In a race for Cheetos, magpies win, but crows steal
Aug12

In a race for Cheetos, magpies win, but crows steal

Black-billed magpies and American crows, both members of the clever corvid family of birds, have adapted comfortably to life in urban and suburban communities. In Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the two species often nest nearby each other in backyards and parks. Nesting near their much larger crow cousins affords magpies a margin of extra safety from a common enemy—ravens, an even larger corvid species. Magpie explores a Cheeto puzzle from Ecological Society of America on Vimeo.   “Ravens are notorious nest raiders,” said Rhea Esposito, an educational program leader at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. During her doctoral work at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Esposito studied how birds associate during nesting season. Smaller birds sometimes nest near larger species to benefit from their more aggressive defense against predators. Research has tended to focus on the protection side of the relationship. But what about competition? Do magpies pay a food penalty for nesting near larger rivals? Or do the smaller birds compensate with bold pursuit of new food sources? To find out which of the two corvids were more intrepid snack scouts, Esposito presented breeding pairs with a set of Cheetos challenges. She presented her results on Thursday, 11 August 2016 at the 101st Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, during a session on animal Behavior. “Cheetos are not the healthiest food, but the birds like them a lot,” said Esposito. “And because they are bright orange, it was really easy to observe when the birds completed the task.” Esposito set out Cheetos near nests and settled in to watch the birds fly down to investigate. Magpies moved on the unfamiliar food an average of 20 seconds faster that crows, which eyed the orange treats with more suspicion, pausing longer before picking them up. Once having identified Cheetos as food, however, crows were more apt to steal. “Because it’s the nesting season, they are often close enough to see neighboring Cheetos piles. So crows would learn that there is food at the nearby magpie nest, as well as their own nest. Crows steal more often than magpies by a factor of three,” said Esposito. Esposito raised the level of difficulty through several tests, ultimately hiding the Cheetos inside a hollow log. To extract the cheesy reward, the birds had to pull on a string. “It was a really fun experiment…just a blast to watch,” said Esposito. Magpies were bolder puzzle solvers as well, earning their Cheetos about a minute faster than crows, on average. “These puzzles were very simple for corvid abilities. They have solved much harder problems in the lab. But this...

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Briefing highlights importance of social science research

By Terence Houston, Science Policy Analyst In recent months, there have been multiple congressional attempts to interfere with  the  National Science Foundation’s support of the nation’s fundamental research particularly  related to social and behavioral science research.  Such attacks have happened periodically over the years, but recent actions have been particularly aggressive. Congressional Republicans have pushed legislative efforts to restrict federal funding for social science research. The Continuing Resolution enacted to fund the government for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2013 included language authored by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) prohibiting NSF from funding political science research unless such research was certified to promote the national security or economic interests of the United States. House Space, Science and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) has repeatedly emphasized his intention to increase oversight of NSF’s grant approval process. Chairman Smith has also put forward draft legislation, the High Quality Research Act, which would cripple NSF’s existing scientific merit  peer-review process . These actions have drawn criticism from Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and concern from science advocates. On April 25, the Coalition for National Science Funding joined with the House Research and Development Caucus, Co-Chaired by Reps. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Rush Holt (D-NJ), in sponsoring a briefing entitled “Social Science Research on Disasters: Communication, Resilience, and Consequences.” The briefing highlighted examples of federally-funded social and behavioral science research contributions to the nation. Rep. Holt, a practicing Ph.D. physicist before he was elected to Congress, highlighted the need for the US to continue to sustain investment of basic research across all fields of science.  NSF Acting Director Cora Marrett also underscored that message. For example, NSF-funded social science research at Washington University in St. Louis helped the Army Research Institute incorporate nonverbal communication into soldier training, helping defense efforts towards improving cross-cultural non-verbal communication. A Western Washington University behavioral study on US veterans identified certain patterns of disadvantages in educational and career trajectories that could help the 200,000 military servicemen and women  who must readjust to civilian life each year post-service. Behavior research on human response to natural disasters shows that local culture plays a role in how individuals respond to evacuation orders issued for hurricanes. Researchers Susan Weller (University of Texas) and Roberta Baer (University of South Florida) identified various factors, including exhaustion, traffic concerns and a belief in the ability to “ride out the storm” as affecting the manner in which people respond to mandated evacuations. Each of the briefing’s speakers gave their perspective on how behavior research informs federal response to human-made and natural disasters. H. Dan O’Hair(University of Kentucky) discussed the sociology of collaborative efforts between broadcast...

