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Learn from the pandemic to prevent environmental catastrophe, scientists argue

By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Jul 02, 2020.

The dynamics of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic share 'striking similarities' with the twin environmental crises of global heating and species extinction, argue a team of scientists and policy experts from the UK and US.

They say that lessons learned the hard way in containing COVID-19 – the need for early intervention to reduce death and economic damage; the curbing of some aspects of people’s lifestyles for the good of all of us – should also be at the heart of averting environmental catastrophe.

“We’ve seen the consequences of delayed action in the fight against COVID-19. The consequences of continued inaction in the face of catastrophic climate change and mass extinction are too grave to contemplate,” said Prof Andrew Balmford, from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

Writing in the journal Current Biology, Balmford and colleagues argue that the spread of coronavirus shares common characteristics with both global heating and the impending 'sixth mass extinction'.

For example, each new COVID-19 case can spawn others and so lead to escalating infection rates, just as hotter climates alter ecosystems, increasing emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause warming. “Both are dangerous feedback loops,” argue the scientists.

The team also draw comparisons of what they term 'lagged impacts'. For coronavirus, the delay – or lag – before symptoms materialise means infected people spread the disease before they feel effects and change behaviour.

The researchers equate this with the lag between our destruction of habitat and eventual species extinction, as well as lags between the emissions we pump out and the full effects of global heating, such as sea-level rise. As with viral infection, behaviour change may come too late.

“Like the twin crises of extinction and climate, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic might have seemed like a distant problem at first, one far removed from most people’s everyday lives,” said coauthor Ben Balmford from the University of Exeter.

“But left unchecked for too long, the disease has forced major changes to the way we live. The same will be true of the environmental devastation we are causing, except the consequences could be truly irreversible.”

The authors find parallels in the indifference that has long greeted warnings from the scientific community about both new zoonotic diseases and human-induced shifts in climate and habitat.

“The lagged impacts, feedback loops and complex dynamics of pandemics and environmental crises mean that identifying and responding to these challenges requires governments to listen to independent scientists,” said Dr Brendan Fisher, a coauthor from the University of Vermont. “Such voices have been tragically ignored.”

The similarities between the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and environmental disaster lie not just in their nature but also in their mitigation, say the scientists, who write that 'there is no substitute for early action'.

The researchers include an analysis of the timing of lockdown across OECD countries, and conclude that if it had come just a week earlier then around 17,000 lives in the UK (up to 21 May 2020) would have been saved, and nearly 45,000 in the USA.

They say that, just as delayed lockdown cost thousands of lives, delayed climate action that gives us 2oC of warming rather than 1.5 will expose an estimated extra 62-457 million people – mainly the world’s poorest – to 'multi-sector climate risks' such as drought, flooding and famine.

Similarly, conservation programmes are less likely to succeed the longer they are delayed. “As wilderness disappears we see an accelerating feedback loop, as a given loss of habitat causes ever-greater species loss,” explained Princeton Professor and co-author David Wilcove.    

The scientists point out that delayed action resulting in more COVID-19 deaths will also cost those nations more in economic growth, according to IMF estimates, just as hotter and more disruptive climates will curtail economic prosperity.

Intervening to contain both the pandemic and the environmental crises requires decision-makers and citizens to act in the interests of society as a whole, argue the researchers.

“In the COVID-19 crisis we’ve seen young and working age people sacrificing education, income and social connection primarily for the benefit of older and more vulnerable people,” said co-author Prof Dame Georgina Mace from UCL.

“To stem the impacts of climate change and address biodiversity loss, wealthier and older adults will have to forgo short-term material extravagance for the benefit of the present-day poor and future generations. It’s time to keep our end of the social bargain,” Mace said.

Cambridge’s Andrew Balmford added: “Scientists are not inventing these environmental threats, just as they weren’t inventing the threat of a pandemic such as COVID-19. They are real, and they are upon us.”

COVID-19 is comparable to climate and extinction emergencies, say scientists from the UK and US – all share features such as lagged impacts, feedback loops, and complex dynamics.

The consequences of continued inaction in the face of catastrophic climate change and mass extinction are too grave to contemplate
Andrew Balmford
US National Guard working to extinguish wildfires in Alaska

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Human interactions with wild and farmed animals must change dramatically to reduce risk of another deadly pandemic

By jg533 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Jun 25, 2020.

Pig farming

It concludes that widespread changes to the way we interact with animals are needed; solutions that only address one issue – such as the trade in wild animals – are not enough.

The COVID-19 pandemic, thought to originate in a wild animal, has shown the enormous damage that can be wrought by a novel human disease. There have since been widespread calls for new regulations to control interactions with wild animals to prevent the emergence of another pandemic.

The authors of the new report argue that well-meaning but simplistic actions such as complete bans on hunting and wildlife trade, ‘wet markets’ or consumption of wild animals may be unachievable and are not enough to prevent another pandemic. Measures like these can be difficult to implement so must be carefully planned to prevent proliferation of illegal trade, or alienation and increasing hardship for local communities across the world who depend on wild animals as food.

Zoonotic diseases of epidemic potential can also transmit from farmed wildlife (such as civets) and domesticated animals (as exemplified by swine flu and avian flu), with greater risks occurring where humans, livestock and wildlife closely interact. 

Compiled by a team of 25 international experts, the study considered all major ways that diseases with high potential for human to human transmission can jump from animals to humans (termed zoonotic diseases). The authors say that dealing with such a complicated mix of potential sources of infection requires widespread changes to the ways humans and animals interact.

“A lot of recent campaigns have focused on banning the trade of wild animals, and dealing with wild animal trade is really important yet it’s only one of many potential routes of infection. We should not assume the next pandemic will arise in the same way as COVID-19; we need to be acting on a wider scale to reduce the risk,” said Professor William Sutherland in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology and the BioRISC Research Initiative at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, who headed the research.

Potential ways another human pandemic could arise include: wildlife farming, transport, trade and consumption; international or long distance trade of livestock; international trade of exotic animals for pets; increased human encroachment into wildlife habitats; antimicrobial resistance - especially in relation to intensive farming and pollution; and bioterrorism.

Some of the ways to reduce the risk of another pandemic are relatively simple, such as encouraging smallholder farmers to keep chickens or ducks away from people. Others, like improving biosecurity and introducing adequate veterinary and hygiene standards for farmed animals across the world, would require significant financial investment on a global scale. 

