Monday 16 December 2013

Biosciences Seminar Speaker - 19 December 2013

Biosciences Seminar Series - Michaelmas 2013
19 December 2013 - 4pm - Zoology Museum (Wallace 129)

(note change of time!)

Biological Management 

of Aquatic Systems

Dr. Marc Verdegem

(Wageningen University, Netherlands)


What a better way to end in style a successful seminar series than .. with an additional surprise seminar?! Dr. Marc Verdegem from the  Aquaculture & Fisheries Group at Wageningen University (Netherlands) will be visiting our department this week and will present us his work on Thursday afternoon. 

And it's not finished here - given the time of year, Christmas mince pies & refreshments will be offered, too! Thanks to CSAR for this.


But back to the talk. Do you know which is the most rapidly growing food industry in the world? No, no tractors involved, it is aquaculture! 


Given the rapidly depleting fish stocks in the oceans due to overfishing (e.g. see here and here) many hopes had been put into aquaculture to guarantee food security at a reduced environmental impact. Not everything worked out as expected, however, as aquaculture has created novel problems, or sometimes even exacerbated the problems of traditional fisheries (e.g. see here). 

Given that globally human population is not only increasing, but also becoming more carnivorous (see here and here), good sustainable solutions are urgently needed. Marc's research is dedicated to finding novel solutions for sustainable aquaculture production systems and during his talks he will present us the current state of the field and present the questions that will need to be addressed:


The contribution of aquatic foods to world protein supply is growing. Predictions are that seafood and chicken, will become the most important 'meat' commodities by mid century. The danger is however, that aquaculture will develop into a large scale non-sustainable bio-industry.

Polish fisherman pull a net from the Milickie Ponds during the traditional Carp haul in Grabownica village, south-west Poland. From:

Presently, aquaculture products are mainly produced in ponds, and will be so in the future. Ponds are like grasslands, providing natural foods. The productive basis of ponds is explored, and compared to the present practice of external feed driven aquaculture. The latter uses the pond as a 'holding tank', relying on externally produced foods and counting on the environment to process wastes. 

The grassland concept was abandoned. Today's practice is linked to problems, including pollution, diseases, low product quality and consumer risks. Are there ways to reverse ongoing trends, and if so, what are important research questions to take up?

Everyone is welcome, as usual. And don't forget - there will be also Christmas mince pies & refreshments :-)

Friday 13 December 2013

Science Club Events - 13 December 2013

Biosciences Science Club Events - Michaelmas 2013
13 December 2013 - 1pm - Zoology Museum (Wallace 129)

Linking behavioural, physiological and demographic responses to climate change


Tina Cornioley

(University of Zurich, Switzerland)

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This week we have a visitor from the University of Zurich working on the demography of the wandering albatross. Tina recently started her PhD and her project is a collaboration between the lab of Arpat Ozgul in Zurich, the Jenouvrier lab at Woods Hole, Henri Weimerskirch's group at Chize in France (who has been studying these birds since many decades) and (ahem) my lab here at Swansea

What Tina would like to do is present her project, aimed at developing a trait-based demographic model linking environmental change to individual demographic responses, and discuss her ideas for modelling the movement data (results from the latter will then be included as one of the traits in the demographic model).

We are all excited about this project, as studies linking explicitly individual state, movement behaviour, environmental change, and demographic responses are rare. This means, however, that Tina will have to develop several novel ways to use her data and hence any feedback will be most welcome. 

Hope to see many of you today at 1pm! And for the exceedingly curious ones among you, here a bit more info:

Photo by Kimball Chen

There is an increasing body of evidence highlighting ecological alterations induced by climate change across the globe. Last year, Henri Weimerskirch and his colleagues showed that the wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans), a wide-ranging Sub-Antarctic seabird responded behaviourally, physiologically and demographically to changing wind patterns. This bird, which takes advantage of winds to reduce the flying cost, benefited from stronger winds and could cover more distance during foraging trips. Consequently, individuals increased in mass and had a higher reproductive success. 

Taking into consideration the potential changes in the environment is crucial to efficiently manage wild populations. Changes in the environment can be linked to demographic rates using behavioural and physiological traits as state variables. Using a trait-based model, we aim to investigate the effects of changes in foraging patterns and physiology, whether directly or indirectly induced by environmental changes, on the population dynamics of the wandering albatross. 

