The secret life of Robin Redbreast:

4476290531_fb6bcf3665_zWith the holiday season now in full swing, the unseasonable warmth leading up to Christmas 2014 got me thinking about what really make Christmas Christmas? For me the season just wouldn’t be complete without terrible television re-runs, twinkling Christmas lights, indulgent hot chocolate and a curious robin hopping expectantly round the garden as you bed it down for winter. Yes, as far back as I can remember these canny little birds have been as much a part of Christmas as the tree or the turkey. But, how much do we really know about our festive feathered friends and just how did they become such a mainstay of the holiday season? So as a late Christmas present, here is a collection of robin facts to get you a bit better acquainted with our friendly robin redbreast (Erithacus rubecula):

A red breasted mail carrier: Robins, with their bright red breasts, curious nature and friendly disposition have earned themselves the title of UK’s favourite bird. But, as a year round mainstay of the British garden, how did these birds also become one of the most iconic symbols of Christmas.

332693283_c6cc63805a_oIt is thought that the robin leant it’s name to mail carriers or postmen of the early to mid1800s. During this period postmen wore a distinctive scarlet uniform, earning them the nickname ‘redbreasts’. Around Christmas the ‘redbreast’ army was strong on the ground, spreading festive cheer and mailing our seasonal greetings; and, it wasn’t long before the postmen’s namesake the robin started making an appearance on the cards they were delivering (often depicted with letters in their beaks). This and the robins regular presence in the winter garden, has earned them a role in festive history.

Night singing: It seems that not only has the humble robin had a significant effect on our lives, but, in turn, we are also affecting theirs. Researchers have recently discovered that many urban birds, including the robin, have taken to singing at night – a pretty unusual behaviour for these diurnal creatures. But, what could cause these unusual nocturnal outbursts?

Two main theories predominate the scientific literature. The first theory being that artificial lights in major human settlements confuse the birds into mistaking night for day, messing up their circadian clock and leading to this noisy nighttime behaviour. While a second theory proposes that this ‘night singing’ is actually a coping strategy used by birds in response to their noisy urban homes – to ensure they sing at times when they are guaranteed to be heard above the din of the city. Indeed, a study carried out in Sheffield found that robins nesting in louder areas of the city were more likely to sing at night than their more rural cousins. Although the jury is still out on which theory will win, one thing which seems certain is that robins are adapting to life alongside us.

Territory and aggression: One fact few people know about our friend robin redbreast 6824704107_9c476b6585_zis that in reality this feisty little fellow is far from the picture of peace and serenity we see on Christmas cards. Indeed, scientists have found that robins are, in fact, fiercely territorial and have been known to violently attack other robins who stray into their territory – especially in the winter months when food is scarce! Indeed, the birds iconic red breast is not used, as you may suspect, to attract a mate, but is actually war paint. Like a red rag to a bull, the territorial robin has been known to attack anything red and feathery which happens to appear in its territory.

However, there are exceptions to this rule. This year I have been watching a pair of robins foraging in my garden and it appears that these birds are pretty comfortable with each others company. Perhaps it’s the relative abundance of food left over by the mild winter which has sparked the social flame between my birds. However it is also possible that these birds are a pair. Both female and male robins sport the same red breast so, to us, are almost indistinguishable. Pairs of birds have been known to share territory and cooperate over the winter months, so perhaps I have a festive love story infolding in my garden this winter.

1965357845_f72c2e1632_zHuman interaction: Although robins don’t always play nicely together, when it comes to their interactions with us they certainly know which side their bread is buttered. Anyone who has turned over soil in their garden is likely to have noticed these worm-loving birds hovering close by, waiting to collect the wriggly spoils of the newly turned soil. Some patient individuals have even been able to exploit the trusting and curious nature of robins, ultimately encouraging birds to eat directly out of their hands – something I’d certainly like to try.

So now we know a little bit more about our feathered Christmas companions and hopefully have a better understanding of this enigmatic and iconic garden visitor.

Post by: Sarah fox.

Compassion, intuition and bonding, or why those with less give more

image1Christmas is a time to exchange gifts with friends and family. Those of us who haven’t completed their shopping yet will frantically try to do so within the next couple of days. This time of year is not, however, only about giving to our loved ones. Historically, Christmas has always been associated with good will and giving, not just to those we know, but to anyone in need. But, why do we do it and is giving something that only benefits the receivers?

