The peculiar behavior of animal behaviorists

Published in The Idaho Statesman on Aug. 7, 2003

We first came across the animal behaviorists in one of their natural environments: the zoo.

Sue Margulis was visiting Zoo Boise and explaining how she introduces her students to the subject.

“Really, the best way to learn animal behavior is to observe animals,” said Margulis, behavior research manager at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. “They always do something. It may not be something exciting and it may not be what you predicted, but it´s always something.”

Margulis and almost 500 other biologists, professors, researchers and students had come to Boise State University for the annual conference of the Animal Behavior Society, which runs through Wednesday.

It´s a yearly migration of this distinct subspecies of human, who look a little more outdoorsy than the rest of us, and maybe a little more academic, too. But they could otherwise fit in with the rest of society.

Not to say they don´t have their quirks.

They say things like:

“I guess the thing to do is pick a duck that´s going to be your duck.”

And:

“If we could think of aggression in the sea slug level.”

And, occasionally, if they´re feeling spunky:

“I think it´s a worthwhile effort to look at different time scales of plasticity.”

NOTES FROM THE FIELD

At the zoo, some interesting behavior:

9:01 a.m.: Animal behaviorists and the slender-tailed meerkats stare at each other through the glass of the meerkat tank. Only the animal behaviorists seem to be taking notes.

9:40 a.m.: Animal behaviorists stare at some ducks until, evidently creeped out, the ducks slink away into the water.

9:45 a.m.: Animal behaviorists discuss the best way to record the ambulatory preferences of the mallard. (Are they left- or right-web-footed?)

Question addressed by animal behaviorists:

What will squirrels do with shelled peanuts vs. unshelled peanuts?

The keynote speaker at the conference was Kenneth Dial, a biology professor at the University of Montana. Dial studies “vertebrate locomotion,” but he´s most interested in birds.

Dial wants the behaviorists gathered at BSU to realize that gravity, air and water influence animal behavior.

“Physics play a big part in how animals move,” he said.

A horse, for example, lives in a different spatial environment than a mouse.

The horse is anchored to the two-dimensional ground, but a mouse can climb trees and shrubs, and dig underground.

Dial said he thought the talk went over well. Afterward, he headed for a seminar titled, “Control of legged locomotion over complex terrain by cockroaches and robots.”

BEHAVIORISTS IN THE MIST

Assumption: Animal behaviorists sit around and watch animals doing interesting things.

Fact: About 80 percent of the time they watch animals sleep.

There has always been trouble between the “whole animal” biologists who study behavior and the more hard-nosed scientists who train their microscopes on cells and genes. But at least on Sunday afternoon, it looked like the two sides had found common ground.

For example, Kevin McGraw, a doctoral candidate at Cornell University, combined an observation — that the lady finches like big black chest marks on their gentlemen — with a chemical analysis of those black fathers and the diet of the male birds.

Conclusion: Finches that eat more calcium get the chicks.

Fact: Male African cichlids — little fish, for laypersons — come in two sizes: the large, aggressively territorial and sexual kind, and the diminutive and unattractive-to-the-ladies kind.

Hope for 98-pound weaklings everywhere: Scientists have found it is relative easy to make the macho fish turn into the wimp fish and vice versa.

SEX, FLIES AND VIDEOTAPE (NOT IN THAT ORDER)

Sunday, convention participants discussed everything from how a crawfish learns to whether observers should film their subjects for further study back in the lab.

They asked that age-old question: Just what does it mean when a female baboon calls out after sex? (There are 16 theories.)

Of course, animal behaviorists want to to know more than which foot a duck puts forward. A lot of this stuff has practical applications, and often in ways even the scientists themselves can´t foresee.

Todd Shelly works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and he spends his time among the guava orchards of Oahu, Hawaii.

That´s the good part.

He´s constantly surrounded by the Mediterranean fruit fly.

That´s the bad part.

At any rate, he and some others noticed that many male Med flies spend a lot of time congregating on a few “hot spots” of guava bark.

The females don´t.

To make a long story short, those bark patches secrete a chemical that makes those fruit flies far more attractive to female fruit flies the next day.

Why does this matter?

Fruit flies are a destructive pest that cost farmers millions of dollars a year in damage.

To control them, people sterilize millions of male fruit flies, drop them from airplanes above fruit groves, and hope that the sterilized males mate with a lot of the females and produce eggs that will never hatch.

One “factory” in Guatemala produces 1 billion sterile male flies every week.

“It´s all bizarre,” Shelly said, “but that´s my world.”

The problem with this anti-Med fly effort is that females just aren´t very interested in the sterile males.

Back to the guava tree.

It turns out that ginger root oil — like you can buy at the Boise Co-op — has the same active ingredient as those guava hot spots.

With a little “aromatherapy,” those sterilized factory males suddenly become the studs of the fly world.

And with a mix of observations and chemistry, the fight against Med flies just got twice as effective.

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