Quantifying movement and foraging patterns as a trait adds a new dimension to the existing trait-based modelling approaches. This model will enable us to (1) determine the most critical life history processes or pathways governing the population  persistence,  and  (2)  predict  population,  behavioural  and  phenotypic dynamics  under alternative climate change scenarios.

Obviously, I cannot resist from posting a David Attenborough video ...

... but have to confess that the first video that still springs to my mind about albatross flight is another one ;-) 

See you at the Zoology Museum!

Monday 2 December 2013

Biosciences Seminar Speaker - 05 December 2013

Biosciences Seminar Series - Michaelmas 2013
05 December 2013 - 1pm - Zoology Museum (Wallace 129)

Projecting Responses of Ecological Diversity In Changing Terrestrial Systems:

 Towards a global model of local biodiversity

Prof. Andy Purvis 

(Natural History Museum, UK)

Tree of life by Leonard Eisenberg, 2008

“It is an incalculable added 
know, even slightly and imperfectly, how to 
read and enjoy the wonder-book of nature.”

                                 – Theodore Roosevelt

Humans have marvelled at the diversity of life probably since ever and understanding how the diversity of life has evolved is arguably the most fundamental question in biology. However, on the 100th anniversary of the death of Alfred Russel Wallace, the Welsh naturalist who conceived the theory of evolution by natural selection (independently and at the same time as Charles Darwin, e.g. see here), it is increasingly clear that biodiversity is declining globally at a fast pace, maybe on the path to reach the rate of past mass extinctions (see here or here).

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This process may not be irreversible and an increasing number of successful conservation projects is reported (e.g. see 'Wild Hopes' and also here). A key question to address then is how to predict biodiversity dynamics under environmental change and this will be the topic addressed by our seminar speaker of this week, Prof. Andy Purvis from the Natural History Museum in London.

Andy has a broad interest in biodiversity science, ranging from changes in the diversity of planktonic foraminifera during the transition to the last ice age to the evolution and biogeography of passerine birds in the Indo-Pacific to how to predict local biodiversity responses to human-induced environmental change. The latter question is addressed by the PREDICTS project and will be the subject of this week's talk: 

Biodiversity underpins many ecosystem services on which human wellbeing largely depends, but a range of indicators show that biodiversity is continuing to decline. What about the future? The design of biodiversity indicators means that they cannot readily be projected into the future, whereas currently-available projections have a very limited evidence base.

The PREDICTS collaboration aims to provide a sounder basis for global projections of how local terrestrial biodiversity will change under scenarios of anthropogenic impacts, by pooling data sets from hundreds of studies of many different taxa from all around the world. I will explain the design of PREDICTS, give an overview of the first 1.2 million data points, and present results of two ongoing analyses.

The first is an all-encompassing analysis of how multiple facets of biodiversity are responding to land use change and intensification, with projections of the response to 2050 under scenarios developed by IPCC; the second looks in more detail at a group with particular economic importance - European bees - and asks how important species' functional traits are in determining how bees respond to agricultural change.

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Related papers:
Tim Newbold, Drew W. Purves, Jörn P. W. Scharlemann, Georgina Mace and Andy Purvis (2013). PREDICTS: Projecting Responses of Ecological Diversity in Changing Terrestrial Systems. Front. Biogeogr. vol: 4 no: 4 p: 155-156.

Tim Newbold, Jörn P. W. Scharlemann , Stuart H. M. Butchart, Çağan H. Şekercioğlu, Rob Alkemade, Hollie Booth and Drew W. Purves (2013) Ecological traits affect the response of tropical forest bird species to land-use intensity. Proc. R. Soc. B vol: 280 no: 1750. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2012.2131 

Cornelissen JHC, et al., 2013, Functional traits, the phylogeny of function, and ecosystem service vulnerability, ECOLOGY AND EVOLUTION, Vol:3, ISSN:2045-7758, Pages:2958-2975.

See you this Thursday - everyone is welcome!

