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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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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Elections are like peacocks

Both are loud, and both cause colourful flashy things to pop up on lawns everywhere. And much like elections, the peacock’s train is a costly endeavour. The species might be better off in terms of survival and abundance if they could just do away with those feathers. In terms of sheer waste, they remind me of the Green party pamphlets in our apartment building entrance way. They were stuffed blindly into all of the available mailboxes – which happen to be for street level businesses on our downtown block, not residents. Nice.

Peacocks and elections are both supposed to experience strong positive feedback effects. In politics, momentum can lead to rapid climbs in popularity. Sexual selection can be similar: as Ronald A. Fisher pointed out, exaggerated male traits can potentially evolve through a process of positive feedback. If enough females prefer the particular male trait initially, and the next generation inherits both the female preference and the exaggerated male trait, it can kick-start a runaway process of sexual selection to extremes.

Despite claims to the contrary, we don’t actually know whether Fisher’s runaway process contributed to peacock evolution. But it may be reasonable to assume that it played at least some role: positive feedback should set up easily so long as mate choice is not very costly for females2.

Thinking about peacocks gave me an insight that may have cured my allergy to all things political, at least temporarily. Not that I don’t care about the election – I do – but I can’t get over my frustration at the kinds of things that count as good arguments in the political sphere. Here’s an example: I’d like to learn more about the Green party, but they seem to support a whole lot of pseudoscientific nonsense. Apparently their health care platform includes homeopathy and various other forms of alternative medical quackery. How can we be sure they won’t apply the same less-than-rational approach to the environment? If only there could be “one true party”, I thought after the leaders’ debate – a notion that, briefly, made me wonder whether I might be a closet fascist.

This doubt came up again when I was reading an article in this week’s Nature about the effect of social media on research priorities. It focused on the controversial and totally unproven “liberation procedure” for MS – extremely popular in Canada but, oddly enough, nowhere else1. The article mentioned that Michael Ignatieff has stated his support for clinical trials of the treatment, despite the recommendation by a panel of CIHR experts that a clinical trial would be premature without further evidence from observational studies1. The authors of the Nature article – a group of doctors and medical researchers in Canada – ended up somewhere close to Ignatieff’s position nonetheless. They concluded that the benefits of a full-blown experimental trial might outweigh the costs if thousands of social media-influenced patients are travelling outside of the country to receive private treatment anyway, “exposing themselves to the risks and costs”1. In other words, popularity is an important – and rational – consideration when it comes to medical science.

I have two things to offer for election day. First, there is a good summary of where the major parties stand on science and research funding here. Some are a lot more rational than others.

On to the peacocks. Democratic elections, like sexually selected traits, are communal illusions. Money is another example. The more you accept them, the more you believe in them, the better they work.


  1. Chafe, R. et al. 2011. Nature 472: 410-411.
  2. Lande, R. 1981. PNAS 78: 3721-3725.

Another reason for eggs

Roman soldiers used them for protein1. In Mexico, men steal them from endangered sea turtles for their supposed effects on virility2. Bird eggs and roe, the ripe ovaries of fish, have a rich balance of proteins, fats and minerals – nutritionally, almost everything a predator needs. The whole point of these things is to feed something for an extended period of time. It’s no wonder eggs are so delicious.

The applications go beyond adding energy to our diets and structure to baked foods. Laying hens also contribute to medicine. Fertilized chicken eggs are used to grow viruses for mass production of vaccines. In 2007, scientists figured out how to genetically engineer hens to incorporate certain cancer-fighting proteins right into their egg whites, in a more efficient way to manufacture drugs that has been dubbed “pharming3.

This morning, enthusiasts have yet another reason to celebrate, since a new study suggests that bird eggs might hold even more promise for medical research.

It has to do with migration, but not the kind you’re used to hearing about with birds. Cellular migration refers to the movement of cells within an organism during growth or embryonic development. For a long time, biologists studying this behaviour focused on the movement of single cells in isolation. In the last decade, however, the focus shifted to cells moving in a large, cohesive group. This collective migration is a fundamental part of gastrulation and neural crest development – two of the necessary steps for turning a blob of cells into a fully formed embryo during development (watch a time lapse video of this process in zebrafish).

