We want people to hear about the cutting edge of research straight from the horse's mouth – from the people doing the work in the field. So, we are looking for research scientists who can convey the excitement and importance of their research to write about the work they do.
You need to be involved in research and able to write an article about any research topic in animal behaviour in the style that will entertain and inform readers of New Scientist. There are no restrictions in terms of age, stage of career or previous publishing experience. Submit an article of 1000 words - the prize for the winner is £1000 and publication by New Scientist.
Should you have a friend or colleague who might be interested in applying, a flier advertising the prize can be downloaded here.
The closing date is 31st October 2010.
To enter fill out the downloadable application form, attach your article and email the form to the following address by 5 pm on the 31st October 2010: ASABScienceWritingPrize@googlemail.com.
You will receive confirmation of receipt by email by November 5th 2010. If you do not receive this, please contact the Newsletter Editor.
Science Prize winner, 2009
The winner of the 2009 ASAB Science Writing Prize in association with New Scientist is Corina Logan of the University of Cambridge, UK. You can read the winning article below.
Kiss and make up or snuggle with your partner? Why it matters what you do after a fight.
Corina Logan, University of Cambridge, UK
Imagine you fought with a colleague a couple of minutes ago. What are you doing right now: connecting with a friend, or cooling off by going for a walk? Now imagine that immediately after the conflict you snuggled up with your partner. And now it is the next day, you are back at work, and you see your colleague for the first time since the argument… and it doesn’t matter that you had a disagreement; you carry on with your relationship as usual. You may be thinking we’re imagining humans in this scenario; however I am actually referring to birds, particularly members of the crow family, the corvids.
The situation above may have sounded completely natural to you except for the part about things returning to normal with your colleague after the fight without having acknowledged or resolved the disagreement. Humans have large social networks and strong bonds with many people, therefore in the relationships we value most, we tend to need to make up after fights in order for the relationship to continue without hard feelings. Many other mammals, from monkeys and dogs to goats and dolphins, are similar to us in that they make up with the one they fought with by kissing, grooming and touching each other. A few of these species (primates and dogs) also bond with someone who was not involved in the fight, as do we, by hugging and grooming which helps to calm down and can serve as a replacement for making up with the one we fought with if we are unable to do so.
Corvids do it differently. Rooks, jackdaws, and Eurasian jays bond with partners after fights by bill twining (the avian equivalent of kissing), sitting close together, and preening each other, but they don’t make up with their former opponents. Birds in general tend to have only one partner at a time or in their whole life, therefore making the pair bond the strongest relationship in the group by a long shot. By contrast, mammals often have multiple partners at a time and form cooperative female-female networks, which makes for strong bonds between many individuals at once. As a corvid, if your only important relationship in the group is that with your partner, and you never fight with your partner, then maybe other relationships don’t need repairing after fights. Pairs work hard to maintain their close relationship, and it pays off when they need someone to turn to.
Although non-partner relationships may not at first sight seem crucial to corvids, tolerating and cooperating with neighbours allows one to reap the benefits of living in a group. Group living provides extra protection from predators and others through increased vigilance and alliance formation for defence, and allows opportunities to cooperate in carrying out daily tasks such as seeking out food and taking care of the young. However, the down side is that there is more competition over food, mates, and nest sites as well as a higher chance for conflicts to arise due to close contact between individuals. Bonding with partners after fights may be a corvid's way of dealing with one of the costs of social life. Indeed in our own social species there are many benefits of social support. People who grow old with a partner live longer, are healthier, and have a higher quality of life. Connecting with each other on the dance floor also counts: tango dancers above age 60 experience a 75% decrease in the probability of getting Alzheimer’s disease. While sociality may have its costs, the benefits clearly outweigh them.
What’s so beneficial about social support, or to put it another way, how does getting a hug from a friend make a difference in our attitude, our body, and our life? Bonding through physical contact or by being close to someone releases feel-good neuropeptides such as oxytocin and ?-endorphin which give a pleasurable sensation in the body and mind – a reward. Those who have had a sufficient amount of the feel-good neuropeptides released throughout their lives (particularly as a youngster) are better able to cope with stress and are more resilient to change. Though this has yet to be studied in birds, it is reasonable to assume a similar system is involved. Corvid partners are so strongly bonded that they synchronize their movements with each other – almost like tango dancers.
The next time you have a squabble, instead of going for a walk to blow off steam, be the social animal you are and snuggle up to someone to get those feel-good neuropeptides flowing. It will increase your well-being in the moment and have implications for the rest of your life. It matters what you do after a fight (and not just to humans) – hugs come with health benefits.
