Hello my name is Giacomo and I have traveled to Borneo to investigate whether tropical white-sand forests are mainly limited by soil acidity or low nitrogen content. While setting up my lime and nutrient addition experiment I have had the pleasure of living and collaborating with a fabulous bunch of researchers and seen a great variety of forest wildlife. I would like to share with you a selection of photographs that depict research life in this mighty forest and some examples of its great diversity
by Emma Clear
As part of my Animal Behaviour Masters project I looked at active touch theories and how we human’s use our finger tips to define a shape compared to how a pinniped (seal, sea lion etc) uses their facial whiskers. I really enjoyed the critical review element to the project as it meant I could research previous studies and really get to grips with this fascinating new topic. During my research I came across the Marine Science Centre; a hub for research in sensory ecology and cognitive processes of pinnipeds located in Northern Germany, and a part of the University of Rostock’s Institute of Biosciences. Using the links with my supervisor and previous researcher at the centre, Dr. Robyn Grant, I was able to secure a four-week internship in early 2016. As I’d spent much of my time in the John Dalton laboratories or tracking precise fingertip movements on my laptop, I was eager to venture out to complete some hands on training and work with these incredible animals. Upon arriving in Hamburg then catching the connecting train to Rostock I was filled with excitement and put in touch with the other English intern, Shanie. I met her the next morning and made the journey with all my bags to the centre, a docked boat next to a busy shipping port, where I would be living and working for the next month. The boat itself was great; big enough for a couple of intern cabins, offices, a kitchen, seminar room, fish kitchen (for seal food prep) and storage room, and surrounded by the animal enclosures and connecting floating platforms to work on. There are eight harbour seals, two sea lions and a fur seal at the centre; all of which have come from zoos around Europe and some of which have been there for many years. On my first day I had a safety briefing and induction with the head of animal training, Dr. Sven Wieskotten, and met Yvonne Krüger, a PhD candidate studying the perception of hydrodynamic stimuli on pinniped whiskers using water vortexes. Her research involves two of the youngest harbour seals at the centre, Filou and Moe, and the two sea lions, Eric and Teun. She uses positive reinforcement training to identify whether the animal recognises differing water movement using just their whiskers.
Each morning would begin the same, with me and Shanie putting on our waterproof overalls and conducting a quick clean of the outdoor platforms then checking the day’s training plan. There are several different experiments going on at the centre, including those of acoustic and visual abilities, navigation, timing and spatial orientation of pinnipeds. They run throughout the day so it’s important to refer to the plan and make sure you’re not going to be in the way of other researchers, and are preparing food and enrichment at the correct time. I assisted by preparing fish and daily vitamins in the appropriate quantities, taking notes and whisker length measurements with Yvonne and helping to set up her experiment in one of the pools.
The best part of the internship though was learning how to use positive reinforcement techniques and conduct my own animal training. Alongside the behavioural tests conducted there are daily medical checks of each animal. The welfare of each individual is of utmost importance and these checks allow us to monitor any possible illnesses or injuries. To make the seal lay down, roll over, produce his flippers, open his mouth and more I used hand movements and German commands. If the seal adhered to the request Yvonne would blow the high pitched whistle to let the animal know it had displayed the correct behaviour, and I would feed them the fish reward. Yvonne taught me medical training, how they would teach a new animal from the beginning, and how they teach brand new skills needed for particular experiments. Whilst I was there we were familiarising a sea lion, Eric, to wear a black eye mask for Yvonne’s experiment. It became obvious just how long it can take to teach new skills. In the month I was there we went from holding the mask in front of him to lying it on his snout; there is still a way to go before getting him to the point of instinctively putting his nose inside the mask when presented with it. On the other hand we had Filou, a harbour seal, who would quite happily push his whiskers through and wait for his next command. He had done the experiments before and was one of the best working seals for this project!
