Can evolution save us from the brink of collapse?
Andy Gonzalez thinks so. Gonzalez, an ecologist from McGill University, gave an entertaining seminar to the department last Thursday on the subject. His research group works on the causes and consequences of biodiversity loss, using mathematical models and controlled experiments to investigate how environmental change might affect populations.
Gonzalez teamed up with McGill’s Graham Bell, who is known for using simple systems like yeast and algae to tinker with the evolutionary process through experimental evolution. Gonzalez describes their third collaborator on this project as “painful to work with, but once things were up and running [he was] amazing.” He was, in fact, a robot.
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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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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:
(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!
Our first week of observations done, and we’ve already seen one copulation! Watching birds for hours on end at the Arboretum has actually proved to be quite enjoyable, due to the pleasant setting and perfect weather (apart from the fact that I’ve come down with a cold).
This post, however, will be about Penelope. Smuggled into Canada by Charlie, resurrected by Vanya, and given wheels with Charlie’s help again (see picture of driving practice here), Penelope is a stuffed peahen that I’m hoping to use for some behavioural experiments.
Eager to see what she could do, I whipped her out a couple of weeks ago when we were in the midst of catching and banding males (hoping that maybe she would entice some of our more difficult captures). Here’s a picture of her debut; it’s worth clicking on it and zooming in to see the peacock poking his head out from behind the pink chimney:
(Photo credit: Rob Ewart)
Although the experience was hilarious, I found Penelope’s overall performance to be lacking. She inspired far more curiosity than lust on the part of the two males tested so far. Both stared intently and moved a little closer, but didn’t make a move. This could be due at least three things: (i) the unusual appearance of her wheels, (ii) her abnormal plumage colour (she was an injured bird from a farm that breeds birds with colour mutations, so she doesn’t quite look like a normal peahen), or (iii) her lack of grace/movement. We gave her another chance without the motorized base and got the same result, but there’s still no way to distinguish between (ii) and (iii) at this point.
I’m not giving up on Penelope yet. There were a lot of real, moving females around on that day, and the peacocks weren’t making any efforts towards them either . As the season progresses, the males should grow more restless (read: desperate), no doubt increasing her chance of success.