Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Meet Team Marmot: Nicole Munoz

I’m interested in how animals use their senses to detect predators in order to avoid being eaten. Predators make sounds, have a shape and even mark areas where prey live with urine in order to tell others “Hey! This is my meal!” Of course prey don’t want to be eaten, but they are often doing other activities like getting food or socializing, which are also important for their survival. So how do animals know when the likelihood of being eaten is so high that they should stop doing what they’re doing in order to stay alive? The smells, sounds and sights of predators give prey information that they use to make this decision.

You might think that only psychologists study how the mind interprets multiple senses. But, as a behavioral ecologist, I also think understanding the mind of animals is interesting! You have probably noticed that when you’re in a noisy room, it’s easier to understand what someone is saying if you can also see their lips moving. This is because you’re unconsciously using information from your vision (moving lips) in combination with audio information to form comprehensive meaning.

(Making observations in the field)

By doing experiments out in nature I’m discovering that marmots can also combine information about the smells and sounds of predators to make decisions about their behavior! Understanding how the minds of animals process multiple sensory cues is also important for conservation. Human actions often introduce noise into the environment (e.g. air pollutants or traffic noise) that might block predator cues, so we need to know how losing information from one sense negatively affects animals’ ability to escape predators.

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