Caitlin Menzies gave an excellent 3-minute thesis at Carleton’s annual 3MT competition.
Author / Roslyn
First paper from a lab member is out!
Very proud to say that the first lab paper led by student Ilias Berberi is out now in the journal Proceedings B!
Some bird species flock in winter, whereas others are highly solitary. How does the evolution of flockiness in birds influence a bird’s ability to dominate others in the competition for food? Ilias investigated this along with our coauthor Dr. Eliot Miller.
We were able to look at this quesiton thanks to Project FeederWatch, a program led by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. FeederWatch participants are volunteers across North American who submit sightings from their backyard bird feeders. There are thousands of FeederWatch volunteers and millions of sightings, including hundreds of thousands of instances when one bird evicts another from the feeder. The tremendous scale of these observations made it possible for us to figure out who dominates whom in winter bird communities.
We expected to find that flockier bird species (those that group with their conspecifics) would have a competitive advantage.
To our surprise, we found the opposite – on average, more social bird species are wimpier when facing size-matched opponents. But their competitive ability is also sensitive to the immediate social environment. When more social bird species are in the presence of conspecifics, they tend to gain a boost in their dominance status.
This indicates that the evolution of sociality is associated with reduced dominance as individuals, but increased dominance in groups.
This research was covered in Audubon and BirdWatching magazines and Calgary QR 107.3 radio.
Winter field work with chickadees
In November, Emil and Ru flew off to wild rose country to snoop around the social lives of black-capped chickadees, in collaboration with Prof. Kim Mathot’s research group at the University of Alberta. This research is part of Ru’s MSc and Emil’s PhD projects.
Here’s a short account of their trip, written by Ru Ratnayake:
The forests surrounding the U of A botanic garden were magnificent in the winter. Most mornings we would spot blue jays, nuthatches, chickadees, woodpeckers, or waxwings the moment we stepped into the forest. In a few days, Kim and Jan had us fully trained on setting up mist nets, handling chickadees, and banding them. Captured chickadees were fitted with a unique passive-integrated transponder (PIT) that allows us to detect each tagged bird as it visits the seed feeders at the site.
Holding the nearly 12 g birds was a magical feeling. Emil would go on to say, “I felt like a Disney princess”. Unfortunately, this moment was understandably less magical for the chickadees, who relentlessly pecked at our fingers as we took measurements and fitted bands.
Emil and I also set up cameras at each feeder so we could covertly observe social interactions. The cameras recorded over an hour of footage per feeder, despite the frigid temperatures drastically reducing their battery life. Each video was full of interactions, and it was fascinating to see the way chickadees lined up at the feeder for a seed. Rude nuthatches would cut said lines and we captured many chases between birds. My favourite moment? Whenever a plump chickadee (I call him Gus gus) refused to take a seed and leave, and would hold up the line while casually eating seeds before getting ousted.
We are super grateful to Roz, Kim and Jan for this research trip and its experiences, the skills we developed, and the opportunity to see where the data in our projects come from. And we can’t wait to see what our data reveals about the learning and social behaviour of this chickadee community.
Photos by Ru Ratnayake
Visiting the LSU Museum of Natural Sciences
This month, lab members Ilias Berberi, Lauren Miner and I travelled to Baton Rouge, Louisiana for a research trip to the LSU Museum of Natural Sciences.
LSU is renowned for its tremendous collection of tropical birds from South and Central America. We were there to collect measures of skeletal traits related to flight. This project will allow us to study the evolution of flight performance and how it is shaped by social behaviour.
Lauren, Ilias and I were an amazing team! We measured 589 hummingbirds in just a few days. Once we got up to speed, our record was churning through 167 hummingbird skeletons in a single day. This has to be a world record – I don’t think anyone else has measured that many hummingbird skeletons ever, let alone in a single day.
We easily reached our goal of measuring all of the hummingbird species in the collection, and had enough time to collect data from their manakin collection (Pipridae) as well.
Very excited about these projects! We are very grateful to Steve Cardiff and curator Nick Mason at LSU for their warm welcome and all of their help in the collection.
Photos by Lauren Miner, Ilias Berberi and Roz Dakin.
Animal Behavior Society 2020 virtual meeting
The Animal Behavior Society conference was this week, and we were thrilled to take part in this virtual meeting with talks by Ilias, Erin, Paisley, Roz and Sam!