Collective cell movement, or epithelial migration, occurs on a grand scale during bird embryo development. Every fertilized egg contains a tiny blastula, the hollow ball of cells that will eventually become a fetus. Early on, the cells of outer blastoderm layer of the ball start to expand across the vitelline membrane that surrounds the egg yolk, in a process known as epiboly. Eventually, the expanding sheet of cells envelops the entire yolk – a requirement for the yolk sustain the embryo during its transformation from a ball of cells into a viable chick.

Bird embryo and yolk

A chicken embryo grows while attached to its yolk, because of epiboly. Modified from drawing by D.G. Mackean.

This around-the-yolk migration happens rapidly, within days. From the perspective of a single cell, it’s a feat that bioengineer Evan Zamir likens to “an ant walking across the earth”4. And we still don’t know exactly how birds do it, with their humongous yolks; so far, most research on epithelial migration has involved other organisms.

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A royal waste?

Giant pandas are in the news again, this time for their annual date night at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington DC. But hardly a day goes by without a report somewhere on the latest captive panda birth, strategic breeding attempt or panda relocation.

A blogger at the London Review of Books compared the bears to members of the British royal family: both are suffering from shrinking ecological niches and in serious danger of extinction, hanging on by virtue of their marketing potential. The similarities don’t end there. Giant pandas, like royals, are expensive to house, with a fee of over $1 million per year for a zoo to lease a pair from China. Naturally, the breeding activities of giant pandas are as intensely scrutinized as those of Prince William.

This entails some surprising efforts when it comes to the pandas. The history of captive breeding for Ailuropoda melanoleuca is no sordid royal affair. It’s long, and for the most part, pretty unfortunate; zoos have been failing to produce heirs to the panda legacy for decades.

For starters, it’s nearly impossible to get the bears to mate in captivity, and it’s not just their deficiency in the looks department, as comedian Mike Birbiglia suggests. Captive pandas can’t seem to figure out a working sexual position1. Females often start things off all wrong by lying down, but the males are just as clueless. This led to panda porn: zoos started making videos of pandas achieving copulatory success, as training tools for the more hapless bears2. Other attempts to use Viagra on pandas were less encouraging, but the porn worked – for females as well as males – leading to a boom in captive births in recent years3.

Giant panda cub

Visitors can pay to see the cubs at the Chengdu giant panda breeding centre. File photo modified from

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Which animal would use Facebook most, if it could?

My poll in class last week was a popular one – a fact that I couldn’t properly enjoy, since Charlie came up with it for me in a fit of brain-dead incapacity. Charlie’s Facebook question elicited chirps of excitement, compliments and even a few drawings on the response sheets. Here are the results, ranked by favour among the students:

  • Chimpanzees: So they have opposable thumbs, and can “use the spacebar” (is this actually important in Facebook?). A number of students gave bonobos special mention, since they would probably want to keep track of all their casual sexual relationships.
  • Dolphins: Highly intelligent, social, and they might also be interested in monitoring multiple sexual conquests. Dolphins and migratory whales could use Facebook to keep in touch while roaming widely over the oceans – the long-distance relationships of the animal kingdom. For some reason, students in different tutorial groups who chose dolphins were inspired to draw them for me as well. Coincidence?
  • Parrots and other birds: Especially in species that have high levels of extra-pair paternity, birds could use Facebook as a form of mate-guarding to keep tabs on their social partner1,2. There are other reasons to think that songbirds might easily make the transition to internet gossip. Female black-capped chickadees, for instance, eavesdrop on the outcome of song contests between rival males, and use this information when deciding on a mate3.
  • Eusocial animals: Like ants or naked mole rats (the only known eusocial mammal). A couple of students also mentioned highly social meerkats, since living in groups of 10-40 individuals would require them to keep track of a lot of social information.
  • Other yappy follower-types: hyenas, seals, lemmings, and Yorkshire terriers all got a mention.

Charlie and I discussed it over dinner at the Iron Duke. My first thought went to ants, for their extreme group lifestyle. The problem is that ants don’t really care about what other ants do or think about each other. Insect sociality is all about the greater good: worker ants toil away for the colony despite having no hope of reproducing on their own. Ok, so maybe the internet isn’t conducive to real reproduction either, but ants just don’t have the ego required. Plus, as one clever student pointed out, a colony of eusocial animals are all very close genetic relatives of one another – and she tends to block family members from Facebook.

Charlie mentioned peacocks for spending so much time on courtship and preening, but I rejected that one too.

