Marmots - evolution of social behavior and communication
The 15 species of marmots make an ideal experimental system to ask questions about the evolution of social behavior and communication because they live in a variety of habitats, exhibit a range of social systems, and all species emit between one and five types of alarm calls. Past studies have focused on the meaning of these calls. Current work focuses on yellow-bellied marmots at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Colorado to better understand the evolution of alarm calling and social variation, antipredator behavior, as well as how alpine animals respond to climate change. The behavior and population biology of the marmots of RMBL have been continuously studied since 1962. Exciting new research directions focus on the consequences of social relationships, and the importance of ‘stress’ in reproduction, health and longevity. Visit the RMBL Marmot Project website for more information and a comprehensive list of publications.
We are involved in a number of studies of population dynamics that capitalize on the long-term marmot database (started in 1962). Recent insights have included the vital role of phenotypic plasticity in growth rate that stabilizes the marmot population and a number of studies have begun to focus on longevity and senescence. By understanding drivers of population dynamics we gain fundamental insights into population persistence and extinction.
Popular press for the 22 July 2010 Nature cover story about how shorter winters have led to fatter marmots and a population explosion over the past decade includes:
Virtually all animals are vulnerable to predation at some point in their lives and a key response to predators is flight. Colleagues and I have generated large data sets in birds, mammals, and lizards to understand the evolution of escape behavior. Through many empirical studies and large-scale comparative studies and meta-analyses, we have identified key factors that explain variation in escape behavior. By identifying mechanisms that influence flight initiation distance, we are able to apply this knowledge to understanding human tolerance of wildlife.
Fear is elicited by specific sights, sounds, and smells. What is it that makes sounds scary? Why do certain smells evoke fear in animals? How can knowledge of this be used? In a series of studies with marmots, kangaroos, deer, and people, colleagues and I are studying the biological basis of fear. Recent studies have demonstrated that non-linear sounds (noise, abrupt frequency fluctuations, biphonation, and subharmonics) are uniquely alarming and emotionally evocative to mammals, including, apparently, humans. Specifically, horror film soundtracks have more noise than would be expected, while sad dramatic movie scenes use abrupt frequency fluctuations and biphonation to make us feel scared or sad. Other studies seek to better understand how predator urine can be used as natural repellents, and by doing so, hopefully save many ‘problem’ animals from elimination.
Advances in comparative methods have led to a renaissance in the study of the evolution of behavior. Past studies have focused on the evolution of social and communicative behavior in ground-dwelling sciurid rodents, the evolution of infanticide in rodents and, as described above, many studies looking at the evolution of antipredator behavior and other life history traits in birds. New work seeks to understand the evolution of traits related to health and disease.
Many birds and mammals vary the amount of time allocated to the mutually-exclusive activities of foraging and antipredator vigilance as a function of the number of adjacent conspecifics. This fundamental tradeoff has important consequences for the evolution of sociality but could result from two very different pathways: feeding competition, or a reduction in the risk of predation. Comparative studies focused on the evolution of so called ‘group-size effects’, and empirical studies focus on marmots to identify mechanisms underlying vigilance.
Many species are isolated from the predators with which they evolved. Remarkably, we know little about how long presumably adaptive antipredator behavior persists in a species’ behavioral repertoire once selection is relaxed for antipredator behavior. Previous work focused on kangaroos and wallabies that are either found with predators, or have been isolated from them for 30 to 9,500 years. The goal was to understand how long antipredator behaviors of different degrees of sophistication persist under relaxed selection. An exciting dimension of this research created virtual worlds where we studied relaxed selection for antipredator behavior. We extended this work to studying relaxed selection on antipredator behavior in marmots and deer, and now are working on studies of other Australian native mammals.
Knowledge of animal behavior can help us conserve and manage endangered species. A common management intervention to recover a locally extinct population is captive breeding followed by reintroduction. Sadly, most of these reintroductions fail, and predation is often implicated as the cause of failure. Previous work focused on detailed studies of predator recognition abilities in kangaroos and wallabies as well as the critically-endangered Vancovuer Island marmot, combined with studies that focus on specifically what is learnt when animals are trained to recognize predators. Work sought to understand the degree to which kangaroos and wallabies benefited from living socially. Even relatively non-social species may benefit from aggregation. Other work seeks to apply general behavioral principles, such as learning and fear conditioning, to manage “problem” animals, while additional work seeks to document how anthropogenic activities and pollution influence behavior.
