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The price of the pouch

news editor19 December 2011

Jack Ashby writes about the last UCL Lunch Hour Lecture of 2011, held on 8 December.

Every zoologist has their own favourite group of animals, and mine is marsupials. However, this group sometimes suffer a lot of stick from the more common type of zoologist who studies placental mammals. They say marsupials are boring, stupid, primitive, too few in number and are altogether inferior to ‘normal’ mammals. I was hoping that the Lunch Hour Lecture by Anjali Goswami (UCL Genetics, Evolution and the Environment and UCL Earth Sciences) would set some of these accusations straight.

Whenever I go to Australia to undertake ecological fieldwork I am struck by the diversity of the mammals there. You can travel 200km and find a different species of marsupial mouse doing a similar thing to the one you saw the day before, only in a slightly different environment. Go another 200km and you could find a third.

However, the three species do look pretty similar. One of the major downsides of marsupials, from a biodiversity point of view, is that they haven’t evolved the range of forms that placental mammals have. While there is a semi-aquatic species of marsupial – the yapok – it could hardly be compared with a whale or a seal; there are gliding marsupials too, but they can’t do what bats can do. Marsupials and placentals have both been evolving for the same length of time – 125 million years; why did flying, swimming or event galloping never arise in marsupials? Anjali put it down to methods of reproduction.

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How to get a head. Or, what your skull is saying about you.

Katherine Aitchison30 November 2011

Can you read a skull? Did you know that the human is actually a fish? Can you tell your synapsids from your diapsids? Well read on to learn all the skull can tell us about life and evolution.

The UCL Grant Museum of Zoology has been a teaching collection for more than two decades, but last night it opened its collection for a public workshop for the first time, and I was one of the lucky souls who bagged a ticket and went along looking forward to getting my hands on some bones.

To begin, we took a seat at tables displaying a range of notably different skulls. We were then asked to take a look at the specimens in front of us and identify a number of key features that would help tell us more about what animal the skull had come from.

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Against nature? Homosexuality and evolution

news editor25 November 2011

Dave Weston reports on a Lunch Hour Lecture guaranteed to generate robust debate.

Same-sex sexual behaviour is often condemned on the grounds that it’s ‘against nature’. Indeed, biology tells us that selection favours those who leave more offspring. But then, homosexual behaviour is widespread – not only among humans, but also throughout the animal kingdom.

So, does that constitute a paradox for Darwinian theory? And is there a connection between what goes on in nature and what is morally desirable? These were the tricky questions that Professor Volker Sommer set out to address in a Lunch Hour Lecture on 17 November.

I’ve heard Volker speak several times before. His official title is Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at UCL and he’s an expert in behavioural ecology, having spent many years studying the behaviour of monkeys, apes… and people. The combination of an eminently quotable and engaging speaker with a live audience and potentially controversial subject matter meant this was always going to be a popular lecture.

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Cementing the place of evolution at UCL

Katherine Aitchison2 November 2011

In April 2011 the geographic split that has divided the UCL Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment (GEE) for many years was brought to an end when approximately 90 academic staff, students and support staff moved from Wolfson House to the newly refurbished Darwin Building on Gower Street. The move brought them together with the UCL Genetics Institute (UGI) which is to become a hub for statistical genetic and bioinformatics research.

Yesterday marked the completion of this £5.5 million project when the Darwin Building was officially reopened by the UCL Provost. The event included a mini-symposium entitled “What can evolution tell us about today?” before Professor Steve Jones invited the Provost to cut the ribbon and declare the building open for business.

Professor Malcolm Grant, President and Provost, UCL, cuts the ribbon to re-open the Darwin Building

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