Biology Without Borders

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The Shape Shifting Frog

Camouflage is a very important tool for those animals wanting to escape predators. There are some animals that have complex forms that make them harder to discern from their environment, such as stick-insects. Others can quickly change their colours to match their background, such as the ocotopuses. Now two researchers, Katherine and Tim Krynak, have found a new species of frog that can change its skin texture to mimic the surface it is standing on.

This incredible frog was found in 2009 at the Reserva Las Gralarias in Mindo, Ecuador. Located on the western slope of the Andes, this cloud forest was turned into a reserve to help preserve the endangered birds of the region. They caught the spiky-backed frog while surverying the area, then they put it in a cup filled with moss and brought it back to camp to photograph. It was to their great surprise that when the frog was placed on a smooth surface for its photoshoot, its skin wasn’t spiky anymore, it was just as smooth as the surface. The frog could change its skin texture in about three minutes.

Image taken from Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. It shows the frog’s change in skin texture from spiky to smooth in over 5 minutes.

For the next three years, the frogs were studied in the Universidad Tecnológica Indoamérica in Ecuador and it was found to be a new species, which was named Pristimantis mutabilis. Further research showed that Pristimantis sobetes, another frog with similar markings but much larger than P. mutabilis, also had this shape shifting trait. P. sobetes is the only relative tested so far.

This find is very exciting for herpetologists, not only because of this recently discovered trait in frogs but also because it challenges old descriptions of other frog species (especially other rain frogs) that may have been identified by few preserved specimens. This is also a surprising new trait for the zoology community, never before seen in amphibians. The researchers want to continue their work by investigating if these two species of Pristimantis evolved independently their skin texture trait or inherited it from a common ancestor, also if other Pristimantis frogs also have this trait.


Guayasamin, J. M., Krynak, T., Krynak, K., Culebras, J. and Hutter, C. R. (2015), Phenotypic plasticity raises questions for taxonomically important traits: a remarkable new Andean rainfrog (Pristimantis) with the ability to change skin texture. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 173: 913–928. doi: 10.1111/zoj.12222

(the link may be broken so here it is directly:

Henrique Ramalho Martins

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Reintroduction of the Bison

500 years ago, there were 30 million wild bison to be found roaming North America. By the end of the 1800s, there were only a thousand. I won’t go into detail of how that happened because it is a story for another time, but I will show a picture to illustrate just to what extent they were being hunted.

Pile of American bison skulls to be used for fertilizer in the mid-1870s. Image taken from Wikipedia.

Luckily, environmental organizations and dedicated people are trying to repopulate the wild bison in North America. By now, there’s around 20 thousand wild bison roaming public lands in the United States, and over 150 thousand in private property. The Chicago Tribune is reporting another attempt at bison reintroduction in the northern United States.

The state of Illinois has been one of the states that has seen the return of the bison, in October of last year the Nature Conservancy brought 30 bison to the Nachusa Grasslands west of Chicago. It was brought as a conservation herd to help with the restoration of the the prairie, now Illinois wants to reintroduce wild bison to the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie for the same purpose.

Locations of the two reserves in relation to the city of Chicago, IL. Image taken from Chicago Tribune website.

The Midewin officials aim to restore the tallgrass prairie to its former glory, using the newly reintroduced bison to help restore native vegetation, which in order will help maintain a more suitable habitat for the grassland birds. Since 1997, Midewin has used domestic cattle to graze the grasslands to manage its vegetation, however cattle will graze on just about any plant while bison are selective in their grazing. This different grazing habit will help the bisons create a habitat similar to what it was in the prairie before the bison were hunted out of the area.

The reintroduction of the bison will be a 20 year experiment, it aims to improve the diversity of the prairie’s fauna and flora. The bison will live in fenced off pastures to be watched by visitors and also só the caretakers have an easier time handling them. It will work much in the same way as it does in the Nachusa Grasslands.

It’s too soon to say if the bison are helping with the restoration of the prairie, however the bison are thriving, none have escaped and there are many bison calves being born. If the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone in 1995 is any indication, this bison experiment will be a success and the prairies will see a return of the bird species that come to the northern US during spring and also a more diverse flora. The trophic cascade in Yellowstone was much more nuanced, however the bison will surely affect the development of the specific plants necessary for a healthy habitat for the birds natural to the region.

