Monday, September 11, 2006

Welcome to Biology & Palaeontology Questions and Answers!

This is a new service aimed at school children across the UK to help them get involved and interested in science. Collectively we are a group of professional biologists and biology workers (ecologists, museum curators, science writers and the like) who have got together to answer your questions about biology.

Do you want to know more about life on Earth? If there is anything from a class that has got you interest and you want to know more, then we are the people to ask! Anything from a TV documentary, or a film with some dodgy science then we can help to explain it. Everything that you read here will be provided by real, working scientists who are experts in all aspects of biology. Do you want to know why the dinosaurs went extinct? Why do birds migrate? How do zoo breeding programmes work? How many species there are in the world? How do flys stick to celings? Why are some birds more brightly coloured than others? Why do cats eyes glow in the dark? Which were the biggest dinosaurs? What do you have to do to get a PhD in biology? How can you tell species apart? What are collections in museums used for? We will answer all of these and more!

We are dedicated to bringing you real answers to real questions and we hope that we can show you what it is like to be a real biologist, how you can get involved in biology and science, and how to learn more for yourself about science. If you look below at our older posts (and back into the archives on the right) you will see some mini-biographies of many of the people who will be answering your questions.

As you can see whe cover all kinds of biological studies, from people working in practical conservation like Dave Warburton and Matt Parratt, to palaeontologists like Erik Tetlie and Adam Smith, museum researchers like Paulo Viscardi and Peter Howlett, through to 'true' biologists like Jonathan Codd and Stuart Longhorn. We even have science writers like Carl Zimmer and Isabell Schwenkert, a climatologist in Tanja Sanders and even a human anatomist (and medical doctor) Alice Roberts.

Together, we are in a great position to answer your questions about biology, evolution, palaeontology, fossils, conservation and the environment. All you have to is click on the 'comments' button that appears at the bottom of this post (or any of the more recent posts), put in your first name, your age and your question, and then submit it. One of us will get back to you as soon as possible with an answer to your question. We will post up your question and our answer as a new post (like this one) on the main board so it is easy to find!

All of us are doing this in our spare time, so it may take us a few days or even a week to answer your question so please be patient and check back frequently! Of course, there will be lots of questions being answered all the time, so hopefully there will always be something of interest for you to read. We also have some links to other interesting biology sites on the right had side (including blogs from our contributors!), so check these out for some more sicence.

There is a bit more info about us in our July archives: but for right now you can look at the profiles of our contributers and bloggers below, look through the links or submit a question. We look forward to answering your questions, so give us some to answer!

Professor Steve Jones,

University College London

Without variation there could be no genetics and no evolution so why is it there? Perhaps surprisingly we have no real idea; and I have spent many years studying the ecological genetics of snails, fruitflies and humans in an attempt to understand this issue. Certain snails are very diverse in their shell characters, and I have collected hundreds of thousands of specimens from all over Europe in an attempt to find out why. I have also worked on fruit flies in variable environments, both in the wild and in the laboratory. At the moment I am particularly involved in looking at the interaction of thermal ecology and genetics in snails and in Drosophila.

I have for several years been involved with the media, largely in presenting scientific work but also in a more general context. I have appeared on BBC Radio on more than two hundred occasions. I gave the 1991 Reith Lectures on "The Language of the Genes" and have since then written and presented a long-running Radio 3 series on science, "Blue Skies", and a six-part TV series on human genetics, "In the Blood"; broadcast in 1996. I have also appeared in various other TV programmes, from Question Time to Late Review to Newsnight. In addition I have written extensively in the press on scientific issues and have a regular column in The Daily Telegraph - "View from the Lab".

I have given large numbers of named lectures, and frequently visit and speak at schools and schools conferences. I have, I estimate, spoken directly to more than 100 000 school pupils during my career and am UCL’s representative on the recently-established London Regional Science Centre, which aims to provide in-career training to science teachers.

Dr Alice Roberts,

University of Bristol.

Alice is an archaeologist and anthropologist who specialises in human evolution and anatomy. She might be familiar to you having been on TV with "Time Team" & "Extreme Archaeology" on Channel 4, and more recently with "Coast" on BBC1. However, she is writing a book at the moment and is very busy so this biography is a bit short for now: more to follow soon!