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Wherefore the mustache?

Ears, palms, toes, neck, and nose. In that order.

These are the grossest places for humans to have hair, according to Queen’s students. Ok, there were a few others that I didn’t mention. The upper lip, however, did not receive a single vote.

Last fall a number of men in the biology department grew competitive mustaches for “Movember” prostate cancer research fundraising. This required mass beard shaving on the first of November. Martin Mallet, known for his thick coat of fur, emphatic hand gestures and all-around intensity, suddenly transformed into a meek imposter. For the first time Martin had no probing questions for the speaker at the EEB seminar. I can’t help but wonder: if he did, would anyone have noticed?

I started to recognize Martin again when the hair on his upper lip attained visibility. Other men of Movember fared less well. It can’t be a good thing when the people who work in the same office as you don’t even notice your new, mustachioed face.

But what, if anything, is it for? My experience suggests that human facial hair serves as a male status signal. Is this why we evolved mustaches in the first place?

Inca Tern

Why do mustaches evolve? Inca tern, from Wikimedia Commons.

In class the other week we discussed Stephen Jay Gould and the trouble with adaptationism. Gould famously criticized the proliferation of sloppy adaptive reasoning in his 1979 paper “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm1. He took aim at scientists who apply adaptive “story-telling” to nearly anything – from the colour of our skin to the size of our noses – in an unverifiable, unfalsifiable way.

It can be easy to jump on the adaptationist bandwagon, since these stories are often quite plausible. This may have been especially true when “Spandrels” was written, due to the rise of some revolutionary ideas about how to apply evolutionary biology to the study of social behaviour. There was plenty of new research to be done. Of course, many of the people doing this research disagreed with Gould’s characterization2. At its worst, adaptationist thinking might lead to some bad science, especially when it comes to human behaviour (where confounds are especially hard to control). But speculation is a necessary part of the scientific method, and adaptive reasoning can be a good place to start.

It is worth noting that Gould’s paper has been enormously influential. “Spandrels” has been cited well over 3500 times. I’m still waiting on citation number 3 for my Master’s research.

And yet, the response of the research community to the “Spandrels” critique has largely been, “That’s well said, but let’s get back to our field work.”2 In that spirit, consider the mustache. Can we speculate about it in a reasonable way, avoiding the big adaptationist pitfalls?

First of all, is this question worth asking?

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Beware of the blob

It creeps, and it might be more like us than we care to admit. That was a lesson I learned last fall when trying to choose between pigeons and slime moulds for our lab journal club. The birds, it seems, are on a different level.

It started with the Monty Hall problem and a new study that asks, “Are birds smarter than mathematicians?”1. For those not familiar, the Monty Hall problem is a puzzle made famous by columnist Marilyn vos Savant, based on the popular 1960s game show Let’s Make a Deal (which was, incidentally, hosted by Winnipeg-born Monty Hall). Here it is:

Suppose you’re on a game show, and you’re given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. You pick a door, say No. 1, and the host, who knows what’s behind the doors, opens another door, say No. 3, which has a goat. He then says to you, “Do you want to pick door No. 2?” Is it to your advantage to switch your choice?2

If you were on Let’s Make a Deal, would you take Hall’s offer to switch doors? Or would you stand by your original choice?

Let's Make a Deal

Does it make any difference?

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Reaching the other side, in synchrony

It’s a familiar site on campus here during the first week of class: packs of jaywalkers moving in tight co-ordination, in sync with the flow of oncoming cars. From traffic lights and power grids to stereo sound and cinema, synchrony is so common in our environment that we usually only notice it when it fails. Not so with nature: the examples of synchrony in living things tend to be much more surprising to people studying animal behaviour.

Group courtship displays are a classic example. Think of chorusing songbirds in the morning or calling frogs gathered around a pool of water at night. Readers of my blog on peacock field work might be familiar with lek-mating birds gathered around a clearing to wait for females. Peacock train displays also tend to happen in sync. One traditional explanation for these co-ordinated displays is that, by synchronizing their most conspicuous behaviour, animals might gain some protection from predation1. Another possibility is constructive interference: co-ordinated timing might allow a pair of animals to spread the message farther than either one could on its own2. Two innovative new studies on animal courtship have added to this list. The first, on firefly displays, shows that synchrony might help insects recognize members of their own species by getting rid of visual clutter.

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