Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Biosciences Seminar Speaker - 27 February 2014

Biosciences Seminar Series - Lent 2014
27 February 2014 - 1pm - Zoology Museum (Wallace 129)

The fitness costs of adaptation by genetic assimilation, phenotypic plasticity and maternal effects

Dr. Thomas Ezard

Image from Emlen et al. (2007) PNAS

No, I'm not sure our next seminar speaker, Dr. Thomas Ezard from the University of Southampton, will talk about horn beetles. But for sure he will talk about phenotypic plasticity, maternal effects and other mechanisms of adaptation and the related fitness costs. Tom is an evolutionary ecologist who is broadly interested in understanding how the structure of organisms, populations and communities affects ecological and evolutionary dynamics. 

The research interests of Tom's group are broad, ranging from using ecological principles to understand the links between micro- and macroevolution, to quantifying the drivers of macroevolution in planktonic foraminifera, to stochastic and transient demography, to adaptation via maternal inheritance. And it is about the latter research that Tom will tell us in his talk. Here is the abstract.

Phenotypes are typically environmentally dependent. This environmental specificity can either be delivered within the current generation (phenotypic plasticity) or transgenerationally through indirect or non-genetic maternal effects. The challenge for organisms is to use the most accurate environmental cues. 

In this seminar, I'll explore the key relationship between fitness and phenotypic variance. In a stable environment, negative maternal effects that retard phenotypic evolution actually maximize population mean fitness by minimising variance around its target. In rapidly-changing or positively auto-correlated environments, this is not the case and positive maternal effects deliver the most rapid adaptation. 

This influence of maternal effects on phenotypic variance extends into multiple dimensions, changing the multivariate phenotypic distribution and altering subsequent evolutionary trajectories. The results emphasise the flexibility of biological processes that determine phenotypes and so help explain the wide range of maternal effect coefficients reported empirically.

All most welcome to attend - and please let your students know!

Image from

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Science Club Events - 25 February 2014

Science Club Events - Lent 2014
25 February 2014 - 12:30pm - Zoology Museum (W129)

(note different time)

Move, move, move

Prof. Martin Wikelski

Attaching a transmitter to a dragonfly. Image downloaded from

Probably you have seen many wildlife documentaries about researchers tracking the movements of animals by attaching senders to the individuals, such as GPS collars. You might have also heard talking about the 'biologging revolution' of the last years, which has allowed us to detect and record animal movements to an unprecedented detail. Hence, you might well think that we therefore have now obtained a good understanding of how, when, and why animals move.

Well, wrong. At least for the majority of organisms, our knowledge is close to zero, as they are too small to be fitted with any of the existing transmitters, even most of the 'high-tech' ones. Novel technological solutions are needed to develop more powerful and lightweight transmitters. One of the key players in this field is our next seminar speaker, Prof. Martin Wikelski, Director of the Max-Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen (Germany).

Martin is an 'animal tracker' - he has dedicated his scientific efforts to develop new ways to observe and record ('track') the movements of animals (e.g. see here), especially small songbirds and insects, such as dragonflies or Monarch butterflies. For example, Martin has ideated and leads the ICARUS initiative, which will use a dedicated satellite to set up a remote sensing platform for scientists to track small organisms globally from the space. Or, previously Martin developed/lead ARTS ('Automated Radio Telemetry System'), set up on Barro Colorado Island in Panama, a truly pioneering project at the time.    

But what new biological insights have been obtained through these fancy new technologies? Well, come and listen to Martin @ 12:30pm in the Zoology Museum!
Image from:

Friday, 21 February 2014

Science Club Events - 24 February 2014

Science Club Events - Lent 2014
24 February 2014 - 3pm - Wallace room 138

(note different time and room)

The biology of risk taking

Prof. John Coates

Downloaded from:

There have been times when the ability and courage to take risks was highly rewarded - take King Arthur and his knights defending Britain from the Saxon invaders. However, at least since the last global financial crisis and ensuing economic recession (e.g. see here), many people have wondered what goes on in the mind of the traders taking high financial risks (and maybe not few would also like to stop them taking too many risks ...).
This topic concerns not only subprime mortgages, derivaties and other slightly obscure financial contracts, it is also a really interesting biological question. Our next seminar speaker, Prof. John Coates, is an expert in this topic. 

John has got a really interesting professional background, as he started by trading derivatives for Goldman Sachs and running a trading desk for Deutsche Bank. Whilst doing so he developed techniques for valuing and arbitraging the tails of probability distributions, and for trading low probability events such as financial crises. 

