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Writing a popular article

28 October 2020

Why write a popular article?

You may have noticed that in the MeaseyLab there are quite a few popular articles written (if you haven't noticed, click here to see links). This is something that I encourage all students to do, especially after they've recently published a paper. But why?

Here are some reasons why: 

  • Inform tax-payers who funded research what you found
  • Increase profile of your work and you as a researcher
  • Reach a far bigger audience than your scientific paper ever will
  • Reach other researchers (who also read popular articles)
  • Open more doors to other potentially cross-disciplinary work
  • Gain new insights into how your work appears to the general public

The Conversation Africa is an online magazine that we go back to time and again. It is written by academics about the subjects that they know best. We have a great relationship with their editors, and they've previously held a writing competition in conjunction with the CIB (see here). 

In an effort to facilitate your popular article writing, here's a few pointers to help you get started:

What’s the hook?

Your popular article will not be the same as your chapter or paper. You should plan to have a single fact or message that you want the public to walk away with after reading your article. This is unlikely to be the same as the main result in your chapter or paper. 

When composing your article, you need to be single minded about achieving the understanding of your hook. The article cannot take any side roads or distractions, but must stick to the main point. Once that’s done, provide the “so what” that allows the public to see the bigger picture, and maybe where you would go next.

Don’t get complex or technical

If your whole article hinges on something technical, you might have to start by explaining it simply. If you can’t easily explain it, then this is probably the wrong subject for a popular article. Don’t worry about leaving out key details, you can always refer the reader to your article if they want to know more. 

Always refer to your published work

Make sure that you always have some reference to your work that’s published. Provide a hyperlink, but preferably give the full citation.

Be aware that news items count towards metrics of your article, so be sure to link it correctly.

You must always mention the CIB & Stellenbosch University - they do most of the funding for our work

Pictures, videos and even sound files

These are great to help readers engage with your work. Try to choose images that tell the same information as you have in your article. Try to remember that you will need these when doing your research as it will help later. 

  Lab  Writing

Insights into Guttural Toads as invaders

24 October 2020

Insights into Guttural toad impact on Mauritius

Guttural toads were introduced to Mauritius nearly 100 years ago in order to control cane beetles on the island. They have spread from the plantations all over the island, including into indigenous forest. For a long time there has been speculation that the toads predate on endemic threatened snails. Now we have published data from two dietary studies that shows that these snails make up a significant component of Guttural toad diet.

I visited Mauritius back in October 2017 (see here) when I worked with Denzel Citta in his final year project on the stomach contents of Guttural toads from different forests on the island. Denzel completed his project, but Vincent Florens and Claudia Baider already had dietary data from another student, Yuvna Perianen, who had done a similar project 10 years earlier. Luckily, they still had the dataset, and it is complementary to the one collected by Denzel. 

Vincent is an expert on the endemic snails of Mauritius, and had identified all of the different species that had been found in the guts of Guttural toads. Over the years, he had even found, and then relocated, a species previously thought to be extinct but that popped up in the toads stomach contents. Needless to say, toads eat snails and together the two studies were able to assess the level of impact.

James Baxter-Gilbert was able to combine these dietary datasets and write up a paper for African Journal of Ecology:

Baxter Gilbert, J.H., Florens F.B., Baider, C., Perianen, Y.D., Citta, D.S., Measey, J. (in press) Toad-kill: Prey diversity and preference of invasive guttural toads (Sclerophrys gutturalis) in Mauritius.African Journal of Ecology

James has also written a piece for The Conversation:

Re-assessing impact for all frogs

15 October 2020

The cost and complexity of assessing impact

The idea was a simple one. Using EICAT impact assessments of alien amphibians, could we get the costs of the studies and see whether more expensive studies resulted in higher impact assessments? Or, perhaps more worryingly, were cheaper studies resulting in lower impacts of invasive species?

But this paper turned out to be a huge undertaking. 

First, my dedicated team of MeaseyLab amphibian fundis who were kicking their heals after the CIB ARM in November 2019, committed to scoring all unscored amphibians since we did the same exercise in 2015 (seehereif you aren’t familiar with that). Initially, we thought that this would be a short order, but we discovered that all those invasive amphibian people out there in the world had been working overtime. Specifically, they had generated about the same number of papers that we’d scored in 2015, but in only 4.5 years!

We drank a lot of coffee and all sat around together in my office to answer any potential queries regarding EICAT scoring of amphibians.

While James and Nitya certainly made the most noise, it turned out that Carla quietly did most of the assessments. 

After that first exercise, we started begging. We approached everyone who had published in the last 4 years with a paper that had resulted in one of our EICAT scores and we gave them a questionnaire to work out how much money they had spent on the project that had produced that paper.

The questionnaire was approved by Stellenbosch University ethic’s committee, and was given the green light by our economics Prof: Elizabeth Pienaar. 

Sharp eyed blog readers will recognise Elizabeth from the July 2019 postgraduate field trip where she taught her module on economics and invasive species (see here). Sadly, Elizabeth couldn’t join us in person, so we simply sent the data from all of our (very kind) contributors who had taken the time to produce costs for us. Their anonymity was assured. You know who you are, and we are very grateful for your help. We know that it was a big ask.

Once Elizabeth had converted all of those different currencies into some dollar price parity, we could run our models and see whether the price of the study predicted the level of EICAT impact for the amphibians.

Here comes the big reveal: 

Yes - it did!

This is actually quite shocking, as what it means is that if you don’t have a lot of cash you are unlikely to find that your invasive species has a high impact. It follows that if your sitting in a part of the world where you don’t have much cash, then it might be extra difficult for you to make your case that your invasive species is actually a big problem. 