A simple video explanation of the trophic cascade phenomenon in the Yellowstone Park by ‘Sustainable Human’:


For those interested in what happened in Yellowstone, here’s some papers found on Google Scholar:



Henrique Ramalho Martins

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The Call of The Wild

Ever since I was a kid, I had a big interest in animals and their behaviour. From domestic animals such as dogs and cats to crocodiles, hawks and apes, I have always loved watching animals and their particularities. I have worked with animals before, be it collecting on the field or dog training in the city, but this last year I was given the great opportunity to finally start working in behaviour research.

Since September of this past year (2014), I have worked on Ben Chapman’s laboratory group at the University of Nottingham with my friend Rafael (whom you may know from these posts on this very blog!). Luckily the focus of my research is a bit different from his so I won’t have to repeat that much of what he has already talked about here. Just as he said, the project we are developing is about why “individuals of the same species vary in their behaviour and life-history”.

At first, we conducted trials with two populations of sticklebacks to learn the ins and outs of the tests we will run in Scotland with the wild fish. It was very tiring some days but it felt good to be working on something I love. My aquarium was much simpler than Rafael’s because the personality trait I chose to do research on was Boldness, I also only needed one fish per test. Here’s my beloved aquarium during one of the tests:

Aside from one fish dying before we could run its second trial, the trials went really well and we had lots of data to analyse during winter break. The spreadsheets filled up beautifully, but now we will go do fieldwork in Scotland during the Easter Break in April. It will be the time to use all our knowledge acquired from the laboratory work, and from all the papers on animal behaviour and animal personality that we read so far.

In Scotland, I will be trapping stickleback fish from several different places on a stream running from the centre of the island towards the sea. I will take them back to our laboratory located on the island and run the boldness trials. I will also measure them and collect data on their armour. I hope to show the relationship between their different physical attributes and their individual personality traits.

During the research for the Literature Review I noticed how young, although also very developed, the field of animal personality is. I hope this research can further help the growing number of papers in the area. Hopefully, I will contribute much more to behaviour research in the years to come.

Henrique Ramalho Martins

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Logbook – Cap. 1

In a recent post, I wrote about the importance of researches in Animal Personality. In fact, it is an interesting topic, but I have to do my “mea culpa” and explicit the real reason: I am working with it!

Since September 2014, I have been working as part of Ben Chapman laboratory group in University of Nottingham. The project that we are developing tries to understand why “individuals of the same species vary in their behaviour and life-history” and in my research, I have been testing two Sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus) populations from different places to address this question.

But why I am doing this? If you want to know more about the importance of studing Animal Behaviour and Personality, I suggest you to read my old post: “Animal Personality – Why is this important?”. As I said, there I analyzed the importance and the relevance of studies with Animal’s Personality.

Now the research work begins with its main challenge of getting the knowledge and background about the area which can be sometimes really difficult and time consuming when it is a recent research field or not very well explored. Luckly that was not the case. Thereby I have read several papers and I also did a Literature Review to summarize and put together all the important informations that I have found so far and that could guide my theorical basis throughout the research processes and procedures.

The second step was to choose the specific personality trait that each of the students working on this current research at the laboratory would like to work with. Between boldness, exploration and social traits I chose social one and that was because I found this the most interesting topic to work whit.

My research, basically, seeks to know if the individuals of the Sticklebacks population prefer to live alone or in group and compare the different populations.

The next steps were to create an aquarium. After some difficulties to build the perfect aquarium that suits for the research, it was time to start my trials. Trials are necessary to get used to all the equipments, especially to the video cameras, minimizing errors due to handling. Also, doing that I would be able to face possible problems that could arise during the process.

11103892_805826419497118_909823830_nTaking a good picture is most difficult than building an aquarium

After some adaptations in the light system due to water reflection, the trials were finally performed. Below you can see a frame of the video test.

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 02.36.14

The research is now in progress and the next step will be to go to a fieldwork in Scotland during April where I will use the knowledge gained in the laboratory to study the natural populations of the island. Once the results are coming, I will update the blog with new posts, where I also will explain the methodology of the experiment.

