Category Archives: Thoughts & Observations

Poster Toaster (1) | D.Day 2014 Lausanne

The idea is to review academic posters based on the way their content is organised and formatted in order to gain insights into strategies to keep or avoid when creating one.

I took photos of posters presented during a day-long conference for doctoral students of the Faculty of Biology and Medicine at the University of Lausanne. Below is one of them.

(click to enlarge)
poster d day 1

Boxes boxes boxes

This student obviously likes to separate information into boxes. I do think boxes can be beneficial when used parsimoniously, to highlight a particular information for example. When used throughout a poster, however, they start to loose their effectiveness. In this case, the lines separating the boxes are so thin, and the text and figures are so close to them, that they are hardly do their “job”.

The classic “Too much text”

Although the text occupies only a minority of the poster area, it is made up of sentences and the font is small – information is therefore somewhat difficult to read.

Use of colour

I like that there is colour in this poster, but I does not appear to have a specific purpose. Indeed, it is used for the section numbers, the figures, the conclusion, it is in the logos near the title. Is it there to organise the flow of reading, highlight important information, or make figures more pleasing to the eye? Such inconsistent use of colour tends to be distracting.

Any thought?

“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?

Null Hypothesis: Y U NO good enough for scientific articles?

If you’ve ever been involved in a scientific endeavour, there is a good chance you are familiar with the null hypothesis (which I’ll call H0). Basically, it is the opposite of the “real” hypothesis of a study. Say you want to demonstrate the following effect: chocolate consumption improves memorising skills. Your corresponding H0 would be the absence of such an effect.

In the ensuing statistical analyses, you’ll probably want to disprove the H0 to reject it in favour of your alternative hypothesis, thus showing a significant effect of chocolate on memory.

However, finding this Saint-Graal of inferential statistics is not the easiest thing. I won’t talk here about what influences this since it isn’t anything close to my area of expertise – I’d rather not ridicule myself. Rather, I’d like to discuss a little bit the overwhelming discrimination against unrejected H0s in the scientific literature.

You see? Source: xkcd

In my school projects so far, I have NEVER found ANY significant effect. EVER. It is disappointing. Most of all, my apparently consistent inability to reject the H0 made me think that, further in my academic career, I’d never be able to publish an article.

Indeed, most scientific journals accept almost only articles that contain significant effects (I don’t have numbers about this phenomenon, sorry). This attitude suggests that unrejected H0s somehow signify a lack of (convenient?) information.

But don’t they say that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence? Just because one team couldn’t reject the H0 doesn’t mean that their results are devoid of interest.

My point exactly! Source: muddylemon

For one thing, publishing unsignificant results would be like taking into account antimatter in addition to matter (i.e., significant results). They represent as revelant an information. Choosing to communicating them, instead of concealing them, would help increase transparency in science.

Secondly, researchers interested in replicating the experiment could focus on improving the methods rather than on inventing a whole procedure from scratch. This would mean saved time, saved money, collaboration opportunities and possibly less frustrating research.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, information on “failed” experiments could help prevent un-needed research from happening. Steven Reysen, from the Journal of Articles in Support of the Null Hypothesis, explains it better than I do:

The file-drawer problem is that psychologists, and scientists in general, will not report research that does not meet traditional levels of significance. If a study has null results psychologists will often abandon the research to move on to other ideas and not report the findings. The result is that the journals are filled with studies that reached significance. For example, there may have been 20 null studies conducted on a topic but one significant study reported in the literature. If I then try to research the same topic I may be wasting time and money on that idea.

Clearly, I am in favor of the scientific community paying more attention to the H0/null hypothesis than it does at the moment, and not only because this could potentially give me a better shot at publishing my work.

What do you think? Publishing articles without significant results: yay or nay?

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

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

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.


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