Breaking the One-year Silence, again

I should preface my latest post with recognition that I had intended to be a more regular blogger. Despite the good intention, I haven’t updated the world on our successes since last March. Where did the year go? Twenty-twenty was an absolute blur: Australian bushfires and floods, leading into the ongoing pandemic that caused a global malaise. With all the past and continuing sources for reduced performance and angst, you might well expect our productivity to have declined over this time. Quite the opposite! Below is a brief overview of the many hits from the SEG for 2020 and into the first quarter of 2021. These successes have been fueled by a bittersweet Exodus of Talent arising from fledged PhDs.

Dr Anne Aulsebrook began her Marie Curie Fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany, in February 2021. Her relocation to Germany was delayed owing to COVID-related border closures. We now eagerly await reading of her success to come as a Marie Curie Postdoctoral Research Fellow.

Farley submitted his dissertation (Impacts of anthropogenic pollution on cognition and sleep in an urban bird) for review around Easter 2020. This was approved with minor changes, and his doctorate was conferred by The University of Melbourne in December.

Dr Farley Connelly’s contribution to science has been large and original with implications for urban planning. In a series of experiments on captive magpies implanted with sensors for EEG/EMG recordings, Dr Connelly showed that both sound and light pollution reduce, fragment and lighten sleep. Importantly, he further showed that magpies are less sensitive to amber light at night than white light; counter to findings on pigeons (pigeon data courtesy of Dr Aulsebrook). This result highlights the need for multi-species comparisons, and cautions against across-species generalizations based on data from just one species. Farley also looked at the effects of noise pollution on cognition in wild and captives magpies. For wild magpies, louder noise impaired cognitive performance on one of four cognitive tasks; whereas, the age of the bird had the greatest effect. On captive magpies, the birds showed no difference in cognitive performance in the presence or absence of noise, but rather improved with practice irrespective of treatment.

It has been a great experience working with Farley. He and I first worked together on guillotine-related adventures in the middle of the night under red light. We then worked together doing surgeries on black swan where his steady hands were needed to maintain the thermometer in each swan’s cloaca for hours at a time. After these good times, we decided we should work together properly, and so set up the magpie wing of the lab. Our collaboration has been a great success owing, in large part, to Farley’s creativity and dedication. His ideas are good ones; following them is an easy decision, and undoubtedly is responsible for the high number of papers that have (and continue to) come out of the magpie studies. Dr Connelly is now the Program Officer at EnviroDNA in Melbourne.

Next, mid-year Mike submitted his dissertation entitled, An investigation into sleep in sharks: behavioural and electrophysiological approaches, to The University of Western Australia for external peer-review. This was likewise rapidly approved with minimal effort and he became Dr Mike Kelly in December.

Dr Kelly has made an important contribution to our understanding of sleep and circadian rhythms in sharks, understudied aspects of shark biology and comparative sleep research. I’d like to first draw your attention to our long history with Mike. In 2014, Mike was an Honours student in our group, and worked on arguably the next most exotic group of dangerous animals – crocodiles. Here, Mike investigated the adaptive value of reptiles sitting with one-eye open. In birds and marine mammals, such behaviour corresponds to unihemispheric NREM sleep. In reptiles, the significance of this behaviour has been unclear. Mike studied how young saltwater crocodiles use unilateral eye closure in response to visual stimuli. Overall, like birds and marine mammals engaged in unihemispheric NREM sleep, crocodiles opened one eye more following presentation of either (1) other young crocodiles or (2) a human – Mike himself! Furthermore, the crocodiles oriented their open eye towards the visual stimulus. Whether this means that crocodiles, and other reptiles, can sleep unihemispherically is unknown, but it does provide insight into how these animals use their open eye.

