Alison Campbell

Senior University of Waikato biological sciences lecturer Dr Alison Campbell is well known in the Waikato and Bay of Plenty for promoting science to community groups and school students. She has been nicknamed the skull lady by secondary school students after her presentations on human evolution. Dr Campbell established Cafe Scientifique in Hamilton as part of an effort to encourage the community to discuss scientific issues. She has also launched BioBlog website to support secondary school biology students and teachers preparing for exams. That blog is syndicated right here on Sciblogs. Alison is on Twitter @AcampbelTeacher

The ‘fishing’ chimps of Bakoun - BioBlog

Jan 09, 2017

I’m currently supervising a graduate student who’s writing a review of the literature on tool use in wild chimpanzees. This has become a most enjoyable interaction: it’s a topic I’ve been interested in for quite a while now, so the supervision role is an excuse to extend my own knowledge, and it’s great helping the student to enhance their own skills in relation to academic research and writing. Anyway, a couple of days ago I came across a new paper (Boesch et al., 2016) on an intriguing aspect of chimpanzee behaviour, and my student and I had a stimulating discussion about it at our regular weekly meeting this morning. (There’s a general summary of the findings and the project which generated them here.) I’d previously heard of (and shared with her) what appeared to be an isolated … Read More

Melibe Engeli – the strangest thing I’ve seen in ages - BioBlog

Dec 20, 2016

I mean, really – have you ever seen something like this before? Melibe engeli is a type of sea slug, and a most unusual one. Its body is partly translucent, and has projections called cerata, themselves covered with smaller projections called papillae, down both sides. The animal is an active hunter – but what a hunter. It lacks the toothy radula seen in most gastropods, & instead has that amazing, extendible, ‘hood’ around its mouth. Tiny, highly-sensitive hairs detect prey & trigger the animal to close the hood; the prey animal is engulfed whole, to die during the digestive process. I don’t think sci-fi could come up with anything stranger than this! … Read More

“Killer neandertals” – a wild claim that doesn’t want to go away - BioBlog

Nov 07, 2016

A while ago now (6 years ago, in fact! How time flies when you’re having fun), I wrote a piece about some fairly wild claims made about Neandertals. Rather surprisingly this post continues to attract occasional comments from those who firmly believe in the idea that Neandertals were cannibalistic, brutish savages rather than our very close cousins, an idea promoted by the author Danny Vendramini. So I thought I’d re-publish it now, with some edits to update things. After being asked about the ‘killer Neandertal’ claims after a School Bio workshop, I quickly found a website promoting a book by Danny Vendramini. Called Them and Us: how Neanderthal predation created modern humans, the book supposedly provides “new archaeological and genetic evidence to show [Neandertals] weren’t docile omnivores, but savage, cannibalistic carnivores…” – the ‘Neanderthal Predation theory’. (I noticed that the author uses … Read More

Parts of our genome are actually viral - BioBlog

Nov 04, 2016

I’ve just come across a most excellent article by the Genetic Literacy Project. In it, Nicholas Staropoli notes that a proportion of the human genome actually has viral origins. This might sound a bit strange – after all, we tend to think of viruses as our enemies (smallpox, measles, and the human papilloma virus come to mind). But, as Staropoli notes, there are a lot of what are called ‘endogenous retroviruses’ (ERVs) – or their remains – tucked away in our genome. (An ERV has the ability to write its own genes into the host’s DNA.) And he links to a study that draws this conclusion: We conservatively estimate that viruses have driven close to 30% of all adaptive amino acid changes in the part of the human proteome conserved within mammals. Our results suggest that viruses … Read More