I had some of the best experiences ever at the Marine Science Centre! I had the opportunity to live on a boat with spectacular views of the Baltic Sea and surrounded by pinnipeds, I learnt so much about training and how a research centre really works, and met some great people who I will definitely keep in touch with. I hope to visit the centre again this summer and assist with the busier time of year, when members of the public are allowed in to watch the training and interact with the animals. If anybody is looking for a placement in Europe with training in positive reinforcement, pinniped husbandry and cognitive research then this is the place to be!
By Abigail Fay Case
For my final project, as part of my Conservation Biology Masters Degree, I investigated domestic cat (Felis catus) predation on British bats, through the use of molecular techniques. I was really pleased to be a part of this project since I have been interested in bats since I was young. Additionally, it was exciting to study a topic in which former research into was scarce, particularly within the UK.
Initially, it was surprising to see the amount of people who were shocked to know that domestic cats were actually considered as predators of bats. However, cats are undoubtedly the most prevalent species of urban predators, as they are the most abundant carnivores within the British Isles with an estimated total population of 8 million. Therefore, the impact that domestic cats have upon British wildlife is staggering; annually it is predicted cats kill 100 million animals, with small mammals making up 70% of this total.
Bats are considered a keystone species which provide many economical and ecological benefits to ecosystems, and therefore their conservation is paramount. However, there has been a severe global decline in bat populations and declines of the 17 resident breeding species within the UK have also been witnessed.
It is estimated that annually 250,000 bats are killed as a result of domestic cat predation, but as previously mentioned research into this subject area is limited, and therefore it s believed that this figure is a severe underestimation. However, bat carers agree that cats have a serious impact upon British bats, since 30% of all casualties they receive are directly resulted from cat attacks. Out of this total 56% are fatalities where either the individual does not survive or needs to be euthanized. Typically, evidence of cat attack is in the form of punctures/tears to the wing membrane.
The aim of my research was to develop a method, which was fully optimised to ensure maximum results, which could test swab samples from injured and perished bats in order to detect if domestic cat DNA was present. This in turn could potentially assist with the more accurate quantification of instances of cat predation on British bat species. Additionally, the research could be used to develop methods for the management and control of the predation, for example educating cat owners about the threat to British wildlife and advising them on what time of day to avoid letting their pet out the house.
To ensure I gained a maximum possible sample yield, across locations throughout the UK, I took to social media to enlist the help of bat groups and carers to ask for their assistance in swabbing the wings of any casualties they received. I created a webpage (http://thebatcatproject.weebly.com/ ) with details about the project and a form to fill in where people could register their interest and get involved. With thanks to Bat Conservation Trust, Manchester Metropolitan University and bat groups nationwide I received an overwhelming number of people who wished to participate!
To all registered volunteers, I dispatched a swabbing kit which contained: instructions on how to optimally swab bat wings, gloves to minimise contamination risk, swabs, and a prepaid envelope addressed to the University for sending back samples. These kits were posted out during March/April so they were with bat carers for the bat season.
Once the basic procedures of the method had been established, I optimised each of the stages to ensure the process was efficient as possible. For example: testing two different swabbing techniques to see which had a higher DNA recovery, and testing different annealing temperatures during Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) to see which gave a greater yield of target DNA.
When analysing the returned samples from bat carers, the DNA extraction and amplification on all samples was successful- this showed that the method worked and was reliable! Through a process called melt curve analysis it is possible to look at results and distinguish which species are present within a sample. Species can be differentiated between by looking at melting temperature as different species have different melting temperatures of DNA fragments. The average melting temperature of domestic cat DNA was calculated from results of the study, and it was therefore assumed that samples which had a temperature of equal to or greater than this figure, contained cat DNA.
The final results of my study indicated the possible presence of domestic cat DNA within some samples, and therefore it could be assumed that the developed method had worked! I had such an amazing time working on the project and I hope that as research into this area continues more samples can be analysed, leading to the better quantification and understanding of cat predation upon British bat species.
by Sarah Cliffe, BSc Biology
I have immensely enjoyed my year on placement at the Millennium Seed Bank working as a Germination Assistant within the Seed Collections department. It has been very interesting to learn and experience first-hand many of the procedures involved in the conservation of seeds at the MSB, from seed collecting to banking in the -20°C storage vault.
