How to raise a science major

The newspapers have been abuzz lately about a controversial book: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua, is a memoir on the rewards and perils of stereotypically strict Asian-American parenting. This week I asked students in my 4th-year biology class to tell me about their earliest memory of being fascinated with something biological, information that could be useful for parents hoping to form their children into university science majors.

And so, some lessons learned:

1. Worms work. Let your kids get close to the ground, outside. At least two students listed earthworms appearing after the rain as their most important early memory. A large portion of the class described similar encounters with tadpoles, snails, caterpillars, ants, spiders and their webs, and other minutiae found on the lawn. Larger examples of charismatic megafauna barely got a mention. Perhaps opportunity plays a role. For instance, one student remembers being particularly enamoured with deer in the backyard.

2. Pain. A wise teacher once told me that “learning hurts”. The converse might also be true: harmful organisms can be educational. An encounter with razor-sharp zebra mussels was particularly salient for one student. Another recounted a family vacation in the New Mexico desert, where a first-hand experience with cacti led to an early lesson in adaptation.

Well-armed cacti

Hidden Valley, Joshua Tree National Park, California.

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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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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: 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.