Smartphone apps for smartbiologists

Anyone else feel a little like this about their smartphone?


Well, now that’s officially productive thanks to the hip kidsters at the University of Florida, who have put together this smashing list of apps for field biologists.

So, no longer feel ashamed of loving your iPhone more than your family! When did your family last help you identify leaves, generate random numbers, or provide you with instant access to the online interface of the USADA-NRCS digital soil survey

Seriously though, there are apps on here that are useful for any student in the life sciences. Here are some of my favourites – and best of all, most of them are free!

  • R Instructor
  • EveryTrail – tracks your route as you walk and maps it to Google Earth – really useful if you record this sort of thing/get lost easily!
  • National Geographic Birds – up to date range maps, journal feature, and apparently, info on more bird species (995) than any other app
  • MapInvasives – a GIS based system for recording sightings on invasives
  • Dropbox – all your documents etc there on your phone. Seriously, is anyone not using this??

And just for fun… 3D Molecules – I’ll be looking at these all day!


Behaviour and conservation – a success story

A little while ago I wrote this post in response to an article by Tim Caro and Paul Sherman about why behavioural biologists avoid involvement in conservation science. You can read about my thoughts on the divide that Caro and Sherman highlighted between theoretical and applied science here, but our conclusions were the same: that,

“many studies of animal behaviour are relevant to solving conservation problems, and we therefore encourage behaviourists to contribute more strongly to finding practical solutions to the contemporary conservation crisis.”

Having made it something of a pet project to find examples of behavioural studies being applied to conservation issues, I’m always delighted to come across lovely work like this new study that’s just come out online in the Journal of Applied Ecology: Conservation implications of song divergence between source and translocated populations of the North Island Kōkako.

Never heard of the Kōkako? Neither had I until this morning – but it has a distinguishing feature that will ensure you remember it. Check out this video (courtesy of BushTellyTV) and listen out for its call: like a cross between a harmonica, and a creaky window…

This beautiful songbird is found only in New Zealand. Like many of New Zealand’s endemic birds that have darted around the forest floor for hundreds of years, it has suffered from the introduction of ground-dwelling carnivores like rats and possums, as well as substantial habitat loss. Currently there are only 22 populations – 11 surviving, and 11 reintroduced.

The ability to successfully translocate individuals of this species is therefore crucial to its survival. This paper looks at the success of translocation in a source population, and two translocated populations in the North Island of New Zealand, by investigating the effect of translocation on song.

The importance of song for mate attraction and territory establishment in bird species has been well established; likewise, spatial variation in song patterns is a known phenomenon. But how might local song diversity affect the success of translocation attempts? If there is variation in song structure between translocated populations, and each population has a preference for its own song, the resulting divergence could lead to a reduction in gene flow and genetic diversity. For the endangered kōkako, this could do more harm than good.

The study found that in the three populations (the source population, and the two translocated populations), song structures and phrasing differed significantly, suggesting the potential for these populations to diverge in preference. Luckily for the future of translocated kōkako, however, there didn’t seem to be discrimination against foreign songs when individual birds were played songs of birds from the same, and different locations.

This is good news for the conservation of the species, as continued introductions of new birds is important for population persistance, as it maintains a healthy level of genetic diversity. The authors suggest, however, that introduced birds should be from as close to the original population as possible to maintain cultural homogeneity.

Overall, despite songs diverging over distance, the kōkako is on track for a successful translocated future. Worth making a song and dance about.

It’s not often that science makes me go “n’aawwww”…

…but I’ve just become a big fan of house wren chicks. Here’s why.

Despite being laid over the course of several days, house wren chicks in the same brood typically fledge within hours of each other. This means that some chicks are considerably less developed than their older siblings when older chicks are ready to fledge. Researchers at Illinois State University have shown, however, that older siblings deliberately postpone their fledging to increase the survival chances of younger broodmates.

House wren chicks fledged when they were around 15 days old – but in asynchronously hatched broods (where the chicks had been laid over a longer period), the age at fledging was significantly higher. Bowers et al. also conducted a cross-fostering experiment, artificially altering the age variation within the brood by introducing chicks from other broods. In these experimental nests, they found the same result – where there was high variation in age among the chicks, fledging was delayed.

The study confirmed that delayed fledging was beneficial for younger siblings – they were more likely to survive to the next year – whereas the delay had no significant effect on the larger, older chicks. Although overall delay was beneficial for the current brood, it also meant that house wren mothers were less likely to produce a second brood in the same season.

So, why did older chicks postpone their own fledging for the sake of their younger siblings if it didn’t affect their own chances of survival, and negatively affected their mother’s chances of reproductive success?

