Apr 24 2018

Back in March, two episodes of Sir David Attenborough's Natural Curiosities featured research from our School of Biological Sciences on Siamese Fighting Fish & bird eggs. We caught up with Dr Steve Portugal to find out what it was like to film the two episodes alongside Sir David Attenborough, and how the opportunity to have our research featured on Natural Curiosities came about. 

1. Could you tell us a bit more about yourself and your role within the Department of Biological Sciences?

I arrived at the College at the end of 2014 as a Lecturer in Animal Behaviour and Physiology, following a postdoc position at the Royal Veterinary College. My role here is the usual mix of research, teaching, administration and recruitment, and currently I have responsibility for the Departmental website. This year I am developing new modules for 3rd year students focusing on extreme animal physiology, and a fieldcourse based in Borneo.

2. Natural Curiosities is now available to watch on BBC iPlayer. What was it like filming the two episodes alongside Sir David Attenborough?

It was a fantastic week. A very special week. The whole team were an absolute pleasure to work with. It was a very strange and exciting moment hearing your childhood (and adulthood…) hero saying the Latin name of the species you work on, sat just a few feet away. It was fairly stressful too, and I was very relieved when the fish were on their best behaviour and performed well. David was full of amusing stories, and it was also the day he received the phone-call to tell him that the new NERC Research Vessel was being named after him, and he was clearly thrilled with the news.

3. How did the opportunity to have our research featured on Natural Curiosities come about?

Well, the opportunity arose due to what was described as “polite persistence”. I regularly wrote to the production team at Humble Bee Films (who make Natural Curiosities) and Sir David himself, telling them about Siamese Fighting Fish and what we were finding out about them, and why they were so fascinating. Eventually, when a fourth series of the programme was green lit, the Siamese Fighting Fish were given their moment in the spotlight. Possibly in a ‘if we film them, will you finally leave us alone’ manner, but that’s all fine with me.

4. Research wise, what are you currently working on?

Quite a diverse range of stuff currently. I have a group of ten postgraduates working on projects ranging from how bird’s co-ordinate their flocking behaviour, to what limits the distribution of species over tropical mountain habitats. We’re looking at how avian brood parasitic birds can be so strong when so young, to evict host eggs from the nest, and we’re trying to understand why certain species of birds are so susceptible to flying or swimming into man-made objects such as gillnets and wind turbines. A paper I’m working on currently which I am particularly excited about is looking at how wild animals and their physiology responds to the moon and the moons natural cycles.

5. Outside of your work life what do you enjoy doing?

The three things I love most are nature and the outdoors, racket sports, and cocktails. So pretty much any combination of those three makes me very happy. I also love being around animals and friends too; ideally outdoors, while watching tennis, with a mojito or such-like in hand.

6. What’s your favourite term at Royal Holloway and why?

For me, I love the summer term. I’m essentially solar powered, like a large lizard. I love the blue skies, sunshine, and how beautiful the campus looks when in full bloom. I love nature and the outdoors. A small detour walking back from Founders to the Bourne Biology building (possibly with an ice cream) can reveal numerous species of vibrant dragonflies around the ponds, and the woods are full of bird song.

7. You may have seen our latest recruitment campaign, ‘Find your why’. We are interested to find out what Royal Holloway has helped you to discover about yourself…

Being here at Royal Holloway has really reaffirmed how much I Iove animal biology, and how much I enjoy teaching it, both to Undergraduate students, and to the general public via outreach events and the media. It’s a pleasure to spend my time researching and teaching a topic which I love so much.