How I learned to respect the peahen

Written for the Los Angeles Arboretum.

Meep meep? More like “Honk honk!”

Arboretum regulars will no doubt recognize the call of a startled peahen, but you may not be aware of the clever ways they use it. Not that they try to boast or taunt the enemy, necessarily, but I’m starting to think that the birds at the Arboretum owe a lot to their version of the Road Runner’s call.

How do I know? Some background is in order here: I’m the tall blond woman who has been hanging around the Arboretum morning and night for the past few years, overdressed and hauling a camera, a pair of binoculars, some peanuts and, if I was lucky, a peacock. Working at the park each spring, I often wished I had more time to chat with visitors. But I was preoccupied, and the life of an ornithologist can sometimes feel like that of Wile E. Coyote on a bad day.

For the past four years, I’ve been chasing peafowl across the continent – from Arcadia in February to Winnipeg, Toronto and New York in May and June. Incidentally, the Bronx Zoo is the only place in North America that even comes close to the Arboretum in sheer number of peafowl. Three years into my PhD in biology, and I’ve spent literally hundreds of hours watching these birds.

You may be wondering what got me into this mess.

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Species of serendipity

Like most ideas, this one arrived in the shower. I needed to write a post for this week, but my list of topics was wearing thin and the weather is finally starting to get nice enough to distract me. Sure, I had a few promising ideas lined up, but they all need more time to develop. Plus I had a DVD to watch: a Nature of Things episode on serendipity in science due back at the library. Then it hit me – of course! I’ll watch the episode and then write about that.

Serendipity – supposedly one of the top ten most untranslatable words in the English language – was coined in the 1700s by Horace Walpole as a play on the tile of a Persian fairy tale. The Three Princes of Serendip takes place in Sri Lanka. It follows the adventures of three brothers exiled from the island by their father the king, in hopes that his sons might achieve a more worldly education. In the course of their travels, the princes go on to solve many mysteries – like unintentionally tracking down a lost camel on scant evidence – thanks to their sagacity and a series of lucky accidents.

Since Walpole, the word has taken on a close association with Eureka moments in science, starting with Archimedes’ famous bath. Supposedly, the ancient Greek mathematician solved the problem of measuring the volume of irregular objects after noticing how his own body displaced water in the tub.

Scientists have taken a great interest in tracking serendipity, perhaps because it seems to play a role in research success. Wikipedia has an extensive list of celebrated examples, from Viagra to chocolate chip cookies. Many have looked for ways to encourage this kind of scholarly luck. For instance, after his Nobel prize winning work on viruses, the molecular biologist Max Delbrück is perhaps best known for coming up with the principle of limited sloppiness: researchers should be careless enough that unexpected things can happen, but not so sloppy that they can’t reproduce them when they do. Alexander Fleming had this advantage when he discovered penicillin. He first noticed its antibiotic effects in a stack of dirty culture dishes that he hadn’t bothered to clean before leaving for summer vacation.

So how do people study something that is by definition rare and unusual? Psychology Today has summed up some of the latest research on luck, most of it based on surveys of people who claim to be especially serendipitous1. Not surprisingly, they are more competent, confident and willing to take risks than the rest of us. They are also more extroverted and less neurotic than most. Being born in the summer apparently helps as well – especially May.

Other advice might be more practical.

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Monkeys draw from memory

We’re a little bit closer to understanding what it’s like to be a monkey, and it’s thanks to the same technology that powers your smartphone: the touchscreen.

The latest victory for touchscreens is in the field of memory research. Scientists have been studying this ability in animals for decades – some birds, for example, are remarkably good at keeping track of the little details they use when foraging. Florida scrub jays collect thousands of acorns in the fall, hiding them as reserves to help get through the winter. Proof that scrub jays can keep track of multiple pieces of information about their caches – including the type of food, its perishability, and how long it ago it was stored – came from some clever experiments where jays learned to store worms and peanuts in sand-filled ice cube trays in the lab1. Rufous hummingbirds perform a similar feat. They can keep track of flowers on their daily foraging routes, including when the nectar for each one should be replenished, and time their visits accordingly. How do we know? Biologists taught hummingbirds in the Alberta Rockies to feed at artificial flowers that could be refilled on schedule2.

There is also a long history of research on the mental capacities of our closest animal relatives, primates. Rhesus macaque monkeys, a lab favourite used in countless studies of pharmacology and physiology, can easily keep track of a set of objects and spot the difference if you show them an altered version later on3. Not surprisingly, primates seem to have better memories than birds. Baboons can learn thousands of different photographic images and retain these memories for years – incredibly, when this particular study went to press, the baboons were up to 5000 and still hadn’t maxed out their capacity4.  Pigeons, on the other hand, hit a memory wall at roughly 1000 images4. These abilities might prove useful to primates like the chimpanzees living in the Taï National Park of Côte d’Ivoire, Africa. They make extensive use of their vast forest habitat, visiting hundreds of fruit trees that ripen on different schedules5. The Taï chimps can apparently remember where the especially productive trees are, and will often travel longer distances just to get there5.

But there is something missing from this research. It has to do with a subtle distinction in the way memory works: the difference between recognition and recall. Recognition is the ability to identify something because you’ve experienced it in the past. Recall, which can be more difficult, involves retrieving that memory on demand. Ben Basile and Rob Hampton liken it to the difference between a police lineup and talking to a criminal sketch artist. To recognize something is to see it and sense familiarity; to recollect is to create that experience in its absence.

So far all we have been able to study in animals is recognition. Without language, we can’t get them to describe their memories – until now, that is. Basile and Hampton, two scientists from the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, have figured out how to get monkeys to act like criminal sketch artists6.

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Quirks, quarks and quantum sailboats

An old mystery from my days as a sailor resurfaced this week. Does air on one side of the sail somehow know what the air on the other side is doing? Sounds strange, but it happens to be a key part of explaining how boats, birds and airplanes work, and it stumps a whole lot of people who should probably know better – including most pilots.

I was reminded of this by Bob McDonald from CBC’s Quirks and Quarks radio show. He was in town to give a talk on “The Science of Everyday Life”. It was clear that this was going to be a show for kids, but I dragged Charlie along for two reasons. First, I was planning on presenting some of my peacock research at a family science festival on Saturday; I thought it might be useful to see a master of this sort of thing in action. Fandom came into it too – the Quirks show is one of a handful of radio programs that got me through my troglobite period of 8 hour days in the darkroom last summer.

I was pretty sure what we were in for – baking soda and vinegar magic for the edification of the grade school set – but I wasn’t prepared for how quickly McDonald would put me under his spell, too. Sitting there cold and hungry in the dingy auditorium, I had forgotten all about my surroundings by the time McDonald was whirling a mop around and keeping a kid trapped in his chair using only his thumb to demonstrate centre of gravity. And he was just getting started. Although the talk was too long at nearly 2 hours, it was worth the wait to see video of McDonald’s adventures in weightless flight at the end. His imaginative pitch for the space tourism industry was another highlight. I was hooked at his concept for a giant rotating space hotel. If we put a cylindrical swimming pool smack in the middle, the water would stick to the outer walls by centripetal forces. You could literally fly around in the air at the zero-gravity centre and dive down in any direction to the water below.

McDonald mentioned something in his explanation of how to make a better paper airplane that brought up an old problem for me.

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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.