16th January 2017 – Patrick Hennessey, Queen Mary University

patrick-hennesseyMy name is Patrick Hennessey; I am a young zoologist from Essex, England. For as long as I can remember I have been interested in animals, but my real passion for animals began when I was ten, when I was first introduced to snakes. Since then all I have wanted to do is be a herpetologist.

My summer of 2016 consisted of both science and travel – two things that go very well together. I spent time in three different countries over the space of two months. Two of the trips were for university modules, and the third was to undertake research for my university dissertation project. For my project I had the privilege of travelling to Cusuco National Park, Honduras. The cloud forests of Cusuco are home to many amazing animals such as endemic amphibians, amazing birds, and most importantly some incredible snakes. During my six weeks I was collecting data on the thermal niche characteristics of two species of pit viper. This is incredibly important because cloud forests are one of the habitats globally that are at risk of being lost due to climate change. Therefore, it is important that environments like this continue to be monitored to show any changes that may occur.

The two snakes that I looked at specifically were the Honduran palm pit viper (Bothriechis marchi) and the Honduran montane pit viper (Cerrophidion wilsoni). Both are pit vipers and both live at higher elevations than most other snakes, meaning their thermal requirements are unique. I am currently in the process of analysing my data and writing up my dissertation, although it isn’t as fun as the field work!

I am currently studying Zoology at Queen Marys University London, where I am halfway through my final year. During my degree I have been privileged to gain knowledge from people whom are experts of many different fields, opening my eyes to different areas of science. One thing that has been made very clear to me is the importance of genetics in conservation, and this has led me to want to integrate this into my future career.

My other interests apart from science are collecting skulls (I don’t have many…yet), reading, and running.

I look forward to talking to everyone over the next week!

9th January 2017 – Kelsey Byers, University of Zürich

kelsey-byers-2Hi everyone!  My name is Kelsey Byers; I’m currently finishing up my first postdoc at the University of Zurich in Switzerland.

I grew up in the northeastern United States near Boston and did my undergraduate degree in biology; the program was focused on molecular and cellular biology.  I decided after four years of that and a fifth year as a technician working on transcription factors that I wanted to shift to a more evolutionary focus, while maintaining molecular biology & genetics in my toolkit.  I moved out west to Seattle for a PhD at the University of Washington in the Department of Biology in evolutionary genetics and speciation with my PhD advisors H.D. “Toby” Bradshaw, Jr. and Jeff Riffell.

In my PhD I worked with flowers in the genus Mimulus (the monkeyflowers, family Phrymaceae) and their pollinators.  Two species of Mimulus, Mimulus lewisii and M. cardinalis, are in sympatry (grow together) in the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains in California.  Where they grow together, the main factor keeping them from hybridizing (the main reproductive isolation barrier) is pollinator choice – M. lewisii is pollinated by bumblebees, M. cardinalis by hummingbirds.  I was able to show with some experiments with hawkmoths that Mimulus lewisii produces floral scent, even though we can’t smell it (humans have very poor noses, as it happens, despite our response to coffee!).  It turns out that bumblebees respond very strongly to these weak scent compounds both neurologically and behaviorally.  I was able to work out the genetic basis of the species’ differences in floral scent compounds, and using transgenic plants in the greenhouse, I demonstrated that if you remove the most critical compound from M. lewisii, its bumblebee pollinators are less likely to visit it.

In August of 2014 I moved to Switzerland to work with Florian Schiestl and Philipp Schlueter on two species of alpine orchids in the genus Gymnadenia that are native to the Alps.  The two species are pretty closely related but look – and smell – really different!  Here I’m working less with speciation and am looking more at adaptation, focusing on two main projects. First, I’m looking at species differences in selection (including pollinator-mediated selection) on a large variety of floral traits in the field.  Second, I’m looking at the patterns of floral trait inheritance in hybrids in Gymnadenia – are they inherited as discrete ‘blocks’ of traits, or do hybrids align more closely to one parent or the other?

