Arxiu d'etiquetes: Hierarchy

Are you thinking about a PhD? The experience of primatologist Mireia Olivé

If you are studying biology maybe you are thinking to continue working in a doctor’s degree. Is it worth it? How much time and effort will you have to dedicate? Know firsthand the experience of writing a thesis and getting a doctor’s degree with this interview with primatologist Mireia Olivé.

THE INTEREST IN PRIMATOLOGY

  • Mireia, thanks to dedicate your time to All You Need Is Biology to share your experience. Let’s start from the beginning: when did you know you wanted to study biology? Why did you choose this degree and not another?

The thing is that the choice was not easy because I have always liked a lot of things and it was difficult to decide. To choose the degree, one of the criteria I took into account was that the field should open doors for a future projects (in a professional way), enabling me to be more interdisciplinary. What finally did tip the scales was the emotional part: it was really motivating to know that, someday, I might know things that I always wondered (in the field of primates, especially).

  • Why did you do a PhD? Did you have a professional future in mind, the opportunity arose without thinking about it..?

It’s funny that I really undertook a doctoral thesis because I had never thought about it. While some friends of mine had no doubts about conducting research, I was involved in other projects that weren’t related to research and I didn’t have in mind taking a PhD. Actually, it was a proposal of my academic mentor from the  Master’s degree in Cognition and Evolution of Primates I had already done. After considering it (and knowing that I could continue working in my other projects), I accepted.

  • On what topic was your thesis? What research did you carry out?

My thesis studied the relationship between hierarchy and grooming in a group of Barbary macaques (Macaca sylvanus). To integrate these two concepts and see how interrelated, the research was focused on several aspects:

  • First; bibliographic, regarding the hierarchy and grooming.
  • Second; on computer models and simulation (I belong to GCAI –Group of Adaptive Behaviour and Interaction-, which studies adaptive behaviour and computational psychology).
  • Third; empirical, observing individuals in a group of macaques.
groomig, macacos de Berbería, macaco de barbería, macaco de Gibraltar, mona rabona
Barbary macaques during grooming. Photo: Mireia Olivé Obradors

WORKING IN THE FIELD

  • Let’s talk about the empirical aspects: in what area did you take out your observations?

The empirical part was a bit difficult to start because we struggled to find a group that was representative enough, since it had to have a minimum of individuals of each gender and age class, and from a particular family of primates. Finally, after several failed attempts (we had already begun observing a group but we had to stop because there were problems with the animals), we chose a group of a French park near Poitiers called La Vallée des Singes, where the Barbary macaques group met all the requirements we had set. In addition, it was a semi-captivity group, which provided many advantages over other options we had already considered.

Barbary macaques on trees at La Vallée des Singes in spring. Photo: Mireia Olivé Obradors
  • So you had to do some research abroad. How do you evaluate the experience?

It was a very interesting experience that allowed me to meet students, technicians and professionals of the “animalier” sector and in the primatology field, to expand the circle of friends and to improve my level of foreign languages

  • Working in the field was very hard?

The fieldwork was very intense, because I wanted to take advantage of my time collecting as much data as I could (even considering further research to develop at the end of the PhD). Going out to observe animals is a task that requires a lot of perseverance and dedication: once the dynamics is established, observations must be maintained in all conditions. This means it had to be done even if it rains; the temperature is below 4° C; on weekdays and on weekends, and at any time of day. The empirical part, however, was the best of the PhD.

El paisaje y las condiciones de observación durante el invierno eran totalmente diferentes. Foto: Mireia Olivé Obradors
The scenery and observing conditions during the winter were totally different. Photo: Mireia Olivé Obradors

 

  • Did you experienced fear at some time?

Usually the sessions were quiet, but twice went pretty scary. The place where the observations were made was directly on the territory of macaques, an extension of 3.3 hectares of forest where the animals were circulating freely. At peak times park staff checked that everything was in order, but I could be on the other side of the territory and I often did not see anyone all day. In the group there were several juvenile females, eager to play and challenging me.

Algunos integrantes del grupo de macacos objeto del estudio. Foto: Mireia Olivé Obradors
Some members of the group of macaques under study. Photo: Mireia Olivé Obradors

Once, I was surrounded by the group of the four youngest females. They approached me and stretched my clothes. I was a bit scared (it was an aggressive way to play). The situation was complex, because at that time I had already been more or less accepted by the group as an observer and I could be quite close to animal. I frightened them to let me go, not only I risked to lose that confidence, and consequently the ability to observe their behavior closely, but at the same time, the group would have attacked me to help the youngest without hesitating (adults are very strong and have very long fangs).

