects of education and technology, and the eight post-conference “masterclasses”, there was also a free two-day expo and seminars.

I signed up for three of these free seminars:

  • Prototyping learning spaces that work for students using a designed approach
  • Why we should teach online global collaboration
  • Making phones into labs

The first was delivered by Prof Rob Fitzgerald from the INSPIRE Centre at the University of Canberra.

INSPIRE is a hub and network for new approaches to learning, communication and collaboration based in the Faculty of Education, Science, Technology and Mathematics at the University of Canberra. It is learning commons, a place to imagine, experiment and design new ways of working and learning digitally. INSPIRE services highlight quality teaching and contemporary learning practices through staying connected to global initiatives and trends about learning design and design thinking. They focus on a futures perspective and developing foresight and dispositions, not just knowledge and skills. [Source.]


What stood out most for me from Prof Fitzgerald's seminar was his reference to traditional lectures versus active learning. Referring to a 2014 meta-analysis, he stated that it was almost unethical to delivery traditional lectures when it is known students are 1.5 times more likely to fail compared with active learning approaches.

A screenshot of my tweet during Prof Fitzgerald's seminar.

A screenshot of my tweet during Prof Fitzgerald's seminar.

While this isn't "new" news and I do remember these findings hitting the headlines a couple of years ago, I hadn't really given it much thought since. But what this seminar did was pique my interest in the topic of the way academics teach and the way students learn, and make me think about how this will impact on the type of academic I want to be.

To weigh the evidence, Scott Freeman (University of Washington, Seattle, USA) and a group of colleagues analysed 225 studies of undergraduate STEM teaching methods. The meta-analysis, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that teaching approaches that turned students into active participants rather than passive listeners reduced failure rates and boosted scores on exams by almost one-half a standard deviation. “The change in the failure rates is whopping,” Freeman said; and the exam improvement — about 6% — could, for example, “bump [a student’s] grades from a B– to a B.” [Source.]

Changes in failure rate. (A) Data plotted as percent change in failure rate in the same course, under active learning versus lecturing. The mean change (12%) is indicated by the dashed vertical line. (B) Kernel density plots of failure rates under active learning and under lecturing. The mean failure rates under each classroom type (21.8% and 33.8%) are shown by dashed vertical lines. From  Freeman et al. (2014) .

Changes in failure rate. (A) Data plotted as percent change in failure rate in the same course, under active learning versus lecturing. The mean change (12%) is indicated by the dashed vertical line. (B) Kernel density plots of failure rates under active learning and under lecturing. The mean failure rates under each classroom type (21.8% and 33.8%) are shown by dashed vertical lines. From Freeman et al. (2014).

While there is no single definition of active learning, interventions include approaches as diverse as problem-solving in groups, worksheets or tutorials completed during class, use of personal response systems with or without peer instruction, and studio or workshop course designs. The consensus definition for the study was:

“Active learning engages students in the process of learning through activities and/or discussion in class, as opposed to passively listening to an expert. It emphasises higher-order thinking and often involves group work.”

When I think back to my undergraduate degree, the majority of which was undertaken as an off-campus student with brief, intensive residential schools that consisted of back-to-back practicals and the occasional lecture, the lectures I enjoyed the most were the ones I was able to actively participate in by answering questions or collaborating with my peers.

Today, there is even more active learning happening at my University.

First-year Chemistry lectures are no longer a stand-and-deliver affair: the unit coordinator actively engages with her students by working through actual examples with them, including balancing equations. She has seen an improvement in pass rates since implementing this approach.

By the time I enrolled in one of my last units, Insect-Plant Interactions, the unit coordinator was no longer spending face-to-face time talking at her students. Instead, lecture podcasts were available to listen to online and this valuable face-to-face time was spent working collaboratively on tutorial questions around a big table or, for off-campus students, dialling in to an Adobe Connect session where we could chat with our unit coordinator and each other and work through the same tutorial questions.

I think as a science student I was fortunate. So much of what I learned during my undergraduate degree had a practical or laboratory component (hence the intensive schools), but this shouldn't mean active learning is restricted to these obviously hands-on teaching activities. As a Zoology student I think I was even more fortunate. So many of my unit coordinators were incredibly engaging and went out of their ways to deliver lectures that we could be part of rather than just talking at us.

More of it, I say!

Academics around the globe have being challenging the “sage on a stage” approach to teaching STEM courses for decades, arguing that group activities and questions are more effective at engaging students. Prof Eric Mazur, a physicist at Harvard University who has campaigned against stale lecturing techniques for about 30 years, had this to say about the meta-analysis:

“This is a really important article — the impression I get is that it’s almost unethical to be lecturing if you have this data. […] It’s good to see such a cohesive picture emerge from their meta-analysis — an abundance of proof that lecturing is outmoded, outdated, and inefficient.” [Source.]

