Home' InDaily : June 16th 2011 Contents 2|Vol22No4May2011
.. . continued from page 1
Fairy wrens pick up mum’s tunes in eggs
Mothers who talk to their unborn babies
may have a point after all: Flinders
University researchers have discovered
that the chicks of the Australian superb
fairy wren learn a sequence of notes while
still inside their eggs that they use as a
‘call-sign’ to identify themselves when they
This astonishing piece of animal
behaviour has evolved to counter the
ever-present threat of parasitic cuckoos,
which lay eggs in the nests of other
species in a bid to deceive the hosts into
raising a chick which is not their own.
A team of biological scientists led by
Professor Sonia Kleindorfer and Dr
Jeremy Robertson used round-the-clock
‘nest-cam’ and sound recordings to
discover that the hatchlings copy a series
of notes from their mother’s individual
incubation song to guarantee their
“In analysing the 12 or so elements of the
mother’s incubation call and then looking
at the nestling’s begging call, we found
the mother’s element in the baby’s call,”
Professor Kleindorfer said.
Close observation and experiments by the
Flinders researchers showed that the fairy
wrens can detect a cuckoo hatchling, or a
hatchling introduced from another nest,
by its inability to produce the right notes.
The response can be drastic, Dr Robertson
said: once a cuckoo hatchling is detected,
Australian fairy wrens abandon their
nests and sacrifice their clutch of two or
“Cuckoo hatchlings will out-compete the
other nestlings, so the adult wrens would
be wasting their time to persist,” Dr
Until now, the mechanism by which
interlopers were identified was unknown.
Professor Kleindorfer said the complex
behaviour of identifying legitimate
offspring through song cues seems to have
evolved in response to the breeding habits
of the fairy wren.
She said that in the northern hemisphere,
where songbirds typically build open cup
nests, cuckoos attempt to ‘con’ the host
parents by laying eggs that mimic the size,
shape and colour of the host species. In
Australia, where domed nests are the norm
for songbirds, the comparative darkness
inside the nest makes egg mimicry
pointless, and has instead brought about a
response by the wrens aimed at detecting
cuckoos at the hatchling stage.
“We argue that because the songbirds or
passerines – which make up 50 per cent of
the world’s birds – originated in Australia,
we think we are looking at the more
Spatial attention is the second research
focus of the Laboratory team which
includes postdoctoral fellows Tobias
Loetscher from Switzerland and Nicole
Thomas from Canada.
“We’re very interested in how the general
population tends to pay more attention to
the left-hand side of an object than the
right,” Professor Nicholls said.
This bias manifests itself as a tendency to
deviate to the right in activities from steering
a wheelchair to walking and even goal-kicking.
“There is a difference between near and far
space and how the brain codes what can and
cannot be touched,” Professor Nichols said.
“In the case of AFL footballers, when they aim
for the midpoint between two posts, they
tend to kick slightly to the right of middle
which is why a majority of points are scorred
to the right,” he said.
Professor Nicholls said the ultimate goal of
his research is to develop remedial
techniques for people with neurological
problems such as ADHD and brain damage.
Cover Photo: Professor Mike Nicholls with
postdoctoral fellows Tobias Loetscher and Nicole
Photo: Ashton Claridge
ancient original system, and that
egg-ejection response to cuckoos in the
northern hemisphere is the derived
system,” Professor Kleindorfer said.
Follow-up projects will include the use of
non-invasive magnetic resonance imaging
to explore which areas of an embryonic
bird’s brain are turned on by different
song stimuli, research which also has
implications for better understanding of
human neural development and early
“It seems that the organisation of the
human brain, the hemispheres and the
language control centres are equivalent to
the song control centres, so when you
have a system where you can look at that,
it presents very exciting opportunities,”
Professor Kleindorfer said.
Sport and health research group getting into shape
A Flinders University researcher believes
many Australian children may be suffering
the effects of obesity or Type 2 diabetes
because of poor health literacy.
