Sunday, July 3, 2011

Meet Team Marmot: Casey Lee


NikNik the Pom
I’m a senior biology and environmental studies major at Oberlin College. In addition to biology related stuff, I enjoy veganism, gender studies, running, my hammock, kale, popsicles, garlic, playing fiddle music, and my Pomeranian Nudnik ("NikNik").

 This summer at RMBL I’m investigated behavioral syndromes in yellow-bellied marmots (Marmota flaviventris), looking to see if there’s a correlation between boldness and novelty-seeking.

            Animal personality typically refers to a behavioral manifestations stable across time and contexts, and has been shown to shape fitness and population dynamics though such traits as dominance, response to stress, and reproductive performance. Within the personality framework, behavioral syndromes refer to population-wide  personality traits that are consistent over a variety of contexts (e.g., an individual might be aggressive in mating, feeding, parental care), or correlations between different traits (e.g aggression and boldness). Behavioral syndromes can shape the covariance and coevolution of traits in a population. Of particular interest are the fitness trade-offs and potentially non-adaptive behavior that may emerge when traits are correlated across contexts. A good example is that of an individual displaying an aggressive syndrome; while the s/he may accrue wild reproductive success being sexually aggressive, it may experience a tradeoff being overly aggressive – and potentially harmful – to its offspring.

             Yellow-bellied marmots
offer an ideal opportunity to study behavioral syndromes; the famous Ken Armitage demonstrated that they vary along a shy-bold continuum and that these behavioral phenotypes correlate with dispersal, play behaviors, and recruitment success. It remains uninvestigated, however, whether there exists in yellow-bellied marmots a correlation between boldness and novelty-seeking. Alas! This is what I am studying!

            We define boldness as an individual’s reaction to a risky – but not novel – situation. I’m quantifying boldness using tests of flight-initiation distance, the distance from an advancing threat at which an individual flees. Essentially, I walk at a very, very slow thoroughly trained pace toward a specified marmot and record the distances at which it alerts to my presence and flees to its burrow.

This is 'G', one of the marmots who lives in the Gothic townsite. Doesn't she look ready to order a beverage from the porch of the library? (Photo credit: Jon Gonzalez)
            Novelty-seeking - or “exploration” – is quantified by recording an individual’s reaction to something they haven’t seen before. A realistic plastic goose was used as the novel object 2010 and a similarly-sized, zebra-like floatation device is being employed this year. I place the zebra floaty, “Ezekiel”, about a meter from a burrow with a heap of tasty horse grain, sit back, and watch. When marmots approach within 10 meters of the object, I record who they are and what they do. Since I can only focus adequately on one marmot at a time during this test, if others begin to forage at Ezekiel, I have to get up and chase them away; this can be
quite comic.

Novel-object Ezekiel atop the pack of a fellow Marmoteer.

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