by Matthew Cobb
My PhD (Sheffield, 1984), was a study of fruitflies f***ing. Put less crudely, I observed the courtship and mating behaviour of seven closely-related species of Drosophila (technically, they aren’t in fact fruitflies – ‘vinegar fly’ is a much better and accurate term; two other species in this group have since been discovered). This is the group of flies that Jerry also studies.
My PhD research was all done in the lab, but in my literature reviews I tried to emphasise the different ecologies of these species (they were all from Africa, even if two of them, melanogaster and simulans, are now found around the world, thanks to humans – they live in our bins and have travelled around with us).
Sadly I did no field work, not even collecting flies (a few years later I went to Ivory Coast to collect some flies from the rain forest). At the beginning of my thesis, I added a quote from the marvellous 18th century book ‘The Natural History of Selbourne’ by Gilbert White, which was contained in a letter from White to the naturalist Daines Barrington, written on 1 August 1771:
Faunists, as you observe, are too apt to acquiesce in bare descriptions, and a few synonyms; the reason is plain; because all that may be done at home in a man’s study, but the investigation of the life and conversation of animals, is a concern of much more trouble and difficulty, and is not to be attained but by the active and the inquisitive, and by those that reside much in the country.
And there’s my regret in a nutshell. I never did get round to residing ‘much in the country’, and despite a couple of field collection trips (the Ivory Coast trip to find flies, and a trip to India to collect ants), I have never done any real field work. I used to run a field trip for students in the foothills of the Alps, which was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot about the area (that’s where I encountered the nightjar), but it’s not the same as doing consistent research.
That regret has encouraged my interest in natural history, even down to encouraging the development of a pond in the quad of one of my university’s modern buildings, the Michael Smith Building at the University of Manchester. The pond has been there for about three years, and has already led to the production of several frogs, which now live in the quad (we put in the frogspawn the first year – it’s now ‘natural’). Around the edges of the quad are large wild-flower areas which caused some dissent initially (people objected to ‘the weeds’) but everyone loves it now.
Here’s a picture of the pond (it was emptied and deepened a couple of months ago, so its still not fully established):