Monthly Archives: October 2013

Research Group Meeting: 29th of October 2013


Dr Luc Bussière, Dr Timothy Paine, Elizabeth Herridge, Thomas Houslay, Toby Hector, Sam Paterson, Claudia Santori, Hazel Smith, Gregor Hogg

Our bi-weekly research meetings continued last night at the William Wallace with a number of interesting topics and surprising revelations such as: ‘I got Hep B in Croy’ from Dr Paine, ‘Twitchers are crazy’ from Lilly and ‘We build houses’ from Luc as a rebuttal on the subject of behavioural response to poor environments.

DISCLAIMER: Some of the above may have been taken wildly out of context.

‘From egg to dead’

The centre of discussion was of Hazel’s summer research project looking at the effect of different life history traits on phenology in dance flies. This impressive undertaking involved her designing a model to test a range of life history parameters (with regards to longevity, mating frequency and physiology) with the hope of making some predictions that could be tested experimentally.

So far her work has focused on getting the model up and running with the aim now to test the rest of the life history parameters. As is often the case, the current model design is very complex but Dr Paine made some helpful suggestions on model simplification such as eliminating aspects of functions that include random variation (for example, in nuptial gift size) and on running sensitivity analysis.


We followed Hazel’s coherent presentation with a fuzzy discussion on plasticity. It got deep. It got so deep in fact that your humble scribe does not feel entirely comfortable leading you down the contorted and abstract path that followed. If you’re really keen though have a look at this paper by Samuel Scheiner on the genetics of phenotypic plasticity that Tom recommended. If that wasn’t enough, have a look at this paper by Emilie Snell-Rood on the costs and benefits of phenotypic plasticity, or there is always ol’ trusty!

‘Yes, surprisingly I am still married…’

Next Tom showing us some cool results from ‘his’ (Tom’s words not mine Mrs Houslay) work on the effect of diet on the chemical composition of male decorated crickets. An arduous undertaking but with some promising implications for his research.

‘Tessellation, a cool word to use when neatly packing your fridge’

We finished up with a discussion on the physics of eyes as Toby presented some problems on the size of facets in some male dance flies.

Any other business:

There was a quick tactical discussion on how to peer pressure Lilly’s sister into presenting her work to the group during her visit. She’s doing some interesting work on dwarf elephants in the Mediterranean, she must be so jealous she’s not studying flies in Scotland! I would also suggest having a look at a short video from the Quirks & Quarks podcast.

Finally Luc proposed a research group Movember team effort extravaganza with a clean shave group photo scheduled for Friday. Movember for those who don’t know is a charity that is based around the noble art of growing a moustache. Lilly, Hazel and Claudia clearly felt left out of this discussion but not to worry as ‘Mosistas’ are considered an integral part of the event!

Tom’s topical podcast promulgation*

Given that Gregor brought along a paper from Andrew Jackson’s group to discuss at Science Drinks recently, I thought that it would be a good time for me (Tom) to start pushing my podcast on here, as the most recent guest was Dr Jackson himself!

The podcast is called Breaking Bio, and I co-host it alongside several other biology PhD students and postdocs scattered across the globe; it is a highly unprofessional, disorganised and low-budget affair that nonetheless seems to attract some pretty amazing scientists and science communicators to chat with us about their work. Previous guests that may be of interest to readers here include Ben Wegener on squid sex and spermatophores, our very own Stu Auld talking parasites, Michael Whitehead chatting deceptive orchid sex, Mike Kasumovic discussing everything from cricket sex to spider dancing (with interludes for academic beards and video game research), and Luc’s postdoc supervisor Rob Brooks making an appearance on one of our earliest episodes to tell us all about his new book and varied career (until I asked him about stuff that he didn’t really remember doing and it was all rather embarrassing for everyone, but mostly me).

You can find all the episodes at the BreakingBio website, or alternatively ‘like’ our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter for updates! The podcast is available on video via YouTube, or – if you don’t want to look at our horrible pale scientist faces or see into anyone’s grotty bedroom – the audio versions can be downloaded from iTunes.

