Fieldwork – the beginning

The weather has been THE BEST.

The weather has been THE BEST.

Fieldwork started about 2 weeks ago in Gotland, Sweden. For now, we are following the populations of tits (Great and Blue), checking nest boxes and collecting data on the nest stages and eggs. Soon, we will have data for flycatchers since the first ones have arrived on the island. To get the data that interests me particularly, I need to wait until Great Tit nestlings reach a certain age. Still, this beginning has been eventful and I have noticed some important things.

1) Some people are just unlucky. In only 1 week, a friend of mine has suffered a cut to her finger, the loss of her phone, and the near breakage of her nice camera objective.

2) If you lack a sense of direction, you will be in pain. No joke – the learning curve will very be steep.

4) Bird nestlings can be very cute, such as these Common Blackbirds Turdus merula:

I cannot wait until the peak of the breeding season arrives. They tell me it will be horrible, so I guess it is a good thing I am a bit of a masochist :).

“Make me thrill as only you know how, sway me smooth, sway me now…” – ‘Dancing’ grasshopper

Last September in the south of Spain, I came across an insect, a grasshopper of the Acrididae family (I believe), that struck me by its unusual behaviour.

I was getting closer to the individual to take a quick picture, but the it turned out that it was not fleeing from me, as I had expected. In fact, it:

  • stayed pretty much in the same spot, taking only a few steps backwards at a time
  • swayed from side to side, sometimes slowly and other times more rapidly
  • jumped away only when I was less than 10 cm from it, if not closer.

Some people suggested that the “swaying” was a sort of defence mechanism, whereas others thought that the guy might have been ill. I side with the latter explanation since not jumping is putting it more at risk of predation.

Anyone have any thoughts, either on the species or on the behaviour?

psyKo’14, here I come!

“psyKo” is the nickname of the Swiss National Congress for Psychology Students. It is happening next weekend and the nice thing about it is that I’ll be presenting there! My first conference presentation, yay.

There are 2 main topics in my lecture: how ostracism appears not to affect effort mobilisation, and how age can influence people’s susceptibility to being excluded.

My ‘Student Lecture’ has a not-very-good title, and I’m not sure that the content will be the greatest either (what with my experiment being a “failed” one). Nevertheless, I’m still excited and, however it may go, will add this experience to my CV, hehe.

‘The Emotional Eye: Red Sclera as a Uniquely Human Cue of Emotion’ – Commentary

When I came across this paper by Provine et al. (2013), I wanted to write about the content the way I usually do, i.e., describe what was done and the main conclusions that were drawn. However, I soon found myself making notes more about the form than the content, criticising the paper. The authors investigated the effect of reddening the sclera of one or two eyes in photographs. They presented their participants with the images and asked them to rate them according six basic emotions (“anger, fear, sadness, disgust, happiness, and surprise”, p. 994).

First of all, I find the title of this article a tad misleading. It lacks a key word, in my opinion, and that is “valence”. The main finding presented is that the red sclera in humans seems to be a cue of emotional valence, rather than simply a cue of emotionality, indicating whether the emotion displayed is negative or positive (respectively, associated positively and negatively with “increased conjunctival blood flow”, p. 996).

Besides, the “uniquely human” aspect of the association between sclera colour and emotion was actually not addressed in the research; it was merely explained in the introduction. Again, I don’t think that it was incorrect to include the phrase in the title – it is partly what attracted me to download the article – but misleading.

Why these emotions and not others?

Onto the Introduction. Having a psychology background, I cannot fail to notice the lack of citations at the point where the authors list the six emotions they included in their study. They are ignoring a massive amount of research on emotions and the associated facial expressions. Even naming just one study by the famous Paul Ekman would have sufficed to show that they did not just pull these categories of emotions out of nowhere, and that they are giving credit where credit is due.

There is also no mention of either actual or possible gender differences in the perception of facial expressions of emotions. I think it is problematic as gender is later bluntly presented as an intergroup factor in the data analysis, yet the reason for its inclusion is not explained.

According to the Methods, the researchers used a pen and paper survey to collect data. I wonder whether they had trouble. In my experience, participants can be somewhat annoyed and tell you about errything that is wrong with the choices you made.

