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A talk on Cane Toads by Georgia Ward-Fear

30 August 2020

A talk on Cane Toads - by Georgia Ward-Fear

At the end of 2019, Georgia and I began writing a chapter together on ethics in amphibian invasions. This turned out to be quite an undertaking, and it was a great privaledge to work with Georgia on this now accepted manuscript (see here for link to come...). I mentioned to Georgia that I was giving a class on Invasion Biology to our 3rd year undergraduates at Stellenbosch University, and she immediately volunteered to give them a talk all about Cane Toads. She recorded this ahead of time, and so I share it with you below:

Cane Toads have become a specially important group to the MeaseyLab since we started studying Guttural Toads some five years ago. The two species both belong to the family Bufonidae, but are not otherwise closely related. However, both being large bufonids we became interested in whether the same adaptations that have been extensively researched in Cane Toads could also be found in Guttural Toads. Indeed, so much work has now been done on Cane Toads, that we can use this as inspiration for questions for a long time to come.

Thanks so much to Georgia for stepping forward and volunteering to present for the BDE345 students - I'm sure that they really appreciated it. You're a star!

Opinion piece: HAA

29 August 2020

Time to speak out...

Late in 2019 I was doing some field work and found myself sitting in a car chatting with someone from another SA lab about their experience at the latest herp meetings in September (see here) and October (see here). I was shocked by what I heard as the experiences of this person had been so different than my own. They felt that they were not welcome and that other attendees has actually made them feel unwelcome by making comments about the way they dressed. I talked to more people about the meetings and was again surprised to hear that this wasn't an isolated incident but that several more people felt that the atmosphere was not welcoming. I asked whether they felt that something should be done, and they said that they felt it should be raised but that it would be better raised by someone more senior as they didn't feel  that their opinions would be taken seriously. So over the summer I wrote a piece for the African Herp News that tried to set out the experience of these folk and how this fitted into a general backdrop in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects that have been dominated by white men. 

Early in 2020 a number of other things happened. A commentary published in the South African Journal of Science (SAJS) by Nicoli Nattrass entitled: "Why are black South African students less likely to consider studying biological sciences?" inflamed the South African biological sciences community as it purported to explain the continued biased racial uptake of biological sciences in South Africa from a poorly devised and sparsely sampled survey. My opinion is that in view of the contents, this piece should never have been submitted, and that it was particularly poor editorial judgement to publish it in SAJS. The backlash resulted in a great many popular articles written, as well as a special issue of SAJS with responses (seehere for some great responses). Unsurprisingly, this very public outpouring was only the tip of a much larger undercurrent of discussions that began in South African departments of Biological Sciences up and down the country. 

Meanwhile, the police killing of George Floyd in the US city of Minneapolis (seehere) saw a resurgence in the international movement #blacklivesmatter that resulted in many groups and organisations thinking again about their history. For example, the Board of Governors of ASIHvoted to change the name of their society journal fromCopeiatoIchthyology & Herpetology

But the old voices in STEM still persist and to some extent there has been a push back against the tide of inclusivity that has swept the world. It is important that we don’t let these voices advocating the persistence of power to a predominantly white male elite continue. Instead, I encourage you to lend your support ( to open up the wonderful world of STEM to be completely inclusive of the diversity of human thinking and ingenuity available. After all, we need everyone we can get to solve the increasingly complex problems of our modern world.

Here is the text of my piece recently published in the HAA newsletter:

Measey, J. (2020) Make everyone welcome in our HAA. African Herp News 74: 40-43. pdf

Make everyone welcome in our HAA

When you read the new HAA Code of Conduct last year, did you think that it was addressing an active problem in our society? Did you feel that it meant you’d have to change your behaviour at HAA (or other) meetings? When I made comments on the draft code after it was circulated in April 2019, I knew that it was well intentioned, but I wasn’t sure that it was needed. As a result of talking about these issues with colleagues, and becoming more aware of how a mainstream culture has suppressed a huge diversity of people in many sectors of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM disciplines), I now see that the Code of Conduct is needed for the HAA, and more broadly to make our working environment more professional. Moreover, many of us need to reflect on our own past behaviours to make the HAA a more welcoming place to a greater diversity of people. In this piece, I aim to place some of these issues into the context of how the HAA Code of Conduct is applicable to each one of us. The mainstream culture that permeates STEM disciplines affects behaviours still seen in our meetings, interactions through peer review and our collaborative circles. 

