Monthly Archives: March 2013

ethology Investigates 2013

A little announcement for ethology fans/nerds out there:

The next online conference ethology Investigates will take place from the 15th to the 17th of April, focusing this year on “the behavior of invasive species and their impact on the host environment.”

Check out their website for information on how to register and participate in the discussion.

PS: Boy, I’m just content spamming today, aren’t I?

Volunteer – Behavioural Ecology and Conservation of Bottlenose Dolphins

Why don’t I live in New Zealand, damn it?

Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)

Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncatus

Volunteers required to assist with a study of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in Northland, New Zealand


The Coastal-Marine Research Group (C-MRG – was established under the auspices of the Institute of Natural Sciences (INS) at Massey University, Albany, New Zealand in 2000. Since then, both its staff and postgraduate students have undertaken marine mammal research within and beyond New Zealand waters, concentrating specifically on conservation and management orientated questions.

Volunteers are required to assist on a PhD study (supervised by Dr Karen Stockin, Massey University and Prof Mark Orams, AUT University) to assess the behavioural ecology and conservation of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in the Bay of Islands, Northland, New Zealand. Bottlenose dolphins are classified as nationally endangered within New Zealand waters (Baker et al 2010), with a local population recently described (Tezanos-Pinto et al in press). This study builds upon earlier research undertaken by Tezanos-Pinto (2009) and Constantine (2002) and will among other things, reassess the status and effects of tourism interactions (a decade on from Constantine 2002).

The field season runs year round and volunteers are required for all periods. A minimum commitment of three months is preferred, with priority given to those who can commit for longer periods.

The volunteer team will be required to fulfill several key roles:

1) Assist on a 5.5m dedicated research vessel operating from the Bay of Islands. Surveys will involve daily return trips (not overnight) and be conducted in favorable conditions only. As such, no minimum or maximum number of research days onboard the research vessel can be guaranteed

2) Assist with vessel of opportunity data collection in the Bay of Islands

3) Assist with data processing and preliminary analysis on bad weather days

4) Undertake additional responsibilities/roles as the season progresses

5) Effort will placed into allowing all volunteers the opportunity to gain experience on each element.

Volunteer requirements:
1) Be adaptable and patient – field work is highly weather dependent and could include long, consecutive days both on and off the water

2) Be enthusiastic and team orientated (both in a living and working environment)

3) A willingness to learn

4) Possess a positive attitude

5) Be polite to, and engage positively with, the local community

6) Be physically fit and able to work in outdoor conditions

7) Speak English

8) Possess basic computer skills (excel, word, etc)

Preferred (but not necessary) skills/traits:
1) Be enrolled in, or have completed, a degree in a related field (Biology, Zoology, Marine Biology, Animal Behaviour, etc)

2) Have small boat experience

3) Have previous (marine) field experience

Enthusiasm and demonstrable commitment to the project will supersede formal qualifications. Volunteers will be expected to work and live as part of a team with shared cooking and cleaning duties. Unfortunately, monetary compensation cannot be provided, and volunteers will be required to pay for their own food and accommodation. However accommodation will be provided in the field research house at a reasonable rate. Volunteers must pay and organize for their own transport to the field site (3 hours North of Auckland). Information, prices and assistance can be provided to successful applicants.

Application process:
Applicants should send a short email cover letter, using ‘volunteer opportunity’ as the subject line, to The email should include an outline of why you would like to work on this project, your availability and relevant experience. Please also attach a brief CV including at least one reference.
Early application is recommended to avoid disappointment. Successful applicants will be notified ASAP.

This is a great opportunity to work in a dynamic environment and gain further experience, whilst working on an important research project. For more detailed information on the project please do not hesitate to contact me.

Thank you for your interest.

Catherine Peters
PhD Candidate
Coastal-Marine Research Group
Institute of Natural Sciences
Massey University
Private Bag 102 904
New Zealand
Tel: + 64 (9) 4140800
Ext: 41196
Mob: + 64 (0) 211058040

The qualities of light: luminance, colour and… polarisation?

Did you know (I didn’t) that light has a third quality? Named polarisation, it is “the direction of the electric vector (E-vector) of light” (Nilsson & Warrant, 1999, R535). Light coming directly from the sun is unpolarised, meaning that its E-vector is not fixed and is kind of all over the place (super scientific and accurate description, immaright?). But that is not a very interesting case since most of what we see contains polarised light. How does that work? Nilsson and Warrant (1999) summarise it for us:

… light reflected from glossy surfaces becomes strongly polarised at an angle parallel to the surface. Light refracted through such a surface becomes polarised in the orthogonal direction. Scattering is another optical phenomenon that may produce polarised light.


That’s how I understand it, anyway.

