More wacky animal sex

This time it is monkeys that are to blame!

Still from video by  Alexandre Bonnefoy

National Geographic will explain.

In my official capacity as someone who is willing to talk about inter-species sex I even provided a few quotes for the above story!

To see the original paper click here.

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.

New entrance display at the Natural History Museum in London

I don’t know how to feel about this. First they keep changing the layout of Facebook and now this! Don’t people understand that change confuses and frightens me?

On the one hand, I know the entrance displays have changed over the years. Although “Dippy” (I also never quite liked that name but hey, it’s easier to write than “the Diplodocus skeleton”) was there when I first started visiting as a child I also remember that her neck used to go straight up towards the ceiling and her tail trail along the ground. The blue whale skeleton looks pretty cool, but I can’t help thinking it’s not nearly as iconic as a dinosaur. It also makes me sad that I never had the chance to go to Dino Snores. Maybe they’ll remain it Whale Snores?

Edit. My sister suggested they re-name it Whale Song instead. Not as clever as Dino Snores but it works.

Fighting Procrastination

A few years ago now I wrote a blog post over at Inside St Andrews about managing procrastination. Since then I have added another tool to my arsenal in the eternal war against unproductivity and I thought I’d mention it here.

Habit RPG.

For those of you who don’t spend countless hours of you life playing computer games, RPG stands for Role Playing Game. Described as “an open-source habit building program that treats your life like a Role Playing Game” HabitRPG is free to use and recently made Lifehacker’s list of the 5 best to-do list managers (even beating the ever-popular Evernote, which I also use). Upon starting the game you can create your to-do lists, as well as specify habits you wish to build and daily tasks. You can also customise the frequency at which tasks must be done, as well as their difficulty. Overdue tasks change colour and harder tasks give more rewards when completed. These rewards take the form of money (which can be used to buy clothes and equipment for you character), experience (which will allow you to level up) and various rewards such as cute pets.

Failure to complete tasks (or giving in to bad habits) will cost you health and can even result in your character dying, forcing you to start again. Leveling up increases you health and allows you to unlock various skills that can be used to increase the rewards for completing tasks, or reduce the penalties of failure. Obviously it is easy enough to cheat. You set your tasks and no-one is going to spot if you are actually lying about what you have completed. Despite this I have felt very little desire to cheat, it just takes all the satisfaction away.

A screenshot from a few months back.

Once you reach a certain level you can also undertake various “quests” which involve basically doing all your tasks on time in order to damage “monsters” which will also add extra penalties for missed tasks. You can join up with other users to create parties in order to battle these monsters. This is useful because the risk of letting down your party members serves as extra incentive to tick off your whole list. There are even guilds where people share stories and advice, including a Graduate Students Guild.

Looking at my screenshot one thing you might notice is that my habits list includes a lot of basic things like eating meals. This is left-over from when I first started using it during a particularly rough patch. Back then even eating felt like a chore. These days I keep those sorts of things on there to avoid backsliding  (and also for easy points).

The one downside of HabitRPG is it does look unmistakably like a game, making it kinda awkward to use in the office. Then again my co-workers have caught me looking at much sillier stuff.

The St Ivo School Entomology and Natural History Society

It seems like it was inevitable that I would end up in Biology. In fact, looking back at my childhood it is actually more surprising how long I remained in denial of my obvious path in life (I was going to be a ballet dancer). Many of my earliest memories revolve around my love for the Natural History Museum in London. I used to hand in shells and fossils at the info desk and weeks later they would return in the post with little cards describing their species and range. I still have those cards. My love of museums was so great that I tried to set up my own in our back garden, populated by coloured rocks and caterpillars. I kept snails and stick insects as pets. I was obsessed.

There is a good chance, however, that this would have been just a childhood phase, long forgotten by now, were it not for one specific thing: The St Ivo School Entomology and Natural History Society. Despite it’s fancy-sounding name, Ento (as it was known by it’s members) was more commonly known in the school as “the reptile hut” or “that place that stinks”. It did stink. It also housed one of the largest collections of exotic animals owned by a state school*. The collection was in constant flux, but during my seven-year stint (from age 11 onwards) we had everything from jirds, chipmunks and Egyptian spiny mice to several 10 meter boa constrictors. The Society was founded in 1957 by biology teacher Henry Berman. The story he told was that it was originally just an entomology society, until one of the pupils asked if they could get a tarantula (controversial given that spiders are not insects). Mr Berman agreed on one condition, that the responsibility for caring for it would be entirely on the students, not himself.