La observación en el hábitat de los animales tiene sus riesgos: hay que conocer perfectamente las pautas de actuación en caso de peligro. Foto: Mireia Olivé Obradors
The observation in the habitat of the animals has its risks: you have to be familiar with the guidelines for action in case of danger. Photo: Mireia Olivé Obradors

TIPS ON PhD

  • Dedication is very big, is it possible to combine the PhD with a job? Can you give an idea to future students how much is the workload?

The workload is heavy, either combining the PhD with a job (which was my case) or doing the thesis exclusively, and perseverance to move forward is necessary. For me it was important not to stop working and continue participating in other projects that were not related to research, so I assumed it would take longer to finish my PhD. Being focused was important to continue working on all fronts

Ejemplo de una sola página de la libreta de campo de Mireia. Después, todos estos datos hay que analizarlas en el momento de redacción de la tesis. Foto: Mireia Olivé Obradors
Example of one page of Mireia’s field notebook. After, all these data must be analyzed at the time of writing of the thesis. Photo: Mireia Olivé Obradors

In that time I got home from work between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., and then I began to work (either reading articles, studying, writing or doing calculations) until 9-10 p.m. and at weekends I spent between 4 and 6 hours a day. Friends, who worked doing exclusively the thesis at the University, spent about 8 hours every day, Monday through Friday, but this schedules also depended on the stage where they were (the final stage of drafting is far more intense).

  • But it also has its positive side, right?

Of course you have good times! First, you research a topic you are passionate about and you do some discoveries. In addition, you learn, firsthand, what it means to do research, what involves (organization, hypotheses, results).
You also know a lot of people who share the same interests and motivation, and you’re aware of everything happening in your field. You are so up to date and discovering so much about the subject that it ends up being you the one who knows the most: it’s your topic!

Mireia durante la observación del grupo de macacos. Foto: Mireia Olivé Obradors
Mireia during the observation of the macaques group. The empirical part of the study is the best. Photo: Mireia Olivé Obradors
  • Did you ever think about quitting? Why?

Yes. As I said before, it is a long and intense process. In addition, research often do not turn out the results you expect, and you have to go redirecting the situation, raising new hypotheses or approaching it from different points of view. At that moment you have to be able to look a little further: either to the beginning and see where you were and where you are at the time, or trying to see where you go, what you want to end up discovering.

So this is why it is important that you like what you investigate, because it is easy not to get involved and giving up.

  • What encouraged you to go on?

I want to add that beyond this personal motivation, support from family and friends is very important: they are who cheer you up, who encourage you again and again and will continue to encourage you, and when you have hard times, they convince you that your work worths it, and that you  must continue working to go on.

  • Would you repeat the experience?

Yes, I think I would do a PhD again. However, thanks to the experience, I would look at the issue differently, both the thesis content and the personal approach.

  • Finally, can you give some tips to people who want to do a PhD?

I would suggest them to change to another University (different from the one where they have studied the Bachelor’s or Master’s Degree) because it is very interesting to know other ways to work and focus research.

In addition, it is important to choose a topic that really motivates you. During the thesis there are moments of discouragement, when you want to throw it all away (it is inevitable, because it is a task of continuous effort and quite long) but if the subject excites you, it is easier to find energy to continue.

  • Your thesis seems very interesting,  can you give us a link to the publication?

One of the conclusions of my thesis has been the development of indicators that provide insight into the status of a group of Barbary macaques, which may facilitate possible interventions (reintroduction in the natural habitat, migration of individuals).

In this link you can read the summary of the thesis and download it.

Macacos de Berbería. Foto: Mireia Olivé Obradors
Barbary macaques. Photo: Mireia Olivé Obradors

 

Mireia, thank you very much for your time and experience, which will be for sure a good guidance for future researchers.

Thanks to you for giving me the opportunity to publicize the importance of scientific research.

MIREIA QUEROL ALL YOU NEED IS BIOLOGY

The secret life of bees

If we talk about bees, the first thing that comes to mind might be the picture of a well-structured colony of insects flying around a honeycomb made of perfectly constructed wax cells full of honey.

But the truth is that not all bees known nowadays live in hierarchical communities and make honey. Actually, most species of bees develop into a solitary life-form unlike the classical and well-known honey bees (which are so appreciated in beekeeping).

Through this article, I’ll try to sum up the different life-forms of bees in order to shed light on this issue.

INTRODUCTION

Bees are a large diverse group of insects in Hymenoptera order, which also includes wasps and ants. To date, there are up to 20,000 species of bees known worldwide, although there could be more unidentified species. They can be found in most habitats with flowering plants located in every continent of the world (except for the Antarctica).

Bees pick up pollen and nectar from flowers to feed themselves and their larvae. Thanks to this, they contribute on boosting the pollination of plants. Thus, these insects have an enormous ecological interest because they contribute to maintain and even to enhance flowering plant biodiversity on their habitats.