In the next few months I’ll be moving to the University of Cambridge to work on a postdoc with Chris Jiggins on speciation and reproductive isolation in Heliconius butterflies in Panama.  Although it’s a bit of a departure from my previous focus on plant-pollinator interactions, the broader concepts of chemical ecology, speciation genetics, and insect olfaction are very much at the center of my research work, so I’m very excited!

Feel free to ask anything and everything!  I’m excited to be here with Biotweeps!

12th December 2016 – Simon Gingins, Max Planck Institute for Ornithology

DCIM100GOPROI was born and raised in Switzerland, a landlocked country mostly covered by the Alps, where I love to spend my free time hiking, snowboarding, mountain biking and climbing. For work, however, I prefer travelling to remote tropical islands to study the behaviour or coral reef fishes. I started my studies in biology at the University of Lausanne (Switzerland), where I did a master thesis on the behaviour of the cleaner wrasse Labroides dimidiatus. Cleaners pick parasites off the body of other reef fishes, called “clients”, and have a very elaborate behaviour in order to deal with their incredibly high number of daily cooperative interactions (up to 2000). This was an amazing experience, and I got the chance to keep doing research on cleaners during my PhD at the University of Neuchâtel (Switzerland). For this project, I spent extended periods of time in beautiful locations such as the Egyptian shores of the Red Sea, the island of Moorea in French Polynesia and Lizard Island, on the great Barrier Reef in Australia. Don’t get me wrong, it is not because marine biologists go to paradisiac locations for work that the job is easy. Fieldwork is hard, physically demanding, and often frustrating, but being rewarded with a sunset over the ocean at the end of the day makes everything much, much simpler.

Over the past years I also got interested in collective behaviour, and I had the idea to test some of the emerging questions in this field with group-living damselfishes. Just after completing my PhD, I obtained a fellowship from the Swiss National Science Foundation for this project, which I am currently working on in the Department of Collective Behaviour, at the Max Planck Institute in Konstanz (Germany). You will get to hear more about this endeavour since I will be tweeting for @biotweeps live from Eliat, Israel, the field site where I collect data for this project.

Through all these travels I also developed a strong interest in photography. With my background, unsurprisingly, my favourite place to take photographs is underwater, on the reef. One of the reasons why I love this environment so much is that you can get very close to the animals, much closer than you could on land, which also makes great opportunities for animal photography. But I don’t limit myself to underwater photography, I also enjoy capturing the beauty of mountains and other natural landscapes. You can see a collection of my pictures on my website www.simongingins.com, and interact directly with me on twitter @SimonGingins.

Looking forward to interacting with you all on @biotweeps!

2nd May 2016 – James Borrell, Queen Mary University of London

James BorrellI am a conservation genetics PhD student in my final year at Queen Mary, University of London. My research interests are focused around the genetic consequences of population decline and habitat fragmentation, specifically in Dwarf birch (Betula nana), a small mountain tree.

Despite being somewhat unimpressive to look, Dwarf Birch is an ideal plant to study because it has so much going wrong. From a substantial range decline over recent decades, to climate change and rampant deer grazing, we now have evidence that it’s hybridising with two other related birch species, which appear to be breeding it out. On the plus side, it grows in remote and beautiful areas of the Scottish Highlands, so fieldwork is a pleasure. One of the best surviving populations is on the estate of Trees for Life, a conservation NGO.

As well as my PhD research, I also blog and have an interest and background in expeditions, particularly as a tool for engagement and science communication. I’ve worked on conservation projects around the world, including the Dhofar Mountains of Oman, the Peruvian Amazon and Southern Africa. Most recently, I led an international research expedition to Northern Madagascar studying edge effects in herpetofauna and filming a short documentary that will be out later this year. There’s more info about Expedition Angano, here.

Lastly, I also run a small social enterprise called Discover Conservation with stories from field biologists in weird and wonderful places around the world.

Expect lots of fieldwork photos!