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 newssc.org.

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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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Super indelible flower colours

How do you fire a pollinator?

That was the question in last week’s Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour departmental seminar. The speaker was James Thomson, an evolutionary ecologist from the University of Toronto who specializes in the interactions between plants and their animal pollinators. His research shows that nectar-addled hummingbirds are like corporate ladder climbers. Bees, on the other hand, are always getting canned.

Pollination syndromes have been a major focus of Thomson’s work1. These are not garden ailments. “Syndrome” here refers to a suite of traits that tend to be found together, in this case because they help a plant attract a certain kind of pollinator.

Bird-pollinated flowers tend to be red and tube-shaped, producing lots of nectar but relatively little scent. Birds have sharp vision, and do not depend much on their sense of smell. Honeysuckle is an example of this type of flower – or anything that looks like a hummingbird feeder. Bee-pollinated flowers come in shades of yellow, blue, and purple, because bees cannot see the colour red. Familiar examples are sunflowers, snapdragons and wild pansies. These often have petals modified into special bee landing platforms. Flowers that specialize on birds and bees are common, but there are many other pollination syndromes. If a flower is orange-brown and smells like rot, it probably depends on carrion flies. Mammal-pollinated flowers often smell fruity, like synthetic grape flavouring.

In his talk, James Thomson reviewed a decade’s worth of work on beardtongue flowers from the genus Penstemon2. In 2007, Thomson and his collaborators used genetic analyses to build the evolutionary tree for close to 200 of the species in this group3. When flower traits were mapped on to the Penstemon family tree, interesting patterns were revealed.

First, the bird and bee pollinated species were distributed broadly throughout, implying frequent transitions between these two syndromes in the history of the Penstemon group. Like an evolutionary magnet, pollination by one type of animal or another exerts a strong pull on multiple flower traits in concert. Evolving species are drawn rapidly towards a new form, so you almost never find intermediates.

This lability or changeable nature of floral traits was not much of a surprise, but the Penstemon tree also suggested something incredible. Floral evolution was directional.

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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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Masters of illusion

It can be easy to see intelligence in the animals we spend a lot of time with. Everyone has their pet example, one of the most common being dogs who can anticipate the precise time of their owners’ return. But what does this really say about the mental life of dogs? Some birds are capable of even more impressive mental stunts – only they often go unnoticed in the wild. Two recent field studies in Africa and Australia provide a nice illustration. The results challenge our notion of limited animal intelligence, but as we will see, the way we interpret them might say more about our own minds than it does about the birds.

Fork-tailed drongos are masters of deception. These small, glossy black birds from southern Africa are known for their ability to mimic the calls of other bird species – much like the mockingbirds found throughout the US and parts of southern Canada. Most of the time, drongos forage alone hunting insects, but occasionally they get other animals to do the hard work for them. Drongos will follow groups of meerkats and pied-babblers – mammals and birds known for their highly social lifestyles – and steal their food, a process known as kleptoparasitism. It might not be a complete loss for the victims, either. Drongo thieves give plenty of alarm calls along the way, and these may help the meerkat and babbler groups avoid predation1.

Perhaps not surprising for an accomplished mimic, the fork-tailed drongo has a diverse alarm call repertoire that includes its own unique warning “chink” as well as the calls of several other bird species. On the savannahs of the Kalahari Desert, birdwatchers noticed that drongos often seem to use these mimicked calls during kleptoparasitism, swooping in to steal food from pied-babblers immediately after sounding a false alarm1. For Tom Flower at the University of Cambridge, this was fascinating anecdotal evidence, so he set out to test whether these alarm calls are used by the drongos in a deceptive way2.

The first thing Flower needed to do was eliminate the possibility that the drongo false alarms are coincidental. If the drongos are truly deceptive, the calls should only occur when the birds are attempting to steal food. Flower also had to establish that the drongos sound the same, regardless of whether they are using their alarm calls in an honest or deceptive context. Finally, he had to show that the meerkats and babblers respond similarly in both cases.

Fork-tailed drongo

Fork-tailed drongo.

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Deep archives: Irreducible beauty

Peacocks and audience at the Toronto Zoo

Were peacocks designed with this kind of audience in mind?

A while back I was searching for images of peacock feathers on Google, and I stumbled upon this article. It’s a piece by Stuart Burgess, an engineer who is head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Bristol University, and apparently also quite an opinionated creationist.

