ICBB2014 (or “Impostor syndrome raises it’s ugly head again”)

At the beginning of August I attended the international butterfly behavior conference (ICBB2014) in Turku. This was my first time at this conference as I admit I wasn’t even aware it existed until this year! In my defense, I’ve never worked on butterflies (and in fact still don’t!) but thankfully it seems standards are slipping and they now happily tolerate moth researchers in their midst. Despite the slight mismatch, it was a really good opportunity for me to catch up on what’s going on in the field, and get a better handle on the biology of my new system; butterflies being a lot closer to moths than bugs are!


Cute butterflies at Lammi
Cute butterflies at Lammi
I am now also better acquainted with the rockstars of the butterfly world. I was already aware of the extensive ongoing work on Heliconius thanks to various entomology and genetics conferences, but I never realised the sheer amount of cool work on Bicyclus anynana (other wise known as the squinting bush brown). The Glandvill fritillary, famous for it’s use in the study of meta populations, was also well represented. This at least was one system I was already familiar with, having visited the home of the Glanville Fritillary Project at Lammi back in April (we were there to check out their impressive butterfly-rearing facilities). From the perspective of my current work on the maintenance of polymorphism in aposematic systems there were a lot of very relevant talks, but Erica Westerman’s talk, in particular, on biased mate-preference learning got me thinking more on the role of learning in reproductive interference as well.
Female Bicyclus anynana. Photo taken by Gilles San Martin. From Wikimedia Commons.
Female Bicyclus anynana. Photo taken by Gilles San Martin. From Wikimedia Commons.

So overall it was a very useful and enjoyable experience for me. That said there were moments when I felt very much like an outsider. I’m sure this is hardly an uncommon experience when attending a meeting for the first time, or moving into a slightly different system. For me this feeling tends to surface more at small meetings and in this case was probably made stronger by the references to the meeting’s long history and tight-knit community. To be clear, this is not a criticism. I’m certain the only intent behind these was to highlight both the success of the meeting, and the benefits it has, and will continue to bring, to the field. I wonder if I’m alone however in feeling subtlety excluded and, more importantly, how I can stop feeling that way. I think not having anything to present (either as a talk or a poster) certainly contributed. With a bit of luck I will soon have enough data to ensure I don’t find myself in that position again for quite some time. Still it seems my impostor syndrome hasn’t retreated quite as much as I thought. Bother.


I don’t want to end this post on a down note though, so I will take this opportunity to mention the awesome Marimekko bags we got with our registration packs! As well as making fellow conference-goers easily recognisable, even from considerable distances, they have made those of us who went the envy of our whole lab group. 🙂 I’m still sad that the different colours were not, in fact, an experiment on density dependent selection (several people expressed a desire for the rarest colours). Maybe next time?

Fieldwork is Fun

Two major things happened for me in June. Number 1: I passed my PhD viva! I can now actually go around calling myself a Dr.

Number 2: I did some fieldwork in Scotland. Despite demonstrating on various field courses its actually been a few years since I did proper fieldwork. For this trip we had quite an ambitious plan. Thankfully, despite less than ideal weather, we were pretty successful. Not only was I able to see (and catch) my moths in the wild for the first time, but we got a number of predation experiments set up which our field assistant has the honour of finishing off for us over the next month.

I had ambitious plans to work on a couple of papers and get started on my thesis corrections while I was there, but the long days in the field quickly put an end to that idea. I’d like to say I was sad about that, but one of my favourite things about fieldwork has always been the refreshing single-mindedness of it. Normally I always have at least five things I should be doing at any one time, plus a bunch of side projects that never quite happen, but on field work there is none of that. All the complexities of life drift away and for a little while you have one clear purpose and no distractions. That’s not to say fieldwork doesn’t bring complications of it’s own (it certainly does), but somehow these always feel so much more manageable than my usual day-to-day worries.

