You would think an embryo in an egg could relax. They can’t eat, or go anywhere; what can the world ask of them, besides that they grow? A decade ago it would have seemed ridiculous to talk about “embryo behavior.” Now, though, we know that even embryos have things to do.
I wrote about birds and mirrors a while ago, and not much has changed scientifically since then. Most bird species tested have interpreted their own reflections as other individuals, responding either with aggression or courtship. Female pigeons who view their own reflections ovulate, apparently interpreting their reflections as suitable mates. Among birds, only magpies, so far, have been demonstrated to understand that the mirror reflects their own image, although pigeons can be trained to use spatial information from mirrors correctly in the real world.
So why bring this up again? Recently I saw a Yellow-rumped Warbler interacting with its reflection in a car side mirror, and took a video with my phone. Here it is (apologies for the lack of zoom):
At the time I took the video, I didn’t think much of it beyond general amusement. But rewatching it, I began to have some questions.
Egrets are beautiful, especially in their breeding plumage, when they sport long curved plumes and dramatically colored faces.
Those breeding plumes are so beautiful that demand for them—for decorating women’s hats—almost drove egrets to extinction, and concern for the heavily persecuted egrets is what gave rise to the bird conservation movement in the early 20th century.
Egrets earn those luscious plumes. Before they get to be adults in breeding plumage, egrets must survive a cutthroat childhood in considerably less impressive dress.
Grandmothers are an evolutionary mystery.
Well, not grandmothers exactly: rather, women who have passed menopause. Human men can sire children as long as they live, but human women can’t have children after they go through menopause. But why do we have menopause at all—why stop having babies? Isn’t it always better, evolutionarily, to have more babies?
The mystery is far from solved, but we have some good clues.
We were searching for junco nests when I heard the unmistakable tic-tic-tic of junco alarm chipping. We followed the sound a ways and found a pair of juncos perched on a low branch, alarm chipping for all they were worth. Strange of the juncos to be alarm chipping at us when we were so far away, before, I thought. I wouldn’t have thought they’d see us as a threat from that far away. Odd birds. Directly below the branch with the agitated juncos was a small shrub. “The nest will be in there,” I predicted, showing off for my new field assistants.
And just as I said that, I saw the snake.
I’ve been neglecting my blog-writing duties lately, preoccupied with the annual Big Grant Proposal Deadline. My grant proposal is on sexual selection in juncos. What part of juncos is sexually selected, you ask? Why, that flashy tail, of course! They’re practically peacocks!
I’ve also been TAing a class on animal behavior, so while I don’t have many extra words to spare right now—I need them all for that grant proposal—I do have a wealth of animal videos that have been brought to my attention by my fellow animal behavior fans. Please accept some videos in lieu of words.
Here is a video of a bird even drabber than a junco who attracts females with his sexually selected aesthetic tastes in things like flowers, shiny beetles, and slightly… er… less attractive items as well: the Vogelkop Bowerbird.
And here are some flies that—well, you should just watch it to believe it. It starts with them gulping air bubbles into their heads, and that’s not even the weird part.
Why are they like that? Sexual selection! Females in this species prefer their males as hammerheaded as possible.
Hey, why not?
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.
Animals interact visually all the time. Males try to look big and scary to rivals, or sexy to females. Prey animals try to look inedible—or better, invisible—to predators. Sometimes these animals use visual trickery to assist their cause.
You’ve probably encountered visual illusions before. Here are some classic ones:
Animals can use visual illusions a) and b) to appear bigger by changing their posture. Vertical stances make you look bigger than horizontal ones, and making a Y with your limbs looks bigger than letting them fall down. So if you’re a male peacock spider trying to look big and sexy to a female, you can raise a pair of back legs up in a Y to look bigger than you really are.
Sometimes the titles of scientific papers are so surprising that they seem to transform into news headlines in my head:
Adoption of chicks by the Pied Avocet – Adoption of fledglings by Black and Red Kites – Caspian Terns fledge a Ring-billed Gull chick – Adoption of young Common Buzzards by White-tailed Sea Eagles
How can this be true? Raising chicks is hard; it takes energy and time and risk. Why would any bird make those sacrifices for an unrelated chick?
When you’re an altricial baby bird, life is either great or over. If it isn’t over—that is, assuming you aren’t eaten by a mouse, chipmunk, snake, slug, coyote, etc.—then your life is sitting still in the warm and having food shoved in your face. Excellent.
But that doesn’t last. After you fledge, your parents keep feeding you, but soon they start feeding you less. You can follow them around begging, but soon even that doesn’t do any good. You have to face it: you need to learn how to catch your own food. But that food flies and crawls and runs away!
We tend to think of wild animals as “instinctually” being able to do everything they do, but in fact, a lot of those skills have to be learned and practiced. Two of my favorite scientific papers looked at how fledgling birds developed their foraging skills. As adults, they were the expert bug-catchers you see all the time; but as fledglings, they did—well, about as well as the four-year-old child of a champion fisherman would do, the first time you handed her the fishing rod.