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Tiny toads from Mauritius and Reunion

18 November 2020

Miniature toads on Mauritius and Réunion

From time to time you make a natural history observation that really blows your mind. This was the case when I visited Mauritius in 2017 (seehere). I was there to study their Guttural Toads which had been introduced to the island in 1922. I had already heard from Giovanni Vimercati who had visited Mauritius himself several years earlier that the toads were very small, but it wasn't until I saw them that I realized the full magnitude of what had happened. In less than 100 years since their introduction these toads had shrunk.

Guttural Toads,Sclerophrys gutturalis, are a familiar feature in large parts of sub-Saharan Africa. They regularly inhabit urban areas taking advantage of lights to capture attracted insect prey. I have seen these toads in Kenya and Tanzania and they always appear quite large no matter the altitude or setting. So it was quite startling to see these mini toads on Mauritius.

Last year James Baxter-Gilbert visited Mauritius together with other members of the MeaseyLab to measure guttural toads and conduct some experiments with them (seeblog post). James managed to measure a large number of toads on both Mauritius and Réunion measuring not just their size but also their limb and jaw lengths. When he analyzed the data, James found that not only had the size changed but the limbs had changed their relative lengths as well. Overall, limbs were shorter on the island toads suggesting that their dispersal capacity is reduced. 

There are of course many outstanding questions about these observations. Is this miniaturization and change in limb length a permanent evolutionary change or a plastic reaction that would see them swap back to the regular size if reared on the mainland? We are hoping to address this question in future with a common garden experiment in Durban (watch this space!).

Other outstanding questions concern the reason why the environments on Mauritius and Réunion caused the toads to miniaturise. There are several competing theories but of course it could be a combination of any of these. Toads that need to move less on the small islands don't need large sizes and limb lengths. When released from the usual predation regime toads may revert to a smaller size that would be more vulnerable to mainland predators. Reproduction may occur more regularly on the islands meaning that the toads do not need to store energy for single reproductive bouts. Instead they could reproduce many times with small batches of eggs during the year. 

As you can tell there is still plenty of research to be done on guttural toads. The publication of this natural history observation is simply the first of what we believe will be many exciting investigations into this island invasion system.

Read all about it here:

Baxter-Gilbert, J.H., Riley, J.L., Wagener, C., Mohanty, N.P., Measey, J.  (in press)  Shrinking before our isles: The rapid expression of insular dwarfism in two invasive populations of guttural toad   (Sclerophrys gutturalis).Biology Letters

Writing a logical argument

11 November 2020

Construct a logical argument in your writing

Writing is not straightforward. Your objective is to communicate with a reader, someone who you’ve likely never met and will never meet. You need to communicate highly complex information. But more than that you need them to see things as you do. You need to provide them with your reasoning and your argument, and have it make sense to them; preferably to the point where they agree with you. 

To communicate, you need to start from common ground. The beginning of your introduction starts with the most general concepts in the context in which you are writing. The context depends on your audience, and this in turn relates to the particular journal that you are writing for. Even if you are writing a thesis, you should pick out a target journal for each of the chapters. Once you’ve established the common ground, you need to carry the reader towards the hypothesis or question that you propose. The easiest way to do this is to make use of a logical argument: 

A series of statements that introduce a starting premise, provide evidence for and against that premise [perhapsadding in an examplethat makes your point], point out what missing information would allow reaching a better understanding of said premise, and logically conclude that what you are doing is going to fill this gap. 

This logical argument style is most prominent in the early introduction of your manuscript, although the entire introduction could be seen as one long logical argument, with a few smaller more precise arguments being thrown in along the way. You might also use a logical argument in your discussion to explain how you deduce certain inferences from your results, or provide a logical extension for a future study. 

The following science argumentation model is modified from Cope et al (2013:which you can find here):

A framework for a scientific argument

A position statement / question / hypothesis / theory / problematic

This could be thebig ideain your manuscript, or one of several competing concepts that you are introducing. The context in which you are writing might mean that this idea theory needs no introduction (e.g. the theory of evolution in the journal Evolution), but you need to be confident that your audience will understand what you are proposing. 

Remember to cite the person who came up with the idea.

Claim 1

One potential explanation or interpretation of the original idea.