As I talked to more colleagues I became aware that at our own African herpetological meetings, comments are made that make people feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. When I first heard these points being raised, I did so with the feeling that they surely couldn’t have come from the same HAA meetings that I attended. Could it really be that inthe same herp communityothers were experiencing comments that they thought were snide,unwelcoming, or ignorantasides?For example, having an encyclopaedic knowledge of African herpetofauna, as some of our members do, should never be used as a barrier to exclude others from conversations or discussions. Instead, that knowledge should be used to encourage others to join our HAA community. Comments on how someone’s appearance isn’t appropriate for African herping might not make you feel unhappy, or be the one thing that you remember at the end of the day’s meeting, but they do to other people. That funny picture that you included in your presentation of a bunch of scantily clad people in the field: did it make everyone laugh? Or did you just alienate half of your audience? 

Our new code-of-conduct, ratified by the HAA membership, is very clear in this regard. The following section is taken from the section on “Courtesy and respect” (HAA 2019:19)

“The HAA characterises unwelcome behaviours as those which are offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient, or sexual advances and other actions that cause embarrassment, fear, humiliation or distress.”

This isn’t an attempt to take all the fun or laughs out of our meetings, but more thought, care and reflection is needed on how we conduct ourselves, as it does affect how other people feel (no matter what was intended). Instead, we need a culture that welcomes and unites in our strengths, interests, and generates enthusiasm for African reptiles and amphibians. Knowing that there are these problems at our meetings is important, because once we acknowledge the presence of a problem, we can start to tackle the issues involved. Societies all over the world are losing members, and this is also true of our own HAA membership. If we want to retain as many people as possible, then we need to make every single person feel welcome within our organisation.

The problem is clearly widespread, and permeates a number of aspects of academia.On December 12th 2019, a study published inPeerJunveiled an inconvenient truth about peer review. Silbiger & Stubler (2019) obtained responses from >1000 scientists in STEM disciplines about their experience with unprofessional peer reviews, showing that 58% had received such responses. Their questionnaire went on to ask what impact scientists felt that such reviews had had on their aptitude, productivity and career advancement. The results were fascinating, and they throw some important light on a real problem that we have in our own area of science. Essentially, people with demographics over-represented in STEM disciplines had little or no problem with the comments, but under-represented groups perceived them as being negative. Knowing that there are these problems in peer review is important, because once we acknowledge the presence of a problem, we can start to tackle the issues involved. 

So, why do scientists make disparaging or unprofessional remarks to their colleagues in peer review? Whenever two or three scientists get together, you hear tales of recent woes associated with peer review. The retelling of such stories is all part of the collective, cathartic unburdening of what can be a traumatic experience especially when we put so much effort into each piece of work (see Hyland & Jiang 2020). Reading through a lot of these reviewers’ comments, I can see that there is an attempt at humour  (see This humour is not appreciated by those who receive the reviews. Perhaps I understand the humour, because I also come from that same culture that dominates STEM, but that is not understood or even recognised as humour by others. Writing humorous reviews is unprofessional, especially if it is used to accentuate negative aspects. Needless to say, we could all do without unprofessional reviews. But this problem with peer review is illustrative of the problems at our meetings; we need to be more inclusive.

Last year, I was privileged to attend a presentation in which Karen Warkentin (2019) talked about the amazingly diverse world of herpetology, and how diversity enriches not just what we study, but increases the perspectives and insights of what we choose to study and how we study it. I was personally inspired by her call to collaborate diversely to produce diversity within our own research. It was one of those presentations that made me reflect, recognise times when I might have been not-inclusive and decide to change, and also to encourage others to make a change toward inclusivity. We all need to think more about welcoming everyone into the wonderful world of herpetology. We need as many members as we can find. 