Mike then left the lab for even wetter pastures. Following a world-wide, self-funded tour of shark labs, Mike settled on his home with Shaun Collin and Caroline Kerr, and later Jan Hemmi, at UWA. This power team, that eventually included Craig Radford at Uni Auckland, conducted highly original studies in multiple species of shark. Mike first collaborated on a book chapter reviewing sleep across animals, then a review that focused specifically on the evidence for sleep in sharks. Here, Mike highlighted the conspicuous gaps in our understanding of sharks, which the rest of his PhD addressed. He described profound circadian variation in swimming behaviour in 5 species of sharks, and then tested whether periods of restfulness observed in some of those species reflects sleep. The conclusion that restful sharks are sleeping sharks is reinforced by (yet unpublished) metabolic data. His final chapter, with the now expanded power team to include PA Libourel from France (the world’s best comparative electrophysiologist), Mike conducted the first investigations into brain activity of freely behaving fishes. Dr Kelly has since been offered a Smithsonian Research Fellowship in the U.S. and a postdoc at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. What will Mike do? Stay tuned.

Collectively, the successes of these newly-minted, independent scientists is reflected in seven publications from 2020 and one thus far in 2021, with many more to come from these, and other, members of the Sleep Ecophysiology Group. Accordingly, further updates on the rest of the group will be forthcoming later this year…

Breaking the One-year Silence

I am a poor blogger. I haven’t posted a thing in one year. And what a pity? The lab has done great things in 2019. When viewed individually or collectively, I think you will agree. And so – in surname-reverse-alphabetical-order – in only 2019…

Zaid, Erika completed all data collection for her PhD. She conducted, at the beginning of 2019, a final field season in the Otways to bring antechinus back to La Trobe for an experiment on sleep regulation. Importantly, this was done, despite the hectic time in the final full year of her PhD. Nonetheless, she did it and it is paying off: the new EEG/EMG/ACC data has been scored and analyzed in record time. The figures are complete, and writing has begun! I’ll save details on the results for another time, but this Zaid et al. 2020 will become the first data-based paper of her PhD, and the first on sleep homeostasis in any marsupial. Furthermore, Erika co-wrote a book chapter that came out in 2019, too; appropriately enough, she wrote the section Adaptive Sleeplessness (a topic now dear to her heart as an expecting mum). Amazing work and great results! Plus, Erika had other BIG news (already alluded to)… Baby Enrico! What a year!

Tworkowski, Lauren is the newest member of Team Sleep. Much of her PhD is on hot, presumably awake, penguins, but after co-writing a piece for Current Biology, she decided to fully embrace the profound behavioural shutdown that is sleep with upcoming research into hot, fasting penguins. In 2020, she will look at how sleep changes over the three-week molt, with the expectation that [redacted]. A simple study with big implications.

Russo, Adrian – our friend from Psychology – has been flat out this year. He started 2019 by publishing a paper charactering the behaviour and neurophysiology of two strains of mice that differ greatly in response to novel situations. Moreover, in 2019, he collected the last bits of data for his PhD. After discussing a study looking at sleep electrophysiology in BALB/c and C57B mice for perhaps two years, in 2019, he made it happen. Following surgeries on 16 mice, he collected impressive data that will (likely) show [redacted]. He also enjoyed being bitten by mice while injecting them with drugs. An impressive year!

Omond, Shauni gave her confirmation seminar in 2019, and received unanimous praise from her PhD committee. In fact, the general thought is that she needs to only accomplish half of what she planned: a data-based paper on wild-caught fruit flies, flatworm neurochemistry and electrophysiology. All of these things are moving swiftly forward, and in positive directions. Figures for her first PhD paper (on flies) is coming together, with a little more data collection ongoing. She will be well-placed to submit a paper on fruit fly “sleep” behaviour mid-year. She is also making good progress on her neurochemistry and electrophysiology work. She’s had to overcome setbacks this year (how to feed worms drugs, and fix exceedingly expensive micromanipulators), but handled them well and is moving forward in multiple directions. Shauni also secured $15,000 from the Defense Science Institute. A productive 2019 leading into a promising 2020!