Carl Zimmer,

Science writer (US)

I write about biology and paleontology for the New York Times and several magazines, as well as writing science books. I also write a blog about research on evolution called the Loom. You can find out more about all of my work at my web site,

I'm interested in just about anything that moves, from ancient whales with legs to wasps that turn cockroaches into zombies.

Charlotte Miller

I'm a PhD student at the Royal Veterinary College in London, working on elephant locomotion, foot function and anatomy.

Elephants are the largest living land animals, but they are nothing when compared with some of the largest dinosaurs. Our work concentrates on understanding what limits speed and style of movement in elephants, and can help build a realistic picture of the way very large extinct animals, such as dinosaurs and mammoths, may have moved. This involves measuring live elephants moving, dissecting dead ones to see how the muscles and bones operate together, and creating computer models to verify the results. Here an elephant has markers placed at its joints and is filmed walking to see how these move.

My background is in general biology, palaeontology, and the biomechanics of locomotion in birds and large animals.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Dr PZ Myers
University of Minnesota, Morris

I'm a developmental biologist and neuroscientist with a special interest in the evolution of 'simple' model systems, science education, and the raging evolution-creation wars. I write a weblog, Pharyngula, where you can find me fulminating against fools and rhapsodizing over the amazing complexity of organisms.

Dr Alastair Wilson

University of Edinburgh

I work as an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Edinburgh. Evolutionary ecology tries to understand the biodiversity we can see around us in natural populations of plants and animals. It’s about taking genetics out of the lab and trying to work out how genes and the environment act, and interact, in the wild.

Most of my research is based on long term studies of wild sheep. We use a combination of traditional ecological fieldwork and modern genetic techniques to learn as much as we can about each animal, keeping track of them throughout their lives. With this information we can test theories and ideas about evolutionary processes that are happening right now.

Marlies Fischer

University College Dublin

I am a biologist currently doing my PhD researching prions (infectious proteins causing diseases) at University College Dublin. I studied biology in combination with engineering at the University of Stuttgart, Germany. I am especially interested in projects with a medical approach with the aim of discovering a cure. I did my master thesis on influenza (flu) vaccines at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics of Complex Technical Systems in Magdeburg, Germany.

Currently, I focus on understanding the behaviour of the Prion protein (PrP). Prions are infectious agents that cause a group of fatal diseases (also called TSEs), which destroy tissue of the nervous system and affect both humans and animals. Mad cow disease (BSE) is one example. Prions are unique - they don’t contain DNA as do all other pathogens known before the discovery of prions (bacteria, viruses, fungi). This is a fascinating topic for me to research because so many aspects are not understood and there are so many questions to answer.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Paolo Viscardi

I work as a curator in the National Museum of Ireland - Natural History. My work focuses on cleaning anf repairing old specimens held in the collections, as well as making catalogues of what we have stored here. I have a background in biomechanics (how animals move - particularly how birds fly in my case) and palaeontology (particularly taphonomy - what happens from the time an animal or plant dies and the time it is found and studied). I've loved dead animals and how their bones fit together and work since I was four - pretty creepy really!

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Adam Stuart Smith

University College Dublin

I am a Ph.D. researcher in vertebrate palaeontology at UCD in Ireland. I moved here after studying palaeobiology in the UK. I study extinct marine reptiles – an eclectic bunch often wrongly regarded as ‘swimming-dinosaurs ‘– I prefer the term ‘sea-dragons’. In particular I study plesiosaurs, a group of reptiles with four flippers and often a very long neck. This is a little ironic because no plesiosaur fossils are known from Ireland and all of the specimens I study in the National Museum of Ireland are from outside Ireland.

My main aim is to understand how these animals are related to each other – I want to know their family tree. I run the website The Plesiosaur Directory:, all about these mysterious animals. In addition I am also a ‘palaeoartist’ who draws restorations of prehistoric animals for magazines and museums, and I also enjoy a good palaeontology excavation (I spent last Summer in Montana digging dinosaurs).