  • Evidence: Literature that agrees with this interpretation (could include an example)
  • Reasoning: Your justification that links the evidence to the claim or interpretation

Claim 2

Another potential explanation, of the previous interpretation of the original idea.

  • Evidence: Literature that agrees with this interpretation (could include an example)
  • Reasoning: Your justification that links the evidence to the claim or interpretation

Counter - claims

Other possible interpretations or counter claims. 


Evaluation: your judgement on weighing up the evidence for the idea.

There are other shorter forms that might suit you better. Consider another classic form of the scientific argument: “compare and contrast” which allows you as a writer to quickly familiarise your reader with some key examples (see herefor practical wording examples). Another sentence structure to consider is explaining cause and effect (see herefor practical wording examples).

We have seenelsewhere  how science is built on the works of those that have worked before us. When we construct a logical argument in science, we do so using this scholarly accumulation of knowledge as presented in the literature:  citations. That is to say that your claims must be backed up by the literature. To do this, you will need to read that literature and make sure that it can back up your claims. Beware of making a baseless claim.

It may be that when researching your question, you come across the same argument using the same literature rehashed time and again in different papers (it happens). Does this give you a green light to do it again? I’d like to think that you already know that there are likely lots of other untapped and better examples out there, and it’d be well worth your while constructing your argument yourself. 

Beware  of copying an argument wholesale. You might well end up getting muddled, or worse perpetuating an error. Better go back and make sure that you understand the original premise and the works that promote or oppose this. Having told you to beware, I’m now going to encourage you to read, because reading is one of the best ways in which you can learn about writing a logical argument (see here). 

Reading critically will make you aware of when you come across an argument. Ask yourself 

  • Did you understand it?
  • Was it written in a conventional style (as in the table above)
    • If not, how was the style broken with and did this improve or detract from the understanding? 

In this writing blog, I concentrate on providing formulaic approaches to writing, because these are by far the easiest ways for inexperienced writers. However, I encourage you to learn and experiment with writing styles as you become more experienced. Critical reading is one of the best ways to learn about alternative writing styles (see here): reading is probably the best way of improving your writing. Alternatively, and especially if the above hasn’t clicked with you, you can read more about writing a scientific argument (see for example here). And there’s plenty more out there. 

Cope, B., Kalantzis, M., Abd-El-Khalick, F. and Bagley, E., 2013. Science in writing: Learning scientific argument in principle and practice.E-learning and Digital Media,10(4), pp.420-441.

  Lab  Writing

Writing the abstract

10 November 2020

Writing the abstract

A good abstract is very important as, like a good title, it advertises the content of the paper and draws readers in. In a world where the quantity of scientific literature is increasing (see here), it is more likely that someone will read your abstract but not your paper. Actually, it’s far more likely that someone will read your title and use that to decide whether or not to look at the abstract. Moreover, when you submit your work to the journal, your editor may decide whether or not to immediately reject your manuscript based on the content of the abstract (see here). Therefore, it had better be good!

What is the abstract?

The abstract is a concise paragraph that sums up the major points of your manuscript so that the potential reader will be able to assess whether or not they want to read the entire paper. It is an abstract of the entire document. It should not be abstract!

So what would a good abstract contain?

A good abstract is a summary of the highlights of the paper. You can’t hope to include all of the results, but you should include relevant statistics that support your major finding. You must include the broader subject area that your study fits into, and show how your results are relevant to this.

None of this is easy, and you should not expect to write your abstract in a single sitting. It will likely require multiple iterations, and some intense word-smithing to make it as good as it can be. Abstracts almost always have a word limit, and that makes it challenging and means that you have to be concise (see here).

Increasingly, you’ll hear that a good abstract is citable. This means that it contains enough information that someone knows that it can be used to cite for a specific fact. Of course, these people should download and read the entire study. 

Where do you start?

Just like planning your writing in general, I’d suggest starting your abstract with an outline. Use bullet points to make a list of things that you feel that you should include. Rearrange your list until you have all the introduction points at the start, results in the middle and discussion at the end. 

There’s no need for detailed methodology, but it is useful to know the approach. For example, ‘we used a common garden experimental approach’ or ‘we sampled 85 animals from three invasive populations’. 

Although many abstracts are provided as a single paragraph, some are structured into the sections of the paper (like this), or as numbered points (like this). Using this formula is a good way to get disciplined about boiling your paper down into a small amount of concise words. It’s worth keeping a copy of any abstract that you compose like this in case you decide to submit to a journal that requires it. 