Kelly, Mike has made strides in 2019, and the end is in sight. He contributed to a book chapter this year, providing his insights into sleep in cartilaginous fishes, and followed that up with a first author review in Brain, Behavior, and Evolution. Here, Mike reviewed the evidence (or lack thereof) for sleep in sharks and rays. It is an exhaustive and completely original piece of work, and nicely serves as the first chapter of his dissertation. Moving fast, Mike is nearly ready to submit his second paper, this one on the diversity of activity rhythms in multiple species of shark. And what diversity! [redacted] He will then move quickly onto a third paper describing sleep in benthic sharks. No doubt 2020 will be a solid year for Mike.

Johnsson, Robin joined us from the movie Midsommar, and published a paper soon thereafter based on his MSc work with Anders Brodin on tool use (and lack thereof) in tits. In 2019, Robin, working with Farley, collected so, so, so much data on captive magpies. Robin and Farley made a Lennon+McCartney agreement and have become a powerhouse research team. For Robin’s part, he conducted multiple experiments: (1) the effects of 6-h and 12-h nighttime sleep loss on magpie neurobehavioural performance, and (2) new data showing posture-dependent changes in sleep. He also collected data on circadian variation in cognition in wild magpies, and conducted his first field season on great bowerbirds in Townsville. Currently, Robin spends much time scoring his magpie recordings with an eye towards submitting mid-year. An incredible year for Robin! *Also involved in the captive magpie work is Juliane Mussoi from the University of Auckland who contributed important and original data showing that sleep deprived magpies sing [redacted].

Eastick, Danielle was in the lab for her Honours, and as such, will always be an Honorary Member of SEG. She has since moved onto exciting research questions on non-feathered, yet winged, mammals. Importantly, she published her Honours work in 2019 in Scientific Reports. This work – showing that studies of Australian animals can shed light on dinosaur physiology – garnered much national (The Age, Australian Geographic) and international (NewScientist, National Geographic) attention. What a cool study, especially since Dani demonstrated that cassowaries use their helmet to offload heat during hot, humid days, and restrict heat loss in cooler conditions. By doing so, Dani was also able to solve a mystery – the function of the casque – that has remained enigmatic for 200 years.

John Lennon to Robin’s Paul McCartney is Connelly, Farley. Following whirlwind data collection and analysis in 2019, Farley showed that urban sound pollution reduces, fragments, and lightens sleep in magpies (currently in review). He further found that light pollution from streetlights [redacted] sleep. Overall, these two studies will provide important new insight into how pollution influences sleep in wildlife. Additionally, Farley and Robin provided the first evidence for tool use in magpies – an observation they will publish together. Their work with captive magpies reinforces an easily forgotten aspect of science: that things can work. Starting with the intention of a single study on magpies, owing to Farley and Robin’s creativity and drive, this has ballooned wonderfully into 5, maybe 6 papers. Well done!

The final member of Team Sleep has recently fledged: Aulsebrook, Dr Anne. Do we need to say more? Annie had a busy and productive 2019. She submitted her PhD dissertation; after an assessment by two international reviewers, it was passed with minor (very minor) revision, perhaps best summarized by reviewer two: “I want to emphasize that the two empirical projects are a tour de force in terms of amount of work and quality of data”. Dr Aulsebrook has since been awarded a Marie Curie Fellowship, which will take her to the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany, and to Alaska for field work on waders. I couldn’t be more proud. I have no reservation to say that, despite outstanding and original contributions to sleep research during her PhD, Annie will look back at these important and impactful papers as her least important work.

In close, the lab had a busy and productive 2019. Some of that productivity is reflected in field or lab work, data collected or analyzed, figures generated, grants approved, and also papers published. What a year! I remain so humbled to work with each of you as I see the development from PhD student to independent scientist. Yours is a heartwarming journey that I am proud to be a part.

New Publication


Big, enthusiastic Congratulations to Dani Eastick on her first, first-author publication.
Here, Dani provides new insight into the physiology of some helmeted Dinosaurs (bottom left) through…


…the study of helmeted cassowaries (above right)!
Cassowaries, and perhaps some Dinosaurs, used such appendages for
heat exchange with the environment, conserving body heat at low temperatures
and off-loading 8% of all body heat at the highest temperatures. Well done, Dani!

