St Petersburg University scientists discuss the development of zoological research in Russia

An academic and historical symposium entitled "Zoology at St Petersburg University: Past and Present" has been recently held at the University. Along with experts from the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, University scientists discussed how zoology in Russia has changed over the past two centuries and the role that researchers from St Petersburg University have played in the process.

This gathering took place as part of the Year of Zoology celebration, which marks 200 years of zoological education at the University.

Professor Igor Tikhonovich, Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and Dean of the Faculty of Biology at St Petersburg University, welcomed the guests. He recalled that 200 years ago it was at St Petersburg University that the first specialised department of zoology in Russia was established and that 150 years ago it split into the Cabinets of Zoology and Zootomy. The latter event paved the way for the current Department of Vertebrate Zoology and the Department of Invertebrate Zoology at St Petersburg University.

These subdivisions are among the foremost at the University and in the country. This testifies to both the number of studies that is carried out by the specialists in the departments and the number of grants that they receive.

Professor Igor Tikhonovich, Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and Dean of the Faculty of Biology at St Petersburg University

‘St Petersburg University zoologists have made a significant contribution to the generation of completely new ideas about biodiversity and animal evolution,’ Professor Tikhonovich noted. ‘In their work, our scientists apply the entire arsenal of methods used in present-day biology, including the latest techniques in microscopic observation, 3D reconstruction, bioinformatics, proteomics, genomics, transcriptomics and much more. The zoologists at St Petersburg University are developing at a state-of-the-art level.’

The Dean of the Faculty of Biology added that the research of University zoologists is not only of fundamental significance. It also brings practical benefits to the country and society. For example, within the framework of the activities of Agrotechnologies of the Future, a world-class research centre, zoologists at the University are working on the development of technologies for use in agriculture.

More specific information about the history and activities of the departments of zoology at the University can be found in an issue of the magazine St Petersburg University devoted to the 200th anniversary of zoological education in Russia.

Nikita Chernetsov, Director of the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Science and Professor in the Department of Vertebrate Zoology at St Petersburg University, pointed out that University zoologists participate yearly in major Russian and international research projects and also successfully combine teaching and research. He added that many zoology students do their graduation projects at institutes of the Russian Academy of Science, particularly at the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Science.

‘The unique zoology departments of St Petersburg University, uniting as they do the intellectual and educational resources of St Petersburg, are today a spawning ground for world-class zoologists,’ declared Professor Chernetsov. ‘The research carried out by the University, and the resources embodied in its teachers and students have made an enormous contribution to the development of biology in Russia.’

Professor Andrei Granovich, Head of the St Petersburg University Department of Invertebrate Zoology, gave a report on recent research in the field of invertebrates. He said that University zoologists are carrying out many projects that are devoted to the study of the origin, classification and evolution of living creatures. Furthermore, using the latest methods, these researchers are studying biological processes at the most diverse levels, from the molecular to the biocenotic (the level of ecosystems).

Professor Granovich noted that zoologists at the University are engaged in persistent efforts to come up with new ideas about the evolution of eukaryotes, that is, organisms in whose cells there is a formed nucleus. For more than 20 years, University researchers, as part of an international group, have participated in the compilation of phylogenic and taxonomic summaries, which are something like reference lists of all known eukaryotes.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, an international team of leading zoologists has convened approximately every five years to update what is known about the evolutionary structure of the biodiversity of eukaryotic organisms. The result of this work is usually an extensive paper that describes the current concepts about the classification of and kinship ties among eukaryotes.

Professor Andrei Granovich, Head of the St Petersburg University Department of Invertebrate Zoology

‘This is a kind of standard register that all biologists subsequently turn to,’ Professor Granovich explained. ‘The last such work was published in 2019, and it was compiled by 46 authors, five of whom are members of the University’s Department of Invertebrate Zoology. In this work, St Petersburg University was represented by more researchers than any other organisation. This shows how involved we are in the revolutionary process that, in recent years, has profoundly changed our understanding of the structure of biodiversity.’

Professor Gennady Cherepanov, Head of the St Petersburg University Department of Vertebrate Zoology, spoke about the work of the University’s vertebrate specialists. He noted that these zoologists are currently studying the biology of rodents and pinnipeds, and likewise the ecology, population structure and behaviour of fish-eating orcas. Yet another avenue of research is the behaviour of birds, along with the fauna and ecology of their habitats. According to the professor, the results of this research help to create specially designated conservation areas and preserve the biodiversity of vertebrate organisms.

One of the most important projects of recent years, which was carried out with the participation of St Petersburg University scientists, is the East of the Gulf of Finland Nature Reserve on the islands of the Baltic Sea. This protected area is vitally important, since it is on the migration route of birds and seal rookeries can be found there too.

Professor Gennady Cherepanov, Head of the St Petersburg University Department of Vertebrate Zoology

During the course of the symposium, Aleksei Smirnov, Research Associate at the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Science, presented a report on the first zoological research carried out in the Russian Empire. Andrew Ostrovsky, Professor in St Petersburg University’s Department of Invertebrate Zoology, spoke about the founding of the Department of Zoology at St Petersburg Imperial University and the first heads of the department. And, for his part, Lev Borkin, Research Associate at the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Science, acquainted the guests with the history of how the University’s Department of Zoology was divided into the Zoological and Zootomical Cabinets.

Capping off the event, Sergei Fokin, Leading Research Associate in the Department of Invertebrate Zoology, presented a report on the development of the department during pre-revolutionary and Soviet times. He also presented his new book, An Unforgotten Life, devoted to zoologist Vladimir Shevyakov, who was the first at the University to do research on protists (a group of living, predominantly unicellular, organisms) and who laid the foundations for the Russian School of Protistology. The book is based on archival documents, the journals and letters of the distinguished scientist and also the remembrances of his relatives.