|I am interested in the perceptual and cognitive mechanisms of animal behaviour. Birds are also exposed to a wealth of motion-based information as they forage, fight, court, and even copulate in flight. As a postdoc, I am studying how optic flow cues are used to guide flight in Anna’s hummingbirds, highly specialized fliers. How do hummingbirds use motion-based cues to fly rapidly through dense foliage? How do they transition seamlessly from cruising to hovering flight? In the Altshuler lab, we use multi-camera tracking systems to record hummingbird flight in virtual reality chambers where we control the visual environment that the birds experience.|
|I have a long-standing interest in signaling and social behaviour. Why are courtship displays often so incredibly complex? For my graduate work with Bob Montgomerie at Queen’s University, I studied the iridescent displays of peacocks, a classic example of sexual selection. For my MSc, I looked at how peacocks perform their courtship display dances. Males use two different behaviours when courting females (see video here): they often use a preliminary wing-shaking display first, followed by a more intense train-rattling display where they vibrate their train feathers at about 25 Hz. I found that males orient their train-rattling displays at about 45° to the sun, and I used experiments with a stuffed female peahen to show that males use the wing-shaking display to manipulate females to view their trains from the sunny side.During my PhD, I tackled the question of how females choose their mates, and how male display behaviours influence female perception, focusing on the iridescent colours in the peacock’s tail. I measured peacock feather colours at light angles that mimic the way males display, using models of avian colour vision to quantify colours as birds would perceive them. Surprisingly, I found that over 50% of the variation in male mating success could be explained by the iridescence of the central blue-green part of the eyespots alone.|
More recently, I used models of avian colour vision to study how tree swallows allocate parental effort in response to a variety of internal and external cues, including the colour traits and behaviour of their partner. This study is part of an NSF-funded project on the role of glucocorticoid hormones in life-history decisions, led by Fran Bonier and Ignacio Moore (Virginia Tech).
Other ongoing projects include understanding the function of the peacock’s copulation call, and how peahens arrive at their choice of a mate when they visit 10-15 different males over the course of the breeding season. Do females remember and return to attractive males that they have visited in the past? I am also interested in the basis of individual variation in male iridescent colour. Is iridescence an honest signal of male quality? What causes males to look different, and can peahens detect these subtle differences?