Animal behaviorists flock to Boulder

Gail Patricelli and children play with a robotic grouse.

The Superb Starling is named for its iridescent blue and orange plumage and is evoked in a Wynton Marasalis song for its complex and collective birdsong, consisting of warbling, trills and chattering. But what caught the eye of animal behaviorists was its complex cooperative living situation, in which groups of 30 birds have “extrapair mates” and often interbreed and collectively care for offspring. In the Superb Starling’s world, males and females are equal in both birdsong and plumage, and similarly compete for mates and nurture progeny, even those that are not their own, according to a study by Julia Pilowsky and Dustin Rubenstein of Columbia University.

The intricacies of animal social behavior can call to mind similar manifestations in humans — social and cooperative animals can provide a useful source of inspiration, animal behaviorists say.

“Across all animals, we’re fairly unique,” Emilie Snell-Rood, an assistant professor in ecology, evolution and animal behavior at the University of Minnesota, says of humans. “But at the same time there are a lot of animals who are pretty social and pretty cooperative. Understanding the question of ‘Why cooperate?’ not only reveals how we’re a special species but gives us the tools to promote more cooperation.”

Delving into those differences — and exploring what humans can learn from, for example, a bird’s egalitarian approach to mating and raising offspring — is the motivation for the Animal Behavior Society, which concludes its annual conference with the Adventures in Animal Behavior fair on Aug. 2 at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Museum of Natural History. The museum will collaborate with the Animal Behavior Society to host the event, which is part of its 50th annual conference and brings together exhibitions from more than 50 scientists from 20 labs.

“Studying animal behavior certainly provides a better understanding of human social interaction,” says Michael Breed, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Scientists from institutions across the U.S. will share studies on everything from animal decision-making to mate choice in birds and butterflies to tracking small animal movement. They will address a range of concepts, from ecology to conservation, and biodiversity to human behavior, according to a press release. The information will be widely accessible, as well as kid-friendly.

“We like to understand the natural world around us,” Breed says. “But in a more practical or immediate sense, humans interact with animals every day. Understanding the behavior of animals helps humans to behave in the best way, from interactions with our dogs and cats to practices that help endangered species.”

Founded in 1963, the Animal Behavior Society studies non-human social systems in hopes of gaining insight into the mechanisms of human society, according to A Guide to the Records of the Animal Behavior Society by Martin W. Schein. The society’s founder, J.P. Scott, attributed this aspiration to the fact that he and his fellow founders spent their formative years in the midst of substantial social malfunction, including the Great Depression and World War II. They hoped to decode human social problems by studying a range of unique animal interactions.

“The experience will include radio-tracking rodents to demonstrate habitat choice, recording voices to help understand how animals like frogs can communicate in noisy conditions and watching robotic birds to learn about how animals choose their mates,” says Snell-Rood, one of the event’s organizers.

A record 800 attendees are expected to be at the academic conference this year. The event promises interaction with live animals, including raptors, fish, butterflies, black widows and beehives. The finale will include a release of marked, live butterflies to illustrate how scientists track wild insects.

Half a century after the founding of the Animal Behavior Society, some of the motivations for studying animal behavior are beginning to evolve.

“At this point, the shift to thinking about conservation and how understanding animal behavior can help in conservation has come to the forefront,” Breed says.

The field is yielding insights as well into sustaining a world where humans and animals can successfully coexist, both within their social groups and without.


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