Here’s Ilias on the question of what makes a hummingbird unpredictable:
Erin presented her research on bird collisions and why some bird species are especially prone to mortality:
Paisley and I talked about recent work on social networks in wire-tailed manakins with coauthor Brandt Ryder:
Thanks to the organizers who put together an online meeting on short notice. We really enjoyed it and I think the quality of the talks was better than any meeting I’ve been to before. We missed the real socializing but found the virtual format to even the playing field in some ways with more opportunity for questions & discussion.
Our very own Ilias Berberi just published his first popular science article about bird flight and bioinspiration — read it here. Way to go Ilias!
What to Read for new graduate students
Ilias and I have been talking about papers each week. Most recently, we read Platt’s Strong Inference paper about the scientific method and Doug Fudge’s engaging 50-year anniversary essay about it.
What are some articles that are great for new graduate students should read? This is a rough list-in-progress…
Stephen C. Stearns “Designs for Learning” (and “Some Modest Advice for Graduate Students”)
Platt (1964) “Strong Inference” (and Fudge’s 2014 essay “50 Years of JR Platt’s Strong Inference”)
Tinbergen (1963) “On Aims and Methods in Ethology”
Srinivasan et al. (1996) “Honeybee Navigation en route to the Goal: Visual Flight Control and Odometry”
Esch et al. (2001) “Honeybee Dances Communicate Distances Measured by Optic Flow”
Gould and Lewontin (1979) “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm…”
Ducrest et al. (2008) “Pleiotropy in the melanocortin system, coloration and behavioural syndromes”
Ioannidis (2005) “Why Most Published Research Findings are False”
Burnham and Anderson “Model Selection and Multimodel Inference”
Gelman and Stern “The Difference Between ‘Significant’ and ‘Not Significant’ is Not Itself Statistically Significant”
Gelman “The Problems with P-values are not just with P-values”
Gelman and Loken “The Garden of Forking Paths…”
Loken and Gelman (2017) “Measurement Error and the Replication Crisis”
Gopen and Swan (1990) “The Science of Scientific Writing”
National Learn to Code Day
On Saturday, I took part as a mentor in National Learn to Code Day with Ladies Learning Code. There were about 50 learners of all ages. The topic was “Using Data to Solve Problems: An Introduction to Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning for Beginners”, led by Solmaz Shahalizadeh, the data team directory at Shopify in Ottawa.
The topic seemed like an oxymoron at first – how can beginners possibly cover in one day what could easily span multiple graduate courses? But actually, it worked great, and I think everyone learned a lot.
How to learn to code
I just read a great post by Jessica Duarte on teaching beginners to code. It is all so true. Especially #5, making mistakes:
You [the instructor] have to ride out the mistakes. Make them often. Let the class fix them.
It’s essential for students to see and experience the process of working through mistakes. Right now, I am starting to use git and Github for our manakin research at the Smithsonian. A major benefit is that it allows us to make mistakes safely.
Duarte is organizing the 2017 National Learn to Code Day on Intro to Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence. I look forward to helping out with the Ottawa chapter in on September 23!
Why study mechanisms of behaviour?
Behavioural ecology has long focused on “the evolutionary basis for animal behaviour due to ecological pressures”. With decades of work now showing that foraging, aggression, mating, and cooperation are elegantly adapted, why should we keep studying behaviour?
I think there are several reasons.
Does biology explain the sex ratio in tech?
Here’s what bugs me about James Damore’s recent anti-Google screed: it’s a terrible misuse of biology.
The question he addresses is: Why are there so few women in tech and tech leadership? In his memo to Google, Damore offered an explanation (note: I added the numbers):
On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways. These differences aren’t just socially constructed because:
(1) They’re universal across human cultures
(2) They often have clear biological causes and links to prenatal testosterone
(3) Biological males that were castrated at birth and raised as females often still identify and act like males
(4) The underlying traits are highly heritable
(5) They’re exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective
I’ll assume, for the sake of argument, that points (1)-(4) are more or less true.
Data sharing, reproducibility and peer review
I just reviewed my first manuscript where the authors provided a reproducible analysis (i.e., they shared their data and analysis script with the reviewers). This is something my coauthors and I have tried to provide with our recent studies, but it was my first time experiencing it as a referee.
I think it really helped, but it also raised new questions about traditional peer review.
The Hummingbird Festival in Sedona
I just got back from the Hummingbird Festival in Sedona, Arizona. It was an honour to be invited there to present our work on flight.
Photo by Maria Mahar at www.hummingbirdpictures.net
The audience at the festival had a ton of great questions and I learned a lot. For example, the Anna’s hummingbirds are a fairly recent arrival in Sedona, just as they are in Vancouver, because urbanization has also allowed the species to gradually expand its range east into the desert (as well as north). I wonder how that has affected the hummingbird community there? I also learned that it is pretty easy to set up an outdoor Drosophila colony as a protein source for breeding hummingbirds.