The 161 options include:
• Laws to prevent the mixing of different wild animals or the mixing of wild and domestic animals during transport and at markets;
• Increase switching to plant-based foods to reduce consumption of, and demand for, animal products;
• Safety protocols for caving in areas with high bat density, such as use of waterproof coveralls and masks;
• Improve animal health on farms by limiting stocking densities and ensuring high standards of veterinary care.

“We can’t completely prevent further pandemics, but there are a range of options that can substantially reduce the risk. Most zoonotic pathogens are not capable of sustained human-to-human transmission, but some can cause major epidemics. Preventing their transfer to humans is a major challenge for society and also a priority for protecting public health,” said Dr Silviu Petrovan, a veterinarian and wildlife expert from the University of Cambridge and lead author of the study. 

“Wild animals aren’t the problem - they don’t cause disease emergence. People do. At the root of the problem is human behaviour, so changing this provides the solution,” said Professor Andrew Cunningham, Deputy Director of Science at the Zoological Society of London and co-author of the study.

Solutions were focused on measures that can be put in place in society at local, regional and international scales. The study did not consider the development of vaccines and other medical and veterinary medicine options. It does not offer recommendations, but a set of options to help policy-makers and practitioners think carefully about possible courses of action. 

All categories of animal - wildlife, captive, feral, and domestic - were included in the study. The focus was on diseases, particularly viruses, which could rapidly become epidemics through high rates of human-to-human transmission once they have jumped from an animal. This excludes some well-known zoonotic diseases such as rabies and Lyme disease that require continuous transmission from animals.

The report is currently being peer reviewed. The findings were generated by a method called Solution Scanning, which uses a wide range of sources to identify a range of options for a given problem. Sources included the scientific literature, position papers by Non-Governmental Organisations, industry guidelines, experts in different fields, and the expertise of the study team itself.

This work was funded by The David and Claudia Harding Foundation, Arcadia, and MAVA.

Reference (unpublished report available as preprint)
Petrovan, S. et al: Post COVID-19: a solution scan of options for preventing future zoonotic epidemics. DOI: 10.17605/OSF.IO/5JX3G. 
 

How you can support Cambridge’s COVID-19 research

 

Compiled by a team of international wildlife and veterinary experts, a new study has identified seven routes by which pandemics could occur and 161 options for reducing the risk.

We can’t completely prevent further pandemics, but there are a range of options that can substantially reduce the risk.
Silviu Petrovan
Pig farming

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Adult skates can spontaneously repair cartilage injuries

By jg533 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on May 12, 2020.

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Adult skates can spontaneously repair cartilage injuries
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Adult skates can spontaneously repair cartilage injuries

Researchers have found that adult skates have the ability to spontaneously repair injured cartilage, using a type of cartilage stem cell. Human cartilage has very limited capacity for repair, and the finding may lead to new stem cell treatments for human cartilage injuries.

Published today in the journal eLife, the study identified a new type of cartilage stem cell in the skeleton of adult skates, Leucoraja erinacea. These cells enable skates to keep making new cartilage throughout their life, so their skeleton can keep growing and any cartilage injuries can be repaired.

Current stem cell therapies for cartilage repair in humans are not very effective because lab-engineered cartilage from adult stem cells has a tendency to start turning into bone. Previously, no animal has been found to have the ability to make new cartilage during adulthood that stays as cartilage, rather than turning into bone, or have the ability to spontaneously repair injured cartilage.

“Cartilage injury in humans – for example because of osteoarthritis or a sports injury – is a huge problem, and a huge economic burden,” said Dr Andrew Gillis from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, USA, who led the research.

“We are tremendously excited to find that skates can spontaneously repair injured cartilage, and to have an insight into how this happens. It paves the way for developing better treatments to repair cartilage injuries in humans, which are currently very limited in their effectiveness.”

Cartilage cells within the fin cartilage of a skate hatchling

Cartilage cells within the fin cartilage of a skate hatchling

The cartilage stem cells, called chondroprogenitors, were found in the fibrous tissue, called the perichondrium, which wraps around cartilage in the adult skate. By labelling these stem cells with a fluorescent marker, the researchers could trace the cells they created - and found that they ended up as cartilage in the adult skeleton. These cells were also shown to express genes that control cartilage development.

Fin cartilage of a skate embryo, showing expression of the gene encoding collagen (green) in cartilage cells

Fin cartilage of a skate embryo, showing expression of the gene encoding collagen (green) in cartilage cells

This study found that embryonic development of cartilage in the skate closely mirrors that in humans, but unique features of the adult skate skeleton – including the presence of cartilage stem cells in the perichondrium – facilitate the continued growth of cartilage throughout life.

Most cartilage in humans is formed as the skeleton first develops, and this is later replaced by bone. By the time adulthood is reached, cartilage only exists in a few places in the body such as the joints. Human cartilage has no blood or nerve supply, and it has no resident stem cell population, so it has very limited capacity for repair.

Osteoarthritis is a debilitating deterioration of joint cartilage, with symptoms ranging from stiffness and joint pain to complete immobility. It can severely impact quality of life, and has an extremely high economic burden, so there is great interest in identifying novel therapeutic strategies to promote joint cartilage repair.

The researchers warn that taking ‘shark cartilage’ tablets should not be considered as a cure for joint pain or any other illness, as there is no scientific evidence that they work.

Their next step is to understand the molecular mechanisms that allow this specialised stem cell type to make cartilage as a stable tissue in adult skate. They hope this will allow them to manipulate human stem cells to behave in a similar way, and enhance their ability to generate stable cartilage for transplantation and repair.

This research was funded by Wellcome, the Royal Society, the Isaac Newton Trust and the Fisheries Society of the British Isles.

Reference: Marconi, A. et al: ‘Adult chondrogenesis and spontaneous cartilage repair in the skate, Leucoraja erinacea’, ELife, May 2020, DOI: 10.7554/eLife.53414

Image credits: Andrew Gillis

Summary: 

Researchers have found that adult skates have the ability to spontaneously repair injured cartilage, using a type of cartilage stem cell. Human cartilage has very limited capacity for repair, and the finding may lead to new stem cell treatments for human cartilage injuries.

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Study identifies 275 ways to reduce spread of coronavirus following lockdown

By jg533 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Apr 15, 2020.

The study identified 275 ways to reduce transmission of the coronavirus. Medical possibilities were not considered. It does not offer recommendations: a shortlist of the most appropriate options for specific regions and contexts should be considered in the context of their likely effectiveness, cost, practicality and fairness.