Most vertebrates perceive objects in terms of how bright they are (luminance), which wave length they reflect the most (hue) and the degree to which they do so (saturation). Some birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish seem to be able to also perceive the two aspects of polarisation (angle and degree). However, invertebrates are the ones that really know where it’s at! For example, aquatic insects use polarisation to find befitting bodies of water.

The champions of polarisation perception are mantis shrimps/stomatopods and cephalopods. The former possess “true polarisation vision” – in other words, they can discriminate elements in the environment solely on the basis of polarisation – while also displaying, along with cuttlefish and squids, polarisation patterns ON THEIR BODIES! I think it’s possible that perceiving polarisation became more and more important in those lineages as they evolved body patterning, perhaps as a means of signalling information to conspecifics (though I’m way out of my league here).

Credit: Wikimedia

Mantis shrimp. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

How does this type of vision work? I’m sorry to say that our loyal rods and cones cannot help with that, because the visual pigment they contain can spin however it wants inside the cell. In arthropod rhabdomeric photoreceptors, on the other hand, the pigment is aligned, fixed in a certain position. Thus, it makes each receptor highly sensitive to a certain E-vector, a little bit like human cortical cells (in the visual cortex) that respond preferably to specific orientations of a stimulus.

Information from the polarisation of light can be used for navigation, judging the quality of leaves, signalling, camouflaging, and enhancing the sensory input by augmenting the contrast, for example.

But the most important question is: what do variations in polarisation look like????

Any ideas? Nilsson and Warrant suggest imagining it might be as difficult as it is for colour-blind people to understand how a red raspberry stands out from the green foliage when the luminance is the same. It’s probably impossible for us to fathom the appearance of polarisation, but I’d love to read what anyone thinks about it!


Nilsson, D.-E., & Warrant, E. J. (1999). Visual discrimination: seeing the third quality of light. Current Biology, 9(14), R535-R537. doi: 10.1016/S0960-9822(99)80330-3

Link Stack

Lately, I came across some other interesting links, so I thought I’d share them here 🙂

>> Test your patterns of unconscious thought (biases) =

>> ’10 tips when asking for a letter of recommendation’ by Chris Buddle

>> Super sweet article about octopi; the recounting of an octopus-human meeting, especially, truly makes you realise how alien, intelligent, and cute they are (I think I’m in love <3) =

>> A biologist’s tumblr, or “A compendium of knowledge gleaned from seemingly endless scholarly pursuits in the wild.” His series of “Things I learned as a field biologist” is very funny!

>> Biodiversity + Trading card game + Crowdsourcing = PURE COOLNESS, and it’s called Phylo.

>> CROWDFUNDING FOR SCIENCE RESEARCH !!! = is like a KickStarter for scientific projects.

This Is What A Scientist Looks Like

This Is What A Scientist Looks Like = Check out this cool blog!


Cognition in the wild, brought to you by the Rufous Hummingbird

Today’s date is 03/14 (that is, in the foolish countries that put the month number first), so it has become ‘Pi day‘. Few realise that it’s also Albert Einstein‘s birth date… and mine!

To celebrate, I’ve decided to write about my preferred animal behaviour topic (thus far): the study of cognition in the wild!

( ̄¬ ̄) Close enough

( ̄¬ ̄) Close enough

Why is it relevant? Because to understand the evolution of cognition in vertebrates, we need to examine animals’ abilities under natural conditions, where they face having to find food and mates, all the while evading all sorts of dangers. That way we can hope to identify some of the factors affecting the selection pressures at work. It is true that for some species, especially “smaller” ones, the line between the laboratory and the natural environment can get very blurry, if not inexistent. For “bigger” ones, though (like birds, mammals, and reptiles), the border is quite real. And those are the animals I’m interested in (again, thus far).

With doing something as messy as studying invisible processes in a rather uncontrollable environment comes great responsibility an assortiment of challenges. Let me list some of them as mentioned by Healy and Hurley (2013) in their review on ‘What hummingbirds can tell us about cognition in the wild’:

  • The participants may use different cues than in the lab, or use them differently, during tests;
  • Their ‘answers’ may not reflect the psychological dimension you’re trying to measure (an issue shared with all kinds of tests, I’m afraid);
  • How to make sure they’re motivated to actually participate?
  • What task to use?!?!! Meaning: what dimension are we going to choose to extrapolate their cognitive abilities??

Quite alarming, isn’t it? Well, it can be less so if you’re thoroughly prepared.

First, you need to find a “logistically amenable to testing” species which, in Healy and Hurley’s case, were rufous hummingbirds Selasphorus rufus. They focused on the males because those guys are territorial, so they fight off conspecifics from their patch, and feed frequently enough that nice amounts of data can be collected each day.

Rufous Hummingbird Selasphorus rufus. Credit: jessi.bryan on Flickr

Then, the species’ ecology should be such that you can formulate predictions about the abilities that might have been ‘encouraged’ by evolution, the same abilities that you’ll want to investigate. This requires, in particular, knowledge of their sensory ecology, of how they apprehend the world and might apprehend your experimental task.

