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

Crabs, carcinisation, and crappy headlines - BioBlog

Nov 10, 2020

This is a post of two parts: the interesting tale of convergence involving crab-like creatures, and the very poor – nay, crappy (because I like the alliteration) – headline on a popular article about it. Part 1: the history of carcinization in crustaceans, described in this 2017 paper in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society (Keiler, Wirkner, & Richter, 2017). But first, the terminology! Crustaceans are a group of arthropods: invertebrate creatures that also have an external skeleton. (You could say that they are crunchy spineless animals with multiple legs.) And carcinization describes the way that several different 10-legged crustaceans have evolved a crab-like body form. That is, there are ‘true’ crabs, & then there are the wannabes. There are a lot of different taxa of 10-legged crustaceans, but one group (taxon) stands out from the others in … Read More

First steps: Jerry DeSilva on the evolution of bipedalism - BioBlog

Sep 25, 2020

Yesterday morning I got up (at the rather early and unaccustomed hour of 3.30am) to listen to a webinar by paleoanthropologist Dr Jeremy DeSilva¹. Titled “First Steps”, his presentation was about the origins of bipedalism in the human lineage. It was a fascinating session & I thought I’d turn my notes into this post, to share with students, teachers, and anyone else interested in the topic. Things kicked off with a reminder that the familiar iconography relating to evolution – the gradual linear progression from some ape-like ancestor to a fully upright, modern human – is, while often amusing, just plain wrong. The path of human evolution is highly branched, not linear. Nor have changes in our biology all happened in lockstep with each other; they’ve occurred at different times and different rates, to result in a mosaic of … Read More

It’s “only” a 1% death rate - BioBlog

Aug 31, 2020

I’m seeing a bit of that phrase in my social media feeds at the moment, in relation to covid-19. In practice, this would mean that if everyone in New Zealand were to catch the virus eventually, that would be 50,000 people dead.  The ‘normal’ annual all-cause mortality in this country is around 33,000. It’s been argued that we just need to isolate/quarantine the vulnerable, and the rest of us would get through just fine. However, as others have pointed out, that “vulnerable” cohort is extensive, & it’s not only the elderly who are at increased risk (though, as Siouxsie Wiles has noted, they are at high risk): those who are obese, or living with high-blood pressure, cardiovascular issues, or diabetes also have an elevated risk of death, as Jin Russell points out in this measured opinion piece. That’s … Read More

COVID myths & politics - BioBlog

Aug 11, 2020

This year’s election campaign in New Zealand has attracted a number of “fringe” parties, at least some of whose supporters seem to have a fairly tenuous hold on reality and a highly flexible approach to the truth. I mean, how else could one describe some of those affiliated with the NZPP/Advance coalition, whose members & supporters regularly share myths about covid-19 (and vaccines, and 5G, and more besides)? (Fortunately, social media seem to react fairly quickly these days in terms of taking down such content once it’s reported.) A non-exhaustive compilation of these myths about covid-19 includes: a meme that spread rapidly last week, before FB & twitter caught up with it, claiming that the nasal swabs used in covid-19 testing penetrate the blood-brain barrier. In practice this simply cannot happen, because the brain is enclosed by the … Read More

A fishy story: midas cichlids in nicaraguan lakes - BioBlog

Jun 11, 2020

Midas cichlids (Amphilophus spp.) are a popular aquarium fish, but in the wild they’re found in South America, ranging from Nicaragua to Costa Rica. The 2018 Schol Bio paper included a really interesting question about a Nicaraguan ‘species complex‘ of these fish, based on a paper in Nature Communications. and a monograph in Cuadernos de Investigacion de la UCA. After reading the usual extensive resource material (maps, images, graphs & written information), students were asked to analyse the information provided in the resource material and integrate it with [their] biological knowledge to discuss the evolutionary processes and patterns that have resulted in the diversity of the Midas cichlid species complex in Lakes Xiloá and Apoyo. The first thing to note here is that both these lakes are very young in geological terms. They are both crater … Read More

