Pere Bover

The story of a visitor to the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA…and a cool human being!

From left to right: Bastien Llamas (in back), Pere Bover (in front), Kieren Mitchell, Maria Lekis, Vicki Thomson (me), Laura Weyrich, Steve Richards.

On and off from 2012 to 2018, we had a novice ancient DNA visitor to the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) who proved to be highly productive individual. His name was Pere Bover Arbos and he was a classically trained palaeontologist from Spain. So, someone more used to climbing through narrow openings far underground than climbing into a clean-room body suit – although often just as difficult to take a toilet break from!

Pere fit right into our close-knit ACAD community and fast became a much-loved member of the group. By admitting his lack of ancient DNA knowledge and acting as a sponge (and willing volunteer!) he soon became a go-to person for advice from the younger members of the lab.

From his tales of strange Mallorcan species (dwarfed goats and endemic shrews) to his love of all things Spanish (including the correct way to make Paella!), we enjoyed having Pere with us for the short time we had him (4 years goes so fast!).

Now, Pere is back in Spain working at the University of Zaragoza, setting up his own ancient DNA lab to combine the complementary fields of palaeontology and ancient DNA. We miss him and wish him well.

Just a smattering of the publications to come out of Pere’s time at ACAD:

Molecular phylogenetics supports the origin of an endemic Balearic shrew lineage (Nesiotites) coincident with the Messinian Salinity Crisis. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 125: 188–195.

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ympev.2018.03.028

A near complete mitogenome of the extinct shrew Nesiotites hidalgo places it within Nectogalini, and our combined phylogeny confirms the relationship of NesiotitesAsoriculus (extinct red-toothed shrews) with Soriculus (extant Himilayan shrew). Our divergence estimates also support the faunal arrival of Nesiotites to the Balearic Islands (6.44 Million years ago) during the Messinian Salinity Crisis and highlights the retrieval of mitogenomes from (small mammalian) fossils found in marginal environments for DNA preservation (5000–9500 years old from the surface of Coveta des Gorgs cave).


Molecular resolution to a morphological controversy: The case of North American fossil muskoxen Bootherium and Symbos. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 129: 70–76.

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ympev.2018.08.008

We generated seven mitogenomes of fossil musk ox (Bootherium bombifrons), which allowed us to confirm the synonymy of Symbos cavifrons/Bootherium bombifrons. Having these mitogenomes in our phylogeny also allowed us to provide strong support for the Bootherium bombifrons/Ovibos moschatus clade and highlights the fact that previously published genetic data from the shrub-ox likely represents actual Bootherium specimens.


Unraveling the phylogenetic relationships of the extinct bovid Myotragus balearicus Bate 1909 from the Balearic Islands. Quaternary Science Reviews 215:185–195.

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2019.05.005

Myotragus balearicus was the last living representative of an extinct caprine (defined as: of, or relating to, goats) lineage endemic to the Balearic Islands (archipelago of Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza and Formentera) in the Western Mediterranean. Myotragus became extinct following the arrival of humans to the area about 4300 years ago. We were able to generate 13 complete or partial mitogenomes from Mallorcan cave sites and found support for a Myotragus-Budorcas (takin or gnu goat) relationship. Similar to the Mallorcan shrew, we estimate the arrival of the ancestral Myotragus into the Balearic Islands (7.1 Million years ago) during the Messinian Salinity Crisis.

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First video – feedback required

I’m always looking for learn new ways to promote my research to the general public and in attempting to take my outreach to the next level, I and a colleague (Marc Jones) made a video about some of our Tiger Snake work. We made it a couple of years ago and if you follow my Tiger Snake website (tigersnakes.wordpress.com) you’ll recognise it from the home page. But I wanted to make more of them and need some feedback.

Let me know what you think…we seem a bit wooden, but not bad for our first attempt 😉

 

Searching for PhD and honours students

Project Description

We are looking for excellent PhD (and honours) students to commence in 2019 on projects associated with two Australian Research Council grants examining evolution and adaptation in tiger snakes.

The candidate should have a strong interest in evolutionary biology (including the field of molecular evolution) and the natural history of reptiles. They will join a vibrant research team of Australian and international researchers, based at the University of Adelaide, that is focused on the diversity and evolution of Australian snakes.

The candidate will be supervised by Dr. Vicki Thomson and will be based at the South Australian Regional Facility for Molecular Ecology and Evolution at the University of Adelaide.

Project summary:
This project examines the geographic variation amongst tiger snakes in anatomy, ecology, and life history traits, and the relationship of these factors to venom toxins and production. The tiger snake is a unique system showing evolution/adaptation of multiple traits across island populations, including body size, head size plasticity, venom evolution, scale colouration etc. The project, which will be developed with the student, can be developed to examine island evolution in a range of traits, which could include the evolution of venom toxin genes that play critical roles in adaptation to different prey items on the islands, regulation of genes involved in plasticity of head size, evolution of genes involved in growth that results in gigantism or dwarfism etc. We have recently generated two genomes of tiger snakes, so these resources will be available to examine genes known to be involved in growth, metabolism, pigmentation etc. As part of this project, the candidate will develop skills in genomic DNA and RNAseq analyses, including next-generation sequencing and the associated bioinformatics.

Applying

Applicants should hold a first class honours degree or equivalent (MSc) and have experience in molecular genetic analyses and/or bioinformatics. Applications or enquiries should be sent by email to Vicki Thomson (vicki.thomson@adelaide.edu.au).

