Charles Darwin Award and Marsh Prize

This Award is presented in partnership with the Zoological Society of London and recognises the best zoological project by an undergraduate student attending a university in Great Britain or Northern Ireland.

The projects are judged by a panel of experts from the ZSL, who then select the winning study.

(2017 Awards were presented in 2018)

Pictured: African hunting dog ©  ZSL

John Stratford 2022

‘The potential of signal detection theory in behavioural ecology’

This is an exceptional undergraduate project that makes a very important contribution to the field. The clarity of writing is of the highest standard, making the narrative and rationale very easy to follow. The work is multidisciplinary and John worked successfully across computer science and experimental biology, something that only the highest quality undergraduates can achieve. The analyses are robust and there are sophisticated approaches employed. It seems very likely that this study will be published in a high-quality ecological journal. John has produced a truly exceptional undergraduate project and is an excellent candidate for this Award. 

Previous Winners

Benedetta Veneroni

Benadetta, University of Aberdeen, for her project ‘Changing Perceptions in a Changing Environment: Assessing Local Ecological Knowledge and Shifting Baselines among Fishing Communities of the Italian Northern Adriatic Sea’This is a highly original and innovative work for an undergraduate dissertation. Benadetta has used both ecological and social survey techniques to address a complex issue. Fishing is a deeply convoluted issue and highly emotive among communities whose livelihoods depend on fishing. The quality of the data gathering and analysis is excellent and the interpretation of the findings are highly relevant to current conservation needs. The quality and insight that Benadetta has shown is to be commended, particularly with regard to the academic quality, innovation, and the usefulness of the findings to conservation actions. 

Will Smith, University of Oxford

Will’s project is outstanding, and he has used an impressive range of approaches and tools. The idea for the project originated from his own interest and understanding and involved citizen science assembled independently by Will. The thesis contains several genuinely original ideas, and it excels in quantity and quality.

Are wild rock doves in the British Isles distinct from feral domestic pigeons? A phenotypic and genetic analysis.’  Will’s project is outstanding in every respect. It tackles an original question – whether rock dove populations are still distinct from their feral pigeon descendants despite likely genetic introgression – and it does this using an extremely impressive range of approaches and tools.  The work involved citizen science, assembled entirely and independently by Will, to obtain morphological data from both rock dove and feral pigeons across the UK. Will shows an impressive command of techniques ranging from PCA, phylogenetic analysis and genomics to show that rock doves and feral pigeons are distinct both morphologically and genetically, and that populations of rock doves with little introgression of feral pigeon genes persist despite their relative rarity. The report is beautifully written and is of publishable quality in terms of the rigour and originality of the work it contains.

Katherine Assersohn

Katherine Assersohn, of the University of Sheffield, won this Award for her project ‘Inbreeding and prenatal maternal investment have no detectable influence on sperm numbers in Japanese quail (Coturnix japonica)’. In this exceptional study Katherine investigated the effect of inbreeding on male reproductive traits, specifically comparing sperm counts and testes asymmetry in inbred versus outbred quails. Although inbreeding often results in low-quality offspring, no detectable effect of inbreeding was observed in Japanese quail. Katherine presents convincing explanations for her findings and shows the ability both to master technically demanding tasks in the lab and to put her results in context of the wider literature. She is an innovative and talented researcher.

Joe Wynn

Joe has won this year’s Award for his project ‘Gone with the wind: how a pelagic seabird reacts to weather’, in which he analyses the results of GPS trackers attached to Manx Shearwaters from three colonies to investigate their feeding strategies, in relation to weather and colony size.

Joe’s results highlighted the role of wind direction and speed in determining trip destination and feeding strategy. They also suggested that birds tend to feed for themselves (rather than provisioning their chicks) when the wind makes it energetically favourable to do so. Joe’s project is well written, clearly and logically set out and the interpretation of his results is impressive.

Simon Chen

Simon won this Award for his study entitled, ‘Attachment mechanisms in caterpillars’. In the study, he investigate how well two caterpillar species, the Bicyclus anynana and the Arctia caja, attach to non-planar substrates. He also explored whether the Bicyclus anynana adjust silk production to substrate and caterpillar characteristics.

Simon found that caterpillars adjust silk laying behaviour to substrate slope and roughness, and thread strength to roughness. Nevertheless, safety factors and safety thread use decreased markedly throughout development. Silk adjustment allowed Bicyclus anynana to avoid unnecessarily producing silk and provided a flexible mechanism for efficient attachment. Scaling relationships suggest a shift in attachment strategy away from mainly investing in silk as caterpillars develop. A possible trade-off between silk-based attachment and direct attachment with more complex attachment devices warrants further investigation.

