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Deep Reads: Daisy Hessenberger’s evolving perspective on Gerald Durrell’s books

Our third Deep Reads blog post, ‘Deep Reads: Daisy Hessenberger’s evolving perspective on Gerald Durrell’s books’, was written by Daisy Hessenberger, who has recently completed her PhD at the University of Cambridge. Her main scientific interest has always been evolution, and during her PhD she investigated the occurrence of extreme hybrid traits. On the topic of her research, she says: “I worked with a delightful unicellular Green algae (Chlamydominas reinhardii). After getting different strains to mate, I compared the genetics and epigenetics of the hybrids.” Besides science, her interests lie in travelling, cooking, and writing whatever comes to her mind.

One thing has always fascinated me: how did the process of evolution lead to the incredible biodiversity we find in our world? It’s this question that drives me to research the epigenetic component of the formation of hybrid traits, the black box of evolution. But my initial curiosity into evolution and species diversity was born when I read Gerald Durrell’s books.

The first of his books that I read, Catch me a Colobus, describing the first of many collection trips that Gerald took to Africa, opened up my young mind to the breadth of complexity and environments found in our world. I also got my first taste of the impact human society has on animal conservation. The second, My Family and Other Animals, taught me that biodiversity could be found closer to home, and that even an aspiring 10-year-old naturalist could make some profound (and often amusing) discoveries. He recounts countless hours spent observing animal behaviour, from the fights involved in the courtship of tortoises to the differing levels of care provided by sparrow fathers.

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A Colobus Monkey. Image from: Pixabay.

Whether they were some of Gerald Durrell’s more amusing books (cue chasing escaped tapirs in Menagerie Manor), or more academic in nature (such as The Stationary Ark – a collection of essays on how to ethically run a zoo), I was always captivated by the diversity of animals and behaviours that he documented. Be it describing the inhabitants of his garden or his adventures on the many collection and TV trips around the world, these books portray the glory of the natural world and why we must protect it.

As I learnt more about the environment and conservation at school, I reread The Stationary Ark and Gerald Durrell’s own account of setting up his zoo in Jersey, A Zoo in my Luggage; except this time I questioned the need for zoos and the accompanying ethical issues with a more critical eye. The more serious messages in his novels became apparent to me and it was this realization that steered me from wanting to go to veterinary school to studying evolutionary biology. The joy of a young naturalist turned into the drive of a young scientist. As I progressed through my academic career, at each and every stage of my development I found myself rereading those books with a new perspective.

At an undergraduate level, I learnt about cultural inheritance and epigenetics, both inherited separately to the underlying DNA code. My mind reeled; the network that evolution worked on had grown even more complex. Given this personal paradigm shift, I questioned the enchanting behaviour captured in Gerald Durrell’s words. The megapode bird (also known as the incubator bird) incubates its eggs underground and keeps them at the correct temperature using fermentation of vegetation. To keep the temperature stable, the male measures the temperature with his beak or tongue (scientists are yet to confirm which) and adjusts the structure of the nest as needed. How had this adaptation evolved? Could culture or epigenetics play a role? I decided to aim my academic career at understanding how such a plethora of variation could have evolved.

Now at a graduate level, I’ve had the opportunity to try to answer some of my questions, drawn from some of Gerald Durrell’s writings. Specifically, I’m researching the potential effect that small RNAs could have on hybrid phenotypes in a unicellular alga. With the results I hope to establish a firmer understanding of how these intriguing molecules can affect the evolution of hybrid traits. I am still seeking answers to many of my questions and will do so for some time. As I approach the next stage of my scientific career, I’m sure that new discoveries will lead me to reread Gerald Durrell’s books in a new light. As science advances faster and faster, it’s important not to forget tomes of natural history, as their descriptiveness can remind us of our initial inspiration and put into context the importance of our work. Taken even further, with many species of plants and animals under threat, there is no guarantee that the biodiversity which so inspired Gerald Durrell will always be around to comment on, and we may eventually have to rely on his words alone.

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A megapode bird. Image credit: Vicki Nunn

We at PLOS Genetics are looking for new submissions for our Deep Reads blog series and would love to find out more about the books that have inspired you as a scientist. Have any books introduced you to a captivating new scientific concept? Or made you think about something in a completely different way? Perhaps there’s a biography of a prominent scientist that you found particularly moving. If so, please get in touch.

Selected posts will be published on PLOS Biologue and should be no more than 800 words with one or two images. Entries should relate to a book (either fiction or non-fiction) with a genetics/genomics component.

Please send entries to plosgenetics@plos.org by 1st June, 2015 and we’ll be in touch if yours is chosen.

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