With that, I’ll leave you to ‘enjoy’ the episode with Andrew Jackson. Any comments, requests for guests (or offers to be a guest) are all gratefully received!

* after the previous post, I’m hoping to continue some kind of semi-alliterative title ante…

Jan Lindström’s Seminar: Sexual signals and senescence in Sticklebacks

Today Jan Lindström from the University of Glasgow gave a fantastic talk in the BES seminar series. It’s always a special pleasure when you host an amazing speaker, because you can briefly pretend that inviting someone who gives a good talk is a matter of good taste and skill.

Ignoring this needless vanity on my part, Jan’s talk was particularly notable for several qualities: its skillful staging of the motivation for this work, its careful explanation of the theoretical framework (including slides containing — gasp — equations!), and the marriage of this theory with relatively simple (to understand, although undoubtedly not so simple to execute) experimental work validating some of the not-so-intuitive findings from theory. Motivation enough (though I shouldn’t need it) to revisit the papers describing this work by Lindstrom and his team, including former postdoc Tom Pike:

Jan Lindström, Thomas W. Pike, Jonathan D. Blount, and Neil Metcalfe. 2009. Optimization of resource allocation can explain the temporal dynamics and honesty of sexual signals. Am. Nat. 174: 515-525.

Thomas W. Pike, Jonathan D. Blount, Bjørn Bjerkeng, Jan Lindström, and Neil Metcalfe. 2007. Carotenoids, oxidative stress, and female preference for longer-lived males. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 274:1591-1596.

After the talk, a few of the regulars took in some beer and engaged in post-seminar science chat. In addition to plenty of questions about sticklebacks, we discussed the community dynamics of human pharyngeal microbes, and of lichens in haunted graveyards, and the proper attitude that a psychic should adopt if he or she happens to be in a casino on the Titanic (never mind the obvious bad planning or shortsightedness that this implies for the psychic). It made sense at the time.

Anywaaayyys, lotsa food for thought. Should be enough to keep us chewing until Hazel’s rundown of her summer work tomorrow night….

Science drinks – 22nd October

A rather low-key science drinks on this occasion, as the mid-semester break meant a number of people are away (including our Fearless Leader, who is swanning about in Finland right now). Stu and I were joined by Claudia, Gregor and Toby to discuss a diverse set of topics, ranging from where best to set up camp on Mull to why I have just ordered a pint of maggots through the internet. We also managed to talk some science, including a general discussion on the peer review process and how it works, as well as why it sometimes doesn’t. Gregor outlined his plans for his project for the statistics module he’s taking, in which he’s hoping to do some work on random forests – a machine learning technique involving ‘forests’ of decision trees that is useful for ‘small n large p‘ problems (that is, problems that are high-dimensional but have a low sample size). This means that Gregor will – like the best of us – get to spend the vast majority of his time glued to RStudio. Luckily for him, there is a wealth of information out there to help him get started. Even more luckily, it turns out that R users of random forest techniques also like to party.

Research Group Meeting – 15th October

Last night we met for our usual biweekly Research Group meeting, in our new favourite location  – the Wallace Pub.

Luc began the meeting by highlighting Dr Jan Lindstrom’s visit to Stirling on the 28th of October to take part in the BES Seminar series. Dr Lindstrom is set to give a talk alliteratively titled “Sexual selection, signalling and senescence in sticklebacks”.

The limelight then fell to Claudia who outlined the motivation behind her dissertation. Claudia’s dissertation is based on a pattern Tom observed whilst carrying out his PhD. By subjecting male crickets to different diet treatments, and controlling access to females across these treatments, Tom was able to show that male calling effort is affected by both these factors. However, it now falls on Claudia, to explain the patterns observed, and to ultimately try and answer the question: Why does the effect of diet on calling activity depend on mate availability?

Claudia presented a number of hypotheses, which she believes may play a part in explaining Tom’s observations, in particular the fact that males have increased calling effort at the beginning of the experiment followed by a sharp decline depending on the exact diet and mate availability combination. One idea is that females may become choosy when exposed to promiscuous males, and males consequently to reduce their calling effort if they sense a female is reluctant to mate. Alternatively, the males may themselves become choosy as they perceive mating opportunities to increase, with their keenness to mate and hence calling effort decreasing as the number of times they mate increases. Tom’s observations may also be explained if the males are running out of energy as the experiment progresses, although the exact processes governing this depletion of resources are probably complex in the light of the interaction between diet and female availability.

