Moths in the bathroom

Science from home took on a new meaning for some scientists during COVID lockdown
18 December 2020

Interview with 

Zenobia Lewis, University of Liverpool




Back in April, when the UK was first in lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, Phil Sansom spoke with Zenobia Lewis from the University of Liverpool about how she was managing to keep doing her science from home despite the pandemic, and it involves an unlikely room in the house...

Zenobia - I'm a behavioral ecologist, I'm interested in animal behavior and I'm particularly interested in mating behavior. My main study species is a moth called the Indian meal moth. And these are actually pest species of grain. And so in a way a jar of muesli is their natural environment. And as a result I was literally able to just bring my entire lab back home.

Phil - Really? your entire lab?

Zenobia - Okay so a pared down version of it, but enough of the important stuff to be able to maintain my lines while we're on lockdown.

Phil - How many moths have you got?

Zenobia - I literally couldn't tell you, I mean I tried to maintain each generation at about a hundred adults and I brought home nine populations with me, so a lot.

Phil - So that's around 900 moths in jars of muesli in your house?

Zenobia - Yeah.

Phil - Where have you set them up?

Zenobia - I have them in my downstairs toilet. They are usually kept in an incubator so that I can maintain them at a constant temperature. Obviously that's gone out the window now they're in my downstairs bathroom. I have a microscope which I use at times for counting their sperm. And then in all honesty a lot of the kit is jars, masking tape for labeling, permanent markers for writing labels, really bog standard stuff.

Phil - How are they adapting to life in your downstairs toilet?

Zenobia - They're still alive so I think they're okay! These are actually quite special populations. I've been maintaining them generation after generation with a very particular treatment regime. So because I'm interested in mating behavior, one of the things I'm examining is the effects of what's called sexual selection where individuals, usually males, compete amongst themselves for access to females. And I've manipulated the level of that competition generation after generation for over 150 generations. That's 15 years worth of treatment. I wasn't just gonna let that go because we were shut down!


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