Tag Archives: Science

Great talk with field biologist Phil Torres on Breaking Bio!

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?

This Is What A Scientist Looks Like

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

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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?

Reference:

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

Tip 1 – DEFINE YOUR CRITERIA

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?

Tip 2 – ASK YOUR PROFESSORS

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.

Tip 3 – REMEMBER ARTICLES YOU HAVE ENJOYED

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!

Tip 4 – EXPLORE PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATIONS’ WEBSITES

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.

Tip 5 – SUBSCRIBE TO MAILING LISTS

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).

Tip 6 – EXPAND YOUR SEARCH BEYOND UNIVERSITY LABS

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).

Tip 7 – ALLOW FOR MORE TIME THAN NECESSARY

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.

Tip 8 – OVERESTIMATE YOUR CHANCES

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 ^_^

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.

References:

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

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.

Reference:

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

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.