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How to encourage us to conserve energy

By Nadine Lymn, ESA director of public affairs Many of us recognize that a large part of the solution to environmental problems lies in getting people to change their behavior.  Unfortunately, altering the habits of the human animal can be especially challenging—we are intelligent but we can also be irrational and our age-old tendency to focus on immediate needs frequently overrides our ability to think, plan and act longer-term. That topic was addressed during a briefing co-sponsored last week by Discover Magazine and the National Science Foundation.  The ninth part of a briefing series on the science and engineering needed to meet the energy goals of the United States, the May 23 briefing focused on the psychology of the energy choices we make. Since human behavior causes environmental and economic problems, it stands to reason that changes in human behavior are needed to address them, said Elke Weber, one of the speakers at the briefing.  Weber is director of Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, one of NSF’s Decision Research Centers that focus on better understanding how we make decisions, particularly about long-term environmental risks.  Weber’s work includes looking at obstacles that prevent people from doing things that would lead to energy conservation.  In spite of the demonstrated personal cost savings of adopting energy-efficient technology, we don’t fully take advantage of them.  Why?  According to Weber, we may be fearful of new technology or perceive that our energy savings will be too small.  And, we tend to heavily discount future savings, especially when they require an initial large, upfront cost. Weber explained that while our short-term goals are automatically activated, getting our long-term goals activated is challenging and requires paying attention to social, cultural and other contexts.  For example, she said, labels matter.  Calling something a carbon “tax” has a negative connotation for many people.  Calling that same thing a carbon “offset” is a more positive label to which most people respond to more favorably.  The setting in which people make their choices are also influential.  Whether people are making energy-provider choices alone at home or in a community meeting can make a big difference. A member of the audience picked up on Weber’s cultural reference, noting that social norms among different groups may be wasting energy, yet be difficult to change.  For example, law offices may intentionally leave the lights burning at night to give the appearance that someone is there working—even if no one is.  Weber’s response:  devise substitutions that will work for a particular group that are less wasteful but still achieve the community’s goal. Weber offered an interesting possibility for the future.  She...

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Bonding with wild turkeys

This post contributed by Nadine Lymn, ESA Director of Public Affairs Just in time for Thanksgiving, comes the true-life tale of a man who raised a rafter of sixteen wild turkeys, gaining a newfound understanding and deep appreciation for them in the process.    My Life as a Turkey aired on PBS last week and shows how naturalist and wildlife artist Joe Hutto immersed himself in the lives of his young charges, becoming part of a strange “tribe” for 18 months. Hutto has a strong interest in imprinting—most obvious in birds such as geese and turkeys, that imprint on their mother and follow them everywhere.  Although farmers and others had taken advantage of this phenomenon for years, Austrian scientist Konrad Lorenz was the first to document the imprinting process. The PBS film is a reenactment of the book Joe Hutto wrote about his experience, Illumination in the Flatwoods.  In it, he incubates the eggs which a farmer has left at his house in the Florida Everglades and then raises the hatchlings to adulthood.  The story chronicles Hutto’s gradual understanding of turkey communication, behavior, as well as the threats facing “his” young brood. After a rat snake manages to squeeze into the pen where Hutto houses the young turkeys, or poults, and kills one, Hutto realizes he must not only reinforce the structure, but also spend every waking minute with the poults, from dawn to dusk.  Indeed, his entire life revolves around the young turkeys.  He bonds with them to such a degree that when they reach the stage of their life where they launch into flight and settle into a tree to roost, he feels left out and clamors up the tree to join them. With their comically gangly necks coupled with surprisingly graceful bodies, the young wild turkeys follow Hutto through the Florida Everglades.  They recoil yet are fascinated when they encounter their first dead animal and seemingly are also bothered by a tree stump, which they inspect for a long while and about which they make many turkey “comments.” One of the most beautifully filmed and entertaining scenes shows Hutto strolling alongside the turkeys as they go on a “grasshopper hunt.”  With barely a pause in their stride, the turkeys expertly snatch the grasshoppers from their grassy perches, as seen in the clip below. Imprinting on ones’ parent early in life is a survival strategy.  But when young animals imprint on humans, the result is often that when the animal reaches adulthood, it is unprepared to live on its own or it interacts inappropriately with its own species or with humans, often resulting in the animal’s death.  To...

