Tag Archives: Louis Leakey

Re-examining external examining and the evolution of humans

External examining 2

Last year I wrote about my first year of being external examiner for the BSc Zoology degree at University College Dublin and some of the reasons why I enjoy the process.  This year I again visited Dublin to undertake my annual review of the zoology degree and was reminded of another reason why I find being an external examiner so rewarding.

Normally I go through all the exam scripts looking at how well they are annotated by the first marker, if they are signposted to help the second marker, e.g. marked as outside reading (OR) and check if they have been moderated and if the mark given has been justified in accordance with the marking criteria.  I also check if the marking across and between modules is consistent and fair.  For many of the modules this is really all I can do as I may not know a great deal about the subject, e.g. epithelial transport.  On the other hand there are some modules that I know a lot about, such as insect-plant interactions or biodiversity, where the questions asked are often very similar to the ones that I set for my own students. In these cases I read each answer and mark them before looking at what the actual mark given was and if they are similar this gives me confidence that all is well.

I often find myself learning new things when I read through the research projects of the students that I am going to viva; this year ranging from molecular biology, to phylogenetics, to elucidating the genes associated with inflammation of the brain of Irish greyhounds, to vertebrate behaviour to marine invertebrates and of course not forgetting entomology.  In respect to the projects this year the experience was no different.  What was different this year was that I had enough time to become engrossed with the scripts of the Evolution of Humans module.  One of the questions asked students to review the evidence that supports or refutes the theory that bipedalism in humans arose from adopting wading behaviour in a humid woodland environment. As a teenager, heretical as it may seem to my fellow entomologists, I was very interested in human evolution, reading and being influenced by Robert Ardrey, especially his book African Genesis and of course by the work of the Leakeys.  On reaching university and afterwards however, I became much more focused on invertebrates and my reading on human evolution became somewhat limited, although I do remember being unconvinced, rightly it seems, by the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis and sticking with the African savannah origin hypothesis.

I was thus fascinated to read about The Amphibian Generalist Theory (Niemitz, 2002) in which Carsten Niemitz put forward the idea that our hominid ancestors lived in trees in forested habitats as had been suggested earlier (Clarke & Tobias, 1995) but moved from there to forage along the nearby coasts and river banks from which they waded into the water in pursuit of the rich food sources available. The buoyancy given by the water and the need to keep their heads above water helped develop bipedalism.

Wading monkeys

Modern wading quadruped primates adopting bipedal locomotion whilst wading.  ‘Borrowed’ from Niemitz (2010).

Gorilla wading

Looks more like what happens when you get into water that is colder than you expect than foraging for food!

At the same time as the forests were fragmenting, the savannahs were forming and these were also able to be exploited by these early hominids. I found the student essays fascinating and they stimulated me to download lots of the papers that they referred to in their exam answers.  So as a direct result of external examining I have updated my knowledge of human evolution, and rekindled my interest in the subject.

This is, I think, a salutary message to us all, that by becoming too engrossed in our own subjects we run the risk of losing an all-round appreciation of the world in general.  Talking and listening to people from other disciplines is very important and can lead to very productive and exciting collaborations.  As an example, our entomology group at Harper Adams have  begun to develop some collaborative work with a psychologist, Claudia Uller, from Kingston University which will hopefully generate some very exciting projects.

And my final take-home message; if you are offered the chance to become an external examiner, jump at the opportunity and and not just auditing the process, take the time to read the essays and projects that are not directly in your area of expertise.  You will be pleasantly surprised.

References

Clarke, R.J., and Tobias, P.V. (1995) Sterkfontein member 2 footbones of the oldest South African hominid. Science 269:521–524

Niemitz, C. (2002) A theory on the habitual orthograde human bipedalism—the “Amphibische Generalistentheorie”. Anthropologischer Anzeiger, 60:3–66

Niemitz, C. (2010) The evolution of the upright posture and gaita review and a new synthesis.  Naturwissenschaften, 97:241–263

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Effervescent entomologists – MSc Entomology London Natural History Museum Visit 2015

Last Tuesday (February 4th 2015) I was roused from sleep by the strident tones of my mobile phone telling me that “It’s 5 ‘o’ clock, it’s time to get up”.   Just over an hour later I was standing outside a coach ticking names off my list as yawning MSc student entomologists, PhD students and entomological staff  sleepily settled  down for the four-hour journey to London* Happy Days Coach

Artistic licence – it was still dark when we left!  The name of the coach company is particularly apt.