Over the coming weeks, Claudia will design an experiment which will give us some insight into the patterns observed by Tom. Further details of the exact experiment planned will be posted as the dissertation progresses.

Science Drinks – Oct 8, 2013


Dr Luc Bussière

Dr Timothy Paine

Dr Moha Abdelaziz Mohammed

Dr Evangelos Spyrakos

Elizabeth Herridge

Thomas Houslay

Jennifer McKeown

Toby Hector

Gregor Hogg

Sam Paterson

Claudia Santori

Hazel Smith

Tuesday saw the second biweekly “Science Drinks” of the semester. These events consist of staff and students from many scientific backgrounds in Biological and Environmental Science getting together to discuss cool science over beer (or a soft drink of your choice). The only requirement for attending is to bring along a science question, conundrum or interesting story or paper. I will give a brief synopsis below outlining some of the anecdotes, stories and discussions that took place in our session on Oct 8.

The evening started (after a trip to the bar) with Luc telling us all about the strange and wonderful swarming habits of the Mormon cricket (really a katydid!). These large insects form huge aggregations and ‘march’ through western North America eating everything in their way. This behaviour is apparently driven by the desire for food and salt leading them to try and catch the katydid in front (and stay ahead of the hungry katydid behind!). Luc went on to tell us how it is Mormon belief that when these swarms came to ‘plague’ them, God sent seagulls that ate until they vomited allowing them, as the story goes, to continue eating the crickets. It’s a nice story, although the vomit may have a little more to do with the katydids repugnant taste.

See here – for an insight into this natural phenomenon.

In the first Science Drinks of the semester, two weeks ago, Tim made the bold suggestion that humans have no muscles in their fingers. This was idea was promptly shot down by most of the group. However after some quick research and lots time squeezing and staring at our fingers we discovered that he was in fact correct. Apologies were given to Tim and the rest of us learned something quite interesting about our fingers.

Three researchers who were new to Science Drinks then gave brief descriptions of their interests and work.

Jen described how she uses mathematics to model protandry in natural systems. This lead to a lengthy discussion about the possibility that protandry is a sexually antagonistic trait.

Moha gave us an outline of his work on the Brassicaceae genus Erysimum. He works on mainland North America and several islands comparing how ecological and genetic mechanisms cause speciation and radiation. One of his main interests is the potential impact of plant-pollinator interactions on these processes. Interestingly he commented that just a single plant species might have up to 150 different pollinator species from 6 orders associated with it.

Evangelos gave an outline of his work looking at light penetration into lakes using satellite imaging. He then went on to explain to us biologists the applications of applied physics, such as playing pool.

The first paper of the night was presented to us by Gregor. The paper written by Healy et al., was titled: Metabolic rate and body size are linked with perception of temporal information. The article was intriguing to all and led to a lengthy discussion into the potential mechanisms for such increased visual perception speeds. Gregor also highlighted that in the literature, regions of insect eyes that have greater perception speeds (associated with mate assessment) are often called “love spots”. This hypothesis of ‘slow motion’ vision could have an interesting implication for my own work on acute visual zones in the eyes of male dance flies.

We then pondered the potential for sexual dimorphism in sensory perception systems due to different energetic requirements between males and females. The reasoning was that “females are egg machines” and so males may have higher levels of energy to expend on the metabolic costs needed for greater sensory perception speeds.


Healy, K., McNally, L., Ruxton, G.D., Cooper, N. & Jackson, A.L. (2013). Metabolic rate and body size are linked with perception of temporal information. Animal Behaviour, 86, 685-696.

Link to paper: HERE

The second paper was presented by Tom and was titled ‘Repeatability of behaviour: a meta-analysis’. This paper made some interesting suggestions about the repeatability of behaviours and the recording of behaviours both in laboratory and field experiments. Key points included the authors’ findings that male behaviours were typically more repeatable than female behaviours, possibly because females are more variable in their mate choice (maybe due to some system of learning). The important difference between process and measurement error was also discussed.