Scientists have known for a while that helping others goes hand in hand with longer life and better health. Such improved well-being could be a result of the ‘stress-buffering’ effect of giving. For example, providing help improves our mood and caring for others is accompanied by the release of feel-good hormones (such as oxitocin and prolactin) and natural opioids. Indeed, older people who dedicate time to helping others, tend to cope much better with stressful life events such as illness, financial difficulties or death of a loved one.

image2We know that people on the lower end of the income ladder tend to give a greater proportion of their income to charities than the wealthy. Scientists have also found that people from lower social ranks are more generous towards strangers in distress and often have more trust in others. Considering that they have fewer resources, experience more daily stress and live in a more threatening environment, this seems like a paradox. There is, however, logic behind such charitable behaviour. Since people with lower incomes are less independent and have less control over their lives, they tend to rely more on others. Such interdependency encourages individuals to form stronger social bonds and makes us more attuned to the needs of others. It is these social connections that buffer those less affluent from stress, therefore encouraging them to invest more in their bonds with others.

Would it then be possible to increase empathy in order to encourage people to help others? It appears that the starting point in this process is self-compassion. Writing about a value that is important to us makes us feel more sympathy and love towards ourselves. As a result, we feel less threatened by others, less vulnerable to criticism and more inclined to be charitable.

Another psychological experience that affects giving is the use of intuition versus deliberation. It seems that the more we rely on intuition in decision making, the more cooperative our actions are. Intuitive thinking is faster and more emotional than rational deliberation and the more time we take to reflect, the more selfish our decisions become. Logic is cold indeed!

Does this mean that we are naturally generous, but that overthinking can cause us to override this instinct? Well, this could depend on the amount of cooperation required in our daily lives. We usually interact with the same people on a daily basis and, since we value our reputation, we try our best to maintain good relationship with these people. Perhaps this is particularly true if we are of lower social rank and therefore, more dependent on others. No wonder our automatic reaction would be to cooperate.

Does this mean we should rely on our generous intuition and  not spend too much time thinking about what to get our loved ones this Christmas? We can’t say; but, whatever we choose to do this year, what better time than the festive season to increase our bonds with others and help those in need?

Post by Jadwiga Nazimek


Lindsay, E.K., Creswell, J.D. (2014) Helping the self help others: self-affirmation increases self-compassion and pro-social behaviors. Frontiers in Psychology 5: 1-9.

Pulin, M.J., Brown, S.L., Dillard, A., Smith, D.M. (2013) Giving to Others and the Association Between Stress and Mortality. American Journal of Public Health 103: 1649-1655.

Piff, P.K., Kraus, M.W., Cote, S., Cheng, B.H., Keltner, D. (2010) Having Less, Giving More: The Influence of Social Class on Prosocial Behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 99 (5) 771–784.

Click to access Piffetal.pdf

Rand, D.G., Greene, J.D., Nowak, M.A. (2012) Spontaneous giving and calculated greed
Nature 489: 427-430.

Click to access Greene_Rand_and_Nowak_Spontaneous_Giving_Calculated_Greed.pdf

Jetlag: the ultimate holiday blues

image1Holidays are coming… Holidays are coming… And for most of us this means a few festive weeks in cosy England. However an annoyingly smug few will be flying off on long journeys this Christmas. Despite living in an age where crossing multiple time zones can be done with ease, our bodies have yet to catch up,  leaving us unable to fully cope with long-distance flights. So this Christmas many jetsetters will be given an unwanted present … the dreaded jet lag.

Jetlag: a growing 21st century problem

Jetlag is when your body struggles to adjust to a new time zone, leaving you feeling tired and confused. While symptoms generally wear off after a couple of days, it has been suggested jetlag may have long term cognitive effects.

The condition is due to changes to your internal body clock, which is regulated by the circadian rhythm.  Set over a 24 hour period, a tiny collection of cells in the brain called the hypothalamic suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) anticipate night and day. This master body clock co-ordinates with other body clocks within organs and tissues, controlling everything from our appetite to blood pressure.   Therefore, it is no surprise that when we disturb our circadian rhythm by crossing one of the world’s 24 different time zones, our bodies take a while to adjust to a new routine.