Burgess’ idea is that the peacock’s train feathers “contain an extremely high level of optimum design”, so much so that they provide evidence against Darwinian evolution. He thinks that the aesthetic features of the peacock are so complex, so contingent upon each other, that no step-by-step process of evolutionary change could have produced them. He’s right that these ornaments are highly complex, and that selection for this kind of extreme aesthetic feature presents a bit of a puzzle for evolutionary biology. To claim that the extraordinary complexity must be “irreducible”, however, is a big assumption.

The article provides a lot of amusing examples of twisted logic along the way. For example, one of the features that Burgess finds irreducibly beautiful is the fact that the peacock’s train forms a fan-like shape. This is because “the axis of every feather can be projected back to an approximately common geometrical center” – indeed, the body of the bird that grew them!

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Deep archives: Sex “pests” get more practice

Juvenile male peafowl practice their displays

Having finished my field work this year, I thought I’d keep up with this blog by writing about interesting things that other people have seen animals do.

To start: this BBC science news report on the discovery of a “sex pest” seal that attempted to mate with a penguin, brought to my attention by Rob Ewart (the original paper can be found here but you will need a subscription to the journal to read the whole thing).

Apart from the entertainment factor – the abstract to the scientific paper concludes, “we report a case of interspecific sexual harassment bridging the rank of vertebrate class” – there are a few interesting issues here. The first being, why on earth would the seal do this? The authors provide a few possible answers. Apparently these fur seals sometimes eat king penguins, so perhaps by some strange mis-wiring, predatory arousal translated into sexual arousal in this case. Alternatively, the seal may have been too young to find a real mate, desperation leading it astray. Or, intriguingly, the young seal could have been play mating, a form of practice for the real thing later on.

The second issue: why on earth would a scientific journal publish something like this? Is it really that unusual for hormonally-charged animals to make the occasional mistake? This year alone I witnessed a peacock give chase to a human female (with the characteristic “hoot” of excitement that accompanies all mating attempts), and I’ve seen several peacocks attempt the same with guinea fowl and squirrels. All of these events happened with males that were displaying intently but that hadn’t had any peahen visitors in quite some time. Is this paper really such a novel finding, or are the authors just as desperate as the seal?

On reflection, it’s probably important to document these unusual behaviours somewhere, since it would be an interesting outcome if they turned out not to be mistakes after all. Young peacocks, for example, will frequently display their undeveloped train feathers to each other (pictured above). This male-male display may seem futile, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the kind of dancing skill required later in life demands some practice. Similarly, in Costa Rica I remember hearing juvenile long-tailed manakins displaying long after the real mating season had ended, no doubt honing their skills for next year. There is even some evidence that the reason male manakins pair up for their co-ordinated display dances, even though only the dominant member of the pair will get to mate, is for the practice.

The full citation for the seal paper:

De Bruyn PJN et al. 2008 Journal of Ethology 26:295-297.

And two on long-tailed manakin displays:

Trainer et al. 2002 Behavioral Ecology 13: 65-69.

Trainer and McDonald 1995 Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 37:249-254.

Deep archives: Lek perspective

Scene from a lek at the Bronx Zoo

Males display in the “Wild Asia” exhibit at the Bronx Zoo, which can only be seen by riding the zoo monorail. The structure behind the birds is the monorail track.

I’ve had some success on this trip after all. The weather was perfect for my model experiments yesterday (sunny, warm, not too much wind), and although I wasn’t able to fit in quite as many trials as I was hoping for, the ones that I was able to accomplish worked perfectly. Of 16 successful trials (i.e. ones where the male danced for the model), 6 ended in a copulation attempt. In California, 3 of 22 trials ended in such an attempt. This apparent geographical difference in Penelope’s popularity is a bit of a mystery (it could be because a number of my California trials were at the end of the breeding season, when males were somewhat less motivated and harder to trick). Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that overall she was a hit.

One reason I didn’t get as many trials as I could have was that the Bronx peacocks were the most skittish ones I’ve encountered so far. When I stepped into the nyala enclosure at 7 am yesterday, I had about 2 hours to collect as much data as I could (as many as 20 five-minute trials, I figured). But it took a long time for the males to get used to me being in there. I spent the first hour waiting quietly (and nervously) for one of them to make a move, while they did the same – watching me carefully and no doubt waiting for me to leave. This stand-off shouldn’t be too surprising, though, since the Bronx Zoo birds have enough space to live their entire lives away from people.

