Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Peter Howlett
National Museum Wales, Cardiff

Hi, I'm the Curator of Vertebrates (things with backbones). My main interest is in birds and mammals. As these are the largest vertebrate groups in the UK this tends to be the focus of my work but species from farther afield certainly don't get ignored. My interests also extend to invertebrates - particularly butterflies and moths.

My job is more involved with raising public awareness on various biodiversity and conservation issues than research. This means I tend to be more involved with creating displays in the museum. It also gets me out and about with giving talks to various local groups and taking specimens to various events and conferences.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Graeme Lloyd
University of Bristol

I am currently a PhD student working on a project entitled "character acquisition through geological time".

Although scientists of any discipline are often caught up in very specialised work science itself is about making generalisations. In this way my work is about reducing the complexities of the fossil record (the history of life on Earth preserved in the remains of animals, plants and their traces) to the sequence of characters that are acquired through time. In fossils a character might be the feathers on Microraptor, the cones from a pine tree or the ribs on a sea shell.

Although we can examine the distribution of these, and other characters in modern animals and plants I am interested in when they first appeared (evolved) and this can only be done by examining fossils. I am interested in various groups, but have devoted a lot of time to lungfish (literally fish with lungs that are eel-like in appearance). Lungfish are a famous example of a group who acquired their distinctive characters very rapidly some 350 million years ago, and that have changed very little since. Because of this similarity with much older fossil forms Charles Darwin termed them "living fossils". My main focus is to see if this pattern is really an unusual one - as most people assume - or if it is in fact more general.

I have also worked on or am interested in mass extinctions (one of which saw the demise of T. rex and his chums at the end of the Cretaceous), phylogenetics (the family tree of life), and the quality of the fossil record (can palaeontology really tell us anything useful?).

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Dave Warburton

Although I currently work in Biological Conservation, my undergraduate work was in hominid evolution (how humans and the higher primates evolved). So I will be helping with any questions as to how and why humans are the way we are, why we walk upright, what the different races of modern human have evolved for, and so on.

My postgraduate research involved, like many on this page, the study of dinosaurs! I was looking at origin and evolutionary relationships of basal ornithischians (the small, 'bired-hipped' bipedal dinosaurs that include some of the oldest yet found).

The majority of my current work is involved with the protection and enhancement of habitats and their wildlife and helping the public understand the huge variety of life on their doorstep. Any natural history questions on anything from bats to birds, pond invertebrates to chalk grassland and everything in between, can be directed my way.

Matthew Parratt

I'm a general biologist by trade. With roots in seed and crop science I've branched out in the last few years into tree seed and seedling biology/ecology and other areas of woodland ecosystems.

I currently work on a range of projects under the general heading of tree and shrub seed fate in British woodlands. In a nutshell we're looking at what happens between the time when a seed leaves it's parent plant and when it becomes an established sapling. So far this has involved looking at the effects of granivorous (seed eating) insects, molluscs and mammals and their feeding strategies.

I'm also involved in the conservation of rare and endangered trees and shrubs, mainly conifers, mainly from the Southern hemisphere but occasionally other parts of the world. This can be a *very* long process with some species taking 4 years or more to germinate!!

Outside of work my interests spread into all aspects of Natural history of the British Isles and other parts of the world.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Dr Markus Eichhorn

I'm an ecologist, specialising in the structure and dynamics of forest communities, and how trees interact with other species. Trees are the defining organisms of many ecosystems, and their distribution, structure and growth can have many surprising effects on the communities that surround them.

For example, some of my recent research has investigated how changes in vegetation and agriculture (especially orchards) in Thailand have changed the abundances of the mosquitoes that transmit malaria and dengue fever. How trees are managed in the landscape turns out to have important implications for human health.

Other research includes agroforestry, which has the potential to increase the sustainability of agriculture. Many traditional systems of farming with trees have existed for thousands of years, and provide valuable insights into how we can improve modern farming methods. For example, it seems that mixing trees with crops means less pesticides need to be applied, because they provide habitats for the natural enemies of crop pests.

The picture below is from my work in tropical rain forests in Malaysia, where I study the links between trees and their herbivores.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Dr Stuart Longhorn

Hi. I'm a molecular biologist and entomologist. I study how arthropods (insects, spiders, etc) are related to one another. Arthropods, which have a tough outer skeleton and jointed legs, are very diverse creatures. They live in every habitat on earth, from the deepest ocean to mountain tops. I specialise in using laboratory techniques to compare molecules (characters in DNA and protein) across different groups of arthropods.

The picture is an american horse-shoe crab, with the scientific name Limulus. These strange creatures are actually a close relative of spiders and scorpions, and are unlike real crabs.

I have worked on insects, comparing major groups like flies, beetles and moths, to find shared features that can tell us how and when these groups appeared on earth. Nowadays, I'm working on another group of arthropods, called arachnids. These include spiders, scorpions and mites, plus many obscure types that scientists do not know much about [yet!].

In brief, I won't be answering questions about dinosaurs or fossils, but if you have questions about the evolution and features of insects and spiders, i will try my best to help.

Hi, I'm Isabell Schwenkert

During my undergraduate and graduate work I studied molecular mechanisms in neurons, especially those that lead to diseases such as alcoholism (yes, it is a disease) and Alzheimer's disease. Then I went to work for a medical device company that sells equipment for the treatment of cancer patients; these days I'm trying to understand the mechanisms that lead to this actually quite frequent disease, and I'm also trying to find out how we can use this theoretical knowledge to come up with new cures for "uncureable" cancers such as malignant brain tumors or lung cancer.

