Featured paper: cheating Common Yellowthroats, or, the world is more complex than you think

There is a thing that happens a lot in biology, especially in animal behavior: one set of researchers finds an interesting relationship, like, say, “Birds prefer to eat bugs off of cows with lots of spots, and don’t like to eat bugs off of cows with no spots.” (This is a made-up example.)

Starlings flying near a cow; Pt Reyes, CA.

Blackbirds flying near a cow, Pt Reyes, CA.

Then, some other researchers do a study and say, “Hey, our birds prefer to eat bugs off of cows with no spots! That’s the opposite!”

Then still different researchers do another study and say, “Our birds don’t care at all about the number of spots, they just care whether the spots make a shape like a smiley face. You guys must all have made a mistake. The Smiley Face Rule is the new Lek Paradox! #nobelplease”

To put it less ridiculously: scientists get different results sometimes, and it can be hard to figure out why. Did someone make a mistake? Who is right? Today’s featured paper takes an example of this confusing scientific disagreement and elegantly makes sense of everything, with the help of this handsome little bird:

Common Yellowthroat (male). Photo by Dan Pancamo*

Common Yellowthroat (male).
Photo by Dan Pancamo*

Continue reading

The sky is falling: birds and hail

The season of the summer disaster movie is upon us: Godzilla is stomping San Francisco, and I’m sure we’re all eagerly anticipating the premiere of Sharknado 2. To liven up the cinemas a bit, as a relief from the overabundance of sequels (I mean really, Sharknado 2!), I would like to propose a new genre mash-up: the animated talking birds disaster movie. It would be like those dancing penguin movies, or the solemn-looking owl movie (I have seen none of these…), plus disasters. The first one could be called Hailstorm!

It would not be a children’s movie. It would be terrifying.

It hailed on us a few days ago for about half an hour. The hail was mostly small, not larger than 1 cm in diameter, and the only animal reaction I saw was a decidedly alarmed chickaree—although to be fair, chickarees almost always look alarmed. I saw no evidence of damage afterwards; all of the junco nests we were monitoring weathered the storm just fine.

We hid in our tents.

You know the hail isn’t too bad when you can safely hide from it in a tent.

But sometimes hail is a sharper-fanged beast.

Continue reading

Seeing through scales and walking with six legs

There are a lot of scientific journals out there. There are the big shots (Science, Nature), the bird journals (The Auk, The Condor), the topic-specific (Behavioral Ecology), etc. And then there is The Journal of Experimental Biology, or JEB. I love JEB. It claims to be the journal for “comparative animal physiology” but that doesn’t cover the half of it. JEB is about crazy, wonderful strangeness—strange animals and strange scientific methods. Following are two characteristically odd JEB studies: snake eyes and how walking sticks walk.

Leucistic (lacking pigment) black rat snake is looking at YOU.

Leucistic (lacking pigment) black rat snake is looking at YOU.

Continue reading

Featured paper: cuttlefish are lying cheaters

Although the cuttlefish may be best known for making those flat cuttlefish bones that your pet bird nibbles to get calcium, this paper shows that it should be known for being a lying cheater.

That was uncalled for. Photo by Tom Olliver

That was uncalled for.
Photo by Tom Olliver

Cuttlefish, like their relatives the squids and the octopuses, are masters of visual communication. They can change their appearance almost instantaneously (video here), and they use color and pattern to say things like “Back off, I’m angry!” and “Pretty lady, I would like to do some romance with you now,” and “Please don’t do romance with me, I am male.”

Continue reading

Featured paper: the heartbeats of fighting penguins

Viblanc VA, Valette V, Kauffmann M, Malosse N, Groscolas R. 2012. Coping with social stress: heart rate responses to agonistic interactions in king penguins. Behavioral Ecology 23(6):1178-1185.

Most animals live solitary lives, interacting with their own kind only to mate, raise young, or fight. In contrast are group-living animals, from meerkats to humans to Greylag Geese. Their sociality means an easier time locating mates and spotting predators, but it can also mean more disease and competition for resources. This competition can lead to injury and stress.

King Penguin colony. Photo by Liam Quinn.

King Penguin colony. Photo by Liam Quinn.

Breeding King Penguins crowd onto shores in huge numbers and claim tiny territories – about one-half of a square meter – where they incubate their egg and then brood the resulting chick. They have to defend these territories constantly, on average 100 times per hour. This occurs over a tiny space, since the penguins have an egg or chick on their feet and so can’t move much; most aggressive interactions are with neighbors no more than 50 cm away. Stressful interactions may not sound like a big deal – hey, we’re all stressed, right? – but these penguins are trying to maintain a high body temperature in cold conditions and keep their baby warm, and while doing that, they fast for weeks. They do not have energy to waste on stress.

Continue reading

Featured paper: turkeys help their relatives get lucky

Featured paper: Thanksgiving edition. And it’s doubly relevant – it’s about turkeys and family!

AH Krakauer. 2005. Kin selection and cooperative courtship in wild turkeys. Nature vol. 434, pp. 69 – 72.

Wild turkeys males show off in front of females in the hopes of being impressive enough to get to mate. While some males show off alone, others form “coalitions” of two to four males and all display for females together. However only one male in each coalition – the dominant male – ever gets to mate. So why in the world do the other male turkeys help him, if they never get to mate? Why don’t they display alone, where they’d at least have a chance at mating?

[Photo from Smart Kitchen]

Continue reading

Featured paper: side-blotched lizards play rock-paper-scissors

B Sinervo and CM Lively. 1996. The rock-paper-scissors game and the evolution of alternative male strategies. Nature vol. 380, pp. 240-243.

(Side note: I don’t want to feature-paper too many Science or Nature papers, since those journals are so high-profile that you’re likely to hear about the work elsewhere, and part of the point of this feature is that papers in “lesser” journals can be awesome too; but this paper is classic and fun, so I’ll make an exception.)

Male side-blotched lizards come in three flavors colors: orange-throated, blue-throated, and yellow-throated. Orange males are highly aggressive and defend large territories. Blue males are less aggressive, defending smaller territories. Yellow males look like females and don’t defend territories at all. All three colors compete to mate with females and have offspring. Throat color is highly heritable: orange males have orange sons, blue males have blue sons, yellow males have yellow sons.

Continue reading