Finally, doing a research during academic year is not easy. To deal with all the time scheduling and to be organized in every single step are the key things in order to not lose any detail and at the end to find the best and reliable conclusion. But after all that, what I can really tell is that it worth it. All the knowledge and responsibility that come with a research, independently of the field, is counted either in your curriculum or in your personal life. Above all, the people that you get to know and to see how group work is done towards a real project is a priceless expirence.

Rafael Arnoni Trovó

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Perspectives of Animal Testing

Animal Testing in a normal daily conversation would be equivalent to topics such as politics, sports and religion, considered too controversial to be discussed. The difference is that instead of simply avoiding them as there will be no agreement, in biological science arguments and conclusions are based on facts and evidences not shallow or personal opinion. And that is why discussions especially about controversial subjects are intrinsic in order to increase and spread knowledge.

Philosophic and Ethics Approaches

As any other controversial topic, there are two positions when it comes to animal experiments. They were defined by the philosopher Lori Gruen as utilitarians and abolitionists. The first one is concerned with “maximising pleasure and minimizing pain for all those affected by any given action”. In others words, animal experimentation can be considered ethically acceptable when human benefits are gained and they could not be obtained by other methods. One of the most popular utilitarian philosophers about animal rights is Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University. He has written Animal Liberation where he argues that humans and other animals should be treated in accordance with the principle of equality, what does not mean that they should receive the same treatment, but that should be considered equal, respecting their limitations, demands and welfare. He is also against “speciesism” a term that he defines as “prejudice or attitude of bias in behalf of the interests of members of own species and against those of members of other species”.

The second group, abolitionist, never consider animal testing ethically justifiable as it uses a living being as an object of study for their own purposes, even if the result of this experiment would end more suffering than it would cause. They also argument that no benefits to human being are proven and there would be always other ways instead of animal testing.

Law and Statistics Approaches

The most recent publication of the Annual Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals produced by the Home Office compares the number of procedures between the years of 1995 and 2013 in Great Britain. It shows that it increased by 52%. However, at the same period, procedures involving dogs, non-human primates, cats and horses decreased by 23%. Mice, fish and rats were the most commonly used species in 2013, with approximately 3.8 million procedures.

In the UK, these are the animals testing figures in average:

Rodents 84%
Fish, amphibians, reptiles 12%
Large mammals 2.1%
Small mammals 1.4%
Dogs and cats 0.3%
Primates 0.1%

The numbers of procedures for safety testing (toxicology) decreased by 0.5% to 375,000. A similar proportion to 2012 were undertaken to meet at least one legislative/regulatory requirement (92% compared with 94%).

Research using animals is required and at the same time controlled and regulated by The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, Amendment Regulations 2012 (ASPA). As it says, any new drug must be tested on at least two different species of live mammal, one of which must be a large non-rodent. This intends to avoid such cases as ‘Thalidomide’ to happen again. The drug started to be marketed in 1957 in Germany. It claimed to cure anxiety, insomnia, gastritis, and tension. Afterwards, it was also used against nausea and to alleviate morning sickness in pregnant women. But shortly after the drug was sold between 5,000 and 7,000 infants were born with phocomelia (malformation of the limbs). Only 40% of these children survived. Throughout the world, about 10,000 cases were reported. Only 50% of them survived. This mainly happened because only rats and mice were used in the tests and they were immune to its adverse effects. No carcinogenicity was demonstrated.

Although, the British laws also insists that no animal experiments can be conducted if there is a realistic alternative way to do it. It is required three Home Office licenses to start a new experiment that involves testing on animals – for the institution, the scientist and the project itself. They must outline the potential benefits of the research project as well by weighting them against the likely cost to the animal’s wellbeing.

Random inspections and on-site vets are mandatory. And great apes, such as chimpanzees, cannot be used in experiments.


Despite all the discussions, arguments and complexity of this theme, it is agreed that no useless harm or suffering in vain should be done to any animal. However as the technologies are still being developed, the animals testing are still in considerable numbers. In order to reduce the impact of research on animals, it was created a set of principles called ‘The three Rs’, which are:

Reduction: reducing the number of animals used in experiments by e.g. improving experimental techniques, improving techniques of data analysis, sharing information with other researches.

Refinement: refining the experiment or the way the animals are cared to avoid or minimize their suffering by e.g. using anesthetic drugs when doing invasive procedures, better medical care and living conditions.

