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.

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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.

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Flight school

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:

Hummingbird in the virtual reality flight tunnel

Photography and video by Anand Varma in National Geographic.

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.

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.

Bird-inspired drones

This Christmas the strong winds decorated the trees with shiny new drones:

(photo by Rod Croskery)

Drones of the future are going to get a lot more maneuverable.

A group at Imperial College London has now built an aquatic diving drone with wings that can tuck in for protection during rapid plunges, inspired by the hunting behaviour of seabirds in the family Sulidae (gannets and boobies).

And a Swiss team has developed a drone with feather-like elements that allow the wing to fold into a range of configurations, analogous to the way birds can overlap their wing feathers. This allows the drone’s wings to be adjusted to suit the conditions – reducing wing area in strong winds, for example.

These advances should make it possible for drones to maneuver in a greater range of tough-to-access environments, just like birds.

Both studies are published in a new issue of Royal Society Interface Focus:

Siddall et al. Wind and water tunnel testing of a morphing aquatic micro air vehicle.

Di Luca et al. Bioinspired morphing wings for extended flight envelope and roll control of small drones.

How hummingbirds control flight

We have a new study out on how birds use visual cues in flight. Here is a summary:

Thanks to Charlie for helping to capture the video footage! The study is a collaboration with Tyee Fellows and Doug Altshuler at UBC.

For the experiments, we used eight high-speed black & white cameras to capture the entire length of the 5.5 metre-long flight tunnel (I only had space to show two in the Youtube video above). The cameras were part of an automated tracking system that tracked the birds’ motion, and determined the birds’ 3D flight paths from the different camera views. This works similar to the way multiple cameras are used to make 3D movies.

Hummingbirds were great subjects, not only because they are incredible fliers, but also because they are sugar fiends! They have to feed every 10-15 minutes throughout the day. This meant that we were able to design big experiments and test a wide range of visual conditions.

Here are two other clips that illustrate the data from the tracking system:

The best part about this project was that we started with a pilot study that seemed like a failure, at first. We tried to repeat what had been previously shown for other birds (based on a pioneering study of budgies), but we did not see the same results. At first, that can be pretty disappointing. But it also gives you the chance to think of new ideas, and then figure out ways to test them. I think this evolution from failed experiments to ones that work is the most exciting part of science! The catch is that it can take years to get there. I really started to appreciate this once I began working with birds in the lab.

Dakin, Fellows & Altshuer. 2016. Visual guidance of forward flight in hummingbirds reveals control based on image features instead of pattern velocity. PNAS, in press.

Peacock physics

We have a new paper out!

Biomechanics of the peacock’s display: how feather structure and resonance influence multimodal signaling

In this study we describe the rapid feather vibrations that peacocks use during courtship. These vibrations – at a rate of about 26 Hz on average – represent a substantial mechanical and metabolic challenge for the birds, especially given that they are performed using a massive array of feathers with widely varying lengths.


A peacock shows his stuff. His train feathers range from 10 cm to > 150 cm in length, and the whole thing weighs about 300 g. Photo by Roslyn Dakin.

We recorded high speed videos of peacocks displaying in the field. We also used lab experiments to test whether the peacocks move their feathers at resonance (which would be an efficient strategy), and to understand how the colourful eyespots can remain so steady during these vibrations. One surprising result was that the peacocks with the longest trains actually used slightly higher vibration frequencies overall – making their displays a greater challenge to perform. The next step is to understand how these feather motions influence the iridescent colour patterns as viewed by the peahens (the females), and ultimately, the hens’ choice of a mate.

Media coverage has been great – here are a few of my favourites:

…and Suzanne reports that her husband met a couple in the Netherlands who had just read about our study in that newspaper. Pretty gratifying to hear that!

The videos associated with the paper are available here.

Science is flawed. So what?

The results of the Reproducibility Project – a very cool endeavour to repeat a bunch of published studies in psychology – came out this week [1]. The authors (a team of psychologists from around to world) found that they were able to successfully replicate the results of 39 out of 100 studies, leaving 61% unreplicated. This seems like an awful lot of negatives, but the authors argue that it’s more or less what you’d expect. A good chunk of published research is wrong, because of sampling error, experimenter bias, an emphasis on publishing surprising findings that turn out to be false, or more than one of the above. No one study can ever represent the truth – nor is it intended to. The idea is that with time and collective effort, scientific knowledge progresses towards certainty.

So science crowd-sources certainty.

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Brawn over brains?

There’s no question that broadly speaking, big brains are smart. Take humans, for instance: our brains weigh in at about 3 pounds on average, nearly four times the size of the brains of chimpanzees (whose brains weigh in at less than a pound apiece).

What’s less clear is why. There are a number of theories: maybe intelligence evolved to give us a competitive edge in foraging, or maybe it helped us keep track of increasingly complex social interactions. Ideally, we’d like a theory to explain the evolution of intelligence broadly, so researchers have tried to these hypotheses across multiple species (for instance, comparing relative brain size and social group size among hoofed mammals like horses and deer1).

But brain size alone – even when scaled as a proportion of overall body size – is not an ideal measure of intelligence. The trouble is that small animals often have considerably higher brain-to-body mass ratios – ant brains, for instance, can weigh nearly 15% of their total body mass (the equivalent of a 20 pound human head!), and mice have about the same brain-to-body mass ratio as we do. So how can we study brain evolution, when even primates span a 3000-fold difference in body size (comparing a gray mouse lemur and a gorilla)?

