Girls do science

One of the best things about maternity leave is watching my daughter learn new things, almost daily. A few weeks ago she realized she could control her feet. This week she’s using her hands to grab at objects and starting to pull them in for further, mouth-based inspection. It really is exponential – the more she learns, the more she is able to figure out.

Children also learn a lot from what they hear. And they are apparently sensitive to the particulars at a surprisingly young age. Take, for example, the phrase “some birds fly” vs. the generic version “birds fly”. Psychologists have shown that halflings as young as two years old can tell the difference between these two phrases, and they can also use the generic version appropriately. What’s more, when adults use generic language in conversation with very young children, the children are able to infer new categories and make predictions about the world. This has been shown in experiments where psychologists talk about new, fictional categories (like Zarpies and Ziblets) with children. The results of these studies suggest that children are essentialists: i.e., they tend to carve up the world into categories, and view members of the same category as sharing a deeper, inherent nature. And these categories are easily transmitted through language.

This can have some unintended consequences. In her book The Gardener and the Carpenter, Alison Gopnik describes a study by Susan Gelman and colleagues where mothers and their children were given pictures of people doing stereotyped (a girl sewing) and non-stereotyped (a girl driving a truck) activities, and their conversations were recorded and quantified. It turns out that even mothers who were feminists used generic language most of the time. Moreover, there was a correlation between how often mothers used generic language and how often their children did.

Worst of all, moms used generics that reinforced the very stereotypes they were trying to combat. As Gopnik puts it:

Saying “Girls can drive trucks” still implies that girls all belong in the same category with the same deep, underlying essence.

I can’t help but wonder how this might affect our daughter as she grows up.

Although her book is not meant to be prescriptive, Gopnik does say that we probably can’t avoid this by careful wording – it just wouldn’t work to try to consciously control our language. Instead, the best antidote may be to have children observe many examples and talk to many different people.

A bad year for birds

June 2013 was bad for tree swallows. At the Queen’s University Biological Station, over 90% of nests failed as a result of persistent cold, rainy weather.

This happened to be the same year we were conducting an experiment on the hormonal mechanisms of parental care in these birds. The bad weather made for a disastrous field season. Just a couple of weeks in, and we were turning up cold lifeless chicks in nearly every nest. The upside was that it led to some potential insights into the way stress hormones and tough weather conditions interact. My coauthors Jenny Ouyang and Ádám Lendvai were invited to write an excellent blog post about it here:

Terrible weather provides insight into a bird’s life

It was remarkable how closely the nest failure rates tracked the fluctuating air temperature. This could be caused by a couple of factors, with a major one being that tree swallows rely on flying insects to feed their young, and the ability of insects to fly depends on temperature. Persistent cold weather means that parent tree swallows cannot find enough food to support their offspring.

The corticosterone hormone implants made the treatment birds more susceptible to faster brood mortality, even during benign weather. It should be noted that the implants were deployed before the bad weather struck, and we would not have performed this experiment if we had known in advance that this would be such a tough year! Hopefully, though, the results provide some insight into the role of stress hormones as mediators of a sensitive period in the life history of these birds.

Read the study here:

Ouyang et al. 2015. Weathering the storm: parental effort and experimental manipulation of stress hormones predict brood survival

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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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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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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Shark Lady and the convict fish

Who’s weirder: the shark lady or the convict fish? It may seem a strange way to get this blog started again, but it turns out to be quite fitting this time of year when we find ourselves cooped up with relatives of all stripes.

My first encounter with the convict fish was this summer. It was one of those enigmatic creatures that blew all of the biologists in the room away, at one of our regular gatherings to watch the BBC’s Life series. Over images of thousands of tiny fish emerging from a burrow on the sea floor, David Attenborough explained the mystery. This was a swarm of siblings, all offspring of the same pair of adults who spend their entire lives in a tunnel. Each day, the young convict fish head out to forage on plankton around the reef, returning home at night. Biologists have no idea how the parents feed, though, because no one has ever seen the adults leave their burrows in the wild. Attenborough left us hanging, suggesting with intrigue that the young fish might have something to do with it.

Could the convict fish be living off of its own offspring? A bit grim, yes, but also a fascinating biological paradox – perfect for this blog on the stranger twists of evolution, I thought. In nature, it might not even be that unusual. The males of plenty of fish species feed on eggs from their own nests. By taking in extra resources, this might allow them to invest more in future nesting attempts1. In fish with especially large broods, once filial cannibalism gets started it could get an evolutionary boost from the fact that many of the offspring in dense egg masses will not survive anyway2.

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