Professor Russell Gray uses evolutionary ideas to probe the origins of language and complex thinking.
Every week, the Faculty of Science's research is featured in various national and international media. Find below a selection of articles published in recent months which will be extended on a frequent basis.
You can also browse our archive for earlier articles.
If you are a member of the media and need help finding a subject expert or would like more information about the research projects mentioned below, contact our media adviser.
Emeritus Professor Michael Corballis, from the School of Psychology, writes about our brains capacity to wander off-task in his book The Wandering Mind . What is the capacity for our brain to wander off-task?
Senior Lecturer Rochelle Constantine from the School of Biological Sciences, discusses the findings of the latest survey in Cook Strait on humpback whales.
Biological Sciences Senior Lecturer Dr Anna Santure was part of a Zoological Society of London-led study on New Zealand’s threatened bird, hihi, or stitchbird. The research showed that males who sneakily father chicks with coupled-up females may be the key to saving the species through passing their genes onto the next generation
A group of 25 University of Auckland scientists have made a submission to the government on its proposed Intended National Determined Contribution (INDC), or climate change target, ahead of global December talks in Paris that aim to set new emissions reduction goals post-2020.
Senior Lecuturer Dr Neill Herbert and doctoral student Tristan McArley from the Department of Marine Science talk about their research on how fish in rock pools cheat death and whether the science behind this ability may eventually be beneficial to humans.
Doctoral Candidate Josie Galbraith discusses her study which found the native grey warbler is losing out in the backyard battle for bird food.
“They typically forage on insects in the tree canopy but their ability to forage efficiently may be being affected by the disruption of higher densities of other birds at feeding sites,” she says. “There is some evidence their numbers are declining anyway, so this study does add to that concern," she says
Senior Lecturer Dr Jim Stinear from the Department of Sport & Exercise, and his research on how exercising is good for the brain.
It is well known that lack of exercise adversely impacts our cardiovascular health. But did you know that lack of exercise reduces the number of neurons in our brains, and also dulls our memory and our ability to resolve conflict? Can we 'preserve our brains?'.
Professor Shaun Hendy and the mission of Te Punaha Matatini, one of New Zealand's newest Centres of Research Excellence (CoREs) bringing multi-disciplinary research teams to study complex problems in business, the economy and the environment.
Lecturer Dr Cate Macinnes-Ng from the School of Biological Sciences on TV3’s Firstline programme talks about the recent Kauri Dieback Symposium being held in Northland where scientists are looking for new tools in the fight against a disease that threatens New Zealand’s iconic Kauri trees.
TV3's Firstline: Phosphite just a 'band-aid' for kauri dieback, not a cure
Dr Giovanni Russello from the Department of Computer Science on "ransomeware" attacks on Android devices which cause them to lock and then demand a fine.
Dr James Russell from the School of Biological Sciences and Department of Statistics is featured in a recent piece in the New Yorker, looking at rats and other invasive mammals in New Zealand, and what can be done to stop them destroying our native fauna.
"I've always studied the relationship between organisations that work in species conservation, while working in that field in some way. I always wanted to study some of the bigger questions over how these things are connected and how they function."
Megan Selby, who is a studying for a doctorate in envrionmental management at the University of Auckland, has brought a zoo.
"It's something that any other country in the world would look enviously at." Senior Lecturer James Russell from the School of Biological Sciences, on the 50th anniversary of the first island rodent eradication in New Zealand which was celebrated at a symposium at the University of Auckland in September.
“So far there have been 200 matches played, 117 of which were correctly predicted, a success rate of 58.5%.”
Professor David Scott from the Department of Statistics, comments about using exponential smoothing for predicting the results for the AFL grand final between the Sydney Rabbitohs and the Canterbury Bulldogs.
Associate Professor Chris Sibley and PhD candidate (Psychology) on research that shows people's personalities continue to develop well into their fifties and that personality stability increases with age.
Professor Garth Coooper (Biological Sciences), believes better prevention techniques or even a cure for diabetes may be a step closer after a breakthrough research shows both type-1 and type-2 forms of the disease are triggered by the same biological mechanism.
