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”

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”

Winning research – Zoology storms the Lightning Talks


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.’


Continue reading “Winning research – Zoology storms the Lightning Talks”

Microplastics: a macro-problem for remote islands in the South Atlantic?


Dr Dannielle Green from the Biogeochemistry Research Group in Geography is about to return from an adventure in the South Atlantic where she was hunting for microplastics in some of the world’s most remote islands.

Plastic debris can be found in every country around the world and larger items like plastic bags and bottles can have obvious impacts, such as entanglement, ingestion and suffocation of seabirds, turtles and mammals. But even when plastic breaks down, it persists as small pieces called “microplastics” and in this form can still cause harm to a wide range of marine organisms who unwittingly eat it. Microplastics have been found in marine waters all over the globe but sampling has mostly focused on areas adjacent to large human populations, very little is known about concentrations in remote islands like Ascension Island and the Falkland islands. In collaboration with Dr David Blockley from the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI), Dr Dannielle Green from Trinity College Dublin, Ireland flew out to the South Atlantic to assess the situation.

Eerily desolate but beautiful Ascension island
Eerily desolate but beautiful Ascension island

Water samples were taken from a range of sites around Ascension Island and the Falklands and every site was found to contain microplastics. In fact, the concentrations found were surprisingly high.

Taking water samples in the only glass bottles available... Pimm's bottles!
Taking water samples in the only glass bottles available… Pimm’s bottles!

Dr Green presented her work to the Falkland islanders by giving a public lecture at the Chamber of Commerce which was well attended with a mixed audience including government officials, fishermen, the general public and the local television crew. She explained the potential issues of microplastic pollution and a thoughtful discussion about solutions later ensued with input from the audience.

Dannielle presenting her results at the Chamber of Commerce in Stanley.
Dannielle presenting her results at the Chamber of Commerce in Stanley.

Microplastics can absorb toxic substances from the water column. In this way, they can become like “pills” of concentrated toxic chemicals that could be consumed by creatures like worms, shellfish, fish and mammals and can be transferred through the food web.

Pollution of natural habitats by microplastics is a global problem that we are only just beginning to understand, but it is one that is expected to get worse as plastic production continues to rise. Dr Green’s research explores the wider effects of microplastics on marine ecosystems. Through this work, she hopes to provide scientifically sound recommendations that will feed into policy and help protect our ecosystems.


Dannielle Green

Photo credits and Dannielle Green

Everything’s Better Down Where It’s Wetter: Benthic Ecology Meeting 2015


Conference attendance can really impact your development as a Ph.D. student and give you great ideas for future collaboration and research. In March, I was lucky enough to attend the 2015 Benthic Ecology Meeting (or Benthics) in Quebec City, Canada.  The Benthics meeting focuses on the ecology of the bottom layer of water systems, and this conference is mainly marine in focus. There were lots of great talks, one epic toboggan race, and nearly unlimited opportunities for networking and discussion. A quick overview of my three favourite talks is below. Check out what you missed and hope to see you in Maine next year!

1. “Measuring non-additive selection from multiple species interactions” by Dr. Casey terHorst. Dr. terHorst’s non-marine talk focused on a method for determining whether selection is occurring by examining traits present when multiple species interact. His talk highlighted the relative ease of using the analysis he developed, as well as the exciting outcomes of one particular study. If you have trait response data from a study with multiple species interactions, you may be able to utilize his analysis as well to see if non-additive selection is occurring. The analysis is detailed here and you can check out his website on ecology and evolution here.

2. “Is a warmer world a sicker world? Temperature effects on host-parasite dynamics” by Jennafer C. Malek. Jennafer’s presentation was easily my favorite of the parasitology-themed talks at this year’s conference. She utilized a very straightforward study design to examine whether oysters or their parasites would die off first at elevated temperature. The oysters are often exposed to the air at low tide, and at temperatures consistent with climate change predictions it seems that parasites die off before the oysters do. The dynamics of this relationship have interesting consequences and may provide a level of resilience for oysters in a changing world. Her study is a prime example of the use of a simple experimental design to answer big ecological questions.

3. “Potential larval connectivity of deep-sea methane seep invertebrates in the Intra-American Sea” by Doreen McVeigh. Sometimes a talk blows your mind and shifts your worldview and this was one of those talks. Based on modelling work on larval transport in the Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast, Doreen demonstrated that frequently assumed transport routes may not be the actual transport pathways many species travel. Her models were fascinating and potentially revolutionary, plus she explained them in a way that almost everyone could understand. You can check her out on twitter here.