Replacement:  replacing experiments on animals with alternative techniques.

There are plenty of new technologies either ready to use or under development to replace some of the procedures using animals. They can be easily found on the internet and researches are encouraged to look for them also in articles, dissertations or scientific releases before starting a new experiment.

As one of the recent examples we have “organs-on-chips” created by the Harvard’s Wyss Institute. They are microengineering devices that are lined by human cells, simulating the structure and function of human organs and organ systems and as result they can reconstitute organ level functions. They can therefore be can be used in druging tests, disease research and toxicity testing.

Learn more:

Extract from: extracted from:

Rafael Arnoni Trovó


Animal Personality – Why is this important?


Have you ever wondered why animals from the same population can display different personalities? Why some individuals are more aggressive or social than others? Last but not least: Why should you worry about all that?

Animal behaviour is a field in which humans have always showed curiosity and interest. Studies have been done since the beginning of the twentieth century and despite being a young field, their relevance in researches has increased substantially in the last decades. Over the years, many researchers from different areas have been contributing for the development of new studies, experiments and theories, which is important to the consolidation and expansion of the area. Here in this discussion, the focus will be just in non-humans animals, in despite of some researches, specially in primates, provides new perspectives for the analysis of behaviour in humans.

Nowadays, several theories have been proposed to explain how variation in personality is maintained in natural populations. Many are discussed in “Réale, D., & Dingemanse, N. J. (2012). Animal personality. eLS.”, an excellent paper that worth the reading for those who want to understand more about Animal Personality, not just the mechanisms that maintain different personalities between individuals, but all the background related to this subject and moreover, how scientists measure personality. The most famous theories can be summarised in:

1) Personality differences are linked to life history traits and energetics demand in many species;

2) Environmental conditions can change fitness performance in terms of survival and reproduction (e.g. variation in food abundance, predation pressures, population density);

3) Fitness performance is frequency-dependent. In other words: in a population where too many individuals are aggressive, being unaggressive can be at a fitness advantage, for example;

4) Selection can favor specific combinations of traits, also called correlational selection. In this case a combination of different traits has influence on an individual’s fitness.

Ok. The theories are set, but why is studying personality important?

Studies show that individual behaviour differences are fundamental to divers ecological processes and can affect the social structure and the social functioning in groups and populations. Processes such as dispersion, migration, mate-choice parental investment among many others that influence directly on animal’s life.

Understanding animal behaviour is extremely important to provide knowledge to development strategies on environmental conservation. For example, knowledge of animal foraging behaviour can lead to an understanding of forest regeneration, because many animals act as seed dispersers and are essential for the propagation of tree species and habitat preservation.

The conservation of endangered species requires knowledge about natural behaviour of these species (migratory patterns, range size, interactions with other groups, demands of foraging, reproductive behaviour, communication etc.) to create effective reserves. With the growing importance of environmental programs and management, animal behaviour research becomes increasingly important.

Through personality’s studies scientists can perceive patterns and forecast situations that can help us to understand better the animals, how they live and how we can improve our conservation action to increase their quality of life.

Rafael Arnoni Trovó

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The arguable cloning process

Since Dolly the sheep, cloning has always been a controversial topic and discussions on the use of clones for food and genetically modified animals are frequent.

Dolly, the sheep, first mammal cloned from an adult cell (Credits: BBC News UK)

Dolly, the sheep, first mammal cloned from an adult cell (Credits: BBC UK News)

Cloning is the process of creating new organisms that are exact genetic copies from a single “parent” organism. Although geneticists have said that it is basically “an extension of the process by which twins arise in nature” and consequently there’s no need to worry about its safety in terms of food or modified organisms, cloned animals can face many problems. These problems may include obesity, seizures, tumors, severe cardiovascular problems, thymus problems and joint problems.

Also, there is a good amount of groups that oppose the use of food genetically modified, including Center for Food Safety, Consumers Union and Humane Society of the United States. Besides that, it can cause unnecessary suffering to the animals involved.

On the other hand, science has shown promising results when it comes to clones created to help humans prevent diseases. Researchers in Texas A&M University have already created this type of animals in collaboration with a company called rEVO Biologics. However, since cloning is such a tough task, experimental and requires not only skill but also luck, it’s easy to say that the benefits of this artificial process are still questionable and not satisfactory.