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…