“There’s increasing pressure to re-open the economy and get people back to work and out of isolation. But if we return to operating as we did before the pandemic, there will be a second wave of the virus. All activities will need to be considered individually, and phased back in carefully, depending on the risk they pose to spreading the virus,” said Professor William Sutherland in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, who led the study.

Strict lockdown measures are proving to be effective in controlling the spread of coronavirus in many countries, but are putting a major strain on the population’s mental and physical health, and on the economy. Mass vaccination is not likely before the second half of 2021.

Measures such as physical distancing, enhancing personal hygiene and reducing contamination are likely to remain central elements of all control strategies for some time. The study, which has not been peer reviewed, lists the range of practical options available to achieve these measures, including:

• Café owners could open outdoor areas only at first, and wipe down tables - spaced well apart - after each customer.
• Access to public parks could be restricted to different age groups at different times of day, with gates left open so they don’t need to be touched, and users asked to walk on the right side of the pavement or clockwise around large open spaces.
• Petrol stations could become fully contactless, with attendants serving customers who pay from inside their car.
• Patients with doctors’ appointments could be asked to wait in their car outside the surgery until called in.
• School classes could be split into smaller groups with dedicated teachers, who only go into school one week in every three.

“It’s basically about how to stop people hanging around together, and phasing in activities starting with the ones that are the safest. Making this happen will be up to the people responsible for every element of society,” says Sutherland. 

Identifying, assessing and applying a wide range of options could enable some of the stricter lockdown conditions to be lifted earlier, and make the transition period shorter, say the researchers. The ultimate aim of a successful transition is to achieve ‘Resilient Normality’ - a new way of existing in the world that makes us less susceptible to future pandemics. 

Information was gathered by a method called Solution Scanning, which uses a wide range of sources to identify a range of options for a given problem. Sources included experts in a variety of fields, crowdsourcing on social media, and published research. 

“In starting a process of decision-making or guidance-production, it’s sensible to be aware of the range of possible options. Policy makers and practitioners must decide which strategies are appropriate to phase in at different stages of the transition from lockdown,” said Sutherland. 

The list of potential options is available online at https://covid-19.biorisc.com

This work was a collaboration between BioRISC (the Biosecurity Research Initiative at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge), Conservation Evidence in the Department of Zoology, and the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk.  It was funded by The David and Claudia Harding Foundation, Arcadia and MAVA.

Reference (preprint)
Sutherland, W.J. et al: ‘Informing management of lockdowns and a phased return to normality: a Solution Scan of non-pharmaceutical options to reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission.’ 2020. DOI: 10.17605/OSF.IO/CA5RH

 

How you can support Cambridge’s COVID-19 research

 

 

Phased re-opening of schools, businesses and open spaces should be considered alongside a range of practical ways to keep people physically apart, say the authors of a new study on how lockdown can be eased without a resurgence of coronavirus infections. 

Policy makers and practitioners must decide which strategies are appropriate to phase in at different stages of the transition from lockdown
William Sutherland

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The world's their fish finger

By jg533 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Mar 12, 2020.

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The world's their fish finger
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The world's their

fish finger

Smothered in ketchup or squished into a sandwich, there’s one tasty convenience food that’s hard to resist. With over 1.5 million of them eaten every day in Britain, fish fingers are one of the nation’s favourite foods. Now two Cambridge researchers believe that a twist on this 1950’s creation might help address the challenge of sustainably feeding our global population.

David Willer and Dr David Aldridge are on a mission to work out how to look after our planet and people’s health at the same time. Zoologists in the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute, they want to demonstrate that bivalve shellfish – oysters, scallops, mussels and clams – can be a source of affordable, sustainable and nutritious food.

“In the developed world, over two billion people eat too many calories but not enough nutrients to stay healthy,” says Willer, “and a billion people in the developing world don’t have access to enough food. We believe bivalves are the answer!”

Better for the planet

“This is about providing people with food that is environmentally sustainable but also nutrient dense,” says Willer. “We know that meat and fish have a greater environmental impact than plant-based foods. But the environmental footprint of bivalve aquaculture is even lower than many arable crops in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, land and freshwater use.”

Bivalves sit right at the bottom of the food chain. They are filter feeders, and eat whatever is suspended in the water, which is usually either decaying organic matter or algae. This is in stark contrast to salmon farming, which takes five kilos of wild fish for every kilo of salmon produced. Willer says that if just 25% of this ‘carnivorous fish’ aquaculture was replaced with an equivalent quantity of protein from bivalve aquaculture, 16.3 million tonnes of CO2 emissions could be saved annually – equivalent to half the annual emissions of New Zealand.

Bivalves offer other environmental benefits too. Farming them has many benefits on marine ecosystems including the provision of nursery habitats for fish, coastal protection, and helping to clean up waterways by filtering out nuisance algae and suspended sediments.  

Room to grow

Across the world there is a huge area of coastline suitable for growing bivalve shellfish – an estimated 1,500,000 square kilometres, equivalent to over six times the total area of the United Kingdom. Willer says that developing just one percent of this could produce enough bivalves to fulfil the protein requirements of over one billion people.

“The regions of the world where there’s a lot of available coastline include places where people need extra sources of protein in their diets, such as the west coast of Africa, and Asia,” says Willer. In developing countries like these, where populations are growing, there are high levels of malnutrition because people are not getting the key nutrients and the energy they need from traditional diets.

Bivalves have a higher protein content (per kcal) than beef. They are high in many key nutrients that humans need, including vitamin A, iodine and zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids. A small quantity eaten regularly is a far more efficient way of getting required levels of these nutrients compared with eating a large variety of plant crops, all of which require land and resources to produce.

The safety issue

The challenge for the researchers is to increase the productivity of bivalve farming, while at the same time raising safety standards. Their work focuses on oysters and other bivalves at the hatchery stage, where they are grown for a year before being put into open sea – on ropes or in cages – to grow to full size.

“At the moment, bivalve hatcheries are very small scale and pretty basic,” says Willer. “Farmers grow algae to feed the oysters in big tanks using lots of light and energy. The tanks get contaminated all the time, so a lot of the feed is bad quality or gets wasted. This is the main cause of bacterial disease in shellfish. For a farmer working alone, it’s a difficult venture.”

