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

What happened to the Neanderthals? - BioBlog

Jun 12, 2019

One of the questions students often ask, when we’re discussing human evolution, is “what happened to the Neanderthals?” After all, this was a large-brained species closely related to our own, with some fairly complex tool technologies and the ability to survive (and thrive) in harsh environmental conditions. Yet they appear to have been replaced by anatomically-modern humans (in Europe, anyway) by around 35-40,000 years ago – and with at least some level of coexistence, given the presence of Neanderthal DNA in modern non-African human populations. So why did the Neanderthals disappear? In mulling this over, students have come up with quite a few possible answers: maybe Neanderthals just didn’t breed as fast as sapiens, so that their populations grew much more slowly; maybe they were out-competed by a species that was a better hunter; maybe they suffered from inbreeding depression; … Read More

Measles infection and immune amnesia - BioBlog

Jun 04, 2019

Measles infection has a couple of longer-term sequelae. One, SSPE, is thankfully rare (although for infants with measles the odds of subsequently developing SSPE are considerably higher than for other age groups). The other, “immune amnesia”, is strongly associated with having had measles, though this doesn’t stop those opposed to vaccination claiming otherwise. In 2015, Mina et al. published a paper in Science that examined the population-level impact of measles infection on overall child mortality from infectious diseases. Infectious disease specialists already knew that [i]mmunosuppression after measles … predispose[s] people to opportunistic infections for a period of several weeks to months, which means that, on a population level, vaccination against measles results in a drop in rates of illness and death due to a range of other  infectious diseases. This suggests that a measles infection somehow suppresses an individual’s immune … Read More

Spiders’ prey and pitcher plants - BioBlog

May 16, 2019

I’ve learned quite a bit about spiders over the years. (And I have never been able to understand the “burn it with fire!” some folks take towards these 8-legged creatures.) For example, it turns out that some spiders actively hunt fish, while others are vegetarian! Then, late last year, I came across a couple of articles on an apparent mutualism between spiders and pitcher plants, published in Oecologica and in the Journal of Animal Ecology respectively. It’s not the only mutualistic relationship that pitcher plants are part of: for example, some act as toilets for tree shrews, and gain significant benefits in the process. (My blog buddy Grant also discussed this story.) Crab spiders are cute little creatures. The family they belong to has around 2100 species worldwide, with 11 or so found here … Read More

The package insert: misunderstood and misrepresented - BioBlog

May 09, 2019

UNICEF estimates that in the period 2010-2017, 169 million children missed their first dose of the measles vaccine – that’s around 21 million children each year. Sadly, this has simply set the conditions for the measles outbreaks we’re seeing around the world, in high- and low-income countries alike. In the first three months of 2019, more than 110,000 measles cases were reported worldwide – up nearly 300 per cent from the same period last year. An estimated 110,000 people, most of them children, died from measles in 2017, a 22 per cent increase from the year before. The US leads the list of high-income countries with a sizeable pool of kids who didn’t receive that first dose of measles vaccine: 2,593,000 children between 2010 & 2017. There, as elsewhere, the UN’s World Health Organisation has identified ‘vaccine hesitancy’ … Read More

Measles infection is not a cure for cancer - BioBlog

Apr 30, 2019

We’re continuing to hear of new measles cases in New Zealand, most recently in this Stuff story about 4 new cases in Auckland (with the possibility that up to 1600 people may have been exposed). One of those ill with the disease is a 10-month-old child, too young to have received her first dose of the MMR vaccine. Completely predictably, the usual anti-vax enthusiasts are there, claiming (as usual) that measles is a benign childhood disease (it’s not); that measles infection strengthens your immune system (the reverse is true: it causes a sort of ‘immune amnesia’ for the next 2-3 years, carrying with it an increased risk of illness and death from other diseases); and that more people are seriously harmed from vaccination than by the disease (without actually providing any evidence in support). Oh yes, and … Read More

“Raw” water – an update - BioBlog

Apr 26, 2019

In January last year, I wrote about the US fad for “raw” water: water supposedly as nature intended it, free of any of the treatments used in municipal water supplies. Those promoting the stuff claim it’s ever so much better for you; given the prices they charge, it’s certainly good for their bank balances I’ve just come across a couple of recent articles, the first of which is  directly related to the “raw” water story. Turns out that a particular product, sold for $US24/4.6 litres in spiffing glass containers, is from exactly the same source as the tap water in the local city. A spokesman for the Oregon Department of Health is quoted in the linked story: Modie said that Opal Springs was fed by an aquifer that was able to meet all the standards for public consumption … Read More

Essential oils in the classroom: a rose (or other flowers) would smell as sweet - BioBlog

Apr 08, 2019

A story about essential oils being used in classrooms hit the headlines this week. It described how an Auckland primary school had put diffusers into 20 classrooms, using oil blends that would supposedly “stop the spread of viruses and keep children focused at school.” A parent subsequently used the threat of a legal injunction to stop this practice, at least for the moment. Now, some of the skills children are supposed to gain at school are those used in critical thinking. It would be nice to see the school management applying the same skills to decisions like this¹. I mean, is there actually good evidence that these products actually do what’s claimed for them? Do they “stop the spread of viruses” or “keep children focused at school”? (Trialling them in one classroom and relying on the teacher’s observations is … Read More

Plants, their predators, and early warning systems - BioBlog

Apr 02, 2019

People tend to think that plants don’t do much from day to day – certainly when I asked my first-year students at the start of the course, they were far more interested in animals than in plants. Poor plants! But then, to the casual eye, I guess they’re fairly static creatures However, it turns out that their responses to the environment are probably just as nuanced as the behaviours that we see in animals. For example, not only can plants detect that a herbivore is munching on them, some can also warn other plants that this is happening, giving them time to prepare their own defences. And some can also call in the cops: they can signal to predatory insects that a caterpillar or beetle is there, ready to be attacked in turn. (You can read more about other … Read More

Thoughts on a question about kākāpō - BioBlog

Mar 21, 2019

My interest in kākāpō began way back in my honours year at uni: a guest speaker told us that as far as anybody knew, the last remaining birds were a few males, somewhere in Fiordland. I remember feeling that that sounded really sad – those lonely males booming for females who never came. Shortly after that, a relatively healthy population was discovered on Stewart Island** (where “relatively” = less than 200). Alas, cats found them too, and so now the species is found on a small number of offshore islands, free of mammalian predators, and carefully managed to maximise their breeding success. (2019 seems to have been a bumper breeding season, and you can follow progress via Twitter (for example) – where I learned that baby kākāpō have big feet.***) The 2017 Schol Bio paper had … Read More

A new critical analysis of the Wilyman thesis - BioBlog

Mar 06, 2019

A few years back, University of Wollongong student Judy Wilyman received a PhD for a thesis that claimed to offer a “critical analysis of the Australian government’s rationale for its vaccination policy.” Both the thesis, and the processes at Wollongong in relation to PhD study and examination, attracted a considerable amount of scrutiny and criticism (see here and here, for example). Criticism that was well-deserved: you don’t expect a PhD thesis on a public health initiative to promote a conspiracy-theory ideation, for example, or to have such a superficial understanding of germ theory and the functioning of the immune system. Now a group of researchers has subjected Wilyman’s thesis to the sort of scrutiny that it should have received during the examination process (Wiley, Leask, Burgess & McIntyre, 2019). They did this due … Read More