Bell, A.M., Hankison, S.J. & Laskowski, K.L. (2009). The repeatability of behaviour: a meta-analysis. Animal Behaviour, 77, 771-783.

Link to paper: HERE

We finally discussed the importance of fitting appropriate lines and error bars to graphs. Most importantly, when a variable has a definite top or bottom bound (such as data which can only be between zero and one), an error bar should not extend higher or lower than the point to which the data is limited.

Susan Johnston’s seminar: Is bigger really better?

On Monday Susan Johnston from the University of Edinburgh’s Wild Evolution Group visited the Bussière lab to talk sex and SNPs.  She gave a fantastic seminar at the BES Monday seminar series on how genetic variation underlying a sexually selected trait (horn-size in wild Soay sheep) is maintained.  Her work, recently published in Nature showed that fluctuating selection at a single gene allows variation in horn size to persist in the wild.

New Biology Society at Stirling

Quick to spot a gap that needed filling in Stirling’s list of societies (I was going to try to make an ecological niche pun before realising that I’d probably need to read a bunch of papers first so as to make sure I didn’t make a scientifically inaccurate joke), Claudia has been helping to set up the new Stirling University Biology Society:


The Stirling University Biology Society was set up this year in order to increase each and every individual student’s chances of getting the job they deserve when they graduate. As well as this, some other Society aims are to have students helping each other with study sessions, to meet new people in the University (integrating both students and lecturers) and, of course, to have some top class fun!

We meet weekly to discuss any problem with our courses and to update on new Science. On top of this, we provide events such as trips to parks, conferences and expositions. We also invite special guest speakers to talk about their profession and perhaps give advice on how to get there yourself.

Finally, we offer students the opportunity to enhance their involvement in the subject of biology by registering with the national Society of Biology.

Head over to to the Stirling University Biology Society website to find out more!

Research group meeting Oct 1, 2013

Tonight was just the second official research group meeting of the semester (we alternate meetings within the group with “Science Drinks”, a biweekly session we’ll start reporting on next week). I can summarize our meeting as composed of four main topics:

  1. Naturally, we discussed the brand new website, and one of our conclusions (along with many suggestions for cosmetic improvements, which will be implemented asap) was that we should provide brief summaries of our lab meetings for the purpose of archiving our activities, providing convenient links to papers we discussed, dealing with follow-up issues, and allowing some of our far-afield members (busy being in Hawaii or being Mom) to keep up with happenings. Since I’m the editor-in-chief, it falls to me to provide the first summary. Trust the quality of these to pick up once I hand over the reins starting next week.
  2. In addition to discussing web issues, Tom advertised Susan Johnston‘s seminar in the Stirling BES seminar series next Monday. Susan has promised to discuss her recent work, including the Nature paper showing exciting fluctuating selection on horn size in Soay sheep. I anticipate we’ll have more to say on this next week after her visit, so I’ll avoid saying more just now.
  3. I briefly presented some analyses of data collected by Eilidh Macleod, a recent hons student whose excellent thesis we have yet to publish. Eilidh studied the relationships between mating status, fecundity, and ornamentation of females in a Scottish dance fly, Rhamphomyia longipes. Because she was making her observations on specimens collected from Malaise traps, the alternative causal mechanisms for covariation between these measures is unclear, and we’re struggling with a number of approaches to disentangling them. One of the techniques I’ve been toying with for a couple of years now is Structural Equation Modelling (SEM), but my progress has been slowed in part by the peculiarities of our data. Tom mentioned that Michael Morrissey (from the University of St. Andrews) gave an excellent talk on measuring selection using SEM at the recent ESEB meeting in Lisbon, and that there may soon be Youtube videos of these talks available? I’ll edit this with a link if Tom or I can find one….
  4. Finally, we had an extra round of beer and a few laughs. Tom and Lilly agreed to give talks for the Biology Society, I think. And maybe there’s a game of PowerPoint roulette on the horizon?