Postdoctoral Researcher Christina Painting (Biological Sciences) has done new research into the endemic Giraffe Weevil showing that smaller males use alternative mating tactics in order to ensure mating opportunities against their much larger rivals.
"The better we understand our universe the better we understand our place in it." Says Professor Richard Easther from the Department of Physics.
What is the great unanswered question for Professor Easther?
A move to clean up pollution and increase fish stocks is underway in the Hauraki Gulf. Brendon Dunphy from the School of Biological Sciences at the Faculty of Science commments about raising the levels of productivity by laying new muscle beds, purifing the water and bringing back the fish.
"You only live once - so do what you love."
While hardly rocket science, the advice was just as important as anything else one of our most accomplished chemists could impart to the next generation of female researchers yesterday.
Distinguished Professor Margaret Brimble, of the University of Auckland, shared career tips with more than 130 secondary school girls when she chaired the inaugural For Girls in Science forum.
As part of a large government-funded research programme on alternative pollination strategies, researchers at Plant & Food Research and the University of Auckland are studying how different insect pollinators work together, and how these communities change with increasing land-use intensity.
For years, scientists have only been able to hypothesise that large marine creatures such as whales, sharks and dolphins use hearing as a way of locating food.
Now, a research project led by the University of Auckland's Institute of Marine Science will look to confirm what many have long suspected by playing back recordings of prey in the water and tracking how whales respond to them. The world-first study, beginning next year, has the potential to reveal important insights into the relationship between large organisms and their food sources - and whether noise from humans can be a barrier.
Professor Grant Guilford, Dean of Science, criticises the Environmental Protection Agency's decision to introduce dung beetles to aid the breakdown of livestock faeces. In his opinion "the proposal to introduce the insect has been poorly thought out and the impact of such a move underestimated".
Associate Professor Jacqueline Beggs (School of Biological Sciences) agrees, arguing that "the recent debate about releasing 11 exotic dung beetle species in New Zealand has focused on the disease risk to humans, rather than the impact on native New Zealand ecosystems."
After a six-year campaign, SBS lecturer Rochelle Constantine has persuaded the shipping industry to reduce speed in the Hauraki Gulf and take other measures to improve the chances of endangered Bryde's whales surviving ship strikes.
Dr Jacqueline Beggs (School of Biological Sciences) takes us on a bush walk to discuss how we can restore our forests’ natural rhythms in an episode of Māori Television’s Project Mātauranga. In the programme, Jacqueline shows us how native species such as honeydew-producing native scale insects underpin the natural balance in our forests – and outlines the threats posed by introduced pests like wasps and rodents.
With advances in science, forensic practitioners can now collect and quantify evidence from crime scenes in more ways than ever before. When this evidence is brought to court, judges, lawyers and juries have to decide what weight to give it. Professor James Curran (Department of Statistics) explains how statistics are being used to aid the legal process.
Dr James Russell (School of Biological Sciences and Department of Statistics) won the 2012 Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Prize for Emerging Scientist for his work combining ecology, genetics and statistical modelling to solve conservation problems, particularly around rodents and islands. A Radio New Zealand crew joined James and masters student Jemma Welch for a trip to Goat Island, Te Hāwere-a-Maki, in the Leigh Marine Reserve north of Auckland, where they’re combining research into rats and a small population of winter-breeding grey-faced petrels.
A team of Australian and New Zealand researchers are harnessing bacteria as a possible new bio-insecticide to control crop pests. The team, which is led by Dr Shaun Lott (School of Biological Sciences) and includes PhD student Jason Busby and Dr Mark Hurst from AgResearch, investigated the workings of Yersinia entomophaga, a bacteria that kills a range of insect species that damage crops. In the process, the researchers discovered an entirely new way in which cells produce and store toxins.
Leading scientists from The University of Auckland including Professor Russell Snell, Dr Jessie Jacobsen and Dr Mike Taylor (School of Biological Sciences) are working to unlock the causes of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD is a group of complex brain development disorders that affects around one in 100 New Zealanders. The Autism Research Network, a unique community-researcher partnership aims at bringing together researchers, health professionals and the community from across the country to facilitate understanding and treatment options for ASD.
