My 10 Top Zoological Encounters

Warning: this post contains vertebrates.

I am fortunate enough to have been to and seen lots of amazing places in my life. And as a result I have seen quite a few really interesting animals. This list will countdown my personal top-ten Zoological* encounters**.

  1. Giraffe/Elephant/Lion/Zebra/Hippo etc…

Ah, yes the classic safari animals in Tanzania, allowing endless stream of the charismatic megafauna. As impressive as it is see all these big animals up close, they are on the whole quite boring. Sitting in groups. Standing in groups. Sitting alone. Standing alone. If they weren’t big they’d be really boring. The fact that seeing all of them counts as one encounter says a lot. Coincidently this was the first time I had seen Tsetse flies in the wild too; but luckily I didn’t get bitten – but either way they were a distraction.

  1. Swarming Dragonflies

This is a very new addition, only about 3-4 weeks old. I was at the experimental hut site in Cove, Benin and just as the Sun started to come up (at around 5:30-6am) and the air warmed up there was a gradual increase in the number of dragonflies flying overhead. Until at last the air above our heads was swarming with numerous species of dragonflies. Annoying they were flying t fast to take any photos of. Considering the number of dragonfly adults, I’m amazed there are any mosquitoes to evaluate products in the experimental hut sites. As dragonflies feed on mosquitoes when both are in their aquatic and adult stages. Additionally this may have been an even more spectacular event if I wasn’t still half asleep from the 4:30am start!

  1. Stag Beetles

Seeing Stag Beetles is always a great, yet annoyingly infrequent. Those massive pinchers (for the males at least – show offs!) are just incredible. Unfortunately they are rare in the UK, but that makes seeing them more of an event.

  1. Turtle

In at number seven, despite probably only being a seven second glimpse in the leatherback turtle I saw in Tobago. First it was there, and then it just drifted deeper down, and as I only had a snorkel I wasn’t exactly in the best position to try and go and look for it.

  1. Elephant Seals

This encounter should probably be higher than it is really. It whole beach of elephant seals. I just wish I remember it better, but unfortunately it is little more than a distant memory – but is a good excuse to go back to California.

  1. Tarantula

Once upon a time there was a Tarantula in a swimming pool. So I captured it in a net and released it. And we all lived happily ever after. The end. Yes, it is not an insect (two too many legs), but at least it is a invertebrate. I think entomologists need to show solidarity with the Arachnologists out there.

3-4. Fin Whale and Grey Whale

Two separate events, of equal putting. The grey whale was on the West coast of the USA, and the Fin whale off the west coast. Both were big, very very big. And yet could vanish and reappear and vanish again with ease. How can something so big just vanish! I did mention I wanted to be a marine zoologist at one point right!?

  1. Black Bear

Another fleeting glimpse event. But probably nearer twenty seconds. It was big, but luckily far away, although not far enough away to not want a fence in the way! Luckily it was scared off by some of the locals who seemed to know what they were doing  as I stood terrified behind my dad (I was only very young at the time).

  1. Great White Shark

Okay, so this one is cheating a bit, as it was in captivity. But I don’t care. It was at Monterey Bay Aquarium (the best place in the world – fact), and it was only quite small. There were tuna in the tank that were bigger than it. But even still, it had the attitude that it was the boss of the tank. When I went to Monterey Bay Aquarium I wasn’t going there with  the intent on seeing a great white shark, my family and I just got very lucky, and this perhaps partially explains my initial bias for wanting to be a marine zoologist.

 

 

 

*The term Zoological allows me to select both animals I’ve seen in the wild and those in captivity.

**I can’t really include that time I got bitten by Aedes aegypti, Anopheles arabiensis/gambiae because ideally those would have been encounters I’d rather not have had.

Advertisements

What Determines if I Believe or Disbelieve a Research Paper?

A few years ago there was a paper published in Nature that mentioned something about how mixing cells with acid gave stem cells (or  something to that effect). Ground-breaking stuff; published in Nature. The hallmarks of an amazing discovery. Made all of the news websites. But the moment I read up on it a bit I knew straight away that something had gone wrong. Which indeed it did. It has since been retracted and there was a major investigation into the research institute. I feel good about predicting correctly the results are bogus.

  1. What journal is it in?

My general rule of thumb is that the lower impact journal something is, the less likely the paper is to fraudulent (I don’t have any data to support this*). But my hypothesis is the benefit of publishing a low impact paper (on future career opportunities, funding, prestige of high impact publishing, etc) is not increased to sufficiently outweigh the risks associated with producing fraudulent papers (job loss, loss of prestige, loss of respect, etc).

  1. Have they used statistical methods I’ve heard of?

If I can’t figure out why they’ve used a particular statistical test I’ll probably make the assumption that the data isn’t quite as good as they would like – but need to analyse it in such a way to give a positive result; using some obscure test I’ve never heard of (or even flexing their statistical muscles) just to get publishable p-value. What I don’t mean is statistical tests I don’t know how to perform, but statistical tests that aren’t the traditional go to.