Thursday 28 November 2013

Biosciences Seminar Speaker - 28 November 2013

Biosciences Seminar Series - Michaelmas 2013
28 November 2013 - 1pm - Zoology Museum (Wallace 129)

Communication, culture and 

collective motion in corvid societies

Dr. Alex Thornton 

(University of Exeter, UK)

Feathered apes - maybe this is not what you think of when you see a crow. It is, however, a very fitting term coined by Nicky Clayton and other researchers working on corvid cognition to highlight that the cognitive abilities of these animals are in many respects not inferior to those of apes and actually compare well also to our abilities.

In general, work on crows, apes and a few other animal species has led in recent years to a radical re-evaluation of animal cognition and of how we understand the evolution of cognition. Take the ability to plan for the future. Or to reminisce about the past. We used to think these are very much unique human abilities. Well, wrong (e.g. see here). For example, see the work on mental time travel (episodic-like memory and future planning) ability by food-caching Western Scrub-Jays (here). Similarly for the ability to understand the mind of others. Of course, differences remain in how we think, between humans and corvids (see here).

This is where jackdaws and Dr. Alex Thornton - our departmental seminar speaker of this week - spring in.

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Alex is genuinely interested in animal cognition and culture and what sets him apart from many other researchers in this field is his interest to do the experiments in the field, using free-ranging animals and not captive ones. This allows to understand the cognitive challenges faced by animals in the wild, under the selective pressures operating in natural populations. Alex started his work in the Kalahari, by trying to understand if and how adults teach young meerkats how to eat scorpions (see here):

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More recently Alex has started to work also on animals in the UK, using jackdaws as study system and this will be the subject of today's talk:

Corvids, birds of the crow family, have recently emerged as model organisms in the study of animal cognition. Laboratory studies have revealed striking cognitive feats, pointing to convergent cognitive evolution between corvids and other large-brained groups such as primates. However, the cognitive mechanisms corvids use to solve the challenges of their natural environments remain unclear. 

My work integrates ecological and psychological approaches, using field experiments to examine mechanisms of communication, culture and collective motion in corvids in the wild. 

Using playback experiments, I show that nestling jackdaws develop the ability to discriminate between conspecific calls prior to fledging. Later in life, the ability to discriminate between conspecific underpins the coordination of collective responses to threats later in life. 

I also examine the mechanisms underlying the spread of information through mixed-species corvid communities using two-action, two-option foraging tasks. These experiments demonstrate the use of simple local enhancement processes as well as arguably more cognitively demanding imitation of motor actions. 

Finally, I report the result of studies examining the structure of flocks and the decision-making processes underpinning group movements in mixed-species groups of jackdaws and rooks. Together, these results hint at the cognitive sophistication that has garnered corvids so much recent attention, but also highlight the importance of relatively simple mechanisms in driving behaviour.

See you all in the Zoo Museum - 1pm!

And yes - crows apparently love to play in the snow, too :-)

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Science Club Events - 20 November 2013

Science Club Meetings - Michaelmas 2013
20 November 2013 - 1pm - Wallace 108 (note room change)

Journal-Club Discussion on 

"The Assessment of Science"

led by Dr. Luca Börger 

(Swansea University, UK)


It is probably safe to say that measuring/evaluating science and scientific production has never been so contentious as well as influential in determining the fate of individual scientists and research organisations. And never has been there so much money been spent on science evaluation exercises such as the current Research Evaluation Framework (REF) 2014 in the UK.

It may hence come as a surprise that quantitative assessments of the reliability of evaluating research are mostly, if not entirely, lacking! The recent paper by Eyre-Walker and Stoletzki in PLoS Biology is therefore a very timely contribution, as it provides a novel and interesting way to analyse large datasets with subjective post-publication assessments of scientific publications made by experts. Specifically, a dataset by the Wellcome Trust and the Faculty of 1000 (F1000) database. These datasets cover a large range of Impact Factor (IF) values:

Figure 1. The distribution of the impact factor in the two datasets.


Using these datasets the authors investigated three methods of assessing the merit of a scientific publication: subjective post-publication peer review, the number of citations a paper accrues, and the IF. Their results are quite interesting:

1. Scientists show a good level of agreement between assessors, yet appear to be poor at judging scientific merit and the likely impact of a paper. Furthermore, their judgment is strongly influenced by the journal in which the paper is published.