The simplicity of taking long flights has resulted in millions of people undertaking these journeys each year, with rates increasing annually. Currently, the longest commercial flight lasts around 16 hours and stretches 13,790km between Sydney and Dallas, longer than a non-stop bird migration.  Constant advances in aviation therefore mean that there is a developing need to overcome the detrimental effects of the so called “first world problem” that is jet lag.

Current treatment for jetlag

image3At this time no direct treatment exists, with passengers undertaking several behavioural adjustments to minimise the effects. These include avoiding caffeine and alcohol during the trip and establishing a local routine immediately upon arrival by avoiding napping and spending time outdoors.  Personally, I can concur these tricks are often very inconvenient. Having to remain awake until a normal bedtime following landing in the UK at 7:30am from New York was not ideal the day before Leeds Festival!

However, treatment may soon be available. Evidence has suggested that the consumption of melatonin could be ideal in overcoming jet lag. The circadian rhythm works by the SCN interacting with other areas of the brain, influencing neurohumoral activity. This includes regulating the production of hormones – such as melatonin- by the pineal gland.

Is melatonin the solution for jetlag?

image4Melatonin is the most well-known chronobiotic, a class of time-shifting drugs that alter circadian rhythms.  Produced during the evening when it begins to get dark, with levels peaking during the night, melatonin helps you sleep by causing drowsiness as well as lowering body temperature, heart rate and blood pressure. While not licensed at the moment, short term melatonin treatment appears to be both safe and remarkably effective in reducing /preventing jetlag.

With melatonin having obvious therapeutic potential, drug companies are keen to overcome its restricted access through the development of substances which act in a similar manner: so-called melatonin agonists. Ramelteon is the first in this new class of drugs to be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for long-term treatment of sleep disorders, with many others in various stages of clinical trials.

Future of flying

The severity of jetlag is dependent on many things, including the length of the flight, numbers of time zones crossed and even the direction (hint for your next holiday: avoid travelling west-to-east!).  So while more work is needed to figure out the correct treatment plans for the drugs highlighted above, it appears flying long distances may soon become a breeze.

Post by: Claire Wilson.

Alcohol – The Biology behind the Buzz

Our relationship with alcohol is complicated – to say the least. Not everyone can hold their drink, some hold one way too often, and some don’t even get a buzz. Truth be told, we’re only just starting to get the gist of how alcohol “works”.

Alcohol: The stimulating depressant

image1As you may already know, alcohol is classified as a ‘depressant’. This is based on the fact that when someone develops a tolerance to valium – the ultimate archetype of depressants – they simultaneously build up a tolerance to alcohol. Valium, like most depressants, targets receptors for GABA – the main inhibitory signalling molecule in the brain.

This is where things get shaky.  The concentration you’d need to activate these GABA receptors with alcohol (0.33mL/L) is just above the amount that makes you embarrassingly pass out in your own vomit (0.3mL/L). Why then, do we get tipsy from just one glass of wine (I know I’m not just speaking for myself here)? And is tipsiness even the same thing as being drunk?

Researchers took a closer look at GABA receptors. These are made of 5 building blocks, the combination of which differs from receptor to receptor. One particularly rare building block – the so-called delta receptor – happens to respond to very low levels of alcohol. The scientists who discovered it even call it the “one glass of wine” receptor (click the link if you don’t believe me).

Using a method called PET, researchers tracked which areas of the brain are more or less active when we are drunk. They injected volunteers with radioactive sugar (it’s not nearly as dangerous as it sounds) and tracked which parts of the brain use it. It was no surprise that the three areas responsible for coordinated movement, rational thought and memory (the cerebellum, prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, respectively) were ever so slightly tuned down after drinking. Also, it just so happens that the “one glass of wine” receptors are found in exactly these three brain areas. So, that would explain why we lumber from one bad decision to another (and forget the worst ones) when we’ve had a bottle or more.

The buzz part seems to be related to higher levels of noradrenaline when we drink. This only tends to happen when our blood alcohol content (BAC) is on the rise, leading to greater impulsivity. Once it tapers off, the effects are reversed: we feel confused, tired, restless and down – and alcohol starts acting like a depressant again.