By the time I joined the school, several decades later, the collection had ballooned to hundreds of different species, requiring the Society to be split into four “departments”: Mammals, Reptiles, Amphibians and Invertebrates. All new members had to spend several weeks in each department, learning how to care for all the different animals, as well as some of their basic biology, before passing a series of tests to become full members. At this point they could choose a department to specialise in. Each species had a card with it’s scientific name, family, range and care instructions, and tests involved learning the scientific names of at least three species from your department, and some general knowledge about the working of the society (including out motto “There is no they”. The main determinator of membership, however, was whether the senior members thought you worked hard enough. Despite the huge number of animals, the old deal still remained. Mr Berman was retired from teaching by this point and came in twice a week to supervise us, but the responsibility for the upkeep of the whole collection lay with its student members. Upon Mr Berman’s second retirement (for real this time), the management of the Society was taken over by another biology teacher who changed the emphasis from classical natural history to more practical animal welfare. While the removal of some of the more academic requirements for members was slightly sad, the continuing growth of the collection required it.

The reason you can't see the snake's head is because it was making a break for the bush just out of shot.
The reason you can’t see the snake’s head is because it was making a break for the bush just out of shot.

Long before I arrived, news of the society had (somehow) reached a naturalist working for Disney who send us several animals from the US, including two ornate box turtles, who were still there when I joined. This was not the only donation the Society received. We were considered almost like a local animal rescue center due to the sheer range of animals we kept. During my time there I remember receiving old lab mice left over from undergraduate experiments at Cambridge University, gerbils that had been bought for a small child and subsequently rejected, four leopard geckos, seven hamsters, two corn snakes, a royal ball python and, most memorably, two boa constrictors and two Burmese pythons, all over 5 meters, from a man who was emigrating to Spain. On top of that we had breeding colonies of endangered voles, a slow worm that had been run over by a car and couldn’t be re-released, scorpions, tortoises, terrapins, treefrogs… the list goes on. You can imagine the amount of care all these animals required. Every break and lunch time was spent in the small, windowless building behind the science block that housed the collection, feeding, watering and cleaning. During school holidays we drew up rotas of who would come in when. The workload was intense, and, despite limited supervision by volunteer biology teachers, the hierarchical structure and claustrophobic environment meant bullying was a constant problem. Despite all this we still went. Every day, month after month, year after year. Snake bites (actually less painful than hamster bites we discovered) didn’t put us off. The infestation of cockroaches (escaped several decades before and almost impossible to eradicate in the warm reptile room) didn’t put us off. Hating the sight of each other didn’t put us off.

This is because the benefits were amazing. Each summer we would take the collection round all the local primary schools, showing our animals at summer fetes and open days. We attended the annual Conversazione (a word I could barely pronounce at age 12) of the Cambridge Natural History Society, held in Cambridge University. There I got to meet Cambridge professors and local activists. More than one ex-member has gone on to work in science (and we produced a fair number of veterinarians as well). One meeting with a fellow ex-member stands out in my mind. Several years ago I was volunteering in the Entomology section in the Manchester Museum cataloging scarab beetles. I admit I was slightly bored and had, for some reason, decided to google the society to see if anyone had written about it online. What I found was the blurb of a book on stick insects that said the author had been a member. While reading this my boss appeared behind me. Embarrassed at having been caught slacking off, I told him I was just reading about this guy who had gone to the same school as me. “Oh yes” said my boss, “he’s just upstairs dropping off some new specimens, do you want to come meet him?” And that is how I met Dr Phil Bragg.

On a more serious note, I credit the presence of the Society on my CV with my getting into Manchester University. I later discovered I had some of the lowest intake grades of anyone on my course, yet I graduated with one of the highest degrees. My experience helped me get a position in the Manchester Museum during my undergraduate studies, I think it is still helping me now. It is the one thing from school I will never remove from my CV, and I suspect I am not the only one it helped.

I wish I could finish this post by describing what the Society is up too now. Unfortunately I can’t. In 2007, following the prolonged illness of the teacher in change and with no new volunteers to take his place, the school decided to close down the Society. It survived 50 years, a serious fire and countless idiot children but in the end it seems the school did not value it enough to pay for it’s survival. I don’t even know what happened to the animals in the collection. Despite working for the school during my summers in the years proceeding the closure they never informed me of their decision, or the fate of the animals I had spent almost a decade caring for. I can only assume they were sold or given away. It seems highly unlikely the school received even a fraction of the money the collection was worth, but that is a small price to pay as long as they all went to good homes. The decision still makes me angry to this day.** St Ivo is a good school, but it is still a comprehensive (or rather an Academy these days). Many of it’s students will never get the advantages provided by private schooling, but for almost half a century they did have access to something almost no children in the UK ever will. I got that advantage, and I will always be grateful for that.

*A quick note about the facts and stories I write here. These are all things I remember being told by other members or in some cases Mr Berman himself. That said I don’t know how accurately I am remembering these things (it was a while ago) or indeed how accurate they were to begin with. I choose to believe what I remember, but I could be wrong. There is a section about the Society on St Ivo School’s Wikipedia page though that may be more accurate.

**and not just me. I’m sure it was a difficult decision and that the school had their reasons, however, I will always believe they made the wrong call.

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