Colleague Noam’s research in the news!

7 05 2020

Noam Miller‘s group finds that garter snakes have ‘friends’… (with a nice write-up in Science here).

Screenshot 2020-05-06 22.01.01

Beautiful Balbs

3 05 2020

Meet Coconut, Basma‘s last surviving adoptee from August 2018.  Like Emma’s Sugar (also still alive), Coconut became 3 years old in April!  Both were enriched housed from the moment they arrived in Guelph, which we strongly suspect helped their longevity. (Coconut’s looking physically great too. And Basma says yes this IS a recent photo, and no she has NOT had any work done).


In a slightly sorrier state (below) is this girl from our current cohort: victim of a barber this week. When barbering just involves hair removal, we don’t step in, but whisker removal’s different: mice use their whiskers like we use our fingers, so taking them away is quite the disability (and this mouse’s muzzle looks a bit sore, too).


With three cagemates, all fully whiskered, we don’t 100% know who the culprit was… but since only one was a C57, and in the last cohort all 11 of our past whisker-barbers were C57s (highly statistically significant), we know who it’s very very likely to have been. We’ve also learned by trying that while enriched-rearing greatly reduces this behaviour, moving barbers from standard to enriched housing does nothing to remedy it: by the time barbering appears it seems too late to change.

So, sadly that meant cervical dislocation for the C57: humane, but not something any of us want to see. When Covid’s over and we can get back to work again, we’re now determined to get to the bottom of this abnormal behaviour: why does standard housing turn some C57s into barbers? (And why are the poor old Balbs always the recipients, in our mixed strain set-ups?)  It’s really time to find out.

More good news from NSERC, and Zoomtastic lab meeting

22 04 2020

More great news from NSERC: Lindsey and Jess both won NSERC scholarships for their PhDs!

And this is us (minus Andrea who was packing up her apartment) at yesterday’s lab meeting. I think we’re getting the hang of this Zoom business.

This is us


Weird birthday

15 04 2020

IMG_1334OK a pandemic is officially not the best time to have a birthday, no matter how many nice Zoom appointments you have. I was generally gloomy all weekend.

BUT I did love the vegan ‘charcuterie’ from my current lab (being investigated by Sylvie, right; N.B. and the wickedly delicious ‘facon‘ did not last long …). And I also really loved the birthday surprise vid from some past lab folks (with Andrea snuck in there too): from top left clockwise – Becky, Carole, Misha and family, Mike, Andrea and Jamie. Thanks so much everyone!  Really looking forward to being able to take everyone out for treats again like normal, maybe for my demi-birthday in September??

A postcard from back when things were normal

10 04 2020

It seems a million years ago now, but as recently as early February Aileen went to a research seminar at McMaster. She just sent me her write-up, and it makes me nostalgic!

At the beginning of February, Georgia forwarded me an email with the message “Can you get to this?? She is FANTASTIC!”. The “this” was a talk by Dr. Kate Harkness as part of McMaster’s Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour Colloquium Series. I recognized her name because Georgia had met Dr. Harkness during a trip to Queen’s University about a year ago, and told the lab about how great she was. Based on this alone I was ‘in’, but the title of this talk was also grabbing: Reading the Minds of Others: Paradoxes, Mechanisms, and Outcomes Across the Depression Spectrum. So off I went.

Kate Harkness-300x375The work presented was really interesting. Dr. Harkness discussed theory of mind, which includes 1) the ability to determine another person’s mental state based on observable behaviour 2) using this knowledge to predict future actions. It’s well established that depressed humans experience social and interpersonal problems, and that compared to healthy controls they sometimes struggle to decode others’ mental states. However, Dr. Harkness’ group showed that individuals experiencing mild depression or “dysphoria” actually show enhanced theory of mind capabilities.

While assessing theory of mind in animals seems out of the question, their paradoxical results lead to discussion about treating depression as a spectrum, rather than categorical. For me, this turned out to be extremely valuable.

For my PhD, I’m testing the hypothesis that standard, barren cages for laboratory mice induce states consistent with clinical depression. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V), diagnoses of depression require the presence of 5/9 relevant traits. One question I’m grappling with, and that I dread getting in talks, is “what would it take to reject the hypothesis?”. In other words, what if we find that mice show 4/9 DSM-V symptoms? Treating depression like a spectrum, or at least thinking about doing so, might help me make clear predictions that I can justify. While I’ve been thinking about this for some time, I picked up a few new search terms (“dysphoria” being one) that have led me to a whole new body of useful literature.

Georgia once told me that going to talks can be a bit like going to a yard sale: sometimes you pick up something really interesting that you didn’t expect. In this case, an afternoon out of Guelph and some new search terms were my prize finds. 


Congratulations to Emma Nip!

7 04 2020

Emma Nip (aka Little Emma) was recently offered the job of her dreams: being an Animal Welfare Inspector with the Ontario Public Service.  Congratulations Emma, you will be amazing!

Mouse adoptions!

7 04 2020

As Covid become more serious in Guelph, and the number of Canadian cases keeps on going up and up, we’re following the university’s request to downsize animal labs. But thanks to Lindsey, we’ve managed to do this with no killing: she found 8 adopters (and is of course herself taking Simon and companion)!

So today we organised a safe, biosecure pickup operation, seven cars taking it in turns to pull up, wait, collect a box of mice and leave. My job was to chat while they waited, and make sure they didn’t get parking tickets (while Lindsey ran up and down stairs carrying packed up mice). It was so fun – what a lovely lot of people they were. And like Melissa’s starling story, it was just very nice to be part of some good news. 18 mice went to new homes today, with a group of seven (who should obviously be called The Group of Seven) waiting for Emma to be ready to take them. That’s everyone we needed to shift!

Top: adopter Clare collects Theodore and Thump, as Lindsey gets ready to bring down another 5 boxes for the queue. Below: One car leaves with its mouse cargo while two more wait for theirs.