A huge thanks to the Voss, O’Connor, Burkepile, URI, Fish lab, and UNC groups for making the conference such a blast and live-tweeting the sessions. You can check out the official twitter for some discussion on the conference and some fun photos below.

Author: Maureen Williams, william2[at]

Photo credit:

Size isn’t everything: organising small conferences


The late afternoon sky drizzled softly on Manchester. The pubs along Oxford Road gently creaked with the weight of workers sinking pints following a long week of doing whatever it is that people who work in Manchester do.  Sat in a beer garden, I relaxed and pondered the exceptionally busy previous 48 hours, the main feature of which had been the effective and successful running of a small conference. Having waved goodbye to 50 happy delegates, I had the time to reflect on what had made it successful.

The small conference in question was a joint meeting of two British Ecological Society special interest groups: Plants-Soils-Ecosystems and the Plant Environmental Physiology Group. Entitled ‘Carbon Cycling: from Plants to Ecosystems’, with its own snappy hashtag for the social media savvy (#psepepg), the conference took place over two days, attracted around 55 delegates, and featured three keynote speakers, 21 talks and 10 posters. After a lead-up lasting months, the two days of talking, problem-solving networking, coffee-drinking and chaperoning passed in a flash. My co-organisers, Ellen Fry, Sarah Pierce and I (I should emphasise that Ellen and Sarah did all of the really tricky bits of the organisation, like dealing with the budget and organising space and food), have received lots of positive feedback about the meeting since.

Lots of our delegates said that they’d liked the inclusive nature of the meeting. Its small size and demographic, comprised of many PhD students and early-career researchers with a generous smattering of more senior academics, meant delegates could be confident of having a chance to speak to everyone over the coffee breaks and lunches. With just 21 talks, we could be generous with coffee breaks, providing plenty of opportunities for people to chat and particularly for early-career researchers to interact with our keynote speakers. The format worked well and had been tested previously, at a similar meeting last year; it was helpful to have Sarah on the organising committee, because she’d co-organised that conference. Another important issue is access for disabled delegates – something that we probably didn’t address well enough and will certainly be higher up the agenda next time.

There as little I could do ‘on the ground’ (jobs like scoping out the rooms, organising poster boards, booking the food) from Dublin, so I contributed by promoting the conference on social media and various email lists, and designing the abstract submission process and programme booklet. Google Forms provided a straightforward, free method for collecting abstracts online: each response on the form was sent to a Google Docs spreadsheet, making it very easy to keep track of abstracts and, importantly, difficult to lose them. All the abstracts were in one place and in roughly the same format, ready to slot into the programme booklet. The only stressful element of the process was that, with a week to go, we’d still only received a handful of abstracts, mostly for posters – cue more frantic promotion! Of course, everyone submitted their abstracts on the last day before the deadline. We had a similar experience getting people to register for the conference, using Eventbrite – the deadline had to be extended several times. Academics, it seems, don’t like to commit (though I suspect a lot of the late additions were a result of summer holidays and fieldwork seasons – timing is important)! One thing to note is that, for many academics with families, travelling on a weekend is not an option.

So what are the perks of organising a small conference for the PhD student or early-career researcher?

  • They’re relatively easy to set-up, particularly through a society like the British Ecological Society. There are lots of people with expertise who can help.
  • You get lots of interaction, including taking the keynote speakers out for pre-conference beers, and of course chatting with all the delegates. It’s a great way of getting a snapshot of the research currently happening in your field.
  • Providing you have people who are willing to help, the organisation need not take over your life, though it probably will for the couple of weeks prior to the conference. Bearing this in mind, as long as the meeting stays small, the benefits outweigh the temporary hassle, and it’ll look great on your CV.

What went well?

  • Everybody came – we had no drop-outs, and one person came all the way from the USA!
  • We included panel discussions at the end of each four talk session, and these worked surprisingly well – I think the inclusive atmosphere at the meeting contributed to this.
  • As well as three organisers, we had enough unofficial helpers, in the form of PhD students and post-docs at the University of Manchester, who could be roped in to help out with running the registration desk and shepherding delegates.
  • Facilities existed for recording the talks, so we took advantage of this and put the talks online – a handy resource for people who couldn’t make it.
  • Live-tweeting the conference, and packaging the tweets up afterwards as a curated Storify story, seemed to be popular.

What was difficult?