One of the reasons why some people won’t eat mussels, oysters and other bivalves is fear of food poisoning – of which there have been some high profile cases, including a recent gastroenteritis epidemic in Brittany. Oysters in particular tend to be eaten raw, so anything harmful within them – most commonly norovirus – is not killed before they’re consumed by humans.

Taking control

Willer and Aldridge’s solution is to change the bivalve feed. They have developed a specially formulated diet for the shellfish that enables farmers to take better control of their hatcheries.

“We call it a ‘microencapsulated BioBullet’,” says Aldridge. “It contains algae, just like the algae being used in the hatcheries now, except ours is grown on a commercial scale and then powdered down and sterilised. As well as preventing the introduction of diseases into hatcheries, our new method is about 100 times more efficient than the current one in terms of energy use, carbon emissions and cost.”

The fact that the algae is sourced from the waste streams of other aquaculture systems gives this method an additional environmentally friendly credential. The approach has attracted funding from European Institute of Innovation and Technology’s Food programme (EIT Food) – an initiative working to make the food system more sustainable, healthy and trusted.

Microencapsulation involves putting the powdered algae inside a type of miniature eggshell made from vegetable oil, and adding a coating to make it buoyant and palatable. Other nutrients can be added as required, to alter the nutritional value or even palatability to the shellfish and ultimately the dietary benefits to human consumers.

This creates the potential to address particular nutrient deficiencies in a consumer population. Any nutrient or vitamin is far more easily absorbed by the body when it is integrated into a protein and fat source, rather than being in supplement form.

When bivalves are harvested they are held in tanks for a week before being sent to market. Clean water is run through the tanks to flush out the contents of their guts. At this stage, anything fed to the shellfish will remain in their gut cavity and be eaten by the consumer.

“The additives are where things get really interesting,” says Willer. “One of the unique things about shellfish is that when you eat one, you eat the entire organism – including the gut. The microencapsulated diet allows either a flavouring or nutrient to be delivered at the final stage of shellfish production so it stays within the bivalve when it’s harvested.”

Oyster hatchery. Credit: University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science on Flickr

Oyster hatchery. Credit: University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science on Flickr

Oyster hatchery. Credit: University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science on Flickr

The microencapsulated BioBullets. Credit: David Willer.

The microencapsulated BioBullets. Credit: David Willer.

Magnification of the microencapsulated BioBullets. Each particle is less than 100µm in diameter.

Magnification of the microencapsulated BioBullets. Each particle is less than 100µm in diameter.

Oyster in a clean water tank. Credit: Oregon State University on Flickr.

Oyster in a clean water tank. Credit: Oregon State University on Flickr.

Commercial development

Willer and Aldridge have been collaborating closely with a shellfish company in Whitstable, Kent – a town defined by the oysters it has produced since Roman times – to develop their microencapsulated diet into a saleable product. In addition, Aldridge and another team member, Dr Camilla Campanati, have tested products in commercial settings in Spain, achieving remarkable results.

“Mediterranean mussel spat reared on our BioBullets grew just as fast and survived just as well as mussels fed with the leading commercial alternative, an algal concentrate,” says Aldridge, “but our products cost ten times less than this alternative and are much easier to handle and store.” The results of an independent consumer panel are very encouraging too: mussels fed on BioBullets were deemed just as tasty and attractive as mussels produced by conventional methods.

“It’s surprising how little research has been done on this,” says Willer. “A few people tried to make a type of microencapsulated feed in the 1980s but it didn’t work, partly because the technology wasn’t available. We hope that with the recent successful trials of our new forms of microencapsulated diets, and continued refinement, it won’t be long before the concept goes mainstream and drives the expansion of the bivalve industry on a huge scale.”

The final hurdle

There is just one last challenge to overcome before bivalves could help to feed the world. “They’re not actually a food many people tend to like,” admits Willer, “and I think that’s probably one of the biggest challenges. We can increase the production of a very sustainable food, but if no-one eats it, it’s pointless.”

Diets have changed a lot since the 19th century when oysters in Britain were cheap and eaten in large quantities, mostly by the poorest in society. Today, oysters and other bivalve shellfish are perceived as luxury foods in the Western world – but only by those who relish the salty, slippery sensation of slurping them down.

Rather than trying to convince the rest of us to change our dietary preferences, Willer and Aldridge are looking at novel ways to make bivalves more palatable – essentially by disguising them. One idea is to swap out fish – which is often sourced unsustainably – for processed clam meat in a new form of ‘bivalve fishfinger.”

“Climate change is an impending pressure, and this pressure extends to our food supply,” says Aldridge. “We need to make fairly rapid changes to people’s diets, and trying to encourage huge cultural shifts just isn’t going to work. I think modifying things people are familiar with is the best way to make bivalves into a more acceptable product.” Microencapsulated diets really could be the start of a revolution. 

This research is funded by a BBSRC studentship to David Willer, the EIT Food Project MIDSA to David Aldridge, and BioBullets Ltd.

Additional photo credits (top to bottom): Fish fingers (anon); Clams by Andrew Yee on Flickr; Mussels by fancyday on Pixabay; Coastline in Senegal by Peter Harrison on Flickr; Whitstable by Mariuz Kluzniak on Flickr and by Judith on Flickr; Mussels by G. Morel on Flickr; Plate of oysters by Jameson Fink on Flickr; Oysters by Jean Louis Tosque on Pixabay.

Summary: 

Smothered in ketchup or squished into a sandwich, there’s one tasty convenience food that’s hard to resist. Now two Cambridge researchers believe that a twist on the classic fish finger might help address the challenge of sustainably feeding our global population.

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Watching TV helps birds make better food choices

By jg533 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Feb 20, 2020.

Great tit and blue tit. Credit: Nataba, Adobe Stock images

Seeing the ‘disgust response’ in others helps them recognise distasteful prey by their conspicuous markings without having to taste them, and this can potentially increase both the birds’ and their prey’s survival rate. 

The study, published in the Journal of Animal Ecology, showed that blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) learned best by watching their own species, whereas great tits (Parus major) learned just as well from great tits and blue tits. In addition to learning directly from trial and error, birds can decrease the likelihood of bad experiences - and potential poisoning - by watching others. Such social transmission of information about novel prey could have significant effects on prey evolution, and help explain why different bird species flock together.

