Heather More and a giraffeHeather More spent a month at a South African game farm on a research field trip studying giraffes to determine whether or not nerve impulses travel more quickly in large animals than smaller ones to compensate for their larger body size.

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Research trip of a lifetime

March 14, 2013
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A month’s stay at a South African game lodge including daily trips to a giraffe compound isn’t typical of SFU PhD research trips.

But for Heather More, it was a lucky break.

More is studying whether or not nerve impulses travel more quickly in large animals than smaller ones to compensate for their larger body size.

And a chance meeting at a Glasgow biology conference led to an invitation to join a 40-member Danish research team from Aarhus University on its 2010 expedition to study giraffes.

“It was fabulous,” says More, who travelled to Africa with postdoctoral fellow Shawn O’Connor.

More studied how quickly the giraffe’s sciatic nerve conducts impulses when stimulated and how quickly its muscles contract when stimulated.

She also studied nerve-fibre samples to find out whether giraffes have the same relative number of nerve fibres as smaller animals.

Her results were surprising. Despite their long necks and limbs, giraffe’s don’t have a faster nerve-conduction speed than other animals. And they have relatively fewer nerve fibres than smaller animals.  

That means they can’t sense and respond as quickly to nerve stimuli and must have developed other coping mechanisms, says More.

“Perhaps it’s an ability to think and plan ahead based on hearing or other senses.”

More also went on several safaris and spent two weeks completing lab work at the University of Pretoria.

She then spent three weeks backpacking from South Africa to Kenya without incident, despite warnings about the hazards of single women travelling alone.

She and O’Connor have just published their research in The Journal of Experimental Biology.

The pair received grants from SFU, the American Society of Mammalogists, the Company of Biologists and the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology to fund their trip.

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