Tag Archives: Research

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

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

8 Tips for Seeking Internships in Science

These tips aren’t about finding research internships per se, but hopefully they’ll help you in your search for those valued practical experiences 😉

'Search Bar' post illustration


I HIGHLY suggest (see what I did there?) you take the time to assess which criteria are the most important to you. If you keep them in mind while you’re seeking, it will guide you and save you time, much like an internal lighthouse helping you make sense of the sea of opportunities. Think of the following: are you limited geographically and/or financially? What are your availabilities? Do you have a favourite research topic?


They’re the people who have succeeded in your field of interest. Besides, it’s likely that they, too, have gone through an internship-seeking stage in their life, so that they know about where to search, how to apply, etc. Maybe they even know people who might be interested in free labour, or are themselves interested. PS: this can help build a relationship with your professors – an essential step in professional networking.


If you liked them, there is a good chance you would also like working on that topic yourself. Simply look up authors’ information. This should lead you to the research group they belong to, which, in turn, could direct you to internship opportunities. If not, contact them anyway!


Taken together, they ABOUND with information regarding the scientific discipline they’re concerned with, including internship, scholarship and job listings. If you are interested in ethology research, you can check out the list I have made of animal behaviour related professional associations.


The listings I mentioned earlier are sometimes published through mailing lists. These are great because offers arrive directly in your inbox, without you having to search for them. Neat, right? For example, MARMAM is a mailing list for “researchers and managers working with marine mammals” (to subscribe: link).


Universities hold great research groups along with great scientists – and that’s great. But it could be a good idea to broaden your horizon by considering companies or non-profit organisations. For one thing, you’d be expanding your pool of possibilities. For another, the difference in internship experience could enhance your transferable skills, such as adaptability. If you study biology, you might want to check out websites of natural parks, reserves and wildlife protection organisations (such as LPO in France).


This one might seem self-evident, but it really is not. In my experience, there are ALWAYS unforseen complications. Usually they are of an administrative nature and can range from agreements that must be signed to visa applications which can take months. The more time the better, of course, but I would say beginning at least 6 months prior to your preferred starting date is a good rule of thumb.


Sometimes, getting accepted to be a willing slave can be a competitive process. Don’t let that stop you from applying. Even when requirements are clearly stated and you (think you) don’t fulfill them completely, apply nonetheless! You wouldn’t lose anything. Even if you get rejected, the time you have spent working on your application goes into perfecting your writing skills.

As a final bit of general advice: do send cover letters regardless of whether there is an actual internship offer. I mean, let’s be real, most of the time there won’t be any. It’s up to you to prove your worth and convince people they should totally take you to work with them, even if they didn’t know they needed someone in the first place. I wish you all the good luck in your search!

PS: I would like to thank my friends Tiffany, Amandine and Sophie for providing me with ideas and insights on the subject ^_^

Research Assistant – Dolphin Ecology

This one seems like a great opportunity for “beginner” marine mammalogists/biologists. Details below.

Two research assistants are required to assist with a PhD study investigating common dolphin ecology (Delphinussp.) in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand. This PhD project is part of the ongoing research of the New Zealand Common Dolphin Project (NZCDP) and the Coastal-Marine Research Group (C-MRG) at Massey University Albany, Auckland. (http://cmrg.massey.ac.nz).


Growing interest in observing and swimming with free-ranging cetaceans has contributed to a rapid growth ofdolphin-based tourism operations. The PhD project aims to examine distribution and habitat use of common dolphins in the East Coast Bay of Plenty and assess the effects of interacting activities on both populations. Part of the study focuses on photo-identification in order to assess common dolphin site fidelity in the Bay of Plenty.


March – September 2013. A minimum commitment of 3 months is required. Priority will be given to candidates who can commit for longer periods.


Tauranga, New Zealand


Analysis of photo-identification data, including assistance with photo sorting, grading, and matching, sighting data entry, maintenance of long-term photo-id catalogue using a MS Access database. Research assistants should be prepared to work long days analysing photographs and matching them with the photo-identification catalogue.

Opportunistically, the candidate will be able to join the team on the field and learn environmental and behavioural data collection for cetaceans. Surveys will be conducted from tourism boats. Surveys will be carried out in the coastal waters of Tauranga. Fieldwork is weather dependent and can vary between weekdays and weekends.

Assistants need to be available FULL-TIME (including WEEKENDS and PUBLIC HOLIDAYS if on the field) and be prepared to work on computer 6-8 hours per day.

This position is suitable in the framework of a degree, with the opportunity to write up a report/thesis for the candidate university/school.


. Be meticulous, reliable, adaptable, hardworking and patient.

. Have a mature and independent attitude towards marine mammal research.

. Speak fluent English

. Be sociable, enthusiastic and have a positive attitude

. Strong interest in the marine environment and conservation

. Previous experience in photo-ID on small cetaceans will be considered.


. The project is well suited to upper level undergrads, recent grads and graduate students who have some background in Biology, Marine Biology, Ecology, Zoology or related fields.

. Basic computer proficiency in Microsoft Office (especially Excel and Access)

Preferred qualifications but not required:

. Field research including photo-identification experience

. Previous experience in survey techniques and especially in marine mammal research

. Prior experience working on small research vessels


This is a volunteer position, so there is unfortunately no monetary compensation or living provisions. However, help can be provided to find accommodation. Assistants will be responsible for travel to Tauranga and their own living expenses.

Applicants should email a letter of interest outlining relevant experience and motivation for participation, as well as a CV and the contacts for referees to Anna Meissner


Early application is recommended as applications will be examined in order of reception.

Kindest regards,
Anna Meissner
Anna M. Meissner
PhD student
Coastal-Marine Research Group
Institute of Natural and Mathematical Sciences
Massey University
Private Bag 102 904
North Shore City, 0745
Auckland, New Zealand

Tel: +64 9 414 0800 ext 41520
Cell: +64 22 603 6646
Fax: +64 9 443 9790

Email: a.m.meissner@massey.ac.nz
Web: http://cmrg.massey.ac.nz

Do you see corvids?

Carrion crow Corvus corax in a field

Carrion crow Corvus corax in a field

Answer the Corvid Perception Survey in less than 3 minutes!

Cambridge’s Wild Cognition Research Group has launched a survey to assess people’s perception of corvids. Birdwatchers, especially ones of the bird feeder-possessing variety, should have very useful information to provide.

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

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 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