External speaker: Professor Hilary Lappin-Scott

The Centre for Biodiscovery was pleased to welcome Professor Hilary Lappin-Scott OBE to the National Horizons Centre. Prof. Lappin-Scott gave a talk detailing her journey from early career researcher to professor (and beyond!). As Hilary is from Middlesbrough her story resonated with many of the team. We were inspired to hear of how she became the first female professor at Exeter University and how she has used her subject knowledge and position to help highlight issues of inclusivity within the sciences. Hilary then met specifically with our microbiology based researcher to offer advice to them. We hope to welcome Hilary back to the NHC soon.

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New paper alert from Dr Desire Dalton

New Publication: PAReTT: a Python package for the Automated Retrieval and management of divergence time data from the TimeTree resource for downstream analyses

Louis-Stéphane IV Le Clercq a PhD student of Dr Desiré Lee Dalton (Lecturer in Forensic Science, Teesside University) has developed PAReTT – a Python Automated Retrieval of TimeTree data. In order to study speciation (emergence of a new species, sub-species, or ecotypes) accurate fossil-calibrated, estimates of divergence times are needed. PAReTT is a biologist-friendly, easily accessible, and freely available algorithm that can be used to retrieve (1) divergence times, between an individual pair or between all species in a list, (2) evolutionary timelines, for individuals or a list species, and (3) time trees of the divergence times, either for all available species within a specified taxon or between individual species supplied as a list. Future updates will include the ability to switch between scientific names and common names for species as well as the ability to calculate diversification rates for a table of multiple lineages.

Access the publication through the publishers website with this link (DOI: 10.1007/s00239-023-10106-3)



What came after the Woolly Mammoth

On the 26th April, Dr Ambroise Baker gave a fascinating talk about ‘What came after the Woolly mammoth’

The talk introduced some of the questions surrounding the late-Quaternary extinctions and their relevance when considering ecosystem management today. There was a focus on the consequence of this wave of megafauna extinction. Importantly, studying these consequences furthers our understanding of the ecosystem function that megafauna preformed before extinction. Understanding the loss of this function is increasingly relevant when managing ecosystems, especially when considering megafauna introduction as is the case with rewilding strategies. However, there remains many unknowns regarding the lost megafauna functions, how to re-introduce them and the benefits that can be achieved with re-introduction, pointing to the need for a thorough monitoring of current rewilding projects.

Two PhD Opportunities

Our environmental group is delighted to announce 1 fully funded and 1 fees-only funded PhD opportunities. See below and follow the links provided for further information.

Investigation of moorland management practices and carbon dynamics for climate change mitigation (fully-funded)

Peatlands are increasingly being seen as part of nature’s solutions to deal with the environmental challenges of today, from tackling climate change through to flood protection and enhancing biodiversity. However, while all peatlands provide these services, research and conservation efforts have focused largely on deep peats (>40cm depth). Therefore this project will investigate the impact of different management practices on shallow peatland carbon balances. A field campaign will enable multiple sites across the North York Moors to be surveyed and monitored for peat and pore water chemistry, microbial communities and carbon dynamics.

Above and below ground carbon stocks and biotic changes during rewilding

This project will quantify changes in biodiversity, ecosystem function, carbon stocks and their interactions during the initial phases of rewilding. At the primary field site, some 66 experimental fixed plots are set up within formerly agricultural land comprising a variety of arable, improved, and natural grasslands. Rewilding was initiated in 2022, with the cessation of agricultural activities which will be followed by large herbivore re-introduction (eg hardy free-ranging cattle and pigs). The analysis will quantify ecosystem changes in time, against baseline data collected in 2021-2022, and enable an assessment of rewilding contribution notably to net-zero and nature recovery policies.

We anticipate the project to be a unique opportunity to work with a range of collaborators inside and outside academia. We are looking for candidates with a strong interest in combining biodiversity, microbiological and environmental science, to develop novel evidence contributing to the UN decade of ecosystem restoration.

Tees Seal Photo ID Project

As part of ongoing work to better understand and monitor seal populations in the Tees and surrounding areas, the Tees Seal Photo ID Project (TSPIP) is a new citizen science initiative giving members of the public (that’s you!) the opportunity to get involved in conservation research. Photo ID involves taking photographs of seals to capture the unique patterns on each seal’s fur. These patterns can be used to identify individual animals and monitor them over time. We can then get a clearer idea on population numbers, see which sites seals prefer and whether this changes over time, learn how far they travel and which other populations they interact with, and even see which seals here in the Tees like to hang out together. The non-invasive nature of photo ID means it’s possible to get all this information without ever having to touch or disturb a seal.

Some of the seals who call the Tees home. THg007, also known as Puzzle, is very much a regular sight and was seen at Greatham Creek every month over summer 2022. Photos; F. Pellie.
Some of the seals who call the Tees home. THg007, also known as Puzzle, is very much a regular sight and was seen at Greatham Creek every month over summer 2022. Photos; F. Pellie.