Of course the trip wouldn’t have been nearly as fun were it not for my awesome labmates. Despite our rather packed schedule we found the time to visit a couple of whisky distilleries (developing expensive tastes while we were at it), explore a ruined castle on the cliffs and see dolphins, twice! I also got to watch their first experience of BBC radio, in particular radio 2. I’m pretty sure they are now convinced that all British people are insane, or at least that our radio presenters are on drugs. Oh well, at least it distracted them from my driving…

The view from Findlater Castle
The view from Findlater Castle
Moth habitat by the sea
Moth habitat by the sea

Spiders in space

While hard at work (obviously) I recently came across this awesome picture on buzz hoot roar.

Buzz Hoot Roar – a “graphics-driven blog that shares and/or explains a scientific concept in 300 words or less.” Check them out!

This is awesome for two reasons: 1. I had a pet jird when I was a kid called Nefertiti, it’s a good name. and 2. SPIDERS IN SPACE!

But seriously, the fact that Nefertiti (Phidippus johnsoni) was able to not only adjust to hunting in zero gravity, but then back to gravity upon her return to earth is a testament to the amazing behavioural flexibility of jumping spiders.

I’ve written before about my love of jumping spiders, and posted far too many photos of my own but now I want to focus in on their impressive cognitive abilities. In my spare time I’ve been reading though Marie Herberstein’s book “Spider Behaviour: flexibility and versatility”. As the name would suggest this is just full of examples of cool spiders doing cool things but I’m just going to mention a few that relate to Nefertiti.

Firstly, hunting in zero gravity isn’t the only skill these little guys can pick up. Phidippus princeps can learn to associate colours, such as red or blue, with food and use these colours to locate prey in a maze. Not only can they learn rules like this, but they can take the context in which they learnt a particular rule into account. One really neat example (at least for me) involves feeding them seed bugs, in this case Oncopeltus fasciatus. Like most seed bugs O. fasciatus sequester chemicals from their natural food (in this case milkweed seeds) which make them taste bad to predators. If however, you feed them on sunflower seeds, as I and most lab researchers do, they have no nasty chemicals to sequester and taste just fine. (Note, by taste fine I mean to predators like birds and mantids, I refuse to eat one regardless of what it’s been fed.) A study by Christa Skow and Elizabeth Jakob found that the spiders quickly learnt to avoid the bugs if they were fed ones that had been raised on milkweed seeds, but if the spiders were given bugs that had been raised on sunflower they kept on eating them quite happily. So far so good, but what they did next was to train the spiders in two different environments. When spiders that had learnt to avoid the bugs in one environment were presented with them in a different environment they attacked the bugs at a higher rate. Not only is this a cool example of context-dependent learning, it also makes sense as a forging strategy. Given that the bugs take their chemical defense from their food, they may have varying levels of chemical defense in different areas based on the types of plants available for them to feed on. That means that the likelihood that a bug is poisonous may be different in different habitats. So even if you know to avoid the bugs near the bushes, it might still be worth having a taste of this one you found by the river, just to be sure.

Given the intelligence of these little creatures, it is unsurprising that environmental enrichment has also been found to affect their behavior. Lab reared P. audax performed worse than wild-caught spiders in a variety of behavioural tests, (including my favorite, will they attack a video of an insect on a touchscreen?). However, their performance was improved if they had been kept in a larger cage and provided with a green stick. I’m glad to say I took this study to heart and all my spiders had at least two sticks in their cages. By the looks of this video Nefertiti’s cage also had no shortage of things to explore and keep her brain sharp during her retirement.


Herberstein, Marie Elisabeth, ed. Spider behaviour: flexibility and versatility. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Christa D. Skow and Elizabeth M. Jakob, Jumping spiders attend to context during learned avoidance of aposematic prey Behavioral Ecology (January/February 2006) 17 (1): 3440 first published online October 12, 2005 doi:10.1093/beheco/ari094


Braunschweig Natural History Museum

Natural History museums are some of my favourite places to visit and, since I was recently in Braunschweig, I took the opportunity to visit the Naturhistorische Museum Braunschweig. Someone told me this is the oldest museum in Europe, while the museum website has the slightly more modest claim of being the oldest museum in Germany. In any case it was founded in 1754 by Carl I. of Brunswick and Luneburg, and is currently housed right next to the university.

