Today, Thursday 3rd March, is World Wildlife Day 2016. This is a day focussed on raising awareness of the wild animals and plants of the world, in particular, endangered species. In order celebrate World Wildlife day 2016, we spoke to a few academics and a student in the Faculty of Life Sciences, to recognise the work being done by them which can help to conserve species.
Amphibians are the most endangered animals on the planet. The reason for this is due to a number of factors including over-exploitation, land conversion and disease. However the biggest contributor to amphibian decline is climate change. Amphibians are very sensitive to climate change because they are ectotherms, and they need constant access to water due to the fact that they have permeable skin, meaning that they breathe through their skin, and are therefore very susceptible to pollutants.
The Minute Lecture series was a feature that I took part in during my internship! The feature consists of short videos briefly explaining some of the research going on in the faculty and why it is important.
I loved taking part in this feature, and this video [below] is one that I am particularly proud of (because I illustrated it!). Enjoy!
The academic year 2015-16 is drawing closer to an end, and it’s been another great year for the Faculty. We thought it would be nice to have a reminder of some the research that has come out of the Faculty this year so far. After all, what better year is there to do it than […]
I hope you are all well! … Good. Now let’s get back to me.
I celebrated my 22nd Birthday the other week! I had a lovely week at home, and I am definitely feeling very spoilt and full of yummy birthday/Easter treats. But nothing could possibly beat my 21st birthday last year. On my actual birthday, my family took me to a Turkish restaurant with belly dancers! The food was delicious and the dancing was a lot of fun! But my parents really upped their game with the presents, and got me a ‘Ranger for the day’ experience at the Wildlife Heritage Foundation (WHF), a big cat sanctuary in Kent. This involved me feeding and cleaning the living areas of the large cats. And much to my surprise when it came to feeding time for the cheetahs, I even got into the enclosure with them!
As part of the experience, I also got to pet a few of the animals, including a puma, snow leopard, a Bengal tiger, and a lion. It was up there with one of the best days of my life! I learnt so much from the experience, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone.
Places like the Wildlife Heritage Foundation are important, because they really focus on the conservation of species, in this case, large cats. They’re actually not open to the public normally, and a lot of the staff there are volunteers. This just shows that they don’t encourage public enjoyment (like zoo’s), but are there purely dedicated to the conservation of these beautiful animals.
Don’t get me wrong though! I love zoos! Zoos can be great, and they often contribute to conservation of species too! In fact, some of the animals at the WHF had been to zoos in the past and were due to in the future, as they had been matched with a member of the opposite sex. Basically, the way effective breeding works in places aimed to increase the population of endangered animals, is through stud books. In these books, all the animals which can contribute to future generations are recorded, where they can be matched with an appropriate individual of the opposite sex. And by appropriate, I mean an individual that is the most genetically different from the individual from the other sex. In fact at the time of visiting the WHF, one of the male lions had just been matched with a female in Africa, so they were preparing to transport the male over there in the next few weeks!
And you thought conservation programmes just involved breeding animals willy nilly! Nope, it’s not that easy I’m afraid. Breeding animals that are most genetically different is important; because it means that offspring are less susceptible to diseases (genetic and non-genetic), and have more capacity to adapt to changing conditions in the future. Therefore future generations are more likely to successfully live on to contribute to the animal population. And so conservation of the species is more likely to be successful, yay!
An example of when low genetic diversity can negatively affect a species, can be seen in white tigers. This trait occurs in offspring when a mother and a father contain a recessive allele for fur colour. Let me explain this a bit for you.
Every characteristic in an individual is made up of 2 alleles at a specific loci in their DNA, where an allele is defined as ‘each of 2 or more alternative forms of a gene that arise by mutation and are found at the same place on a chromosome’. These alleles can be either dominant or recessive. So using the example of fur colour in tigers, we will say that the normal colouration in tigers is Yellow and black, so we will call the allele for this ‘Y’, and it is dominant. The allele for white tigers is recessive, so we will give it a lower case ‘y’. So because 2 alleles contribute to a trait, they are always in pairs – one from the mother and one from the father. Dominant alleles are always expressed in an individual, whether it is paired with a dominant allele or a recessive. Recessive alleles are only ever expressed if BOTH the alleles are recessive.
