All posts by Clare

World Animal Day: Zoology vs Animal Science – What is the difference?

To celebrate World Animal Day, we’re finding about the people that study animals – Zoologists and Animal Scientists and finding out what the difference between these subjects actually is.

First of all, both are branches of Biology, the study of all living things. Zoology is the study of the animal kingdom, including the distribution, evolution and behaviour of animals. Animal Science is the study of animals under human control, such as pets and farm animals, but what does this mean to our students?

We quizzed Chess, who recently finished her Zoology degree, and Iona, currently studying Animal Science, to find out what the courses were really like for them.

Why did you decide to study your course?

Chess: I always knew if I was going to university it would be to study Zoology. Sciences were always my strongest subjects and I’ve had a love of animals for as long as I can remember. I explored veterinary at first, but the day to day working life of a vet wasn’t for me. After spending six months training to be a field guide in South Africa I became certain that I wanted to work in either conservation planning or research. Therefore, studying zoology was an essential next step.

Iona: I came across the course on an open day, having come to Newcastle to look at Biology and Zoology. I liked all of the courses but Animal Science stood out for me because it focuses on the physiology, biochemistry and behaviour of domestic animals alongside the issues surrounding the industry.

Iona with her pet dog

Do you get to go on any cool field trips?

Chess: When I was studying the options were Kielder forest, Millport in Scotland, or Crete. I chose to study birds in Kielder forest where we surveyed them by their calls. Other groups studied deer, small mammals, and beetles. There is also the option of a residential field course abroad in an additional module. In my year the group went to Thailand, others have been to South Africa. Everyone who went had nothing but good things to say about it.

Iona: We’ve been to the Northumbria Mounted Police stables, local animal shelters and a couple of zoos. They were all very different and provided unique learning experiences. We have also visited both of the two uni farms to look around the pig and dairy units which really helped to reinforce what we learnt in lectures.

A macaque monkey, photo taken by Biology Grad, Matt Pindar, on his Thailand field trip.

Have you ever done any work experience or a placement related to your degree (either before or during uni)?

Chess:  I did a summer vacation scholarship between stage two and three, and I received maintenance funding to undertake an eight-week research project over the summer. This was an invaluable experience for me. It was the first opportunity to experience what a career in research would involve by working with academics to design and deliver a piece of my own research.

Iona: This summer, I spent some time with a multinational feed company, working with ration advisers, sales reps and regional managers. I’ve also worked with farm managers and herdsmen on large dairy units and sheep farms.

Chess with her research poster the the British Conference of Undergraduate Research

What do you hope to do after your degree?

Chess: I still want to continue into a career in research. After graduating, I completed an MSc Global Wildlife Science and Policy also at Newcastle and I am now just starting my PhD.

Iona: I am currently undecided about what I’d like to do after I graduate but I am looking into livestock nutrition or consultancy roles.  Quality control and marketing also interests me so I’m currently exploring these options.

How much time do you spend in labs vs in the field vs in lectures/seminars?

Chess: The most time is spent in lectures. At stage one there are weekly lab sessions and regular field visits though the amount of these at later stages depends on the optional modules and projects you choose to undertake.

Iona:  I spend the majority of my uni time in lectures and seminars but we’ll have a couple of field trips per term. We had about one lab session per week in Stage one and it varies in Stages two and three depending on the modules you choose.

The great thing about Animal Science is that we are a small cohort so our class sizes range from 20 when it’s just our course to 150 when we take modules with larger courses. You become very close with your course mates but also have the opportunity to make friends on different courses.

A student at Newcastle University’s Nafferton Farm

What do you think the biggest difference between Animal Science and Zoology is?

Chess: The biggest difference is definitely that Animal Science shares a lot of modules with Agriculture, so it focuses on domestic animals. This includes their care and management in an agricultural setting. Zoology on the other hand shares its first year with Biology. Therefore, the focus is on understanding the natural biological systems involving animals.

Iona:  Animal Science mainly focuses on domestic species and the issues surrounding both companion and farm animals. Sustainability is a major theme that runs through the modules and topics are usually linked to current and future management techniques. I think that Animal Science contains the best aspects of Agriculture, Biology and Zoology.

Zoology focuses on mainly un-domesticated animals and their conservation along with physiology, behaviour and evolution.

Most importantly, what is your favourite animal?

Chess: In terms of unexplainable connection, a wolf. In terms of research interest, all species of rhino.

Iona:  The dog! The wide range of dog breeds is incredible and the variety of roles they can play in our lives is endless.

Advice from the Experts

We also asked for an input from the lead academics from the courses what their advice would be for anyone deciding between the two.

Dr. Richard Bevan, a Senior Lecturer for Zoology said:

In its simplest form, I’d say that Animal Science can be thought of as ‘Applied Zoology’ and concentrates on farm and domestic animals while ‘Zoology’ deals with animals (all of them) in the wider context: from amoeba to whale. It is then an easy choice – if you are more interested in fish, sloths, crabs etc. then choose Zoology. If you are interested in how domestication has affected animals then Animal Science would be a better choice

From Animal Science, Dr. Catherine Douglas advised:

Animal Science – it’s not Veterinary or Biology or Zoology – it’s a bit of all of the these and more. I would suggest students look carefully at the topics (modules) covered and the species that each particular university specialises in.  If you love domestic mammals, you don’t want a zoology course that focuses on wild animals, insects and birds.

Richard Bevan with students on the Farne Islands

Career Prospects

Graduates from both our Zoology and Animal Science degrees have gone on to a range of exciting career paths. Animal Science graduates have gone on to work as Animal Nutritionists and Geneticists and many have gone into further study with Masters in Animal Behaviour as well as Journalism and Museum Studies. Some graduates have also gone on to study Veterinary Medicine.

Zoology grads have gone on to work in research as well in education and charities. Their job titles range from Research Assistant to Football Analyst to Events Officer at the Royal Society of Biology.

Find out More…

Explore our course pages to find out more about Animal Science and Zoology. Or if ocean wildlife is more your thing, we also offer a course in Marine Zoology.

World Wildlife Day

To celebrate World Wildlife Day, we’re taking a look at some of our favourite wildlife that is local to Newcastle and the North East.

 

Kittiwakes

Kittiwakes
Image by Ian Cook, RSPB

These seabirds are known for creating their nests on cliff-tops and rock ledges around the UK’s coast line. Since the 1960s a colony of Kittawakes have made a disused-flourmill-turned-art-gallery their home. This groups of Kittawakes nesting on the Baltic building in Newcastle upon Tyne are famous for being the furthest inland colony in the world.

 

Red Squirrels

Image result for red squirrels kielder forest

Once common across Europe, the number of red squirrels found in the UK have decreased since the introduction of the grey squirrel 150 years ago. It’s now thought that only around 15,000 red squirrels are left in England so they are difficult to spot. Luckily for us, around half of that population live in Kielder Forest in Northumberland.

 

Cheviot Goats

Image result for cheviot goats
Image by John Dalrymple

This wild group of British Primitive Goats live so remotely in the Cheviot Hills of Northumberland that they are genetically distinct from others of their species. Such goats were once domesticated and brought to the UK around 5000BC as farm animals. The group of Cheviot goats are thought to have been wild for at least 2000 years. Our researchers are now tracking the goats using GPS to gain an insight into their range and behaviours.

 

Rock Pools at Cullercoats

Image result for cullercoats rock pool wildlife

Not far from our Marine Biology Lab in Cullercoats Bay there is an entire ecosystem of wildlife to be found on the rocky shore. In the tide pools you can find hermit crabs, limpets, velvet crabs, starfish, sea snails, and maybe even a lobster if you’re lucky.

 

Seals

Image result for farne island seals

There are a few places you can visit in the North East for Seal-Spotting. If you’re after Harbor Seals, head to Seal Sands at the mouth of the Tees for the North East’s only breeding colony. If you fancy seeing the even bigger Grey Seals, head to the Farne Islands. There over 8,000 grey seals there, making it one of the largest colonies in Europe.

 

Puffins

Image result for farne island puffins

These distinctive birds can also be found in abundance in the Farne Islands. No wonder David Attenborough said this was his favourite place in the UK for “magnificent nature”. Puffins can be found on the islands each year between April and July for their breeding season, the rest of their year is spent out at sea.

 

 

Sugar Awareness Week

Graduate Ambassador, James Cheng, gives us an insight into the sweet substance that we all love so much for Sugar Awareness Week.

What is sugar?

In society, sugar is commonly known as a sweet granular-like substance used in many foods. Children often cannot get enough of it and our perception of sweet is generally accepted as an evolutionary adaptation that draws us to high energy foods sources that were historically scarce.

The issue that our population now face is that since we have mastered the environment around us, we can cultivate and refine foods high in sugar that appeal to our evolutionary biology. This causes many problems since our bodies have not evolved to cope with high levels of sugar consumption.

The body can easily work with sugar, directing it where energy is needed while also being able to store the energy away as fat when in excess hence why too much is bad. Compared to the long complex structure of carbohydrates, your body doesn’t spend quite so much time processing these short sugar chains so the energy inside is readily available.

Why is it sweet?

Similar to how we evolved to taste many harmful substances as bitter to instinctively avoid its consumption, it is believed that the association of sugar and the sweet taste is a positive attractant making us want to eat more. This in part is linked with the reward pathway leading in the brain, releasing a chemical called dopamine which scientists have found to be associated with addiction.

Children Love Sugar!

It’s common knowledge that children have a particularly strong craving for sugar compared to adults. This observation has scientific merit, with researchers showing newly born children prefer sweet tastes. This is believed to naturally attract them to their mother’s milk. This preference is maintained up to adulthood at which point the attraction to sweet foods decline, coinciding with when you stop growing. Newborns respond to even dilute sweet tastes, differentiate varying degrees of sweetness, and, given the choice, will consume more of a sugar solution than water. This behaviour has also been observed in other mammals and it is believed that sweet preference is associated with a need for more calories. It’s important to point out that increased intake of sugar is not an appropriate method to increase calories.

The Tooth about Teeth

A high sugar diet correlates with increased tooth decay. It is a common misconception that sugar is direct responsible for teeth decay. What actually happens is that the bacteria on your teeth, such as Streptococcus mutans, release minute amounts of acid. This slowly breaks down the structure of the enamel gaining access to the dentine below, subsequently causing tooth sensitivity and decay. A high sugar environment for the bacteria on the teeth leads to their increased growth and therefore increased acid release.

While an apple and a glass of apple juice might equate to the same amount of sugar in terms of your diet, an apple is much healthier for your teeth. Biting and swallowing chunks of apple means that sugar will be trapped in the structure of the apple pieces effectively bypassing contact with your teeth, however drinking a glass of apple juice means that your teeth are exposed to all the sugar. Whole fruit has a whole plethora of benefits over juice.

Sweet isn’t so innocent

In moderate consumption lots of research has shown that in infants, immediately after tasting sweet solutions they exhibit positive emotional reactions and can even trigger automatic responses leading to relaxation of agitated infants.

Lots of research has been ongoing about the effects of sugar on the body and it has been well established that an increase or decrease in sugar is associated with a parallel change in body weight. As such the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommend less than 10% of our total energy intake should be derived from sugar. Furthermore a high fat and sugar diet has been shown to promote muscle breakdown, inflammation and impaired glucose transport that eventually leads to Type II diabetes.

Visit Sugar.org to learn more about the History of Sugar!

Happy GIS Day!

Our Outreach Officer and Geoscience expert, Dr. Pippa Cowles, explains everything you need to know about GIS for GIS Day.

Today is GIS Day, GIS I hear you say what is that? You may have heard of it in your geography class before. GIS stands for Geographic Information System and connects geography with data – lots and lots of data! It helps us understand what belongs where and looks at data connected to a particular location.

Data can be anything from maps, aerial photos, satellite imagery to spreadsheets. GIS allows all these data types to be laid on top of one another on a single map. It uses location as the common point to relate all these data set together.

GIS can help supermarkets plan where to open a new store, help the police analyse crime patterns, or help aid vehicles get to a location using the fastest route.

GIS lets us create, manage and analyse geospatial data and visualise the results on a map to help us make more informed decisions.

Explore the relationship between Earthquakes, Plate tectonics and Volcanoes using GIS here.

What does it show? What information is stored about the Earthquakes and Volcanoes?

Find out more about GIS day and how you can book a free Introduction to GIS workshop for your school.

 

 

Top 5 Tips for Looking after your Mental Health at University

Today is University Mental Health Day so Psychology Graduate Maria McConville, has put together her top 5 tips for looking after your mental health whilst studying at university.

Going to university can (at times) be very challenging… students are faced with pressures of their degrees, living away from home and learning to become independent. It’s normal to go through periods of stress and uncertainty, but there are some small steps you can take when you feel like you are struggling.

1. Talk to someone.

It’s very easy to bottle up our emotions and keep problems to ourselves, but speaking to someone is one of the most useful ways to help yourself feel better. Most universities offer student well-being and counselling services for students, allowing you to open up about what is bothering you and find ways to remedy this. If you don’t want to talk to a stranger, chat to a friend or family member you trust – you can bet you aren’t alone in feeling this way and speaking about how you feel can really help.

2. Take care of yourself.

Making sure your body is well-rested, fuelled and active can have a really positive impact on well-being. Aim to limit stimulant drinks like alcohol, coffee and energy drinks as these can spike anxiety levels. Instead, increase your water consumption and try to get active! Even little changes like walking to university instead of using public transport can boost your mood and release endorphins. Maybe consider joining a gym or taking part in some group exercise classes; these can be good stress-busters and a great way to meet new people!

3. Sleep, sleep, sleep

Those late nights and lack of shut-eye wreak havoc for your body and mind! Adults should be aiming for 7-9 hours of sleep per night and although this isn’t always possible, having a bedtime routine makes it easier to get enough sleep. Also, try not to use phones/laptops/other tech just before you go to bed… instead opt for a book or some relaxing music to aid sleep.

4. Don’t compare yourself to others

At times we are so focused on other people’s successes that we fail to realise how well we are doing and this can be detrimental to our self-esteem.  Don’t dwell on the fact that your friend got a higher grade than you in the last exam… instead set your own academic goals and work towards them!

5. Balance

Do not:

  • Spend every waking hour in the library revising
  • Spend every waking hour socialising and neglecting work

Balance is key! Keep on top of your studies but make sure you give yourself time every day to do something that makes you happy (especially during exam periods). Having short breaks during periods of studying also improves productivity and retention of information!

If you feel like you need help with your mental health, there are a number of UK support services you can contact including Mind, The Samaritans and Student Minds.

 

Competitive Edge at Christmas – the mathematical way to beat the family

Toilet Trouble is the must-have family game this festive season. Determined not to be flushed away by their families, our Mathematics lecturers, Dr Andrew Baggaley and Dr Nick Parker got ahead of the game to analyse the seemingly random sequence of flushes and squirts.

On Christmas morning many families will wake up to a rather unexpected gift from Santa Claus: “Toilet Trouble”.  This does not involve an emergency call to your local plumber or your GP, but is rather a family game devised by Santa’s most mischievous elves.

Each player nervously awaits their fate as they place their face over the toilet bowl and flush the handle.  If they are lucky, they breathe a sigh of relief at staying dry and the suspense moves to the next player; if they are unlucky, a jet of toilet water comes to greet them.  Is this squirting truly random or is there some hidden order?  Can the occurrence of the next tinkle be predicted?  And can you beat the odds to stay dry, while soaking your nearest and dearest?  Here we self-proclaimed wizz kids combine scientific experimentation and mathematical analysis to give you the edge in this festive problem.

We put the game to the test by flushing the toilet over 1000 times and noting whether the jet squirted or not.   The data was conveniently recorded in binary format as a series of zeros ( = no squirt, dry) or ones (= squirt, wet).  The dataset, shown below, appears random with no evident pattern.  However, just because it looks random, is it random?  A large area of mathematics is devoted to analysing such patterns, seeking out hidden order and the information that this may carry, from identifying the trends in stock markets to deciphering information embodied in secret communications.  On the flip side of this latter example is the branch of mathematics which creates the codes in the first place; cryptography designs tricks to hide information in a jumble of numbers.  Central to this are the “pseudo-random-number generators”, mathematical functions which produce a seemingly random series of numbers but which are nonetheless orderly mathematical functions – if we start the function from the same number we will always get the same random-looking series of numbers being produced.  In this sense, the numbers only appear random.  An everyday example of pseudo-random-number generation is when we play our music tracks on shuffle.  Interestingly, however, a good generator would mean that there was a chance that the same number (music track) would be produced twice in a row, or within a short interval. For example if you create a random playlist from a 10 track album, there is a 10% chance that you would have to listen to the same track twice in a row. To avoid this unwanted effect, the original number generators used for shuffling had to be tweaked to prevent the same track arising in close succession.

We return to the matter at hand – the “random” squirting of the toilet.  As is typical of scientific analyses, we begin our analysis at the most basic level, before drilling down to increasing detail until we reach a required level of understanding of the problem.  From the data (see image) it is evident that the squirts (ones) are relatively spaced out.  In other words, at each flush there is not an equal 50:50 chance between squirt or no squirt – the chance is biased towards not being squirted, which is some good news for the players.  Our 1000 flushes produce 196 squirts, informing us that, on average, there are 5.1 flushes between squirts.  This doesn’t help us to identify whether or not there is a pattern to the squirts, and so next we look at the number of flushes between squirts, shown below.  Several important features now become evident.  There is not an equal chance of a squirt for all number of flushes, and this allows us to ascribe a confidence/concern scale. If it is your turn to flush immediately after a squirt has taken place, you can give your most cocky grin at the toilet bowl and your fellow players – no squirts arise on this turn.  If you flush on the second, sixth or eighth flush after the previous squirt, you can smile with a confidence at the bowl – these turns have less than 5% chance of squirting.  If you take the fourth flush, then have your towel handy – this leads to the highest chance of squirting, over 30%.  Finally, if you are about the take the tenth flush then brace yourself for a guaranteed soaking since all squirts happen within ten flushes.

If the squirting were entirely random, then the distribution in the histogram would be flat; the fact that it varies indicates that there is some hidden order which, for example, favours the fourth flush and suppresses the first, second, sixth and eighth flushes.  Closer examination of the squirting reveals a pattern in which the squirting fires around the 10th, 3rd, 4th, 8th, 4th, 4th and 5th flushes.  This pattern then repeats.  So the squirting is orderly after all, it is just the irregularity of this pattern that creates an illusion of randomness.

So how random is our game? In order to understand this we can compute the entropy of the squirt signal, a single number which will quantify this.  If you have met the idea of entropy before then it was probably in the context of disorder.  Indeed one of the most important laws of physics tells us that the natural tendency of any isolated system is to become more disordered. Leave a young child in a tidy bedroom and they will soon provide a definitive proof of this.

However we can also apply this idea to a random signal. Imagine flipping a fair coin lots of times and noting down a 1 if it is heads and 0 if it is tails. This would build up a signal of 1’s and 0’s which is completely random. If we computed the entropy of this signal we would find it is one. On the other hand imagine a coin which is completely biased, it always landed showing the head. This signal would be completely predictable, it would always be a 1, and the entropy would be zero. From our data we expect a squirt roughly with a probability of around 1 in 5, a truly random signal of 1s and 0s with this probability has an entropy of 0.72. What about our game? We find the entropy of our signal is a little lower, almost exactly 0.7, expressing the fact that our data has some intrinsic pattern.

Will this understanding allow us to stay dry on Christmas morning?  Well no.  The number of flushes that a player must make is random, decided by spinning a wheel numbered from 1 to 3.  This serves to ensure that each player has no control over their own destiny.  You can predict when the squirts will fire but you can’t control whether they will fire on you!

Unravelling Deep Sea DNA

DNA is the building block of all living things. Our own DNA dictates what we look like, how we behave and even how we think. The Human Genome Project sequenced all of our DNA to unravel the code that creates us to give a better understanding of how it all works. From this we’ve learned more about how we’ve evolved and which animals are our closest relatives.

The Wellcome Trust are planning on sequencing the DNA of 25 more animals next year and you get to have a say in which animals will be studied. Scientists from across the country have been championing species which they believe should be sequenced next. Our very own team of researchers from Newcastle University are campaigning for the Abyssal Grenadier, a deep sea fish which has evolved to live in one of the most extreme environments on Earth.

The competition is being held online on I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here where our researchers, Johanna Weston and Thom Linley have already participated in 19 online chats with school children. Anyone can vote and ask the scientists questions about their chosen species.

Here are Joanna’s top 3 questions that they’ve been asked:

1. How did the fish come to be named grenadier?

This question totally stumped us and I have been on an adventure finding the answer! I have been asking ichthyologists (fish scientists) all over the world and the answer I got was from the head of fishes in Te Papa Museum in New Zealand (told you I looked far and wide!).  The first grenadier described was the roundnose grenadier in 1765! That’s where we first get the name.  The grenadiers were a type of soldier that specialised in grenades in France in the 1700’s. They wore pointed hats based on the Mitre (a Bishop’s hat). The pointy hat looks like the high triangular first dorsal fin of the grenadier fish!

2. Why do they use their eyes less?

The deep sea is a very difficult environment to live in for a variety of reasons – not a lot of food, lots of predators, and the crushing weight of all the water above these animals. But one of the main problems with living in the deep sea is that below 200m of water there is very little natural sunlight getting that deep. The abyssal grenadier lives all the way down to 4000/5000m where there is no natural light so it is hard for them to see anything. (Although some other deep-sea animals produce their own light using bioluminescence!) Because it’s very dark the abyssal grenadier relies more heavily on its sense of smell to detect food.

3. What is your most unique feature and why has it happened (what genes cause it)?

We have lots of cool unique features!

We can survive under high water pressure. At the moment we know that we store a lot of an enzyme called TMAO which helps to keep our cells happy and stop them from being crushed by the pressure. We also live in the complete darkness, except bioluminescence which is light produced by some bacteria that live in some deep-sea species, but we can still see these flashes of light. We can go very long periods of time without eating so we have become very good at storing energy in our bodies. And we can also swim really slowly to help keep our energy stores high too.

At the moment we don’t know all the genes that help us live in such an extreme environment! That’s why we would love to have our genome sequenced so we can start to understand how animals can live in such a difficult environment. Because we are closely related to cod it would be really cool to compare our genome to the genome of a cod to see what lets us live deeper! This could be really valuable in understanding fish, like cod, as well as the abyssal grenadier.

If you would like to ask a scientist or place your vote for the next genome to be sequenced you can do so imascientist.org.uk. Voting closed on the 8th December.

The Science of Baking: Cake

For the next instalment in Science of Baking series, just in time for the Bake-Off
Final, Charlie Wilkinson has looked into the science of making the perfect cake.

Cake is a wonderful thing, there’s nothing quite like the first slice of homemade cake to cheer you up. We use it to celebrate birthdays for a reason! There is science in baking a cake, even if you don’t realise it.

cake

The basic ingredients for cake include the use of flour, eggs, sugar and butter. The flour and eggs are strengthening ingredients for building structure in the cake while the sugar and butter are structure weakening. A good cake feels light in texture, this lightness is due to air bubbles formed throughout the batter which creates a structure of thin layers of cake separated by those air bubbles.

Baking a cake starts with creaming your fat and sugar, this action incorporates all that air which is required to form the light texture of cake. At this point eggs are added to the mixture, beaten egg essentially protects the air bubbles in the cake from collapsing during the baking process. Flour is then gently added into the mixture, gently to protect those precious air bubbles. The addition of flour is essential for the structure of the cake, forming gluten to add structure. This is a delicate process, however – too much gluten creates a heavy consistency like bread. This is why the type of flour used is important, with cake flours with lower protein content and heavy strong bread flours with higher.

As the cake bakes air expands as water vapour and carbon dioxide is released, the egg cooks and coagulates forming a permanent risen form of the cake. Browning reactions take place on the cake surface which enhance the flavour of the cake, creating a final form of browned, risen, light, airy, delicious cake.

World Animal Day

Today is World Animal Day, a day to celebrate and raise the status of animals. Humans are often thought to be the animals with the highest status and intelligence due to our effortless ability to use tools, develop language and dominate the globe. However there are millions of species that have evolved traits and talents that humans could only ever dream of. Here is our list of some of the most amazing animal adaptations.

1. Bioluminescence


Bioluminescence is the ability to emit light. Fire flies and glow worms are well known for their ability to light up but they are not alone, lots of insects and even a species of snail (Quantula striata) hold the protein Luciferin, allowing them to emit light. The protein reacts with oxygen using a specific type of enzyme – luciferase. The chemical reaction gives off the bright glowing colours.

Deep down in the ocean, there is little light from the sun so many marine animals have evolved bioluminence. Others, such as the Sea Goosberry above don’t emit their own light but can refract light to give this dazzling rainbow effect. Even if it’s not technically bioluminescent – we’re still very jealous!

2. Camouflage

In contrast to flashy bioluminescent animals that stand out, some creatures prefer to blend in…

When you think of a camouflaged animal, most people would think of the classic colour–changing chameleon but octopus and squids are the real masters of disguise. They have thousands of cells known as chromotaphores across their skin, these contain pigments and can expand and shrink to change the colour of the skin. These animals can also change the appearance of their skin’s texture and use their soft body and tentacles to morph into a different shape.

The Mimic Octopus takes this a step further and manipulates its body into the shape of other animals to fool its predators into thinking it’s a different marine species – now that would be a fun superpower to have!

3. Mimicry

All the most famous superheroes have a disguise! Like the mimic octopus, some relatively harmless animals have found a clever way to avoid predators by copying the colours, body shape and even behaviour of harmful species. This is known as Batesian Mimicry, and can be seen in animals such as the caterpillar Hemeroplanes triptolemus above, which cleverly disguises itself as a poisonous snake by blowing air into its head!

Mimicry can also happen when two harmful species that have a common predator evolve separately to have similar warning signals such as bright colours or patterns, that show the predators that they are poisonous or taste unpleasant.  This is known as Mullerian Mimicry and can often be seen in butterflies and snakes. So two entirely different (and possibly poisonous!) species of butterflies may look identical.

4. Invisibility

Glass Squid

If camoflauge doesn’t work, how about being invisible? Maybe not completely invisible, but many species have come close by evolving to become transparent. The glasswing butterfly has evolved to have transparent panes in its wings, making it more difficult for predators to spot.

The glass squid and some species of jellyfish have evolved transparent bodies making them extremely difficult for predators to spot them in the depths of the ocean.

5. Regrowing limbs

Image result for axolotl

If all these adaptations for hiding fail and you’re caught by a predator – what next? Well some species such as the Mexican salamander, the axolotl, have evolved the ability to regrow parts of the body so it’s not a big deal if something does take a bite out of them.

When an axolotl loses a limb, the cells at the cut off point lose their identity; they are no long skins cells or muscle cells and they become generic cells that are able to develop into whatever the axolotl needs them to be to regrow whatever was lost. Whilst humans have come a long way in developing amazing prosthetic and even bionic limbs, we’re unlikely to evolve the ability to completely regrow body parts anytime soon.

If you want to see some amazing axolotls yourself, take a trip to Newcastle University’s Natural History Museum, the Great North Museum: Hancock.

6. Outside Digestion

Speaking of regrowing limbs – starfish can also happily regrow spines but that’s not their only talent – they can also digest their food in a very interesting way. Instead of taking food in through the mouth, instead they take their stomach out of their body and put it on the food. Their stomach then digests the food into a mushy soup which the starfish can then draw into it’s body along with it’s stomach.

Perhaps this wouldn’t be top priority for a superpower but it is impressive! You can see the starfish in action in our aquarium at the Dove Marine Lab in Cullercoats.

