Tag Archives: conference

ISBE 2012 Lund: follow the #ISBE2012 twitterati!

For those who are blissfully unaware, the International Society of Behavioural Ecology‘s (ISBE) 2012 congress, hosted by Lund University in Sweden, is drawing to a close. Unfortunately, I couldn’t be there as my budget meant that I had to choose between it and Evolution 2012 in Ottawa (of which you can read some of my reports here).

Thankfully, a bunch of your favourite tweeters/tweeps/tweehavioural ecologists (delete as appropriate, especially the last one) are keeping the rest of us in the loop; you can follow the stories as they come by using the #ISBE2012 hashtag. This is a great way to keep up with current and emerging research, as well as just finding out about cool stuff! Here are some highlights:

I urge you all to go and check out the full stream of #ISBE2012 tweets coming from this dedicated bunch of very excited academics – I recommend you follow them all anyway! If you want to find out more about any of the talks, you can look up the speakers on the conference programme. It’s so fantastic and exciting that we have the technology that enables those of us who can’t make these events to keep up with what’s happening, and feel as though we are still a part of it…


#Evol2012: Evolution 2012 review, part 2


Here are some more notes on talks that I enjoyed at Evolution Ottawa 2012, with links to finding out more if you are so inclined…

Emilie Snell-Rood – Changing nutrient dynamics and the relaxation of sexual selection: effects of human-altered nitrogen inputs on butterfly mate choice

Image copyright Emilie Snell-Rood

I was really blown away by Snell-Rood’s talk, and a look at her research interests on her lab page shows that she’s working on some really interesting stuff and with very cool systems (including Onthophagus nigriventis, which have a very cool male dimorphism, work on which I wrote about previously on Nature!Sex!TopTips!). This talk looked at how the increased availability of a once-limited nutrient was affecting mate choice, using the cabbage white butterfly Pieris rapae. I’ve written in greater detail before on how variation in resource acquisition is important for the maintenance of genetic variation in sexually-selected ornaments, and it turns out that the acquisition and processing of nitrogen, a once-scarce resource, is important for the P. rapae male’s secondary sexual trait (ultraviolet signalling). Since around the end of World War II, fertiliser use in the USA has skyrocketed, flooding the system with nitrogen; Snell-Rood and her lab were interested in whether P. rapae ornamentation has lost ‘condition-dependence’ over time, given that this important resource is now widely available to all individuals?

One of the ways which we can use to figure out if a signal is condition-dependent is to look at allometry, or the scaling relationship between two traits (for more detail, see this great article by Alexander Shingleton, or this rather more in-depth paper by Russell Bonduriansky). A typical study would be to plot the trait of interest against body size; on the log-log scale, we’d expect a standard trait to have a slope of 1, so it is always in proportion to body size. Condition-dependence is a special type of plasticity, however, meaning that those in higher condition can afford the costs of increased investment in such traits. We’d therefore expect to see a slope greater than 1, i.e., larger individuals have proportionally larger traits. This is called positive allometry. Using museum specimens and previously collected data (if my memory serves me correctly), Snell-Rood found that after WWII – and thus after the environment became flooded with high levels of nitrogen – these butterflies no longer exhibited a greater body size : ornament correlation. This is a really neat study, and I’m very excited to read the paper when it arrives – Snell-Rood also mentioned a few other experiment underway in her lab that sound very cool, using irradiated fathers (so likely more deleterious mutations) and differing levels of nitrogen to investigate ornamentation and female choice. This is extremely awesome! Until then, you’ll have to make do with this interesting review she wrote recently on adaptive phenotypic plasticity

Devin Arbuthnott – Ecology and sexual conflict in Drosophila melanogaster

This talk centred around the idea that sexual conflict and ecology may not be as separate as one might think, and that adaptation to different environments may promote parallel changes in sexual conflict and population interactions. I don’t have much in the way of notes from this talk, but Arbuthnott is working on some very cool stuff, and published a paper in Evolution recently with Howard Rundle that has some very interesting implications: ‘Sexual selection is ineffectual or inhibits the purging of deleterious mutations in Drosophila melanogaster‘.

