Keynote & Plenaries

Keynote & Plenaries

Georgia Mason
University of Guelph

Keynote Lecture: A palace or a prison? Behavioural differences between species can predict responses to life in captivity

Animal welfare science seeks to assess and improve the well-being of the 100s of billions of animals kept or killed by humans. Like conservation biology, its research questions range from applied (e.g. what are the most humane ways to kill chickens?) to fundamental (e.g. which species and life stages are sentient?). Research approaches may involve physiology or immunology, but ethology plays a crucial role. For one, behavioral responses (e.g. alarm calls; stereotypic behavior) can be useful welfare indicators: conspicuous, easy to measure, and valid (since intrinsically linked to affective states). In addition, restricting natural behavior is a major source of welfare problems. My talk will review examples of the latter in zoo animals, and in parrots kept as pets, to show how evolved behavioural differences between species can predispose them to good or poor welfare in captivity.  I will present comparative evidence that constraining natural foraging or ranging behaviour can compromise well-being in zoos and aviaries; and draw parallels between coping with ‘HIREC’ (human-induced rapid environmental changes, for example urbanization or habitat fragmentation) and coping with captivity. 

Tanya Berger-Wolf
University of Illinois at Chicago

Computational Behavioral Ecology

Computation has fundamentally changed the way we study nature. New data collection technology, such as GPS, high definition cameras, UAVs, genotyping, and crowdsourcing, are generating data about wild populations that are orders of magnitude richer than any previously collected. Unfortunately, in this domain as in many others, our ability to analyze data lags substantially behind our ability to collect it. In this talk I will show how computational approaches can be part of every stage of the scientific process of understanding animal sociality, from intelligent data collection (crowdsourcing photographs and identifying individual animals from photographs by stripes and spots) to hypothesis formulation (by designing a novel computational framework for analysis of dynamic social networks), and provide scientific insight into collective behavior of zebras, baboons, and other social animals. 

Amy Toth
Iowa State University

Building the Superorganism: Integrative insights into the evolution and regulation of insect sociality

The evolution of superorganisms, such as eusocial insect colonies composed of highly cooperative individuals working together as a single whole, has been described as a major transition in the history of life.  The question of “why?” has this extreme form of cooperation evolved has been of intense interest to biologists since Darwin. Now, armed with new tools and technologies, animal behaviorists have turned to ask “how” has this revolutionary change in life history evolved?  Wasps and bees are excellent comparative study systems for addressing such questions, because they are extremely diverse taxonomically and socially; with multiple independent origins of sociality.  Using an integrative approach that blends behavior, physiology, and genomics, our studies on bees and wasps are providing new insights into the mechanisms and evolution of cooperative societies.  I will discuss some of these, including: 1) elements of maternal behavior and reproductive physiology becoming “retooled” by evolution for new social purposes, 2) the role of resource limitation and nutritional inequalities in the regulation of cooperative behaviors, 3) incremental changes in social state based on evolutionary shifts in gene regulation based on existing phenotypic plasticity, 4) roles for both deeply conserved “toolkits” as well as newly evolved genes in the evolution of social traits.  These studies contribute to a developing picture of the molecular, organismal, and ecological processes that have enabled the evolution of biological complexity.

Neeltje Boogert
University of Exeter

Effects Of Early-life Stress On Learning Strategies

The use of information provided by others is a common shortcut adopted to inform decision-making. However, instead of indiscriminately copying others, animals are often selective in what, when and whom they copy. How do they decide which learning strategy to use? My research suggests that stress hormone exposure early in life may be important. While developmental stress is often thought to hamper cognitive performance, I will argue that ecologically relevant levels of early-life stress may instead determine how individuals balance the use of different sources of information. Furthermore, early-life stress can also change individuals’ interactions with group members, which in turn can affect access to information sources and subsequent information use. I will argue that an information use approach may lead to different insights concerning individuals’ cognitive performance than one in which individuals are ranked based on their perceived 'intelligence'.

Gail Patricelli
University of California, Davis

Fellow's Lecture: Robots, Telemetry, & the Sex Lives of Wild Birds: Using technology to study courtship and conservation

Males in many species must convince females to mate by producing elaborate courtship displays tuned to female preferences, like the song of a cricket or the train of a peacock. But courtship in many species is more like a negotiation than an advertisement, thus in addition to elaborate signals, success in courtship may require tactical skills. These skills may include the ability to choose a flattering display site, respond appropriately to female courtship signals, and adjust display investment in response to the marketplace of other males and females. My lab has been investigating courtship negotiations in greater sage-grouse, which mate in an open marketplace of competing males and choosing females (the lek). I will discuss experiments using robotic females to investigate courtship interactions between the sexes. I will also discuss ongoing research investigating how off-lek foraging behaviors affect on-lek displays, and how this basic science has informed my lab's research into human impacts on lekking activities.

John P. Swaddle
College of William & Mary

Promoting animal behavior to tackle global challenges

As a discipline, animal behavior, sits at the interface of the organism and its biotic and abiotic environment. Behavioral flexibility and selection on behaviors often mediate how animals (and other organisms) persist in environments and respond to environmental change. Hence, animal behavior should be a discipline that takes the lead in tackling some of society’s largest biologically-relevant problems (e.g. health, food security, conservation, sustainable development). I will describe several case studies where we have used a fundamental understanding of animal behavior to help solve persistent global problems, all related to avian behavior and ecology. For example, I will describe how an understanding of birds’ perception of risk and threat has led to us develop a new technology that has proven useful in reducing damages by birds to crops, without habituation. This technology will also improve aviation safety by reducing bird-aircraft strikes. Further, I will describe how birds’ perception of environmental cues in flight is leading us to develop better technology for reducing birds’ risk of collision with large human-made structures, such as communication towers, wind turbines, and high-rise buildings. Broadly, I will propose that many global challenges in health, food security, conservation, and sustainable development relate to animal behavior. The integrative approaches that many behaviorists adopt and the wealth of fundamental knowledge within our community could be harnessed to produce more reliable solutions.