  • Elements of the abstract submission / registration process were slightly fraught due to their last-minute nature. I’m glad that we allowed plenty of time for these: abstract submission two months in advance, registration one month in advance, and keynote speakers confirmed three months in advance.
  • Getting the food right turned out to be a nightmare for Ellen, who had to do battle with the catering department. It’s worth thinking about the format of food you’d like people to eat – something that is quick to dish out and mobile is best for interaction.
  • Although the venue was generally excellent, there was one stumbling block in the form of a door between the auditorium and the posters / food that could only be opened by certain people, which lead to a lot of ferrying delegates to and fro.
  • A broken-down train on the morning of the second day prevented some of our delegates from arriving on time, but luckily we were able to shuffle the schedule around so that nobody missed their chance to present.

Organising small conferences can be exhausting, but it’s also great fun and a very good way of meeting lots of people and broadening / deepening your network. I thoroughly recommend it!

Author: Mike Whitfield, michael.whitfield[at]

This post also appears on Mike Whitfield’s blog.

Photo credit: flickr/uelwebteam, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence

Seminar series highlights: Phil Stevenson


As mentioned previously on the blog, Andrew Jackson and I started a new module this year called “Research Comprehension”. The module revolves around our Evolutionary Biology and Ecology seminar series and the continuous assessment for the module is in the form of blog posts discussing these seminars. We posted a selection of these earlier in the term, but now that the students have had their final degree marks we wanted to post the blogs with the best marks. This means there are more blog posts for some seminars than for others, though we’ve avoided reposting anything we’ve posted previously. We hope you enjoy reading them, and of course congratulations to all the students of the class of 2014! – Natalie

Here’s articles from Maura Judge and Chris Parsisson inspired by Professor Phil Stevenson‘s seminar, “Pollinator fidelity in coffee and citrus: is it all just sex and drugs?”


An unlikely love story

Maura Judge

This is the story of a certain love affair, commonly known as floral constancy. The story involves pollinators and flowers. Floral constancy is the tendency of a pollinator to remain faithful to and exclusively visit a certain flower species or morphospecies. Whilst remaining faithful, the pollinator bypasses other available flower species that could potentially be more rewarding.

So what are the drivers of this phenomenon? For the plant species, the benefits are more obvious as pollinators that are flower faithful are more likely to transfer pollen to other flowers of the same species and hence, flower constancy favors flower pollination. Furthermore, flower constancy prevents the loss of pollen during interspecific flights and prevents pollinators from clogging stigmas with the pollen of other flower species. Hence, the reasons for the evolution of floral constancy in plants are obvious.

However, what could be the benefits for a pollinator? To ignore other flowers that could potentially provide more nectar than their preferred type contradicts the optimal foraging theory. Nonetheless, floral constancy has been observed in honeybees (Apis mellifera), bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) and butterflies (Thymelicus flavus). Drivers of floral constancy are rewards associated with cues such as flower shape, colour or scent. For example, honeybees have been found not to attempt to feed on other available flowers that exhibit an alternative colour to their preferred flower type. One hypothesis for the evolution of floral constancy in pollinators is that insects can only identify and handle one flower type or species at a time due to their limited memory capacity.

There are three other hypotheses for the evolution of floral constancy in pollinators. The first is the learning investment hypothesis which refers to the ability of a pollinator to learn a motor skill to obtain nectar from a certain species of flower. Learning these motor skills requires a substantial investment of energy and switching to other flower species could be energetically costly and hence, inefficient and non-adaptive. Furthermore, feeding from one particular plant species increases the insect’s efficiency to obtain nectar from it. The second hypothesis is the costly information hypothesis which states that pollinators stay faithful to one plant species because they know that they obtain a reliable reward from it, i.e. nectar. Hence, the pollinator does attempt to feed on other plant species because it cannot predict the amount of nectar in other flowers and could essentially waste foraging time and energy on flowers that contain possibly less or even no nectar. The third alternate hypothesis is the resource partitioning hypothesis. It states that, in social foragers, flower constancy could benefit the entire colony as if individual foragers specialize on specific flower species, foragers avoid competing with one another. Thus floral constancy would increase foraging efficiency.