Specimen of Apis mellifera or honey bee (Picture by Leo Oses on Flickr)

However, even though the way they feed and the sources of food they share could be similar, there exist different life-forms among bees which are interesting to focus on.

BEE LIFE-FORMS

SOLITARY BEES (ALSO KNOWN AS “WILD BEES”)

Most species of bees worldwide, contrary to the common knowledge, develop into a solitary life-form: they born and grow alone, they mate once when groups of male and female bees meet each other and, finally, they die alone too. Some solitary bees live in groups, but they never cooperate with each other.

Female of solitary life-form bees build a nest without the help of other bees. Normally, this kind of nest is composed by one or more cells, which are usually separated by partition walls made of different materials (clay, chewed vegetal material, cut leaves…). Then, they provide these cells with pollen and nectar (the perfect food for larvae) and, finally, they lay their eggs inside each cell (normally one per cell). Contrary to hives, these nests are often difficult to find and to identify with naked eyes because of its discreetness.

The place where solitary bees build their nest is highly variable: underground, inside twisted leaves, inside empty snail shells or even inside pre-established cavities made by human or left behind by other animals.

These bees don’t make hives nor honey, so these are probably the main reasons because of what they are less popular than honey bees (Apis mellifera). Although solitary bees are the major contributors on pollination due to their abundance and diversity (some of them are even exclusive pollinators of a unique plant species, which reveals a close relation between both organisms), most of the studies related with bees are focused on honey bees, because of what studies and protection of these solitary life-forms still remain in the background.

There exists a large diversity of solitary bees with different morphology:

3799308298_ff9fbb1bcc_n7869021238_a811f13aa4_n1) Specimen of Andrena sp. (Picture by kliton hysa on Flickr). 
2) Specimen of Xylocopa violacea or violet carpenter bee (Picture by Nora Caracci fotomie2009 on Flickr).
3) Specimen of Anthidium sp. (Picture by Rosa Gambóias on Flickr).

There are also parasite life-forms among solitary bees, that is, organisms that benefit at the expense of another organism, the host; as a result, the host is damaged in some way. Parasitic bees take advantage of other insects’ resources and even resources from other bees causing them some kind of damage. This is the case of Nomada sp. genus, whose species lay their eggs inside other bee nests (that is, their hosts), so when they hatch, parasite larvae will eat the host’s resources (usually pollen and nectar) leaving them without food. Scientists named this kind of parasitism as cleptoparasitism (literally, parasitism by theft) because parasitic larvae steal food resources from the host larvae.

PSEUDOSOCIAL BEES

From now on, we are going to stop talking about solitary bees and begin to introduce the pseudosocial life-forms, that is, bees that live in relatively organized and hierarchical groups which are less complex than truly social life-forms, also known as eusocial life-forms (which is the case of Apis mellifera).

Probably, the most famous example is the bumblebee (Bombus sp.). These bees live in colonies in which the queen or queens (also known as fertilized females) are the ones who survive through the winter. Thus, the rest of the colony dies due to cold. So is thanks to the queen (or queens) that the colony can arise again the next spring.

5979114946_9d491afd84_nSpecimen of Bombus terrestris or buff-tailed bumblebee(Picture by Le pot-ager "Je suis Charlie" on Flickr).

EUSOCIAL BEES

Finally, the most evolved bees known nowadays in terms of social structure complexity are eusocial bees or truly social bees. Scientist have identified only one case of eusocial bee: the honey bee or Apis mellifera.

Since the objective of this article was to refute the “all bees live in colonies, build hives and make honey” myth, I will not explain further than the fact these organisms form complex and hierarchical societies (this constitutes a strange phenomenon which has also been observed in thermites and ants) normally led by a single queen, build large hives formed of honeycombs made of wax, and make honey, a very energetic substance highly appreciated by humans.

Specimens of Apis mellifera on a honeycomb full of honey (Picture by Nicolas Vereecken on Flickr).

As we have been seeing, solitary bees play an important role in terms of pollination, because of what they must be more protected than they currently are. However, honeybees, and not solitary bees, still remain being on the spotlight of most scientists and a great part of society because of the direct resources they provide to humans.

REFERENCES

  • Notes taken during my college practices at CREAF (Centre de Recerca Ecològica i d’Aplicacions Forestals – Ecological Research and Forest Applications Centre). Environmental Biology degree, UAB (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona).
  • O’toole, C. & Raw A. (1999) Bees of the world. Ed Blandford
  • Pfiffner L., Müller A. (2014) Wild bees and pollination. Research Institute of Organic Agriculture FiBL (Switzerland).
  • Solitary Bees (Hymenoptera). Royal Entomological Society: http://www.royensoc.co.uk/insect_info/what/solitary_bees.htm
  • Stevens, A. (2010) Predation, Herbivory, and Parasitism. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):36

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