Michael P. Taylor

In my day-job I am a humble computer programmer; but by night I don a colourful costume and study dinosaurs. I specialise in the sauropods (the long-necked, long-tailed dinosaurs like Diplodocus): the biggest of the big. I'm interested in how animals that weighed as much as whales could function on land. How did they hold their necks and tails up off the ground? How did they breathe? Could they rear up on their hind legs? How big did they actually get? Because sauropods are mostly known from very sparse remains (in many cases from single bones) a lot of guesswork is needed; and because sauropods were much more diverse than most people realise, what's true of one is not necessarily true of another. So it's a tricky area to work in, but well worth it.

(I use my middle initial because there is another vertebrate palaeontologist called Michael A. Taylor. He works on marine reptiles.)

Friday, August 04, 2006

Tanja Sanders

Going back in time is not only possible with fossils. As a geographer and dendroecologist I am working with tree rings to gain information about the past. The advantage is that by counting the rings is very precise. Trees (outside the tropics) build one ring each year, although depending on temperature, rainfall, soil type, and a range of other factors the width of the ring varies from year to year. We read these signals and then take a step back in time using wood samples from houses, ships, and even samples buried in moors and ice. Linking them together tree-ring records can be as long as a millennia. We get all sorts of information from these records: climate, growth conditions, insect attacks... depending on the most important factor for these trees.

But we can use the information as well to have a look in the future. Analysing the annual growth for a certain species today and running it through a growth model we get information about the growth under e.g. global warming scenarios. Are certain species going to suffer from drought? Is the timberline going to shift? Which species are the winners? We are working on the answers.

Do we have an upwards trend of the timberline? In other words, are trees growing higher up on mountains? This is another part of my research which i will investigate over the next few years.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Manabu Sakamoto

I'm yet another palaeontologist at the University of Bristol and I study the interrelationships and functional morphology of carnivorous dinosaurs. I am particularly interested in the feeding mechanics of these fantastic creatures. Recently, I have also gained interest in the feeding mechanics of modern predatory animals, especially the monitor lizards. (Monitors actually have teeth that are similar in shape to predatory dinosaurs, so they may serve as pretty good analogues…).

I am an anatomist as well - my study involves a lot of dissections of modern relatives of dinosaurs, the birds and the crocodiles. After detailed studies in these animals to determine which muscles are present and where and how these muscles attach to bones, I can reconstruct the same muscles in the extinct dinosaurs to a certain degree of confidence. I can then use these muscle reconstructions to estimate the forces working on the jaws.

I am also a cell biologist – or used to be…I used to study surface molecules in T-cells as an undergraduate student. Surface molecules are crucial in recent studies like stem-cell research. When stem cells differentiate into different kinds of cells, gene expression is not the only regulatory factor; cell-to-cell interactions through surface molecules are equally important.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Dr Neil Gostling

I am an evolutionary biologist, and if you want to answer ‘big’ questions you need to think ‘small’! I work with embryos of marine invertebrates, both living and fossilised. I started in Evolutionary Developmental Biology, looking at living animals, and how the nervous system is 'built' in chordate animals (that's the group animals that human beings are in).

If you want to know how animals are related to each other, you can look at the way that animals develop from their eggs to the larvae that hatch out. If you have three different animals and two of them develop in a similar way to each other, but differently from the third, then the 'similar two' are more closely related to one another than they are to the third animal.

10 years ago palaeontologists were lucky enough to realise that fossilised embryos were preserved in rocks from 520 Million years ago (and older). These fossil embryos are really important, because they are from rocks laid down at he same time as when animals first appear in the fossil record. If you enlarge the image (simply click on it) you can see a fossil embryo perched on the end of a finger.

So we can now describe development of some of the very first animals ever to crawl and swim through the ancient oceans of our planet.

Sarda Sahney

I’m a palaeontologist at the University of Bristol and I study palaeoecology. This involves looking at which animals lived together in past communities and learning about how they interacted. Right now I am studying how life diversified. We have a very rich variety of fauna in the world today, much of which is threatened by human expansion. I believe that by studying the past history of biodiversity we can apply that knowledge to our present situation.

This is a picture of plants, insects, amphibians and reptiles that lived in a Palaeozoic community over 250 million years ago.

Dr. O. Erik Tetlie

I’m a palaeontologist specializing in eurypterids, also called sea scorpions. They were chelicerates, related to scorpions and spiders, but went extinct around 250 million years ago. I’m also interested in chelicerate phylogeny (how all the different groups of chelicerates: mites, spiders, scorpions, and their many chums are related to each other). But I’m also very interested in how other arthropod groups like insects, myriapods, crustaceans, trilobites and pycnogonids are related, although not specifically working on these problems myself. I also have a keen interest in solar system astronomy and the supply and demand situation of metals and energy resources, but do not expect to draw on that expertise in this forum.

P.S. The image is of a model made for the BBC. Sadly, eurypterids are extinct!

Dr Al McGowan

I am an analytical palaeontologist, which means that I apply statistics and computer models to analyze the fossil record to better understand the history of life. Another area of my work is the quantitative study of changes in the form of organisms, a field called morphometrics. My morphometrics research has focussed mainly on ammonoids. The other major research area I work in is biogeography, which tries to establish whether there are 'rules' for the way in which animals and plants are distributed across the earth. My broader training is in earth sciences and evolutionary biology. I am a keen birdwatcher, and carry out field surveys for the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).