What does all this mean? Well, as a wannabe academic, it helps me identify how I might teach in the future to get the best out of my students and to arm them with the skills they will need to succeed not just through Higher Education, but through life. Because, at the end of the day, a degree is just a small fraction of our expected lifespan, and the world is a much bigger place than a university campus and it's even bigger than a lecture theatre.

When I grow up I want to be…

Last week I delivered a presentation to some academic and professional staff in the School of Arts about what I do for a living - not the bit about ants and climate change (i.e. my postgraduate research) but my “9 to 5” job - and the services I can offer to make their work lives a little bit easier and run more smoothly. I think it was received well and have four more presentations planned for the other Schools I work with.

The second slide was a few brief points about me - the past, present and future - and included the term “Wannabe Academic”, specifically entomologist/myrmecologist and science communicator. I do want to be an academic. I want to teach and I want to undertake my own research and contribute to other’s research. I want to inspire students to be the best they can be, the way I was inspired by some of the academics I was lucky enough to learn from throughout my undergraduate degree. Maybe that all sounds a bit idealistic and even naive, but it’s one of the things that keeps me motivated to be the best I can be now and in the future.

It probably also sounds a bit vague, especially for someone like me who likes to plan things down to the minute! If there’s one lesson I’ve learnt in the last year or so, however, it’s that life doesn’t alway go according to plan and that is sometimes a really good thing. For example, I expected to commence my postgraduate research over a year ago and, if I had, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be a part of this ARC Discovery Project and I wouldn’t have been offered a generous scholarship or had the flexibility to work part-time while I pursue my research.

So, what do I want to be when I grow up?

In truth, I have a much better idea of what I don’t want to be as an academic, thanks in part to events from the last few months.


I don’t want to be the sort of person who dismisses how a student might be feeling

A few months ago, I shared a light-hearted article about “imposter syndrome” with my fellow students (undergrad, postgrad and alumni) via Facebook.

A screenshot of the Imposter Syndrome article I posted on Facebook.

A screenshot of the Imposter Syndrome article I posted on Facebook.

It appeared to resonate with a few people and some shared their own experiences. One comment that disturbed me, however, came from a recently completed PhD student who wrote: "Yeah that's a postgrad thing..." and I asked myself:

What type of person would claim exclusive rights to an issue that clearly affects students at all levels of study, not to mention other people, too?

Thankfully, an academic I greatly admire quickly clarified: "Actually, it's a life thing..."

A screenshot of some of the comments on the Imposter Syndrome post.

A screenshot of some of the comments on the Imposter Syndrome post.

The recently completed PhD student then went on to comment imposter syndrome is "very prominent during postgrad" and "acknowledged more during postgrad", which I'm sure is accurate... but there is so much more to life than postgrad studies, and there is certainly life beyond the institution that is Higher Education. To dismiss how undergraduate students may be feeling about themselves and about their studies, or how anyone feels about their lives in general, is not very fair and is bordering on downright hurtful.


I don’t want to be the sort of person who makes sweeping generalisations about others

A month or so later, I shared a tongue-in-cheek article about Tinder, lamenting the omission of Zoologists and Entomologists in the list of professions that get the most "right-swipes". (I'm not a Tinder user myself, but a "right-swipe" apparently means "interested".)

A screenshot of the Tinder article I posted on Facebook.

A screenshot of the Tinder article I posted on Facebook.

Amongst a range of other comments, including some magnificent puns, a discussion ensued about the "type" of people who use Tinder and things got a little heated. Someone made comments that included the following phrases: "superficial and unintelligent people ... not a good gene pool" and "wouldn't expect an intelligent person to fall for the mass consumption of an app" and "a degree doesn't correlate with intelligence", and a fellow graduate took umbrage - rightly so, I think.

A screenshot of just some of the comments on the Tinder post.

A screenshot of just some of the comments on the Tinder post.

To label users of a dating app in such a derogatory way smacks of ignorance and, furthermore, to use science as a valid excuse to voice such opinions and initiate such "debates" is deplorable. (For a more in-depth article about opinions, please read Patrick Stokes' piece for The Conversation: No, you're not entitled to your opinion.)


I don't want to be the sort of person who diminishes the career choices of others

All sorts of people live in this world and provide all sorts of products and services that we need and/or want, so to assume one person's career path has been an easier road than yours is not only disrespectful... it is also very uninformed.