Body hair removal is becoming more common among young men, according to an international online survey conducted by Associate Professor Virginia Braun (School of Psychology) and Dr Gareth Terry (Open University, UK). The survey, which quizzed nearly 600 people aged 18-35 on their body hair grooming habits, found that while body hair was still considered more acceptable on men than it was on women - except on the back or shoulders - male body hair was not seen as particularly desirable.
CensusAtSchool is a biennual collaborative project run by The University of Auckland’s Department of Statistics involving teachers and funders Statistics New Zealand and the Ministry of Education. It’s part of an international effort to boost statistical capability among young people, and is carried out in Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, the US, Japan and South Africa.
Radio NZ talked with Census at School co-organisers Professor Chris Wild (Department of Statistics) and Rachel Cunliffe about why it is important to understand data and statistics, and joined head of maths Nichola Coe and a year 9 maths class at Kapiti College as they collect data for the census.
Tiny pulses of light one billionth of a second apart, travelling further than from the Earth to Sun, were used in an exquisitely sensitive experiment at The University of Auckland to explore fundamental interactions between light and sound. The research, led by Associate Professor Stéphane Coen (Department of Physics), examined the behaviour of solitons, solitary waves which maintain their shape in contrast, for instance, to waves hitting the shore which break and fragment.
Rangitoto may be much older - and more explosive - than previously believed. A new study has led scientists to reassess how volcanoes may behave in the future and could be a large step toward unlocking Auckland's mysterious volcanic past.
Contrary to the long-held belief that Rangitoto was formed less than 700 years ago and has erupted only twice, University of Auckland researchers led by Associate Professor Phil Shane (School of Environment) now suspect there may have been intermittent activity from between 1500 years ago to 500 years ago.
A seabird thought for more than a century to be extinct has been found breeding on an island in Auckland's Hauraki Gulf in what is being labelled an "internationally significant" find.
A team of researchers, led by Chris Gaskin and Dr Matt Rayner (School of Biological Sciences), said they were "elated" to find the sparrow-sized New Zealand storm petrel - thought extinct since the 19th Century until being rediscovered in 2003 - breeding on Little Barrier Island Hauturu.
A group of University of Auckland students including masters student Jacky Zhen from the Department of Computer Science have invented an ultraviolet sensor and a smartphone app that will tell users when they’ve had too much sun. They will present their idea at the finals of the Microsoft Imagine Cup 2013 in Russia.
A new commercial strain of wine yeast has been bred at the University of Auckland and is being released commercially in New Zealand for the 2013 vintage. The yeast which was developed by the Faculty of Science Wine Science Group under the lead of Professor Richard Gardner (School of Biological Sciences) is designed for the production of Sauvignon Blanc wines with an enhanced ‘Marlborough style’.
Read more about this research on the Food Technology NZ website (e-book article)
How will New Zealand's native giants, the Kauri, survive as our climate gets warmer and drier? This is the topic of a research project by Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr Cate Macinnis-Ng (School of Environment). Funded by a Marsden Fund Fast-Start grant, Cate and colleagues from Australia and the United Kingdom will investigate the sensitivity of the native conifers, kauri, tanekaha and totara, to water stress. They will compare water-use efficiency in these trees across different rainfall areas and look at how particular trees adapt to a lack of soil moisture.
Just weeks after a shark attack killed Muriwai man Adam Strange, a researcher has been out swimming unprotected - and hand feeding - some of the world's most dangerous sharks.
Shark expert Riley Elliott has spent the past six months tagging sharks with a satellite tracker off the coast of the Bay of Islands and the Coromandel Peninsula. He is researching migration and habitats of blue sharks for his PhD at the Leigh Marine Laboratory.
Professor Richard Easther (Department of Physics) talks about his research into the origins of the Universe, how cosmologists have reconstructed its history and how this information affects the lives of the general public.