Christopher Chandler – Runaway sexual selection leads to good genes

Chandler presented some work on how runaway sexual selection and good genes are not mutually exclusive, using the ‘Avida‘ platform. This is a computational system which uses self-replicating digital organisms to investigate questions that we can’t address with natural organisms. As someone with a computing background, I’m really interested to see whether this type of work gains more acceptance in the mainstream literature. Avida is currently used in the ‘DevoLab‘ for teaching evolution at Michigan State University; the 2004 Ofria & Wilkes paper describing the system can be found here.

Erin McCullough – Elaborate weapons: the costs of producing and carrying horns in a giant rhinoceros beetle

I’ll be honest: I pretty much just went to this talk as, after a couple of theory-heavy talks, I wanted to see some cool pictures of giant horned beetles. McCullough didn’t disappoint in that regard, but also presented some very cool work that also seems to challenge our ideas of the costs involved in the carrying and production of oversized secondary sexual characters. She found that, in the species Trypoxylus dichotomus, horns are not costly in terms of body mass as they are hollow and air-filled. McCullough is interested in how such horns affect flying, which is important for mate-searching, and found that any issues in regards to drag are more likely due to body angle than horn size, with horns really having only a trivial effect on flight. She found no evidence for allocation trade-offs, merely some evidence for compensation in terms of male flight apparatus (but not, for example, changes in muscle mass). McCullough’s recent paper in Behavioural Ecology discusses whether horns were costly in the past, and how this may have led to compensatory changes in terms of wing and muscle morphology. I’m excited to see what further research tells us about the evolution of horns in this particular species.

That’s all for now, but plenty more to come…

Scottish Ecological Ageing Research Meeting

The magnificent peacock advances into later years…

As a brief digression here from what is likely to be a long drawn-out series of Evolution 2012 posts, I thought I’d briefly mention a meeting which I went to earlier this week. The Scottish Ecological Ageing Research group has an annual meeting which generally covers a variety of topics within the broad remit of ‘ageing’; this year, the definition of the group was pushed even further by the host institution being Durham University. For those of you who are not up on UK geography, Durham is in England. A great selection of talks was put together by organiser David Weinkove, from Lyndsey Stewart‘s investigation of the compound resveratrol’s effect on later-life cognitive performance to Nick Priest‘s mathematical modelling approaches to finding ‘hidden heterogeneity’ in demographic data (by way of systems modelling of the nutrient sensing network, and the impact of migration on reproductive ageing among the UK’s Bangladeshi population!). 

We were also treated to a talk by Dan Nussey of the University of Edinburgh’s Wild Evolution group, talking about the amazing long-term work they’ve been doing on the Soay sheep on St Kilda. I still live in hope of being able to go over and join in their annual round-ups of the sheep for data collection, although when I asked Dan about it at last year’s meeting I caught the eye of my supervisor, who simply hissed “you’ve got work to do” at me from across the table…! Anyway, while I’m on the subject, it’s definitely worth taking a look at the Wild Animal Modelling Wiki site if you’re at all interested in how quantitative genetic methods can be used on data taken from natural populations (although still useful for those of us looking at lab populations as well). Also, stay tuned for the rest of my Evolution 2012 Ottawa posts, where I’ll discuss the amazing work in this vein presented by Jane Reid of Aberdeen University, and by Alistair Wilson of Edinburgh.

Having followed my crickets for their entire lifetimes on a huge experiment I performed at the outset of my PhD, I also presented some work that sort of fits the ageing bill. I delivered the same talk I’d given at Evolution Ottawa last week – with a couple of alterations made after being a little unhappy with my performance there – although this was slightly less nerve-racking (mostly because I was now in a normal-sized room, and my slides weren’t projected onto a cinema-sized screen!). It seemed to go down quite well, or at least I’m going to take the fact that I had to contend with around 10 minutes worth of questions to suggest this was the case…

Although Ottawa was an incredible experience, I really value these smaller one-day meetings (having attended a maternal effects meeting at the University of Edinburgh this year, and presented at the Scottish Animal Behaviour meeting). They bring together a very diverse group of individuals and research interests under a loose umbrella, and it’s great to get feedback and thoughts from other people, as well as to see what else is going on. From a purely selfish point of view, it’s also great experience to present in a slightly less terrifying situation than the one I found myself in last week!

