Category Archives: Stupid crap

My 2014, in pictures (and also words)

2014 is drawing to a close; it’s been a weird year, and I didn’t realise until now quite how much I’ve neglected writing posts on here. I have been spending more time on photography, although you will have to indulge the first section of this post being filled with photos taken by others…

LEVEL UP: PhD achieved!

I have a good excuse for no blog posts during the first couple of months of 2014 at least, as my PhD thesis was due for submission at the end of February. My state of mind is probably evident in that the only photographs I took during this period were of my pet mantis eating some of my study species (the decorated cricket, Gryllodes sigillatus).


Even more telling are the photos of me handing in my thesis.

Yes. That’s the face of a man who has barely slept for many days, getting blasted by a party popper. Thankfully I was looking a little better by April, when I defended my thesis (‘Causes of adaptive differences in age-dependent reproductive effort’) in my viva; Dr. Andre Gilburn (University of Stirling) and Dr. Alexei Maklakov (Uppsala University) were the examiners, and we had a really interesting and fun discussion! As several people have said, you should make the most of talking to the only people who will ever read your thesis…

Of course, I looked even better once I had donned my viva hat; this was devised and created by next-in-line at the Bussiere lab, Ros Murray. Lilly has a lot to live up to when it comes to making Ros’ hat!

I should take a quick moment here to thank not only Luc, a fantastic supervisor (and all-round awesome guy), but also Ros and Lilly for general labmate amazingness, the rest of the Bussière lab (particularly Claudia, Toby, Svenja and Rheanne), Matt Tinsley, Stu Auld, Pauline Monteith and Jim Weir. Also the crickets. Sorry you’re all dead! The crickets, I mean. All of the humans are still alive. I think. And if they’re not, I definitely had nothing to do with it.


Goodbye to Scotland

Kirsty also finished her postdoc at around the same time as my PhD ended, but we managed a few trips to see some wildlife before leaving our beloved tiny Stirling flat – including iconic golden eagles in Findhorn Valley:


Which mainly involved doing this for ages:


But it was awesome. Also awesome: OTHER STUFF IN SCOTLAND. The following photos were taken at the Argaty red kite station near Doune; Carron Glen nature reserve in Denny; Loch Garten; and Baron’s Haugh nature reserve.


Cambridge & macro

We moved to Cambridge in May, and I have been amazed at the increase in invertebrate diversity compared to central Scotland… also, we have a pretty great garden, and nice fields and nature reserves nearby to go wandering around! I have been using these opportunities to practise macrophotography, using my Canon 100mm macro, the Canon MP-e 65, and the Sigma 15mm lens for some wide-angle macro…

I have also been photographing burying beetles for Prof. Becky Kilner’s group at the University of Cambridge, and one of these photos was given a commendation in the Royal Entomological Society’s National Insect Week photography competition:


Another macro photo was used as the cover photo for the new album by Fresh Eyes for the Dead Guy:




I have also tried to branch out into some non-macro photography, particularly playing around with long exposures, flash, and some black-and-white work. The first photo here was taken on the banks of Loch Lomond in December, by the SCENE field station where I was teaching a workshop on statistics and R alongside Luc (another one to be held in April, and places are already running out!).




Breaking Bio podcast

The podcast has had something of an up-and-down year, as we’ve all been crazily busy and it’s hard to pin everyone (plus guest) down for a timeslot weekly. However, we’ve still had some great episodes; here are some of my favourites:

The inimitable, execrable, unrepentant badass that is Katie Hinde. Did you know that studying the evolution of lactation was a thing? IT IS.

Marlene Zuk is a bit of a science hero. Strike that: she’s a LOT of a science hero. We talk rapid evolution and crickets, at least while I can stammer out some words (I was late and SCIENCESTRUCK).

We also got involved with #SAFE13, a really important movement that is well represented by the fantastic work of Kate Clancy, Katie Hinde, Robin Nelson, and Julienne Rutherford. Not quite as light-hearted as the others above, but certainly thought-provoking and well worth half an hour of your time.


To 2015!

Next year, I’ll be trying to write some fun posts on research that excites me, and hopefully illustrated with more photos! I am trying to concentrate on getting interesting shots, either due to animal behaviour or better composition. I would appreciate any comments on photos here or on my 500px / flickr pages; any comments or suggestions about blog post entries are always welcome too! Hopefully the BreakingBio podcast will start strongly again in 2015 too, as we have some great guests lined up to join us.

Also, I need a proper job. I’m trying to push through publications right now, so hopefully I’ll have some paper summaries of my own to come…

Facing the facts: delighting in dragonflies

My ‘friend’ Adam Hayward is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Edinburgh. His research involves the study of ageing, for which he typically uses detailed life history records from long-term studies of mammals (including sheep, elephants and humans). This means he does not have to perform experiments, instead waiting patiently until the data thwacks – like a heady, elephantine slab of numerical excrement – onto his desk. Hayward likes to mock the organisms studied by my erstwhile labmates and me: insects and other invertebrates are, he claims, innately uninteresting because they “do not have faces”.

It’s time to present some evidence to the contrary.

Check out this delighted little Odonate!


What’s this guy smiling about? Check out his view!


This little dude’s offering you an invisible present and IT’S ADORABLE


That’s quite a few delightful images there. Do you have something in your eye? Our little pal here just wants to know if you’re ok. Are you ok? You ok, buddy?


Why is this chap so happy? Look closely – it’s because he’s chewing up a delicious insect meal he’s just captured in his powerful chewing mouthparts!