Science Prize winner, 2008
The winner of the 2008 Science Writing Prize was Olivia Curno of the University of Nottingham, UK. You can read her article in New Scientist by following this link and also below.
The judges also commended the articles by Tabitha Innocent of the University of Edinburgh, UK, and Lisa Collins of the Royal Veterinary College, Hatfield, UK, which can also be read below.
The Bird’s Eye View: Science with Perspective
Olivia Curno, University of Nottingham, UK
James constantly fell asleep in class. He said his sleep was disturbed each night by a mysterious ringing which came, he believed, from the garden. His baffled parents could hear nothing, but James was determined. After weeks of investigation he finally found the cause of his insomnia.
The blame lay with neighbour Mrs Jenkins, who was quite unaware of her crime, having installed what was to her a perfectly silent device. She had bought an ultrasonic pest deterrent, designed to repel foxes and similar marauders from the garden. Little did she know that the frequency of sound produced by the device was detectable, and unpleasant, to a sizable proportion of people under 20. Around this age, the hearing of high frequencies deteriorates, and the youthful limit of 20 kHz decreases to around 13 kHz for most adults.
Fortunately for James, he could explain the situation to an apologetic Mrs Jenkins. But what happens when there is no communication between the designer and the resident of an environment? What happens when there is a more dramatic sensory mismatch between the two, and the resident is unable to move away from sources of discomfort?
We British like to think of ourselves as a nation of animal lovers. We surround ourselves with furry and feathery friends. In Britain there are over 950 million animals in captivity: roughly 900 million livestock, 50 million pets, 3.2 million laboratory animals, and several thousand racing horses and dogs.
Whatever differences in the senses there may be between young and old humans, they are as nothing compared to the differences between ourselves and other species. Dogs, for example, can hear up to 60 kHz. Electric fish can detect currents from tank filters and heaters. Fluorescent lighting provides constant light for us, but for starlings, with fast-resetting retinas, it is like a disco strobe.
Not only sensory ranges differ between species, human and animal priorities are also quite different. We are a long-living species, have few offspring and care for each one for many years. Therefore we avoid injury or interactions which might endanger our ability to raise our young. A rat lives a much faster life, rapidly producing young which are quickly independent. The priorities for a rat are short term survival, finding mates, defending territories, and living communally, even though these may bring increased fighting and injury.
Such differences are fascinating and should be celebrated. But differences in perceptions and priorities translate into differences in housing preferences. Despite this, we currently base housing design for our 950 million captive companions on essentially anthropomorphic criteria: how we think we might feel in the animal’s situation rather than how the animal is likely to feel. So animal homes are created, controlled, and changed without taking into account that animal’s perspective.
Most of us probably feel that there is a moral obligation to minimise the suffering of the animals from whom we benefit greatly. In addition, there are numerous self-serving reasons why we should respect the welfare of our captive companions. For example, happy animals can be more lucrative. Bored pigs show elevated aggression and therefore wounding. This can lead to serious infections estimated to cost pig farmers up to a third of their stock.
However, as a scientist, the impact of poor animal welfare on the quality of animal science concerns me the most. Rodents make up over 80% of the animals used in scientific procedures, and most are kept in small, barren cages. Such housing is known to constrain normal development, affecting the structure and function of adult rodent brains. These rodents may spend 50% of waking hours performing repetitive activities without apparent purpose (known as stereotypies). This abnormal behaviour is likely to reflect what is going on inside the body. As ethologist Hanno Würbel puts it, “The point that the environment might change behaviour but it doesn't change biology is ridiculous. Every behaviour has a physiological background."
If welfare affects behaviour, and therefore biology, it in turn affects scientific outcomes. Lead contamination causes brain damage in rats in barren cages, but not those in enriched cages. Rats can tolerate 60 times more uranium poisoning if they are first allowed to acclimatise to a new home. In my research, I found that female mice were able to detect disease in other mice in the room. This information affected both the biology of those females, and the behaviour and immunity of their offspring. If my females had been “control” animals, they would have been invalid controls, because they were responding in complex and unexpected ways to the treated animals in the room around them. As long as we continue to treat experimental animals as simple “furry test-tubes”, ignoring their abilities and needs, we endanger the quality of the work we do with them.
So, how can we improve life for other species when we cannot experience it as they do? I suggest that we ask the animals. Ask them what they need, and what causes them suffering, through carefully designed preference tests and in-depth behavioural research.
Scientists have already begun this task, and have been told some important and unexpected facts by their study subjects. By consistently self-medicating with pain killers, broiler chickens have told us that they are in chronic pain. By moving a barrier twice their size, mink have told us that water baths are the most important enrichment for them. By only stopping their fruitless stereotypic digging in certain circumstances, gerbils have told us that they need to be able to sleep in tunnelled nest-boxes. By behaving normally again, starlings have told us that they need high frequency light bulbs.
