Summer fieldwork round-up

Since I didn’t have the time to post any fieldwork news this summer I will instead pack it all into a single post. Efficiency!

As always summer is moth collection time, and this year I was in two countries: Estonia and Scotland.

Estonia was first. We went as a team of four, planning to stay a week and catch around 30 moths. In the end, thanks to some very warm weather, we got that number in the first 3 days and were able to return early.

I went to Scotland on my own as most of the lab were off catching in Georgia (the country, not the state). I had a bit of a worrying start, catching a grand total of one moth in the first two days. Scotland is always a bit tricky, unlike in Finland and Estonia, where the moths can generally be found on the edge of woods, in Scotland we generally find them on coastal meadows. This makes for some very scenic fieldwork, but also greatly increases the amount of climbing involved, and the risk of running off the edge of a cliff while chasing them. In the end, despite some less-than-ideal weather, I manged to get 15 moths to inject some much-needed genetic diversity into our lab population.

So once again I missed out on the beauty and excitement of Georgia (where the moths live at the top of mountains!) Still I was able to stock up on Scotch whisky in duty free, and there is always next year…

Climate change strikes again

Last week I finished my work with wild birds for another winter. As part of our research, myself and my colleagues catch wild Blue and Great tits and use them as predators to test various aspects of our moth’s defensive strategies. As I’ve discussed before this is a challenging task (tiny birds do not make for the most cooperative collaborators), but this year we had bigger problems: climate change.

I frequently hear from Finns in my department that winters in Finland used to be colder and more snowy. It’s true that during both winters I have spent here we haven’t seen much snowfall until after Christmas (although there was a brief period this year when it seemed the snow was here to stay, before temperatures soared to +10 Celsius and it all melted). In fact this Christmas was one of the warmest on record. While I am always a little sceptical of people complaining that this years winter/summer is “the worst ever” (for example I strongly believe that summers in England have always been predominantly cold and wet, despite what some of my elders may claim), there is no denying that Finland is in no way exempt from increasing global temperatures. Its beautiful white winters are going to get shorter, the months of dreary grey sludge longer.

This is of course bad news for lovers of winter sports (dog sledging in particular seems to be suffering, hard to train your dogs when there’s only a couple of months a year, or less, they can work), but why is it bad for our birds? Well for two reasons, first the lack of snow cover is bad news for anything that overwinters in the soil (like our moth larvae). These creatures normally rely on a thick layer of snow to insulate them from the worst of the cold, as well as sudden changes in temperature. Less snow means fewer moths, and other insects, come the summer. A more immediate problem for us is catching. We work with the birds in the winter, not only because they are  not breeding then, but also because we lure them into our traps using food. Peanuts, to be specific. When food is abundant they have no reason to come; we have to wait until the snow cover makes foraging difficult to attract them in any great numbers. The later the snow comes, the less time we have for our experiments, and as soon as the temperature starts to rise in spring they go into breeding mode. Have you ever tried to run an experiment with a bird that keeps trying to court its own reflection? It’s not ideal. Sudden temperature changes are also not good. This year the temperature dropped from above zero to -30 in a matter of weeks. Winter is already a difficult time for small birds, but extreme changes like that stretch them to breaking point. In the weeks after the drop we saw almost no birds at any of our feeding stations. Were they dead? Had the just moved elsewhere? Were they hiding somewhere? We don’t know, but one thing was for sure, they weren’t where we needed them.

A Blue tit emerges victorious from a trap with a peanut

It’s not just the winters that are causing trouble. You would think that warmer winters would also mean warmer summers, but the truth is the past two summers in Finland have also been disappointing. Crucially, while we have had warm periods both years, we’ve had two very cold midsummers. My first midsummer here in 2014 it snowed! This means that insect availability drops sharply at the very time the birds are trying to feed their chicks. Unsurprisingly, chick survival is lowered and fewer new birds join the population.

