Rory Wilson and the Magnetic Penguins
Mike Jones was shortlisted for the 2011 Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize and explains the inventions Professor Rory Wilson, Department of Biosciences, is using to map the lives of penguins.
It’s early May. I am sitting with 15 other Oxford biology students in a seminar, as part of a course on ecology and conservation. The room is dark and hot, with the last of the afternoon sunlight streaming through a narrow gap in the curtains. All eyes are fixed on Rory Wilson, a professor visiting from Swansea University. “After we’d made the magnets small enough to fit in their bums,” he explains, “the difficult part was figuring out how powerful to make them.”
Curiosity drives people to do strange things. Isaac Newton famously inserted a long needle into his eye socket, carefully noting the effects upon his vision. Charles Darwin covered his billiards table in earthworms and besieged them with tobacco smoke and bassoon music, just to see what would happen. Professor Wilson’s curiosity about penguins resulting in him having three or four of them in his back garden, magnetically (and, I hasten to add, accidentally) affixed by their bottoms to a nearby piece of corrugated iron.
Thankfully, Wilson is not a deranged lunatic; he is a biologist who specialises in the study of hard-to-observe animals, using a variety of bizarre and ingenious devices. It is relatively easy to watch the behaviour of large, terrestrial animals like buffalos or chimpanzees. However, animals that spend their lives underground, under water or in the air – in other words, most animals – are impractical or impossible to observe by conventional means. Sadly, there will probably never be a Jane Goodall of sperm whales – if we are to learn anything, we must be creative. Read the full article here
Forthcoming field trips to the Gower
The Level 3 students are just about to get out into the field. Here are some images from last year's field course and this is what they did:
DAY 1: Trip to Park Mill Gower (SS541895) - The bus will drop us off near Shepherds. We will walk uphill for about 0.5mile before assembling at the megalithic monument (grid reference above). The rest of the day is spent on relatively even ground which may be muddy in places. You will work in groups and you will have to complete 4 field exercises during the day. We will return to the bus (downhill) by late afternoon (about 5.00pm).
DAY 2: Trip to Cefn Bryn (SS491905) and Southgate (SS549880) Gower - In the morning we will travel to the top of Cefn Bryn and walk out to Arthur’s Stone. This is an easy 0.25 mile walk on fairly even flat ground. The bus will then take us to Southgate in the early afternoon. From there we will walk about 0.5 mile to a view point overlooking Three Cliffs Bay, where we’ll have lunch. Again the walk is easy on relatively even, flat ground. At both sites we will be doing some fairly intensive quadratting exercises which will require attention to detail. Both sites are grassland habitats and pollen counts could be very high on hot sunny days. We should be back to meet the bus by about 4.00pm.
DAY 3: Trip to Crofty (SS523954) and Nicholaston (SS522883) - We will visit a salt marsh habitat at Crofty and a sand dune habitat at Nicholaston. The exact order in which this is done will depend on the tides on the day. Please note that the activities on this day will involve some strenuous activity. The salt marsh excursion may involve walking over very wet and sometimes very uneven ground. We may have to cross some shallow but very muddy creeks. For this we advise strongly that you bring Wellington boots (in a plastic bag) that you can change into. Access to the sand dune habitat is via a set of steep steps. We also return via this route and some people may find this quite strenuous. Activity on the dune system involves walking on soft, uneven ground with some steep gradients. We should be back to meet the bus by about 4.00pm.
DAY 4: Trip to Fairwood Lake (SS581915)- The bus will drop us off at University’s, Fairwood Playing Fields. From there it is a short, downhill walk (rough in places) to the lake. We will be stationed there all day. Activities do not involve strenuous walking. There is a fairly even trail around the lake that may be wet or muddy in places. There may be biting insects and on hot sunny days pollen counts tend to be high here. The lake has some steep banks. We should be back to meet the bus by about 4.30 pm.
DAY 5: Lab Day - The purpose of the lab day is to analyse water samples as part of the aquatic biology exercises and to collate class data. Most of the field course exercises will involve gathering data in groups of 2 or more, but the final analysis will require all data to be combined into a class result. For this to be successful everybody must contribute and return their data on this day. Failure to do this will incur penalties (significant loss of marks). You will also receive instruction on how to handle the data on this day.
Cross working undergraduate projects
Our undergraduate students have been working on a number of projects at Hafod Copper Works in Swansea, compiling a species and habitats list for Swansea Council. Projects included birds population and distribution, habitat mapping, the effects of mowing on invertebrate abundance, and a study on the protected bladder Campion and common winter green plants which are nationally scarce species.
Additional projects based at Margam park investigated the effects of deer grazing on plants' diversity, the colonisation of newly created ponds (ponds were created by students and staff form the Department in association with the local amphibian conservation group), the impacts of non native species on both native plants and animals.
Ecological applications of radar tools in monitoring wildlife
We are currently developing new tools using radar to study bats, birds, reptiles and insects, in collaboration with Cranfield University.
Delving into the chemical language of carnivores
The Department has been awarded a small grant to cross work between Engineering, Biochemistry and Zoology to investigate the chemical basis and signatures of carnivore species such as polecats and American mink.
Parasites in hedgehogs
Research is being undertaken between the Gower Bird Hospital, Bristol University and the Swansea Ecology Research Team (SERTs) to look at parasites in hedgehogs, which are rapidly declining through England and Wales. This work uses molecular techniques to identify parasites in host species such as slugs and snails which are then eaten by hedgehogs.
One of our Master's students will be undertaking an exciting research project with Public Health Wales, investigating the occurrence of the zoonotic disease, Toxoplasmosis, in wildlife and humans.
Seaweed as biofuel
Swansea is leading a four-year transnational Energetic Algae - or EnAlgae - project which aims to reduce CO2 emissions and dependency on unsustainable energy sources, through the accelerated development and deployment of algal-based biomass and bioenergy technology. One of the initial steps of the project is to produce some of the biomass required for conversion to biofuel. This will be accompanied by cultivating macroalgae (seaweed) biomass at sea in a one-hectare pilot facility. The project is being managed by Dr Robin Shields, Director of Swansea's Centre for Sustainable Aquatic Resarch.
You can read the full article here or visit the EnAlgae website
Bioscience student society
A lively and proactive group of students run the Bioscience student society. Their aim is to promote science in a way that will benefit all members, so they try to encourage students to learn from each other whilst participating in oral presentations (either presenting or viewing) and help with coursework. They also aim to promote CV and bioscience careers talks with company involvement. They successfully organised a 'Practice your Dissertation' event for over 30 students in February which they plan to make an annual event. They have been busy over the past couple of months filming students and staff. The clips will be available on the society's Facebook site and on the Biosciences website shortly.
Preserving Swansea Bay
Staff and PhD students from the Department are working with Swansea Council to produce the management plan and vision for the future of Swansea Bay. This includes a striking a balance between conservation, recreation, and preserving valuable archaeological features of the bay.
Marine Biology student gets unique work placement
Finding work placements which challenge our students is one of the key objectives of the Swansea Employability Academy. Whether around the corner or in another country, work placements can help to enhance students’ skills and experience.
At the launch of the Academy, William Kay, a second year Marine Biology student, found out that he had been selected for a work placement as part of a university research team studying wildlife in Patagonia. This was a complete surprise for William!
William is passionate about marine diving birds, and he will have the opportunity to work alongside leading experts as part of a research team in the Southern Ocean
Watch this clip to see William's reaction, moments after finding out that he would be on his way to Patagonia.