This morning, I moved across the Bronx River to work in “Wild Asia”, and the birds there were even more difficult. Happily, though, I was able to get a video of a male reacting positively to Penelope, which will be excellent for illustrating exactly how she worked.

I also made a trip to the “World of Birds” exhibit. They have some pretty amazing animals there – here is a picture of another lek-breeding bird, the lesser bird of paradise:

Juvenile male lesser bird of paradise

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Deep archives: New York on foot

I’m back at the Bronx Zoo now, with the model peahen, attempting some more behavioural experiments. My first day was both good and bad. I had no trouble finding my accommodations on the zoo grounds last night – I’m staying in the “Bat Cave”, so named because of the bats.

(Not really – the apartment is called the Bat Cave because it’s on the ground floor of the building pictured below, which also houses the families of three zoo staff members that live permanently on site…)

Accommodations for humans at the Bronx Zoo

If the fact that several staff members live on site doesn’t give you a sense of how well-equipped this zoo is, perhaps the contents of my apartment will. I have my own kitchen, washer and dryer for laundry, animal-themed blankets on the bed, and if bored I can read anything from The Iliad to Seabiscuit:

Reading selection in the Bat Cave

Books in the Bat Cave: no one can complain about the selection.

The zoo even has it’s own NYPD patrol.

In the future, all police will drive golf carts.

I managed to head out this morning at 6 am, beating the peafowl by at least an hour (since, for birds, they tend to roost until fairly late in the morning). It didn’t take long to find the main lek; males were roosting conspicuously in most of the surrounding trees. It was a spectacular one – at least 10 males displaying in view of one another, with another 5-6 quite close by. At first glance, this would seem ideal. I had an excellent view of a large number of birds. However, all of the display territories were nested within mammal enclosures that I couldn’t access. The birds were just out of my reach, and I needed males in accessible areas so that I could set Penelope up nearby.

I spent the rest of the day on foot, continuing to explore the peafowl haunts with Penelope in tow (I walked at least 15 km today all told – this zoo is huge!). People were startled, fascinated and amused by Penelope, and many of them tried to talk to me about her. Normally this would have been slightly annoying, but today it helped me stay positive despite the other frustrations. By afternoon, I had managed to get a few good peacock videos and permission to work in one of the mammal enclosures for tomorrow. I’ll be in and out with Penelope before the nyala (an African antelope) are released into the enclosure for the day, and again at the end of the day after they’re put inside for the night.

Deep archives: The Californians, in pictures

Although I’m very happy to be back in Canada (having decided that Los Angeles is a terrible place to live, mostly because of all the driving), I have to admit that the people of California were quite friendly. I found the peafowl to be equally amenable. Since mating activity was finished during my last week in Los Angeles I decided to take some photographs of them (and other birds at the Arboretum, including the hummingbird in the border above). Here are a few of my favourites…

A peacock on the lawn: the male below manages to guard his territory while simultaneously resting in the shade. These birds can be surprisingly camouflaged at times.

Peacock on the lawn at the Los Angeles Arboretum

Other times, this is not the case:

Peacock perching among some pink flowers

A peahen on a nest: one of the first females to lay chose to do so in the sink of the men’s bathroom. This one appears to be more fortunate, but I wasn’t around long enough to see any peachicks.

Finding a nest

A female with Penelope: the model drew a lot of negative attention from the ladies. This picture was taken when I had Penelope stashed away in some bushes; after a lengthy inspection, the real female (on the left) started pecking at her aggressively.

I’ve been meaning to photograph peafowl in flight for at least a year, now, and I sat under a roosting tree for nearly two hours to get these last pictures. First, a peahen:

Peahen in flight

And, my favourite from the same morning: peacocks do it too!

Peacock in flight

Deep archives: A working strategy

I am very excited to report that Penelope has finally lived up to her name!

Here she is right before being courted by male no. 30:

Setting up the model peahen for a displaying male

(Photo credit: Rob Ewart)

The secret to her success? You have to present her to males that are already (preemptively) inspired to display their tails. When you present her to a male that is resting on his territory, he just watches her curiously out of the corner of his eye while making himself look busy feeding and/or preening. But sometimes males will have their tails up when there aren’t any real females in the immediate area (either because they expect females to arrive very soon, or because some females have just left the area, or possibly because these males simply have the energy for it and nothing else is more pressing at the moment). Penelope’s best strategy is to target these males: when you initially approach them, they are slowly turning in circles as they keep a look out for their next female target. When you put Penelope in front of them, they enter into a pattern of dancing that is quite clearly directed towards the stuffed bird.