Dinosaur illustration by Zhao Chuang, the Scientific artist of PNSO, China;
the cassowary photo ©Kim Teltscher, Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Germany
(both used with permission)

End of Year Wrap-up

It has been half a year since my last post; unsurprisingly, a lot has happened since mid-year.

Soon-to-be Doctor, Ryan Tisdale, has gone on a publishing spree with three chapters out this year alone:

  1. Spectral properties of brain activity under two anesthetics and their potential for inducing natural sleep in birds. Frontiers in Neuroscience 12, 881.
  2. The low-down on sleeping down low: pigeons shift to lighter forms of sleep when sleeping near the ground. Journal of Experimental Biology 221, 182634.
  3. Bird-like propagating brain activity in anesthetized Nile crocodiles. Sleep 41, zsy105.

And equally important is that Ryan’s dissertation is currently under review at Utrecht University in The Netherlands. An immensely productive year for Ryan, capped by a well-earned vacation!

ICN_afterCloser to home, I had the good fortune to organize a symposium for the International Congress of Neuroethology in Brisbane. Contributing to The Evolution of Sleep and Adaptive Sleeplessness Symposium was Barrett Klein (left) from the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse (USA), me, Mike Kelly (third from left) from The University of Western Australia, Perth, and Niels Rattenborg (right) from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Seewiesen (Germany). After the meeting, we were fortunate to host Barrett back at La Trobe, where he gave two outstanding seminars and met up with the rest of the lab.

More recently, I chaired the Wild Sleep Symposium at the Wild Clocks 2018 meeting, superbly organized by Michaela Hau and Bart Kempenaers at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany. There, we heard from Paul Manger from the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa), David Samson from the University of Toronto (Canada), Anne Aulsebrook at nearby University of Melbourne, and Erica Stuber at Yale University (USA), and me. One of the best meetings I’ve attended and one that reunited old friends and opened new opportunities. A big thank you to Ela and Bart!


Lastly, I’ve taken a stab at writing for popular media. Annie and I teamed up for a piece at The Conversation answering sleepy questions from a very much awake 5-year-old named Lucinda in Canberra. She cleverly asked, Do animals sleep like people? Do snails sleep in their shells? Why doesn’t a whale drown when it sleeps? Great questions, Lucinda! You can read our responses here. I then tried outreach to somewhat older kids in the UK magazine, Science + Nature with The Science of Snooze.

On behalf of the Sleep Ecophysiology Group, have a lovely and safe Christmas and New Years, and a productive 2019!

Visiting Scientists

The last couple of days we were fortunate enough to host Associate Professor Bruno van Swinderen from the Queensland Brain Institute, and Dr Vanessa Kellerman from Monash University to discuss future studies on sleeping flatworms and fruit flies. What an amazing opportunity for us!


[Left-to-right: John Lesku, Vanessa Kellerman, Bruno van Swinderen, Robin Johnsson, Erika Zaid, Anne Aulsebrook, Shauni Omond]

New Publication

A BIG Congratulations to soon-to-be-Dr Alynn Martin from the University of Tasmania on her latest article! Here, Alynn provides a comprehensive investigation into the effects of mange on wombats in Narawntapu National Park.

Infrared thermographic analyses to measure heat loss from living animals, doubly labelled water to quantify field metabolic rates, accelerometry data logging to show changes in prominent behaviours, and fatty acid composition in various tissues. Wow!


How do wombats respond to increasing severity of mange? Read it to find out!

New Publication

PTRSBPart of a Special Issue on “Wild Clocks”, we outline the methodologies involved for measuring “Wild Sleep“:

Niels Rattenborg, Horacio de la Iglesia, Bart Kempenaers, John Lesku, Peter Meerlo and Madeleine Scriba, “Sleep research goes wild: new methods and approaches to investigate the ecology, evolution and functions of sleep”.

This makes for an excellent companion piece to our 2016 article in Trends in Ecology & Evolution on the need to ‘go wild’.