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.


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

Postdoc opportunity: Neuroscience

Leiden University, The  Institute of Biology

The Institute of Biology (IBL) is part of the Faculty of Science. It is located in the Leiden Bioscience Park in the recently refurbished Sylvius building, providing state-of-the-art facilities for biological research. It collaborates with neighboring institutes including the Leiden University Medical Centre, the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, and institutes in the Faculty of Science. Research in the IBL ranges from the molecular to the population level and from mechanistic to evolutionary approaches. The Institute has a long tradition of excellence in fundamental research in a broad range of biological subjects. It fosters an international atmosphere with strong interactions among the various groups as well as with other departments within the Faculty of Science and other partners. The IBL contributes to the Faculty priority area ‘Bioscience: the Science Base of Health’. To further strengthen its profile in this area, the Institute invites applicants that can contribute to its Animal Sciences program. This program unites researchers working on animal behavior, developmental zoology, evo-devo, and molecular and cell biology. We are seeking a:

Postdoc in Neuroscience (38 hours per week)

Vacancy number: 13-209

Duties and responsibilities

We are looking for a:

  • ·         Researcher with excellent qualifications.
  • ·         We encourage applications from individuals who can link animal behaviour to processes at the neural, physiological or molecular level and who work on topics such as behavioural neuroscience, molecular neuroscience, neurogenomics, developmental neurobiology or stress related research.
  • ·          We have a clear preference for candidates with expertise that connects to, and supports, current research interests and model organisms within the IBL, in particular zebra fish or zebra finch with a comparative perspective.
  • ·         The successful candidate is expected to contribute to the IBL’s biology teaching program at BSc and MSc levels, in particular in the area of neurobiology and animal physiology.


  • ·         You are an enthusiastic candidate with a PhD degree and some years of experience at the postdoctoral level.
  • ·         Your research interest connects with one of the current research topics at our Institute.
  • ·         You are eager to join in research collaborations.
  • ·         Familiarity with the Dutch language is not required. We are committed to increase the number of female staff members within our organization and strongly encourage female candidates to apply.

We offer

We offer a three year contract. Appointment will be according to the terms of the Collective Labour Agreement of Dutch Universities (CAO Nederlandse Universiteiten), initially for the duration of one year. An extension of two years is possible after positive evaluation of capabilities and compatibility. The salary will be set, depending on education and work experience, between the gross minimum of 2427,- and gross maximum of 3831,- euros per month, based on full-time employment (salary scale: 10). In addition, Leiden University provides an annual holiday bonus of 8% and an end-of-year bonus of 8.3%.

Leiden University offers an attractive benefits package. All of our newly appointed staff members are being introduced to the Basic Teaching Qualification (BKO), which is an individually-tailored learning process to obtain teaching qualifications. If needed, BKO facilitates in (further) developing your teaching skills.


Prof. dr. Carel ten Cate (e-mail: – phone +31-71-527 5040

For more information about employment at Leiden University, visit:  Additionally, you can visit the websites of the Faculty of Science and IBL: and


Written applications using the vacancy number and including a brief description of research interests and experience, a full vitae, a list of publications, as well as the names and addresses of at least three persons who have agreed to be contacted for references, should be submitted before 15 August, via email, to: Mrs. S. Wijfjes-Chang:  

Slow-Motion Hummingbirds: Flight and Body Shakes!

Great talk with field biologist Phil Torres on Breaking Bio!

Follow-up on “Can you identify dogs’ emotions from their facial expressions?”

Last April, I published a post about dog’s facial expressions and how humans tend to be able to correctly classify the emotions they convey.

I included 2 photographs of my own dog, Charlie, each of them portraying him in a different condition. I used procedures to induce emotional states that were either positive or negative. Then I asked readers to rate the pictures in terms of the emotions they perceived were expressed.

Here are the method I used and the results of the ratings.

charlie1charlie2Charlie was asked to sit and stay put. He was then presented with an object – a treat (dog biscuit) to induce positive emotions, like happiness and interest, or a pair of tweezers (that I use to pull hair out from between his teeth and gum) to induce negative ones, like fear or sadness.