So, if you get a mother and a father that are both dominant for yellow and black stripes, all of the offspring will be yellow and black. However sometimes, the mother and father will both be yellow and black striped, but they may have a recessive allele for colouration, which is disguised as it is not shown in their trait alongside a dominant allele. Therefore they could produce offspring with 2 recessive alleles, which would appear white and black striped. Does that make sense?
White tigers don’t live to adulthood in the wild. If the mother gives birth to a white tiger, she will kill it. This is because the white colouring is seen as disadvantageous, as it won’t camouflage well and therefore is more likely to be noticed by prey and a disadvantaged predator. Parents in the animal world want their offspring to be as fit as possible, so choosy females often go for characteristics in the opposite sex that are classed as the most fit, and therefore want these genes, along with their own to be carried onto the next generation. Another reason why mothers may kill a white cub would be because she knows that this individual will not be successful during mating when it’s older due to its disadvantaged genes, and so her genes would not be carried on to future generations, which she will not like!
However white tigers are a real beauty to look at. I’m guilty of finding them outstandingly beautiful, that’s why I chose to hand feed the stunning white tiger named Narnia while I was Ranger for the day! Due their beauty and their rarity in the wild, people love to see them and they have become quite the selling point for some zoos. This pressure has led to severe inbreeding of white tigers in captivity, to produce white tigers which people will then pay to see. However this has caused abnormal genetic defects in white tigers, due to the presence of homozygous recessive alleles.
*I would just like to add here that Narnia is NOT used in any breeding programme. She is kept at the WHF for her protection.
This example shows why you cannot just cross male with female when it comes to sustainable conservation! To build a population of a species, the breeding pairs must be genetically matched to achieve the most diverse offspring, in order to give the species the most positivity to thrive in the future.
Please do have a look on the Wildlife Heritage Foundation (click for link) website for more information! Like I said earlier, they are not open to the general public, so every help they get – from the ‘Ranger for a day’ experience, to small donations, really makes a difference in keeping great places like this up and running!
It’s British Science Week (14th-20th March)! So this week, we’re celebrating science, technology and engineering all across the university.
To kick start the week, I thought I would tell you about a science experiment that sticks in my mind, which I carried out for my Research Skills Module during my second year of studying Zoology at The University of Manchester. I carried out this experiment during the field course in Alpine Biodiversity and Forest Ecology, which took place in the Italian Carnic Alps. As this field course takes place in the summer after second year, I doubt much has been said about this field course on the student blog in the past! So I’ll take now as the perfect opportunity to tell you a little more about this.
I’m so sorry it’s been a long time since my last post. You’ll be happy to know that I’m back up on my feet again after 7.5 weeks on crutches! I mean I won’t exactly be running a marathon (or running at all) any time soon, but I am well and truly on the mend.
The first weekend that I was once again crutch-free, following the ‘heels*-incident’, I wanted to make the most of being able to drive and walk again! So in my much adored little car (named ‘Honey’), which I so dearly missed whilst being out of action for a very long 2 months, my boyfriend and I went to the Otter and Owl Wildlife Park in Derbyshire.
*If you’re wondering what happened to those demon ankle-breaker high heels… I burnt them. To ash. Never to be seen, or WORN, again.
Now, you know I’m a Zoologist, so I bet you’re dying to ask me what my favourite animal is! (And possibly also if I ‘want to be a Zookeeper’ – every Zoologists biggest pet peeve of a question). Well, otters are my favourite animals! They’re absolutely adorable in every single way! Their cute little faces, the squeaky noises they make, how excitable they are! But my favourite otter fact has to be, that they hold hands when they sleep so that they don’t drift away from each other in the water! They’re a very fun and lovable species, which makes me all the more truly saddened to know that they are under threat.
