Recent Gibbs Travelling Research Projects

2015-2019 Gibbs Fellows and their fieldwork projects are detailed below.




2019-2020 Dr Loubab Zedane - Fog-harvesting adaptations in genus Eriospermum

The evolution of fog-harvesting adaptations in the genus Eriospermum

A fog desert is a type of desert where non-precipitating fog moisture supplies most of the water needed by the organisms that live there – that is, fog supplies the water, instead of rain. Well-known fog deserts include the Atacama Desert of coastal Chile, and the Namib Desert of southern Africa.

Animals and plants living in fog deserts have evolved extraordinary adaptations to enable them to survive in these extreme environments. These physiological and morphological adaptations allow organisms to efficiently harvest moisture from the fog via condensation, and then absorption.

For example, nano-scale surface structures on the back of the Stenocara gracilipes beetle allow droplets of water to stick to its surface and accumulate there. The droplets accumulate until they roll down the beetle’s back to its mouth for it to drink.

Other adaptations such as mist-net leaves, spiraled leaves, and hairy leaves in plants (e.g. in the desert moss Syntrichia caninervis), allow for water condensation and fog-drip by increasing the edge-to-surface area of the organism. Foliar Water Uptake (FWU) is a common water acquisition mechanism for plants in ecosystems affected by fog, having as a consequence a net increase in leaf water mass. Recent studies have shown that the diffusion of fog water intercepted by the leaves in a number of species could be mediated by fungal hyphae, absorbent trichomes (leaf hairs), and the properties of the cuticle and leaf. Individual plant species may potentially use several pathways for water acquisition.

However, little is known about the water use proportions from various sources and potential water uptake pathways in Eriospermum (Asparagaceae), a plant genus native to sub-Saharan Africa with more than two thirds of the estimated 125 species occurring uniquely in semi-arid deserts in Southern Africa. This plant genus demonstrates a remarkable range of unusual leaf morphologies, including reduction of the leaf lamina and the production of unusual leaf enations on the adaxial surface of the leaf (Perry, 1994). These enations have been suggested to be associated with the harvesting of non-precipitating moisture in the form of fog, mist, and dew, but this hypothesis has yet to be rigorously tested.

2019-2020 Dr Janet Gruber - Human papillomavirus vaccination

Proposal for research into the outcomes and impacts of the human papillomavirus vaccination demonstration programme in Malawi

The research will examine the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination demonstration programme implementation in Malawi from a social anthropological perspective.
The core research hypothesis is that there is a need to examine health system delivery, community responses and socio-cultural underpinnings of these in the context of the HPV demonstration programme in Malawi. The research will consider ethical and health rights’ issues, linked to preventive services for cervical and other cancers where HPV is a risk factor.
No such research has yet been conducted in Malawi. One such rights issue is how to provide information and services to girls and young women unreached by the HPV demonstration programme, which was predominantly conducted with girls in school.
Most work so far on HPV vaccination in Malawi and elsewhere has focused on clinical and epidemiological aspects. In addition, a large proportion of the HPV vaccination literature addresses pre-implementation planning and research.
I will consider socio-cultural barriers, including social and gender norms, in the context of HPV programme implementation, an area of study which has received relatively little attention (most such studies and reviews that exist depend on quantitative data and present aggregate information). Detailed review has found no published research based on social
and medical anthropology approaches. Most of the hitherto limited number of postimplementation studies prioritise epidemiological outcomes, biomedical challenges, health systems’ issues, and cost implications iii. Therefore, this research will break new ground.

2018-2019 Dr Lucy Goodison - Archaelogy

2018-2019 Dr Sertaç Sehlikoglu - Social Anthropology

2017-2018 Dr Maanasa Raghavan - DNA

29 January 2019: Link to Report 

Reconstructing the population history of India using ancient DNA

With rapid technological advances in DNA sequencing, we are seeing a steady increase in the DNA sequence output and a concurrent reduction in cost, making next-generation sequencing a cost-effective way to perform population-level genomic analyses. The last few years have witnessed an associated increase in the number of studies focusing on reconstructing human population histories. Many of these studies have highlighted the power of co-analysing ancient and modern DNA datasets in order to trace past migrations and admixture events that have shaped the present-day human gene pool. Ultimately, this knowledge is key to resolving controversies surrounding population origins as well as aspects of medical genetics research.