“Blue tits and great tits forage together and have a similar diet, but they may differ in their hesitation to try novel food. By watching others, they can learn quickly and safely which prey are best to eat. This can reduce the time and energy they invest in trying different prey, and also help them avoid the ill effects of eating toxic prey,” said Liisa Hämäläinen, formerly a PhD student in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology (now at Macquarie University, Sydney) and first author of the report.

This is the first study to show that blue tits are just as good as great tits at learning by observing others. Previously, scientists thought great tits were better, but had only looked at learning about tasty foods. This new work shows that using social information to avoid bad outcomes is especially important in nature. 

Many insect species, such as ladybirds, firebugs and tiger moths have developed conspicuous markings and bitter-tasting chemical defences to deter predators. But before birds learn to associate the markings with a disgusting taste, these species are at high risk of being eaten because they stand out. 

“Conspicuous warning colours are an effective anti-predator defence for insects, but only after predators have learnt to associate the warning signal with a disgusting taste,” said Hämäläinen. “Before that, these insects are an easy target for naive, uneducated predators.” 

Blue tits and great tits forage together in the wild, so have many opportunities to learn from each other. If prey avoidance behaviour spreads quickly through predator populations, this could benefit the ongoing survival of the prey species significantly, and help drive its evolution.

The researchers showed each bird a video of another bird’s response as it ate a disgusting prey item. The TV bird’s disgust response to unpalatable food - including vigorous beak wiping and head shaking - provided information for the watching bird. The use of video allowed complete control of the information each bird saw.

The ‘prey’ shown on TV consisted of small pieces of almond flakes glued inside a white paper packet. In some of the packets, the almond flakes had been soaked in a bitter-tasting solution. Two black symbols printed on the outsides of the packets indicated palatability: tasty ‘prey’ had a cross symbol that blended into the background, and disgusting ‘prey’ had a conspicuous square symbol.

The TV-watching birds were then presented with the different novel ‘prey’ that was either tasty or disgusting, to see if they had learned from the birds on the TV. Both blue tits and great tits ate fewer of the disgusting ‘prey’ packets after watching the bird on TV showing a disgust response to those packets.

Birds, and all other predators, have to work out whether a potential food is worth eating in terms of benefits – such as nutrient content, and costs – such as the level of toxic defence chemicals. Watching others can influence their food preferences and help them learn to avoid unpalatable foods.

“In our previous work using great tits as a ‘model predator’, we found that if one bird sees another being repulsed by a new type of prey, then both birds learn to avoid it in the future. By extending the research we now see that different bird species can learn from each other too,” said Dr Rose Thorogood, previously at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology and now at the University of Helsinki’s HiLIFE Institute of Life Science in Finland, who led the research. “This increases the potential audience that can learn by watching others, and helps to drive the evolution of the prey species.”

This research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council UK and the Finnish Cultural Foundation.

Reference
Hämäläinen, L. et al, ‘Social learning within and across predator species reduces attacks on novel aposematic prey’, Jan 2020, Journal of Animal Ecology. DOI: 10.1111/1365-2656.13180 

By watching videos of each other eating, blue tits and great tits can learn to avoid foods that taste disgusting and are potentially toxic, a new study has found.

By watching others, blue tits and great tits can learn quickly and safely which prey are best to eat.
Liisa Hämäläinen
Great tit and blue tit. Credit: Nataba, Adobe Stock images

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Vomiting bumblebees show that sweeter is not necessarily better

By jg533 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Jan 22, 2020.

Bumblebees drink nectar from flowers, then offload it in their nest – by vomiting –  for use by other bees in the colony. The sugar within nectar makes it appealing, and the more sugar within the nectar, the more energy it contains. But nectar also gets more thick and sticky as the sugar content rises, and this makes it more difficult for bees to drink and regurgitate –  requiring more time and energy. 

Published today in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, the study looked at the mechanics of both nectar drinking and regurgitation in one of the most common bumblebees in the UK, Bombus terrestris. It found that the best concentration of nectar for bumblebees in terms of overall energy gain is lower than might be expected. Nectar that is low in sugar is easy for bees to drink and very easy to vomit back up. As nectar gets more sugary, it gradually takes bees longer to drink, but swiftly becomes much more difficult to vomit. 

“Bumblebees must strike a balance between choosing a nectar that is energy-rich, but isn’t too time-consuming to drink and offload. Nectar sugar concentration affects the speed of the bees’ foraging trips, so it influences their foraging decisions,” said Dr Jonathan Pattrick, first author of this study, formerly a PhD student based jointly in the University of Cambridge’s departments of Plant Sciences and Zoology and now a post-doctoral researcher in the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology. 

While it has long been known that nectar with a higher sugar concentration takes bees longer to drink, its effect on nectar regurgitation has not previously received much attention. This new information will help scientists make better predictions about which types of nectar bumblebees and other pollinators should like best, and consequently the kinds of flowers and plants they are most likely to visit. This will inform crop breeders in producing the most appealing flowers for better crop pollination and higher yields. 

To conduct the research, bees were allowed to forage on sugar solutions of three different concentrations in the Department of Plant Science’s Bee Lab. While doing this, the bees were also timed and weighed. When the bees returned to their ‘nest’, the researchers watched them through a Perspex lid, timing how long it took for the bees to vomit up the nectar they had collected.

“For low strength nectar, bees had a quick vomit that only lasted a few seconds, then were back out and foraging again,” said Pattrick, “but for really thick nectar they took ages to vomit, sometimes straining for nearly a minute.” 

For any given nectar concentration, bees regurgitate the nectar quicker than they initially drink it. But as nectar sugar concentration –  and therefore stickiness –  goes up, the rate of regurgitation decreases faster than the rate of drinking. “It’s hard to drink a thick, sticky liquid, but imagine trying to spit it out again through a straw – that would be even harder,” said Pattrick. “At a certain sugar concentration, the energy gain versus energy loss is optimised for nectar feeders.”

The perfect nectar sugar concentration for the highest energy intake depends on the species drinking it, because different species feed in different ways. Bumblebees and honeybees feed by dipping their tongue repeatedly into the nectar, but regurgitate by forcing the nectar back up through a tube – just like when humans are sick. Other species such as Orchid Bees suck nectar up instead of lapping it, so struggle even more when nectar is highly concentrated. This influences nectar preference and the plants visited by different species.

Current crop breeding is focused on enhancing traits like yield and disease resistance, rather than considering pollinator preference. The new results improve predictions of the perfect nectar concentration for making the most efficient use of pollinating bumblebees.