In addition, Prof. Stevenson and his colleagues have found evidence for another hypothesis in which toxins such as caffeine are the drivers of floral constancy in pollinators. Evidence for this came from bees being found to be more likely to forage on the same plant species if it contained caffeine and less likely to confuse it with similar signals from other plant species. They have found evidence of plant defence compounds enhancing the memory of reward in pollinators. Honeybees rewarded with caffeine, which occurs naturally in coffee and citrus plant species, were three times as likely to remember a learned floral scent as honeybees rewarded with sucrose alone. Thus, this proposed hypothesis ties the little understood phenomenon of floral constancy in with the little understood ecological role of plant defence compounds occurring in floral nectar.

Admittedly, this love affair is not as rosemantic (pun intended) as Romeo and Juliet’s. However, it is very intriguing nonetheless and the mechanisms behind it are still very uncertain. Exciting new evidence underlying the mechanisms involved is being found by Stevenson and his collaborators and it seems likely that it is not solely Britney Spears who finds toxicity attractive.


The deviousness of flowers

Chris Parsisson

It should have come as no surprise to us that flowers act as drug pushers to get their evil way. Phil Stevenson of The University of Greenwich and Kew gave a short talk about the loyalty of pollinators to nectar producers.

Flowers have many devious tricks and will stop at nothing to reach their ultimate reproductive goals.  A world before flowers must have been a drab place with wind pollination being the order of the day and clouds of pollen wafting across the countryside in a desperate bid to land on a female plant part and perpetuate the gene line of the parent. No colourful flowers, no enticing perfume, no sweet honey. Just a hay fever sufferer’s nightmare. No wonder some plants formed a partnership with pollinators to streamline the operation.

And what a partnership it was! Insects often took on the role of pollinators and tied their fortunes to the plants’ success as plants tied themselves to the pollinators. Flowers evolved colours and scents to attract insects then often refined their flowers for special partners. Bees and wasps became preeminent in pollination and became dependent on supplies of nectar and pollen for their living. Always lured in by the flowers their co-evolution made both mutually dependent. The beauty of flowers and scents led to human intervention and flowers were developed with multiple petals and constant flowering periods but these developments often led to sterile flowers or loss of scents the need for human pollination. Isn’t it always the way? But who is keeping score? The millions of cultivated roses grown around the world must outnumber the wild roses in hedgerows so again the inclusive fitness of the roses, originally chosen for a brighter or extra petal, was assured. We too were seduced by the flowers into serving their nefarious schemes.

We discovered in recent decades that the colour we see on a flower is not the same as that seen by many pollinators. Bees see more in the ultra violet range and the patterns they perceive on many flowers lead directly to nectaries or to the stamens for a dusting of pollen or to shed some onto the stigma in this joint effort. No wonder many cultivated flowers with their multiple petals, lack of scent and vibrant colours are inaccessible to many bees, the landing instructions are lost and the nectaries have often been sacrificed for more petals. Best leave the cultivated flowers for the humans, enthralled by the flowers’ guile.

We know that some orchids lure male bees in with the promise of quick uncomplicated sex. Like a seaport pimp enticing a sailor down an alley with promises of beautiful girls nearby, the orchid entices him in and delivers nothing. The female bee is really another co-evolved flower and the male gets nothing for his trouble. The orchid delivers its pollen onto the bee’s back and off he goes looking for another flower. The floral equivalent of robbing the sailor and sending him staggering off into the night.

Now, it seems, we find that flowers are demanding loyalty of bees by slipping them drugs without their knowledge. Small amounts of caffeine are included with the nectar at a level thought to be below the taste consciousness of the bee but enough to make it remember the hit it got and return for more. This occurs in many coffee species and also in citrus species. It makes evolutionary sense. All flowering plants are competing with every neighbouring flower. If they weren’t and there were enough pollinators to go around all flowers would be simple in form and give out a minimum amount of nectar. That’s why flower form evolved so dramatically. The cunning flowers need an extra edge to ensure that bees come back to them as long as their flower lasts. Many flowers need a pollinator to visit more than once: to take away pollen to another flower and to bring in pollen. Often the female stigma ripens at a different time to the male anthers to prevent self-fertilisation so multiple visits may be ensured by making a bee remember the little lift it got at a particular plant.

Pollination is a serious business as 65% of crops are insect pollinated. Concerns about sudden hive collapse of honey bees and losses of pollinators are real. Even the managed bees are not enough for all pollination needs so wild pollinators must be carefully watched. Large monocultures may be detrimental to bees as tests have shown that levels of amino acids in some nectar may be harmful if eaten in excess.

Many leads could follow this research as a way to best serve the pollinators but, rest assured, those devious flowers will be still full of tricks.

Image: Wikicommons