During one of the trials with male no. 30 (shortly after the picture above was taken), the peacock backed up alongside the model, shivered his train at her for an infinitesimal amount of time, and mounted her almost immediately for a mating attempt. Although initially shocked (and delighted) we soon remembered that we had to intervene, and certainly won’t let it happen again.

Update: Penelope was mounted two more times in California (bringing her total to three different males). I am with her now at the Bronx Zoo in New York City for some further experiments, and am determined to start writing here regularly again!

Deep archives: An instance of spite?

I have seen my first peafowl egg. Laid in the sink of the men’s bathroom, some of the Arboretum staff found it and brought it to me, unsure of what to do with it. The peafowl are overpopulated here and the staff are encouraged to find (and destroy) eggs. I ended up giving this one to Rob’s relatives from Palmdale in the hopes that they could hatch it (they keep chickens and have an incubator).

Perhaps in line with the fact that laying season is upon us, we’ve seen a few quite heated episodes involving the peahens in the last few days. Specifically, I’ve seen a couple instances of females being aggressive towards other females right in front of displaying (and preferred) males. Although this behaviour has been described before, it’s quite a paradoxical thing from the evolutionary point of view since female-female aggression over a presumably unlimited resource (mates) would be entirely spiteful.

I had seen the females in Winnipeg aggressively displaying their tails to each other in front of certain males a few times, but a recent episode here in Los Angeles has clarified the situation. This was, unmistakably, a female trying to prevent other females from mating with one of our top males. Here’s how it unfolded…

Male no. 30 was displaying his tail, with three females in the area: two sitting nearby in a little garden, preening away, and the third seeming to mirror the male while she aggressively displayed towards the preening females.

Peahen-peahen aggression

This went on for several minutes. Eventually, one of the preeners got up and left, and a few seconds later the aggressor lowered her tail and started walking away. Almost immediately, the second preener hopped down from her perch and accepted male 30’s advances right away. This brought the aggressive female literally running back to the scene, but it was too late for her to prevent the copulation. Luckily we managed to photograph the whole thing.

Peafowl copulation

Not sure what to make of it yet, but interestingly yesterday I saw more female-female aggression in front of another one of our favoured males. Our good intentions to work this morning were foiled by some light rain (peacocks don’t do anything when their trains are wet), but hopefully I’ll see some more of this action soon.

Deep archives: Further notes from the field: deliberation, surprise and a misguided attempt

A few more things worth mentioning:

The other day we saw a female following a very interesting (and rather human-like) pattern while shopping around for a mate. She was visiting a particular male, and she’d watch him for a few moments (not always directly; it’s a good idea for females to seem as though they aren’t interested even when the are). She would start walking away and he would continue displaying; she’d make it about ten metres, stop, and then decide to go back. I watched this repeat about 4 or 5 times before she finally decided to accept that particular male. There weren’t any other males in the area that she would have been comparing on these forays, but it seemed pretty clear that something was going on in that pea-brain of hers. This is the first time I’ve noticed a female doing anything like this (at least in such an obvious way), but it’s possible that they could often make one or two of these little trips before making a decision.

Yesterday I saw one of the stickered males mate for the first time! It was one of the males with the decidedly less-conspicuous black stickers. I think this might actually be a good thing, since it means the females are at least considering the stickered males as potential mates.

And finally, I watched a peacock attempt (and manage) to mount one of the helmeted guineafowl that race around the park grounds. Hope for Penelope grows.

Deep archives: Numbers, gathered

With our first two weeks of observations behind us, I thought I’d write about what we’ve gathered so far.

Fifteen copulations, all involving unstickered males: 6 for male 30, 5 for male 42, 3 for male 31, and 1 for male 38 (this last one is most triumphant since 38 is a male with stickers on the backs of his eyespots!). The remaining 16 males haven’t achieved anything yet, but that sort of skew (with the majority of males missing out on mating entirely) is normal for peafowl.

Two males display to a feeding peahen

Two males display to an uninterested female, while she feeds on some seeds provided by park visitors. Feeding the peafowl is not allowed.