Then he switched to become a Senior Research Fellow in Neuroscience and Finance at the University of Cambridge and now researches the biology of risk taking and stress. He recently published also a book about his research on risk taking (see here). 

So why not 'take the risk' and come along to listen to a really interesting talk? 


It is common to think that financial risk taking is a purely cognitive activity. But when we take risks we do more than think about it: we prepare for it physically. Our body, expecting action, switches on chemical and electrical circuitry which provides us with the fuel and oxygen and vigilance and fast reactions we need to survive. It also shifts our risk preferences.

Everyone most welcome to attend! But please note that it will be held in a different room (W138), albeit still very close to the usual seminar room. And, at 3pm.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Science Club Events - 20 February 2014

Science Club Events - Lent 2014
20 February 2014 - 1pm - Zoology Museum (W129)

All roads lead to the mound

Dr. Simon Garnier

Photo by Simon Garnier:

Let's face it, the prospect of being invaded by a swarm of ants is not everyone's cup. And camouflage, whilst effective against many visual predators, will not defeat the ants' keen sense of smell, as this Mozambique nightjar had to experience


However, some people are absolutely fascinated by ants and our next speaker, Dr. Simon Garnier from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, is one of them. Simon heads the Swarm lab, a group of researchers interested in understanding which mechanisms organisms use to coordinate the movements of large groups. This is a highly interdisciplinary task which has also many exciting applications, from traffic control problems to guiding swarms of robots and even solving crime scene problems. 

Simon's groups uses various study systems, from slime moulds to ants, to ungulate mixed species herds, to robots, but in his talk this week he will focus on how ants manage to set up efficient transportation networks.

Like the Roman Empire at its peak, a successful ant colony relies on an effective network of roads that facilitate the movement of its powerful army and industrious population across a vast territory. Fifty years ago, E. O. Wilson discovered the chemical nature of these transportation networks comprised of pheromone trails laid by the colony's workers. His work paved the way for five decades of study on the incredibly efficient organization of ant colonies, based on simple behaviours, multiple interactions and powerful scents. 

In this talk, I will review recent discoveries from field, experimental and theoretical works on the construction and functioning of ant transportation networks. I will highlight the latest findings on traffic organization along ant chemical trails, the topology and geometry of these networks, and the development of support structures on uneven terrains. 
Image by Kaitlyn Colhouer:

Finally, I will discuss prospective applications of the ants' "chemical logic" in operation research and collective robotics, with a particular focus on the flexibility of ant trail systems and their ability to integrate and process multiple sources of information.

Everyone most welcome to attend. You might learn about Swarm Intelligence, Swarm Stupidity (no, not sure either what this is - we'll have to ask Simon!), and maybe even new tricks to better deal with those little visitors during your pick-nick: 

Friday, 14 February 2014

Science Club Events - 17 February 2014

Science Club Events - Lent 2014
17 February 2014 - 1pm - Zoology Museum (W129)

Frills and Spills: 

The interplay of body size and shape with oxygen in aquatic organisms

Dr. Andrew Hirst

Moon Jellyfish (Aurelia aurita). From:

The marine environment, especially the marine pelagic ecosystem, plays a profound role in determining the characteristics of our biosphere and hence is of primary importance to humankind. The zooplankton is one of key groups of organisms in the pelagic environment. However, as our speaker will show, Dr. Andrew Hirst from Queen Mary University London, research on this group of organisms is not only of practical relevance, it offers also exciting opportunities to test fundamental theories in ecology! 

In this talk we use aquatic organism to test major ecological theories. Firstly, most ectothermic species mature at a smaller size when reared at warmer temperatures. This phenotypic plastic response is termed the Temperature-Size Rule (TSR). The TSR is near universal, yet ultimate causes for it have remained elusive. We test whether oxygen supply is a major driver by looking across environments that differ radically in this respect. 

We find that differences between terrestrial, freshwater and marine taxa support the oxygen-hypothesis; maturing at a smaller size as temperature increases is an effective way to balance supply and demand constraints. 

In the second part of the talk we test the major theories of metabolic scaling, those based on limits set by the body exchange surfaces, versus those based on internal distribution networks (e.g. the Metabolic Theory of Ecology). Many pelagic invertebrates change shape radically during ontogeny, which allows us to test divergent properties of these theories. 

Our results show that shape change closely relates to the intra-specific metabolic scaling in pelagic taxa, and supports the surface-area dependent theory of metabolism.