Figure 2. The correlation between assessor score and impact factor in the two datasets.

2. The number of citations a paper accumulates is a poor measure of merit.

3. Notwithstanding the problems associated with the number of citations, the impact factor, of the journal in which a paper is published, may be the best measure of scientific merit currently available.

This paper has attracted considerable debate, starting with an editorial commentary in PLos Biology itself, by Eisen et al. "Expert Failure: Re-evaluating Research Assessment".

Also, F1000 stepped in with an editorial "Isn’t all expert peer review subjective?".

Hence, I think there are several issues to discuss and I hope to see many of you tomorrow!

Monday 18 November 2013

Biosciences Seminar Speaker - 19 November 2013

Biosciences Seminar Series - Michaelmas 2013
19 November 2013 - 1pm - Zoology Museum (Wallace 129)

(please note change of date)

Sea turtles research and conservation

Dr. Jeanne A. Mortimer 

(University of Florida, USA & Island Conservation Society, Seychelles)

Sea and terrestrial turtles in a plate by Ernst Haeckel (1904)

Let's face it - it's nearly impossible to immagine the many millions of sea turtles that were swimming in the oceans even only a few hundred years ago. Today, all species of sea turtles are of conservation concern, after many years of over-harvesting, initiated already by the ancient sailors (e.g. see here). In general, overharvesting, especially overfishing, has profoundly affected all oceans and there are nearly no places left on earth were the oceans resemble the past state (for a fascinating account see this book by Callum Roberts).

However, thanks to the efforts of many researchers and conservationists, the decline in turtle numbers has slowed down apparently and we can still dream of having a similar face-to-face encounter while swimming in the oceans:

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One of these researchers which have dedicated their scientific live to understand and protect sea turtles is our departmental speaker of this week, Dr. Jeanne A. Mortimer from the NGO Island Conservation Society (Seychelles) and the University of Florida (USA). Jeanne has been working in the Seychelles since 1981 and became naturalised in 2007, but her work on coastal ecosystems ecology and conservation has taken her to all six continents.

Hence, come listen to a fascinating talk this Tuesday in the Zoology Museum! 

Tuesday 29 October 2013

Biosciences Seminar Speaker - 07 November 2013

Biosciences Seminar Series - Michaelmas 2013
07 November 2013 - 1pm - Zoology Museum (Wallace 129)

(please note change of date due to strike action on October 31st)

The more the merrier? 

When, where and why does biodiversity matter for ecosystems.

Dr. John Griffin 

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This week we go local! I mean, our seminar speaker this week will be Dr. John Griffin, lecturer at our Biosciences Department. John's research, though, is 'well-travelled' as his study sites range from rock pools on Welsh coasts, to seagrass system in the southern US, to high-altitude sites in Tibet.

Underlying this diversity of study sites is one common question - how does biodiversity change due to human influences and how does this affect the structure and services provided by ecosystems to humans? Whilst this is an important and urgent question under current global change, it has however proven difficult to drive generally applicable conclusions. John might, however, have found a solution:

Variety is the spice of life, right? Unfortunately, human activities are reducing this variety by driving local and even global species extinction. I am interested in how such changes to the diversity of organisms will influence how ecosystems function, and ultimately the quality and quantity of services provided to humans. 

Diversity in ecological communities can be considered in two simple dimensions – horizontal (the diversity of species sharing resources within a trophic level) and vertical (the number of trophic levels within a system). Using field and laboratory experiments based on a range of different ecosystems – from rocky shores to Tibetan alpine meadows – I investigate the importance of both these dimensions of diversity. 

I’ve found that effects of diversity on ecosystem function are (not surprisingly – this is ecology after all) highly context-dependent, varying both within and among studies. The cool thing is though, this context-dependency can be explained by considering how the traits of species interact with their environment. So, it may just be possible to predict the impacts of biodiversity changes within specific ecosystems and contexts. 

Everyone will be welcome, as usual!

