Despite pop culture’s image of the scientist as solitary genius, hidden away in his office surrounded by old coffee cups and rat mazes, with escaped fruit flies whirring around his head while theories fizz in his lonely brain, scientists can be quite social. Networking is important in science: it’s how you get jobs, find collaborators, and see new ways to think about your data. (Of course, the networking you’re doing is with other scientists, so escaped fruit flies may still be involved.) This week I’m attending the conference of the International Society for Behavioral Ecology in order to do just that, and the prospect of networking myself has made me think of other animals who network and the benefits they get from it.
Safety in numbers
If networking just means knowing lots of people, then many species do it. Schools of fish and herds of ungulates both get predator protection from hanging out with large numbers of their fellows: there are more eyes to keep watch, and if a predator does appear, the sheer number of potential prey animals makes it difficult to hunt any one of them, since it’s hard to keep focused on one silvery fish or tawny gazelle out of hundreds of identical fleeing animals.
Best, however, is if you can demonstrate that the predator should eat someone else. The bigger your group, the more likely it is that there is someone slower and weaker than you in it. Some ungulates make sure that predators know this by showing off their physical prowess, leaping high in the air in a behavior called “stotting.” Essentially they’re saying, “I am so fast and healthy, don’t even bother chasing me.” Which is good for them, but maybe not so good for the springbok that isn’t stotting.
Know your field
Networking doesn’t just involve making friendly connections; it means keeping tabs on your competitors, too, while they keep tabs on you. Territorial birds recognize their neighbor territory-holders, and know that they aren’t much of a threat: they may not like having another bird right at the edge of their territory, but they have already sorted out the territory boundary between them, and that is unlikely to change. They’re like two neighbors who squabbled over where the picket fence goes, reached a grudging compromise, and now trust that the issue is resolved. If a new bird sings near the territory, though, the territory-holder will get much more worked up: this unknown might really be trying to take his territory!
It pays even the birds who don’t have territories to keep tabs on those who do. If you don’t hear Joe Territory-holder’s song in the dawn chorus one day, maybe his territory is up for grabs, and maybe you could be the grabber.
Know your place
A key part of networking is knowing your own position relative to all of your connections. You wouldn’t want to ask that promising high-schooler for a job reference, and you wouldn’t want to ask that Nobel Prize-winner to do data-entry for you—at least not unless you were a multiple Nobel Prize-winner yourself. You want to know your place in the hierarchy.
Other social species have hierarchies too: I’m the wild dog who gets to breed and to eat first, and you’re the wild dog who gets to babysit my pups and to eat the scraps when I’m done.
In winter flocks of Black-capped Chickadees, every bird has its own individual rank. Higher-ranking birds get to kick lower-ranking birds off the bird feeder. This may seem less than ideal for the lower-ranking birds, but the reason they are of lower rank is that if they challenged their superiors, they would lose. Knowing your own rank lets you avoid getting beaten up over and over by tougher chickadees. And if you’re lucky, eventually you rise up through the ranks.
Get feedback and refine your skills
If you’re at the bottom of the hierarchy and hoping to move up, you need to improve. You need to give more exciting talks, write up your research faster, design more novel experiments, etc. But it’s hard to teach yourself new skills: the very fact that you need to learn them makes you unqualified to teach them to yourself. Networking can help you with this by connecting you with higher-ranking people to observe and emulate, and with other strivers like yourself who can help you practice.
At least, that’s the case for young male birds of paradise. Birds of paradise are lekking species: the females do all the work of raising the young, while the males spend their whole lives trying to convince females to mate with them. Males perform specialized displays involving sound, movement, and their own elaborate plumage to woo the females.
Since theoretically every female could just choose to mate with the one best male, there is huge competition among males. In any population of these birds, just a few males will get the vast majority of matings, while most males will never mate at all. If you’re a male bird of paradise, you can’t just be pretty good at your display—you have to be the best.
These displays are really complicated, and the males don’t just hatch knowing how to do them well: they have to practice for years to get good. Young males will hang out near older, experienced males to watch how they display and emulate them. These young males will also get together with each other to practice, some of them pretending to be females to give their fellows a practice-audience.
It’s too bad the skills I’m hoping to refine at this conference don’t involve dancing and shape-shifting…
*Photo obtained from Flickr and used via Creative Commons. Many thanks to this photographer for using Creative Commons!
I have had similar thoughts at big conferences, looking at the zoology and anthropology behind the posturing. If I may say, at the heart of all such competition and display is sex. Though I am too nerdy to know from personal experience, I am pretty sure big medical conferences are very much about that.