At the heart of our actions should be the science that we do, and sharing the knowledge base that is so rich in our association. I have benefitted massively from local knowledge, and from HAA members that had already spent a lifetime working with this diverse but polyphyletic group. I feel very privileged to be employed to work on these animals, and I receive monthly reminders in the form of pay-checks that underline exactly how fortunate I am. Being employed comes with the responsibility to act as a professional first, at the cost of sharing a joke at a meeting or an attempt at humour in peer review. The upside is that there is more to be gained from being inclusive, and profiting from the diversity of herpetologists as there is in being engaged in the amazing diversity of African herpetology.

In the HAA, we cannot afford for those under-represented in STEM subjects, especially our junior members, to be repelled and estranged at our meetings, excluded from collaborations or alienated by peer review. Humour can do this, because what you find funny might well be offensive or misunderstood by someone else. We want to retain our image as a friendly and welcoming association, but not at the cost of the diversity of African herpetologists, or through leaving behind our professionality. And before you dismiss this article and feel that it must apply to someone else, please reflect and think again. 


HAA 2019. HAA Code of Ethics and Conduct. African Herp News. 71: 18-20.

Hyland, K. and Jiang, F.K., 2020. “This work is antithetical to the spirit of research”: An anatomy of harsh peer reviews. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 46. 

Silbiger, N.J. and Stubler, A.D., 2019. Unprofessional peer reviews disproportionately harm underrepresented groups in STEM. PeerJ, 7, p.e8247.

Warkentin, K. 2019 Queering Herpetology: On human perspectives and the study of diverse animals – Plenary for the Brazilian Congress of Herpetology, Campinas, SP, Brazil, July 2019: 

Post Script

Since writing this piece in April 2020, a number of global and regional events have highlighted the need for awareness of the inequalities still present in herpetological communities. While at the HAA we may not need to change the name of our journal, the Board of Governors of ASIHvoted to change the name of their society journal fromCopeiatoIchthyology & Herpetology. We should still use this time individually and collectively to reflect on how the inequalities of the past can be corrected to improve our association today.

  Lab  Writing

Formatting your thesis

21 August 2020

Formatting your thesis

Let’s face it, after spending so much time writing your thesis, having it formatted so that it looks very smart for submission is gratifying. Try to make it a fun event by listening to your favourite music very loudly or having some of your banned tipple (do both if you dare!). It doesn’t require the same level of creative concentration required when writing your thesis, but it does need great attention to detail. 

Your university will have their own stipulation for exactly how they want the thesis formatted. In this very short blog post, I’ll point you to the relevant links for Stellenbosch University and provide a check-list for last things to do before you submit.

Here are the Stellenbosch University library guidelines on thesis submission. Ultimately, your thesis will be deposited to the library, so their guidance is golden:

This link has really useful guidance for formatting in your word processor: 

This is the link for the SU writing lab; apex/f?p=105:1:8087869729856:: NO::: . You can ask them to go over your MS drafts or chapters for spelling/grammar etc.

Your faculty will have their own requirements. Make sure that you consult the student handbook for your department of faculty:

Many of these final formatting requirements are also useful for journal submissions. Note that these all require time. If you don’t have the time, then please make your advisor aware what has and what has not been done so that you can prioritise what must be done before submission.

The following points are based on what may irritate or annoy your examiner (and you really don’t want to do that!):