‘Miracle Mineral Solution’ – the woo-filled gift that keeps on giving - BioBlog

Nov 03, 2016

I’ve written before about the so-called ‘miracle mineral solution’, aka MMS (here, for example), but I see that it’s hit the news again recently. MMS is essentially bleach1, but one Jim Humble has made quite a little empire (and a ‘church’) out of selling the stuff, and has previously claimed that it’s a preventative & cure-all for just about anything that might ail you – including malaria, cancer, and HIV. (It isn’t, and it won’t: the proposed mode of action is preposterous.) While Humble has recently distanced himself from those claims, it appears that one of his church’s archbishops continues to promote them. The associated fevers and gastro-intestinal upsets associated with ingesting a bleach solution? Simply a sign that the ‘treatment’ is doing its job. /<snark> Now, if adults choose to ‘treat’ themselves thusly, then that’s … Read More

Dogs, dispersal, & (bio)dynamics - BioBlog

Sep 30, 2016

A couple of days ago I did a spot of live radio with the good folks at 95bFM. It was great fun. One of the topics was dog evolution, which I’ve already written about here; another was the recent publications on human dispersal, covered nicely over on sciblogs.co.nz.  The third was a brief discussion of claims made in an article on stuff, in relation to organic farming & its use of pesticides & insecticides. More specifically, the writer (Dr Libby Weaver) said this (my emphasis): Organic produce is labelled “certified organic” when it has been grown, raised, harvested and packaged without the use of pesticides, insecticides, growth hormones and antibiotics. Now, that phrase I’ve emphasised is simply incorrect, and extremely easy to check (as was pointed out fairly emphatically by several commenters on the original article). Read More

Selection and dog breeds - BioBlog

Sep 16, 2016

So, I own a pocket wolf… Oh, OK, I own a little black mini-poodle. But, like all dogs, he has the same number of chromosomes as a wolf! There’s been several articles posted recently about the evolution of domestic dogs. While we’ve tended to think that domestication didn’t begin until humans began to settle down & develop agriculture, DNA analysis suggests that wolves and humans may have begun a relationship up to 100,000 years ago. And a paper published in Science back in June presents evidence that there were two domestication events, one in Asia and once in either the Near East or Europe. There’s a nice visualisation and explanation of the doggy family tree here. A few weeks ago, I was discussing domestication with RadioLive’s Graeme Hill, and one of the questions he asked was, why do we have so many different … Read More

COOLs? Are they as cool as they sound? - BioBlog

Sep 04, 2016

The National government is proposing a number of amendments to the NZ Education Act. One, which has already received quite a lot of press, sounds rather like a return to bulk funding under another name. But the latest one to hit the news is more like an untried social experiment with the potential for a lot of brown stuff to hit the fan. And what is this proposal? They’ve certainly come up with a catchy title: COOLs – Communities of On-line Learning. The NZ Herald covered last month’s announcement by the Minister of Education, Hekia Parata, with its reporter stating that any registered school, tertiary provider such as a polytechnic or an approved body corporate be able to apply to be a “community of online learning” (COOL). Any student of compulsory schooling age will be able to enrol in a COOL … Read More

Run! Well, amble! The giant carnivorous snails are coming! - BioBlog

Mar 15, 2016

There’s a lovely, life-size bronze sculpture of a Powelliphanta land snail sitting on my china cabinet. I love it because a friend made it for us – and because snails in this genus are rather special, for they are all carnivorous. Now, I ‘knew’ this fact, but I’d never actually seen one feeding. Snails being normally rather slow, sedate creatures, it was hard to imagine how they’d ever catch anything other than even slower prey. That was until I saw this video: Every earthworm’s nightmare! … Read More

Attack of the zombie snails - BioBlog

Mar 10, 2016

The semester’s begun, teaching has started, admin isn’t letting up any time soon, & there are days when I feel like a zombie by home-time. So it seems entirely appropriate to revivify a post I wrote 3 years ago, on that very subject. Honestly, sometimes I think the zombie apocalypse is already here. Certainly zombies seem to be flavour of the month (& whatever friends say, I still can’t bring myself to watch Walking Dead). And I’ve written about them myself: well, the insect variety, anyway. But our developing understanding of how parasites ‘zombify’ their hosts has been developing since well before the latest iteration of human zombies grabbed the popular imagination. I was reminded of this when I saw the video below (in all its over-the-top hyperbolic glory), for I was first introduced to the concept of zombie … Read More