The Botany Bake Off (2017 edition)

Cakes and baking have always been running themes in the Botany Department here at TCD. This year, members of the Department have turned things up a notch for the second ever Botany Bake off! The rules were simple; bake something that represents your research or work in the department. The stakes don’t get higher than this…

This cake represents the research of Prof. Jennifer McElwain using fossil leaves to reconstruct the evolution of the earth’s atmospheric composition and climate over millions of years. The leaves around the edge are of the Ginkgo tree. The pattern on the cake top shows what these leaves look like under a microscope. The ‘molecules’ on top of the cake represent the CO2 and H2O in the atmosphere around the plant leaves.

This cake was presented by Dr. Laura Russo to represent her research in the food webs of pollinators. The apple pastry roses represent different plant species, depended upon by various fondant pollinator species! Continue reading “The Botany Bake Off (2017 edition)”

What happens to animals when their habitat burns?

When you live in Ireland, it’s easy to forget that a good proportion of the world’s ecosystems regularly burn. In many regions, plants and animals have evolved to tolerate or even rely on fire. My recent paper investigates the factors that drive the success of an Australian gecko after fire. I found that the geckos were healthier after fires because of the availability of lots of prey, showing that these feeding relationships matter for a species that thrives after its forest burns.

Important word alert: succession = the sequence of changes in the physical structure and composition of plant and/or animal species in an ecosystem after disturbance.


In flammable ecosystems, natural cycles of fire and succession mean that habitats are complex, ever-changing systems.

But as we go through global changes in land use and climate, the effect of fire on ecosystems is being transformed. In some areas, fires are becoming more frequent and intense, while in other places, fire suppression by humans has removed this important process from the environment. Even in Ireland, wildfires of unprecedented size have occurred in recent years because of changing land management practices and a drier climate (I know, this last point is hard to believe some days!). Continue reading “What happens to animals when their habitat burns?”

Lightning Strikes at TCD

Secret Vatican archives, xenophobia, de-extinction, parasitism and hoovers were just a few of the many topics on the menu at the 2017 School of Natural Sciences Lightning Talks. This annual event brought together 24 PhD students and Professors from across the Botany, Geography, Geology and Zoology disciplines to present their research and battle it out to win the respect of their colleagues (and bragging rights). The catch? Presentations were limited to 120 seconds, a difficult feat considering how much scientists like to talk about their own work!

The Zoology department was out in full force, with seven presentations and four prizes. For her work on parasites in freshwater systems, Maureen Williams was awarded the third prize. For telling us if invasive fish have parasites and which parasites those are, Paula Tierney was awarded the Nature+ prize. For bringing us on a biogeographical journey through speciation, Fionn Ó Marcaigh was given an honourable mention. Finally, for my own research looking at how to prioritise species for cryogenic storage in ‘frozen zoos,’ I was awarded the first prize on the night.

Photo credit:

Frozen zoos are large reservoirs of cryogenically frozen and stored genetic material from numerous species. The largest frozen zoo in the world is kept within San Diego Zoo and houses more than 10,000 cell cultures, representing more than 1,000 species and subspecies. Although this is a substantial resource and many rare (and even extinct!) species are present in the collection, the way in which samples have been collected to date has been opportunistic and lacking a comprehensive plan or goal. As a result, we are likely missing key opportunities to collect samples from species which are on the brink of extinction or have already gone extinct. Continue reading “Lightning Strikes at TCD”

If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?

A recent study led by Sam Ross (Trinity College Dublin) and Dr. Nick Friedman and published in the journal Ecological Research, aims to ask how much we can learn from bioacoustic monitoring of ecosystems. Read more in the blog post snippet below, or see the full blog post on the IMECO blog:

“A recent study led by myself and Dr. Nick Friedman asks whether we can accurately measure how diverse different ecosystems are on the island of Okinawa, Japan. We set up 24 monitoring sites across the island in different locations – in forests, grassland, mangroves, near the beach and in the city – to monitor all the sounds that are produced near each site. We found that we can detect individual species and relate these sounds to natural patterns including the ‘dawn chorus,’ and we could identify sites with heavy human activity. All without having to look for any species.