Once we begin to understand the needs of animals, we can properly assist scientists, farmers and pet-owners to build appropriate homes. Only through well designed behavioural experiments can we truly see with a bird’s eye view, and thus ensure the moral integrity, economic security and, above all, the scientific validity of our animal use.
Better the Devil you don’t know?
Lisa Collins, Royal Veterinary College, Hatfield, UK
You have a greater chance of being murdered by someone close to you than by a total stranger. This is a rather frightening thought, enough to encourage even the hardiest of us into hermetically-sealed bunkers the world over. But it also makes sense. You are far more likely to slight those with whom you interact on a regular basis; share food with, go to parties with, steal potential mates from, and divulge all your intimate secrets to. By the very nature and frequency of our interactions, we link our fortunes - and not just in the obviously catastrophic sense of the murderess and victim. The same logic can be applied to the rest of the animal kingdom. How animals interact with others around them can affect their health, wellbeing and potentially their chances of finding a mate and passing on their genes.
For animals and humans alike, society is vitally important. But one might wonder why this is so, if social interactions put us at risk of death or disease? For many species, individual success at carrying out fundamental activities such as feeding, finding a nest, or avoiding predators depends crucially on the knowledge possessed by others around them. We might expect that the strongest relationships – those which occur most frequently and which change little over time - should be the ones that maximise information transfer. Wrong. Research shows that individuals who are strongly bonded actually have similar knowledge patterns, by virtue of shared experience. A novel piece of information is far more likely to come from a little or unknown source than from your best friend. Unless, of course, you have friends in high places. If your best friend has good connections, then the chances that you’ll hear the juicy gossip first – where the best nest sites are, or who’s the sexiest male about town - are higher. And when you’re competing for access to these desirable resources, it pays to be in the know.
Looking in detail at animal social networks shows us how relationships between individuals affect the route and speed with which information is transferred from a small group, to a society, to an entire population. In the same way, social networks help us to investigate how diseases are spread. At this moment conservationists are locked in a race to understand and control the spread of a recently emerged, lethal, infectious cancer in Tasmanian Devils (Sarcophilus harrisii). Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) has reduced the population to such low levels that the prognosis is extinction, possibly within three years. Research suggests that DFTD is spread directly from Devil to Devil through biting. Biting is common throughout the mating season and during aggressive interactions over food. When an infected Devil bites an uninfected other, as well as a nasty bite wound it leaves behind cancerous tissue. Devils in the east of Tasmania are so genetically homogenous that the foreign cancerous tissue is not rejected as it normally would be. Most Devils do not stray far from home, though a few key ‘influential’ individuals travel further afield, covering up to 25 km a night. In this way, the disease can spread among a small group in one area, then be transmitted to a new group in a different area via interactions with a few key individuals. Interestingly, Devils in the western areas of the country have so far remained DFTD-free. This might be because there are greater genetic differences between east-side and west-side Devils. In a very real sense, this is a case of better the Devil you don’t know.
Often, disease control methods assume that all animals are equal, but this is clearly not the case. Different animals have widely different behaviours and understanding this is the key to developing ecological control methods. Brushtail possums, for example, are either gregarious social butterflies or reserved formers of insular cliques. This difference has a big impact on the transmission of bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in their native New Zealand. The risk an individual runs of catching and spreading bTB depends quite literally on who they go to bed with. The social butterflies - those possums that, in network terms, have high social ‘closeness’ are most likely to be infected. The most influential possums – those that act as an intermediary contact between others – are also likely to fall prey to bTB. On the other hand, the small clique social groups, which rarely interact with any outside the insular confines of their select unit, are relatively safe.
By pin-pointing and quarantining the key individuals, for example, those with ‘influence’ that move between areas most often, have high ‘closeness’, or are most aggressive, we can effectively safeguard the remaining population against disease and, in case of the Devils, extinction. When it comes to diseases, our knowledge of who knows who and how in the animal world, has wide-ranging, practical implications for conservation, agriculture and even, in the event of zoonoses, human health.
Sociality may be likened to our would-be high-society murderess, who, let’s imagine, visits your house and brings a fantastic cake. As an individual you must decide on the best strategy in order to have your cake and to live long enough to eat it. Is a cake-free, solitary existence within our bunkers the only fail-safe solution? It is inevitable that when a route of communication opens, not everything that flows along it will be good. It is highly likely that the local environmental conditions will play a role in determining the exact shape of the social network, by increasing the importance of ‘informed’ individuals or favouring small social units. The fact that such communication networks and social living have been maintained throughout time, however, implies that, despite the inherent dangers, the net balance is in favour of keeping one’s allies – but perhaps also, in choosing them wisely.