Friday 11 October 2013

Biosciences Seminar Speaker - 14 October 2013

Biosciences Seminar Series - Michaelmas 2013
14 October 2013 - 1pm - Zoology Museum (Wallace 129)


Chasing the High-fliers: 

Recent Insights from Radar Studies of Insect Migration

Dr. Jason Chapman

(Rothamsted Research, UK)

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How would you go about detecting and tracking little insects, such as moths, flying high up in the air at 100m height or more? Or millions of birds or bats? It turns out it is not as hopeless as it sounds, as all these organisms can be detected by radars!  Actually, the aerosphere supports an enourmous abundance of life forms and the field of aeroecology now crucially relies on the use of dedicated radar systems, such as entomological radars

Our next seminar speaker, Dr Jason Chapman, from the Insect Migration & Spatial Ecology group at Rothamsted Research (UK), is a well-known world expert in this field. He will present us a fascinating talk about how he and his group have used radar technologies to understand what determines the flight and migration behaviour of little moths.

Billions of insects migrate between winter and summer ranges to take advantage of seasonally-available breeding resources. To cover the distances required (100s km), many insects rely on wind assistance, and routinely ascend 100s m above the ground to migrate in fast-moving airstreams. Given that wind speeds are typically three to five times faster that the insects’ airspeeds, it was not clear what influence high-flying migrants could exert on their migration direction or whether substantial ‘return’ migrations to lower-latitude winter-breeding areas were possible. 

Photo provided by Jason Chapman

To answer these questions, I have studied the flight behavior and migration patterns of the Silver Y Autographa gamma and other moths with specialized entomological radars. 

Photo provided by Jason Chapman

Radar observations demonstrate that an ability to select favorably-directed airstreams (i.e. northwards in spring and southwards in autumn) is widespread among high-flying migrant Lepidoptera, and thus migrants gain considerable wind assistance for their seasonal migrations. Furthermore, moths preferentially fly at the altitude of the fastest winds, and partially compensate for wind drift away from their seasonally-preferred migration directions. 

Trajectory simulations show that these flight behaviors result in significant increases in mean nightly migration distance, and a high degree of success in reaching the next breeding region, while population monitoring indicates that high-latitude summer-breeding results in a fourfold population increase. Comparison of moth migration parameters with those of nocturnal passerine migrants demonstrates that the moths’ highly efficient strategies result in them achieving the same travel speeds and directions as birds capable of flying three times faster. 

The migration strategies employed by the study species explain how small, short-lived and relatively slow-flying organisms are able to cover great distances in seasonally-beneficial directions, and demonstrate that migration is highly adaptive.

Relevant Publications:
Chapman JW et al (2012). Seasonal migration to high latitudes results in major reproductive benefits in an insect. PNAS 109: 14924-14929.

Chilson PB, Bridge E, Frick WF, Chapman JW and Kelly JF (2012). Radar aeroecology: exploring the movements of aerial fauna through radio-wave remote sensing. Biology Letters 8: 698-701.

Alerstam T & Chapman JW et al (2011). Convergent patterns of long-distance nocturnal migration in noctuid moths and passerine birds. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 278: 3074-3080.

Chapman JW, Drake VA and Reynolds DR (2011a). Recent insights from radar studies of insect flight. Annual Review of Entomology 56: 337-356.

Chapman JW, Nesbit RL, Burgin LE, Reynolds DR, Smith AD, Middleton DR and Hill JK (2010). Flight orientation behaviors promote optimal migration trajectories in high-flying insects. Science 327: 682-685.

Everyone is welcome to attend - please do come along and again note the change of day for this week: Monday!

Wednesday 9 October 2013

Science Club - 1st event

Science Club!

Science Club Meetings - Autumn 2013
Venue: Zoology Museum
Time: 1pm on Thursdays

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No, we are not getting the BBC involved nor will we invite over Dara O Briain (sorry!). But consider, we scientists come about in all possible 'shapes and forms' (e.g. here), yet one of the things we generally all like to do is discussing about new ideas, debate the pros and cons of different theories or methods, exchange tips on where to find specific species, etc. Our aim here is then to provide a series of biweekly informal meetings that complements our departmental seminar series.

The Science Club events will be open to all graduate students and permanent researchers. There will be no prescribed format - everyone can propose to hold a journal club about a new exciting paper (or maybe tear apart an egregious clunker-paper that the illustrious high-impact journal 'put-the-name-here' has somehow just managed to publish as novel groundbreaking research ...) or present a short presentation (~20 min) about work-in-progress with the intent to generate discussions and feedback.

