Monthly Archives: January 2013

Giraff…also become conscious while selecting friends

The Bio Infos

giraff

giraff

giraff

Female giraffes choose their ‘friends’ carefully. Researchers found that female giraffes prefer to be in groups with particular peers and avoided others—their network, however, wasn’t based on home range overlap or kinship. This information, which also tells scientist how diseases spread and how individuals learn from one another, will help them develop better conservation programs

Reference: http://bit.ly/10SFAMD

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Reptilian Societies

Have you ever read (or watched) Dinotopia? It is a book (and TV) series about a land where dinosaurs never went extinct. Not only that, but they also managed to create a civilization where humans and “saurians” live together in relative harmony. What always fascinated me in Gurney‘s work was the idea of reptiles, in this case dinosaurs, manifesting social behaviour paralleling humans’. Unfortunately, reptiles have, in comparison to mammals and birds, been disregarded in vertebrate social behaviour research.

Another ctenosaura lizard (Costa Rica)

A Ctenosaura lizard (Costa Rica)

In their review, Doody, Burghardt and Dinets (2013) discuss the reasons behind this neglect. They describe how reptiles have traditionally been placed in the ‘non-social’ category of the ‘social–non-social’ dichotomy. According to them, this dichotomy is too simplistic and therefore deceptive as it fails to represent the variety of social systems in the animal kingdom. In fact, studying reptile social behaviour should help understand the mechanisms and evolution of complex social behaviour. The bias in research towards mammals and birds can be explained by the fact that it is easier to study “vertebrate groups whose communication systems are more salient to human sensory perception” (Doody et al. 2013, p. 96).

Besides, the inconspicuousness of reptiles and their nests creates an apparent absence of social behaviour in these animals, especially parental care. And let us not forget other human originated obstacles, such as the difficulty to get funding for such studies.

For some species, at least, social behaviour is observable in the egg stage. For example, pig-nosed turtle Carettochelys insculpta embryos make hatching happen faster when they sense vibrations coming from their siblings. Embryos of Nile crocodiles Crocodylus niloticus can adjust the synchronization of hatching and stimulate mothers by vocalizing. Parental care is rather rare, but tuataras Sphenodon punctatus and iguanas stay with the eggs for several days. Hatchling iguanas lacking packing parental care protect themselves using group vigilance.

Crocodilian mothers stay for the whole incubation period and beyond! They excavate and break the eggs, communicate vocally with their eggs and hatchlings, carry hatchlings to water, feed and protect them. Biparental care, which is the norm in vertebrates like canids and cichlids, has actually been recently documented in crocodilians (Brueggen, 2010, and Whitaker, 2007, cited by Doody et al. 2013).

Green iguana Iguana iguana lounging around (Costa Rica)

Green iguana Iguana iguana lounging around (Costa Rica)

Another pic of the same iguana, just because it's so gorgeous.

Another pic of the same iguana, just ’cause it’s so gorgeous.

Group of american crocodiles Crocodylus acutus resting (Costa Rica)

Group of american crocodiles Crocodylus acutus resting (Costa Rica)

American crocodile Crocodylus acutus going into the water (Costa Rica)

American crocodile going into the water (Costa Rica)

Green sea turtle Chelonia mydas (Madagascar)

Green sea turtle Chelonia mydas (Madagascar)

What about social behaviour beyond parental care? For one thing, snakes, lizards, turtles and crocodilians display conspicuous territoriality visible through the signals, postures and combats of males.

In addition, it is common for some lizards to form large and stable social groups. The ones formed by lizards of the genus Egernia show “kin recognition, inbreeding avoidance mechanisms, parental care, group antipredator behaviors and long-term social and genetic monogamy of up to 20 yr” (Doody et al. 2013, p. 98). Cooperative breeding occurs in broad-snouted caimans Caiman latirostris and other caimans and alligators as they form multi-parental crèches. In any case, much research is necessary to be able to correctly estimate the proportion of reptile species to live in groups.

Cooperative hunting is another example of an advanced behaviour not formally depicted. As you can see in this BBC video, banded sea kraits Laticauda colubrina are sea snakes that compensate for their slowness by hunting communally.

Alligators Alligator mississippiensis have also been observed feeding cooperatively (Dinets, 2010). They can gather in small areas where water depth does not exceed 50 cm and spend up to 6 hours circling the area and catching fish.

