Being a research scientist means surviving in a higly competitive professional environment. Transitioning out of this environment into other career pathways can be a challenging, rewarding and life changing experience. Siobhan Dennison started her career as a conservation genetecist, studying the ecology of skinks in inland Australia. She has now made the decision to move into science education and use her skills in science communcation to share her passion for science with school kids.
In a candid interview with In Situ Science we chat about Siobhan’s transition from academia to education and her new job in regional science outreach. We’re also interrupted by a large dog with a squeaky toy…
Reconstructing the Earth’s history from fragments of information is an epic task requiring a variety of approaches. Paleontologists combine technological approaches, quantitative methods and artistic visualisations to reconstruct what dinosaur bodies would have looked like using fossil remains.
Nicolás Campione is a quantitative paleontologist at the University of New England in Australia that undergoes this detective work to understand how animals have changed over time. Using this information he studies how animals have responded to environmental change and extinction events. This information can enable us to make predictions about future environmental change will affect life on earth and how we might be able to prepare for these changes.
In the face of rapid environmental change scientists are racing to study how animals might be affected by change, or how they can adapt to deal with change. Recent discoveries have shown that changes in temperature are only one consideration and other aspects, such as changes in the frequency of bushfires can have a large impact on animal life histories. Small mammals can use fires as a cue to begin torpor or hibernation, how they will respond to increased fires in Australia is of an immense conservation concern.
Dr Clare Stawski is a mammalogist and ecologist who has been working at the University of New England but is now about to begin a new position at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway. In an interview with In Situ Science she chats with us about what this big move means for her career and personal life.
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.
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.
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.
Article 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.
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.”
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
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.
James chats with king of outreach and parasite ‘otaku’ Dr Tommy Leung. Tommy is a prolific researcher, communicator, artist and philosopher. When he is not researching the ecology and evolution of parasites he is exploring creative dimensions with Illustration and engaging with scientists and artists through his online persona.
We discuss how scientists are much more creative than they are given credit for and how Tommy explores his favourite parasites with wonderful sci-fi-esque works of art. We also discuss the role social media plays in the communication of scientific research and the pro’s and con’s of how scientists can portray themselves online.