Wednesday 26 March 2014

Biosciences Seminar Speaker - 27 March 2014

Biosciences Seminar Series - Lent 2014
27 March 2014 - 1pm - Zoology Museum (Wallace 129)

Spatial parasite transmission in wild ungulates and carnivores

Dr. Eric Morgan

American dog tick. Immage downloaded from: 

As much as we all usually love animals, parasites are generally not on the top-fav list of critters. Ecologically, however, parasites play an important role and biologists have been fascinated by their complex life cycles since long time. Our speaker of this week, Dr. Eric Morgan from the insect ecology and veterinary parasitology research group at the University of Bristol, is especially interested in the dynamic interaction between host and parasite populations, for example to better understand how to manipulate these interactions to achieve sustainable control (e.g. see here). 

This of obvious applied interest for domestic animals, but Eric works also on the role of host-parasite interactions in wild animals (e.g. here), for example on the role of parasites in a migratory species, the saiga antelope in Kazakhstan. Other areas of research include parasite transmission between domestic and wild animals, which will form the subject of Eric's seminar here at Swansea, and mathematical models as tools for the sustainable control of parasites in domestic animals.


Parasite infections are the most important production-limiting diseases in livestock in all regions of the world, and climate change is tending to improve conditions for transmission, while also increasing the unpredictability of disease. In order to understand and adapt to these changes, we must appreciate the links between epidemiology and parasite life history, and their evolutionary context. 

I will aim to show, using gastrointestinal nematode parasites of ungulates as an example, how the challenges faced by parasites infecting wild animals (e.g. saiga antelopes, Saiga tatarica) moulded their transmission strategies, and equipped them for success in domestic situations. This includes an ability to adapt rapidly to climate change, evident in the spring scour worm of sheep, Nematodirus battus. The seminar will go on to consider how spatial considerations, especially the interaction between habitat suitability and host movement, appear to be shaping the spread of emerging parasites of carnivores in the UK, specifically the lungworm Angiostrongylus vasorum in foxes and dogs. 

New ways of studying such interactions at a range of scales will be discussed in relation to dog behaviour and risks of tick bites. Throughout, the link between climatic conditions for parasite development and the vagaries of host presence through natural and managed movement, will provide a underlying theme.

Thus, come and join us to listen to this talk in the Zoology Museum - everyone is most welcome!

Thursday 20 March 2014

BioMaths Colloquium Series - 21 May 2014

BioMaths Colloquium Series
21 March 2014 - 3pm 
Seminar Room 224 

Maths Department (2nd floor Talbot Building)

Blood and Blastocysts: mathematical ecological thinking on developmental biology

Dr. Michael Bonsall

Image from

Developmental biology is a fundamental research field in biology, aimed at understanding the processes through which undifferentiated cells turn into specialized cells, distributed in precise spatial arrangements, to form multicellular organisms. Whilst in the past it has been sometimes claimed that developmental biology is the last refuge of the mathematically incompetent scientist (see here), the quest for general principles and precise mechanisms has heavily relied also on mathematical modelling. 

Our first speaker of the new BioMaths Colloquium Series, Dr. Michael Bonsall from the University of Oxford,  will present and discuss new ideas from his recent and current research in this area. Mike is a mathematical ecologist, head of the Mathematical Ecology Research Group, and he uses mathematical approaches to explore new problems in ecology, evolution, health and economics.     

In this talk I will review some recent work on the theoretical developmental biology. In particular I will introduce the idea that ecological thinking, particularly ideas from population biology, are crucially important in understanding the dynamics of stem cell systems and the allocation of cells in early mammalian blastocysts. I will use modelling approaches and data to stimulate discussion at this interface between maths, ecology and developmental biology.

FIg. 1 from Mangel & Bonsall (2013)

Everyone most welcome to attend!

Monday 17 March 2014

Biosciences Seminar Speaker - 20 March 2014

Biosciences Seminar Series - Lent 2014
20 March 2014 - 1pm - Zoology Museum (Wallace 129)

Evolutionary Biomechanics: 

adaptations for flight performance in birds

Prof. Adrian Thomas

Credit: Peter Preece

You may be wondering what evolutionary biomechanics is, exactly. Well, it is the study of evolution through the analysis of biomechanical systems, whith biomechanics focussing on the study of the structure and function of biological systems. Physical and biological constraints limit the 'design space' that natural selection can explore and hence adaptive evolution has to find solutions to trade-offs between complex and often conflicting performance objectives. The exciting aspect is that physical constraints and performance can often bre predicted with high precision from first principles.  

taken from:
The question of form and function comes quite naturally for the case of flight, for example avian flight. Humans have tried to emulate the design of bird wings to build gliders or planes and since the time of Otto von Lilienthal our empirical and theoretical understanding of aerodynamics and flight mehcanics has markedly increased, as has our knowledge about the morphology, ecology, and behaviour of flying animals, especially for birds. The similarities between the design of the wings of bats, birds, and flying dinosaurs (the pterosaurs) are also a classical example of convergent evolution.    