The photos were taken almost immediately after object presentation. The first on the left corresponds to the positive condition, whereas the second on the right corresponds to the negative condition.

Now, what did the respondents think?

First of all, I’d like to say that I’m amazed at how many responses I got: 94 in total!

Figure 1. Number of responses per emotion rating scale point

Figure 1. Number of responses per emotion rating scale point

Figure 1 demonstrates an overall floor effect – most responses were situated at the lower extreme of the rating scales. I seems like people found it easier to declare that a given emotion was absent rather than say they perceived one. This makes sense since I was not looking to elicit strong emotions. Had I done that, the responses might have been more equally distributed.

Figure 2. Basic emotion ratings in each of the conditions.

Figure 2. Basic emotion ratings in each of the conditions (sorry for the missing error bars – I could not add them without not messing up the graph).

The results show that, in both cases, people perceived Charlie to feel happy, sad, surprised, and fearful (Figure 2). This is interesting because it suggests that his face displays a mix of those emotions regardless of how he feels, as if his idiosyncratic facial features are always evocative of them like a human’s can be. Of course, a simplest explanation would be that the mildness of his affective state made it difficult to identify the emotion.

The major difference between the 2 conditions seems to lie in the 5th basic emotion – no one in the positive condition thought that Charlie felt angry.

Perhaps an element of his facial expression differed distinctly between the photos. If so, I’d say it was his ears. They either face forward or pulled back depending on the valence of the presented stimulus, i.e., positive or negative.

For a methodologically flawed little questionnaire, I think it yielded pretty interesting results. Thank you to all who rated!

MSc opportunity: Site fidelity, infant mortality, and population recruitment in the Forest Caribou

This project is the result of a collaboration between different institutions, but the successful candidate will be based in Quebec University at Rimouski. There will be no field work.

For this program, you’ll need to meet the following criteria:

– be fluent in french
– read and write in english
– be motivated and determined to follow through with the program and publish the results
– appreciate collaboration
– experience in statistical (R) and geomatic (ArcGIS) analysis

To apply send cover letter, CV, transcripts, contact information of at least 2 references before the 12th of August 2013 to Martin-Hughes St-Lauren at [].

More info <==

The Most Energising Experience

Although I am lucky enough to have found my professional “true calling”, in the past few weeks – nay, months – I had seemingly forgot the feeling of it. As a child, I fell in love with nature, science, and orcas. Mostly orcas. This passion has driven me to study behaviour to maybe one day become a “real” scientist. But I had forgot the thrill and chills this part of me used to give me.

Last weekend, though, I experienced something wonderful that reignited my passion: I was caught in a rainstorm.

I live in an area where the sky is more often cloudy than clear, but this doesn’t correlate with the frequency of storms. So when they happen, I revert to my past self – I go outside to hear, see and smell the storm then quickly get back inside and tuck myself in bed in the company of a Harry Potter book.

But this time I was outside walking my dogs. We were having fun when, suddenly, the light drizzle became rain, then downpour, then torrential downpour (if such a classification even exists), and then… hail kicked in, though it wasn’t cold at all. By that time, all three of us were running—trotting—walking—running-again-because-man-there’s-not-a-nanometer-of-us-that’s-dry—trotting our way back home. Yet feeling the water strike you and “wash” you at the same time was indescribable, in a good way.


To be honest, I would have stayed outside until the end if it wasn’t for my poor dogs. Oh the excitement I felt! The exhilaration! It was as if I was teleported to an actual rainforest. I almost heard the calls of howler monkeys, glimpsed spider monkeys jumping from branch to branch, saw a deer fleeing the scene, perched turkey vultures and a multitude of smaller birds. And the reason I was running? To escape a pack of hungry velociraptors. Because why not.

I felt alive, truly energised. It’s not just a temporary effect, either. Now more than ever, I am driven to accomplish whatever needs to be to attain my goals.

