Thursday, 22 February 2018

New year, new job, new papers!

I am pretty dang happy to be able to say that as of the 25th of January, I officially became "Dr Bec". This would obviously not have been even remotely possible without my fantastic support network - my advisors, the lab, my collaborators, my students and volunteers, my family, and a whole lot of 80s rock star buff-footed antechinus - thank you, from the bottom of my overjoyed, geeky heart.

Thanks lil guys!

I've been lucky enough to score a postdoc with Robbie, so I get to stick around in the Wilson lab for another year! For my postdoc, I'm building a mathematical model to predict prey escape success against predators in different kinds of habitats. The end goal of this model is to predict how well different native marsupials (such as northern quolls and brown bandicoots) can escape from mammalian predators (like cats and dingoes) in different kinds of habitats, using data my lab mates are collecting on Groote Eylandt. This will allow us to predict what kinds of habitats are best for native mammals, which will hopefully have some conservation implications. I also function as the Wilson lab's go-to stats person, and am running a bunch of the statistics for our human health project.

Tempe, clockwise from top left - wall of awesome at King's Coffee (as coffee is a key element of research); cycling on a sunny afternoon; nap time with Mylo the gangsta cat; sunsets and palm trees on the way home.

At the moment, I'm back in at Arizona State University in Tempe, working with A/Prof Ted Pavlic to get the generalised version of our predator-prey model finished and written up. Things are progressing very nicely, and as always, it's been an amazing experience and I've learned a lot!

I also attended a Gordon Research Conference on Predator-Prey Interactions in Ventura, CA at the start of the month. This conference was absolutely amazing - I learned so many new things, got a ton of new ideas, and met some awesome people doing freakin' awesome research. Though I can't share any pictures (GRCs focus on presenting research that's right at the cutting edge of the field, so most of it is unpublished), I would absolutely recommend these conferences, as they are fantastic for networking and gaining a broader insight into your own field.

Whale watching in the Santa Barbara channel.

Last up, a couple of papers just came out in early view! The second paper from my PhD, titled "Ecological context and the probability of mistakes underlie speed choice" came out recently in Functional Ecology. In it, we show that antechinus choose both how fast and where they move based on their chance of making mistakes - when looking for food and escaping from predators.You can read a plain language summary of the paper here.

Also, a paper I coauthored with Skye, titled "Sex-specific thermal sensitivities of performance and activity in the asian house gecko, Hemidactylus frenatus", came out in the Journal of Comparative Physiology B, and is available to view here. We demonstrate that male geckos have broader thermal performance curves than females across different populations, possibly to allow them to fight competitors and acquire matings more effectively over a wider range of thermal habitats. Go Skye!

An asian house gecko (Wikimedia commons), and a buff-footed antechinus on a (non-experimental) branch.

I'm absolutely psyched to be sticking around and continuing my research, and I'm looking forward to the year ahead - which is already off to a great start.

All images by Rebecca Wheatley unless otherwise credited.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Conference bonanzas and ABMs in Arizona Part Deux

Few things make you feel more like a badass scientist than attending a scientific conference. Well, few things other than finally analysing a giant chunk of data and getting the kind of results you've always fantasised about imagined... but more on that later. At conferences, you get to hear about new research that's happening right now, inevitably learn a bunch of new things and meet some truly awesome (and potentially equally nerdy) people, and basically just revel in the total sciency-overload for a few days. Thanks to several generous grant schemes and an awesome supervisor, I was lucky enough to attend the annual Ecological Society of Australia conference in December, and the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology conference in January, where I got to present the research on predator-prey interaction simulations I'm doing with  A/Prof Ted Pavlic and Dr Ofir Levy.

Sights in Fremantle, Western Australia. Western Australia was last on my checklist - I've now visited every state in Aus!

I'd been wanting to attend the ESA's annual conference since I first started my PhD, and so it was that I joyfully headed west to Fremantle with Skye, to see what's been going down in Australian ecological research. What did I discover? That exposure to (a limited number of) predators can actually help endangered animals survive in the wild, through helping them learn appropriate anti-predator responses; that heat waves can cause massive die-offs in flying foxes, and we can use biophysical models to predict when this will happen; and that integrating scientific research with indigenous biocultural knowledge is critically important to protect not only our threatened species and ecosystems, but also Australia's cultural heritage and traditions; plus so much more. The talks at ESA gave me a lot to think about and digest, and forced me reconsider a few of my own views on conservation. It's a conference I would absolutely recommend to any Aussie ecologists, students or otherwise.

Me and Skyebo, working so hard at the Indian ocean.

Also, some conference advice: be friends with a wonderful postdoc who lets you crash in her fancy conference hotel room. Skye is the best!

The Mississippi, pretty street cars, and the French Quarter.

After a quick camping holiday to the South Island of New Zealand (where I had various bird-induced excitement attacks), it was off to New Orleans, Louisiana for SICB with Robbie and Chopper. New Orleans was a pretty fun location, but the conference itself was the real star (and by the way, that's how you know you're a bigger nerd than the people attending the Wizard World Comicon in the conference room next door). I discovered that elevated oceanic CO2 may compromise anti-predator responses in damselfish; that mantis shrimp use UV colour spots to size up their opponents; and that jerboas are insanely cute, and their bipedalism allows them to be extremely manoeuvrable and unpredictable, making them difficult to catch by predators (and researchers). I met some amazing scientists, and generally had the time of my life, because SICB is totally my scene in terms of research interests.

