Ep 40. Twitchers, miners and presidential decorum with Paul McDonald

Australia’s iconic birdlife can be a divisive issue. Whilst some species are welcomed into backyards and gardens, others are derided as pests and invaders. Paul McDonald studies the behaviour of one particularly divisive species, the Noisy Miner. Whilst many people may regard them as urban pests, Paul says that beneath their screeching facade they exhibit complex social behaviour, comparable even to primates.

Paul McDonald is a behavioural ecologist from the University of New England who specialises in understanding the social behaviour of birds. He is also currently the president of the Australasian Society for the Study of Animal Behaviour and in an interview with In Situ Science insists that James refers to him as Mr President. We also chat about the ins and outs of being part of an academic society, as well as the difference between twitchers and normal people.

Learn more about Paul’s research at his lab’s website

Music: ‘Strange Stuff’ by Sonic Wallpaper – www.sonicwallpaper.bandcamp.com

Feature Image: Mdk572 – Wikimedia Commons


Ep 39. Dingo fences, desert spice and writings in the sand with Charlotte Mills


The loss of mammals in Australia is having huge impacts on natural ecosystems. So big in fact that they are visible from space. Charlotte Mills is a PhD candidate from the University of New South Wales studying the role mammals play in the functioning of desert ecosystems. In an interview with In Situ Science she describes how disrupting the important roles mammals play as predators can have enormous flow on effects that drastically change vegetation patterns.

Charlotte describes her time as a PhD candidate as a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ experience. This experience has taken her across the magical desert landscapes of inland Australia and continues to be an exciting adventure.

Follow Charlotte on Twitter @EcologistMills

Music: ‘Strange Stuff’ by Sonic Wallpaper – www.sonicwallpaper.bandcamp.com

Feature Image: Charlotte Mills in the field. Photo by Aly Ross

Ep 38. Mr Do Bee, Katydids and Superstars of STEM with Kate Umbers

Stop murdering invertebrates. OK? Good.

Dr Kate Umbers is an animal behaviour expert from Western Sydney University who is fighting to make sure that invertebrates are recognised as the wonderful creatures they are. In an interview with In Situ Science she says that perhaps the arts are the best way of teaching people about the majesty of the other 99% of the animal kingdom. By forming meaningful relationships between people and invertebrates, we can start appreciating them as things other than the creepy, crawly stereotypes they have been given.

Kate along with 29 other women across Australia is a ‘Superstar of STEM’, recognised by Science and Technology Australia for their contribution to science. These superstars are acting as role models to increase the representation of women in science. We talk about her experiences with the Superstars of STEM initiative as well as her breakthrough role on Romper Room as a child.

Follow Kate on Twitter @kateumbers and find out more about her research at www.kateumbers.com

Find out more about the Superstars of STEM scienceandtechnologyaustralia.org.au at or check out #SUPERSTARSOFSTEM

Music: ‘Strange Stuff’ by Sonic Wallpaper – www.sonicwallpaper.bandcamp.com

Bee-mimicking moth rediscovered after 130 years

A rare species of clearwing moth, that appears to mimic a bee, has been rediscovered in the rainforests of Malaysia after being ‘lost’ for 130 years. Scientists have recorded footage of the metallic blue moths (Heterosphecia tawonoides) flying around the banks of rocky streams as described in an article published in Tropical Conservation Science. ‘When I first saw the clearwing in the Malaysian rainforest, I was absolutely amazed. It was beautifully coloured: shiny blue in sunlight… I couldn’t think of any specimen from literature or museums which had that kind of colouration,’ said the lead scientist Marta Skowron Volponi.

The clearwing moth Heterosphecia tawonoides hasn’t been seen alive since 1887 – Footage by Marta Skowron Volponi and Paolo Volponi


Heterosphecia tawonoides was originally discovered in Indonesia in 1887. The specimen was deposited in the Natural History Museum in Vienna and, as far as we know, it hasn’t been seen alive since. After finding unique iridescent blue moths in the Malaysian rainforest, scientists compared them to museum specimens and discovered that they had rediscovered the elusive Heterosphecia tawonoides. ‘In total, during several years of studies, we only observed 12 individuals of this species,’ says Skowron Volponi.

Filming these clearwing moths for the first time has revealed some remarkable aspects of their biology that were previously unknown. Their narrow transparent wings, combined with tufts of white hair-like scales and blue iridescent scales across their body, means that at close glance they look more like a bee than a moth. The dull buzzing sound of their wing beats only adds to the illusion. ‘I usually also have to wait until the clearwing moth lands to be sure it’s not a bee! In flight, they are perfect mimics,’ says Skowron Volponi.



The moth Heterosphecia tawnoides looks remarkably like a bee. Photo by Marta Skowron Volponi

The clearwing moths of the family Sesiidae, to which Heterosphecia tawonoides belongs, are famous for their deceptive appearances. Another newly described clearwing moth Pyrophleps ellawi, also from Malaysia, looks remarkably like a wasp. Having thin wings, long slender bodies and black and orange colouration, it would likely take a skilled entomologist to correctly identify these insects as actually being moths.