Recent papers:

Kiørboe T, Hirst AG. (in press)  Shifts in mass-scaling of respiration, feeding, and growth rates across life-form transitions in marine pelagic animals. The American Naturalist

Hirst AG, Forster J (2013) When growth models are not universal: evidence from marine invertebrates. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 280: 20131546.

See you at the Zoology Museum - 1pm - everyone is welcome!

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Biosciences Seminar Speaker - 13 February 2014

Biosciences Seminar Series - Lent 2014
13 February 2014 - 1pm - Zoology Museum (Wallace 129)



Dr. Gabriele Cozzi

A great thank you to Dr. Gabriele Cozzi from the University of Zurich (Switzerland), who is currently visiting our lab, for agreeing to step in at the last minute to replace Prof. Adrian Thomas, who had to cancel due to the flooding and bad weather in Oxford.

Here the Abstract of the talk:
Understanding the factors that regulate species assembly and interactions within a community, and population demography, are major topics in ecology and the movement of individuals is a central element controlling and influencing such processes. 

In the first part of the talk, we will use African wild dogs, spotted hyenas and lions as model system, to investigate spatio-temporal patterns of segregation and coexistence among sympatric and competing species. We shall see that the three species are characterized by a previously un-described and unexpectedly high degree of temporal overlap, thus suggesting that temporal partitioning only plays a limited role in promoting coexistence. Wild dogs, however, avoid areas characterized by a high likelihood of encountering lions; spatial segregation thus seems to be a central prerequisite to allow coexistence among these large carnivores. 

In the second part, we will shift to an easier-to-handle species, the Kalahari meerkat, to investigate mechanisms and demographic consequences of dispersal in socially and spatially structured populations. 

Everyone is welcome - 1pm in the Zoology Museum!

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Science Club Events - 07 February 2014

Science Club Events - Lent 2014
07 February 2014 - 1pm - Zoology Museum (W129)

Discussion on 

"Evolutionary Ecology or 

Ecology and Evolution?"

 Are new concepts driving the integration of Ecology and Evolution? What are the possibilities for developing EcoEvo collaborations at Biosciences?

led by Dr. Sonia Consuegra 

Apparently, if you type into Google the search term 'why is evolution so', the first result you get is:

  1. slow

(see here the post by Jeremy Fox on the Dynamic ecology blog). In fact there has been a long-standing view that evolutionary processes occur on time scales which are too long to be of interest for ecologists. In the last decades, however, there has been an incerasing recognition that evolution can hapen, and be inlfuential, also on short, ecologically relevant timescales. For example, using again Google for 'Evolutionary Ecology' results in a flurry of dedicated journals and books, e.g.:

It may then come as a surprise when research in this area is judged as "too evolutionary in the subject area and lacking sufficient direct connections to (study of) general topics in ecology.” What are your opinions? Are you interested in this topic? Come and discuss with Sonia.

Sonia is a new lecturer here at Biosciences, working on Evolutionary Ecology, Conservation Genetics and Molecular Ecology, especially in fishes. She will give a brief introduction into the field, with the aim to start a discussion among us and explore possibilities for new collaborations among interested researchers. Specifically:

“The relationship between Ecology and Evolution is both intimate and fundamental, yet the field of Evolutionary Ecology is not a strong or obvious focus of research activity.”

This is the first sentence of John Endler’s introduction to the journal Evolutionary Ecology (Springer). Yet, over the last decade or so there has been a surge of new concepts (e.g. Community genetics/genomics, Eco-evolutionary dynamics, Ecological genomics) and journals (e.g. Ecology and Evolution, Evolutionary Ecology Research, Molecular Ecology) that seek to emphasize the interaction between both fields. I would like to start a discussion on whether these are really new concepts, what has been the role of new molecular and analytical techniques (e.g. next generation sequencing, implementation of Bayesian & ML techniques in molecular studies) in making easier (or more obvious) the integration of Ecology and Evolution, and finally to explore possibilities for developing EcoEvo collaborations at Biosciences. 

Some references can be found here:

Rowntree et al. (2011a)

Rowntree et al. (2011b)

Thuiller et al. (2013)

Pavey et al. (2012)

Mitchell-Olds et al. (2008)

Hope to see many of you! And for the overly dedicated among you, even more background literature (click links for the pdf):

Thompson (1998) Rapid evolution as an ecological process. Tree 13(8)

Andrew et al. (2013) A road map for Molecular Ecology. Mol. Ecol. 22.

Pianka (2011) Evolutionary Ecology. 7th ed.