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New grants promote greater understanding of infectious disease

This post contributed by Lindsay Deel, a Ph.D. student in geography at West Virginia University and Intern with ESA’s journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment Infectious diseases won’t know what hit them. A massive new collaborative effort between funding sources in the United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) takes aim at infectious diseases from ecological and social perspectives, reported the National Science Foundation (NSF) in a recent press release. The overall goal of the suite of eight projects is to improve understanding of the factors affecting disease transmission, said NSF, but a major focus will also be on building models to help predict and control outbreaks. Each of these projects examines different themes within the global context of infectious disease. For example, Tony Goldberg (Professor of Epidemiology, University of Wisconsin–Madison) and colleagues will investigate the spread of HIV from its origin in monkeys to humans by examining similar viruses that are currently impacting wild monkeys in Uganda. This project will also study human social factors – such as awareness, beliefs, and behaviors – surrounding the transmission of such diseases. Another project helmed by David Rizzo (Professor of Plant Pathology, University of California–Davis) will explore how interacting forest disturbances – such as fire and drought – may control the emergence, persistence, and spread of invasive pathogens using the case of sudden oak death – a disease caused by a non-native pathogen, Phytophthora ramorum. “Over the past 10 years, potentially millions of trees in California and Oregon coastal forests have died as a result of this emerging disease,” explains Rizzo. “The goal of this new grant is [to] link this new disturbance agent (sudden oak death) with pre-existing disturbance agents (fire, drought) in coastal forests.” Samantha Forde (Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California – Santa Cruz) will lead a project using a simplified laboratory system of E. coli bacteria and its viruses as a model to study why some viruses have evolved the ability to infect multiple host species, while others can only infect one.  “This will further a general understanding of the dynamics of disease in natural systems and help to improve public health initiatives,” she says. From the modeling perspective, Armand Kuris (Professor of Biological Sciences, University of California at Santa Barbara) and colleagues will delve into the complexity of ecological systems and how the level of complexity might influence disease dynamics.  Kuris and colleagues hope to bring the role of infectious diseases into the core of ecological thinking, comparable to the roles of predation, competition, disturbance and resource quality. Joseph Tien (Professor of Mathematics, Ohio State University) will examine the recent cholera epidemic in Haiti. ...

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The evolution of beer yeasts, seedy pants and vampire bat venom-turned medicine

Beer yeasts: Researchers at Lund University in Sweden tracked the history of two yeasts—Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Dekkera bruxellensis—used in alcohol fermentation to pinpoint their role in ethanol production. They found that, around 150 million years ago, competition with other microbes, and the overall increase in sugar-rich fruits, encouraged the yeasts to withstand high ethanol concentrations—an adaptation that would allow them to survive in places other microbes could not. “Now, scientists are closing in on just how and why yeast evolved to [ferment sugars into alcohol],” wrote John Roach in an MSNBC article. “No, it wasn’t to get humans drunk.” Read more at “The why of yeast’s buzz-giving ways” or the press release “Wine yeasts reveal prehistoric microbial world.” Camouflaged cuttlefish: “Cuttlefish are masters of camouflage. Like their relatives, the squid and the octopus, cuttlefish can change the colour of their skin to perfectly match a bed of pebbles, a clump of algae, or a black-and-white chessboard,” wrote Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science (see below video of previous research). Alexandra Barbosa from the University of Porto found that cuttlefish use visual cues to alter their appendages as well. In other words, when the cephalopods were placed against backgrounds of various striped patterns, they adjusted their tentacles to match the pattern that they saw. Read more and see photos at “Pocket Science – will all camouflaged cuttlefish please raise their tentacles?” Seedy pants: One of the most topical quotes this week—“I wish nature would stop getting it on in my eyeballs”—was uttered by a fellow allergy sufferer. Allergy season is in full force in temperate locales, such as some parts of the U.S. East Coast, as trees flood the air with pollen in the hopes of reaching a female counterpart. There are several ways that pollen travels, such as the wind, but most of us have probably never considered the role of pants in tree pollination. Yes, pants not plants. As quoted in a recent NPR article, “‘Because of his great mobility,’ [British botanist Edward] Salisbury wrote (projecting from his personal data set), ‘man is probably the most active agent—though usually an unconscious one—for [the] external transport of seeds.’” Read more at “Strange Things Happen To Guys Who Wear Pants.” Vampire bat venom: Scientists have tapped vampire bat saliva as a potential medication for treating stroke in humans, and the drug is actually called “Draculin.” It was announced this week that the drug would enter Phase 2 tests. “When vampire bats bite their victims, their saliva releases an enzyme called desmoteplase, or DSPA, into the bloodstream, which causes blood to flow more readily,” wrote Patrick Morgan on Discover’s blog...