Also, some further conference advice: suss out whether your otherwise affable lab mate snores really loudly before you agree to let them crash in your room without buying you some ear plugs!

The somewhat overrated Bourbon Street (by day), and a totally not overrated New Orleans dessert.

Preparing for and attending scientific conferences does take time (and money), and it would be easy just pass them up completely when you have things like, um, thesis deadlines coming up. But in my opinion, conferences are very important - they're a great opportunity to meet other researchers, to communicate your own research, and to listen to talks about studies you might not think to pick up a paper on. It's also refreshing, frequently eye-opening, and (I think) healthy to be exposed to new ideas. Plus... they're a great opportunity to travel!

A gorgeous urban sunset in Tempe, Arizona, and the (sometimes hilarious) signs you see up around my Arizona home-base, Brickyard Engineering.

A trip to the USA would obviously be wasted if I couldn't go back to Arizona State University in Tempe to get some extra modelling advice from Ted (see Part Un). This time, sensitivity analyses were on the agenda - a process by which you vary your model's parameters one at a time (or sometimes even two at a time), to see how each parameter affects the model's output. This meant integrating NetLogo (my modelling program) with R (my preferred statistical software). Luckily, someone has written a package for that called RNetLogo, and to them I am eternally grateful. Despite this, the analyses and associated coding turned out to be pretty tricky, and having a couple of weeks with Ted's expertise on hand was seriously helpful. I'm still working through the bugs and hiccoughs that come with running my model using all possible parameter combinations (turns out I didn't have the model quite as debugged as I thought!), but I'm keeping at it - eventually, I'm certain success will be mine!

All images by Rebecca Wheatley unless otherwise credited.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Hunting for worms in Adelaide

A few weeks ago, I went hunting for worms. Funky worms. Gorgocephalids, in fact – pronounced gor-go-kefalids, they're a family of digenean trematodes that parasitise Kyphosid fishes. Or, in layman's terms, medusa-headed parasites that live in the guts of drummers.

Some gorgocephalids. Note the "gorgon"-like oral suckers - it's ok though, they don't have eyes so they can't turn you to stone! Image credit: Bray & Cribb 2005 (A & B), Manter 1967 (C), Yamaguti 1971 (D).

Clearly, these little guys are pretty damn different to anything that I work on. But sometimes it's fun to learn about something totally different, because science is cool, and nature is awesome, regardless of what exact aspect you study.

A pied cormorant chilling at West Beach Boat Ramp.

I tagged along with a couple of fellas from the Cribb marine parasitology lab, Dan Huston and Storm Martin, on a specimen collecting trip to Adelaide. Dan was on the hunt for the type specimen of a gorgocephalid species he's describing for his PhD. This meant travelling down to Port Noarlunga (where the first species in the family was described) and fishing for silver drummer. The boys did a lot of spearfishing, while I kept an eye on them from the shore and made sure they weren't in any trouble (i.e. weren't getting investigated by great whites or smashed against any rocks).

Dan and Storm getting in to spearfish at Gull Rock, with some ominous weather as a backdrop.

Unfortunately, our timing was pretty bad – as soon as we arrived down south, Adelaide experienced its wettest July day in 75 years, also enduring some insane storms and a pretty unfortunate cold snap. Even though the guys braved the water whenever the weather was calm enough to be safe, all the fish seemed to have evacuated. But despite our non-existent sampling success, the guys made some great contacts down at SARDI, and their generous help should assist with getting the samples they need.

A few different echinoderms from the shore at Blanche Point.

The Cribb lab work on discovering and describing new species of trematodes, as well as figuring out how they all fit together on the evolutionary tree. Just this week, Dan had a paper describing the complete lifecycle of Gorgocephalus yaaji come out in the scientific journal Systematic Parasitology. Though we've known about this species since 2005, up until now nobody knew exactly where it lived most of its life - only that it ended up in the guts of a species of drummer (Kyphosus cinerascens). Now we know that it starts off its life in a species of marine snail (Echinolittorina austrotrochoides), developing inside the snail's guts, then emerges and hangs out on algae until it gets eaten by the herbivorous drummer, in who's digestive tract it will reproduce sexually and eventually die. Crazy, complicated stuff – and that's just a simplified version of events!

Dan and Storm looking for parasites in a Western Australian Salmon.

This kind of work is not only cool, but it's also very important – the field of taxonomy can be somewhat marginalised in today's scientific world, but the truth is, there are estimated to be more species alive right now that we don't know about than the ones that we do. Every day, species go extinct that we didn't even know were there. And if we don't even know they exist, imagine all the things about them that we don't know! Not only is this frustrating (yet also kind of wondrous) news for those of us obsessed with the natural world and the creatures that live in it – but the rest of scientific research depends on knowing what species it is we're looking at. It's definitely not a good thing if you've accidentally collected a bunch of cryptic species but are treating them all as the same thing in your results.

Various sea critters I found along the way.

I'm looking forward to hearing more about the guys' discoveries – and maybe one day I'll save up enough to tag along on one of their more exotic field trips to the Great Barrier Reef (but I doubt it!).

Just looking for fish (at O'Sullivan Boat Ramp).
All images by Rebecca Wheatley unless otherwise credited.