Spring seminars

Speakers for the Biosciences seminar series spring 2021

Venue: Online on Zoom due to COVID-19
Time: 1pm

29 April

Title: Bio-inspired blueprints based on birds and bugs

I will present two recent examples of how fundamental bioscience research can teach us about animal ecology, and also offer solutions to engineering challenges.

Flying animals must perceive and avoid obstacles, often in environments deprived of visual sensory cues.  In my first example, I will show how collision-avoidance in nocturnal mosquitoes can be mediated by mechanosensory feedback, based on modulations of their own induced aerodynamic and acoustic fields as they enter ground- or wall-effect. Our computational fluid dynamics and aeroacoustic simulations are derived from detailed wing kinematics extracted from high-speed recordings of freely flying Culex quinquefasciatus mosquitoes. Results reveal areas of relative pressure changes that are associated with close proximity to the ground and wall planes and that could provide useful information to the flight controller: a mechanism we term ‘aerodynamic imaging’. Using these insights we successfully built an aerial robotic prototype carrying a bio-inspired sensor package.

In my second example, I will present our work based on measuring the changing shape of birds in flight. I will show how they minimise drag in a different way from aeronautical design, and how they remain unperturbed by strong gusts. Our detailed three-dimensional reconstructions of surface geometries show how wing elevation around the shoulder joint acts as a suspension system that rejects gusts. The mechanism works most effectively when the aerodynamic centre of pressure is aligned with the mechanical centre of percussion, and therefore can be tuned either by changing wing shape or by the distribution of mass within the wing.

Richard’s research blends biology and engineering. He uses biomechanics as a tool to investigate evolutionary biology and how the physical environment determines the morphology and control systems of flying animals. He has worked on the sensory mechanisms of insects and birds, including flow-sensing, load-sensing, and optic flow. Richard’s work uses advanced equipment to investigate animal flight and understand their aerodynamic footprints by observing the motion of smoke or bubbles floating in the air. He has applied insights from biology to aerial robots inspired by birds and insects. Richard joined the Structure and Motion Laboratory at the Royal Veterinary College, University of London, in 2013 after reading Biological Sciences at Exeter, undertaking a DPhil (PhD) in Oxford, postdoctoral positions in Oxford and Bath, and an EPSRC Fellowship. He is currently Professor of Comparative Biomechanics at the Royal Veterinary College and Vice Principal for Research.

13 May
Speaker: Dr Morena Mills (Imperial College London)

Title: Insight for catalysing environmental conservation

Despite billions of dollars spent annually on environmental conservation initiatives, such as private or state-led protected areas and community based resource management, we have very little knowledge of why some initiatives take off and spread around the world while others languish and disappear. In this talk, I will present new insights from an interdisciplinary research project on the factors that increase the speed and extent to which environmental conservation initiatives are adopted and spread. I will also tell some of the stories behind the conservation initiatives that have had rapid and widespread adoption, with potential to transform the relationship between people and nature. This project is a partnership between academic institutions and NGOs around the world, seeking to learn and develop the evidence-base needed for more effective steps towards sustainable resource use.

Morena is an environmental social scientist and focus on applied biodiversity conservation research. I am interested in improving environmental policy that impacts nature and people’s wellbeing. My research spans marine and terrestrial systems, and I run both global and local scale projects. For example, at a global scale, I am investigating what, how and why conservation and resource management initiatives are adopted and spread around the world. At a local scale, I investigate how policies aimed at conserving and restoring biodiversity in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest and coast can be improved. 

27 May
Speaker: Dr James Robinson  (Lancaster Environment Centre)

Title: Sustaining catch and nutrients from climate-impacted coral reef fisheries

Marine heatwaves are transforming coral reefs, with mass bleaching events causing regime shifts and biodiversity declines across the tropics. Extensive ecological research suggests that bleaching-driven ecosystem turnover will reduce the productivity of reef fisheries, with significant implications for food and nutrition security. Yet empirical evidence of changes to reef fisheries after bleaching is lacking, while the contribution of reef fish as sources of essential dietary micronutrients remain unknown. Here, we analyze over 20 years of fish abundance, catch and habitat data from Seychelles to assess long-term impacts of climate-driven coral mass mortality and regime shifts on nearshore coral reef trap fisheries. We also collect data on micronutrient concentrations to quantify the nutritional value of coral reef seafood, and examine the mechanisms by which climate may alter nutrient concentrations in fish. Seychelles’ coral reefs contradicted expectations that climate impacts will cause reef fisheries to collapse, owing to high post-bleaching productivity of low trophic level species, despite widespread macroalgal regime shifts. We also show that reef fish targeted by fisheries contain levels of calcium, iron, selenium, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids equivalent to or greater than other animal-source foods. If managed sustainably, coral reef fisheries could remain important micronutrient sources along climate-impacted tropical coastlines. 

10 June
Speaker: Dr Bonnie Waring (Imperial College London)

Title: Ecosystem feedbacks to climate change: when and where do microbes matter?

Soils contain twice as much carbon as all land vegetation and the atmosphere combined, and net zero pathways depend on our ability to protect or even enhance the processes that promote soil carbon sequestration. Yet surprisingly little is known about the ecology of the microorganisms that control soil carbon formation and loss. This seminar will examine how shifts in the composition of soil bacterial and fungal communities impacts soil carbon loss, in ecosystems from tropical rainforests to Arctic tundras.

24 June
Speaker: Dr Arnaud Sentis (INRAE, France)

Title: Symptoms, acclimation, and adaptation to thermal stress: implication for species and their interactions

How climate change may affect ectotherm species and their interactions? Will populations acclimate or adapt to climate change? What can we learn from theoretical models and laboratory experiments to improve our understanding of community persistence and stability in a warmer world? I will explore these different topics by combining theoretical and empirical approaches to investigate (1) how thermal stress (i.e., climate change) influences trophic interactions in more or less complex food-webs, (2) how acclimation can help predators to cope with thermal stress, (3) how body size shrinking with warming determine food web persistence under global change, and (4) how phenotypic plasticity and epigenetic inheritance can influence evolutionary response to predation. 

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