Science fictions

Fakery is not just for Hollywood films anymore.

Nature documentaries are full of it, from elegant narratives to some downright dirty tricks. This tradition goes back a long way: the myth that lemmings commit mass suicide to save their brethren from overpopulation was spread widely as as result of the 1958 Disney film White Wilderness. This is not trivial. The film won an Oscar for Best Documentary. The lemming story made it as far as a philosophy course I took in university (Science and Society PHIL203), where the instructor used it as an example of why we should doubt evolutionary explanations of human behaviour. The myth just won’t die, even though CBC exposed the lemming scam back in 19821. Journalists on The Fifth Estate proved that the mass suicide scene was actually filmed in downtown Calgary, not in the Arctic as Disney had claimed. The Disney crew used a rotating platform to push captive lemmings into the Bow River.

More recently, the BBC has come under fire for using captive animals to film some of the scenes in the Blue Planet series1. This seems justifiable to me, but some truly ugly practices have also been exposed, like baiting corpses with M&Ms to get footage for an IMAX documentary on wolves2.

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Field biology goes to Hollywood

One of the weirder things about my field site is that it is also a Hollywood set. A number of movies, TV shows and commercials have been filmed at the LA Arboretum, going back to Tarzan Escapes in the 1930s.

The Arboretum had a regular appearance in the popular 1970s show Fantasy Island. In the opening credits, a midget rings the bell in the Queen Anne Cottage. This is a historic building on the Arboretum grounds that was built in the by the same wealthy California businessman who started the peafowl population in the area.

You can catch the Arboretum in many other films, since it provides a convenient stand in for the jungle a short drive away from downtown Los Angeles. Examples: The Lord of the Flies, Anaconda, The Lost World, Congo, Terminator 2, The African Queen, and too many campy horror flicks to count (Attack of the Giant Leeches?).

Several things were filmed during my three seasons there, leading me to realize that making a movie is a lot like doing field biology. Here’s how:

1. The hours. Field biologists often have to keep the same hours as their study species, working for as long as the animals are active. For some ornithologists, this can mean starting at 4 am. We were lucky with peafowl. They are late risers, coming down from their roosts around 7-8 am. They also tend to take a long siesta in the middle of the day. This meant that we had to work two shifts, coming in for several hours in the morning and returning after lunch until sunset. It made for some long days.

Film crews also seem to work long hours based on the amount of light, since our schedules would often coincide.

2. Tedium and futility. Most of the time spent watching animal behaviour is watching them do very little. Here’s an example: we saw about 20 mating events in 2010, in 500 man-hours of observation time. That’s over 24 hours of sitting quietly for each copulation.

Catching the beasts can be a little bit more active, but you still feel completely useless 90% of the time. Your main activities include: waiting for the animals to show up, looking for the ones you haven’t caught yet, waiting around for your traps to work, and worrying about all the reasons why they aren’t.

A lot of jobs in Hollywood might not be so far off. When AT&T filmed a commercial at the Arboretum last year, we met a guy whose sole responsibility was to keep the peacocks away from the set. His boss gave him a bag of bird seed. It was the cusp of the breeding season, and the crew had decided to place their set right in the middle of one particularly dedicated male’s territory. The poor guy was literally playing tag with that bird all day.

3. Costumes. Important in Hollywood, but also useful when trying to catch birds. After a few weeks in the field, most tend to settle in to a uniform, wearing the same thing nearly every day. If it works and you’ll just be getting dirty again tomorrow, why change?

Field clothes

Waterproof jackets come in handy when catching large birds. From left: Will Roberts, Myra Burrell and Roz Dakin. Photo by Bonny Chan.

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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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Language Instincts: Do animals lie?


From November 11, 2006

In my last few posts you may have noticed a theme: signals that are used to advertise sex in the animal world are generally thought to be honest ones. In fact, animal communication in general is pretty truthful. There may be different reasons for this: some signals may be impossible to fake (for instance, toad calls may contain honest information about the caller’s size simply because bigger bodies produce lower-frequency sounds). But even when a signal could be faked, the evolution of dishonest signaling is very unlikely. There is a simple reason for this: in the long run it would not benefit receivers to respond to a signal that could be cheated.

This is something that we might find surprising given the amount of deception that goes on in human interactions. Is deception really so rare in animal communication systems? Are there any animals liars?

We have some examples of deceptive communication between different species: for example, ground-nesting birds will fake an injury to draw a predator away from their nest, and some birds in mixed-species flocks will give false alarm calls to increase their own foraging success. Within species, however, the examples of deception are few. We know deceptive communication occurs within a number of primate species. Interestingly, some recent work using ravens has shown that, much like many primates, birds may also be capable of intentionally deceiving conspecifics.

This result came as a bit of an accident during an experimental study on social learning and scrounging in foraging ravens. The researchers provided their ravens with a series of covered plastic boxes that served as food caches (some containing pieces of cheese; some empty). The boxes were arranged in clusters and ravens were videotaped during their foraging explorations. Right from the start, the researchers noticed an interesting pattern between a pair of male ravens: rather than search for his own food, a dominant male relied on a subordinate male’s explorations, following the subordinate male around and eating the food that he discovered.

It eventually became apparent to the researchers that the subordinate raven wasn’t the only one being exploited in this situation. He had developed a strategy to trick his competitor. Whenever the subordinate male found a cluster of boxes containing food, he would quickly move on to a different cluster and start opening boxes there. The dominant male would soon follow, leaving the subordinate free to return to the other boxes and enjoy his snacks at leisure.

The parallels here to primate behaviour are interesting: chimpanzees have been known to walk away from a food site in order to induce other group members to do the same, and then return later to enjoy the food in privacy. Does the ability to communicate deceptively say something special about the cognitive evolution of a species?

You can read the raven study here.