Which is why I felt a little nauseous when I read the following statement from a recently graduated PhD student: "... some days you wonder why you followed this career path and whether you should have taken the easy road of becoming a nurse or a solicitor where the hours are guaranteed and there is some time to yourself."

Just let that sink in for a few minutes.

How to insult nurses and solicitors in one easy sentence.

How to insult nurses and solicitors in one easy sentence.

I know quite a few nurses and solicitors, and I don't think any of them would call their career path an "easy road". I posed this statement to a nurse and her response was:

Hahaha! I would say, "You've got to be kidding yourself, right?"
In nursing, the hours are never guaranteed. Yes, you've got "shifts" but most days you work through your lunch break, you arrive early to prepare, you work late through an emergency. You do double shifts. And work always comes home with you. Whether you need to prepare for a presentation or a report, or just need to have a cry over a glass of wine. Your life works around your roster and even that changes.
Most of the time you get home and you don't want to do anything other than sleep. I once missed a good friend's baby shower because I had a shit day at work and my patient died and I finished my shift and just drove home. It wasn't until later that night I realised I'd forgotten my friend on her important day. I felt like shit. It's hard.
Time to yourself barely exists. You miss your kids' birthdays, Christmas and every other important holiday due to the hours you are required to work. For me, easy would be a 9-5 desk job. Those hours seem easy to me. I was once told by my manager that you have no life outside of the hospital. That's what nursing is. Sorry to sound all negative but, for me, it's factual.
Having said that, no day was ever boring. Nothing - not even your time - is guaranteed. And I actually enjoyed spending holidays with my other family, being my patients and colleagues. But no, hours are never guaranteed when you work with other people's lives in your hands.

I hope the person who made that original statement never needs a nurse or solicitor.


I don't want to be the sort of person who challenges via argument and debate

I want to be an academic who inspires her students and, through that, empowers them to challenge themselves to be the best that they can be - not mould them into thinking the way I think or becoming what I want them to be. I want to build their confidence so they can be their own person - not a reflection of me or the institution of academia.

I want to be thought-provoking, not provoking.

Recently, I attended a conference about the place of technology in education. One of the sessions I attended was called "Prototyping Learning Spaces that Work for Students Using a Designed Approach" and it was presented by Prof Rob Fitzgerald, Director of the INSPIRE Centre at the University of Canberra. During his session, I tweeted a point he made that I agreed with:

My tweet during Prof Rob Fitzgerald's presentation.

My tweet during Prof Rob Fitzgerald's presentation.

This seemed to be a sore spot for an up-and-coming academic I know and the following exchange ensued:

And then came the inevitable passive-aggressive tweets from her account after I ended the exchange:

There were a few things I found most infuriating about the experience:

  1. That she reduced the exchange between us as an issue about women.
  2. That agreeing with a leader and innovator in the field of Information and Communication Technology Education with 20+ years of experience somehow meant I was rehearsing his ideas.
  3. That she made a point of singling out "older women" (I am indeed older than her and again with the women thing).

The delusional nature of her tweets was palpable, and that she wasn't even at the session I had tweeted about and therefore did not understand the context and did not want to have it explained to her when she made obviously erroneous assumptions was hypocritical to say the very least.

That, readers, is the very essence of the type of academic I do not want to be. It is the very essence of the type of person I do not want to be. In fact, my partner and a good friend have instructions to shoot me if I am ever unfortunate enough to morph into one.


I don't want to be the sort of person who others feel the need to 'block' and/or 'unfriend' on social media because of my behaviour

Too often I hear sayings such as "Hate the sin and not the sinner" or "Challenge the behaviour, not the person", but what are we if not a reflection of our own behaviour?

Why do we have the luxury of extricating ourselves from our behaviour?

I don't think we should have that indulgence. We are how we act towards others. We have to own that responsibility, fully and maturely, and understand that our behaviour may have consequences and we need to accept those outcomes, not hide behind threadbare rationalisations and not put the onus on others to tolerate our behaviour if we should be so arrogant as to think we are right and others must agree with us.

Academia is not, I believe, about forcing opinions, providing excuses or shirking responsibility. In fact, I think it is the opposite.


In conclusion

Perhaps what you may not have realised, however, is that all these comments came from the same person over a period of about four months. If I hadn't witnessed it first hand, I wouldn't have believed it. What's even more unbelievable (and regrettable) is that she's been unleashed in the world of academia, to influence students however she sees fit... for better or - as I fear - for worse.

My only hope is people will recognise it, and then I was struck with the thought...

If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning.
— Catherine Aird

She is my horrible warning.