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.
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”
“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)…”
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:
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”
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”
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!
In the years to come, 140 ecologists working in Ireland will look back with fond memories of being part of the inaugural meeting of the Irish Ecological Association (24th-26th November). We will remember hard-hitting plenaries, compelling oral presentations, data-rich posters, influential workshops and the formation of the IEA’s first committee. The lively social events might be harder for some of us to remember…
There could not have been a more fitting way to open the conference than the plenary seminar from Professor Ian Montgomery (QUB) on Thursday night. Within the hour, he managed to given an incredibly detailed summary of the natural history of Ireland, showing how Ireland had been an island for 16,000 years and presenting evidence that human occupation dated back 13,000 years. Ian stepped us through successive mammal invasions, classifying them as true ‘natives’ and more recent ‘invasives’. His seminar was open to the public and the audience included local farmers with strong concerns about the impacts of invasive mammals on their stock.
We were welcomed the following morning with an energetic plenary from Professor Jane Memmott (U Bristol), covering her strikingly diverse career. She took us on a journey from life as a medical entomologist, to tropical ecologist living in a Costa Rican jungle tent, to invasion biologist in the land of invasives – New Zealand, to her more recent work on biodiversity in urban and farmland systems. Quantitative food webs were the central theme. Using both simple and complex food webs, based on enormous data sets, Jane clearly showed that we only see the full story about ecosystem dynamics by examining links between trophic levels. Continue reading “Ecology & Science in Ireland: the inaugural meeting of the Irish Ecological Association”
Earlier this month, postgraduate students of the Zoology department compete in the fourth annual ‘School of Natural Sciences Lightning Talks’ alongside students and staff from Botany and Geology.
We all presented 120-second snapshots of our research and were judged by a panel. Judges included the Head of the School of Natural Sciences Professor Fraser Mitchell, Science Gallery’s Aine Flood and Trinity’s press officer for the Faculty of engineering, mathematics and science, Thomas Deane.
Zoology had two winners on the night, Darren O’Connell (@oconned5) for his presentation on ‘Character release in the absence of a congeneric competitor’ and myself, Rachel Byrne, on my research titled ‘Parasites of badgers in Ireland- an untold story.’
When attempting to conserve a rare animal population sometimes every individual counts. Conservationists regularly go the extra mile to protect their study species. The conservation efforts implemented for the Little Tern (Sternula albifrons) in Britain and Ireland demonstrate the success these efforts can have. This species nests on shingle beaches and had experienced catastrophic population declines due to increasing development and use of beaches by people. Little Tern adults are very vulnerable to disturbance and their eggs are particularly vulnerable to walker’s boots! Thankfully a network of wardened colonies, run by a mixture of conservation organisations and enthusiastic volunteer groups, succeeded in stabilising this species’ population.
However the Little Tern has lost much of its former range and is increasingly dependent on wardened colonies for their continued existence on these islands . Being concentrated in a densely populated protected areas has made them acutely vulnerable to predators. This has led wardens at the nationally important colony at Kilcoole in Co. Wicklow to adopt a practice of fostering Little Tern eggs abandoned after a depredation event in an attempt to maximise colony productivity, outlined in our recent paper in the latest issue of Irish Birds.
As Little Tern colonies are often squeezed into small protected areas this makes them a beacon to hungry predators. Corvids (members of the crow family), can be a danger to colonies. They are vigorously mobbed by the terns, but sometimes manage to slip through the defences. It was noticed that corvids often only managed to take one egg from a nest, perhaps because the parents were then more vigilant. However within a day of having an egg taken, the parents abandoned the remaining eggs in every case observed. This may have been due to anticipation of the predator’s return (Little Terns depend upon their egg’s camouflage to protect their nest), or in an attempt to re-lay a full clutch. However clutches laid later in the season often have poorer survival rates .
To maximise colony productivity, Kilcoole wardens fostered abandoned eggs abandoned after depredation events to other nests on the same incubation schedule when the colony experienced corvid depredation in 2011 and 2014. Nests were confirmed abandoned after the parent’s failed to return to incubate for several hours and the eggs went cold. The parents in recipient nests always accepted the foster eggs, apparently not questioning why they had gained an extra egg! Where possible eggs were fostered to other nests which had experienced partial depredation but had not yet been abandoned, replacing the eggs lost. Having a full clutch again seemed to stop the parents abandoning the nest. Fostering eggs resulted in the fledging of an additional 5 Little Tern chicks, a small but worthwhile number given the precarious status of the Irish populations.