#Evol2012: Evolution 2012 review, part 1

Last week, I went to Evolution 2012 in Ottawa, the first joint congress on Evolutionary Biology – bringing together 5 top societies (American Society of Naturalists, Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution, European Society for Evolutionary Biology, Society for the Study of Evolution, and Society of Systematic Biologists) for one massive meeting. Kudos is very much due to Howard Rundle and Andrew Simons, of the universities of Ottawa and Carleton respectively, for organising such a huge and fantastic event: it lasted 5 days, where the 8.30am-5pm sessions featured 3 concurrent symposia and 13 concurrent talk sessions, around which there were a variety of workshops, meetings, presidential addresses, talks from invited guests, poster sessions, and even a live performance of ‘The Rap Guide to Evolution‘ from Baba Brinkman! Of course, I could only manage to attend a tiny proportion of these events (especially given that I turned up to Ottawa with my own talk unfinished), but I had a great time, learned a lot, and met a load of people. The talks which I wanted to see but failed to (for various reasons) would be way too extensive to list here, but I thought I’d give brief run-downs of some of those which I did get to. This is probably going to take me a while, so I’ll spread it out over a few days.

Note that a lot of this is based on my frankly indecipherable notes which I scrawled on a tiny notebook, so the details are extremely patchy; at some point over the next year, I really need to drum up the cash for a little tablet computer. Anyone with any ideas as to how I can trick my supervisor into buying one for me, just let me know…

Susan Bertram – Integrating behavioural and nutritional ecology

I was really excited about this talk, as Sue Bertram does a lot of work in condition-dependent acoustic signalling in crickets, so there’s a pretty obvious overlap between her research and mine. A fair amount of her presentation was about how the Geometric Framework (GF), a modelling approach developed by Steve Simpson and David Raubenheimer to investigate an animal’s balancing of nutrients, can be used to further investigate the ‘black box’ that we term condition. She used some interesting examples to discuss how ‘nutrient space’ affects fitness – and provided the week’s best cricket impression – in a talk where the central message was (unsurprisingly) to propose better amalgamation of nutritional ecology with behavioural ecology. It’s certainly an important concept, and a lot of people are working on this (I managed to miss my friend Felix Zajitschek‘s talk, but he did a lot of cool stuff with the likes of Alexei Maklakov on a similar angle before turning to the dark side of drosophila *boos*). There’s some interesting stuff going on as regards the effects of phosphorus, as well as the usual suspects of protein and carbohydrate, on cricket calling effort; they also have the bonus of having the EARS (electronic acoustic recording system) II setup, which measures a whole lot more than the original EARS (which I have) does. I’m jealous. I had a chat with Sue, and her student Sarah Harrison, later in  the week at Sarah’s poster (which was also great), and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on what’s coming out of her lab…

Russell Bonduriansky – The ecology of sexual conflict: background mortality rate can modulate male effects on female fitness

It’s always worth going to a Bonduriansky talk, because he is really, really smart. This was a pretty great one – he basically just presented something he’d been ‘thinking about a bit’, showed a model he’d made, and then had some time for questions and comments. As far as I can tell, it was an extension of a paper he published last year in the American Naturalist journal on ‘Sexual Selection and Conflict as Engines of Ecological Diversification‘; I’d recommend reading it, as I’d do a terrible job of summarising it. There were a few throwaway comments which could also have implications for lab studies: the central theme was that background mortality varies, and this modulates male effects on female fitness, but when we bring animals in to the lab then we extend lifespan (by reducing predation, some forms of stress, etc), and so we could be massively increasing sexual conflict. I’m going to go ahead and assume that Russell will have a paper out on this fairly soon, as he’s a bit of a publication machine, so definitely look out for that…

Kevin Judge – Evidence for hunger-driven hybridisation in a genus of sexually cannibalistic insects (Cyphoderis spp.)

Full disclosure: Kevin did his PhD in the great Darryl Gwynne‘s lab in Toronto alongside my supervisor, and I first met him last year when he visited Stirling before presenting at the ASAB winter meeting in London. In addition to being a great, friendly guy, and a fantastic naturalist (especially with regards to crickets and cricket-like insects), Kevin is doing some incredibly interesting work on linking micro- and macroevolution. He also has some great videos of bizarre insect sexual behaviour to show in his talks, prompting online responses such as this:


