The slow (Nycitcebus spp.) and pygmy lorises (Xanthonycticebus sp.) arguably represent the most fascinating Strepsirrhine primates – they are gum eating, venom producing, cobra mimicking primates with 10 species distributed across South East Asia. Venomous mammals are scant throughout Mammalia, represented by under 30 species including the slow and pygmy lorises, platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus), short-tailed shrews (Blarina spp.), water shrews (Neomys spp.), solenodon (Solenodon spp.) and vampire bats (Desmondus rotundus, Diphylla ecaudata and Diaemus youngi).
The slow loris venom delivery system consists of a brachial gland exudate (BGE) located on a gland on the inner arm that is activated when combined with saliva, proving lethal to mammals (including humans) and arthropods. This venom is unique in the animal kingdom not only as it provides an interspecific use (an extremely rare adaption for venom) but also as the only two-stage venom known in the scientific literature, with the BGE needing to be mixed with the saliva before it reaches it toxic potential.
While the behaviour, ecology and natural history of slow and pygmy lorises has been well documented within the current scientific literature, their genetic research is predominately limited to being used as an outgroup for larger primate genetic studies. Their venom system, much like all venomous mammal research, has received little attention outside of remarking on its novelty. This scarcity in research is not due to lack of interest but rather two issues: first is the difficulty in obtaining samples from wild specimens due to the rarity and endangered status of these animals, second is the difficulty in identifying where seized specimens have originated from making it near impossible to successful release specimens.
My PhD seeks to help fill in the gaps on our genetic and venom knowledge of the pygmy and slow lorises using my evolutionary venomic background.
Broadly, the goals are:
1. Understand the wider evolution of venom within mammals with a focus on evolutionary rates and possible origins
2. Identify what mechanisms are involved in the distinct two-step venom system including what the trigger for the toxicity in BGE is
3. Explore the different pressures acting on the life history of the Javan slow lorises (Nyticebus javanicus)
4. Investigate the population genetics of the pygmy slow lorises including possible validation of the new species split using available data
5. Evaluate the heterozygosity levels within captive pygmy lorises populations with implications for seized or global populations.
Leah Lucy Joscelyne Fitzpatrick, Vincent Nijman, Rodrigo Ligabue-Braun, and K. Anne-Isola Nekaris (2022) 'The Fast and the Furriest: Investigating the Rate of Selection on Mammalian Toxins'
Memberships of professional bodies
- Trustee of the British Arachnological Society (2021-2024)
Academic and professional training
MSc Taxonomy, Biodiversity and Evolution (2018-2019), Imperial College London (Merit) Thesis title “Expanding the arsenal: the phylogeny and venom evolution of Latrodectinane spiders”
BSc Zoology (Extended) (2014-2018), Anglia Ruskin University (First) Thesis title “Investigating the evolution and relationships of spider (order Aranae) venom using multivariate analysis and phylogenetic techniques”
Other professional information
I am deeply passionate about outreach and science communication, I thoroughly enjoy any opportunities to engage the public and doing it in more outlandish ways!
This began in 2014 when I became a Learning Volunteer at the Natural History Museum in London, taking out real museum specimens on gallery and leading visitors in activities or facilitating interactions. I still try to make time to visit the NHM for outreach, in particular for the larger events such as the Great Exhibition Road Festival.
Latest examples of my outreach have been developing a skull activity for Science Oxford (Oct 2022), running a mammal workshop at Oxford Brookes Science Bazaar (Oct 2022), a mammal skull workshop delivered to Burford School (Jan 2023), speaking about spiders in our homes for BBC Radio (April 2023) and delivering a talk to the Bangor Entomology Society on how to tackle social media perception of spiders (April 2023).
I own my own collection of 50+ handling specimens and have given talks since 2015, do reach out if you would be interested in my outreach.
Scholarships and Prizes
- Oxford Brookes University (2023) - Graduate Student Research Conference “Highly Commended” for Student Prize and won Open Access Research Prize
- Royal Entomology Society (2021) - 1st place Student Science Communication Award
- Imperial College London (2019) - 3rd place in 4 Cs competition
- British Arachnological Society (2019) - Research Grant
- Anglia Ruskin University (2018) - Animal and Environmental Biology programme prize
- London Volunteers in Museum Awards (2018) - Highly Commended in “Youth” category
- Anglia Ruskin University (2017) – Development Grant for Community Development
- Cambridge Natural History Society (2016-2018) - NatHisFest Student Prize