  • Spell check - yes, it sounds obvious but doing a final spell check is a good idea. Not only this, but take the time to have your word processor ignore or add all of the special words (e.g. species or site names) that it doesn’t otherwise recognise. This will ensure their consistency throughout (within and between chapters).
    • Make sure that your language settings are set to ‘South Africa’. 
    • Look out especially for words that have different accepted spellings like those ending in -ise or -ize. Decide which you want and be consistent
    • Capitalisation of common names, place names and not adjectives. For example, ‘South Africa’ has two capitals, but ‘southern Africa’ only has one.
  • Grammar check - always good to take a final look, especially for chapters that you wrote some time back. 
    • Use the word processor automated options to help you. 
    • Have your computer or another device read the text so that you can hear anything obviously wrong.
    • Pay attention if you have used “we” or “I” and make sure they are consistent in your thesis. As a rule I encourage “I” in a thesis, unless the chapter is also a manuscript, in which case “we” is usually correct.
  • Page layout. Really important to get this right in your template. Make sure that your template has:
    • Correct paper size (A4 and not US letter)
    • Margins
    • Line spacing
    • Page numbers
    • Line numbers (really helps your examiners)
    • Headers & Footers. If you can manage a chapter specific header, it’s useful to show your name and a short chapter title.
  • Sections and subheadings. I’ve encouraged you to use subheadings throughout your thesis. Here you have a chance to number them sequentially. This is very useful for your examiners and may be a requirement for the university. Using the word processor’s built in functions will make this task consistent and easy.
    • I dislike writing within a formatted document (as word processors can start getting weird), so my preference is to cut and paste written text into a template at the end. 
    • Remember to give them a check through before handing it in. If you’ve done the sections correctly, then the contents page will come out right.
  • Title page - prescribed very strictly by the university. The librarians place the SU watermark after final submission to the library.
  • Content page - word processors can do this automatically if your thesis is formatted correctly throughout (see sections & subheadings above). 
    • You can check this to make sure that you’ve done all of your sections and subheadings correctly.
  • Acknowledgements - this is your time to say thank you to all the special people that have helped during your study. There are probably more than you realise, but in addition to your friends and family (who most people don’t forget), think about the people who administered the work, lab mates (past and present) who were always there to help, and people who gave permission at study sites. 
  • References - probably one of the most dreaded sections of any thesis preparation, but they do have to be done. If you’re one of these people that has everything in a database, then you’ll be laughing or cursing your database throughout. While it might be tempting to only look through the data within the database, spend some time to see how it’s displayed in the thesis. A mistake in the reference database will be multiplied many times in the thesis. Remember that examiners love to take a random look through the reference section to make sure that it’s all good. After years of painfully entering references themselves, they know just what to look for. 

Mistakes people make:

Other than the obvious things all mentioned above, here are some of the mistakes I’ve seen.

  • Submitting the wrong version (yes this does happen!). Probably worse if having a mixture of right and wrong versions for different chapters (worse because it takes longer to sort out)
  • Last minute additions to text with incorrect spelling and or grammar
  • Two correctly spelled synonyms sitting next to each other when only one is desired (probably came about when editing)
  • Leaving the ‘mystery sentence’ added by your advisor to make sure that you read your thesis one last time. When I’ve given the final nod to my students that their thesis is ready for submission, I always ask them to read it just one more time. I’m well aware that given how many times they’ve read it, they are unlikely to do it again. So, to give some incentive, I add an unflattering remark to the thesis in a random position aimed at the examiners. I reason that students are unlikely to want to insult their examiners, and so this extra push will be enough to have them read it one more time. 
  • Comments and or edited text (especially when it’s marked as being by someone other than the student).
  • Page numbers that start again and again at different sections
  • Lots of blank pages or spaces (avoid blank pages if you can, and try to limit the amount of blank space (never >half a page).
  • Leaving important people out of the acknowledgements (e.g. advisor, administrators, funders, etc.)
  Lab  Writing

Fearful of handing in work

14 August 2020

Fear of submitting written work

Are you fearful that your work won’t be well received? 

Is it really up to the standards that are required?

Could you do better if you just spent some more time?

These are all really common thoughts, and they go along with ‘imposter syndrome’ for a lot of early career (and even older) academics. There are some important points to think about here:

  1. Everybody has these ideas and you aren’t alone
  2. Handing in work and getting feedback is part of the learning experience
  3. The fact that you care so much about your work and how it is perceived is a good thing. If you didn’t care, then this would be a problem. 
  4. If you never hand anything in, you won’t get your post-graduate degree

Think of it this way

The process of writing is part of your learning process, and you aren’t learning alone. That’s why you have an advisor. While you think that there may be a great intellectual gap between you and your advisor, I can promise you that there isn’t. But your advisor is an experienced reader. Hopefully, there have been many students who have benefited from learning with your advisor (talk to them about their experience). They already work with a lot of students and help those people to bring their writing to a level where it can be accepted by an academic community. There's no reason why your work would be any different. 