That’s right, dragonflies use their powerful mouthparts to catch their prey in mid-air and then chew and grind them to smithereens. Indeed, ‘Odonata’ (the order comprising dragonflies and damselflies) finds its origin in the Greek word ‘odonto-‘, meaning ‘tooth’, and referring to these strong mandibles. Dragonfly prey is typically other insects, although it seems they are not against kicking it up a notch:

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find much research into the mechanisms behind adult dragonfly mouthparts, but that might be because everyone is a little too focused on the larval stage. Check out The Dragonfly Woman‘s post on ‘Why Dragonflies are the Best Insects‘ for some cool info on extendable mouthparts (in addition to a jet-propulsion rectal chamber, which I think is something I’ll be adding to my xmas wish list). Dragonflies have all manner of interesting behaviours and adaptations, and Stanislav Gorb‘s research into the ‘arresting’ mechanism of adult dragonfly heads is worth a read: complex microstructures fix the head in position while feeding or flying in tandem, helping stabilise gaze and avoid violent mechanical disturbance. Tandem flights are what dragonflies do after mating, which tends to be a good time to stabilise that gaze and avoid pesky violent mechanical disturbances.

Of course, the fact that a dragonfly’s expression is due to intense feeding power rather than whimsy does not mean that it is faceless. I use this post to demand an apology from Dr. Hayward! However, I fear that I have gone overboard in taking his denigrations of invertebrates at face value; somewhat ironically, it is difficult to verify the true representation of his feelings because his own face is coated in a thick, glossy coat of hair.


…which suddenly seems extremely suspicious… perhaps worthy of a closer look…





Totally meaningful lists and stuff

Science magazine, ‘inspired’ by Neil Hall’s (borderline?) offensive ‘Kardashian-index’ paper (which has been torn apart by far better people than me, so I’ll just direct you here), has just published a list of ‘The Top 50 Science Stars of Twitter’. Their methods seem strangely flawed for what is considered one of the most prestigious scientific outlets in the world, but perhaps that’s due to their inspiration (Hall’s methods included what I hope to become the norm in all scientific studies from now on: “I had intended to collect more data but it took a long time and I therefore decided 40 would be enough to make a point. Please don’t take this as representative of my normal research rigor.”). They compiled a list of the 50 most followed scientists on the social media platform (how they narrowed down Twitter’s 271 million monthly users to scientists is not yet known, but presumably was far more rigorous than ‘we sat at a table and tried to name some sciencers until we got bored’) and their academic citation counts, then calculated their K-index, stuck them all in a list, and drew some pretty spurious conclusions.

I think my favourite is the following, which also starts with a weird clause that doesn’t really make any sense if you stop to actually think about it:

“Although the index is named for a woman, Science’s survey highlights the poor representation of female scientists on Twitter, which Hall hinted at in his commentary.”

True, the list has more men than women. However, this doesn’t mean female scientists are poorly represented on Twitter. Maybe more people follow male scientists, or you guys mostly thought of male scientists to look up on Twitter (hard to tell from those methods). There could be a load of reasons for either of these things to happen, none of them really all that good. The only conclusion that can be drawn is ‘Science’s survey highlights the poor representation of female scientists in Science’s survey’.

Also, some of the people in the list barely ever tweet: Jerry Coyne (#30) famously hates Twitter (evident to anyone who visits his blog, OH GOD SORRY I MEAN WEBSITE), and Tim Berners-Lee (#9) – while arguably reeeeeeasonably important to the internets in general – has posted a grand total of 542 tweets, which is approximately 1/30th as much as a squirrel has. Anyone who decides to build their Twitter base around this list is likely to be a little disappointed by the results. Of course, this isn’t to denigrate the efforts of people on the list who use social media regularly and engage with people (and when I say ‘engage’ I don’t mean this), such as Karen James or Michael Eisen.

Anyway, I was going to make my own list of ‘Top 50 Scientists on Twitter’, but then I realised that (a) that would also be weirdly flawed, (b) it would take ages, and (c) shut up. Instead I did something else.

Top Animals, based on the AA-index (‘Animal Awesomeness’)

1. Otter (27.3)
2. Axolotl (26.7)
3. Worm (23.9)
4. Gold dust day gecko (19.7)
5. Crab (17)
6. Elephant shrew (15)
7. Bird (12.3)
8. Dragon (9.7)
9. Lantern bug (8.66666666667)
10. Frog?

As you can see, despite the otter taking top spot, mammals are underrepresented in the list. However, given the small number of mammal species relative to insects (for example), perhaps they are actually overrepresented. Maek u think?

Send me your lists of things! I’ll make a list of your lists. MAYBE.

Finally, here are some interesting scientists to follow on Twitter, in no particular order and without really thinking very hard about it or saying anything about them other than they are engaging and informative and funny, which I feel are better reasons to follow people than ‘well, loads of other people are following them’.

Katie Hinde: irrepressible badass

Dr. Wrasse: bowtie dreamboat


Tom Houslay: 😉

Sith Lotus: EXACTLY

Katie MacKinnon: monkeys? monkeys

John Hawks: bones

Michael Eisen: Twitter handle always makes me think about Streetfighter 2

Mike Kasumovic: beard

PS please don’t consider this post as representative of my normal blogging rigour

Update: I have received numerous complaints about the veracity of my own lists. Let me assure you that they are not just inaccurate and hastily-compiled clickbait – but, if you think they are, please feel free to leave a comment and maybe tweet about it a bit? THAT’S RIGHT. YOU KNOW YOU WANT TO.