British Science Festival

This has been an exceptionally good and fun week doing the British Science Festival. Lisa had set up a workshop all on camouflage and mimicry and during all the lab helped out (although kudos to Lisa who managed to do every session with a big smile on her face!). There were lots of different activities to do during the workshop including a load of real life creepy crawlies that were all experts at camouflage. My task was to take the children through some posters and do some questions on a quiz sheet. The first question was to do with mimicry. I explained that a hoverfly pretends to be a wasp so that it doesn’t get eaten by birds and we had three example hoverflies from different species trying to mimic a wasp. The children had to rank them in order of ‘most waspishness’ and everybody agreed one was rubbish, one was good, and one was OK. They found it very interesting that birds actually saw our OK mimic as a good mimic and our good mimic as an OK one, and some even ventured a guess that it meant birds see things differently from ours.

Next up on the quiz was aposematism. For those that don’t know, aposematism is the act of being very bright and colourful to warn predators away from eating them, we had examples such as a bee (black and yellow, ‘I’ve got a stinger leave me alone’), a poison arrow frog (Black and yellow patterns ‘don’t eat me I’m poisonous’) and the bombardier beetle (red and black ‘don’t eat me or I’ll spray you with a horrible stink, the kids particularly loved this one!). As a group we then discussed other aposmatic creatures. I had some very interesting answers, of which most were brightly coloured but more to stay camouflaged (tiger, zebra and clown fish). I had some that were mimics or dangerous in their own way (milk snake and sea anemone) and some really good answers (ladybird, skunk, wasp, ringed octopus).

The final two questions involved matching the creature to the type of camouflage it was using, and then guessing which out of 14 butterflies were poisonous and tasty. After the quiz was finished the kids rotated and did something else in the room (which you will probably hear about in other blog posts) and I started again with the next group.

The entire workshop was a great success and I really think some kids took some real knowledge and interest away from the day, and I heard more than one say it had been the best one they had seen yet. Very pleased I volunteered to help out with the event!

Mantid photos

Lisa’s been taking more fab photos of the mantids. They are so cool!

Fantastic close-up of a mantis that has jumped onto the CRT!

Mantid striking at image on computer screen

Eyeball to eyeball

Here are some photos showing our experimental set-up.

Mantis watching simulated bug on the CRT

Close-up of mantis watching a simulated bug on a CRT

Top-down view. You can see the mantis leaning out to the right to try and pursue the bug.

Graphs are good

All week Lisa’s been a bit gloomy about the behaviour of the mantids. Apparently they have not been cooperating well, doing defensive postures at the screen or even jumping off their perch. But she’s plugged doggedly on with true PhD student grit :). Anyway, we just sat down and created a script to load up the Matlab files and graph such data as she has managed to collect. And it’s great! Really beautiful, does exactly what we expected, demonstrates our protocol is sensible and suggests it’s worth while proceeding to more interesting stimuli. Just goes to show, you don’t always have an accurate sense of how good your data is as it comes in.

In other news, Paul has taken delivery of a 3D Dell laptop. Having a few teething problems getting it to display in 3D, but I shall be very interested to see the results. MSc computing students Mike and Nick are starting their projects in the lab this week, and James is back from holiday. So it’s going to be a nice diverse lab meeting this Friday.

Tantalising a mantis

Very excited that Lisa has been making great progress with the mantid behaviour experiments. Here is a video showing 3 trials of one of Lisa’s mantids performing a visual tracking task. The mantis is being filmed from underneath as it hangs from a stand – they seem happiest when upside-down. In front of the mantis is a CRT monitor where we are displaying the visual stimuli in the experiment. You’ll hear a Ping! when a fixation stimulus appears on the screen. This is a “simulated bug” which runs around in a spiral in towards the centre of the screen. This ensures the mantid begins each trial looking at the centre of the screen. Then you’ll hear a second Ping! as the bug starts to run either left or right (the tracking stimulus). Watch the mantis go mad as it tries to get its claws on the little beastie!


Spent some time this morning with Lisa coding up a stimulus she thought might attract the mantids’ attention. Apparently it worked – the first time she presented it, the mantis leapt right off its perch onto the screen!

Mantids meet the public at Moorbank Botanical Gardens

MRes/PhD student Lisa Hindmarsh ran a public engagement activity at the Open Day at Moorbank Gardens. Adults and children alike loved seeing the mantids, and using the microscopes to look at oothecae and other biological specimens.

Welcome to the world of post grad :)

My first few weeks of my MRes have been fantastic! I’m enjoying all of my modules so far and they all stand out for different reasons. The Animal behaviour module involves a lot of interactive learning, discussions and debates which keeps the brain ticking through the lectures. My sensory systems (possibly my favourite so far) is looking at physiological mechanisms which I love! I can’t get enough of learning how proteins/receptors interact with ligands etc setting up biological systems, it’s amazing! Bioinformatics is proving a bit challenging at the moment. It is very interesting and I can’t wait to get to the part where we are analysing data, however the theory is requiring a little more background reading than the other modules. As for Statistics I agree with Paul, at the moment it is very basic. I’m hoping it will step up a gear soon and solve all of my statistical problems I have experienced in undergrad. Anyway I must get on with my first assignment for Bioinformatics, wish me luck 🙂