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 B├Ârger 

(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!