It is a bold hypothesis for which Ms Stefania
Velardo, a PhD candidate in the Sport,
Health and Physical Education research
group (SHAPE), is gaining recognition.
Ms Velardo received the Young Scholar
Award for her paper on the topic to the 27th
Australian Council for Health, Physical
Education and Recreation International
Conference in April; she also recently won
the Three Minute Thesis Competition in the
School of Education.
“I’m interested in how children understand,
gain access to and use information about
health and nutrition,” Ms Velardo said.
“Most interventions are targeted at parents
who traditionally have been the agents of
change within a family,” she said.
“My aim is to work with the children
themselves, to listen to what they have to
say and to challenge that conventional
model, to improve things at the child’s level.”
Her supervisor and leader of SHAPE,
Associate Professor Murray Drummond, said
Ms Velardo’s project aligns well with the
group’s goal to become the leading research
centre of its kind in South Australia, focusing
on children’s health and schools.
“The amalgamation of physical education
and health education studies in SHAPE has
brought together a range of different
projects, orientations and disciplines,”
Associate Professor Drummond said.
“They include physiology, sport education and
sport sociology but with a special focus on
children and young people,” he said.
“It is a research area that is untapped in
Australia and in which SHAPE is making
important advances. We have had 35
papers, book chapters and conference
proceedings papers published in the past
Another PhD candidate, Mr Sam Elliott, is
examining parental involvement in sport,
especially junior football.
“The premise of most junior sport is for
children to participate and have fun,” Mr
“My research will look at the consequences
of moving to a competitive model when
parents, coaches and other factors are
involved,” he said.
New virginity testing revelations in Britain
have exposed the abusive practice was
condoned at the highest levels of the Home
Office and not by a lone official as was
Research by two Flinders University
academics showed that more than 80
women from India, Pakistan and
Bangladesh were ordered to have intimate
gynaecological examinations as they
arrived alone at Heathrow Airport to join
their fiancés in the late 1970’s.
Dr Marinella Marmo, a senior lecturer in
Finders University School of Law and Dr
Evan Smith, from the School of
International Studies say uncovering these
“grave abuses” has caused significant
embarrassment for the British Home Office
with widespread calls for an apology.
The practice was stopped in February 1979
after claims that a teacher of Indian
descent was forcibly tested appeared in the
British press. At the time, immigration rules
stated that a fiancé coming to Britain to
marry within three months of entry did not
need a visa, but married women did need
visas before they were allowed in to join
their husbands. If immigration officers
suspected a woman was pretending to be
engaged to avoid applying for a visa, she
could be subject to an examination to find
out if she was still a virgin.
Dr Marmo said the scandal eventually died
down after the Home Office claimed the
test was an isolated incident ordered by an
over zealous immigration official.
However, the new research uncovered
many exchanges of letters between
British and Indian officials in both
governments and that it became
common practice where there was doubt
that the woman was telling the truth
about her marital status.
“The more we read the more shocked we
became,” Dr Marmo said.
“We now believe that the practice of
virginity testing was Home Office policy
and responsibility for it went all the way
to the top,” she said.
Dr Smith added that the findings support
other research that has shown migrant
women were subjected to widespread
racial and sexual discrimination.
“‘Virginity testing’ should not just be seen
as an extreme example of other forms of
discrimination and harassment within the
immigration control system, but
something that was carried out for a
specific purpose against a specific group
of vulnerable migrants,” Dr Smith said.
The study was funded by Flinders
University as part of ongoing research
into sex trafficking, and the way women
are discriminated against by immigration
officials when trying to escape.
“We find that women around the world
are often not believed when they claim
they are the victims of sex trafficking and
can be sent back to the countries they
were trafficked from. The credibility of
these women is contested by authorities.
Our UK findings provide a historical
overview and prove this is not new,” Dr
Virginity testing row reopens old wounds in UK
Body scanner outrage pales by comparison with
UK virginity tests
Links Archive June 15th 2011 June 17th 2011 Navigation Previous Page Next Page