The fact that the fostered eggs remained viable despite hours without incubation in cold conditions further demonstrate the extraordinary robustness of seabird eggs. In a previous paper we wrote about how Little Terns recollected eggs which have been washed out by tides and moved them into new nests. Many of these eggs hatched successfully even after hours without incubation, exposure to freezing seawater and potential mechanical damage from being moved.
This robustness can prove a boon for conservationists working with endangered species. In a recent case an egg abandoned by an inexperienced pair of Chatham Island Tāikos (Pterodroma magenta) was successfully fostered to another pair after being abandoned for 10 days. Even after all this time without incubation a healthy chick was hatched, an important victory as only 150 of these birds are left in the world, showing the potential value of egg fostering.
While the aspiration must always be for animal populations to be self-sustaining, in many cases hands on conservation measures are necessary to ensure a population’s survival. In order to ensure the continued survival of the Little Tern in Britain and Ireland wardened colonies are still necessary, at least until they experience a full tern around in fortunes.
Author: Darren O’Connell
Photo credits: Little Terns – Andrew Power and Peter Cutler. Chatham Island Taiko Chick – Dave Boyle.
A special thanks to all my co-workers on the Kilcoole Little Tern project, the volunteers who make the project tick and project manager Dr Stephen Newton of BirdWatch Ireland.
 Balmer, D., Gillings, S., Caffrey, B., Swann, B., Downie, I. and Fuller, R. (2013) Bird Atlas 2007-11: the breeding and wintering birds of Britain and Ireland. HarperCollins, UK.
 Nager, R.G., Monaghan, P. and Houston, D.C. 2000. Within-clutch trade-offs between the number and quality of eggs: experimental manipulations in gulls. Ecology 81: 1339-1350. DOI: 10.1890/0012-9658(2000)081[1339:WCTOBT]2.0.CO;2
First in a series of posts on life after an undergraduate degree, Alison Boyce gives an account of the life of a scientific technician.
Science, engineering, and computing departments in universities employ technicians. Anyone working or studying in these areas will have dealt with a technician at some point but most will be unaware of a technician’s route into the position and their full role in education and research.
Technical posts are varied e.g. laboratory, workshop, computer. Funding for technical support is afforded by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) to provide assistance in undergraduate teaching. This is the primary role of technical officers (TOs) after which the Head of Discipline or Chief Technical Officer (CTO) decide further duties.
Until the early 1990s individuals joined the university as trainee technicians. Many came through the ranks starting as laboratory attendants, a position which still exists. Trainee technicians would spend one day a week over four years working towards a City and Guilds’ qualification. At this time the occupation was mostly hands on with little theoretical work. Many started young by today’s standards (starting at 14 years old was not uncommon), and they continued to study well past diploma level. Changing the nature of the role so much that nowadays almost all technical officers have primary degrees and come with a more academic view of the position.
In 2008, it was agreed that incoming technical officers must hold at least a primary degree in order to work at Trinity College Dublin. Those looking for promotion to Senior TO would require a Master’s and to CTO, a PhD. Those already in the system would not be penalised, local knowledge and experience are recognised equivalents and rightly so. This agreement gave rise to the job title changing from technician to technical officer reflecting the removal of the apprenticeship system. Many still use the old name but it doesn’t cause offence. These qualifications represent minimum requirements. TOs constantly train, learning new technologies and procedures. It is difficult to resist the temptation of further study when you work in an educational environment.
From graduate to TO
Gaining experience in medical, industrial, or other educational laboratories is most important. Further study in areas general to laboratory work are also advantageous e.g. first aid, web design, or statistics. Sometimes researchers move into a technical role temporarily and find they enjoy it so stay on. Applying to a discipline with some relationship to your qualifications makes sense; a physicist may not enjoy working in a biological lab. Having come though the university system many graduates would be familiar with teaching laboratories and their departments. Seeing a place for yourself in the future of a discipline is vital for career progression as it is seldom you will see a TO moving from one department to another. It should be possible to adapt the role to your skills or study to meet those required for promotion.
Day to day
All labs/disciplines differ but certain core responsibilities fall to the technical staff at some point. Running practicals is the biggest responsibility during term time with design and development out of term. Some departments in science and engineering have lab and field based classes. Various modules require field sampling in preparation for the practical. Getting out on the road can be very satisfying even if you are at the mercy of nature!
