Tag Archives: Animal Behaviour

Fieldwork – highlights

Now that I’ve gotten a lot of some much needed rest since the end of the 2014 Gotland fieldwork season, I thought I’d share some of my favourite moments from those 3 months.

That's the life, man :P

That’s the life, man. D’you know what I mean?

Fly, my little dragon, fly!

Fly, my dragon!

A Langhammar on Fårö. I see a big-lipped dude. You?

A Langhammar on Fårö. I see a big-lipped dude. You?

Guillemots and razorbills on Stora Karlsö

Guillemots and razorbills on Stora Karlsö

Such a cute bat :o

Such a cute bat 😮


The grandparents of a fellow student came to visit her on Gotland; the grandpa took the opportunity to  film a short documentary about the work being done on Gotland monitoring populations of great tits and collared flycatchers.

The grandparents of a fellow student came to visit her on Gotland; the grandpa took the opportunity to film a short documentary about the work being done on Gotland monitoring populations of great tits and collared flycatchers.



Even more babies!

Even more babies!

Knock knock

Knock knock!

Who's there?

Who’s there?

“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?

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

Research Assistant – Ecology and behaviour of Australian sea lions

Australian sea lions. Credit: LI refugee

Australian sea lions. Credit: LI refugee

Seeking volunteer research assistants for a project on endangered Australian sea lions

Project title: Conservation ecology and human disturbance of Australian sea lions (Neophoca cinerea) in Western Australia

Project description: In this study, baseline information on the ecology and behaviour of Australian sea lions in Western Australia are collected. Individual focal follows (behavioural observations) will be conducted to measurethe level of disturbance caused by humans using the beaches simultaneously with these endangered otariid.

Also, a new photo-identification method is being tested and developed to recognize individual Australian sea lions in the field. This method will aid estimating the population size of Australian sea lions and investigating their residency patterns and habitat use on key breeding islands and haul-out locations in Western Australia.

This project is aiming to provide basic knowledge on the sea lions’ colony sizes, movement patterns, temporal and spatial habitat use as well as critical haul-out behaviour that will inform the management of Australian sea lions inhabiting key breeding and non-breeding locations in Western Australia.

Main field sites: Seal Island in the Shoalwater Islands Marine Park, Carnac Island Nature Reserve and potentially Rottnest Island, Western Australia.

Few other haul-out islands off Perth Metropolitan area are visited during monthly boat surveys.

           Field trip dates: April – May 2013, July – August 2013

June and September 2013 will be spent entering and processing data with opportunistic field trips.
Research assistants who can commit for 2 months are strongly preferred. Priority will be given to assistants who can commit for longer periods due to the training required.

Assistant duties: Collecting and recording observational data, both on land and from the boat. Assistants will be helping with data entry and processing, including sorting and processing photos and data on dictaphones.


1. Background knowledge in marine biology, ecology or conservation and experience in field research is a plus.

2. Research assistants should be confident working for long hours on islands with limited facilities and on small boats. Boat license and handling skills would be beneficial.

3. Assistants need to be dedicated to help in this project. During data collection the ability to focus for long periods is required. Assistants are expected to maintain a positive attitude during long hours in the field and towards other team members, also in varying weather conditions.

4. Field trips are very weather dependant and will therefore be organised on short notice (often only 1-2 days prior) and will vary between week and weekend days and may take place on public holidays. Field trips may start early in the morning.

Expenses: This is an unpaid opportunity to gain training and experience in ecological sciences and particularly in marine mammal research. Unfortunately, travel expenses cannot be covered and research assistants are responsible for their own living expenses around Perth/Fremantle. Rides to the study sites can be provided from Fremantle. Research assistants are expected to bring their own lunch and water.

If you are interested in helping out in this project, please send a CV, a brief cover letter highlighting previous experience and relevant qualifications along with contact details of two relevant referees to:sylvia.osterrieder@gmail.com.