Alright, now for the Discussion. For the most part, I enjoyed it. Except maybe for what some might consider nit-picking; I say it is proper spelling.

A classic.

In this word, u is a consonant, not a vowel.

And finally…

...bootlicking much?

…bootlicking much?

Of course, it is not to say that Provine et al. (2013) is not a good article. I just enjoy pointing out shortcomings in other people’s work because it makes me feel better about myself ;^).

Baby barn owls count

Being an animal, human or not, is not easy peasy. In order to survive and make lots of babies, one must get enough resources, such as food, territory, and mates (the sexual kind, of course). More often than not, this implies competing for those resources with others, especially conspecifics (members of the same species). So, to be successful and thrive, one needs to have certain strategies to deal with the competition. What have animals evolved for that?

In nature, resources are often limited; therefore, being able to correctly estimate the number of rivals you have can allow you to optimise your behaviour in a way that increases your chances of winning. For instance, you may choose to give up fighting if there are too many opponents.

In birds, the young depend, for their survival, entirely on the food provided by their parents. Yet, this food has to be shared with their siblings. This leads to competition between members of the same brood, explaining why nestlings beg to get the attention of their parents – they might get more food.

Because begging behaviours often come at a cost (e.g., predation; see Leech & Leonard, 1997), nestlings won’t do them if they are not too hungry. Ornithologists have discovered that the effort invested by nestlings in sib-sib competition (i.e., between siblings) can depend on their level of need, their ability to compete, or even the location of siblings in the nest. However, it is not known whether they modify their behaviour in response to the number of siblings present.

At the University of Lausanne, in Switzerland, researchers have investigated the numerical ability of nestling barn owls Tyto alba (Ruppli, Dreiss & Roulin, 2013). In these birds, parents bring to the nest small indivisible prey (often mammals) to feed their offspring. They do so at irregular time intervals so that their arrivals are unpredictable. In their absence, nestlings communicate vocally with each other – they negotiate – to determine who gets the food next time (Johnstone & Roulin, 2003).

Knowing that, the researchers devised a protocol to evaluate nestlings’ ability to count. They began by recording nestling calls emitted in nature from several broods. Then, they assembled those calls to create different combinations (playbacks) of both number of individuals and number of calls. They broadcasted these playbacks to singleton nestlings and measured, in particular, the number of calls that those “participants” emitted in response.

Ruppli et al 2013

Number of calls emitted by singleton nestlings (mean and standard error of mean) in response to varying number of playback individuals and varying playback call frequencies. The lines accompanied by one or more asterisks depict statistically significant differences, i.e., big enough that they’re probably not due to chance only (copied from Ruppli et al. 2013).

The results of this study show that nestlings called more or less depending not only on call frequency in the playback (number of stimuli), but also on the number of calling individuals. By the way, nestling barn owls seem to possess individual recognition abilities (pers. comm.), which is further supported by these results. According to the authors, it indicates that barn owl nestlings are capable of discriminating the number of competing individuals in the nest and using this information to adjust their own behaviour.

In short, this means that these birds possess a certain numerical ability, at least for small quantities in the context of sib-sib competition. It is not yet known whether this ability is maintained throughout life as the birds’ ecology changes.

This finding is important because it provides clues for understanding the function of numerical abilities and the factors which may have contributed to their evolution. In a way, it could lead to some insight into the emergence of mathematics in humans. Who knows, maybe they do not exist only as an instrument of torture for pupils/students…

Reference

Johnstone, R. A., & Roulin, Al. (2003). Sibling negotiation. Behavioral Ecology, 14(6), 780-786. doi: 10.1093/beheco/arg024

Leech, S. M. & Leonard, M. L. (1997). Begging and the risk of predation in nestling birds. Behavioral Ecology, 8(6), 644-646.

Ruppli, C. A., Dreiss, A. N., & Roulin, A. (2013). Nestling barn owls assess short-term variation in the amount of vocally competing siblings. Animal Cognition, 16(6), 1-8. doi: 10.1007/s10071-013-0634-y

PS: Many thanks to fellow grad student Tania Studer for her help in editing this post.

