Dr Soulsbury’s research featured at NHM symposium

On the 11th and 12th of November 2017 London’s Natural History Museum hosted HumaNature, a co-sponsored conference between World Extreme Medicine (WEM), the Society for Experimental Biology, brought together experts in the fields of medicine and animal physiology. Our School’s Senior Lecturer, Dr Carl Soulsbury, delivered a talk about his extensive research. 

The symposium was established by WEM’s founder Mark Hannaford and Prof. Craig Franklin- Deputy Head of the School of Biological Sciences / Executive Director of Research Ethics, University of Queensland. The 2 day event provided an opportunity for attendees to share research, best practice and techniques between the worlds of human and animal medicine.

A summary of Dr Soulsbury’s talk can be found below.

Exercising to the limit (and more) in birds

Many organisms carry out exercise as part of their daily lives, be it through behaviours such as finding food, reproducing or avoiding predators. In birds, many species carry out impressive physical feats such as long distance migration, flying at high altitudes, through to intense, energetically expensive mating displays. Exercise can be viewed both in terms of its intensity and its duration. It is the combination of these that determines how physiologically stressful exercise is. In this talk, I compare the relative contribution of duration and intensity of exercise as determinants of exercise’s costs, and how this in turn impacts individual ageing. Using systems where the amount of intensive exercise pushes individuals to their physiological limits, I demonstrate its negative effect on individual physiology and survival. By using comparisons found in nature, it can provide critical insights into the effects of intense and extreme exercise on the human body.

A podcast featuring a selection of the speakers, including Dr Soulsbury, can be found online (credit to Ben Cattaneo of ‘Allthingsrisk’).


Wildlife in built-up areas: undervalued in our urban ecosystems

Urban wildlife such as deer, foxes and badgers should be cherished for the ecological benefits they bring to towns and cities, rather than feared as potentially harmful pests, scientists argue in a new report.

The review, published in the scientific journal Wildlife Research, states that in order for humans and animals to live successfully side-by-side in built-up areas, a cultural shift is required for the public to fully appreciate the integral role that wildlife performs in urban ecosystems.

Much of the public dialogue about larger urban wildlife currently focuses on the risk of disease, pollution and threat to property or pets, rather than the positive contribution these animals can make.

Lead author Dr Carl Soulsbury, a conservation biologist based in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln, UK, said: “While promoting education about urban wildlife and its risks is important, the benefit wildlife brings to urban areas is often poorly communicated. It includes benefits such as regulating and supporting the ecosystem, through to improving human health and wellbeing.

“We need to identify ways to maximise the benefits, in particular increasing the accessibility of natural green spaces and promoting interactions with wildlife as a form of nature-based therapy. It is only through such an integrative approach that we can advance our understanding of how to live successfully alongside wildlife in an increasingly urbanised world.”

The researchers detail how urban wildlife can provide a range of benefits to human health and quality of life which are often undervalued or overlooked. For instance, there is a growing body of evidence that indicates the presence and viewing of urban wildlife is beneficial for human mental health and psychological wellbeing.

Urban animals also regulate and support the ecosystems of towns and cities. Many creatures serve as important predators of pest species – for example, songbirds help to control insect populations and predatory birds help rodent control.

But as urban human populations continue to grow, so too does the chance of ‘human-wildlife’ conflict, the researchers warn.

These conflicts occur when the activities of wildlife, whether through aggression, nuisance behaviour such as bin emptying or the spread of parasites or infectious diseases, have a negative effect on humans. Most such problems are minor, but can be distressing to individuals and tend to shape attitudes of the public and authorities.

Dr Soulsbury added: “The main problem is that many of the benefits of living alongside urban wildlife are difficult to quantify. However, we do know that the presence of wildlife gives people an opportunity to connect directly with nature at a local level. This is becoming particularly important in our increasingly urban society where humans are becoming more remote from the natural environment.

“More work is needed to better understand the role of urban wildlife and urban biodiversity in general, in the promotion of mental health and its greater role as a recreational and cultural ecosystem service. To do so wildlife biologists will need to work with other research disciplines including economics, public health, sociology, ethics, psychology and planning.”

Drivers of sexual traits: age and a whole lot more

Many male animals have multiple displays and behaviours to attract females; and often the larger or greater the better.

Understanding what has driven the evolution of these traits is an important evolutionary question.