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Fungus makes zombie ants administer ‘death bite’ at noon

Researcher David Hughes has expanded research on a parasitic fungus and its carpenter ant host. As explained in an excerpt from a previous EcoTone post: Scientists have found that the parasitic fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis has possibly been invading carpenter ants (Camponotus) for 48 million years. The parasite not only infects the ant, but it manipulates the ant’s behavior, driving it to bite the underside of the leaf at the veins. Once the ant hits an optimal location, the fungus grows rapidly, killing the ant and preparing it to release a new spore. During this process, the ants leave distinct marks, also known as “death bites,” on the leaves as they bite the veins in search of a prime spot for fungal growth. It is this unique pattern that led researcher David Hughes to a 48 million year old leaf with similar markings. According to a Nature News article, Hughes contacted Conrad Labandeira, a palaeoecologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, who, as it turns out, had noticed a leaf with similar markings. As Hughes said in the article, “It is not normal ant behavior to bite into the leaf vein because it has no real nutritional value to the ant and can in fact be toxic in some plant species.” This finding, as he explained in a Biology Letters study published [last year], indicated that the carpenter ants were infected with the parasitic fungus when the ant made the leaf marks. As reported in Discover Magazine’s blog 80beats, “If Hughes’ dating is correct, then the fungi have had plenty of time to fine-tune their zombifying practice into the ruthlessly efficient mind control we see today.” These findings were recently backed up in a study published by Hughes, now a researcher at Pennsylvania State University, and colleagues in the journal BMC Ecology this week. They found that the ants bit on the leaf veins around noon—a time that appeared to be specific for the fungus. As Hughes said in a Live Science article, “Synchronized arrival of zombie ants at the graveyards is a remarkable phenomenon. It adds a layer of complexity on what is already an impressive feat. However, although ants bite at noon they don’t in fact die until sunset. Likely this strategy ensures (the fungus) has a long cool night ahead of it during which time it can literally burst out of the ant’s head to begin the growth of the spore-releasing stalk.” The ants—in the case of the most recent study, Camponotus leonardi—live in the canopy of trees but come to the forest floor occasionally. It is here that they contract the fungus. It is...

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Scientists detect aquatic ecosystem warning signal

Scientists have found what appears to be the stress signals of a lake ecosystem that is on its way to collapse. Stephen Carpenter of the University of Wisconsin, Madison and colleagues carefully monitored the food web in a Wisconsin lake as they gradually introduced largemouth bass into the ecosystem. The researchers noticed a shift in the algae populations that were directly related to the altered feeding behavior of smaller lake fish after the addition of the larger predators. “Because the smaller fish shifted to shallow waters where bass threaten them less, [Carpenter] explains, the algae that inhabit the more open waters of the lake were free of their predators and their populations fluctuate more,” wrote Jennifer Carpenter in a Science Now article. “Carpenter and his colleagues report online today in Science that these fluctuations were a warning that the lake’s food web is changing.” As explained in a National Science Foundation press release, the researchers “detected what they say is an unmistakable warning—a death knell—of the impending collapse of the lake’s aquatic ecosystem.” “We start adding these big ferocious fish and almost immediately this instills fear in the other fish,” Carpenter said in the release. “The small fish begin to sense there is trouble and they stop going into the open water and instead hang around the shore and structures, things like sunken logs. They become risk-averse.” A big indicator, according to Carpenter, was a boom in water flea populations. Carpenter and colleagues explained in the release that these signals are universal and could be incorporated into work on “rangelands, forests and marine ecosystems.” Photo Credit: Eric Engbretson,...

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