Above shows a photo of a North American river otter I took at the park, eating the fish in this photo, just a few moments before it was taken, we watched the otter swim around trying to find it for ages, after eventually emerging from the water with it balancing on its head and looking very confused. It was hilarious to watch (although you could argue that I am biased by love as I could watch otters forever).
I’m sure you and I can both agree that this clumsy animal’s cuteness alone is enough to want to save it! However, besides from the fact that they are outstandingly adorable, they’re also a fundamental part of an ecosystem. This is because the sea otter is known as a keystone species, meaning that it plays a huge role in maintaining a healthy structure within the ecological community in which it lives. Without it, the system would fall apart, with detrimental effects to other members of the community. In the example of the sea otter, they are a keystone species because they eat sea urchins. Without sea otters to control the population of sea urchins, they would be left to graze on the sea kelps uncontrollably. Now, sea kelp forests are very important in a marine ecosystem, because they provide nurseries for a number of marine species, including fish, seals etc. Kelps are also good for humans, because they help to protect our coastlines from harsh wave action and erosion, which will be increasingly important with climate change leading to increased sea level and storms! So basically, without sea otters, the kelp would die (by overgrazing), then everything else would die. INCLUDING US. Well, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit there, but it would probably be helpful for us, and definitely for marine ecosystems, if we could keep the kelp forests around.
Now I’m going to tell you why they’re endangered. I bet you can guess can’t you? Yep, you got it. It’s because of us. Many species of otters have been heavily hunted in the past for their fur. Although the exploitation through the fur trade has lessened over the years, it certainly meant that otter populations took a hit. Then combined with the effects of pollution/global warming and overfishing (limiting the otters food supply), it has made it hard for the otter populations to recover.
That said, the aim of this blog was not to go on a rant about why humans are bad and how we’re ruining the beautiful natural world (even though we are), because that would be a little hypocritical of me. It was really just to educate you all of the importance of underappreciated species such as the otter species, and perhaps give a little thought about how you think you can help these species … And to show you a load of cute photos of otters…
2 cute Eurasian otter pals
Now if you’re still not convinced that they’re not cute or clever enough to save, then be selfish, and want to save them so that we can keep the ecosystem services provided by kelp forests to protect our coastlines, and to provide a home for enough fish for us to eat sustainably.
It was a brilliant day, and I’d really recommend going if you’re in the area! Especially as, giving a little time and money to places like this, can really make a difference to species conservation. I will tell you about this a little more in my next blog – SPOILER ALERT, I’ll be blogging about what I learnt when I was a ‘Ranger for the day’ at The Wildlife Heritage Foundation.
This post is not about anything sciency, or even anything particularly interesting. This blogpost is about me, for me. I need to talk how difficult these past 10 days have been for me.
On Saturday 14th November, I broke my ankle.
I’m the sort of person who is very active and I love to be kept busy. I go to the gym most days after I’ve walked home from a 8 hour day at work. You’ll never find me spending hours in front of the tele, wasting the day away. That’s just not something I do – mainly due to my high level of boredom. However, this is exactly what I’ve had to be doing the past few days. Wasting the day away.
Although now I am actually back at work after refusing profusely to let the doctor sign me off, it’s still a great struggle. I’m so dehydrated because going to the kitchen to get myself a drink is so difficult. And as hard as I’m trying to eat well, I’m piling on the pounds due to lack of movement and exercise compared to my usual regime. I even have to spend my lunch breaks just sat at my desk at work, because it takes me too long to get anywhere! I’ve had to cancel so many plans purely because of how exhausting the crutches are and useless I am at getting around.
Even after watching numerous ‘how to walk with crutches’ tutorial videos, I’m still just terrible! My hands are horribly blistered and sore. The only good thing I’m absolutely hoping for out of this whole experience, is to have mind blowing upper body strength.
I’ve had lots of lovely visitors and have often been kindly surrounded by friends and family. To be honest I am getting better, and slowly the life is returning to my voice, but I do still have my down moments. And this was one of them.