Nectar is produced by flowers to attract pollinators, and a source of food for many species of insect, bird and mammal. The levels of the sugars sucrose, glucose and fructose within the nectar vary depending on the plant producing it.

“Studies have shown that numbers of some pollinators are going down, but there are more and more people in the world to feed. We need to make better use of the pollinators we have,” said Professor Beverley Glover in Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences and Director of Cambridge University Botanic Garden, who led the study. “This research will help us understand the types of flowers and plants the bees are most likely to visit, which will inform crop breeding to make the best use of the available pollinators.”

This research was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Reference
Pattrick, J.G. et al. ‘The mechanics of nectar offloading in the bumblebee Bombus terrestris and implications for optimal concentrations during nectar foraging.’ Interface, Jan 2020. DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2019.0632

Animal pollinators support the production of three-quarters of the world’s food crops, and many flowers produce nectar to reward the pollinators. A new study using bumblebees has found that the sweetest nectar is not necessarily the best: too much sugar slows down the bees. The results will inform breeding efforts to make crops more attractive to pollinators, boosting yields to feed our growing global population.

With really thick nectar the bees took ages to vomit, sometimes straining for nearly a minute
Jonathan Pattrick
Bumblebee, Bombus terrestris
Improving flowers to help feed the world

A rising world population means we’ll need more food in the coming years. But much of our food relies on insect pollination, and insects are in decline around the world. Can we make flowers better at being pollinated, to help solve this problem?

 

This film was funded by EIT Food, as part of the #AnnualFoodAgenda project.

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The 'P' word

By lw355 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Jan 16, 2020.

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The 'P' word
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The 'P' word


It's time for blue-sky thinking plus practical measures in the battle to reduce plastic waste.

In Tokyo, a householder consults her 60-page ‘Garbage Separation and Disposal’ system to check whether it's a recycle day for plastic bottles or for all other plastic packaging.

In a coastal village in Kenya, an order has been received for 2,000 bricks made from waste plastic and earth.

On a chemistry bench in Cambridge, bubbles of hydrogen form and rise around a thumbnail-sized square of plastic cut from a water bottle.

All around the world there are instances where we are getting things right with plastic – recycling, recovering, re-using – and instances where we are getting things very wrong.

Our awareness of just how wrong is riding the crest of a plastic-polluted wave: every year, more than 8 million tonnes of plastic waste ends up in the world’s oceans. Environmental agencies have predicted that if these trends continue, our oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050.

Plastic has become a malevolent symbol of our wasteful society. But it's also one of the most successful materials ever invented: it’s cheap, durable, flexible, waterproof, versatile and lightweight. It’s fundamental to almost every aspect of our lives and it's a resource that we are wasting, says Professor Erwin Reisner.

“As a chemist I look at plastic and I see an extremely useful material that is rich in chemicals and energy – a material that shouldn’t end up in landfills and pollute the environment. Plastic is an example of how we must find ways to use resources without irreversibly changing the planet for future generations.”

Reisner leads Cambridge University's new Cambridge Creative Circular Plastics Centre (CirPlas). Funded by UK Research and Innovation, it aims to eliminate plastic waste by combining blue-sky thinking with practical measures, connecting expertise across the disciplines, and collaborating with industry and local government.

In doing so, their research reaches from the Tokyo householder to the Kenyan brickmaker to the Cambridge chemist, and yet further still.

Film: Erwin Reisner talks about the Cambridge Creative Circular Plastics Centre

Plastic bottle in the ocean

How do we keep track of plastic?

Ask anyone what they know about plastic and they might tell you about the need to ban single-use materials, or that it’s essential for healthcare, or that it’s lighter and more fuel efficient than packaging alternatives.

“What no-one will tell you is how any of this relates to how much and what type of plastic we use, how long those products are in service, and what happens to them afterwards. The fact is – no-one knows,” says Dr Andre Serrenho.

It seems a simple enough set of questions but the data is complex and held by many different bodies. And so, as part of CirPlas, he and Dr Jonathan Cullen in the Department of Engineering are creating a map of the flow of plastic in the UK economy by amassing all of this data in one place.

Meanwhile, engineer Dr Ronan Daly is exploring digitally enabled solutions to label and track plastic, and zoologist Dr David Aldridge is using sensing technologies to measure how much microplastic is entering the food chain.

“All of these studies will take us closer to answering something we’ve never been able to answer before,” adds Serrenho. “Plastic helps us live safer, more convenient lives but how much is enough plastic and how much is too much?”

Zero waste from industry

One area where plastic has transformed modern-day living is in food safety. Of the 5 million tonnes of plastic used each year by the UK, 37% is used for packaging, of which almost three-quarters is for soft drinks. The challenges presented by waste from this packaging cannot be ignored, least of all by the industries that depend on it.

“What’s needed now is collective and informed action from individuals, government and business to shift us back in the right direction,” says Beverley Cornaby.

Last year, she and colleagues at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership worked with 10 of the UK’s largest bottled drinks companies to understand what this collective action might look like. The result was an ambitious roadmap for zero plastic packaging waste from the industry being sent to landfill or escaping into the natural landscape by 2030.

“One of the areas we identified was around design. Businesses can sometimes move faster than government policy and so making changes to their own products can provide quicker fixes,” she adds.

“We’ve worked with companies to understand how to reconsider their approach to using plastic packaging. We’re now looking at alternative packaging choices and what the relative impact might be on carbon emissions, and water and land use.”

Manufacture of plastic drinking bottles

Plastic rematerialised

It seems that our need for plastic is here to stay, and so Cambridge researchers are exploring how we re-use it – as well as developing alternatives to take its place.

Taylor Uekert, working with Dr Erwin Reisner in the Department of Chemistry, has developed a technology called photoreforming that turns plastic waste into hydrogen fuel, using only water, a photocatalyst and sunlight. The technology is still very new but already the researchers have produced enough hydrogen from polyester fibres to power a phone for 40 seconds.

Dr Aazara Oumayyah Pankan is also exploring electricity generation from waste plastic – this time using biology. She’s testing microorganisms from environments like toxic waste dumps for their ability to decompose plastic. Working with Dr Adrian Fisher in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, she aims for these ‘plastic composters’ to provide off-grid power for rural communities.

In Kenya, a coastal community has started converting waste plastic into bricks, using a method developed by a student-led team from Cambridge’s Department of Engineering and prototyped by the Kenyan community. They have just received an order for 2,000 bricks for a local school.