In this talk, Kevin presented some research he’s been doing with various collaborators on several species of hump-winged grigs, cricket-like insects living in the Rocky Mountains. As with crickets, male grigs stridulate to create a calling song which attracts females; during mating, the females actually feast on the male’s fleshy hindwings… this provides them with extra nutrition, but the male cannot regrow these, so it’s in his interests to mate successfully without giving away too much (although the nutrition from this nuptial meal will help his offspring, he’s likely to achieve higher levels of fitness if he can mate multiply). Kevin showed a great video in which the male allows the female to climb on and start chomping away at him, while he attaches his ‘gin trap’: a weird genital morphology which basically clamps onto the female, clutching her to him while he transfers his spermatophore. As soon as this is done, he starts pushing her off with his hind legs, while she’s desperately trying to eat more. It’s amazing, and – via the magic of the intertrons – you can watch it here:

But it’s not just the weird mating behaviour that’s interesting here. In two species of grigs, Cyphoderris buckelli and Cyphoderris monstrosa, species which diverged a long time ago, the calling song is very similar. Kevin and colleagues discovered what appeared to be hybrids, identified by a different genital morphology from both C. buckelli and C. monstrosa, and used experiments to show that hungry females of one species would indeed mate with males of another species in order to get a meal. Perhaps, in areas harbouring both species, females of one may be attracted by the calling song of another, and will seize the opportunity to eat…  are males then making the best of this by using the gin trap to ensure that they at least get a mating from this? There’s a whole heap of really cool questions to answer with this system, and it’s definitely one to watch; check out this excellent BBC Nature article which features a bunch of Kevin’s great photos as well.

To be continued…

A victory for invertebrates!

Last Saturday saw myself and some other Stirling-based researchers brave the resurgent snow to travel across to St. Andrews University for 2011’s Scottish Conference of Animal Behaviour (SCAB). This was a really great meeting, being small but still covering a variety of fields – my university was represented not only by attendees from ecology and evolutionary biology, but also from the psychology department, some of whom work in conjunction with the Living Links research station at Edinburgh Zoo.

The talks were all of a very high standard, and I had to prevent myself from exploding in a fit of jealous rage at some of the research being undertaken. Thibaud Gruber kicked things off in this vein, showing some fantastic videos of chimps singularly failing to learn how to use sticks to get at honey he’d secreted in holes in logs. My personal favourite was the experiment in which he actually placed the stick into the hole, only for a chimp to remove it, lick the honey from it, and then throw the stick away in favour of scrabbling around with its fingers and rolled-up leaves. As with all research, the combination of excitement and frustration was palpable…

2001 ape

Bonus video – chimps using sticks to ‘fish’ for termites:

Paris Veltsos of St Andrews gave a talk that was of great interest to me, discussing courtship song and cuticular hydrocarbons (CHCs) in populations of Drosophila montana. Veltsos and his collaborators found that various factors outside simply courtship effort contribute to net selection on song; they also saw differences in CHC selection between the two populations. I had a quick chat with Paris after the end of the meeting, and am looking forward to reading the paper that comes from this work (which I shall then review here).

There were also excellent talks on fish, including one which resulted in the lecturer driving us back to Stirling devising a project that should enable him to sit and watch the Tour de France all summer as ‘research’; another from the University of Glasgow’s Amy Schwartz, on sexual selection in guppies, made tantalising references to ‘Nature’s Laboratory’ in Trinidad. I bit my knuckles as I thought of the stark walls of my two controlled temperature labs. Perhaps I should put some posters up in there.

While I remained under no illusions as to the lack of romance in the laboratory setting of my work, I was clinging to the last vestiges of my pride by thinking, well, my crickets are kinda cute…

…and then came the presentations based on work using the rufous hummingbird.

I’m not sure even the most charismatic of my cricket hordes can really compete with that.

Still, there was to be a final sting in the tail – my friend Ros Murray, also working in the sexual selection lab at Stirling, won the prize for best student presentation. This was no mean feat, considering both the standard of the talks on show and the fact that she was discussing her work on sperm competition in the microscopic nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans. It was a great talk, and covered some really elegant work that included the use of GFP (green flourescent protein) as a marker that was passed to the next generation by the ‘winning’ sire, clearly indicating to which of the competing males the offspring belonged. The award also comes after finding that this work has been accepted for publication in BMC Evolution journal, which is really excellent news. She probably deserves the reward after the mockery she’d put up with from some of us over her tiny, tiny worm sperm going head-to-head with monkeys and hummingbirds…