29 April 2018 - By: Nicole Parr


Bar Headed Geese
Bar headed goose. Photo: Nyambayar Batbayar 

By Nicole Parr

The HumaNature conference was held at the Natural History Museum on the 11th-12th November 2017. The two-day conference united medics, physiologists and biologists, all with a fascination for survival in extreme settings.

Extreme environments are characterised by harsh conditions where only organisms with specialised adaptations can survive. As adventurous humans increasingly explore these formidable desert landscapes, high altitude peaks or ocean depths, we learn more about the limits of the human physiology. But what can be learnt from the animals already thriving in these environments? And what approaches and opportunities for collaboration exist between these disciplines?

In London’s iconic venue of the Natural History Museum, medics, researchers, comparative physiologists and experimental biologists met to discuss these questions at the HumaNature conference. Organised by the SEB, the conference was brought together by Prof Craig Franklin (University of Queensland), Dr Mark Hannaford (World Extreme Medicine), Dr Lewis Halsey (Roehampton University) and Dr Lucy Hawkes (University of Exeter).

Delegates presented their medical and zoological findings on the challenge of survival in a range of extreme environments and extreme feats. The pairing of animal and human research throughout each of the sessions highlighted areas where the two fields could benefit from each other through a sharing of techniques and knowledge. Ideas that were explored included agent-based modelling, (originally developed to model starling murmurations) that Dr Matthew Edwards from London Air Ambulance now believes can be applied to aid the formation of policy and management in the Emergency Room.

Professor Stuart Egginton (University of Leeds) summarised the possible benefits to the medical field of animal research, quoting August Krogh: “for such a large number of problems there will be some animal of choice, or a few such animals, on which it can be most conveniently studied”.

Dr Lucy Hawkes described the metabolically costly flights of bar-headed geese in atmospheric conditions where oxygen content is half that at sea level. Understanding how these birds can fuel such flights in limited oxygen environments may help advance treatment of the 80% of patients in critical care experiencing low oxygen. This issue was also highlighted in a talk by Dr Andrew Cumpstey (University College London) as a major reason for medical expeditions to the summit of Mount Everest.

Dr Andreas Fahlman (Oceanographic Foundation) presented his studies into the eco-physiology of diving mammals and described how an altered breathing rhythm allows for a more effective gas exchange. By contrast, Dr Željko Dujić described how some of the world’s finest human free-divers survive underwater for periods approaching 12 minutes.

From the medical realm, Dr Leigh Breen (University of Birmingham) discussed the problems of inactivity and the resulting muscle degradation seen in our growing elderly population that leads to a diminished quality of life. On the other hand, Dr Carl Soulsbury (University of Lincoln), revealed the potential negative, or even fatal, consequences of too much energy expenditure for animals, as seen in lekking black grouse.

This first conference highlighted the exciting potential for collaboration between disciplines. In an uncertain and changing world it is hoped that this collaborative approach will increase resilience for animals and humans alike.

“For me, it was fantastic to host a programme, for the first time, putting leading medical experts that study the human body in extremes next to animal athletes that regularly meet the challenges posed by extreme cold, heat, altitude, depth and endurance,” said Lucy Hawkes, one of the conference organisers.

To view the complete list of abstracts from the HumanNature Symposium visit:

Podcasts of talks are also available at:

Category: Events

Nicole Parr

Nicole is currently a PhD student at the University of Exeter in the Hawkes lab. She is investigating high altitude migrations carried out by waterfowl and use a range of approaches including GIS analysis, biologging and laboratory techniques to understand how these feats are achieved.

Latest articles

SEB Annual Conference website image
SEB 2021 Annual Conference
28 February 2021
Emerging diseas
Emerging diseases
28 February 2021
Giant Bamboo
Giant Bamboo
28 February 2021