Physicist Professor Jeremy Baumberg is using plastic waste as the raw materials for low-cost 3D printers. His team’s approach is to design printable scientific instruments like microscopes for resource-poor countries to turn low-value waste into high-value locally manufactured components.

Meanwhile, biochemist Professor Paul Dupree and materials scientist Professor James Elliott have set out to design a completely new class of materials based on modified plant fibres that have some of the good properties of plastic and yet are easy to recycle or decompose naturally.

Case study: The solution catalyser

Bringing the right people together to solve a major global environmental problem like waste is essential.

With this in mind, Dr Curie Park from the Institute for Manufacturing took her emergent circular economy process for creating the right mix of people to Thailand, funded by a Global Challenges Research Fund Impact Acceleration Award.

“Thailand uses a staggering amount of single-use plastics every day, but its waste management system lags far behind its economic advances,” she explains. “We saw first-hand the marine waste at a coastal village, where plastic debris floats from the rivers and is washed up as current changes seasonally.

“Everyone recognised the problem, which seemed too big for any one individual to tackle. But there had been regular beach cleaning activities and some of this collected plastic could be turned into viable products locally.

“We brought together a construction company, an environmental NGO, university students, a local windsurfing world champion turned beach cleaning heroine, municipal officers, local primary schools and start-ups, and applied our innovation process.

“Giving everyone a chance to share their views, providing stimuli and sharing what’s happening in other communities ignited a creative momentum to come up with novel solutions. We ended up with 56 ideas for using the waste as a raw material – paddleboards, compost bins, roof tiles – seven of which are in the commercialisation pipeline by the construction company and the local start-ups.”

Curie Park and the local beach cleaning group in Thailand

Curie Park and the local beach cleaning group in Thailand

Curie Park and the local beach cleaning group in Thailand

Words to live by

Put simply, plastic is incredibly useful – and it's being wasted.

“There’s a word in Japanese that conveys a feeling of regret when something useful is wasted. It’s mottainai,” says anthropologist Dr Brigitte Steger, from the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. As part of CirPlas, Steger and her team look at cultural attitudes to plastic and waste globally. Her own research focuses on Japan.

“The Japanese are very good citizens in terms of sorting and recycling but they also use a huge amount of plastic – and they don’t regard single-use plastic with mottainai,” she says.

In Tokyo, the 'Garbage Separation and Disposal' advice extends to 60 pages. “One woman being rehoused after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster told me she would only move to an area where she was familiar with the complexities of the recycling system,” says Steger.

Advice to householders in Tokyo on waste separation for recycling

Advice to householders in Tokyo on waste separation for recycling

“We need to understand what practical and moral needs plastic fulfils to know what can be done to shift behaviour towards living more sustainably. Moreover, policymakers define solutions in response to how problems are defined. We need to clarify these.”

What if we could shift our 'take, make, throw-away' plastic world towards 'recycle, recover, re-use'?

“Today’s cradle-to- grave economy sees around 80% of plastic landfilled, incinerated or lost into the natural environment,” says economist Dr Khaled Soufani. “It is argued by some that we are using resources 50% faster than can be replenished. It has also been said that by 2030 we will require the natural resources sources of two Earths, and by 2050, three.”

Soufani leads the Circular Economy Centre in Cambridge Judge Business School. He and Steger are contributing to CirPlas by asking how individuals, communities, companies and public bodies approach their use and recycling of plastic.

“What we need,” says Soufani, “is a circular economy with re-use of products and recycling of embedded materials into new products for as long as possible.”

Film: Khaled Soufani talks about moving towards a more sustainable future via the circular economy

Circularity by design

Cambridgeshire-based packaging company Charpak believes it is the first in the UK to adopt a ‘localised circular economy’ in which local plastic waste is collected, re-processed and re-manufactured into new packaging.

The company has been chosen by Soufani’s team as a case study to look at the viability of a circular business model. The translation of the circular economy in business models that eliminate plastic is relatively unexplored and so there's little guidance for practitioners who would like to adopt such a model.  The researchers are addressing this gap by mapping how Charpak has approached the circular economy and by estimating the impact of their efforts.

Worker at Charpak

Worker at Charpak

Worker at Charpak

“Before any company will look at embedding circularity, they are going to ask a very simple question: how will it impact on me financially? Communities, companies and governing bodies need to see practical business cases and models in action,” adds Soufani.

“Minimising plastic leaking into our environment is a responsibility we take very seriously, so we must ensure plastic becomes a resource and not waste,” says Charpak Managing Director Paul Smith. “Why transport essential plastics resources nationwide, or overseas, and risk ocean plastics when the plastic resource is required for manufacture and re-manufacture within the UK? We want to be part of the solution.”

Soufani agrees, adding: “We need to shift from a culture of mass consumption and waste towards renewability, dematerialisation and reduced resource loss.

Our need to reduce, remake and recycle is a continuous journey towards circularity that will define our relationship with the planet forever.
Khaled Soufani

Image credits:
Sky girl:
Karina Tess
Water bottle in the ocean, Indonesia:
Brian Yurasits
Plastic in a field:
Masha Kotliarenko
Manufacture of plastic drinking bottles:
Jonathan Chng

Summary: 

How do we shift our 'take, make, throw-away' plastic world towards 'recycle, recover, re-use'? It's time for blue-sky thinking plus practical measures in the battle to reduce plastic waste. 

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Suction cups that don't fall off

By jg533 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Dec 17, 2019.

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Suction cups that don't fall off
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Suction cups
that don't fall off

Insects in torrential rivers
may inspire engineering solutions

The aquatic larvae of the net-winged midge have the unique ability to move around at ease on rocks in torrential rivers using super-strong suction organs. Powerful modern imaging techniques have now revealed the structure of these organs in intricate detail, providing an insight into how they work so reliably. The findings, reported in the journal BMC Zoology, may inform the development of better man-made suction cups that perform well on a variety of surfaces.

The larvae have the ability to quickly detach and reattach to underwater rocks in torrential alpine rivers that can flow as fast as three metres per second. Their highly specialised suction organs are so strong that only forces over 600 times their body weight can detach them. Being in such fast flowing water puts them out of harm’s way, since competitors or predators are unlikely to survive in this challenging environment.

“The force of the river water where the larvae live is absolutely enormous, and they use their suction organs to attach themselves with incredible strength. If they let go they’re instantly swept away,” said Victor Kang, a PhD student in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology and first author of the paper. “They aren’t bothered at all by the extreme water speeds – we see them feeding and moving around in all directions.”