Hats and coats at midsummer 2014

All this means we have fewer birds and less time to catch them. To combat this we have to catch birds from further afield, sometimes using mist-nets rather than traps. It also (frustratingly) means we simply cannot do as many experiments. We are already planning ahead for next winter. What we really need now is a good breeding season, but even that will not be enough to bring the population back to what it was just two years ago. Much of the forest surrounding our field station has been cut down to make way for new housing. Many of our nest boxes were cleared along with it. We are now working to replace those (partly by selling nest boxes cheaply to local residents) and set up new feeding sites. With some luck we can maintain a decent population of both Great and Blue tits in the area for years to come. I hope so. When I first moved to Finland it seemed like an untamed wilderness, but I now see just how heavily humans have impacted it’s wildlife, and how quickly said wildlife is disappearing. For example, in January 2014 I came to the field station for a visit before starting my postdoc. I remember the head technician complaining about the Willow tits always stealing peanuts from the traps as they “knew we didn’t want to catch them”. In my past two winters I have seen exactly one Willow tit at the traps. I hope it comes back. It can have all the peanuts it wants.

More fun with tiny dinosaurs

Winter has come to Finland in all its snowy glory and that can mean only one thing. Back to Konnevesi!





































I already did one experiment with the Great Tits before Christmas, but now I am back to working with the Blue Tits, and all the joys and frustrations that entails. To celebrate the arrival of WiFi in the bird house I decided to live-tweet one full day of bird fun.

I started by introducing my participants for the day…

(Getting photos of them proved tricky)

We were all set to go, but problems began almost immediately.

Still there was some good news.

and soon we had our first success of the day!

By this time is was already midday and B48 still hadn’t eaten.

But even that was not enough.

So with not much happening it was time for some random facts!

As well as a discussion of the relative merits of Blue vs Great Tits.

All the while the Blue Tits continued to be uncooperative.

I started to consider bring out another bird. B42.

And the troubles continued.

Frustrations started to show.

But finally…

And we had our second success of the day.

But with the afternoon almost gone would that be the last?

It was time for a new addition.

But would B6 come through for us?

With one final success it was time to finish for the day. I normally aim to do 4 birds a day so 3 isn’t so bad.

Behavior 2015

A few weeks ago to returned from Behavior 2015 in Cairns and now I have finally gotten around to writing about how it went.

I was there both to give a talk on my post-doc work with the moths, and to present a poster on some of the ideas that have come out of my PhD. A bit cheeky I know but if you’re going to fly halfway around the world you may as well make the most of it!

I usually struggle to attract attention to my posters so when I saw that poster presenters at Behavior also had the option of giving a one minute speed talk I signed up right away! What I didn’t realise at the time is that this talk had to be given straight after the first plenary, to the entire conference. So it was with some concern that I started preparing my speed talk. Once I had put together something sensible-sounding I practiced it on my lab. That version was considered far too boring to stand out on a Monday morning and so my final version consisted mostly of asking the audience if unanswered questions about the recent seal on penguin sex story kept them awake at night. The answer was clearly yes as I had more people come to my poster than ever before! If you are wondering what on earth my work could possibly have to do with seals sexually harassing penguins then take a look at my poster below.

My Poster

Not everyone focused on that particular finding of course…

My talk also went well. I was speaking in the chemical communication session. Perhaps one of the take-home messages of this was that birds sense of smell is clearly hugely important in a variety of contexts. Not least for my work, it seems that the smell of the wood tiger moth’s chemical defenses may be just as important, if not more so, than the taste.

Other than the chemical communication session I particularly enjoyed the sessions on Costs and Conflict in Reproduction and Polyandry “beyond the individual”. One of my favorite talks was by Simon Griffith on the factors that influence the levels of extra-pair paternity in birds. He showed evidence that the presence of sub, or sister, species may drive extra-pair paternity due to selection for compatible genotypes.