My research aims to harness the power of modern and ancient human genomics and lay the foundation for long-term research into reconstructing the complex human population history of India. For a region that is home to genetically and culturally diverse demography, the lack of data to reconstruct the early peopling of India and the subsequent population genetics trajectory is especially striking. India’s genetic past remains a subject of great debate due to numerous hypotheses surrounding population origins and migrations within and from outside India. The proposed fieldwork, involving the sub-sampling of 50-100 ancient human remains and 100 individuals from five present-day indigenous populations representing a range in cultural, phenotypic and genetic diversity, constitutes an integral part of a multi-disciplinary project that brings together archaeology, anthropology, and population and medical genetics. The whole-genome data generated from these ancient and modern samples will provide the opportunity to directly test several of the hypotheses surrounding population origins for the first time, as well as contributing a valuable reference panel for future genomics studies.

2016-2017 Dr Emily Mitchell - Ediacaran Ecology

Illuminating the start of complex life: Using spatial analyses to investigate Ediacaran ecology

Ediacaran macro-organisms are the oldest large, complex organisms in the fossil record, found 585-540 million years ago, just prior to the Cambrian explosion. These Ediacaran organisms differ fundamentally from those found at other time periods, making it difficult to resolve their basic biology such as their phylogenetic relationships or their ecology. However, the in-situ preservation of thousands of these sessile organisms across hundreds of bedding planes provides a near-census record of these first macro-organism communities. My research utilises complex spatial statistical techniques and theoretical models to extract biological and ecological information from fossil spatial patterns. These analyses require large datasets, which I record from field sites in Newfoundland, Canada and Charnwood Forest, UK using a laser scanner to create high-resolution 3D maps. The combination of these three dimensional maps, coupled with spatial point process analyses, enables me to test detailed hypotheses relating to Ediacaran life.

2016-2017 Dr Kiyoko Gotanda - Darwin's Finches

Antipredator behaviour in Darwin’s finches

“All of [the terrestrial birds] are often approached sufficiently near to be killed with a switch, and sometimes, as I myself tried, with a cap or a hat.” -Charles Darwin

Humans pose major threats to biodiversity on the planet, such as the introduction of non-native predators, an impact known to be closely correlated with local extinction events. On islands, such threats are amplified and can have a major impact on evolution and adaptation. The Galápagos Islands are renowned for their unique, endemic biodiversity which inspired Charles Darwin to develop his theory of evolution by natural selection. In particular, Darwin’s finches are an iconic example of adaptive radiation due to natural selection, where several species have evolved from a single, common ancestor. These and other Galápagos organisms evolved over millions of years in the absence of humans and other mammalian predators, and thus developed a profound naïveté to humans and their associated animals. However, humans have introduced invasive mammalian predators that prey on naïve animals. Most notably, feral house cats and black rats opportunistically prey on many native bird species, including Darwin’s finches.
My Gibbs Research Fellowship objective was to assess how Darwin’s finches have adapted behaviourally to invasive predators among islands. To answer this, I studied flight initiation distance (FID), the distance at which prey will flee an approaching potential predator as a measure of antipredator behaviour. I found that FID was higher on islands that had invasive predators than on islands that had no history of invasive predators. This result shows that the Darwin’s finches have adapted their antipredator behaviour by increasing the distance at which they will flee an approaching predator on islands that have invasive predators. On islands that have successfully eradicated invasive predators, I had expected that FID would be reduced, because unnecessary antipredator behaviour can be costly due to wasted time and energy, and thus, I expected that FID will decrease in correlation with time since predator eradication increases. I found that increased FID was maintained on islands that had successfully eradicated cats and rats. This suggests that the costs of increased FID are minimal and that the behaviour might have a heritable basis as opposed to being completely plastic. These results are but one small piece of information that is important in shaping current and future island conservation strategies and biodiversity policies.