Suction organ imaged using laser scanning confocal microscopy

Net-winged midge larva uses its powerful suction organs to crawl on a rock surface beneath a fast-flowing alpine stream.

Net-winged midge larva uses its powerful suction organs to crawl on a rock surface beneath a fast-flowing alpine stream.

The researchers found that a central piston, controlled by specific muscles, is used to create the suction and enable each larva to form a very tight seal with the surface of the rock. A dense array of tiny hairs come into contact with the rock surface, helping to keep the larva in place. When it needs to move, other muscles control a tiny slit on the suction disc, pulling the disc open to allow the suction organ to detach. This is the first time such an active detachment mechanism has been seen in any biological system.

Slit on the suction disc - a unique feature that allows the net-winged midge larvae to rapidly detach and move around.

Slit on the suction disc - a unique feature that allows the net-winged midge larvae to rapidly detach and move around.

The work focused on two species of the larvae – Liponeura cinerascens and Liponeura cordata – found in the fastest flowing parts of alpine rivers near Innsbruck, Austria. Despite only wading into the river up to their knees, the researchers found it difficult to stay upright. The larvae they found there were grazing on the underwater rocks, apparently oblivious to the torrents bearing down on them.

“These natural structures have been optimised through millions of years of evolution. We want to learn from them to create better engineered products,” said Dr Walter Federle, an expert in Comparative Biomechanics at the University of Cambridge who led the study.

L. cinerascens larva

L. cinerascens larva

L. cinerascens larva

By collaborating with colleagues at the Institute of New Materials, Saarbrücken, Germany, the researchers are using their findings to develop ‘bio-inspired’ suction cups. Current artificial suction cups only work well on smooth, clean surfaces, like a car windscreen or inside a clean-room facility. The aquatic net-winged midge larvae live on rough, dirty surfaces yet can walk around with ease. Such highly reliable controlled attachment and detachment has many potential industrial applications.

“By understanding how the larvae’s suction organs work, we now envisage a whole host of exciting uses for engineered suction cups,” said Federle. “There could be medical applications, for example allowing surgeons to move around delicate tissues, or industrial applications like berry picking machines, where suction cups could pick the fruit without crushing them.”

The aquatic larvae of net-winged midges have fascinated insect specialists for over a century. Their suction organs have the highest attachment strength ever recorded in insects. Using scanning electron microscopy, confocal laser scanning microscopy, and X-ray computed micro-tomography (micro-CT), this study has revealed the internal structure of the suction organs in three dimensions and provided new insights into their function.


Reference: Kang, V. et al, 'Morphology of powerful suction organs from blepharicerid larvae living in raging torrents.' BMC Zoology (2019). DOI:10.1101/666537

Additional photo captions: Second image - suction organ imaged using laser scanning confocal microscopy; below - fast flowing alpine stream, a typical habitat for the net-winged midge larvae. All images by Victor Kang.

Summary: 

The aquatic larvae of the net-winged midge have the unique ability to move around at ease on rocks in torrential rivers using super-strong suction organs. Powerful modern imaging techniques have now revealed the structure of these organs in intricate detail, providing an insight into how they work so reliably. 

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Women in STEM: Sophia Cooke

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Zoology. Published on Dec 12, 2019.

My PhD is on the impact of road traffic on bird populations in Great Britain. I first came to Cambridge as an undergraduate; where I studied Natural Sciences and specialised in Zoology. I then worked as a research assistant in Cambridge before going on to do a Master’s in Wildlife Conservation at the University of Reading. In 2015, I returned to Cambridge to start my PhD with the Zoology Department.

I divide my time between Cambridge and Galápagos. While my PhD is based largely in Cambridge and focuses on the impacts of roads, I also run a project in Galápagos. I visited the islands in 2015 after completing my Master’s degree and became interested in an introduced bird species, the Smooth-billed Ani. I decided to set up a project with them and have been running it ever since, in collaboration with the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galápagos National Park. Our aims are to quantify the impact this bird is having on native fauna and ecosystems, to analyse whether control or eradication is needed; and to consider how either of these might best be achieved.

I feel particularly lucky to be part of the David Attenborough Building. For my PhD, I work with the University and several NGOs, all of which have an office in the same building. I am constantly running up and down the stairs to ask people questions. It is wonderful to be part of such a collaborative environment. 

My work is incredibly varied. One big undertaking of mine in the past couple of years was to gather as much information as possible on the introduction and potential impacts of the Smooth-billed Ani in Galápagos for a review paper. As most of this was unpublished it involved visiting or contacting various libraries and universities and going through old archives. I found a lot of information that otherwise might have never surfaced, so it was very rewarding work. I have also undertaken fieldwork, designing and building traps to catch Anis and then analysing their diets. Meanwhile, my PhD research involves a huge amount of number-crunching and statistics, which I also really enjoy.

I think having confidence in yourself is really important. During my Master’s project, I spent two months in the Norfolk Broads, studying the impact of Marsh Harriers on Lapwings and other wading birds. This was the biggest research project I had done at that stage, and I knew I would have much less input from my supervisors than I did as an undergraduate. I remember arriving in the Norfolk Broads on the first day, unpacking in my little room with no wifi, knowing I would have hardly any contact with another person for the next two months. I knew the results I wanted to achieve and had a rough idea of how to do it but I felt quite out of my depth. I realised that I had to take control of my own work, trust my own abilities and not rely on supervisors as much as I was used to. Over those two months, I began to really build respect for my own ideas as well as those of others. I grew so much as a scientist and as a person and thoroughly enjoyed the whole project. If you can learn to have confidence in yourself and your abilities, everything becomes less intimidating.

Collaboration is key. I have really seen, over the last few years, how much of a difference good collaboration and communication can make. In research, there are usually many different ways of doing things, and being able to bounce ideas around and combine the knowledge and experience of multiple people can be hugely beneficial. I have learnt so much and met many brilliant scientists from collaborating on projects. The hardest part is preventing yourself from agreeing to the tens of new project ideas that come out of each existing one!

Sophia Cooke is a PhD candidate in the Department of Zoology, and a member of King's College. Here, she tells us about splitting her time between Cambridge and Galápagos, why working in the David Attenborough Building is so special, and how a little room in Norfolk with no wifi helped build her confidence as a researcher.  

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The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes