With exams over, the first year of my degree completed, naturally I wanted to do something fun to celebrate. Whilst many of my friends had tickets to glamorous end-of-term May Balls, I had tickets to a very different event – the Mammal Society 6th Student Conference. A true nerd, I had decided to celebrate the end of my biology exams with…more biology!
Student mammal enthusiasts from all around the country gathered at Newcastle University for a day of talks and workshops about all things cute and furry. All levels of experience were represented, from first year undergraduates (like myself) to PhDs and even some professional ecologists and academics.
The day began with a workshop which highlighted the importance of academic networking and gave us the opportunity to practise (in a brief “speed-dating” session). From that point onwards, the day was devoted to mammals of all shapes and sizes, with a series of talks, presented by postgraduate and final year undergraduate students about their own research.
A pygmy shrew caught in a Longworth trap – photo by Bryony Yates
Research projects spanned a wide variety of areas, from traditional ecological fieldwork, to the development of new experimental techniques. One exciting development is the use of RP-HPLC (high performance liquid chromatography) to identify mammals by their hair (currently being developed by Staffordshire University). The aim is to use the protein composition of the hair to produce a unique “fingerprint” spectrum for each species, thereby allowing accurate identification of species in a non-intrusive way. Another new technique is the “Daily Diary”. This tiny chip, developed by Swansea University can monitor motion, direction, speed, and external conditions affecting a subject to allow quantitative analysis of animal movements.
As well as all these new innovations, the importance of good old, hands-on fieldwork was still very apparent: mammal traps, bat detectors, camera traps and, of course, one of an ecologist’s most valuable resources – poo! Jack Thorley from the University of Cambridge was awarded the poster prize for his work investigating skeletal dimorphism of Damaraland mole rats whilst the prize for best presentation was awarded to a giant mouse! This was, in fact, Richard Thompson of Glasgow University (in a onesie) for his research on island gigantism in mice on the Isle of Islay. Before you get too excited, the mice were still, alas, only 31g (compared to mainland average 22-25g), although this is the equivalent of finding human men over 8ft tall!
Interspersed between the student presentations were some delivered by guest speakers. Dr Per Berggren of Newcastle University gave us a flavour of the many projects his team runs on marine mammals. Dr Claire Wordley introduced us to conservationevidence.com, a fantastic (free!) resource which summarises conservation research, to make it accessible and usable by practising conservationists. Derek Crawley, of the Mammal Society, gave a talk on the importance and challenges of wildlife recording and atlas construction. He also introduced us to “Mammal Tracker” – the free app for recording mammal sightings. If you know your mammals, I’d recommend it! The day ended with a thought-provoking panel discussion on the benefits and potential pitfalls of rewilding.
For those of us keen to develop our practical surveying skills, a workshop was run the following day by Northumbria Mammal Group. We were introduced to all the British mammal groups (how to differentiate between species, recognise tracks, poo etc.) and practised owl pellet analysis, otter tracking, water vole tracking and using Longworth traps. I really appreciated this experience, having always had an interest in mammals but not the practical skills to find and interpret the signs they leave.
Looking for otter tracks – photo by Jonathan Pounder (of Northumbria Mammal Group)
I had a brilliant couple of days and it was a great way to celebrate the end of term – for me, walking boots and bank voles trump high heels and ballgowns any day!
A group photo from the workshop – photo by Jonathan Pounder (of Northumbria Mammal Group)