If you consider what it takes to run a home you’ll have an idea of what a TO does to maintain a lab/department. Ordering supplies and equipment. When something breaks, repair it or have it mended in a cost effective way. Logging, maintaining and installing equipment, health and safety information and implementation, chemical stock control, running outreach programmes, planning and managing building refurbishment, organising social events, updating the discipline’s web pages, assisting undergraduate student projects and much more.
These are just the basic duties and do not describe the essence of technical work at university level. Firstly it is to guide, instruct, and assist in scientific matters. An analytical and practical mind is necessary. You must have a willingness to facilitate the design and execution of projects in teaching and research. If you are eager to help and learn, it’s the perfect job for you. The information base for many materials and methods is the technical staff. Local knowledge and an ability work in consultation with other departments is often key to completing a project. Ideally, when a researcher leaves the university, their skills should pass to a TO keeping those abilities in-house. Imparting them to the next generation.
If you’re very lucky, you’ll be in a discipline that encourages you to take part in research and further study. It’s wise to check where a discipline or school stands before considering work in that area. Career opportunities open up in such disciplines. CTO Specialist is a promotion given to someone with expertise of a specialist nature e.g. IT, histology. Experimental Officer is a post created to further research in a discipline and often requires some teaching.
Overall, the position is what you make of it. If you strive to improve and adapt, you’ll find it immensely rewarding. Many practical classes repeat annually but on a daily basis you could be doing anything, anywhere. Being a technical officer is stimulating and constantly changing, keeping your brain and body active. You won’t be sitting for too long when you’re surrounded by young adults in need of advice and equipment. The relationship is symbiotic, your knowledge and their enthusiasm eventually gets any problem sorted.
Author: Alison Boyce, a.boyce[at]tcd[dot]ie
Alison Boyce has worked as a technical officer at Trinity College Dublin for over 20 years. In that time, she has acted as a master-puppeteer in seeing countless undergraduate projects through to completion. Her in-depth knowledge of technical, theoretical, and practical aspects of natural sciences has made her one of the most influential figures in the history of this department.
The editorial team thanks her for taking the time to write this piece.
At today’s NERD club, we tried our hand at explain our research using the up-goer five, which limited our available vocabulary to the “ten-hundred” most common words (thousand isn’t one of them).
After some brief hesitation, the 9 of us present found out that despite being quite challenging, this can be an incredibly fun and useful activity when it comes to explaining our often jargon-filled research to the public. While this system is rigid, and a tad extreme with words such as “plant” and “science” unavailable, it forced us to find alternative ways of explaining what we do.
Decision makers and land managers are increasingly required to manage landscapes for multiple purposes and benefits. However, despite progress in the development of frameworks linking natural capital to the provision of ecosystem services and human benefits there remains little guidance for how management interventions can improve ecosystem service provision. As ecosystem services cannot be directly influenced, interventions need to be directed towards natural capital stocks. We provide a framework that explicitly links natural capital stocks to ecosystem service provision and identify manageable attributes of natural capital stocks as the critical intervention point. A structured decision making process based on our framing of the ecosystem services concept can facilitate its application on the ground.
How to manage the living things that help us to live and enjoy life
People need many different things like food and wood from the land and I am interested in helping them to manage their land to get lots of good things from it. People have come up with ways of finding out the relationship between living things and the good things like food but it is still hard to find out how to manage the land for what we want. This is because when we make living things different it is hard to tell what will happen to the good things we want. We think the best way of getting out of this problem is to understand how changing where living things are and how many of them there are changes the food and other good things that we want. We help by giving people a plan for how to manage living things that will give us more of the good things we want from the land. This plan will help people to talk about what they want from the land and how to get it.
The world is getting warmer, much warmer and quickly. It’s hot outside, in the air and in the water, even deep down in the water. Ice is becoming water, land is getting drier, so in some places its too wet and in others its too dry. People are having a bad time in lots of places. Animals are sad too. We know all of this because of the hard work of people’s brains.
What can be done?
We can drive less. We can eat fewer moving, living things. We can wear more clothes and not make our houses hot. Or we can do nothing. And wait until it is much hotter. Then we can try to change the world by putting things in space that will block the sun out. Or we can put stuff in the sky to make it cooler. If we do none of these things we might end up in the water, in hot, hot water.
Two legged animal eating animals were around for 160,000,000 years but are not anymore. We do not really know what they ate. Some were as small as a dog while others were as big as a bus so they would have needed more food. One type of food that they might have eaten was already dead food. We know animals today eat food they found that was already dead so animals that are not around may have also eaten dead food. But did the big animals that are no longer around eat more or less dead food than the small animals? We made computers games to show that actually both big and small animals are very bad at eating dead things, while animals in the middle are much better at eating dead things. This was true even if we changed how far they could see, how much dead food was there, how many other animal eating animals were around and how much food they needed. We show that dead things might have been important to animals no longer around and that how big you are might still be important to how much dead stuff animals eat both today and in the past.