  1. Is the methodology comprehensible?

I find lots of methods sections of research articles dense and incomprehensible. I often feel that diagrams and flowcharts better explain what the authors did better than a few very wordy paragraphs. If I can’t figure out what you’ve done, why should I trust your work? Annoyingly this requires a bit of effort to really do.

  1. Conflicts of Interest

Conflict of interests aren’t necessarily a bad thing – so long as they are declared. But I often feel that all publishing scientists have undeclared conflicts of interest – preference for certain hypothesis or future funding is dependent on certain results.

But also, you can have future conflicts of interest to. For instance if you’re working on developing a product for insect control, while you may not have a financial stake in company at the point of publishing, you may intend to financially invested at a later time if the product was effective.

  1. Are the results too good to be true?

Finally, does the result just seem too groundbreaking, and without a logical scientific explanation.

 

* Since writing I’ve looked and found this: http://iai.asm.org/content/79/10/3855.full Some have suggested a “Retraction Index” to counteract this: http://retractionwatch.com/2011/08/11/is-it-time-for-a-retraction-index/.

Mosquitoes via the Moon – How I Chose Entomology

I often get asked what made me choose medical entomology. Which isn’t exactly an easy question to answer. There was no individual moment that made me go this is what I want to do. In fact, I didn’t really choose entomology in general until the middle of my second year studying Zoology at Cardiff University. If you had told me when I was 15 or 16 that I would be working on mosquitoes, I would have given you a very quizzical look. But to me, the better question to ask is why didn’t I choose to go down the expected astrophysics route?

While I have said I’d not rant in my new blog posts. I will say instead, that I despised biology during my entire time at secondary school. It was just dull. All I can remember is endlessly drawing food chains. Okay I get it, the grass is eaten by the rabbit and then the rabbit is eaten by the fox. But what I was really interested in was physics, especially astrophysics. This is most likely due to having an exceptionally brilliant physics teacher. In contrast to a continue change of substitute teachers for biology lessons. To me this highlights ever so much the importance for schools to have specialist and engaging teachers regardless of the subject. This is not to say that there weren’t areas of biology I was interested in – Dinosaurs and Marine Biology for instance (but that is another story).

When it came to choosing my A-levels I easily chose the first 3: Physics, Maths and Chemistry, as these would be essential for doing Astrophysics at University. I was then left with one additional choice. I was thinking originally taking History, English Literature or Geography. Of which Geography at least makes sense and fits with my final choice. But in the end I thought I may as well do all three sciences and maths, as then I have the complete set. I was going in with the intention to drop Biology after A-levels.

And so off I went to college. And well, I had a combination of maths and physics teachers that I just didn’t click with, and so my enthusiasm for astrophysics declined. This was exacerbated by the AS-Level part of physics having no component of astrophysics. And yet, in biology I was finding a new obsession. I was beginning to finally be introduced to animal behaviour, parasitology and ecology by a teacher who could instil enthusiasm. And so I was hooked.

My parents then got quite a shock when I dropped Physics. And even more of a shock when I told them I was applying to do Zoology as my undergraduate.  And so I went to study Zoology, with at that point the intention to later specialise in marine zoology. And so first year came and went, with no single area completely grabbing my attention. Of course there was evolution, ecology and animal biology as a whole – but no real specialism. And then second year came and with it the Animal Diversity module. Which was great. It was in effect every zoologist at Cardiff University selling how amazing their study system was: flatworms, mammals, birds, molluscs, fish and of course insects. The fish lectures were a disaster for multiple reasons, and that very easily cut my interest in marine zoology. Especially when the insect part of Animal Diversity had perhaps the greatest salesman possible.  The insect lectures were fast, intense, engaging, funny. I was sold. Although of course, entomology is a big area – so I can’t say I had really narrowed anything down. In fact considering the sheer diversity of insects, I had perhaps broadened my interests considering the pathetically small number of fish and marine mammals!

Of course I was also finally introduced to proper population dynamics stuff, and Parasitology at this time to. And well, those three things nicely fit together to bring me to vector borne diseases. And the rest as they say is the future…

Insectology: a metamorphosis from a previous venture.

My original entomology based blog unfortunately ended up being left and forgotten, and as such has been going through a two year pupation period, and has now metamorphosed into a beautiful butterfly of a blog.

So I’d now like to welcome you to Insectology. Which I hope will be a far more uplifting and joyous occasion than my old blog. Which merely ended up with me ranting about insect related stuff*.

But this blog is going to be positively buzzing with insects. And trying to tell the tales of how they are really cool, how I got interested in entomology, and more importantly why you should get interested in it too!

 

*I cannot guarantee this will not happen again, but at least I am starting out with good intentions.