7. Flight

Image result for bar tailed godwit

Moving from the seas to the skies, I’m sure many of us would love to have the ability to fly. Of course many creatures have mastered this, mainly birds and insects but some reptiles, fish and mammals, such as the flying squirrel, have evolved flaps of skin that allow them to glide through the air.

One of the most impressive flyers of the animal world is the bar-tailed godwit. This little bird weighs around 500g but is capable of flying immense distances. The longest recorded migration of this species was from Alaska to New Zealand – a distance of 11,680km! The journey took nine days and the bar-tailed godwit didn’t stop once. Very impressive considering most of us couldn’t even stay awake for nine days!

8. Echolocation

Onto another famous flyer – the bat. Flight isn’t this mammal’s only superpower as it can also navigate in the dark without sight. It does this by using echolocation. Bats send out a high frequency sound and listen for the echos coming back. By comparing the outgoing sound with the returning sound, bats tell how far away obstacles are, how big they are and even if they are moving. They are able to build up a picture of the world around them using sound, just as we are able to using sight.

This impressive power may not be so out of reach for humans. Several blind people have taught themselves how to navigate using echolocation. They produce sounds either by tapping a cane against the floor, creating clicks with their tongue or snapping their fingers and then listen for the echos, just as echolocating animals do.

9. UV Vision

Image result for uv light reindeer

Whilst some animals, like bats, have relatively poor vision, other see much more than we could imagine. The light that we can see, known as the visible spectrum, covers the wavelengths 380nm – 760nm. Ultraviolet light sits just outside this so our eyes are unable to detect it. Some animals including butterflies, some birds and even reindeer have evolved the ability to see UV.

Reindeer are thought to have evolved this ability as it helps them identify lichens for food, and urine indicating predators in the snow. To us, these would blend in but in ultraviolet light there is much more of a contrast.

10. Mind Control

Our final adaptation may perhaps be the most sought after superpower – mind control. This isn’t just the stuff of science fiction movies and comic books, some animals have actually achieved it. The green-banded broodsac is a parasitic flatworm that infects snails in order to reach birds, their ideal host species. The parasite infects the snails and causes their tentacles to bulge, making them look like a caterpillar. It influences the snail and makes them move from the shade and up to the tops of leaves and branches where they are easily visible to birds. As the tentacles now look like a delicious meal for the birds, they’re prime targets. Once eaten, the parasite is able to continue it’s life inside the bird.

Which of these animal superpowers would you like to have?

The Science of Baking: Bread

With the Great British Bake-Off gracing our TV screens once more, we’ve decided to dig a little deeper into the science behind baking. What makes bread rise? What makes cake light and fluffy? Why do we love all things sugary and baked so much? All of these questions and more will be scientifically answered in our newest series of blog posts. Neuroscience student and Social Media Intern, Charlie Wilkinson is starting us off with the science of bread…giphy-2.gifIf you’ve watched the bake off then you’ve definitely experienced the beauty of watching 12 British bakers pounding dough into the bench like it’s an olympic sport. But what’s actually going on here besides taking your BBC/Channel 4-related-aggressions out on some innocent bread.

Bread is the product of key basic ingredients including flour, yeast, water and salt. The process of making bread involves mixing these ingredients together until the flour converts into a stiff paste, this initial mixing allows for the development of gluten as the dough becomes stretchy and elastic. The type of flour again is important with breads using strong white bread flour due to the high protein content for a strong dough.

Following GBBO bread week to the next stage of rising, as the bread is covered and left to prove. This fermentation process allows gluten proteins to stick together forming networks, and the yeast cells grow. Yeast cells break down sugars using enzymes into water and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide gas is retained in the dough allowing for the dough to expand and double in size. Some breads require two bouts of kneading and proving to form the perfect bread.

During the actual baking process the heat of the oven penetrates the dough leading to rapid formation of air bubbles as fermentation increased. The heat increases the activity of the yeast to form more air until a point at which the heat kills the yeast cells and air formation stops. High temperatures also cause gluten strands to transform into sex-rigid strands which give bread its crumb-like structure. Sugars blend together and brown to form the colour of the bread crust during ‘browning reactions’.

So the next time you’re watching bake off with your friends and family you can delight and entertain with your extensive knowledge of breads.