Like other members of the academic community, your advisor also has experience of receiving critical feedback about their written work. Sometimes it is painful and sometimes it feels personal. But getting feedback (or peer review) is a fundamental part of the publishing process. Talk to your advisor and other lab members about this process. Ask people how they overcame their fear of submitting written work.

What can you do to help yourself overcome the fear of submitting written work?

1. Give it to a friend or colleague to read

Remember that most of what you write should be understandable to the majority of people who can read (think of The Conversation as a reasonable reading/understanding level). This means that you can give your written work to fellow postgraduates and postdocs and ask for feedback.

2.  Annotate your text with places where you are particularly unsure.

If there’s a certain part that you are struggling with, annotate it (add comment in word) and point out that you are struggling with this particular section

3. Ask for a meeting with your advisor

You can sit down together with your advisor and discuss the points where you are uncertain before handing in the work. Or, after you’ve written it you can ask for a session when you are given verbal feedback

4.  Produce a checklist

If you specifically worry that there may be errors in what you write (grammatical, spelling, plagiarism), then make a checklist that you can tick off prior to submitting. Once your check list is done, don’t mess with the written work again (or you could add more errors), just hand it in!

5.  Set a deadline for yourself

If you don’t already have one, having a set of deadlines that you give yourself to give your writing to work to colleagues and hand in to your advisor. If you know that you aren’t good with deadlines, share them with as many people as you can!

6.  Tell your advisor about your fears

There’s nothing like honesty. Your advisor may be able to cut you some slack, or might sit down with you and look at how the two of you can overcome this difficulty.

7.  If you have more than one advisor, there may be one who you are more confident to read your work, and you can suggest that reading is done in series (instead of in parallel - actually I’d advise this).

8. Talk to your advisor about what really gets you the most upset. If you can’t do this face to face, then you could annotate it in a reply to their comment. The chance is that your advisor doesn’t know how upsetting it is and you’ll be helping them in their future interactions with students.

9. Ask your advisor about their fear of handing in and get them (and others in your lab) to share their stories. You might find that you have common ground to start sharing how these problems can be overcome.

At the end of the day, this is teamwork. Either you and your advisor are a team, or there are a bunch of advisors helping you. It is in everybody’s interest that the job gets done. Getting a line of dialogue moving with your advisor is essential, even if you have to arrange a meeting about a different subject and then introduce the problem later in the meeting. You need to find a way of getting through the fear, and if it’s going to be a persistent problem, you’ll need to work out what works best for you.

  Lab  Writing

Table Mountain Ghost Frogs need cold water

11 August 2020

New study looks at requirements for Table Mountain Ghost Frog tadpoles

In a new study, published today by MeaseyLab alumnus Zishan Ebrahim and colleagues, they determined the requirements of the tadpoles of Table Mountain Ghost Frogs, Heleophryne rosei. The iconic Table Mountain Ghost Frog only lives in the streams and kloofs around Table Mountain and nowhere else on the Cape peninsula (or anywhere else in the world). Previously, researchers had determined that the tadpoles require perennial flow (streams that don't dry) in order for the tadpoles to inhabit them. This then is the reason why Table Mountain is the only massif on the peninsula with the frogs. However, in a paper published today, Zishan Ebrahim shows that the frogs also have a sweet spot of temperatures above (and presumably below) which they can't tolerate. 

Zishan monitored physical parameters of Table Mountain's stream water for many years finding that tadpoles don't inhabit all of the streams with perennial flow on the mountain. The warm water that flows down some of the streams could be influenced by the complex hydrological installations on top of the mountain that were originally installed to supply fresh water for the city. Now much of the water on top of the mountain sits in dams where it heats in the sun and may influence the temperature in the streams. There are other problems on Table Mountain, most notably invasive trees, that are also likely to change the hydrological properties of the water and impact on the Ghost frogs and their tadpoles. 

Read more about the conservation relevance of this work in this recently published paper:

Ebrahim, Z, de Villiers, A. and Measey, J (2020) Assessing water conditions conducive to tadpoles of the Table Mountain Ghost Frog (Heleophryne rosei) and the relevance to their conservation Koedoe Vol 62 (1): a1581 DOI: 

  Frogs  Lab
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