Common wall lizard capturing a butterfly (France)

Common wall lizard Podarcis muralis capturing a butterfly (France)

I should mention as well that reptiles have complex mating systems, which include polygyny, polyandry, monogamy and parthenogenesis, accompanied by varied courtship behaviours. Social play has, too, been recorded in crocodilians, lizards and turtles.

Perhaps, in real life, reptiles do not exactly parallel human social behaviour, but they are definitely not ‘non-social’. There is a lot more to learn about them and I am excited for what new information future research will bring.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a professional herpetologist, so I might have made mistakes in identifying the animals presented in the photographs. If you have spotted an error, please feel free to correct me in the comment section.

References:

Dinets, N. (2010). Nocturnal behaviour of american alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) in the wild during the mating season. Herpetological Bulletin, 111, 4-11. link

Doody, J. S., Burghardt, G., & Dinets, V. (2013). Breaking the social–non-social dichotomy: a role for reptiles in vertebrate social behavior research? Ethology, 119, 95-103. doi: 10.1111/eth.12047

Doody, J. S., Stewart, B., Camacho, C., & Christian, K. (2012). Good vibrations? Sibling embryos expedite hatching in a turtle. Animal Bheaviour, 83(3), 645-651. doi: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2011.12.006

Symonds, D. (Producer) & Brambilla, M. (Director). (2002/II). Dinotopia [TV series]. Worldwide: Hallmark Entertainment Distribution LLC.

Vergne, A. L., & Mathevon, N. (2008). Crocodile egg sounds signal hatching time. Current Biology, 18(12), R513-4. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2008.04.011

Vergne, A. L., Pritz, M.B., & Mathevon. N. (2009). Acoustic communication in crocodilians: from behaviour to brain. Biological Reviews, 84, 391-411. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-185X.2009.00079.x

Dragonflies have some thinking abilities

The Bio Infos

Researchers in Australia have found evidence that dragonflies are capable of higher-level thought when hunting their prey. This is the first evidence that an invertebrate animal has brain cells capable of selective attention, something that has so far only been demonstrated in primates.

dragonflies

dragonflies

dragonflies

dragonflies

 

Reference: http://bit.ly/TkjaAp

 

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American Bisons Killed for Research

In the spring of 2012, I read Fuller’s (1960) paper on the “Behaviour and social organization of the wild bison of Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada”. It taught me that bisons (Bison bison) are decidedly very cool creatures. They have developed senses which allow them to detect danger from up to several hundred meters away, they produce a multitude of sounds in relation to the social situation, they run fast and swim with ease. The paper also taught me that researchers, and in all likelihood other people, killed bisons.

…Yup. Bisons were rounded up each year in ‘corrals’ where they were kept until the “slaughter”.

American bison Bison bison – PD

American bison Bison bison

Screen shot 2013-01-21 at 01.12.08

Why?!?!? Why did they do that!?! Maybe the answer is evident. Maybe I am ignorant, but I find these methods outrageous. Fuller later mentions cows’ and calves’ behaviour in corrals:

Screen shot 2013-01-21 at 01.13.07

Oh really, they bawl? Well that is a surprise. No, really, who would expect them to be freaking out in these situations?

Actually, Fuller himself shot at least three individuals for research purposes. At this point in the paper, my disconcertment was due mostly to the matter-of-fact tone of his writing.

Screen shot 2013-01-21 at 01.08.41

Screen shot 2013-01-21 at 00.44.03

Hahaha: “had to be shot”, as though he had no other choice whatsoever. Like, for example, let her stay with her calf, you know, the one that he shot. Or maybe not shoot the calf in the first place.

Granted, these were not the only ways that Fuller gathered data. He also stalked herds, did road and plane counts, thus observing bisons for long periods of time.

bison-60592_640I do not wish to undermine his research, which was genuinely interesting, but rather to express my astonishment at some of the methods of the past. I do hope the slaughters and unwarranted shootings are over.

Reference:

Fuller, W. A. (1960). Behaviour and social organization of the wild bison of Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada. ARCTIC, 13(1), 2-19. Retrieved from http://arctic.synergiesprairies.ca/arctic/index.php/arctic/article/view/3685

What is ethology, anyway?

behav defSimply put, it is the science of behaviour. But what does this involve exactly? Well, many things, in fact.