We saw the Grand Canyon and more bats, hummingbirds, and aura photographers than ever before in one place. Arizona has great insects, too. My favourite? The “pleasing fungus beetle” we spotted at Starbucks.
How do babies learn words?
My 10-month old daughter just proved that she understands some words. Now, when we tell her to “clap your hands”, or even just talk about clapping, we get a round of applause. Pretty cute! This wasn’t one of the things we were actively trying to teach her, like “daddy”, “mommy”, “dog”, or “milk” – I haven’t seen evidence that she knows those yet.
It just goes to show how learning works: motivation trumps deliberate efforts to teach. Clapping is just plain fun.
It’s spooky to think about what else she might come to understand without us knowing.
Our research on hummingbird flight is featured in the July 2017 National Geographic!
The article is all about hummingbird science, and how new techniques are allowing us to see aspects of their behaviour that aren’t available to the unaided eye. You can read the print article here, see a beautiful video summary here, and another one here. Here’s one of an Anna’s hummingbird in a wind tunnel. He’s remarkably good at keeping his head steady as the wind ramps up:
The photographer, Anand Varma, took a great shot of my vision experiments at UBC that shows a bird perching in a strange, Tron-like environment of glowing green stripes:
Between getting the scene right, adjusting the lighting, and then waiting for the bird to act in just the right way, this one photograph took an entire week of work (hands on work that is, no photoshop!). Given all the other complex shorts in the article, it’s easy to see how the whole endeavour took a couple of years – much like a scientific study. Working with Anand that week, it was interesting to see how many other parallels there are between what he does and our research. A lot of trial and error, a lot of patience, and a lot of coping with the quirks and surprises of animal behaviour.
The article ends with a scene from the summer when the writer, Brendan Borrell, spent a couple of days with me in the lab. I have the honour of being described as emerging from the lab with a “sheen of sweat” on my forehead. It is embarrassing, but true! It was a hot day and we were working hard in that room.
There is also a nice editorial about the project here.
Saturday, March 25 was Peacock Day at the Los Angeles Arboretum. I was looking forward to giving a talk at this event for months because it was a chance to return to my stomping grounds at the best time of year.
The event had guided peacock walks, peacock-themed art activities, sitar music, and an Indian food truck (because the species is originally from India). It was a hit – when I arrived in the afternoon there was a huge lineup at the park gates. Total attendance was over 4,400, the biggest day of the year for the Arboretum. There was even a bump in attendance the following day (2,800), because of people who missed the peacocks on Saturday.
My talk was in Ayres Hall (the same building we used to trap many of the females 7 years ago), with 170 people in the audience. I suggested that if we want to give credit where credit is due, we should really call it Peahen Day, because peahens are responsible for the evolution of the peacock’s amazing display.
I also talked about why I think the species does so well in California (and other places). I think it’s because peafowl are social (they stick together as an effective defense against most predators), because they are quick learners, and because the chicks spend a long period of time following mom – around 9 months, actually. That’s a long time for a bird! It provides many opportunities for mom to transmit skills that allow her offspring to handle new environments, like what to eat, how to hide, and even how to cross the road.
I think the main thing we’ve learned from our research on peafowl is the importance of dynamic signals during mate choice. i.e., it’s not just what a peacock has that makes him beautiful, but also how he uses it. A major theme in evolution research today is whether sexual selection speeds or hinders adaptation. Although we don’t yet know whether sexual selection has promoted adaptation in peafowl, we can say that they have spread around the world because of their sexually-selected traits. We brought peacocks to California, Hawaii, Florida, New Zealand, and many other places, because they are beautiful in our eyes as well as those of the peahen.
Troubleshooting and iteration in science
The scientific method is taught as far back as elementary school. But students almost never get to experience what I think is the best part: what you do when something goes wrong. That’s too bad because self-correction is a hallmark of science.
In ecology and evolution, most graduate students don’t get to experience iteration firsthand, because they are often collecting data right up until the end of their degree. I didn’t experience it until my postdoc, when we failed to repeat a previous experiment. It took several experiments and a lot of time – two years! – to figure out why. In the end, it was one of the most rewarding things I’ve done.
Wouldn’t it be great if undergraduate students actually got to do this as part of their lab courses (i.e., revise and repeat an experiment), rather than just writing about it?
One thing that can come close – teaching you how to revise and repeat when something doesn’t work – is learning to code.