Drinking Culture – of Monkeys and Men
image2Scientists were lucky to stumble across the perfect model for human drinking culture – on St. Kitts in the Caribbean of all places (talk about serendipity).
The model specimens in question are vervet monkeys, who were brought to the Caribbean over 300 years ago and have developed a curious relationship with alcohol.
Back in the day, vervet monkeys would sample fermented sugar cane from the rum plantations; the modern day vervet prefers cocktails, sneakily stolen from sleeping tourists on the beach front.

image3Most vervet monkeys drink in moderation; so-called “social drinkers”. Roughly 5% -given the open bar that is the lab – will readily drink themselves into a coma. 12% are steady drinkers (unlike the alcoholics, they know their limits), while one in ten is a teetotaller – indulging in soft drinks only.
This distribution is strikingly similar to what we observe in humans. And the similarities run far deeper than that. Like humans, the social drinkers will avoid alcohol before noon and prefer their alcohol mixed in sweet drinks, while the heavy drinkers like to start their day with a drink – and prefer it straight.

image4Vervets have helped researchers understand the genetics behind alcohol preference – it appears we inherit it directly from our parents. In fact, you can predict an animal’s future relationship with alcohol based on levels of neurotransmitter metabolites in its cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) before it’s had its very first cocktail.

Researchers have also noticed a two way relationship between personality and alcohol preference – anxious monkeys don’t drink and those who drink become more anxious.

Towards the end, the researchers pointed out one difference between vervet and human drinking culture: the social status attached to it. In vervets, steady and heavy bingers almost always outdrank the more responsible drinkers. Glancing at tabloid socialites, University sports clubs and most English public school students I’ve met – we may be more like monkeys than they think.

Post by: Isabel Hutchison


Science Communication in Manchester

The British Science Association (BSA) 2015 Science Communication Conference will be held on the 18th and 19th June at Manchester Metropolitan University – the first time that the conference will have been held up t’North.

The ingenious Sir David Brewster, whose scientific achievements were matched only by his mutton chops.
The ingenious Sir David Brewster, whose scientific achievements were matched only by his mutton chops.

The British Association for the Advancement of Science, as it was then known, was founded in York on 27 September 1831, following a suggestion by the great Scottish polymath Sir David Brewster, who chose York for the first meeting of the British Association “as the most central city in the three kingdoms”. This was the first of a series of annual meetings that has continued for over 150 years. The first meeting to take place in Manchester was in 1842, since then our glorious city has hosted another four, with the last one coming in 1962.

Perhaps the best remembered of all these meetings was at Oxford in 1860, where the English biologist Thomas Huxley debated Darwinism with the then Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce. Huxley’s speech ended with him stating that he was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but that he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth, a reference to the rhetoric skill, yet perhaps clouded judgement, of his opponent.

In many ways, Manchester is the perfect host city for the Science Communication

A caricature of Thomas Huxley, from a 19th Century edition of Vanity Fair.
A caricature of Thomas Huxley, from a 19th Century edition of Vanity Fair.

Conference, not only because of the astounding number of scientists* that it has produced and nurtured, but also because of its commitment to communicating science in all of its various forms and guises – from the Manchester Beacon Network to the Manchester Science Festival.

The 2015 Science Communication Conference will be a wonderful opportunity for all aspiring Brewsters and Huxleys to come and share new ideas from across culture and society, with sessions available for a range of experience levels; from those looking for an introduction to science communication, to experts who want to have in-depth discussions about issues facing the sector. The key topics for the 2015 conference are: communicating through play, science communication for the public good, crowdsourcing, and telling stories with complex science & big data.

From Dalton to Novoselov and all in between, Manchester has been at the forefront of the science scene.
From Dalton to Novoselov and all in between, Manchester has been at the forefront of the science scene.

The call for proposals for sessions at the 2015 Science Communication Conference is now open, with an online form open to anyone who wants to propose a session that they would like to help organise. The deadline for proposals is 9th January 2015, so get submitting!

A handy set of FAQs to the conference can be found here; let’s all work together to ensure that Manchester is able to demonstrate why it is at the forefront of communicating science in this country.