Scientists have shown that mainland New Zealand has become an increasingly important winter habitat for southern right whales – a population hunted to near extinction in the 19th century – and members of the public have played a critical role in the research. "This endangered whale now seems to be a regular visitor to mainland of New Zealand" said lead author Dr Emma Carroll (School of Biological Sciences). "For the first time we have documented southern right whales returning to the mainland, including females returning with their calves in different years.” The findings suggest that mainland New Zealand could become an important habitat for mothers and calves and perhaps larger social groups.
Researchers at The University of Auckland lead by Dr Phil Yock (Department of Physics) have proposed a new method for finding Earth-like planets and they anticipate that the number will be in the order of 100 billion. The strategy uses a technique called gravitational microlensing, currently used by a Japan-New Zealand collaboration called MOA (Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics) at New Zealand’s Mt John Observatory.
Traditional treatment of burn injuries often involves years of painful skin grafting, usually from several parts of the person's body. Now there is hope for a different way to treat burn victims. Professor Rod Dunbar (School of Biological Sciences and Maurice Wilkins Centre) and Dr Vaughan Feisst (School of Biological Sciences) are attempting to grow artificial skin, thanks to a grant from the money raised by the Cure Kids’ Red Nose Day appeal. A new technique allows the researchers to grow more than just one layer of skin, which makes it less fragile than conventional artificial skin. "We can now grow skin that is exactly the same in terms of its cellular content as the patient's normal skin which means that it does not get rejected," explains Professor Dunbar.
University of Auckland research revealing the extent to which feral pigs can disturb forest vegetation and soils has led to a call for the animals to be controlled as a pest in areas of high ecological value. The research led by Dr Cheryl Krull (School of Biological Sciences) as part of her PhD thesis shows that feral pig ground disturbance resulted in a reduction in the diversity of seedlings and saplings in the forest, a dramatic reduction in leaf cover on the forest floor, and altered availability of nitrates (important nutrients for plants) in the soil. Feral pigs might also be responsible for spreading a fungus that is killing Kauri forests.
Dr Claire Cartwright (School of Psychology) provides an overview of the challenges faced by step-parents and gives advice on how to be a good step-parent, based on her research. She suggests that couples discuss how to introduce the step-parent to the partner's children, and to ensure that the step-parent takes a supportive role based on friendship with the child rather than a discipline role in the first couple of years.
Thousands of Kiwi teachers are at risk of developing serious voice problems because of high noise levels and poor acoustics in classrooms. Two studies, led by University of Auckland speech expert Professor Suzanne Purdy (School of Psychology) and PhD student Sylvia Leao, have revealed more than a third of teachers have suffered problems with their voices at some point.
Being called a Pakeha is not an insult, reveals a survey of thousands of people on attitudes and values, conducted by Dr Chris Sibley (School of Psychology) and Dr Carla Houkamau (Business School). The findings bust a recurrent myth that Pakeha is offered in a derogatory fashion. "We found no evidence whatsoever for the suggestion that the term Pakeha is in any way pejorative or might reflect a negative attitude toward New Zealanders of European descent," says Chris Sibley.
Animals perform great feats of migration. But how do they navigate so accurately without the aid of the maps and GPSs that we humans rely on? It’s a question that has long intrigued Michael Walker (Biological Sciences) and over the last few years he has gathered increasing evidence that animals are able to follow the earth’s lines of magnetism, using their own in-built magnetic detectors.
More recently applied mathematician Claire Postlethwaite (Department of Mathematics) has also been pondering the mysteries of animal navigation, and has developed a simple geometric model of navigation, based on a logical pattern of errors that Michael detected in both his own homing pigeon data and in other researchers’ data.
Most species will go extinct before they are ever discovered — or so some researchers believe. But the situation may not be so hopeless after all, according to a paper published in Science by Associate Professor Mark Costello (Institute of Marine Science) in cooperation with researchers from Griffith University and the University of Oxford. The scientists show that the claims are based on two key misconceptions: an over-estimation of how many species may exist on Earth, and the erroneous belief that the number of taxonomists (people who describe and identify species) is declining.
