Sunday, August 25, 2013

Animal Behavior Society fun

Jenn Smith, a Blumstein alum, and I recently participated in the Animal Behavior Society outreach fair in Boulder, Colorado. Our exhibit featured how researchers are able to identify individuals in a group.
Before I get into our exhibit, let me go back a bit and explain why we presented this subject. The Blumstein lab and Jenn's new lab at Mills College study social behavior and its fitness consequences. A major issue when studying this phenomenon is how to know who interacts with whom. How do we tell individuals apart? In some taxa, you can use natural variation in fur color or marks like scars. A great example of this is the spotted hyena. Researchers use the variation in spot patterns to identify individuals, and can thus tell who initiated social interactions like who lost a fight and who is getting groomed by whom. Unfortunately, it is another story with squirrels. Their fur is often very similar in color and are also much smaller than hyenas. This makes them hard to spot and watch. How do we fix this problem? We give each squirrel a unique hair dye mark. Most of the time we keep it simple using letters and numbers, but every once in awhile we get creative and draw stick figures or intricate designs. 

Back to the outreach fair--as children approach the table, we give them pictures of hyenas and ask if they can tell them apart. All of the children realize they can use the spots to find differences among individuals. That's the easy part. When we ask them if they can tell squirrels apart from one another, most shake their head no in response. We show them how we trap the squirrels and give them marks. When we tell them that we need their help in coming up with new marks, they are more than happy to draw some great designs for us. Some wonderful examples include a snowman with long stick arms, a very intricate fish, and some wild flames. Most kids are also drawn to the video of marmot pups playing together. I ask them if they could describe the behaviors. Most came up with some great descriptions for wrestling, pushing, and biting. 
All-in-all, it was a rewarding experience for both Jenn and I, and we hope the public enjoyed it as well.  

We would also like to thank Joan Strassmann for taking most of the photos above. For more fun, please check out her wonderful blog, Sociobiology!

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