Fishy antics on TV get expert University advice

Posted by ap507 at Jun 08, 2015 10:20 AM |
BBC Springwatch benefits from biologists' expertise on sticklebacks and ospreys

Issued by the University of Leicester Press Office on 8 June 2015

For the past two weeks much of the country has been transfixed on the antics of two rather unlikely ‘soap stars’ – two male sticklebacks on BBC’s Springwatch programme, who have become known as ‘Frisky Phil’ and ‘Spineless Simon’.

Viewers have watched them battle for territories, build nests, court females (with varying degrees of success, and often hilarious consequences) and now, battle with hungry predators and challenging conditions to attempt to raise their broods of eggs.

All of this makes for great TV and audiences have been spellbound, with the two male fish becoming the stars of this year’s show and developing an enormous online following – with ‘Spineless Simon’ now having his own ‘Twitter’ profile (@spinelesssimon).

There is clearly a real fascination with the daily lives, trials and tribulations of our native fauna, and the Springwatch programme does a fantastic job of bringing this generally unseen world to the masses. However, each fact casually delivered by the presenters represents extensive research work into the behaviour, ecology and evolution of these animals, often carried out by researchers at UK universities.

This year, University of Leicester biologist Dr Iain Barber has been providing scientific advice to the Springwatch team on the emerging story of Frisky Phil and Spineless Simon’s exploits. Dr Barber typically undertakes his research in the lab and is considered a world expert on the behaviour and parasitology of sticklebacks.

Dr Barber said: “What’s been so impressive about the past couple of weeks is how the Springwatch team have liaised with me continually about the emerging behavioural patterns of the sticklebacks. They have a great team of researchers who have been able to feed me information about what they are seeing and I am able to help them interpret the behaviours the viewers are watching.  For us, it’s fantastic to see the underwater footage of the fish in a completely natural environment, and it helps to verify all of the work we do in the lab, because we typically study sticklebacks in controlled aquarium studies.

“Sticklebacks are really great models for research, and hopefully we’ve managed to convey some of our recent findings through the Springwatch programme. Our current research is focused on the glue – ‘Spiggin’ - that male sticklebacks use to stick their nests together, and we’re also looking at effects of parasites on the nesting behaviour and health of male fish. All of these aspects of stickleback biology are now being seen on the programme and broadcast to a far wider audience than we could ever reach hope to with our scientific output.

“It’s great that the BBC use the expertise that we have in British universities in this way to inform their fantastic nature documentaries. Hopefully, the information we give them can give a scientific explanation for some of the really fascinating behaviours we see onscreen!”

Sticklebacks have been the undoubted stars of Springwatch this year, but another story that captivated the millions of people who tune into the hit BBC series each evening revolved around an Osprey at Rutland Water. 18 year-old ‘Mr Rutland’ was one of 64 Ospreys translocated to Rutland Water in the late 1990s in order to establish a breeding population of these spectacular fish-eating birds of prey. After first returning to breed at the reservoir in 2001 Mr Rutland has continued to raise young each year and his total of fledged offspring now stands at an impressive 32.

His legacy extends further by virtue of the fact that prior to this summer he was grandfather to 43 Ospreys and great-grandfather to a further 15 birds. This year Mr Rutland was forced to defend his nest against the aggressive advances of two young male Ospreys who attempted to oust him from his long-established nest. Mr Rutland eventually prevailed, but not before this year’s clutch of eggs had been damaged in the fighting.

Aside from providing a fascinating story for Springwatch, the Osprey population at Rutland Water is the focus of Tim Mackrill’s PhD at University of Leicester. Tim, who works for the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust at Rutland Water alongside his PhD studies, was interviewed by presenter Michaela Strachan.

He said, “Ospreys remain faithful to the same nest each year and these long-established nests often attract unwanted attention in the spring. That said, the fighting we witnessed at Mr Rutland’s nest this year was particularly aggressive and so it was great that the Springwatch cameras were there to capture the action.”

“Springwatch provides a wonderful opportunity to engage with millions of people. I’m not quite sure whether Mr Rutland has become such a cult hero as Spineless Simon though!”

Dr Barber is the Head of the Department of Biology at the University of Leicester, and the Vice-President of the Fisheries Society of the British Isles. He has published over 50 research papers and book chapters on stickleback behaviour, ecology and evolution (http://tinyurl.com/barberlab)

This August he and members of his lab will present their latest research at the 8th International Stickleback Conference, to be held in New York (http://life.bio.sunysb.edu/ee/stickleback/)

Dr Barber has been advising the Springwatch team for the past two years, and his stickleback research also featured on the ONE Show, broadcast in 2013 (http://bobnational.net/record/264184)

Dr Barber’s research is funded by the UK NERC, the BBSRC, the Research Council of Norway and the governments of Libya, Pakistan, Iraq and Malaysia.

ENDS

Notes to Editors:

For more information contact Dr Iain Barber on ib50@leicester.ac.uk and Tim Mackrill on trm9@leicester.ac.uk

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