Resembling bees and wasps is a common strategy for protection. Many insects, including flies, beetles and moths, are known to sport bright yellow bands and make buzzing sounds as they fly. Despite being harmless insects predators often cautiously avoid these tricksters on the chance that they are packing a dangerous sting.

Pyrophleps ellawi
The moth Pyrophleps ellawi is also a newly discovered species from Peninsular Malaysia. Photo by Marta Skowron Volponi

The scientists also observed a curious behaviour called ‘mud-puddling’ where the moths would land near moist patches of ground near the edge of streams and use their long mouthparts to ’lick’ water from the surface of rocks and soil. In other moth species their long mouthparts, or proboscises, are used to drink fluids such as nectar. However in many species of tropical butterflies and moths the proboscis is used in ‘mud-puddling’ to ingest important minerals and nutrients dissolved in groundwater.

The native habitat of Heterosphecia tawnoides is deep in the rainforest, very little is known about the animals and plants that live there. ‘I reached the area… by boat and on foot, carrying all our camping and filming equipment… everything we needed to survive in the jungle on our backs,’ says Skowron Volponi. These early observations open up new possibilities for research that will uncover more about the behaviour and ecology of this resurrected species.

Whilst encountering a species presumed to be extinct is an exciting discovery, it highlights the vulnerability of these rare animals to extinction. Scientists believe that clearwing moths may be especially vulnerable to climate change and deforestation. This is especially worrying given that Malaysia has some of the highest deforestation rates in the world.

The rediscovered species is just an example of an animal associated with unique habitats within primeval rainforests. Most probably, it won’t be able to survive in human-modified habitats and will vanish along with many other species if the jungle disappears,’ says Skowron Volponi. With ongoing destruction of South East Asian rainforests it appears we may be losing species faster than scientists are able to discover them.


IMG_8491Article by James O’Hanlon

James is a research scientist and science communicator currently based at the University of New England, Armidale. He hosts the In Situ Science podcast and is sick of hearing people say bad things about spiders.

Prehistoric plesiosaur filter-fed like a whale

New research shows that a prehistoric marine reptile fed by filtering small animals out of the water using their long ‘needle-like’ teeth. A team of scientists from South America and the USA re-examined the fossilised skull of the plesiosaur Morturneria seymourensis and uncovered the first known case of filter feeding in a marine reptile. This research has been published in the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology.

“This fossil has puzzled me since I first saw it in 1997. The morphology is so bizarre. I couldn’t figure out what the parts were and how they fit together” said the lead researcher Robin O’Keefe.

Morturneria  seymourensis was first described from fossil skull fragments discovered on Seymour Island in Antarctica in the early 1980’s. By referencing new fossil material from closely related plesiosaur species, scientists were finally able to piece the fragments together and reveal how this extinct creature once looked.

Life reconstructions of what Morturneria seymourensis may have looked like. Sculpted by S.J. Godfrey

In doing so they made the surprising discovery that the teeth of Morturneria did not meet end to end like other plesiosaurs. Instead they pointed outwards to form a network of interocking spines.

“I think the teeth really tell the story; they are oriented at such a strange angle. But the angle makes sense if you are dragging the mandible through the sediment… It’s an adaptation for benthic feeding, straining invertebrates from the mud at the bottom,” said O’Keefe.

Unlike other fossil plesiosaurs that had narrow skulls Morturneria had rounded ‘hoop-like’ jaws that hinged far back at the base of the skull. This combined with an arched palate meant that the oral cavity of Morturneria could filter large amounts of water.

“The oral cavity is big, particularly in comparison with other elasmosaurs… We can’t make a quantitative estimate because we don’t know how stretchy the floor of the mouth was,” said O’Keefe.

Furthermore, the structure of Morturneria’s snout have lead researchers to think that it could have closed off its nostrils with a small muscular valve, thus allowing them to push water forwards through their delicate teeth to filter out food particles.

A similar method is used by modern day crabeater seals (Lobodon carcinophaga) whose specialised lobed-teeth form a sieve-like network. Whilst crabeater seals can still use their jaws to tackle bigger prey, such as fish and squid, most of their diet consists of small crustaceans filtered out of the water with their teeth.

Crabeater seal (Lobodon carcinophaga). Image: Pixabay

Despite being reliant on small food items, filter feeding is such an effective feeding method that is sustains the largest animals to have ever existed on our planet. Whales feed by filtering krill out of the water using large ‘baleen’ plates that hang from their upper jaws.

Morturneria probably also relied on small crustaceans as a major food source. The researchers found that the Morturneria skull shares similar features with modern day grey whales (Eschrichtius robustus), such as an arched palate with a midline-keel, showing a remarkable case of convergent evolution between these two unrelated animals.