A new study spearheaded by Matti Kervinen at the University of Jyvaskyla, Finland, working with Carl Soulsbury from the University of Lincoln, UK; Christophe Lebigre, Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium and Heli Siitari, University of Jyvaskyla, has revealed that these sexual traits are strongly age-dependent in black grouse.

The results have now been published in The American Naturalist journal.

The team explored how seven different morphological and behavioural traits were expressed across male’s lives in this spectacular lekking bird, the black grouse. Black grouse have a particularly interesting mating system called a lek, where large groups of male grouse gather in open areas and display to the females. Females come to these sites to choose a mate.

Using a long-term study of black grouse in central Finland, the researchers showed that these sexual traits are strongly age-dependent in black grouse. Expression increased with age to peak values at the peak of their reproductive effort (approximately 3-4 years old) before declining.

At the same time there were differences as to where this peak occurred depending on the male’s lifespan: long-lived males had lower trait expression at young ages and delayed upper limits in trait values compared to short-lived males.

Furthermore, males increased their investment into the expression of these traits as they reach the end of their life.

Finally, the team looked at how the expression of these traits related to the amount of effort put into reproducing.

These results reveal the combined importance of age, life span and individual scheduling of reproduction in driving trait expression. Accounting for these factors is therefore crucial to understanding how these traits have evolved and could explain the substantial variation observed in the sexually-selected traits in male black grouse and other species with weaker sexual selection.

Matti Kervinen, Christopher Lebigre, Rauno V. Alatalo, Heli Siitari, Carl D. Soulsbury ‘Life history differences in age-dependant expression of multiple ornaments and behaviours in a lekking bird’ The American Naturalist http://www.jstor.org/stable/info/10.1086/679012

New research sheds light on disease transmission in red foxes

A team of researchers has modelled the likely transmission methods for mange in foxes, for the first time.
Sarcoptic mange (Sarcoptes scabiei) is a common parasitic disease of wild and domestic animals and is known to decimate populations.

It is particularly common in wild canid species and has caused well known outbreaks in red foxes around the world. One of the best studied mange outbreaks occurred in urban foxes in Bristol.

A new study by Dr Carl Soulsbury at the University of Lincoln, with Dr Eleanor Devenish-Nelson, Dr Shane Richards, and Dr Phil Stephens at the University of Durham and Professor Stephen Harris at the University of Bristol, has modelled the likely transmission methods and pathways for the first time.

Contrary to expectations, disease transmission was not dependent on density (density-dependent transmission); when transmission rates increase with density of a population.

Instead epidemiological models more strongly support frequency-dependent transmission; meaning transmission rates do not change with density.

This is likely because fox behaviours limit interactions between and within fox social groups, and contrast with other species with less strict social groupings.

This new understanding of how mange can spread in populations will be crucial in managing this poorly understood but highly contagious and economically damaging disease.

Devenish-Nelson ES, Richards SA, Harris S, Soulsbury C, Stephens PA. 2014 ‘Demonstrating frequency-dependent transmission of sarcoptic mange in red foxes’ Biology Letters 10 : 20140524.

New research suggest red foxes are two species

Dr Carl Soulsbury, from the School of Life Sciences, was part of a team whose research sheds new light on the origin of red foxes.

Red foxes are the most widely distributed living land carnivore, being found across the northern hemisphere and with an introduced range including Australia. They show extreme ecological flexibility in where they live, ranging from the centres of urban areas through to deserts.

Historically, red foxes were split into two separate species, the Eurasian red fox Vulpes vulpes and the North American red fox Vulpes fulva. North American red foxes look superficially similar to Eurasian red foxes, but differ morphologically including being smaller.

However, based on morphological characters these species were later merged into one. Now a large global multi-institution study led by the University of California and including Dr Soulsbury from the University of Lincoln have sampled and carried out DNA analysis on red foxes collected from all parts of the world.

The results, published in the journal Molecular Ecology show that red foxes first evolved in the Middle East. It also showed that North American foxes diverged from Eurasian red foxes relatively quickly afterwards – approximately 400,000 years ago – and have been largely isolated from each other throughout the subsequent ice age cycles. This new work suggests that the original split of red foxes into two species is correct, and the North American red foxes should be designated as Vulpes fulva.

Statham, M. J., Murdoch, J., Janecka, J., Aubry, K. B., Edwards, C. J., Soulsbury, C. D., Sacks, B. N. (2014). Range‐wide multilocus phylogeography of the red fox reveals ancient continental divergence, minimal genomic exchange and distinct demographic histories. Molecular Ecology, 23(19), 4813-4830.