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Metaphors in Behavior

The study of animal behavior requires careful attention to subtle assumptions and sources of bias.  One particularly interesting example of this is how biases are built into our language.  Let’s take male and female birds sitting close together.

Back when the term “pair bond” was applied to this behavior, scientists though that most birds were monogamous partners that stayed together for multiple years.  So, this term conjures up a nice notion of ‘devoted couples spending time together being intimate’.  The problem is that this leads us to think we know the function of a behavior, when often we really don’t.  It leads to a bias in how we view a behavior.   Read more

Mechanisms of fear

Here’s a nice article By Amanda Schaffer (NY Times, May 28, 2012) that summarizes new research about how fish detect the presence of predators.  It’s really quite cool, and a little bizarre.  Keep in mind the concept of umwelt, and imagine what it might be like if we sensed our world in a similar manner.

When one fish is injured, others nearby may dart, freeze, huddle, swim to the bottom or leap from the water. The other fish know that their school mate has been harmed. But how?  In the 1930s, Karl von Frisch, the famous ethologist, noted this behavior in minnows. He theorized that injured fish release a substance that is transmitted by smell and causes alarm. But Dr. von Frisch never identified the chemical composition of the signal. He just called it schreckstoff, or “scary stuff.”

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The Clever Hans Effect

In Berlin in a courtyard surrounded by high apartment buildings in the summer of 1904, there is a man and his horse.  The man is Herr von Osten who taught mathematics to grade school children.   His horse is Hans and the two are obviously very close and von Osten is very gentle with his horse.  Herr von Osten asks Hans questions, usually mathematical ones, and the horse answers by tapping out his right foot on the ground.  A shake of the head is zero.  When the answer is large, Hans taps quickly, when the answer is small he taps slowly, as though he knew the answer in advance. Read more

The world is as you see it…

When considering animal behavior, it’s important to think about and understand how animals perceive their environment.  Most people observe behavior and immediately think they understand what the animals are doing. This comes from the constant necessity of having to interpret human behavior.  Most people think they know what an animal is thinking and what it is responding to.  But animals live in remarkably different sensory and experiential worlds from humans, i.e. they have a different Umwelt. Read more

Assuming Motivation

“Look at these cute dogs cuddling together.  They must really love each other!”

We often make assumptions about behavior when we shouldn’t.  Humans love to give other animals human qualities (i.e., anthropomorphism).  This is fine when we’re just being silly, but we also have a tendency to do this without realizing what we are doing. Read more

Process or Mechanism?

One often hears the terms “mechanism” and “process” used interchangeably.  But really, what do they mean, what’s the difference, and does it really matter?  Giving these terms strict definitions is key to nailing down the conceptual framework of your research. Read more

Life History?

Poor “Life History.”  Unfortunately, this is one of the most commonly misused terms in biology.   There is really no such thing as a “life history.”  That term is short-hand and probably ought to be avoided. Read more

Use of debris by burrowing owls

Some of our previous research showed that nesting burrowing owls line their burrows with mammal manure to attract insect prey.  But burrowing owls also commonly use other materials such as paper and plastic.  These other materials seemingly contradict the prey-attraction hypothesis.   We have just published a paper that explores the use of these other materials, and if burrowing owls prefer manure to other materials?   .pdf