I also wish I could have seen more of the session on animal contests as they were some awesome talks going on in there. As always with these big conferences it’s impossible to see every talk you wanted. The overall quality was very high though so at least I didn’t leave feeling like I had missed more good talks than I saw! I should mention here my appreciation for the active twitter hashtag, as it can easily alert you to interesting-looking talks going on in other rooms so, if nothing else, you can look up the abstract afterwards.

By far  the most memorable talk was the ASSAB Public Lecture by Professor Rick Shine. His work on the can toad invasion over that past decade is fascinating. Not least because we got a brief introduction to “toads on tour”, the convoluted rout the cane toad has taken across the globe as it has been introduced to one country after another. His work also has some hopeful findings, despite the rapid spread of the cane toad many native Australian species seem to be adapting to their presence, and his labs work on chemical signalling in the tadpoles is already finding new ways to control their numbers.

Of course I should also mention that all my lab mates also gave excellent talks on everything from the moths, to snake conservation, to the ever-present risk of colorblind chickens.


I was initially going to try and cover my extra-curricular adventures in oz here was well but given the length of this I think I shall instead save that for another post…

Excuses, excuses….

Peer review can be frustratingly slow. For once I am not complaining about one of my own papers, but rather a paper I have been hoping to cover in a blog post for….oh the last 8 months. Unfortunately said paper is still not out and so instead I just look sadly at my mostly-written blog post about once a month as it becomes gradually less and less topical. So that’s my excuse for the current lack on content on this blog.

Who knows, maybe my frustration will even drive me to submit my own reviews before the journals start sending me “gentle” reminder emails…maybe.

Do the benefits of polyandry scale with outbreeding?

My latest paper is available though advanced access in Behavioral Ecology. Sadly my beautiful diagrams are relegated to the supplementary materials so I will instead put them here in all their colorful glory!

Diagram showing the design of experiment 1. Females (on the left) were paired twice with either one or two males from one of the four treatments. Red bugs indicate Lygaeus equestris while yellowbugs indicate Lygaeus simulans.
Diagram showing the design of experiment 1. Females (on the left) were paired twice with either one or two males from one of the four treatments. Red bugs indicate Lygaeus equestris while yellow bugs indicate Lygaeus simulans.
Diagram showing the design of experiments 2 and 3. Females (on the left) were paired with two males according to the four treatments. Red bugs indicate Lygaeus equestris while yellow bugs indicate Lygaeus simulans. The brush indicated that males were washed with hexane prior to being introduced to the female.
Diagram showing the design of experiments 2 and 3. Females (on the left) were paired with two males according to the four treatments. Red bugs indicate Lygaeus equestris while yellow bugs indicate Lygaeus simulans. The brush indicated that males were washed with hexane prior to being introduced to the female.

The benefits of working on Finnish holidays

1. Building is basically empty, no-one to notice you singing in the lab

2. No queue for coffee machine

3. Can get the best table in the break room

4. It’s raining anyway

5. …and all the shops are closed

6. Finns will be impressed with your work ethic

7. Can show up late, leave early, procrastinate like hell and still feel virtuous because you are “working a holiday”

It almost makes up for all the times someone in the UK asks “Do you guys have a bank holiday today as well?” while posting photos of themselves drunk in a park.

Oh and happy Juhannus!

Cutting off bug penises in the name of science

Our latest paper is out and already getting some media attention!

Admittedly I had no part in the penis cutting aspect of this paper, that was all Liam’s work. I did help with the awesome microCT scans of mating bugs however. So once you’ve finished laughing at the guardian article, go check out the paper itself for an idea of what those crazy penises are actually doing during mating!

Micro-CT scan showing external genitalia of Lygaeus simulans following mating. The long penis can be seen in pink, and the paired claspers in blue.
Micro-CT scan showing external genitalia of Lygaeus simulans following mating. The long penis can be seen in pink, and the paired claspers in blue.

The magical properties of beer

I recently read a article on Jezebel explaining how science stories get twisted by the media into something almost unrecognisable, and certainly not true. While this may come as news to some people, I’m sure many researchers are aware of an incident where either their own work, or that of a colleague, has been twisted in a similar manner.