I was lucky to participate in a collecting trip for the UK National Tree Seed Project, collecting within the Devon Wildlife Trust in Holsworthy. Two collections of Crataegus monogyna (Common Hawthorne) were collected from two different habitat types with a difference of 200m in altitude, plus a collection of Ilex aquifolium (Holly) and another of Prunus spinosa (Blackthorn)
Before storage, it is essential that all other plant material and debris is separated and removed from the collection. There are various methods which can be carried out; using sieves, an aspirator, rubber bungs, or by hand. I found cleaning the most challenging task, due to the diversity of collections. Collections are then x-rayed to determine the amount of the empty, poorly-developed, and infested seeds in a collection. I greatly enjoyed learning to use this machine; the problem-solving aspect of analysing the images was very rewarding.
I would like to thank my supervisor Rachael Davies, for providing much support and guidance throughout my year on Placement. Also, to all the staff, students and volunteers that I have worked with this year at the Millennium Seed Bank.
by Helina Parnamagi
If you decided to do you final year project in the Aberdare National Park, Kenya (like me) then hold on, you are in for a bumpy ride! It all starts by almost missing your plane and running for your life through the Brussels airport, throwing away ALL your toiletries to pass the security gates and finally making it with shaky knees and tears in your eyes.
Next thing is to get used to the fact that nothing works as you expect once you are there. You might be promised many things but sometimes they just don’t happen. It’s something you have no control of and will just have to deal with it (however, having Brad with you makes many things happen a lot quicker). We had a policy that we were allowed 10-15 minute rant to get all the frustration out of the system and then we put on calming music.
When you finally get out on the field you are so excited and so confused at the same time. How the hell does this GPS work? Am I measuring the ground cover correctly? Who’s poo is this? And many more questions. Give it a week and you will feel like you’ve done it for all your life. Measuring the first plots will take ages but with time you will develop a well working “measuring machine” where everyone knows what they’re doing. No doubt you will still argue with your fellow field scientists about the correct use of tape measure. Actually you will argue about pretty much everything, but it’s all part of the fun.
Get to know your rangers and maintain good relationships with them, they are pretty amazing. They might be the most reliable people you meet out there and they know what they’re doing! They might try to convince you to give them your iPhone (don’t take it too seriously) but they will definitely bring you out from the densest bush you have ever been in and when I say dense, I mean DENSE. They will also find all your camera traps after you have tried to find them for about an hour with your fancy GPS and failed. Most important: do what they tell you to do. If they tell you to run because you have stumbled on a herd of elephants, run!
Then there are the people you are in this with. They might be your course mates or you might meet them the very first time. I was very lucky to share my experience with Tommy and Vicky. They will be your best friends. You will have your inside jokes that no one else understands. You are there for each other when it’s difficult. You will worry together and cheer together. Yes, you will get tired of them every now and then but there is nothing that can’t be cured with a good nights’ sleep. You will also get to know your lecturers. They might cook for you and buy you a bottle whiskey when you really need it, plus, they have some pretty cool stories to tell!
Weather! Don’t let yourself be fooled by the idea that you are going to Africa where it is supposed to be warm. You will constantly be over 2000 m above sea level and it is pretty much like English summer. You will need a proper waterproof coat, two pairs of field trousers (you have to wear them on top of each other: bottom pair to stop nettles stinging and second pair for the thorny bushes) and good walking boots. You might get a couple of nice days so take SPF with you because if the sun shines it is strong! But even though it might not be baking hot, make sure you drink enough water or you will have to take a trip to the hospital (everybody else praying they don’t have whatever bug you have picked up) and, hopefully, come out with just dehydration.