For example, have you just finished preparing the experimental design you will start in the next month, or have you devised the sampling design for your upcoming fieldwork in 2 months time? That's exactly the time to get some feedback from your collegues and friends! And yes, that's also for you, MSc students :-) 

Same goes for upcoming conference presentations, or a manuscript you are trying to publish but continue to get bounced off due to increasingly obscure reviewer feedback, or ... any other suggestions are welcome! Just drop me a line at l.borger (at)

And, we are off for a great start, thanks to Matt from the University of Sydney (Australia):

Matt (Matthew Hansen) is currently visiting our department for a month and will do some cool experiments in the CSAR facility. This coming Thursday, at 1pm, Matt will tell you about that and some other cool work he is currently doing. The title and abstracts are:

Social Foraging and Movement in Fish Shoals

While the co-ordination of foraging movements in eusocial species are well studied, the mechanisms behind social foraging in non kin related groups lag behind. Recent technological advancements in video analysis and tracking software allow us to revisit questions raised in social foraging theory over a decade ago and test them empirically. 

My work explores social foraging and movement of small shoals of fish, and my current experiment aims to quantify how the nutritional environment affects individual and group behaviour. 

Note the date in your diaries and join the discussion! Thursday 10th October, Zoology Museum @ 1pm.

For the full list of Science Club events, see here.

[in case you wonder what the 'luca' acronym stands for in the first pic: 'Last Universal Common Ancestor']

Wednesday 2 October 2013

Biosciences Seminar Speaker - 03 October 2013

Biosciences Seminar Series - Michaelmas 2013
03 October 2013 - 1pm - Zoology Museum (Wallace 129)

The Collective Behaviour of Fish Shoals

Dr. James Herbert Read (aka Teddy) 

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OK, I know, these aren't fish shoals in this picture. However, have you ever experienced being in a human crowd, being pushed and carried away by the motion of the group? Maybe you have even experienced being in a mosh pit at rock concerts? The interesting thing is that these kinds of so-called collective behaviours share many characteristics with movements of large herds of animals, flocks of birds, or fish shoals.

Understanding how these collective behaviours emerge from individual interactions and movement rules has become a very active area of research in biology. Interestingly, many principles and methods from physics, e.g. used to study the behaviour of particles in gases, can be applied in this context (e.g. see here or here) and it is often surprising how apparently complex swarm behaviours can be produced by very simple basic principles. Even amazing anti-predator behaviours such as torus formation produced by mackerel and other fish:

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Photo: Christopher Swann/Science Photo Library

Which brings us straight to our seminar speaker of this week - Teddy -- sometimes known also as Dr. Herbert Read from the University of Upsala in Sweden. Teddy's research focuses on animal interactions and how these drive group level behaviours. To do so he uses fish shoals as model system to test specific predictions and obtain a mechanistic understanding. For example like this one:

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Well, maybe not exactly like this one. Best thing to do - come this Thursday over lunch and find out yourself! It promises to be a very intersting talk, as you can deduce from the abstract:

My research investigates how animal groups can display complex and coordinated behaviours, despite each individual in the group having limited information about its neighbours and surroundings.  In particular, I focus on determining how simple, individual level rules give rise to the collective dynamics we often observe in animal groups.  

In this talk, I will show you how using highly quantitative methods to analyse the behaviour of individual fish in shoals, we can gain insights into how groups achieve coordinated movement, accurate decision making, and transfer information about threats. I will also demonstrate how individuals express their personality in groups, and show you how this research could inform and improve safety measures in human crowds. 

I will finally discuss how seemingly cooperative behaviours are in fact driven by selfish individual level rules, explaining how these behaviours evolved in groups of unrelated individuals. 

Everyone is welcome and I hope to see many of you. James will also be around in the Department on Thusrday and Friday - if you would like to have a chat with him just let me know (l.borger (at) 

There will be also an opportunity to meet up with our speaker over a beer - JCs at 5pm! And if you would like to join us also for a dinner in hte Mumbles area, get directly in contact with Andy King ( a.j.king (at)