Morturneria  seymourensis existed over 66 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous period. The researchers believe that these fossil fragments are from a juvenile and ongoing research on additional Mortuneria fossil fragments will allow researchers to estimate how big these creatures could have been.

Dr Robin O’Keefe is an Associate Professor at Marshall University, West Virginia, USA.


IMG_8491Article by James O’Hanlon

James is a research scientist and science communicator currently based at the University of New England, Armidale. He hosts the In Situ Science podcast and is sick of hearing people say bad things about spiders.

Democracy: It’s for the dogs

An international team of researchers has uncovered that African wild dogs behave in an unusual way: voting by sneezing to determine when the pack is ready to move out for the hunt.

While it is common for certain animals to reach a consensus before partaking in a particular activity, the fact that the dogs used sneezing to vote and that not all votes are equal within the pack are both unique aspects to the dogs’ behaviour.

Research such as this into communication methods amongst African wild dogs may play a larger role in conservation management as well as offering some exciting pure research outcomes in general.

The research group, which consisted of Dr Neil Jordan, Reena Walker and Dr Andrew King, recorded details of 68 social rallies from five African wild dog packs living in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Their results have been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Jordan noticed that African wild dogs performed energetic greeting ceremonies called ‘social rallies’ after rest periods before moving off to hunt again.

“I wanted to better understand this collective behaviour, and noticed the dogs were sneezing while preparing to go.”

Jordan said at first he couldn’t quite believe what the analyses revealed.

“The more sneezes that occurred, the more likely it was that the pack moved off and started hunting. The sneeze acts like a type of voting system.”

He speculated that the dogs originally sneezed to clear the airways prior to departure and that the action became a reliable sign of this intent.

The findings identified a further twist: that the dominant pair’s votes had more weight amongst the group, Walker said.

“We found that when the dominant male and female were involved in the rally, the pack only had to sneeze a few times before they would move off.

“However, if the dominant pair were not engaged, more sneezes were needed – approximately 10 – before the pack would move off.”

King said that while quorums are used by other social carnivores such as meerkats, the finding that each dog’s vote was not equal made this example more unusual.

Meerkats were important in the context of the wild dog study because they also have vocal mechanisms underlying their quorum decisions, he added.

“They call to indicate they are about to move and when enough of them have called they move. So, one behaviour (calling) is used as a signal or cue regarding the other behaviour (moving). The dogs do something similar with their sneezes.”

Andrew King 1
African wild dog Lycaon pictus. Copyright: Andrew King

Quorums may be widespread because they produce a consensus quickly, he said. Aside from vertebrates, social such as ants and bees also use quorums as do certain types of bacteria.

“In the case of bees, which dance to direct one another to new sites – once the number of bees at a site reaches a quorum the bees begin an additional recruitment strategy to dancing, known as piping. Many species of bacteria also use quorums to coordinate gene expression according to the density of their local population.”

Jordan said that while the sample size of five African wild dog packs was already “pretty good,” there was still a lot to learn in terms of their communication in general.

“We are working with the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust here and a major part of our collective work is in studying carnivore communication and attempting to apply this knowledge in conservation management.

“Getting a deeper understanding of how they communicate opens up the potential for us to direct their movements or behaviour for conservation benefit, for example by deterring them from entering farmland or from killing livestock when they are there.”

Dr Neil Jordan is a research fellow at the Centre for Ecosystem Science, University of New South Wales and Taronga Conservation Society Australia, Reena Walker was an undergraduate research technician at Brown University in the US at the time of the research and Dr Andrew King is an associate professor at Swansea University in the UK.

The study was conducted with assistance from the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust which received grants from Wild Entrust International, Tusk Trust and various private donors.

Article by Miklos Bolza
Miklos Bolza graduated with an honours degree in science from UNSW (majoring in maths and physics), now works as a freelance science journalist, and can’t wait until space tourism really ramps up

Ep 31. Giant spiders, motherhood and lazy journalism with Lizzy Lowe


For some they are feared creatures, for others they are friendly backyard acquaintances. Spiders, for some reason, are divisive creatures that have been unfairly burdened with a terrible reputation for being deadly assassins. Arachnologist Dr Lizzy Lowe spends most of her time researching the ecology and behaviour of spiders, and when she isn’t doing that she is working hard to dispel myths about spiders in the eyes of the general public.

In this interview with In Situ Science we also discuss the reality of balancing a career in science with raising a family. As an early career scientist Lizzy has moved her family between three different cities in the last 18 months. Whilst the instability of this career path can be a a struggle, science is also a career that allows for great flexibility when caring for young children.

Visit Lizzy’s website here, or follow her on Twitter @LizyLowe

Find out more at www.insituscience.com

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Music: ‘Strange Stuff’ by Sonic Wallpaper – www.sonicwallpaper.bandcamp.com