Let us start with what behaviour is. Definitions can be found in many sources, including any one dictionary, encyclopedia, scientific or popular article. Professor Langaney, my Introduction to Behavioural Biology teacher, described it as the way in which an organism responds to a stimulus in its environment. This definition is rather broad as it can be applied equally to a dog eating a cookie and to a tree growing its roots around obstacles in the ground. My personal favorite characterization of behaviour comes from a document published by the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour: it “is a pervasive and fundamental property of living organisms, ranging from the simple responses of bacteria to the intricate social interactions of humans.”

It is clear, then, that behaviour does not solely concern animals, but in fact all living organisms, and that it can refer to observable as well as ‘less-observable’ actions.

Source: Sandwalk

Source: Sandwalk

I cannot forget to mention here Tinbergen’s 4 questions. They represent 4 interconnected categories of explanations for behaviour: the mechanisms of causation, the lifespan development (ontogenesis), the adaptive function and the evolution (phylogenesis).

Now, what about the nature of research in animal behaviour? As a matter of fact, topics in this domain are varied, diverse, multiple, <insert synonym here>. The reason for this is its essentially interdisciplinary and integrative quality. Behaviour is studied across different levels of analysis and explanation, through different taxonomic groups and levels of classification (from molecules to biological systems), in the laboratory and in the field. It therefore spans several fields of science, which include but are not limited to:

  • evolutionary biology -> the descent and origins of species
  • ecology -> the distribution and amount of organisms, and the interactions that determine them
  • psychology -> the mind and behaviour
  • anthropology -> human societies, cultures and their development
  • neuroscience -> the structure and function of the brain and nervous systems
  • physiology -> the way living organisms function
  • molecular genetics -> the structure and activity of genetic material

That is not all, for there are also several ‘subdomains’ to ethology that can be grouped together according to the Tinbergen question they tend to try and answer. I might describe them more fully in future posts, but for now here are some examples: behavioural ecology, comparative psychology, cognitive ethology, behavioural genetics, animal welfare, sociobiology.

It seems like an entangled and complexe situation. It can be. However, this has a significantly positive repercussion in relation to schooling. Indeed, many roads lead to a career in animal behaviour research. There are even more roads if you take into account non-research professions such as animal training or veterinarian practice (and more).

This is where I would like to encourage anyone interested in animals and science to learn about and come join our multi-faceted ‘family’. Behaviour is complicated and so is life, so let us learn about it together!

I do not apologize for the corniness 😉

Main Reference:

The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (no date). Research in animal behaviour: what and why. Retrieved from http://asab.nottingham.ac.uk/downloads/brochure.pdf

Octopus Tool Use

Common octopus Octopus vulgaris. Credit: OpenCage Systems.

Common octopus Octopus vulgaris. Credit: OpenCage Systems

According to St. Amant and Horton (2008, cited by Bentley-Condit & Smith), tool use can be defined as the use of an object to either alter the physical properties of another one or to mediate the flow of information between the user and its environment (non exhaustive definition). It has been observed and studied in various vertebrate species, perhaps most typically in primates, passerines and corvids. Among the invertebrates catalogued as tool users, which include several ant species, cephalopods seem to be only “borderline” users. Nonetheless, the internet contains some compelling videos showing octopuses with coconut shells:

[brightcove vid=57069207001&exp3=2227271001&surl=http://c.brightcove.com/services&amp
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Learning task for canaris

 

In the summer of 2012, I was an intern at the Laboratory of Compared Ethology and Cognition in Nanterre, France.

My supervisor wanted to test the learning abilities of common domestic canaris Serinus canaria, so I co-designed with her and carried out a learning task. The basic principle of the task is the following: remove the obstacles to get the food hidden underneath. We guided our subjects through 4 levels of difficulty, the criterion of success being to eat out of at least 2 (out of 10) wells in the 15 minutes allocated for the task.

Common domesticated canary Serinus canaria

Common domesticated canary Serinus canaria

Below is a compilation of video clips of a test period at the 4th level. After first taking time to approach the experimental apparatus, the bird goes on to executing the task. It took him about 10 minutes to eat out of 8 wells.

That particular individual was rather “gifted” compared to others, since he was the first one to complete the 4 levels of the task. I am therefore pretty sure that he could have finished eating all the bits of food, i.e. uncover the 10 wells. Maybe the fact that, at some point, the camera almost fell of the tripod troubled him in some way. Maybe.