I guess the moral of the story is: when in doubt, find the nearest rainstorm and bask in its watery awesomeness.

With caution.

Ostracism and Effort Mobilisation (Introduction)

If I cared enough, I’d give some reasons for my cyber-absence these past times, but I know better than you to bore people with such soporific details.

Instead, I’ll publicly display the mid-version (between the early and the final version) of the introduction for ‘Exploring the Effects of Ostracism on Effort Mobilisation’ – the pilot research project I conducted for my undergrad degree in psychology.

Ostracism and the importance of sociality

Social inclusion and acceptance from others seems to be a pervasive characteristic of social species. It is so important that the increase in social complexity is thought by some to have driven the evolution of higher cognitive abilities in human and non-human animals (Bugnyar, 2013; Herman, 2010; MacLean et al. 2012; Marino, 2002). Despite its benefits (e.g., emotional support, social learning, cooperation), social connectedness is not always attainable because others always have the possibility to reject a target (Pickett & Gardner, 2005).

Ostracism is defined as the act of being excluded and ignored (Williams, 2007a). It is exhibited in several species in which it can serve as a regulatory mechanism in social interactions (Goodall, 1986 as cited by Williams, Cheung, & Choi, 2000; Lancaster, 1986). In humans, ostracism has been witnessed in social groups of various sizes and types, across time and cultures, making it a ubiquitous experience (Williams et al. 2000; Williams, 2007b).

Effects of ostracism

Because of its deleterious consequences on the human psyche, it is a very powerful experience too. Indeed, being ostracised is never pleasant. For illustrative purposes, imagine that you are in school. The teacher asks everyone in the class to pair up for an assignment. However, the odd number of students leads you to be partner-less.

According to the temporal need-threat model of ostracism (Williams, 2007b; Williams & Nida, 2011), there is a good chance that you will start by experiencing social pain, regardless of any other factor. Described as a “reflexive” distress response, it is actually similar to physical pain in that both share the same neural and anatomical basis (Eisenberger, Lieberman & Williams, 2003). Following will be negative affects – emotions such as sadness and anger, and worsened mood, as well as thwarted fundamental needs for belonging, self-esteem, control and meaningful existence. Ostracism hurts even when it is set to be financially rewarding while inclusion is costly (van Beest & Williams, 2006). Moreover, ostracism affects people as much when it is accomplished by a despised outgroup (i.e., the Ku Klux Klan) as when it is accomplished by a rival outgroup or an ingroup (Gonsalkorale & Williams, 2007). Zadro, Williams and Richardson (2004) found that ostracisers don’t need to be living human to impact the target – explicitly computer-generated ones can too.

After cognitive appraisals of the situation’s bearing and depending on the needs that were the most threatened, you may go on to enact strategies to restore them (Williams, 2007a). To do so, you may select one of two main paths – restoring social inclusion or control and meaningful existence (Williams & Nida, 2011). The former path involves conducts aimed at bringing about amicable responses from others, whereas the latter entails antisocial behaviours providing a sense power and control over the social situation.

Lustenberger and Jagacinski (2010) theorised that ostracism might also influence people’s ability to experience intrinsic motivation (i.e., the “tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise one’s capacities, to explore, and to learn”; Ryan & Deci, 2000) for a subsequent task. They found that, after having controlled for initial interest, ostracism led to reduced levels of positive mood that, in turn, caused lower self-reported levels of intrinsic motivation. This indirect effect of ostracism on people’s ability to perceive a task as valuable and enjoyable shows how it might play a role in the development of personal preferences and long-term work satisfaction. In fact, prolonged periods of social exclusion are known to diminish people’s coping resources, anxiety, poor self-esteem and depression (Pickett & Gardner, 2005; Williams & Nida, 2011). In organisations, it worsens performance and leads to more negative job attitudes (Lustenberger, 2011).

Ostracism and effort mobilisation

According the theory of motivation intensity (Brehm & Self, 1989), two major factors influence the amount of effort one makes during instrumental behaviours, which are behaviours that result, upon successful completion, in a designated outcome.