The rise of bioacoustics

Technology is advancing worldwide. Everything from phones to microwaves is getting more advanced. Instruments for ecological research are no different. Our satellite tracking tags are improving; they’re getting lighter, cheaper and can store more data than ever before. We can use complex chemical techniques to understand who eats whom in a food web, and drones now allow us to image even remote habitats with relative ease. With these advances comes the rise of acoustic monitoring techniques for biological signals (bioacoustics for short)…”

Read the full blog post on the IMECO blog. 


About the Author

Sam Ross is a PhD student in Ian Donohue’s research group in the Department of Zoology, Trinity College Dublin. His research focuses on the effects of global change on ecological stability. Find out more about his research here:

Website |
Twitter | @SamRPJRoss
Research Gate | Profile 
Google Scholar | Profile
Linkedin | Profile
ORCID | 0000-0001-9402-9119

Inaugural EcoEvo@TCD photo competition

EcoEvo@TCD is getting a new look – one focused around the work we do here in the School of Natural Sciences at Trinity College Dublin. To get a broad picture of what goes on here at Trinity, we’ve put together some photos that represent a range of research and teaching activities from across the school. Check out the full gallery below:

View from the Swiss Alps near the Swiss-French border around Lake Geneva. This photo looks out of the valley from the town of L’Etivaz, where we were staying during fieldwork in June 2017.

Alain Finn is a research assistant in Yvonne Buckley’s research group. Find out more about his work on Twitter | @finchyIrl

A bird is released on Kabaena Island, Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia, after having its measurements taken as part of a biogeographical study of the region. Photo credit: Emma Shalvey.

Fionn Ó Marcaigh is a PhD student in Nicola Marples’ research group. Find out more about his work here.

Prof. Yvonne Buckley botanizing in the Burren (alliteration intentional). Photo by Dr. Laura Russo.

Dr. Laura Russo is a postdoctoral research fellow in Jane Stout’s research group. Find out more about her work here. Twitter | @lrusso08 Continue reading “Inaugural EcoEvo@TCD photo competition”

An EcoEvo Editorial


Hi there,

My name’s Sam Ross and I’ll be taking over as editor of the EcoEvo@TCD blog. I thought I should quickly introduce myself before we get the ball rolling and continue to share the cutting-edge ecology and evolution research going on at Trinity College Dublin.

Why Zoology at TCD?

In short, Twitter. I saw a tweet advertising a PhD position with Ian Donohue in the department of Zoology at Trinity. The title – “Global change and the stability of ecological systems” – seemed like a perfect match with my research interests, so I decided to apply. After a Skype meeting with Ian in September of last year, he agreed to take me on as a PhD student starting in September 2017. As promised, here I am nearly 2 months into my PhD, and so far, I’ve loved every minute of it! I’m really excited to develop our research ideas over the next 3-4 years and can’t wait to share them with anyone who will listen (or read).

A bit about my background

I’m originally from Nottingham in the U.K. but did my Undergraduate and Master’s degrees in Ecology and Environmental Biology at the University of Leeds. My Master’s research focused on the impacts of selective logging on birds in Malaysian Borneo – we developed a method to consider differences between individuals of the same species when measuring ‘functional diversity,’ a popular way of measuring biodiversity. You can read more about that work here. After my Master’s, I moved to Okinawa in Japan, where I worked as a research intern at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST for short) for six months. I worked with Evan Economo, mainly researching the natural forests of Okinawa using acoustic recording techniques. I’ll be writing more about this work very soon, so watch this space! I then returned to Leeds for a few months before starting my PhD here at Trinity. Continue reading “An EcoEvo Editorial”

EGG heads talk ecological genetics in Dublin

Using genetics to understand ecology is fascinating. The data reveal things that often cannot be found by observation alone, such as patterns of cryptic diversity, migration pathways and the source of colonising populations.