PooPiDy Poo, School Started Again!

After much administrative drama, I’m finally starting the master’s program I wanted to do! Hum, hum, let me introduce you to the M.Sc. in Behaviour, Evolution and Conservation of the University of Lausanne, Switzerland!

This program takes place within the Department of Ecology and Evolution of the School of Biology. So far, it appears to be a mysteriously biological place (read: with lots of machines and freezers and shit), where most people don’t get why a psych major might want to come. “Fool”, some say. “WHY” others ponder.

When faced with their reaction, I give them my usual speech. No, I am not scared to have trouble understanding – most of our courses don’t have prerequisites. Yes, I have knowledge of things like population biology and evolution because I don’t limit my learning to what is taught in a degree. Also, I know more about behaviour than anyone else in my class. I’ll continue to study it for my thesis, AND I haven’t had to suffer through physics and biochemistry classes.

All in all, I’m pretty great.

I’ll stop here before I start sounding waaay too narcissistic and full of myself (although I think it’s sometimes good to feel like that).

Bye!

PhD position (funded): Stress response and resilience in honey bees

Are you interested in helping understand the decline in honey bee populations and ready to move to France to start work in the beginning of 2014? Then this project might be for you.

See the whole ad for more information on the work to be done and the requirements to apply => These_AstrApis_INRA

Grey Bamboo Sharks in Space

No, not that kind of bamboo. Or shark. Or space for that matter.

No, not that kind of shark. Or space.

Last year, Schluessel and Bleckmann (2012) published an article about ‘Spatial learning and memory retention in the grey bamboo shark (Chiloscyllium griseum)’. Here is a recap.

Why study this topic

To build on previous research that had looked at animals’ ability to learn spatial information, such as escape routes or landmarks, and keep it for later use. Compared to other fish, invertebrates, birds and mammals, memory retention without reinforcement hadn’t been investigated much in elasmobranchs (sharks and stingrays), even though their ecology suggest that such a capability would be advantageous. Also, they apparently “hold a key phylogenetic position for understanding brain evolution in jawed vertebrates”.

What they did

Eight captive 3 month old grey bamboo sharks were periodically placed in a four arm maze (2 starting compartments + 2 food holders) accompanied by external landmarks. One of the starting compartments was alternatively sealed off so as to create a T maze in each session.

There were 3 experimental groups designed to train sharks to use different spatial strategies. The training period ended when a certain learning criterion was attained.

Strategy: making a specific turn (always left OR right)

Strategy: making a specific turn (always right OR left). The food’s goal position was modified according to the shark’s starting point.

Strategy: making a specific turn and/or using external landmarks

Strategy: making a specific turn and/or using external landmarks. The starting compartment and the food’s position was always the same.

Strategy: . The food's location was always the same, but the starting compartment was not.

Strategy: not making a specific turn, so maybe using external landmarks. The food’s location was always the same, but the starting compartment changed.

To measure memory retention, they first subjected the sharks to “training breaks” (basically, there was no contact with the maze and no reinforcement) of varying lengths, i.e., 1, 2, 5 or 6 weeks. When the sharks were put back in the maze, they recorded the number of sessions needed for them to reach the learning criterion again.

What they found

The sharks were able to use either spatial strategy to remember the location of the food. Besides, they seemed to retain spatial information for up to 6 weeks, without having to re-learn it when put back in the maze, and with no behavioural reinforcement. The authors make several additional observations that unfortunately could not be supported by statistical data, due both to a small sample size for each group and “temporal constraints and holding facility issues”.

Even so, I think this study can be regarded as preliminary evidence for memory retention abilities in grey bamboo sharks, especially since their data does seem to mimic what has been observed for other fishes.

As suggested in the article, future research should explore long-term memory in elasmobranchs with larger sample sizes, possibly by testing for the presence of a cognitive map. I encourage everyone to take a look at their paper directly, as it contains many more details about their methods and results.

Reference

Schluessel, V., & Bleckmann, H. (2012). Spatial learning and memory retention in the grey bamboo shark (Chiloscyllium griseum). Zoology, 115, 346-353. doi: 10.1016/j.zool.2012.05.001