“If I have everything I need, to do whatever I need to, I am happy. Just to say, if I have food I eat and I am happy. If I don’t have enough I have to eat less, or take food from somewhere else. If I take it from somewhere else, maybe another person will not have it for his own.
To do food I need land. The problem is that after I use land to do food this land gets bad and is not beautiful anymore. But if I have a lot of money, I can buy land and food from somewhere else and keep my land beautiful and clean.
If people can buy the land and the food they need, there can be a person with more money than you that buys all the things you need, and you can’t eat and live. So, it is important to control what people do with their money. It is important to check that no one is taking food or using land that is needed for another person to live.
People with no food get angry and one day they will come where people with money live and take back their land and their food.
I am studying a way to control if people with money is taking food and land from other persons that really need it (more than these people with money).
We can stop that by checking if these people really need these things and if they can find these things where they live. If they can, they have to use them, instead of going somewhere else to make less beautiful the land of other people.
Mean animals that live in other animals and how they make the other animals do weird things when its hot
Mean animals that live in other animals and then hurt the other animals are in many places. The animals I study all live in water that does not run. The mean animals sometimes make the house animals do things they would not do most of the time. When the house animals do strange things, this can make everyone else in the whole water group do things different to how they usually do and power from food can go to different places. When the water gets hot, everyone in the water does things not how they do them in cold water. I study how the mean animals and the house animals do things when the water is hot and cold and how this makes everyone in the water different. I also study how all the animals doing different things can make the power from food go different places and can change who eats who and how often. I study these things in the water outside and in small water inside.
How large a group of animals is can change how they act. It is important to know how big or small a group of animals are so we can understand how they play with one another and live in their home. Small night time animals with black and white faces are important to study because they get a cold that they can pass on to bigger black and white animals that live in fields eating green stuff to make the white stuff we put in our coffee. We carried out a study of papers that looked at the grouping of small black and white faced animals, how many of them lived together, how big their homes were and how many there were in total. We showed that how many animals there are in an area, changes how they act, their relationships with one another and with other animals that may not be their family or friends. All of this means we can better understand how these animals pass their colds onto one another. We have come up with a group of names that you can use to quickly and easily tell other people many animals there are in an area and how it makes this group different to other groups. We hope that our study will help people who want to save the small black and white animals as well as those people who want to do away with the colds that the animals get in a much better way than they do now.
I want to know how the brain understands what it sees in the world. When we see the world through our eyes, they send this to the brain telling it what they saw. The way the brain understands this is important because when the brain talks to the eyes, the pictures can be slow or might not get to the eyes at all. When this happens in people, they think they have a friend when they do not. They are talking to themselves.
We try to understand how the eyes talk to the brain by making simple games on a computer that make animals play with each other with an angry animal chasing a smaller animal. We set up roads between the cells in the brain and then make the brain bigger to see is the angry animal better at chasing the smaller animal in the computer game.
We try to understand this by looking into the animal brain while it plays around in interesting worlds on the computer. By changing the number of roads in their brains before and after the games, animals change what they catch, we hope to learn more about the brains power to understand these games.
This study will make new games of animal moving by bringing good ideas from old people in white clothes to the field of moving studies. Doing so will allow us to answer simple questions about the relationship between bodies of angry animals and their food and to add for the first time why food matters in such relationships. These relationships explain how animals talk with the world around them, and are at the heart of our entire idea of world.
We study how and why trees and other green living things live and grow where they do. To do this we have to go to where the green living things live and look at them and what other things are living beside them. Green living things need to live in the ground, the ground is different all over the world and some things can live in some places and not others. We try to understand why this is by changing what’s in the ground and seeing what type and how many of each thing continues to live there.
Green things what live in the ground can also change themselves to fit the type of ground, rain or sun they get every day. They can change many things such as how big or small they grow or how thick their leaves are but quite often to make a good change to one part of their body they must also make a bad change to another. We try to understand what causes these changes by looking at one green thing that lives all over the world and seeing what changes are made and where the things with those changes are living.
Attempting to describe population ecology
If you’re interested, ESA’s new sci comm section has some useful tools for science communication: https://advancingecocomm.wordpress.com/