Everyone needs an elephant embryo.

The museum itself is a decent size, spanning four floors (there is a lift of stairs are not your friend). All the information in the museum is in German, but I was generally able to work out what each section was. On the ground floor there is a small section dedicated to its founder, with some cool examples from his original collection. At first it seemed to be a typical, slightly old fashioned, museum, with stuffed animals arranged in little murals. Each mural contained one main species, plus one of two smaller species slightly hidden amongst the fake vegetation. There was also a nice insect section, with information on the huge number of insect species as well as some cool examples of wasp and ant nests.

The museum really comes into its own on the upper floors. There was an impressive dinosaur room, with touchscreens showing information on the excavation programs, as well as ton and ton of fossils. Possibly my favour part was the microscopes they had set up so you could view microfossils and insects preserved in amber. Given that no natural history museum is complete these days without live animals, they also have an aquarium and vivarium in the basement with a good range of animals.


So in summary:

Price? 4 euros for an adult. There is also a student discount and education groups go free.

Interactive? A bit, there were some touchscreens around the place showing videos and other information. The fossil section also had the aforementioned microscopes, plus draws to pull out and some phones playing animals calls.

Educational? Yes. There was a good amount of information on topics like evolution, ecology and conservation. In particular the section on insects has some nice examples of food webs and there was even a display dedicated to human evolution.

Adults or kids? This museum is probably aimed more towards adults, but there certainly seemed to be enough to keep kids happy too.

Shop? The shop was small but carried all the required novelty pencils, plastic dinosaurs and soft toys.

Overall? It was good value for money and the staff seemed friendly despite language barrier. I would definitely recommend a visit if you are in the area.

No electricity for Foreigners (i.e. moving countries is hard)

I hate asking for help. Well…that’s not quite true. From a small subset of people I am quite happy to ask for help, as my long-suffering PhD office mate will attest, but from people in authority? People I want to make a good impression on? Strangers? Forget it.

Thus it was probably not my smartest idea to move to a country where I don’t speak the language. I’m going to start by saying I am well aware that it is way way, easier to be a non-Finnish speaking person in Finland than it is to be a non-English speaking person in the UK. For starters people here don’t get mad at you for not speaking Finnish. They also don’t say Finnish words very loudly at you in the hope that this will magically make you understand. Most organisations have an English section on their website, even if it is a bit limited, and most Finns under the age of 40 speak English. (Quick hint, if a Finn says they speak “a bit” of English it means they are practically fluent.) That said though, there are still problems. Foremost among these is Finland’s apparently unofficial policy that foreigners can’t have electricity.

So you have an apartment sorted? Congratulations! You even managed to do this without asking for much help (though you still needed some, to your eternal shame). Now you need to open a contract with the local electricity company. Unlike in the UK, you need this contract before they will turn on the power to you apartment. Say you want to move straight in when you arrive in Finland? You should probably call the set up the contract about a week before you move. Step one is getting past the Finnish robot voice to find someone who speaks English (if you have a Finnish-speaking friend in the UK you’re going to have to ask for yet more help), but here’s where the fun really starts. In order to open your contract you need to have a Finnish ID number. In order to get a Finnish ID number you need TO ACTUALLY BE IN FINLAND. Once I arrived getting it only took me a couple of days in the end, but it involved a trip to the police station and then to the town hall, all accompanied by a helpful Finn (who also called the electricity company for me after my hilarious failed attempts to communicate with them). Nevertheless, this meant several days of darkness. Good job it’s not winter!

You kind of need an ID number for everything here. It leads to a weird system where you can’t get an employment contract without a number, and you can’t register for a number without an employment contract. Thankfully, the University is wise to this and simply puts a temporary number on your first contract to neatly sidestep this issue.