I know people break bones every day. People break them a lot worse than mine – and they deal with it! But I’m really struggling, and I just wanted to get it out.
I hope you all had a good Halloween weekend! I certainly did. My uni pals and I got all fancy dressed up and found ourselves in a sweaty nightclub with sticky floors, which was great fun.
Something that I’ve never really understood about Halloween, is why dressing up as a cat is seen as appropriate ‘scary’ attire. I’ll be honest, I have done it in the past (I’m not proud), but that doesn’t mean I get it, or that it’s okay. CATS ARE NOT SCARY, they’re adorable. How an earth did the whole cat Halloween thing start?! Honestly, I just don’t understand.
Talking of cats, I’d like to introduce my Marley. He was the love of my life that was sadly taken away from me earlier this year. We were best friends. I loved him. He loved me – and at the time, that was something I truly believed. However whether cats really do love their owners, is a common debate – often between scientists and cat owners.
But let’s get one thing straight. I am not a crazy cat lady – I am a SCIENTIST. So let me tell you a few things about Marley, that made me think* that he loved me.
First of all, he absolutely loved being around people. He’d snake around your feet whenever you walked anywhere in the house. Or as soon as you sat down on the sofa with your breakfast, he’d jump on your lap before you got the chance to pick up your bowl of granola. It wasn’t just because he wanted the food, because he’d do it when I didn’t have food on me! And sometimes I’d let him have a little taste of my leftover milk, but he was never really interested. He just wanted to curl up into a ball on my lap and go to sleep. This clingy behaviour surely is a sign of affection no?! I mean, I carry out very similar behaviours towards my boyfriend when I am feeling emotional and vulnerable and ashamed (AKA feeling hungover – I don’t deal with that very well).
Secondly, he was the most vocal cat you’ll ever meet. Constantly meowing at people. If he knew I was in my room, he’d meow and meow until I let him in. Meowing isn’t something that cats do to other cats, it’s purely a way for them to communicate with humans. Now, listen here. My cat was TRYING TO TALK TO ME. Surely that means he loved me, right?
Maybe not. I mean, I did receive a scratch or 2 (or 3 or 4) from him from time to time. Let’s go back to that * sentence there. Marley made me THINK that he loved me. This is because humans have something called Theory of Mind – and because of this, humans attribute emotions to others. This is because Theory of Mind causes us to assume that other animals feel the same way as we do. So basically, because I loved my cat, my Theory of Mind was tricking me into thinking that he loved me too!
Theory of mind is crucial for behaviours that make us human. Such as: empathy, reciprocity, peacemaking, and perhaps most importantly – morality. But it is very difficult to test for morality and Theory of Mind, because for this you need to test if an animal is conscious. The best way we can do this is by using mirrors, to see if the animal is self-aware.
Humans, from a very young age, show signs of being able to recognise their reflection on a mirror. Other animals, such as apes, dolphins and elephants have also shown such behaviour – by responding to a mark made on their face then pointing towards it when shown their reflection. However when you put a cat in front of a mirror, it freaks the hell out. Marley used to charge at my mirror in my room and tried to bat is reflection– it was very clear that he did not recognise this as himself, and acted towards it like it was another cat.
Does this lack of self-awareness mean that cats are not conscious and therefore cannot love? Not necessarily. It is unsure whether self-awareness and consciousness are the same, in fact, it’s probably likely that they’re not, but we have no way to tell this at the moment and mirror-self recognition tests are the best thing we have. But there are lots of problems with mirror recognition tests. The biggest issue is that the mirror self recognition tests ask a lot of an animal cognitively. For example, even 1 year old humans do not pass this test – but they are conscious! So yeah let’s be honest, we can’t rely on them. (Sooooo he did love me?)
Well there you have it then! I’ll let you decide whether you think your cat loves you or not. Even after all that though, I still do want to believe he loved me. Maybe I am a crazy cat lady after all.