Post by Sam Illingworth

* For my money the Oxford Road corridor must have hosted the highest number of aspirational scientists – from John Dalton & William Sturgeon to Andre Geim & Kostya Novoselov – per square mile in the UK.

Why is Snake Venom so variable?

Based on a presentation by Dr. Wolfgang Wüster (Bangor University) – 12/03/13

Saw-scaled Viper (Echis carinatus) (Photo credit: Frupus)
Saw-scaled Viper (Echis carinatus) (Photo credit: Frupus)

I hate snakes. I’m just going to say it from the start; they scare the living daylights out of me. I’d have been living with one if my girlfriend hadn’t noticed the colour drain from my face when she mentioned buying one. And yet, for reasons I cannot explain, I went along to a seminar yesterday all about venomous snakes! I’m glad I did though – Dr. Wolfgang Wüster talked about them with great energy and enthusiasm, getting quite a few laughs along the way, and, most importantly, piquing the entire lecture theatre’s interest. I found the talk so engaging that I’ve decided to share what I learned here.

Snake venoms are mixtures of toxins, usually consisting of tens to hundreds of the poisonous proteins. This obviously allows for a great degree of variation in nature as different venoms contain different combinations of toxins and quantities thereof. As you’d expect, lots of different species of snake have different toxins; however, the variation can go all the way down to differences between members of the same species. In fact, in some species, an adult’s venom can be different to its venom as an infant. This wide range of venoms has an equally diverse range of effects on prey, resulting in paralysis, haemorrhages, and massive cell death and tissue damage, amongst other things. Upon explaining this in the talk, Dr. Wüster took great pleasure in showing some truly disgusting images – remember; I go through the pains of Science so you don’t have to!

Common symptoms of any kind of snake bite poisoning (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Common symptoms of any kind of snake bite poisoning (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The main question of the talk was that of what causes this variation in venom composition. It’s probable that this all depends on what individual venoms are used for, which, in the majority of cases is overpowering and killing prey. Diet in snakes is an example of a ‘selective pressure’. This is where something affects the survival of a population, thus encouraging evolution of that population to overcome the stress.

Diet, as a selective pressure, acts upon many characteristics of venom. For example, the volume of venom stored in a snake’s glands is usually only enough to kill enough prey to survive. As such, snakes requiring a greater food intake or those that kill larger prey will produce more venom than those that consume less food. The overriding reason for this is that producing venom requires energy, so the minimal amount necessary is made and used.

Dr. Wüster’s group saw an interesting example of this in a model system of 4 species of Saw-scaled Vipers. Whilst most snakes eat vertebrates (animals with a backbone), these vipers also eat arthropods (invertebrates with exoskeletons and segmented bodies, such as scorpions and spiders). The 4 species differ greatly in the ratios of arthropods and vertebrates that they eat, yet all 4 species take 2 to 3 bites to kill scorpions, taking their time to see how much venom is necessary to subdue their prey. This may be evidence of economy of usage of venom, meaning that these model organisms have evolved to favour potent, rather than voluminous, venom to reduce the amount required.

Anatomy of a venomous snake’s head (Photo Credit: How Stuff Works)
Anatomy of a venomous snake’s head (Photo Credit: How Stuff Works)

Prey resistance also plays a role in determining the volume of venom a snake produces, as well as the potency of that venom. For example, Moray Eels that live in the same regions as Sea Snakes have evolved resistance to the snakes’ venom. As a direct consequence of this the snakes have evolved to produce and release more of it to compensate.

In conclusion, Dr. Wüster presented compelling evidence that venom composition differs based on dietary requirements. Different combinations of toxins affect different preys, and different snakes need their venoms to have different harmful effects. The ‘arms race’ that develops from predator-prey relationships, whereby the prey evolves to resist the venom and the snake evolves to counteract this, also drives diversification. Finally, using venom economically seems to be a very important factor in these predators. Dr Wüster explained that future work would take a detailed look at the genetics behind venom variation, studying the genes encoding toxins and the variation that exists therein. I, for one, look forward to hearing about their findings, even if it does mean spending more time looking at pictures and videos of snakes…

This post, by author Ian Wilson, was kindly donated by the Scouse Science Alliance and the original text can be found here.