Last week I went to the Animal Behavior Society conference in Boulder, Colorado. This is a meeting where scientists and students working in all aspects of animal behaviour can get together, talk about their work, meet others in their field and share ideas. Having only been to the UK equivalent of this conference before, I didn’t know what to expect. However, the conference itself felt fairly similar to what I’m used to, if in a prettier environment (Boulder is stunning) and with slightly less beer involved (in my experience 50% of the science discussion at UK conferences happens in the evening at the nearest pub).
This was one of the larger conferences on behaviour I’ve been to, with five parallel sessions running each day, making it hard to choose which talks to attend. The breadth of the topics that people worked on made for interesting diversity in talks and good conversation: there were people who worked on dog training and dog cognition, including the SA blogger Julie Hecht; people working on the genetic or neural underpinnings of behaviour; and those working on more evolutionary perspectives on behaviour. There were too many good talks for me to cover here, but over my next few posts I’m going to write about some of the new research I heard about at the conference that particularly excited me. There was also a workshop on social media organised by another SA blogger, Danielle Lee AKA the urban scientist who has blogged about the session here.
One of the highlights of the conference for me was the plenary talk by Gene Robinson, a scientist at the University of Illinois who uses the honey bee to look at how genes affect social behaviour. Traditionally it was thought that animal brains (including human), once formed, were fairly inflexible. However, Robinson’s work has shown that animals’ genomes are responsive to the environment they live in (which includes an animal’s interactions with other animals). This means that genes in the brain can be expressed differently (‘turned off’ or ‘turned on’) depending on the social experience that animal has, which then affect the animal’s behaviour. In honeybees, scouts are particular bees that go out to find food sources or nest sites. Normally when animals find what they are looking for, they stick with it, but for scouts once they find good food or a site, they then continue scouting (once having communicated this good food or site to the other bees in their colony). This behaviour of the scouts can be thought of as novelty-seeking, as they are constantly looking for new food spots, or new nest sites. Robinson and his colleagues found that food scouts showed different gene expression in their brains compared to other foragers that do not scout. The intriguing finding here is that scouts (the novelty-seekers) had genes expressed in chemicals that are also involved in human novelty-seeking behaviour (such as is found in drug addicts): octopamine and glutamate treatments increased the likelihood of scouting, whereas dopamine antagonist treatment decreased it.
The final talk was given by Robert Seyfarth, a scientist most famous for his work on baboon vocalisations. In a highly entertaining talk, he started off by saying how animal behaviour is a relatively small discipline compared to other areas (see the graph on the number of attendees to the animal behaviour conference compared to other biology-related societies). He also talked about some of the more remarkable insights into animal behaviour modern technology has allowed us. The example he used was a study that looked at what went on in the brains of female cichlid fish when they watched a male fish they liked fighting other males, and either winning or losing. The researchers looked specifically at a collection of brain nuclei associated with social behaviour (the ‘social behavior network (SBN)’). When the female fish saw the male she liked win a fight, SBN nuclei associated with reproduction were activated, whereas when she saw her male lose a nucleus associated with anxiety was activated instead. Scientifically this is a great study, as it shows the association between brain and behaviour, but it’s hard not to be touched by it too.
In addition to some of the accomplishments in the field of animal behaviour, he also brought up a problem that comes up for many people working in this field: being in a field that everyone can understand and where the answers to questions may often seem obvious. He also talked about some of the attacks on the study of behaviour by the media, in particular a recent one by fox news on the important and interesting research by Patricia Brennan.
Seyfarth also talked about his own experiences, including having his book nominated for ‘oddest book title of the year’. Unfortunately, Baboon metaphysics lost out to The 2009–2014 World Outlook for 60-milligram Containers of Fromage Frais. On a darker note, he also shared a disturbing letter he once received from Charles Manson, praising Seyfarth's work and sharing his own observations of the animals (such as the spiders) that he shared a cell with. As Seyfarth dryly pointed out, “interest in animal behaviour is more widespread than we thought’.
honeybee: Alex Wild
fox news screenshot from website
Desjardins, J. K., Klausner, J. Q., & Fernald, R. D. (2010). Female genomic response to mate information. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(49), 21176-21180.
Liang, Z. S., Nguyen, T., Mattila, H. R., Rodriguez-Zas, S. L., Seeley, T. D., & Robinson, G. E. (2012). Molecular determinants of scouting behavior in honey bees. Science, 335(6073), 1225-1228.
I am grateful to the Society of Biology who gave me a travel grant, allowing me to attend the Animal Behavior Conference in Boulder, Colorado.