Current work at Arid Recovery, a fenced reserve in the South Australian Arid Zone, with Australian native mammals seeks to understand if we can jump-start natural selection or learning by exposing animals to a few predators before they are released into predator-rich areas.
In addition, Esteban Fernández-Juricic and I wrote the first conservation-behavior textbook: A Primer of Conservation Behavior for Sinauer, and other colleagues and I have written a number of forward-looking reviews about how knowledge of behavior can be applied to solve conservation problems.
Ecotourism is the fastest growing part of the world’s largest industry, tourism. Yet, in order for ecotourism to be sustainable, we must know much more about how non-humans perceive the myriad of impacts associated with tourism so that they can be minimized. Unfortunately, most studies focus on a single species and there is no theory managers can use to predict how a particular species might react to, say, the construction of a hiking trail. Current and future work aims to
develop predictive models about how species react to human impacts based on an understanding of life-histories and evolutionary “experiences”. Colleagues and I have edited a book on the biological impacts of ecotourism with theaim of providing managers, operators, and ecotourists information that will permit deleterious impacts to be reduced, while still optimizing benefits to humans.
At UCLA we teach an intensive field biology class called the Field Biology Quarter. I’ve taken groups of highly-motivated undergraduates to Australia, Kenya, the Virgin Islands, and Belize for a bout of intensive research and learning. Students write proposals while in the US, then, working collaboratively in groups of three, have 3 weeks in-country to conduct the research. A bout of analysis and writing follows back in LA. In the past, students have conducted first-rate research and a variety of these student-generated projects (mostly focusing on antipredator behavior and communication) have been published. Some have even received popular press!
Past Teaching Assistants: Tiffany Armenta, Janice Daniel, Jonathan Drury, Brenda Larison, Nicole Munoz, Matt Petelle, Brian Smith, Lucretia Olson
Colleagues and I created a field of Natural Security. Inspired by some inflexible responses following the attacks of September 11th, and our slow responses to adapt to to asymmetrical conflicts with insurgents, we use the lessons of 3.5 billion years of life to try to develop novel defensive strategies. All animals must learn to live with risk; those that don’t die or become extinct. Thus, the term ‘war on terror’ is flawed in that it assumes we can eliminate risk; we can’t and therefore must effectively manage it. The diversity antipredator behavior provides a variety of strategies animals use to manage their threats. Outcomes of this interdisciplinary collaboration have included an edited volume, called Natural Security, a symposium at the 2009 AAAS meetings, a Nature Opinion piece, and a ONR-G meeting in Edinburgh in 2010.
Colleagues and I have developed an Evolutionary Medicine Program at UCLA. In addition to creating the first-ever undergraduate minor in evolutionary medicine, we added a MS degree program and are cultivating an inter-disciplinary conversation across campus about how biomedical research and, ultimately, clinical outcomes, can improve from asking all of Tinbergen’s four questions about health and disease. My own work puts disease and adaptations to avoid disease into a life-history history perspective with the aim of searching for bio-inspired insights that may improve medicine and public health.
To study behavior one must often quantify it. With NIH support, we developed, and freely distribute, a new and powerful event-recorder and analysis package. It is written in the Java(TM) computer language so that works on virtually any modern microcomputer. Sinauer has published the JWatcher book–Quantifying Behavior the JWatcher Way.
We built tools to inventory animals by detecting, recording, and analyzing their sounds. Among other functions, this enabled behavioral ecologists to study the temporal and spatial dynamics of acoustic communication, and conservation biologists and wildlife managers to acoustically census animals. With NSF support, we developed VoxNet: an integrated software and hardware package which improved existing technology in four main areas: software, near-real time event recognition, energy efficiency, and a much longer communication range.
I feel that if we love nature, we’re obligated to protect it. Thus, I’m involved in several projects that seek to translate science to action through environmental education and public outreach. Charlie Saylan and I have written a book-length treatment of our PLoS-Biology essay–The failure of environmental education (and how we can fix it) for University of California Press (to be published in 2011). I’ve started to write Op-Ed pieces, and I write popular pieces whenever possible. A recent example of this is my essay in Thoreau’s Legacy: American Stories About Global Warming on pika. I also take children and adults out ‘marmoteering’ as part of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory’s Environmental Education Program to share my excitement of biology and animal behavior with others.