Students at Teesside University are already at work photographing seals and compiling catalogues of individuals which show their markings from different angles, allowing us to efficiently compare new photographs to animals we’ve seen before. There’s only so many places we can be at once though so we’re reaching out to the community to ask you to consider taking photographs of the seals you see and sending these to us. In doing so, you’ll be helping us to expand our catalogues and build upon our understanding of the seals we’ve already logged. At the time of writing, our catalogues contain 132 local seals.

Catalogue pages for a harbour seal (TPv073, “Moose”) and a grey seal (THg004, “Bea”). Photos; F. Pellie.
Catalogue pages for a harbour seal (TPv073, “Moose”) and a grey seal (THg004, “Bea”). Photos; F. Pellie.

Any picture of a seal could potentially be useful, but the easiest photographs for us to match show the whole left or right side of the animal. If the seal is swimming and you just capture the side of its head, don’t worry – we can use those images too! Photos of seals’ undersides are also helpful as they can allow us to record the sex of the animal.

Want to get involved? Simply send your seal photos to F.Pellie@tees.ac.uk. Please include the date and location the photos were taken in the email.

Want to learn more about the project? This project is coordinated by Freya Pellie, an environmental science PhD student at Teesside University; feel free to drop Freya an email with any queries you may have: F.Pellie@tees.ac.uk.

For information on how we’ll process your personal data if you participate in the project, please click HERE to view our privacy notice.

TSPIP is part of a wider PhD study of the Tees seals, made possible by a studentship funded by Graham Construction and Teesside University.    

1 kilometre under the surface: Researching organisms from extreme environment

MSc Microbiology students Orakan Jones and Nathalia Thompson with Drs Paul Dean and Jens Holtvoeth collected brines for extremophile research 1,000m below the surface in the Boulby salt mine.

In October, a team from Teesside University took part in the 10th annual field event on astrobiology, robotics, and planetary exploration (MINAR X), organised by the UKRI Underground Laboratory at the ICL salt mine at Boulby. Dr Jens Holtvoeth was joined by Dr Paul Dean and two microbiology MSc students, Orakan Jones and Nathalia Thompson to travel 1.000 meters down the shaft and underneath the North Sea, together with scientists from the Universities of Edinburgh, York, Manchester, and Newcastle, the California Institute of Technology, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Pasadena).

The aim of our team was to collect samples of salt and brine for biomarker and DNA analyses to produce a geochemical fingerprint of fossil and living microbial communities and to gain information on cellular adaptation mechanisms of halophile microorganisms to the extreme conditions. This will help to interpret fossil biomarker distributions found in the salt with regard to environmental conditions at the fringes of the evaporating Zechstein Sea about 250 million years ago.

While the team were able to collect brines from a disused part of the mine, aptly named Billingham Bath, the collection of salt samples by coring the salt with sterilised drill bits had to be postponed due to a technical fault of the corer. Thus, the team is looking forward to going down the shaft later this semester, again.

Partnering with Durham Wildlife Trust to address microplastics pollution in the River Wear

An update on a previous blog post about our microplastic project in Co Durham, UK.

Environment Group researchers Drs Baldini, Baker, He, Rollason and Scott, along with recent Environmental Science graduate, Zhuhaa Siddiq, recently partnered with Durham Wildlife Trust to investigate microplastics in the River Wear. Fieldwork happened over several weeks in late summer 2021 and involved standing in the river with a microplankton net and flow meter for 20 minutes to collect a known volume of river water for microplastics detection. We sampled water and sediments at five locations along the river Wear from the source (near Wearhead) to the tidal limit (Chester-le-Street). Laboratory analysis revealed a pattern of increasing microplastics in river water downstream from the source until river flow was altered by Durham city weirs. A sharp decrease in microplastics was observed at the furthest downstream site, Chester-le-Street. In sediments, there was a clear pattern of microplastics accumulation downstream of wastewater treatment plants. In summer 2022, Environmental Management research project student, Patrick van Loo Jenner, investigated our hypothesis of microplastics accumulation upstream of weirs in Durham as a precursor to scheduled dredging by the Environment Agency. In March 2022, Dr Baldini presented preliminary findings to a Source to Sea workshop addressing plastics pollution at Durham County Council and in July 2022, submitted a final report to Durham Wildlife Trust. A manuscript of our findings is currently in prep. For more on this successful Teesside University collaboration with local partners see https://www.durhamwt.com/source-sea.

Collaboration with INCA about Tees Seals

This press release was picked up by several local media:




Lecturer in Environmental Sciences (1 post)

Our Department is advertising for one permanent position of lecturer in environmental science. The newly appointed lecturer has an opportunity to take a leading role in our Earth, Ecology and Environment research collective and bring their own research and/or consultancy expertise.

The job ad can be found following the two links below:

Teesside HR

If you would like to discuss how your research could fit within the Earth, Ecology and Environment research collective – please get in touch with Ambroise a.baker@tees.ac.uk.