           Sylvia Osterrieder

PhD Candidate

Ecology & Sustainability Group, School of Engineering and Science, Victoria University, Melbourne, Victoria


Research Associate

Centre for Marine Science and Technology, Curtin University, Bentley, Western Australia

Related post

A 3-step guide to the perfect bee trap

Reduviidae. Credit: Gustavo (lu7frb)

Reduviidae. Credit: Gustavo (lu7frb)

HELP !!!!!!!!!! (post illustration)

Aand yeah – you’re trapped.

Brought to us by the ingenious bee assassin bug. Watch it happen in this excerpt from Sir David Attenborough’s The Amber Time Machine:

STEP 1: Find out what they like

As shown in the video, these stingless bees are resin addicts. With it, they build solid nests and protect their young. So go grab some resin.

STEP 2: Get close

Needless to say, if you find the local resin dealer, in our case amber producing bean trees, you will also find its clients.

STEP 3: Wait patiently

Stay put and be ready to seize a bee. The amazing thing is that more will arrive as your first victim calls for help. Warning: you might need to wrestle a bit to secure your preys.

Aaaand – that’s it! You have just gotten yourself a substantial meal with really not much effort at all.

Want more? See below for a nice close-up view of a bee assassin bug collecting resin. As it turns out, some of them use it as protection for their eggs against predators (Choe & Rust, 2007).


Choe, D.-H., & Rust, M. K. (2007). Use of plant resin by a bee assassin bug, Apiomerus flaviventris (Hemiptera: Reduviidae). Annals of the Entomological Society of America, 100(2), 320-326. doi: 10.1603/0013-8746(2007)100[320:UOPRBA]2.0.CO;2

Gunton, M., Martin, T. (Producers), & Leith, B. (Director). (2004). The Natural World: The Amber Time Machine [TV episode]. Worldwide: BBC Worldwide.

Salmon ACTUALLY use Earth’s magnetic field to find their way home

Five years ago, it was hypothesized that marine migrants, such as salmon and turtles, travelling long distances to reach their natal waters to spawn (a process known as natal homing) use geomagnetic cues to navigate to the correct area (Lohmann, Putman & Lohmann, 2008). Now, for the first time, there is empirical evidence to support this hypothesis.

Sockeye salmon Oncorhynchus nerka. Credit: Wikipedia.

Sockeye salmon Oncorhynchus nerka. Credit: Wikipedia

Adapted from Putman et al. 2013

Putman et al. (2013) analysed fisheries data spanning 56 years, from 1953 to 2008, that described the proportion of sockeye salmon Oncorhynchus nerka that took either the northern or the southern route to reach the mouth of the Fraser River, near Vancouver Island, Canada (see the above illustration). They examined whether these proportions were correlated with changes in magnetic field intensity and other environmental factors.

They found that, the more the magnetic field of a strait resembled the one of the Fraser River mouth, the higher the proportion of salmon that used it. It is as if they had previously imprinted on the magnetic field of the river, much like geese imprint on a parent some 13 to 16 hours after hatching, and were able to use this information years later during spawning migration.

The other significant factor affecting their itinerary was Sea Surface Temperature (SST). Years with higher SST were characterized by an increased propotion of salmon choosing the northern route, possibly because fish preferred colder waters.

Changes in magnetic field intensity, SST and the interaction between the two explain up to 66% of the variance in migratory route use.

This study employed a retrospective non-experimental design, which does have its shortcomings, including a multitude of possible confounding variables. Notwithstanding, these findings are crucial to understanding natal homing mechanisms and, as Putman et al. put it, “call for experiments on the navigation abilities of adult salmon as well as further investigation into the magnetic imprinting hypothesis”.

PS: I would like to thank my brother for drawing my attention to this study.


Lohmann, K. J., Putman, N. F., & Lohmann, C. M. F. (2008). Geomagnetic imprinting: A unifying hypothesis for long-distance natal homing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(49), 19096-19101. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0801859105

Putman, M. F., Lohmann, K. J., Putman, E. M., Quinn, T. P., Klimley, A. P., & Noakes, D. L. G. (2013). Evidence for geomagnetic imprinting as a homing mechanism in Pacific Salmon. Current Biology, 23, 1-5. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.12.041

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.


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

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
Continue reading

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.