Bowers et al. suggest that the older chicks are acting on kin selection. Kin selection, a theory developed by W.D. Hamilton, states that if an organism performs an action that helps its close relatives to breed, the costs of helping are overcome by the benefits of having your genes passed on in the offspring of your kin. In this case, delaying fledging increases the chances that a house wren’s younger brother or sister will survive to produce its own chicks – chicks that will carry on parts of the same genetic code.

In this case, it pays to help your relatives. So, why then are future siblings disregarded? House wrens live in monogamous pairs, but females may mate with other males during the breeding season (Forsman et al. 2008) – two broods produced by one female in the same year, then, may have different fathers. According to kin selection, therefore, chicks should favour the survival of their own brood over the survival of the next. This is an example of parent-offspring conflict: it is in the chicks’ best interests to remain in the nest until they are all ready to fledge, but it is in the mother’s best interest that the chicks fledge early so that she may reconceive. Perhaps not such cute offspring after all…


lovely photo from Yalonda_Maneval’s photostream

Science to the rescue in Sheffield!

Police in Sheffield were able to catch a teenage burglar in the act using methods derived from optimal foraging theory – exactly where mathematical modelling predicted he would strike next.

Optimal foraging theory suggests that organisms forage in such a way that their food intake per unit time is maximised – for example, by exploiting all possible resources in one food patch before moving on to the next, thereby getting as much food as possible in the shortest time. This saves energy, making the net value of their food intake higher because they have expended less to get it.

Using this theory, the South Yorkshire police force could predict that the burglar, who had already notched up twelve successful burglaries in the area, would stay within the same neighbourhood. Science was proved right; the burglar was apprehended last month, and has since pleaded guilty to twelve counts of burglary, confessing to stealing and selling on laptops, electrical equipment, jewellery and cash.

American series “Numb3rs” depicts a team of brothers in the US Police Force cracking cases by using scientific theory and mathematical modelling to predict the movements of criminals – who would have predicted that it would be the bobbies of South Yorkshire who would prove it to be not so far-fetched…


And if we can catch criminals using science, then surely listening to the advice of scientists to do something as vital as saving Britain’s bees shouldn’t be too much of a stretch? Let’s hope so – a picture article in the Guardian today (with research from the University of Reading) suggests that our rarest bees are in steep decline. The UK opposed the recent ban on nicotinoid pesticides on crops attractive to bees that was passed through at a vote in Brussels. Critics of the legislation said that more research needed to be done to ensure that this wouldn’t have knock-on effects, for example, farmers reverting back to more harmful chemical pesticides. Many scientists and campaigners are saying that it’s time to use what we know. Time is running out for species like the Great Yellow Bumblebee, which is now restricted to the north west of Scotland. By the time further, more speculative research is done, it might be too late.

All good kids are taught to “never judge a book by its cover”…

…but according to new research published in Biology Letters, there may be important clues in the structure of our faces after all.

Hikaru Tsujimura and Michael J. Banissy at the University of London investigated the effects of facial width-to-height ratios (fWHRs) on batting performance in Japanese baseball players. Your fWHR is high if your face is as wide as it is tall – this facial trait has been linked in other studies to increased aggression, achievement drive, and winning mentality relative to peers with low fWHRs. One paper showed that CEOs with high fWHRs achieved superior financial performance within their firms – “A face only an investor could love”!


(image from a study on how width-to-height ratios affect perception of aggression and femininity)

Unsurprisingly,Tsujimura and Banissy’s hypothesis was that they expected to see a correlation between fWHR and batting performance – and this is exactly what they found. Professional players with high fWHRs – in other words, wider faces – hit significantly more home runs over two seasons than their skinny-faced team-mates.

So, what’s driving this fascinating link between chunky cheekbones and sporting greatness? The authors suggest that the baseball prowess linked to wider faces is probably mediated by testosterone, which is known to have an effect on other, related traits such as  strength, and behavioural characteristics like aggression, boldness, and drive.

The literature on the connection between sporting achievement and testosterone (or at least, markers of testosterone, like digit ratios) is extensive. A particularly cool finding was that salivary levels of testosterone before football matches were higher in home teams, potentially explaining the well-known phenomenon of the “home advantage” – an evolutionary throw-back to caveman-like territoriality and the importance of being able to outcompete rivals on your home turf. However, work done at William and Mary back in 2002 showed that while faces indicating high levels of testosterone increased the perception of dominance, it had no effect on how attractive that face was to the opposite sex. Even for the sporting greats, it seems, you can’t win ’em all…