Enter the encephalization quotient, or EQ, a measure of brain size relative to what we would predict, given that there is a curved relationship between brain size and body size (allometry is the technical term for this). It’s the best yardstick we have for the evolution of intelligence. Until now, that is.

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Nest in the city

One of the most incredible things about peafowl is how well these birds thrive in the suburbs. There were hundreds in Arcadia, CA, where I studied them, and every once in a while I hear about some other town where they’ve taken over – Orange County, Palos Verdes, Miami – they even disperse and occasionally pop up somewhere new (like here, or here). I’ve been told that in India (where the species is originally from), flocks also tend to settle down in villages. (And the name for a group of peafowl? A muster!) And peacocks are now on the cover of a book on urban birds1.

So what makes peafowl so much better at urban living than other, similar species?

It could be that they’re catholic about their diets, or that they’re tolerant of a broad range of environmental conditions2. Other research has suggested that, in mammals at least, successful invaders tend to have relatively large brains3 – possibly because a large brain confers the ability to respond flexibly to new situations. American crows fit this theory, as an urban success story with relatively large brains. But peafowl are some of the smallest brained birds out there, when you consider brain size relative to body size – and pigeons, starling and house sparrows aren’t particularly well-endowed, either. So what if it has more to do with how they use their brains to adapt?

A new study points to an intriguing benefit of city life for some birds, and it has me wondering about learning as a mode of urban adaptation. Apparently, some urban birds use cigarette butts to build their nests – and researchers have now shown that the cigarette butts actually improve the living conditions for young birds.

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Is animal care due for an update?

Canadians will fiercely defend nearly any Canadian-made thing, and we have an uncanny ability to keep track. Insulin? Discovered by a Canadian. The telephone? Also Canadian. Sir Sandford Fleming and his time zones? Canadian too. Tom Cruise? Spent his childhood here.

At the philosophy symposium here in September on ethics and animals, I learned of yet another point of pride: our national body governing the care of animals in research was one of the first in the world. Although the first official law to prevent cruelty to animals was passed in Britain in 1876, and the US had its Animal Welfare Act a few years before Canada’s Council on Animal Care (CCAC) was official, the CCAC had its beginning in the early 1960s – and it was revolutionary at the time.

But is it due for an update?

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A microscopic predator-prey chase

In terms of behaviour, animals have plants beat – though some would argue that plants have their own brand of intelligence.

Not all photosynthesizing beasts are firmly planted, though, and many that live in the water can move. Aquatic algae, for instance, often have whip-like structures (called cilia and flagella) that they can use to propel themselves along in the water. Some land plants also produce flagellated sperm that can move on their own volition.

H. akashiwo

A single-celled marine algae with flagella for getting around. From Wikimedia.

In the ocean, the ability to move can be beneficial, allowing algal cells to find food or move to a suitable environment. Motile cells can also avoid their predators by swimming away – something land plants definitely cannot do. Swimming algae incredibly slow, topping out at about half a centimetre per minute – but a new study suggests that the slow race between algae and their predators might be responsible for a far bigger, more dangerous phenomenon.

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Neanderthals were into birds

Well, into their feathers anyway. Thanks to a new study out this week, we now have paleontological proof that Neanderthals collected birds for more than just food. They probably used bird feathers for decoration – just like we do – suggesting that we aren’t the only hominid species to have developed an artistic culture1.

The research team – led by Clive Finlayson – used a combination of archaeological and paleontological evidence from several different sites where Neanderthals lived during the Paleolithic, ranging from Gibraltar in southern Spain to sites in the near East. For each site, the researchers tallied up the number of different bird species found in the fossil record at the same time and place as the Neanderthals, and they discovered that certain species were most frequent. The most common species were raptors (like vultures, kites and golden eagles) and corvids (like crows and choughs). Crucially, the researchers found that the remains of these particular species are far more abundant at the Neanderthal dwellings than they are at other paleontological sites – suggesting that the bird bones were there for a reason.

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Pitting science against media

Laysan albatross pair

Photo by Dick Daniels from Wikimedia Commons.

Odds are that the Laysan albatrosses in the photo above are a male and his female mate, but it’s worth checking their sex chromosomes to be sure. The reason? In this long-lived species, most of the adults are females, and two females often pair up to raise chicks (fertilized by other males of course). In some populations, up to a third of the nesting couples are female-female pairs1.

They’re not alone – plenty of other organisms engage in same-sex courtship, copulation and even long-term pairing. And it’s often for a good reason. Take the deep sea squid Octopoteuthis deletron. Researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium recently took to the deep in submarines to study their sex lives. They observed sperm packets attached to the bodies of both male and female squid, suggesting that males inseminate every other squid they can, “indiscriminately and swiftly” – a good strategy in a dark habitat where it may be hard to tell who you’re looking at2.

The media response was predictable, calling the squid bisexual, sex-starved, same-sex swingers. Promiscuous? Maybe. Indiscriminate? Yes. But pervy? I’m not so sure.

It’s an issue that Andrew Barron and Mark Brown commented on recently in the journal Nature3. Sensationalized coverage of research, especially when it makes great leaps to compare animal behaviour to human sex, can do real damage – to science and to society as well, by dredging up tired stereotypes about sex.

That was Barron and Brown’s main point, and I certainly agree. But their article got me far more worked up than the sex-starved squid.

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