When Auckland City Hospital was experiencing a cancellation rate for cardiac surgery that was approaching 30% the staff decided to ask a mathematician for help. Statistician Associate Professor Ilze Ziedins (Department of Statistics), an expert in queuing theory and probability, and two of her graduate students, William Chen and Kim Frew, set out to develop a mathematical model of the Cardiavascular Intensive Care Unit using R, a statistical environment and programming language initially developed at the University of Auckland. The model took real-life data, and investigated different staffing and resourcing scenarios, and as a result was able to decrease waiting times for cardiac surgery.
While people cling to the adage that "money can't buy happiness", research suggests the opposite is true, and the more money you have, the happier you'll be. "It's an axiom that money can't buy love. Our results, however, show that, to a certain extent, it can buy happiness and good health," said the report by PhD student Nikhil Sengupta (School of Psychology) published last year in the New Zealand Journal of Psychology.
Dr Craig Millar (School of Biological Sciences) uses ancient penguin DNA from Antarctica to uncover the past and make predictions for the future. Using genome sequencing data the research team examines what evolutionary changes had occurred in Adelie penguins since the peak of the last glacial period, between 18,000 and 25,000 years ago. Antarctica had warmed about 10 to 12 degrees Celsius since deglaciation started about 12,000 years ago, and the team wanted to discover what, if any, evolutionary response that had prompted.
By using novel methods developed for tracing the origins of virus outbreaks, an international team, led by Dr Quentin Atkinson (School of Psychology) has identified present-day Turkey as the homeland of the Indo-European language family. The study was featured widely in national and international media.
In a study published in Current Biology, scientists from the The University of Auckland under the lead of Dr Rochelle Constantine (School of Biological Sciences) confirmed that the world’s rarest whale, the spade-toothed beaked whale has been sighted for the first time as a complete specimen. The scientists used DNA evidence to prove that a mother and her male calf which stranded in New Zealand in late 2010 were the first animals of their kind ever seen.
The School of Psychology's research on New Caledonian crows' cognition and culture has been widely reported nationally and internationally in the past years. By studying the social structure and behaviour of the crows and the details of their difficult daily lives, the researchers hope to gain new insights into the evolution of intelligence, the interplay between physical and social skillfulness, and the relative importance of each selective force in promoting the need for a big animal brain.
Recent research, led by Dr Alex Taylor, suggests that New Caledonian crows can make inferences about the behaviour of hidden animals in their environment, an ability previously observed only in humans. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and received international media attention.
In January 2011, Professor Russell Gray and Dr Jennifer Holzhaider commented on the background of their research in an article in the New York Times.
Results which suggest that crows understand basic physics were covered by national media. When presented with a tall half-filled tube of water, which had a small piece of meat floating on the surface, the crows dropped stones in it to raise the water level to get to the treat.
Stroke patients will be told how well or quickly they might recover use of their hand or arm after a medical breakthrough by Professor Winston Byblow (Department of Sport and Exercise Science) and Dr Cathy Stinear (School of Medicine). A simple bedside test done within three days of a stroke can now tell the patient their potential for recovery of upper limb function.
At least one third of the species living in our oceans, and perhaps up to two thirds, are unknown to science according to the work of an international research group, including Associate Professor Mark Costello (Institute of Marine Science) who co-led the research with Ward Appeltans of Flanders Marine Institute and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO. The researchers calculate that there are less than 1 million marine species, far fewer than some previous estimates. Around 226,000 species have been described by science and as many as 72,000 more are in collections awaiting description.
A few years ago, Dr David Krofcheck (Department of Physics) helped broker the deal which secured New Zealand's foothold in the most talked-about physics lab in the world - the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva, Switzerland. The news that scientists at CERN had discovered a new subatomic particle which might be the Higgs-bosom was a personal triumph for him.
Dr Mat Goddard and PhD student Jeremy Gray (Biological Sciences) have provided the first experimental explanation of how sexual reproduction helps species adapt in challenging real-world environments, solving a classic conundrum in evolutionary biology. The scientists used yeast that could be switched from asexual to sexual forms to show that yeast populations became best adapted to their environment if they reproduced sexually and underwent complete gene mixing.