But life in ecological genetics research is peculiar because we sit on a border between two fairly different fields of science. In an ecological crowd we’re called the ‘genetics person’ while among geneticists we’re seen to have only a rudimentary knowledge of ‘real’ genetics and our comments on ecological theory are sometimes met with funny looks. So spending time in an ecological genetics crowd is refreshing and, last week, about 30 members of the British Ecological Society did exactly that.


The BES Ecological Genetics Special Interest Group (affectionately known as EGG) meet every year and 2017 was their first meeting in Ireland. It was a strategic move from the organising team headed by Dr Gemma Beatty (Aberystwyth University) to expand their Irish membership. The conference took place in the picturesque National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin. Continue reading “EGG heads talk ecological genetics in Dublin”

Seizing the new collaborator at scientific conferences

Approaching established scientists is nerve wracking when you are just starting out in your own scientific career. It terrified me, but having done so successfully, it is now not so such an intimidating prospect.

When I first went to science conferences as a new PhD student, my fellow early stage researchers and I used to award each other mingling points for having the confidence to break out of our trusted established circle and speak to people we had not met before. Knowing networking was a vital part of attending scientific meetings, we needed motivation to do more than catch up and share free wine. I am glad we pushed each other to do so. I have just returned from a 3 week research visit to Southern France, which would not have taken place, had I not plucked up the courage to approach a now collaborator after her keynote talk a few years ago. Now back in a chilly post-Christmas Dublin it seems like a good time to time to reflect on how my path to approaching new scientists has changed:

Having a question I want answered

After giving a talk it is great to hear somebody enjoyed it and finds your research interesting, but this may not lead to much further conversation than ‘thanks very much’. If you have a research question you would like to explore with someone they are far more likely to be interested. Scientists become leaders in their field in areas that excite them. Approaching scientists with a hypothesis that needs testing and an innovative way of doing should lead to a stimulating conversation.

Creating a new collaboration at a conference recently lead me to get to travel to Montpelier and play with new molecular toys.
Creating a new collaboration at a conference recently lead me to get to travel to Montpelier and play with new molecular toys.

Continue reading “Seizing the new collaborator at scientific conferences”

A recipe for collaboration


Recently, along with Adam Kane, Kevin Healy, Graeme Ruxton and Andrew Jackson, we published a review on scavenging behaviour in vertebrates through time in Ecography.

This paper was my first review paper as well as my first paper written from afar, without ever actually meeting in a room with the co-authors for working on the project.

Difficulty: *

Preparation time: 5 month to submission

Serves: 5 people (but any manageable number of people who you like working with will do)


  • An exciting topic:

For this recipe you will need an exciting topic.

In this case, prior to writing the review, we had often discussed the prevalence of scavenging behaviour through time and what ecological factors influence it.

Indeed, it came as a natural follow up to a paper published by the other co-authors earlier this year on ‘the scavenging ability of theropod dinosaurs’.

More generally, the topic should be broad enough to allow every person to look for anecdotes (did you know there was once a ‘scavenging bat called *Necromantis*?’ and to bring these together in an interesting, more generalised framework. Continue reading “A recipe for collaboration”

Research haikus

Last month, the Zoology Department’s Dr. David Kelly launched his first book of Japanese short form poetry, Hammerscale from the Thrush’s Anvil. At the launch of the book, David invited us in the audience to try our hand at writing our own haikus.

Taking him up on his challenge, and taking inspiration from his book, a few of us in the School of Natural Sciences have penned our own poems based on our areas of study. We even have a contribution from David Kelly himself!

Trying not to sacrifice coherency at the alter of syllable number was a rather new struggle for most of us, but we managed and, I’d like to think, emerged with a greater appreciation for the poets in our midst. Read on for our science-y foray into the arts!

(Paula Tierney @_ptierney)


Yellow red fish eyes

Maybe that’s a nematode?

No, it is more fish

Paula Tierney


Carbon fixed by plants

Then sequestered in the soil

Helps to keep Earth cool

Matt Saunders


Hoverflies hover

Syrphidae flying over

Gardens of flowers

Sarah Gabel


Monochrome poets

Curved claws etching musky spoors

Into the cold night

Aoibheann Gaughran Continue reading “Research haikus”