Our speaker this week, Prof. Adrian Toomas from the department of Zoology in Oxford, is an expert in this field. He has founded the Oxford Animal Flight Group in 1996, and his research deals with biological problems related to Fluid Dynamics and Flight Dynamics, especially how evolution tunes complex dynamical systems for high efficiency and efficacy of operation. To tackle these questions Adrian and his collegues use also engineering approaches, including the use of wind tunnels as well as high-frequency video recordings and tags to record the flight performances of animals in nature.

Adrian, together with his colleague Dr. Graham Taylor, has also recently published a book about evolutionary biomechanics. The novelty of their approach lies in the ability to make precise predictions from physical first principles without having to rely on models based on biologically unrealistic assumptions. During his talk he will present us some recent examples from this work:

Evolutionary design for flight defines the morphology of birds, and bird wing designs have become a classic example of convergent evolution. However, since before the start of aeronautical engineering it has been clear that the most aerodynamically advanced soaring birds fall into two distinct groups - birds that soar over land (like vultures) and birds that soar over the sea (like albatrosses). The evolutionary selection pressures leading to these two distinct groups have been a mystery. Recent research has shown that these two distinct solutions to the problem of soaring flight represent distinct solutions to the trade offs between multiple distinct performance objectives. Pareto-analysis allows us to objectively analyse this sort of multi-objective optimisation. The gradual diversification of species that so fascinated Darwin may be thought of as the process of finding alternative trade-offs among conflicting performance objectives in organisms subject to similar constraints. The distinction between vultures and albatrosses provides a first approach to unravelling that process.

Interested to hear more about that? Come and join us at 1pm in the Zoology Museum! Wallace building, room W129. Everyone most welcome.

If you want to study flight, you better start learning how to flight ... Adrian Thomas is also a aerodynamics consultant with Airwave GMBH paraglider, hangglider and ultralight aircraft manufacturers.

Monday 10 March 2014

Biosciences Seminar Speaker - 13 March 2014

Biosciences Seminar Series - Lent 2014
13 March 2014 - 1pm - Zoology Museum (Wallace 129)

Plant diversity, global change, and multitrophic interactions

Dr. Christoph Scherber

The Jena experiment (Bild 02 -

Biodiversity is fascinating, be it a highly diverse grassland in full bloom, a tropical rainforest or a coral reef. But why are some sites less diverse? What happens if a site gets disturbed, e.g. due to human action? And, if the biodiversity of a site changes, what are the effects on the underlying ecosystem processes, such as plant-insect interactions or herbivory? Can the effects of biodiversity changes counteracted? In particular, what are the effects of anthropogenic environmental changes, such as climate and habitat change?

Our seminar speaker this week, Dr. Christoph Scherber from the University of Goettingen (Germany), has a long-standing interest in similar questions, which he addresses through a combination of experimental and observational approaches. Research in his group spans a bewildering range of different study systems, from tropical ecosystems to agricultural landscapes, grassland management, forest biodiversity or peat bog ecosystems (see here). 

In particular, his talk this week will feature research his group has carried out within the famous Jena Biodiversity Experimentone of the longest-running biodiversity experiments in Europe (running since 10+ years), aimed at understanding biodiversity effects in experimental grassland communities.

Recent experiments have shown that biodiversity loss may affect a wide range of ecosystem processes and interactions among organisms. In addition, global change drivers (such as climatic changes) may affect interactions among organisms.

In this talk, I will show recent results from several large scale experimental systems: (i) The Jena biodiversity experiment and (2) The Danish CLIMAITE experiment. In addition, I´ll report on findings from real-world grassland and forest systems to show that results gained in highly experimental settings can be reproduced also in real-world systems.

In the Jena experiment, we manipulated plant species richness and community composition for more than ten years and studied effects of plant diversity on a wide range of organism interactions. I will show that plant diversity has bottom-up effects on multitrophic interactions that dampen with increasing trophic level. I will also show new data on the effects of prey diversity on omnivores in the Jena Experiment, where we use molecular methods to unravel trophic interactions in aboveground systems.

In the "Climaite" experiment, we independently manipulated drought, warming and atmospheric CO2 concentration in a Danish heathland. I will show how multi-factor climate change affects insect herbivore performance and above-belowground interactions.

Overall, the talk should be interesting for a wide range of biologists, from molecular biologists and microbiologists to biodiversity and global change researchers. I´ll conclude that effects of biodiversity loss and interacting global change drivers have complex effects on ecosystem processes and organism interactions.

Everyone most welcome, as usual, and please let your students know!