Next, Nitya had the idea of looking at the complexity of these studies. Would studies that were more complex result in higher impact scores? He based the complexity on a new study by Christie et al (2019), who found that more complex designs resulted in more robust results. Nitya beavered away for several weeks scoring all of the papers. Finally, when they were all done, we were able to run our models. 

And we found that - yes again! More complex study designs were indeed likely to result in higher impact scores. 

This result goes hand in hand with our economic result above, as more complex study designs often cost more. 

So please do go and read all about it:

Measey J, Wagener C, Mohanty NP, Baxter-Gilbert J, Pienaar EF (2020) The cost and complexity of assessing impact. NeoBiota 62: 279-299.

  Frogs  Lab  meetings

Rapid adaptation of French Xenopus

15 September 2020

Laurie's new paper shows rapid adaptive shifts for invasive Xenopus to cooler France

In the first paper of her PhD, MeaseyLab student Laurie Araspin (jointly supervised by Anthony Herrel of the NMHN Paris) shows how adult Xenopus laevis introduced to France in the 1980s have already shifted their temperature dependence of locomotor performance.

The work has particular interest as it shows how rapid adaptations in invasive species allows them to function in different environments to that of their native range. In this study, Laurie used adults collected from the South African Cape and subtropical KwaZulu-Natal (watch a video of that collection here). Despite these massive differences in collection localities, once they were acclimated in the lab there was no difference in their performance. The French animals, however, maintained a massive difference left shift (to cooler temperatures) in their thermal performance. 

This is just the start of Laurie's exploration into the rapid adaptive physiological shifts shown by invasive populations of X. laevis when compared to their native South African populations. Despite COVID restrictions, Laurie's work continues in Paris and in 2021 we hope to have her in South Africa sampling some of the more extreme environments for African Clawed Frogs.

To read the paper in full:

Araspin, L., A. Serra Martinez, C. Wagener, J. Courant, V. Louppe, P. Padilla, J. Measey and A. Herrel (2020) Rapid shifts in the temperature dependence of locomotor performance in an invasive frog, Xenopus laevis, implications for conservation. Integrative and Comparative Biology   60(2):456–466 pdf  

  Frogs  Lab  Xenopus

James & Natasha present in Canada

12 September 2020

MeaseyLab at the 7th Annual Meeting of the Canadian Herpetological Society

Drs Natasha Kruger and James Baxter-Gilbert both presented their work at the 7th Annual Meeting of the Canadian Herpetological Society online today. 

Perhaps the most remarkable event was that Natasha's talk coincided with local loadshedding (a South African term for a scheduled electricity blackout). Natasha then delivered the entireity of her presentation using her phone as a modem and with a flashlight on her desk. Super impressive!


There was a great shuffling of seats and reaching for (Canadian) beer when Natasha settled down to give her presentation on perceptions of predators for invasive African Clawed frogs in France


Natasha Kruger, Anthony Herrel, Jean Secondi, and John Measey

Invasive species are exposed to novel predators after their establishment in a novel environment. Defences against novel predators may not be efficient at least at an initial stage. The presence of an anti-predator defence is an important parameter that may determine the ability of local communities to control the expansion of invasive populations. The African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis, is a globally invasive amphibian. In western France it faces predators functionally similar to predators found in its native range (South Africa), however, its invasive range has expanded to overlap the range of an invasive crayfish predator. We tested whether naïve X. laevis tadpoles from the invasive French population exhibit anti-predator response to local predators, and whether the response depends on the degree of relatedness with predators encountered in the native range of the frog. Alternatively, if naïve tadpoles may express generic neophobia to any cue they are not familiar with. We exposed naïve lab-reared tadpoles to a non-predator water snail, Planorbarius corneus, a native beetle, Dytiscus dimidiatus, and an invasive crayfish, Procambarus clarkii. Species of the Dytiscus genera are present across southern Africa while no related species to crayfish occur in X. laevis’ native range. We found that X. laevis tadpoles innately reduce their activity when exposed to D. dimidiatus and P. clarkii stimulus cues. The innate response to P. clarkii indicates that X. laevis tadpoles are not naïve to the invasive crayfish. Thus, limiting the effects of these predators on the control of X. laevis, however, previous studies have found that P. clarkii mitigate the effects of other invaders. The complex interactions between co-invaders are essential to explore.

Then James provided his overview on the rapid exolution of size in invasive island populations of Guttural Toads:


James Baxter-Gilbert, Julia L. Riley, Carla Wagener, Nitya. P. Mohanty, and John Measey

Island ecosystems have traditionally been hailed as natural laboratories for examining phenotypic change, including dramatic shifts in body size (e.g., island gigantism or insular dwarfism). Similarly, biological invasions can drive rapid localised adaptations within modern timeframes. Here we compare the morphology of two invasive guttural toad (Sclerophrys gutturalis) populations in Mauritius (est. 1922) and Réunion (est. 1927) to their genetic source population from Durban, South Africa. We found that female toads on both islands were significantly smaller than mainland counterparts (reduction in body size by 33.9% and 25.9%, respectively), as were males in Mauritius (22.4%). We also discovered a significant reduction in the relative hindlimb length of both sexes, on both islands, compared to mainland toads (ranging from 3.4 - 9.0%). Our findings suggest that the dramatic reshaping of an invasive amphibians’ morphology, leading to insular dwarfism, can result in less than 100 years.

James and Natasha during the meeting with their fellow delegates

...and who could forget how James dressed up for his travelogue. All in the name of the show folks...

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