Australian students should first apply for an Australian Postgraduate Award scholarship in the mid-year round (due May 31st, 2019) for commencement between July 1st and Nov 30th 2019 (see https://www.adelaide.edu.au/graduatecentre/scholarships/research/mid-year-round/). International students should first apply for a University of Adelaide scholarship. The next round closes on Feb 15th for commencement between July 1st and August 31st. (or April 30th 2019 for commencement before 30th Nov 2019). See: https://www.adelaide.edu.au/graduatecentre/scholarships/research-international/.

Thank you.

Contact:

Dr. Vicki Thomson
ARC DECRA Fellow
School of Biological Sciences

The University of Adelaide
Benham Building
North Terrace Campus
South Australia 5005
AUSTRALIA

E-mail: vicki.thomson@adelaide.edu.au

University website: www.adelaide.edu.au/directory/vicki.thomson

Personal website: vicki-thomson.com

Twitter: @Vicki_Thomson

Smaller emus on smaller islands

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Background photo for meme © 2012 Rex Boggs, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio

Have you ever wondered how animals evolve when they are on a permanent diet? Over long time frames? Well, looking at what happens on islands is a perfect way to find this out.

In our recent study (‘Genetic diversity and drivers of dwarfism in extinct island emu populations’ published in Biology Letters), we found that the average size of each island’s emus seems to be related to the size of the island they were stranded on. It has long been known that large animals tend to become smaller on islands, known as island dwarfism. This is what appears to have happened to groups of emus isolated on Kangaroo and King Islands, as well as Tasmania, when sea levels rose after the last glacial period and cut them off from the mainland.

When early Europeans first discovered these small emus on the islands they thought they were completely different species and quickly hunted them to extinction, as they provided an easy food source to hunt. We know this from the early written records from the time, but we don’t know much else.

When we look at the DNA of the island emus, we notice that it looks pretty similar to that of the mainland emu. This suggests to us that they are the same species, just slightly smaller in size (approximately 30% smaller on King Island, 20% smaller on Kangaroo Island, and 10% smaller on Tasmania). The reduced amount of food available on the islands and the lack of need to walk long distances to find food, likely resulted in incrementally smaller emus over each generation. What we don’t know for certain is whether they each reached an optimal size for their island, or if we hadn’t driven them extinct, would they still be getting progressively smaller?

We think it is the former: with the smaller the island, the smaller the emus rather than the longer the isolation, the smaller the emus.

Rebranding as vicki-thomson.com

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After attending a talk by Corey Bradshaw (conservationbytes.com) about ‘Pimping your profile’, I decided to buy my own domain and rebrand my personal wordpress website as vicki-thomson.com. I hope this will be the beginning of a beautiful relationship – between my blog and I.

Now I don’t expect to be blogging daily or weekly at the beginning, more like once a month. The blog posts are likely to cover diverse topics within the field of conservation genetics and evolutionary biology, so if this area interests you check back here regularly for new stories.

 

The usefulness of social media to career scientists

Recently our lab group’s journal club reviewed a paper talking about ‘Narratives of Science Outreach’ (click here for access to the full paper). Now this is particularly timely as more and more of our daily life as scientists is spent explaining what we do the general public and talking to journalists about our research. I think the main idea to come out of our journal club discussion was that social media use by scientists is the way of the future. It will increasingly be used to attract students (and hence their money) to undergraduate degrees at the ‘popular’ (read ‘social media savvy’) universities and as undergrad student numbers are what’s filling university coffers these days, scientists that can use this to their advantage will be able to write their own ticket. In today’s highly competitive university environment, where voluntary redundancies are now turning not so voluntary, do we really need any more incentive to be out there pounding the pavement justifying our mostly-taxpayer-funded jobs?

Well, I’d argue that yes we do. One ultimate benefit to having an educated general population is that politicians are forced to add knowledge of a topic and logical arguments to their soundbites for the nightly news and not just spin. As climate change becomes more and more of an imminent threat to our way of life, its important that voters understand why scrapping the Climate Commission and Climate Change Authority, replacing the carbon tax with an emissions trading scheme, and  funding a multi-million dollar climate ‘consensus centre’ are not sustainable objectives for our federal politicians to support. We were able to avert one global catastrophe back in the 80’s and 90’s by replacing CFC’s in fridges and other appliances with non-ozone depleting chemicals. This achievement required years of research and hard work, political will, and an international treaty (the Montreal Protocol) to protect the planet’s ozone layer, but it is now projected that by 2050-2065 the ozone layer should return to pre-1980 levels (data from the Department of the Environment). Now, I’m not saying that minimising temperature increase due to climate change will be as easy as protecting the ozone layer, but we already know that it is possible for international will to be brought to bear on issues affecting us all. A vital first step of this process will entail us scientists increasing our ability to relate our knowledge and research directly to the general public. This may well start with talking to family and friends at BBQs about investing in solar power; discussing how Tiddalick the frog might be affected by climate change when reading bedtime stories to our kids; and letting our neighbours know how they can limit their cat’s damage to native wildlife by putting a bell on its collar, potentially preventing vulnerable bird species from being hunted to extinction. But these everyday conversations should by no means be the end of our attempts to promote science-based knowledge as essential in dealing with 21st-century life. We just have to find efficient ways to make outreach fit into our already overworked and underpaid lives as career scientists and concerned human beings.

The views expressed in this blog are the writer’s own and in no way reflect those of her lab group or the institution that she works for.