The plesiosaur in the picture is called Rhomaleosaurus and it is one of the specimens housed here in Ireland.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Dr Darren Naish

University of Portsmouth

Hi, my name’s Darren Naish and you might know of me from such films as Shriek of the Mutilated and Night of the Lepus. No, just kidding, I am supposed to be a vertebrate palaeontologist working on predatory dinosaurs, and for several years now I’ve been working mostly on the early tyrannosaur Eotyrannus. I’ve also produced technical work on sauropods (the giant long-necked dinosaurs), pterosaurs (the flying reptiles that lived at the same time as dinosaurs), fossil turtles and other animals. My problem is that I’m not only interested in dinosaurs, but in fact in pretty much all vertebrate animals that aren’t fish, and to be honest I’d like to be considered as a zoologist rather than a palaeontologist. So pigs, snakes, bats, frogs, giant killer eagles and sea monsters hold my attention as much as do dinosaurs: if you want to see what is holding my interest right now, do check out my blog site, Tetrapod Zoology. I try my best to get hands-on experience with living animals at every occasion, and I have field experience with British lizards, amphibians, birds and mammals. Hey, I even have a Wikipedia entry! (and I'd like to know who wrote it).

I’ve written some books that you might have heard of, including the Dorling Kindersley Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Life (though note that I only wrote a few of the dinosaur pages: I mostly did the non-dinosaurian reptiles and the mammals), the BBC’s Walking With Dinosaurs: The Evidence (with Dave Martill), and the Palaeontological Association book Dinosaurs of the Isle of Wight (also with Dave Martill). I also regularly act as a consultant for Usborne’s dinosaur books.

I received my doctorate earlier this year and am currently trying desperately to get a job. Thus far I’ve tried technical editing, book writing, child care and full-time extreme gardening. I’d like to pursue a career in what I’m interested in, but thus far the opportunity hasn’t presented itself. That's why I'm so angry, bitter and bereft of finance.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Dr Lucy McCobb

National Museum of Wales, Cardiff

I work as a fossil curator in a museum, which means that I help to look after lots of different types of fossils from various periods of the Earth’s history, ranging from trilobites, corals and ammonites, to plants, ichthyosaurs and dinosaurs. I also do research on fossil trilobites, looking at the evolution of this group of creepy-crawlies, which lived in the seas between 550 and 250 million years ago.

I also use fossil trilobites and brachiopods (shellfish also known as ‘lamp shells’) to help reconstruct what the world looked like when these animals lived (a branch of geology known as ‘Palaeogeography’).
The plates that make up the Earth’s crust have moved around constantly throughout its history, rearranging the continents and redrawing the map of the world. When we find the same species of shallow water animals fossilised in rocks on two modern-day continents that are now far apart, we know that the continents must have been close to each other at the time when those animals lived, because the animals were able to swim between their coastal waters. When considered along with other geological evidence, fossils allow us to draw a map of the Earth as it was millions of years ago.
For my PhD, I worked on the exceptional preservation of soft tissues in fossils, such as muscle tissue and skin.

Dr Tom Reader,

University of Nottingham

I am an ecologist and I am particularly interested in the population biology and behaviour of animals. The two questions that keep me awake at night are "why are there so many species?" and "why do animals behave in the way that they do?" I try to find answers by studying creatures (often, but not always, insects) in their natural habitats, and using mathematical models and computer simulations. I have a particular interest in the ecologically crucial processes of competition and predation, and a general enthusiasm for natural history.

The picture below shows caterpillars of the attractively named "black slug cup moth" in Sydney, Australia. I've spent many happy hours studying the social behaviour that they exhibit. Group size appears to be the result of a balance between the pressures of competition for food and a desire to be protected from attacks by predators".

Dr Jonathan Codd

University of Manchester

My research broadly spans all areas of respiratory biology and aims to better understand the breathing mechanics of birds and bats. These animal models are of interest as both face similar functional constraints: fluctuations in body temperature and breathing during locomotion. To this end current research interests include an examination of the biochemical and biophysical adaptations in the pulmonary surfactant system associated with torpor and the role of hypaxial musculature during locomotion.

Given the evolutionary link between some birds and dinosaurs we are also attempting to apply the knowledge we have gained from our studies of birds to allow us to reconstruct the breathing mechanics in some theropod dinosaurs.

We approach the study of respiratory biology utilising techniques applicable from the whole animal down to the molecular level, encompassing ecological, anatomical, biochemical, molecular and physiological methods to answer questions arising from our research. Ultimately we hope to gain a better understanding of the evolution of breathing mechanics in these two groups of flying vertebrates.