I won’t go into too much detail here about the methods used by the authors and their colleagues in their experiments. They describe them rather well in their paper (see below for a direct link to it). But I will tell you this: it involves artificial flowers, arranged differently depending on the ability studied. As an example, in studying 3D spatial cognition:

… when flowers were presented on a vertical pole …, birds found it difficult to learn which one of five flowers was rewarded but when the flowers were presented along a diagonal pole, the birds were relatively quick to learn which was the rewarded flower (Flores Abreu, Hurley & Healy, 2013). Here it appears that the addition of a horizontal component to the flower’s location may have facilitated the learning of its vertical component.

Another set of findings they discuss are related to the use of colour, or lack thereof, in learning flowers’ refill rates – rufous hummingbirds use this cue “only when space is not relevant”. They also seem to possess a somewhat episodic-like memory, meaning they can simultaneously retain information on the what, the where and the when of an occurrence.



They conclude by stating that more data from comparative research is needed to continue figuring out the interaction between cognition and natural selection, especially the benefits of cognitive abilities as they pertain to particular animals and to their ecological demands.

This ‘required research’ business is very cool! Because an increased number of people understanding the necessity of it means that, maybe, just maybe, my own interests in the topic could one day neatly align with a supervisor’s and, who knows, some grants committees’…


Healy, S. D., & Hurley, T. A. (2013). What hummingbirds can tell us about cognition in the wild. Comparative Cognition and Behavior Reviews, 8, 13-28. doi: 10.3819/ccbr.2013.80002 <– THAT’S THE DIRECT LINK

PhD position – Reindeer/Caribou Ecology

To start in September 2013 at the earliest. Financial support available for 3 years. In Robert B. Weladji’s lab at Concordia University, Canada. Project includes GPS data analysis and field work in northern Finland (man I’d love to go there…).

Application deadline: 20th March 2013


Thinking of coatis

As the weather here, in the Geneva region, laboriously exits its I-don’t-care-I-want-to-be-cloudy stage, I attempt to escape it by dreaming of my past – a time when I could enjoy at least a little bit, sometimes a lot, of sunshine. Aaah that wondrous feeling…

Surprisingly, this makes me think of coatis.

It’s surprising mostly because, the day we (as in, me and my family) encountered them in Costa Rica was nothing short of the rainiest day I had ever experienced.

After the rain -_-

After the rain: glad but TIRED -_-

While wildlife-watching somewhere on the Osa Península, we heard people talking rather loudly. Normally, you avoid doing this so as to try not to scare the very animals you’ve come to watch. Turns out, the noise was coming from several groups of people who, along with their guides, were agglomerated in a single spot. Why? Because about two dozen coatis were hanging out there, completely oblivious to human presence.

Yay for blurry travel photos!

Yay for blurry travel photos!

coatis2coatis3coatis4Funnily enough, we found ourselves progressively talking louder and louder, joining thus the chorus of merry tourists. It’s as if we were testing our four-legged friends to see the sound intensity at which they’d react and flee. But nope, we saw no reaction whatsoever from them, except the occasional detour if we happened to stand on their path.

At some point, the coatis went away, seemingly scattering. So did the humans.

On crowd-sourcing in animal behaviour research

Science–Public (post illustration)

Science <–> Public

Or in science in general, really.

The basic idea is the following: what if researchers used the public as a bunch of data collectors? Organisations such as ‘Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation’ already engage people to become citizen scientists (more about them on their website).

Nelson and Fijn (2012) recently suggested that visual media could be extremely valuable for studying animal behaviour. Specifically, they discussed how YouTube video clips of play behaviour, given they met certain requirements, can help explore hypotheses and further ideas by providing inspiration. As they conclude:

… displaying behaviour using YouTube as a visual medium is an excellent avenue to report or illustrate findings in the field of animal behaviour, in addition to its potential for further observation and research.

For links to hilariously cute videos, I definitely recommend taking a look at their paper (see below)!

I have to say, this essay brought quite a few ideas to my mind. For example, why not formalise crowd-sourcing like this by creating an online platform dedicated expressly to citizen scientists’ recordings – video clips as well as photos? These wouldn’t need to be restricted to animal behaviour, either. I imagine a variety of content, from corvids playing in the snow to peculiar rock formations, accompanied by information on the recording (time, location, weather context, etc.).

Maaaybee I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Either way, I’m excited for the future and I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more projects actively bringing science and the public together.

What about you? Has content from social media ever been an inspiration for your research?


Nelson, X. J., & Fijn, N. (2012). The use of visual media as a tool for investigating animal behaviour. Animal Behaviour, 1-12. doi: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2012.12.009