A murmuration of ethologists

Last month, animal behaviour researchers from Australia and New Zealand converged on Melbourne for their annual conference. We meet some of the early-career scientists who presented their research.

Illustration by Osvaldo Branquinho

Illustration by Osvaldo Branquinho


Ethograms is a monthly column published in collaboration with the Australasian Society for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASSAB), showcasing the work of early-career researchers. Andrew Katsis is a PhD candidate at Deakin University, and an outreach officer for ASSAB.

The Australasian Society for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASSAB) have held their annual conference every year since 1973. The society's 45th meeting, organised by researchers from the University of Melbourne, took place on July 19-22, 2017 in Mooroolbark, Melbourne. It was attended by about 100 delegates from across Australia and New Zealand.

True to form, the Melbourne weather alternated between sunshine and drizzle, with the occasional spot of hail, but this didn't prevent the enthusiastic exchange of scientific knowledge. The ASSAB conference is very much a student-focussed event, with many postgraduate researchers sharing their data for the first time. This year's program included study species spanning all major taxa, from vertebrates to invertebrates and even non-animal slime moulds.

To get a feel for the types of research being conducted across the region, we spoke to an assortment of early-career scientists about their work. They were only too happy to share.

Jules Smith-Ferguson, The University of Sydney

Presentation: 'Hansel, Gretel and the slime mould – how an external spatial memory aids navigation in complex environments'

“I’m really interested in animal cognition, and how organisms that you wouldn’t think about as cognitive can do things normally associated with animals that have brains. For example, I do a lot of research on slime moulds, which have basic memory systems. They use an external memory, which I find fascinating.

"I did my Honours in the philosophy of biology, and my now-supervisor Madeleine Beekman gave a talk about research by her students, Chris Reid and Tanya Latty, who had done lots of crazy things on slime moulds. I’d never heard of this organism before; I started learning about these external memory systems, and how they can make really intelligent decisions in different kinds of foraging experiments and nutrient experiments."

Alexandra McQueen, Monash University

Presentation: 'Bright birds are cautious: seasonally conspicuous plumage prompts risk avoidance in male superb fairy-wrens'

"Male fairy-wrens change colour every year: They go from dull brown to bright blue to dull brown again, and the timing with which they undergo colour change influences whether or not they get a mate. And I’m looking at why only some males can afford to turn blue early, and other males can’t. The first chapter that I’ll be presenting today is about whether a fairy-wren perceives himself as being at being at higher risk when he’s bright blue compared to dull brown.

"My fieldwork involves doing extended behavioural observations, and also sneaking up on fairy-wrens to play alarm calls. And the obstacles I’ve faced include helicopters, crazy honeyeaters that would divebomb my fairy-wrens, kookaburras trying to eat my fairy-wrens, and also, one day, a whole lot of kid scouts on bikes with megaphones. I’ve always loved fairy-wrens. The more I study them, the more I love them — even when they outsmart me and don’t go into the mist-net, I still love them."

Ravindra Palavalli-Nettimi, Macquarie University

Presentation: 'Obstacle avoidance in ants: Does size matter?'

"Ants vary in body size a lot, so my PhD is about how body size affects their behaviour. For my particular work, it’s their navigation that I’m interested in. Ants use various cues for navigation. People mostly know that they follow trails — they follow each other — but they also use cues from the sky, for example. They use polarised light patterns to navigate, and also use how the panorama looks to them.

"If you’re a really small ant, you have space constraints for your sensory systems — you can’t have really big eyes and also fit in a big brain. So you either have to be bad at some behaviours, or you are probably very efficient at using the neural tissue — for example, having more efficient neural circuits compared to the bigger ants. So I’m trying to see which one of these is true in nature."

Adélaïde Sibeaux, Deakin University

Presentation: 'Guppy colour discrimination thresholds predicted by receptor noise model'

"The world around us is made of an incredible variety of colours: blue skies, green grass and multi-coloured parrots. However, the way we perceive the colours in our environment is specific to our own species. Every species possesses a different visual system, which impacts the way they can discriminate between colours, and this can have a major impact on the evolution of colour in their environment — for example, an animal’s colour pattern.

"In the guppy, a small river fish, the evolution of the colourful male pattern is driven, among other things, by female choice. If we want to understand how the females choose males, we first need to determine how well the females can discriminate between the colours of the male pattern. Using that information, we can describe the colourful males through the eyes of the females and have a better understanding of the female preference for those colourful males."