Honeycreepers in hawaii - BioBlog

May 25, 2020

The 2015 Schol Bio paper included a question about a group of birds known as honeycreepers, specifically, the 56 species endemic to the Hawaiian islands. (Or, were endemic: 18, or perhaps 19, are still living; the others are extinct.) Students who’ve already had a look at this paper as part of their preparation for the exam will know that it included 2 pages of ‘resource’ material (a combination of maps, images, and information) ahead of a question that asked them to analyse the information provided in the resource material and integrate it with your biological knowledge to discuss the evolutionary processes that have resulted in the distribution and diversity of honeycreepers on the Hawaiian islands.  These lovely little birds are indeed very diverse, particularly in terms of their beaks, which indicates that over time evolution has resulted in adaptations to … Read More

Applying the CRAAP test to Plandemic - Unsorted

May 11, 2020

In the last couple of days I’ve seen a lot of individuals and pages share links to a trailer for “Plandemic”. And I’ve had friends ask me what I think of it. They’ve commented that it looks and sounds pretty ‘sciencey’ but wanted another opinion. So, I had a look, and here goes. The “Plandemic” trailer focuses on statements by Dr Judy Mikovits. (My blog buddy Grant Jacobs wrote several posts on her research back in 2011, when a paper in published two years earlier in the journal Science started to attract a lot of attention; see here, & here, for example) In the video she’s described as being “the most accomplished scientist in her generation”, which is a pretty sweeping claim and should be easily substantiated if correct. But the source of this statement appears to … Read More

Thoughts on the proposed changes to NCEA - BioBlog

Feb 28, 2020

Many readers will probably have read this RNZ article (or heard the related interview), or seen calls for consultation on the Ministry of Education’s suggested changes to the number of subjects – and achievement standards – on offer to year 11 students. I’ve been following (& participating, where I can) all this with colleagues and friends, and thought I’d share some of my thoughts here. But before I get onto that, I’ll point out that there’s been a fair bit of consultation even before we got to the point where these materials have gone out, in their turn, for feedback. That process began in 2018 and resulted in a “change package“. This was published in May 2019, and I really recommend reading it carefully as it provides the rationale for the latest 2 rounds of consultation … Read More

Why do students need to learn about the nature of science? - BioBlog

Feb 25, 2020

You’re probably aware that the Achievement Standards used to assess senior school students’ learning are being reviewed. Science is one of the ‘pilot’ subjects in this process, where a ‘Subject Expert Group’ has developed 4 draft Science standards¹ (a significant step away from the current 30+, and a response to advice from several high-level advisory groups). These drafts have been out for consultation, and are all intended to develop and assess students’ understanding of the nature of science, with subject content providing the contexts for this learning. (That is, the subject content has definitely not disappeared.) Why is this important? Back in 2007, New Zealand implemented a new national curriculum. One of the features of the science component of that document is the overarching importance of students gaining an understanding of the nature of science (the “unifying … Read More

Neandertals’ genetic legacy extends into africa - BioBlog

Feb 03, 2020

For the last few years it’s been pretty much received wisdom that African populations shared only a tiny proportion of their genes, if any, with Neanderthals. In contrast, other non-African sapiens populations had a small but significant admixture of Neanderthal genes. The underlying reason for this, it’s been assumed, is that Homo sapiens and neandertalensis only bred with each other in Europe and Asia. However, a new study (Chen, Wolf, Fu, Li & Akey, 2020) seems set to change that understanding. The researchers employed a technique that used DNA sequences from a Neanderthal who’d lived in Denisova cave (in the Altai mountains) as an ‘archaic’ reference sample, and compared that with genomes from 2504 modern humans. The technique allowed them to identify sequences that had entered a population’s gene pool via introgression, finding that “African individuals carry a stronger … Read More