When sibling rivalry becomes mortal combat
Tabitha Innocent, University of Edinburgh
Whether you like them or loathe them, as the saying goes you can’t choose your family. But in the insect world, sometimes there’s an alternative: you can fight them.
The males of the wasp Melittobia live a short, dramatic life: immediately upon reaching adulthood they face violent attack from all males in the neighbourhood – including their brothers. These males are fighting machines, with armoured bodies and huge scythe-shaped mouthparts, used to challenge other males. Contests are fierce: opponents use their weapons to tear each other limb-from-limb, pierce exposed stomachs and sever heads. Males are blind and flightless, forced into battle with no escape. This is fighting of a kind rarely seen in the animal kingdom, escalated violence that ultimately leads to the death of all but the most ferocious males.
When most animals do all they can to avoid costly conflict, why do these wasps show such extreme behaviour? Not only do they engage in extreme conflict, they also have particularly unusual natural history. Melittobia are parasitoid wasps, meaning that a female paralyses and lays her eggs on the larva of another, larger insect; the host is literally eaten alive, providing nutrients for the female’s developing offspring until they burst out as adults. The most important consequence of this is that, upon reaching adulthood, her children are confined to the enclosed environment of the host.
But what are males competing for that is worth risking near-certain death? The highly valued prize awaiting the small number of males who survive is the opportunity to mate with all females present. In evolutionary terms, this is the most valuable resource of all. This is because, to succeed in the game of evolution, an individual should pass on as many copies of their genes as possible to future generations, by reproducing. For these male wasps, their entire success lies with the females present in their immediate environment: they cannot leave to find females elsewhere. Intensifying their predicament, male lifespan is short – a matter of days – leaving a very small window of time in which to gain matings. In the world of male Melittobia, females are priceless.
There is, however, a further twist in this tale, as researchers have found. When a female lays an egg she can decide whether it will develop into a male or a female. Fertilised eggs develop into females, while males develop from unfertilised eggs, carrying single copies of each gene. That females can determine the sex of their offspring seems remarkable to humans, but is not uncommon insects. What makes Melittobia more unusual is how females divide resources between producing sons and producing daughters. It appears that in these wasps an extraordinarily high proportion of eggs develop into females. “Of all the offspring a female produces, somewhere in the range of 90 to 95% of them are daughters”, says Tabitha Innocent, studying social behaviour at the University of Edinburgh.
What, you might ask, is the reason for producing so many more daughters than sons? Females will enhance their evolutionary success by increasing not only the number of gene-copies passed on through their children, but also through grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And so to do this, a female produces the combination of sons and daughters that will go on to reproduce most successfully. For most animals, male reproductive success is limited by the number of females available, whereas females are limited by the number of eggs they can produce. In the case of Melittobia, only one or a small number of females lay eggs on a host, and their offspring will all compete, and mate, within this enclosed environment. It is therefore likely that both competitors and mates will be relatives; however, inbreeding has few negative effects for these wasps. When harmful genes are exposed as single copies in males, they will prevent these males from reproducing, and be lost from the population. In this environment sons will have few opportunities to mate - and mix genes with - unrelated females, and so are less valuable than daughters, who need only one male to fertilise their eggs. And of course by producing mostly daughters, a mother reduces the number of male competitors each of her sons must face, and increases the number of females they can mate with.
The result for males is a bounty of females to be gained if they survive the gauntlet of the gladiatorial arena. Because of this, and only in scenarios where a resource is so valuable and so finite, will you see the evolution of fatal fighting. “This is an all-or-nothing scenario for these males, and so they fight to the death in the hope of victory”, says Tabitha. And how do you ensure success? “Large males have greater fighting ability, but males who develop first can ambush, and successfully attack, other males – there is no foolproof winning formula”.
How then, can we explain why males kill their brothers? The answer is a simple, and selfish, one: however close you may be to your relatives, you must always look out for number one. In many societies relatives cooperate for mutual benefit, but here as few as one male survives to reproduce. When all competitors are brothers, a male has no reason to favour any one in particular as all are equally related to him. And most importantly, a male is always more related to himself than a relative, even a brother: for these male wasps it is a case of every man for himself.
Trying to understand such escalated conflict between relatives sheds light on the whole spectrum of social behaviour from contest to cooperation. And the more we are able to understand about social behaviours, the better we are able to understand the workings of more complex societies, such as our own.
Although we can learn much from the violent conflict of this insect society we can perhaps be grateful that in humans, such intense sibling rivalry is usually limited to soap-opera storylines.
Enquiries should be directed to the Secretary of the Media & Policy Committee.