2015-2016 Dr Alecia Carter - Cultural Evolution

Understanding limits to cultural evolution: social information use in primates

Culture is a fundamental characteristic of humanity, but is rarely found in other animals. This is paradoxical, because a critical mechanism for the formation of culture, namely social learning (learning from the observation of others), is widespread in the animal kingdom. Animals, like humans, differ in the quality and quantity of their social relationships: some have many social connections and occupy central network positions, while others live at the social periphery of a community. As a result, individuals differ in their opportunities to acquire information by observing others, i.e. to acquire social information. Limitations to individuals’ access to social information, because of their social network position, may inhibit the spread of novel information among group members which is required for culture to form. This project aimed to test this hypothesis by experimentally establishing traditions in two troops of wild Namibian chacma baboons (Papio ursinus), a species that has social learning but in which culture has rarely been reported. Identifying the social and phenotypic constraints on the acquisition and use of information in complex social groups will enhance our understanding of the conditions necessary for traditions and culture to emerge in animal societies.

2015-2016 Dr Julie Gilbert - Young women's livelihoods in Nigeria

Experiencing the Fake: Uncertain knowledge and young women’s livelihoods in urban Nigeria

Nigeria has become associated with acts of duplicity and corruption. Solicitous emails sent by young men (‘yahoo yahoo boys’) promising vast sums of money if only one provides bank details, or the incredible wealth government officials and other ‘Big Men’ can amass from the country’s natural oil resources are two of the examples that characterise the fraudulence occurring in ‘Africa’s Giant’. However, what is less well appreciated is how this deception – what we might call ‘fakery’ – is not an aberration of Nigeria’s reality – a deviant spectacle or a roguish occurrence – but is, rather, constitutive of it. ‘Fakery’ has become so pervasive that it shapes how Nigerians understand their everyday lives, feeding out of and reinforcing other experiences of insecurity (e.g. economic, physical, political, spiritual).
This research takes fakery and the production of uncertain knowledge as a starting point for understanding young women’s livelihoods in Calabar, a city in southeastern Nigeria. Young women are one of the most marginalised groups in Nigeria by dint of the fact that they are female and also unmarried, and this research seeks to understand how this group navigates these binds of gender and generation as they attempt to ‘grow up’. Focusing on different parts of single young women’s lives, from church (Pentecostal) activity, to home life, friendships and intimate relationships, and also to their engagement with communication technology/social media, fashion and beauty, the research questions whether young women are not only subject to ‘fakery’ but also producers of it as they attempt to be align themselves according to feminine ideals of respectability. Doing so, this research makes an important empirical and analytical contribution to research on youth in Africa, a growing body of literature that has, through its tendency to focus on young men, risked homogenising the experiences of young people. The focus on young women as possible producers of everyday forms of insecurity also aims to question the assumption that ‘fakery’ in Nigeria is an inherently male and criminal phenomenon.

2015-2016 Dr Janet Owen - Natural Selection

Collecting Natural Selection

The Gibbs Travelling Research Fellowship supported travel to both Tierra del Fuego and Indonesia in order to investigate the collecting journeys of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in these locations. These visits to the historical theatres of collecting supported the examination of surviving artefacts and manuscripts in museum and archive collections, and enabled consideration of experiences concerned with senses of place; a dynamic often overlooked if analysis focuses solely on the material culture collected and observations recorded. Research articles generated from this work are due for publication in Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London and the Journal of the History of Collections.

As a consequence of this work, a new methodology for analyzing and interpreting world collections in UK museums is under development. This is centred on the interdisciplinary concept of ‘deep mapping’ of place. It draws upon approaches from historical geography, anthropology, textual analysis, material culture and the geo-humanities, and dives into the entangled sensory detail of encounters encapsulated in moments of collecting. A major collaborative research project looking at early nineteenth century collecting journeys is now in preparation, entitled From Enlightenment to Origin. A related initiative will consider how this place-centred approach might lead to new ways of presenting museum collections in support of learning outcomes focused on global citizenship.