 Just over four hours later we arrived outside the front of the Natural History Museum on Cromwell Road.NHM front

The front of the Natural History Museum London; when I was a child the beauty of the facade was obscured by soot and grime.

Making our way round to the Exhibition Road entrance, we were met by the legendary Max Barclay @coleopterist,  the Collections Manager for Coleoptera and Hymenoptera.  Pausing only to introduce the students to Charles Darwin and to allow them to take Max & Darwin

Max Barclay introduces Darwin to the students

photographs of the now Twittering Dippy the Diplodocus  @NHM_Dippy, Dippy

Dippy the Diploducus, shortly to be replaced by the Blue Whale skeleton. The blue whale skeleton in my opinion has two advantages over Dippy, first it is real, not a model and second it is actually my first ever biological memory, aged 3.

  we entered the first of our scheduled stops, the Coleoptera section. Beetles

Approximately 220 000 drawers of beetles

Here Max enthralled the students with  the magic of beetles large and small. Max enthralling

Max in full flow

We saw a very small  selection of Alfred Russel Wallace’s 8000+ collection, some of Darwin’s beetles and ARW beetles

A very small selection of Wallace’s collection.

some of the beetles collected by botanist Joseph Banks (as Max pointed out he appeared to be only able to collect large and showy specimens, whereas Darwin’s were much smaller and harder to identify.Bank's beetles

Bank’s beetles – large and showy

  We were also privileged to see a beetle collected by palaeaoanthropologist Louis Leakey whilst excavating hominid remains in the Olduvai Gorge. Max & Leakey's beetle

Max relating the story of how Louis Leakey thought he had found a fossil beetle.

 We then moved on to the Hymenoptera; unfortunately Gavin Broad was not available so we did not have the benefit of a specialist to enthrall us although we did see some interesting specimens such as this Tarantula Hawk Wasp.Pepsis

Pepsis heros – Tarantula Hawk

We then broke for lunch before meeting up with, in my opinion, the most entertaining Dipterist in the World, Erica McAlister, also known as @flygirlNHM. Erica and big flies

Erica with some rather large flies.

She showed us bot fly larvae from unexpected hosts, camels, elephants and rhinoceroses whilst regaling us with amusing and risqué anecdotes of fly mating behaviour.Camle bot flies

Camel bot fly larvae

Erica also showed us some large wax models of insects, my favourite being the model of the aphid, Myzus persicae, which was very good indeed and something I would dearly love to have in my possession.  Erica on the other hand was very keen on the model of a Drosophila mutant 😉Erica & wax aphid

A very large aphid!

Then Erica led us into the depths of the museum to the Tank Room to look at some larger animals, or as Erica described them “The Big Pickles”. Tank room

Part of the Tank Room – lots of pickled fish

Some of the pickles were very big indeed.

Giant squid

A very big pickle – giant squid

After looking at some of the specimens that Darwin had collected whilst on the Beagle, we then went upstairs again, on the way looking at the famous cocoon from above, before we Long way down

Sideways view of the cocoon.

entered the world of the little pickles – spiders and their allies, some poisonous, some venomous.  There is a difference, check it out.Solifugid

A Camel spider; a Solifiguid, despite the common name, they are only very distantly related to spiders.

Scorpions

MSc Students and scorpions; big and relatively harmless, small and deadly (not the students). The gloves protect against the preservative, not the possibility of being bitten!

And then sadly, it was time to get back on the coach and make our way back to Shropshire and Harper Adams University.  A great day out, made particularly enjoyable by the obvious passion that Erica and Max have for their insects.  If you ever get the chance to see Max and Erica extolling the virtues of their pet beasties, make sure you do so.  Effervescent, ebullient, enthusiastic and energetic entomologists both.  I am  sure that I speak for all of us who made the trip when I say “Thank you Max” and “Thank you Erica”.

 

Post script

It was only when I was writing this blog post that I realised that this visit was exactly a year after our previous visit.  The other huge benefit of these visits is that it very important to let the students see that you can work as an entomologist in a museum without being male and grey-bearded 😉  In which context it was very nice to bump into one of our ex-students, in fact one from the very first cohort of the MSc in Entomology after our move from Imperial College to Harper Adams (a story for a future post).

Minty

 

Footnote

*My wife (born in London) insists that it is up to London, but as a Yorkshireman this goes against the grain.  As far as I’m concerned London is down south, so for the sake of marital harmony I have gone for to London  😉

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