The first one is potential motivation, defined by Brehm and Self (1989) as the amount of effort one is willing to put in, which differs from the amount of effort one actually makes (Wright, 1996; Wright, 2008). Take for example Charlie – a student about to take an exam. Although the exam might be so important to him that he would be willing to spend 10 hours studying for it (high potential motivation), he only spends 2 hours – the minimum amount of time proven to be necessary to succeed in it. The second factor is task difficulty – people should spend more effort with increasing fixed levels of difficulty (Brehm & Self, 1989; Light & Obrist, 1983; Richter, Friedrich, & Gendolla, 2008; Wright, 1996; Wright 2008). Although assuming that effort, like money or petrol, is a resource that should be spent conservatively, people should exert it only as long as success is perceived as attainable. If Charlie had only 1 hour available to study (insufficient to fair well in the exam), he would know that the probability of his success was negligible and would therefore not have worked much.

When combined, these two factors bring about a specific pattern of effort mobilisation (see Figure 1). It rises linearly with difficulty until either the person is not willing to do any more (Figure 1B) or the task is perceived as impossible or the outcome is otherwise inaccessible (Figure 1B).

panel1panel2Figure 1. Effort mobilisation as a product of difficulty and potential motivation (adapted from Wright, 1996).

Variables such as need, incentive value of the outcome, outcome attainment (the probability that a goal will be satisfied upon successful execution of a task; e.g., Wright, 2008), and mood (Gendolla & Brinkmann, 2005) have been found to directly determine potential motivation’s higher limit, meaning they indirectly influence the intensity of effort mobilisation (Wright, 1996). In this study, it was hypothesised that, because of its negative impacts on a person’s affective state, ostracism may influence potential motivation too. By augmenting negative mood (Gonsalkorale & Williams, 2007), decreasing positive mood (Gonsalkorale & Williams, 2007; Lustenberger & Jagacinski, 2010), producing less positive and more negative emotions (van Beest & Williams, 2006), and hindering the ability to feel intrinsically motivated by a task (Lustenberger & Jagacinski, 2010), ostracism might contribute to lowering potential motivation. Presuming it does, the pattern of effort mobilisation across difficulty levels should vary with the inclusionary status. When the task is easy, ostracised people should be able to mobilise as much effort as included ones (Figure 1A). When it is difficult, only included people should continue to mobilise effort while ostracised ones should disengage (Figure 1B).

Experimental paradigm and hypotheses

To investigate the effects of ostracism, the inclusionary status needs to be manipulated in a manner that creates experiences of either inclusion or ostracism. Using Cyberball (Williams & Jarvis, 2006), a virtual ball-tossing game program, it is possible to manipulate the degree of inclusion by modifying the number of throw a participant receives. Coupled with two contrasted levels of difficulty, this generated four conditions: inclusion-easy, inclusion-difficult, ostracism-easy and ostracism-difficult.

Research in psychophysiology has shown that the intensity of effort in active coping correlates with measures of cardiac sympathetic activity, especially systolic blood pressure (SBP) and pre-ejection period (PEP) since they consistently underlie cardiovascular reactivity (Annis, Wright, & Williams, 2001; Light, 1981; Obrist, 1980 as cited by Richter et al. 2008; Schächinger, Weinbacher, Kiss, Ritz, & Langewitz, 2001; Wright, 1996). Specifically, SBP should increase and PEP decrease in response to higher amounts of effort being exerted. This provides a sound way to operationalize effort mobilisation. Changes in cardiac reactivity measures should exhibit the same theoretical interactional patterns that are depicted in Figure 1.

Namely, it was predicted that (1) in the inclusion conditions, cardiovascular reactivity would increase with difficulty whereas (2) in the ostracism conditions, it would drop between the easy and the difficult condition because of task disengagement.

As always, any feedback is welcome, but I’ll be over the moon even if a half a person reads the first sentence!