It made me think of a project I did back in undergrad. A friend and I were taking a course called Science and the Media, or something like that. Part of our grade was determined by a pair project in which we had to interview a researcher at the University and give a short radio presentation on their work. So we dutifully went and interviewed a biologist who was working on the effects of heavy metal poisoning on water snails. In particular, she had recently found that feeding the snails silica reduced the symptoms they displayed. The obvious spin to put on this was some sort of environmental or conservation perspective. It all felt a bit dull though, until we did a bit of random googling and found a few stories suggesting a link between heavy metals and alzheimers. Further investigation showed that this was hardly an uncontroversial link. Still no-one had disproved it, so it was still totally valid. Our next big breakthrough was when we realised beer is actually fairly rich in silicon. Now we had our headline: “Beer could cure alzheimers!”

Needless to say, we got a first on that project.

The best thing in our minds was that we had created a story that was undeniably false, and bore almost no relation to the research we were actually supposed to be reporting on, without technically lying. Of course since no-one beyond our class was ever going to hear our story (we conveniently forgot to pass a recording along to the original researcher, we had some shame), we didn’t expose anyone to our lovingly crafted bullshit who would be in a position to actually believe it. So imagine my surprise many years later to come across this.

It seems life doesn’t just imitate art, it also imitates undergrad projects.

Working with tiny dinosaurs

I decided fairly early on in my career that invertebrates were the way to go. Sure, herps are pretty cool, and I flirted with the idea of studying bats, but at the end of the day insects and spiders have it all. More importantly, who wants to spend their whole life filling out ethics forms? Thus, it was with great trepidation that I began my current work using blue tits. I’m still studying insects, but in this case I also want to look at their common predators, and that means birds.


Don’t get me wrong, I like birds just fine. I even have a bunch of pictures of me in my teens flying raptors (or more accurately holding raptors as they try to swing upside down from my glove…but I digress). I don’t have much experience with small birds though. We had a budgie growing up but that was mostly by accident. So here is an ongoing list of thing I have learnt in my foray into vertebrate behaviour:

I may look cute, but I know only hate

1. Blue tits are tiny balls of rage and they will fight you.

2. No seriously, they clearly have not caught up with the evolutionary changes that have occurred since they were dinosaurs. Also they have needle sharp beaks and an uncanny ability to find the softest, most tender, part of your hand to bite.

3. They can learn fast if there are mealworms involved. Not only do they quickly figure out that food appears in the food bowl, but several of them also learnt how the tray the food bowl sits on works. This is bad because it means they can stick their tiny heads through the gap where the tray slides into the cage and steal the mealworm or moth before you even start your experiment! On one occasion I started a trial only to realise the bird had already stolen the mealworm while I was distracted setting up my camera. Other times I have to guard the tray like a hawk and shoo away little bird faces as they poke through the gaps. Interestingly, the fact that they can get so far through the gaps suggests they could probably also get out of the cages if they wanted, but it seems freedom is not as strong a motivator as mealworms.

4. The protocol for catching escaped birds goes something like this:

  • Turn off the lights
  • Wait for bird to land on the floor (they shouldn’t fly when it’s dark)
  • Track bird down using light from a torch or your phone
  • Grab bird
  • Success!

In my experience however one (or several) of the following things actually happen:

  • Bird flies around the room in the dark banging into walls and shrieking like a demon.
  • Bird hangs upside down from light fittings like some kind of bat
  • Bird flies directly at your touch/phone
  • Bird runs around on the floor you are too scared to chase it in case you step on it in the dark
  • Bird lands on you, and then looks at you stupidly as you both wonder how your lives have come to this

If you can’t guess from this list of complaints I’m having a ridiculous amount of fun. I still can’t quite believe they pay me to do this, but long may it continue.

But WHY are the mealworms gone?

Note: No birds were harmed in the making of this blog post. Many mealworms were though.