My current issue is getting a tax card; actually issue makes it sound harder than it is. As you will soon see this particular problem is entirely of my own making. All the online advice says to simply fill out a tax form and take it to the local tax office. Easy right? So form in hand I (eventually) located the nearest tax office and paid them a visit. I walked in, looked at all the different desks and waiting areas, read the (entirely Finnish) signs, dithered for a bit, and then walked out.

Yeah, I suck. I should have just found a staff member and asked them what to do. Failing that I should ask a Finn to come with me and translate the signs. Instead my new plan is to try and send the form in the mail, thereby neatly avoiding any human interaction whatsoever. Problem is I first need to ask someone how the mail system here works….

Maybe I could just pay 60% tax instead? How bad could it be?


So I recently moved to Finland to start my post-doc. It’s all been a bit crazy what with trying to write up, publish a bunch of papers and fit all my worldly belongings into two suitcases. Well, actually, it’s still a bit crazy but nothing motivates you to write blog posts like procrastination so here goes!

I’ve joined Johanna Mappes’ lab and I’m going to be working on variation in chemical protection in the wood tiger moth. Here is a photo of a wood tiger moth. Aren’t they cute? They definitely help make up for having to say goodbye to all my old lab pets (sob).

I did not take this photo, I stole it off a co-workers fb page
I did not take this photo, I stole it off a co-workers fb page.

So I will have to think of a new name for this blog (and my twitter feed). Not that it’s urgent, this is not exactly an active website 🙂

Also Finland is awesome, not sure about their coffee though…

The view from the bridge to my department


Baby mantids

Since this blog has just turned into “pictures of lab pets” here are some blurry photos of baby mantids!

I did eventually have to separate these guys as they just wouldn’t stop eating each other. Unfortunately, there were a few I didn’t have pots for so I ended up with a sort of mantid hunger games. I have named the survivor Katniss.

march 2014 027 march 2014 029march 2014 026


My trip to PopGroup got off to a shaky start this year when a “potentially suspicious” package shut down Edinburgh Airport  hours before we were due to fly to Bristol. Thus, while everyone else was drinking wine in the roman baths, we were stuck in a hotel lobby waiting for updates via twitter. Eventually we were allowed back in the airport and made it to Bath around 1am.

Despite this, the conference was very enjoyable. The venue (the Assembly rooms) was beautiful and conveniently placed a short walk from the centre of Bath and the long lunch breaks gave us ample time to get out into the city. We even had a bit of sunshine!

Bath Abbey

The quality of the talks was very high (I feel like everyone always says this about conferences, but it is true!) My favourite was the plenary given by Dr Lilach Hadany on stress-induced variation. She talked about the ways in which stress-induced recombination, dispersal and mutation can all spread through populations. The idea being that individuals of low fitness (that are therefore stressed) have more to gain from changing their phenotype than successful individuals. Thus, “the living dead can take any risk”. I also liked Krzysztof Kozak’s talk on the non-hybrid origin of the butterfly Heliconius hermathena. The talk pretty much does what it says on the tin, despite its hybrid phenotype, genotypic evidence suggests that the species is not the result of hybridisation at all. Instead its characteristic zebra pattern may be ancestral, or have evolved multiple times.

As for prizes, the Scottish universities clearly came out on top. The prizes for best student and best post-doc talk went to Sam Lewis and Susan Johnston respectively. The prize for best post-doc poster also went to Edinburgh. In fact the student poster prize was the only one to go to a different university, as I won it! A clear indication of the value of summing up you findings clearly and succinctly, even if they are not what you were hoping for.

My winning poster.

Finally, the conference dinner was delicious and the live band very impressive. I only wish I could say the same for the DJ! At least he did his bit for the local pubs of Bath by forcing us all out of the venue in search of better music.

Look! Sunshine!
I forget their name but they were very good.
The live band.

Baby snails

Our lab tech keeps Giant African Land Snails and today some of her eggs hatched. I was going through the photos I took of them when I realised I had taken so many I had effectively filmed one of them them in stop-motion.

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I’ve also cleaned a few of them up and added the to the lab pet gallery. We’ll all be getting baby snails in our christmas stockings this year!