Starting with this framework will ensure that the abstract is well balanced. 

At this point, I’d circulate it to your advisor to ask whether there are other key points that should be included. As a rule, it’s easier to start with everything present, and only then cut the words down to something within the abstract word limit. If you wordsmith your abstract and then try and add a key point later, it’ll never come out so well.

When do you write your abstract?

Although the abstract comes on page 1 of your manuscript, only try to write it once you’ve got to the end of the process of writing your manuscript. 

Do abstracts for conferences differ?

Yes. It’s likely that an abstract for a talk will not be the same, unless you have already published paper: but even then it’s probably worth re-writing it. I’d suggest that your conference abstract be more descriptive and thought provoking. Pose questions that you will answer in your talk. 

Where do people go wrong in writing the abstract?

The most common mistake is getting the balance wrong. I often see an abstract that gets to the results, runs out of space and simply stops. It is important to have a statement about what the results mean. 

Another common mistake is to have a very simply worded abstract that conveys very little information. There is definitely going to be a lot to put in, so expect to write something too long with too much, and then discuss what can be left out.

Text from the main document is copied into the abstract. I’ve written about this elsewhere (see here), but you should never copy parts of your writing. You could start like this, but wordsmithing must change the words and their order substantially. Otherwise, when the first sentence of the abstract is the same as the first sentence of the manuscript, it will really turn off your readers.

Too many statistics or no numbers are also common mistakes. Often numbers can leave you with more space for other information. 

There is only time for one or two comments on the discussion, so pick out something important. Look through your written discussion and rank the points that you make in terms of interest to others. Can you combine two or more points into a single sentence?

The introduction of the abstract must frame the bigger question, and the discussion must show how your data responds to this. 

Don’t be tempted to overreach with your claims in the abstract (or the main text)

Finish with something conclusive and strong, preferably how this study changes the understanding, and not a caveat or suggested further study.

The abstract does not contain citations (or very rarely and only if unavoidable), so don’t put any in!

  Lab  Writing

The Academic Phrasebank

09 November 2020

Academic phrasebank

When reading papers, I often come across the same phrases time and again. They seem so well honed to the situation that I’m envious about how the writer dreamt them up. Stealing them isn’t quite plagiarism, but then they don’t regularly fit the exact situation that I’m looking for. 

Imagine cutting and pasting them into a file, or even better a database that’s ready for any eventuality. Banking them over time so that they are always available.

Then imagine that you did this and made it available to everyone…

Well, John Morley has already done it, and he’s made it available to everyone. The academic phrasebank is a fantastic resource:

How to find something you need

  • Look across the top for different sections of text that you are currently writing.
  • Then look down the left hand side to see the type of language function that you need. Click on something that looks applicable and watch the database open up.

Getting started & English as a foreign language

It strikes me that this is going to be a fantastic resource for those of you who are not writing in English as your home language. And for those of you who just need a few words to get started. 

It’ll also be useful when you are wanting to wordsmith your introduction or abstract. 


  Lab  Writing

James publishes a popular article

05 November 2020

What do invasive toads eat on Mauritius?

It feels like it was only last week that I was encouraging the MeaseyLab to write popular articles to help publicise their papers (among other reasons: see here). Today, James Baxter-Gilbert, post-doc in the MeaseyLab, published a really nice piece in The Conversation Africa, about his study on Guttural Toad diet in Mauritius.

Here, James makes the really important point that these toads are eating Mauritian endemic snails that are classified by the IUCN as Critically Endangerd, Omphalotropis plicosa. Indeed, if you look up this species on the Red List website today, you'll see that it's listed as Extinct. Indeed, Vincent and Claudia, our collaborators in Mauritius, thought that this snail was extinct until it was flushed out of the stomach of a Guttural Toad (see here). Like other species coming back from apparent extinction, it has been termed a "Lazarus species". As the snail is arboreal, they don't think that the toads are a direct threat, but it all goes to show how much information you can get from looking at an alien's diet!

Read James' great article on Guttural Toad diet here:

Baxter-Gilbert, J. (2020). The diet of invasive toads in Mauritius has some rare species on the menu. The Conversation - Africa November 5, 2020 149371

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