Twelve attempts to touch the birds: okay, we haven’t really been counting (and if we had, this would probably outnumber the copulations). On a daily basis we scold people who try to touch and stroke the feathers of displaying peacocks. The offending demographic is about half children, half grown women; I feel a little bad about scolding the children, but grownups should know better.

Three soundbites: the most ridiculous one from a lady looking at a peacock with his train unfurled, overheard by Rob: “Now look at that and tell me there isn’t a creator!” Irreducibly beautiful indeed. The most astute comments have come from children: a couple of them exclaimed in surprise that the peacock feathers looked just like eyes, and today one boy asked, referring to the peacock’s crest feathers, “Why does he have a mohawk?”

One attempt by a juvenile male to mate with another juvenile male, and one attempt by an adult male to mate with a human female (not me). I think the former was a case of the juvenile males being eager to practice on anything, but I’m not sure about the latter.

And sadly, no Easter treats: yesterday was the “Great Easter Egg Hunt” at the Arboretum, and even though we thought we’d have an advantage over all the children since we’d be arriving when the treats were still being hidden, we failed to turn up anything. We also had to cut the morning short since all the commotion was impinging on lek activities.

As for Penelope, she’s staying in for now. Since there are real females about, I think a better use of our time is to get a handle on their preferences; I’ll bring Penelope out for round two in about a week or so.

Deep archives: The joys (and pains) of number-gathering

One of the best things about biology is that it means you might get to work outdoors. This is especially wonderful when it involves heading somewhere warm, or at least somewhere warmer than home.

But field work in evolutionary biology is fraught with difficulties; it’s not all “binoculars and gorillas” as David Quammen has said (he’s one of my favourite nonfiction writers, and well worth looking into if you haven’t heard of him already). Field work can be lonely and uncomfortable, often horribly so, and is almost always tedious.

Field work has taught me what it feels like to sleep in a house where the scorpions outnumber the people. It has taught me the psychological terror of infestation with tiny biting mites that give you new welts daily, when other people working in the same environment receive not a single bite. It has taught me that I’m willing to wear my pants tucked into my socks, and keep them that way even if it includes a stop at the grocery store on the way home from work. But it has also taught me that most bugs really aren’t anything to be afraid of, and that not having to worry about what other people think can be a luxury.

As for the tedium, coming to terms with that is another thing entirely. As Quammen puts it, raw number-gathering can be dull even for the biologist with the “soul of a mathematician”, and the risk of boredom is one that will certainly increase with time. Absence of scorpions, centipedes, and tropical diseases in California aside, I still have to contend with the painful task of sitting still for hours and watching, even when the birds aren’t doing anything. I realize now that this kind of prolonged tedium is not unique to field work (perhaps it’s a defining characteristic of graduate research in general).

During the more inactive lek watches, I get myself through by thinking about what I’m going to eat for lunch, write in my next letter home, or do when I get back to Kingston. My friend Mike has described his endless hours of microscopy (for his Master’s research) as intellectually unstimulating yet strangely rewarding. I find the same is true of number-gathering in the field. As boring as it can be, I enjoy the fact that it gives me a chance think about the things I’m looking forward to in the future as well as reflect on those that I’m lucky to have now.

There’s one final difficulty – this is one that I fear more than centipedes, and still haven’t figured out how to reconcile. I’ll let Quammen describe it since he does it so well:

Besides tedium and reductionism, snakebite and dysentary, one other danger faces the biological fieldworker. This one is so large and scary, so terrifyingly amorphous, that it’s best described in the negative: lack of validity. Are you really measuring what you think you’re measuring? Are you really counting what you think you’re counting? Are you really therefore proving what you claim to be proving? Or possibly not? Maybe you’re rowing like hell but your oars aren’t in the water.

Quantification must be meaningful as well as precise, and the assumptions by which number are linked to biological realities must be correct. If so, you have not only precision but validity. If not, you’re wasting your time. Does the number of rings in a tree trunk really represent years of age? In most cases, yes. Does the number of wolf sightings in Glacier National Park really represent the current wolf population in that area? Possibly. Does the number of UFO stories in The National Enquirer, this year compared with last year, really represent the trend in visits by alien spacecraft? Uh, maybe not. Mathematized meaning, like any other kind, can be illusory.

I think I’ll make it mandatory reading for future field assistants.

David Quammen. 2000. “Certainty and Doubt in Baja” in The boilerplate rhino: Nature in the eye of the beholder. Simon & Schuster.