Patrick Meyer-Higgins

Patrick has been recognised for his comparative study of Strouhal number in birds, exploring wing morphology, flight mode and methodology, undertaken at the University of Oxford.

In his study, Patrick measured Strouhal number by filming diverse species of bird in free flight, to find evolutionary, morphological and ecological correlates of each of these measurements. This is an impressively technical project and focuses on an important new technique for measuring Strouhal number in the field. In the project, Patrick showed a clear understanding of possible sources of measurement error, and went to great lengths to avoid these in the methods that he designed. He used sophisticated statistical and comparative methods to analyse his data and the techniques he developed will be influential in future work in this area.

Benjamin Hopkins

Benjamin’s project is entitled ‘The role of the accessory gland secondary cells in mediating sperm competition in Drosophila’, and was carried out at the University of Oxford. In this study, Benjamin uses cutting-edge molecular techniques to unravel the function of the accessory gland secondary cells in reproduction and shows how these cells affect sperm competitiveness and female fertility.

The research was technically challenging, and Benjamin’s interpretation of the results was sophisticated and insightful. The project revealed his impressive breadth of knowledge about the molecular biology of male Drosophila seminal-fluid proteins and demonstrated his understanding of the evolutionary implications of the findings, particularly in the context of sexual-selection theory.

Mark Scherz

Mark has been recognised for his project entitled ‘The paraphyly of ratites just doesn’t fly’ which addresses the important and interesting problem of the controversy surrounding the evolution of flightlessness in ratite birds with the use of molecular data. His thesis is a model study in molecular analysis which he uses aspects of to tease apart sources of conflicting material in existing literature.

Mark’s study is well-structured and argued, and the methodology and results are well documented and presented. He produces a balanced discussion based on the complicated array of possibilities which contains important ideas for future analysis and additional data that would be required in future work on this topic.

Katrina Spensley

Katrina was awarded for her final year project at St Catherine’s College Oxford which focussed on understanding how immunity can influence the population structure of polymorphisms in an antigen derived from the malaria parasite. The conscientious project was aimed at identifying polymorphic protein regions of a pathogen resulting from strong immune selection, and demonstrated Katrina’s highly motivated approach to her work. The project was challenging and risky due to the breadth of skills required, from biological to mathematical and computational.

Katrina was highly successful and identified two regions that exist as non-overlapping combinations with linkage disequilibrium, which are not due to structural constraints within the protein. She initiated and wrote a computer programme to deal with the task of performing population based sequence analyses.

Katrina’s project has provided the first proof of principle for immune selection theory and has opened a new way of searching for epitopes under strong immune selection which could have huge implications on the identification of candidates for vaccine design.

Marius Wenzel

Marius won the Award for his project ‘Patterns of dispersal, genetic structure and phylogeography of European populations of the red-billed chough (Pyrrhocorax Pyrrhocorax)’ which was conducted at the University of Aberdeen.

Marius focused on developing a suite of DNA-based tools to examine patterns of genetic structure and gene flow in populations of choughs. He used these tools to identify the extent to which populations of declining species are genetically and demographically isolated. His project involved arduous fieldwork to sample isolated populations on islands off the West Coast of Scotland, as well as in-depth analysis in the lab to develop appropriate microsatellite and mitochondrial DNA markers. Marius’ thesis was described as being of post-graduate standard and was awarded the maximum mark. His results have gone on to inform management recommendations by conservation stakeholders in the UK.

Rudi Verspoor

Rudi won the Award for his project ‘An investigation of four putatively selected genes in Drosophila pseudoobscura (species of fruit fly)’ which was conducted at Edinburgh University.

Rudi examined four gene regions in Drosophila pseudoobscura which were proposed to be under selection, using naturally derived lines of the species. He produced interesting results which showed three of the gene regions exhibiting low nucleotide diversity for two different reasons and the fourth gene showed a high diversity possibly due to balancing selection. The project involved DNA extraction, sequence extraction and curation followed by analysis of sequence change, using various measures of nucleotide diversity. Rudi gathered a large quantity of data, mastered the relevant sequence analysis techniques quickly and effectively and despite the demanding nature of the project, did well to bring it to fruition.

Haihan Tan

Haihan was recognised for the project ‘Novel roles of nuclear receptors in cell fate decisions of neural stem cells and differentiated progeny in Drosophila’, certain types of what are commonly called fruit flies.

The aim of the project was to identify entities known as nuclear hormone receptors which interact with what is known by scientists as “the Prospero transcription factor”. The project involved a large amount of work utilising challenging techniques that many PhD students would find hard to apply. Haihan cloned many of the known nuclear hormone receptors and tested whether they interacted with Prospero. Those that did were tested for embryonic expression patterns. The project is well presented, based on a mature understanding of the topic, and is clearly publishable in the mainstream scientific literature.