Crows are smart… like, really smart

This week in Animal Behavior, we’re talking about learning and cognition. One of my favorite things at this point is to shatter the misconceptions about what ‘smart’ is, and let students compete in similar tasks to test species. This helps to point out many species are incredibly good at solving puzzles– sometimes even better than us.

Great videos exist to show animal brain power, including that of a recent study that has shown crows are capable of thinking analytically. Here, crows were given pairs of symbols (and other like objects) with certain relationships to one another, and then required to pick the solution with the same relationship. The crows solved these problems rapidly. And, perhaps it was sleepiness or overthinking on my part, but the crows solved the problems initially faster than me. Play and pause the video and see how you do (…and whether you want to use my excuses).

So, in a lot of ways, being bird-brained might actually be a good thing. Many birds, including starlings and bowerbirds, have been shown to do incredibly smart tasks beneficial in foraging and mating. I’m always amazed by what they can do!

Because I feel like crows have somewhat a bad reputation (maybe Poe or Hitchcock is to blame), I’m posting two more videos of crows doing awesome things right here. Enjoy!

General video (3 min.) of crows solving other tasks:

Shorter (1min) solving 8 puzzles!:

Single-Sex Environments Can Be Great for (Discussing) Sex

Through a series of (fortunate) events, I’m teaching Animal Behavior this semester at Spelman. It’s a very good school and a different environment from Michigan State and Georgia Tech, which has been enlightening and reinvigorating (Writing… and only writing… all day, every day gets old. Trust me). In particular, it has been fun to work with a new population of students studying behavior, particularly as the classes are all female. This is a new experience for me, and it has been extremely interesting to see the differences in perspectives on sexual selection that are expressed in a single- vs. multiple-sex environment.

When students begin to think about behavior, they often think about it in the terms of “If I were you, I would…”. With both males and females in the classroom, it can be hard for students to articulate what might be the best evolutionary strategy, for fear of judgment by classmates. It can be difficult to bluntly tell a bunch of your fellow early-20-something classmates that sometimes, males and females will have an advantage if they mate indiscriminately. Classes may laugh at you. At worst, they label you a harlot or a sleezeball (or whatever kids might be calling the things these days). So, it becomes better to stay silent or let (antiquated) social norms in humans dictate what organisms should do, and anyone who deviates… well gosh, their just darn impure!

I wouldn’t have noticed the degree to which restriction on discussing animal sexuality happens without the comparative experience I’m getting now at Spelman. Even though strategies differ across animal species (including our own), vocalizing the differences and navigating the logic behind favorable strategies can prove difficult when it abuts what we have (intimately) experienced within our own lives. Even still, our culture doesn’t necessarily always reflect what is evolutionarily most advantageous in terms of reproductive behavior. So how do you go about avoiding adding complication by imposing human values, but tap into the intuition of putting yourself in another’s shoes?

Anthropomorphizing (basically, viewing other species from a too-human lens) is damaging to uncovering what behaviors actually are, versus inferring from human experience what we assume them to be. As we teach the next generation of behavioral ecologists (or even behavior enthusiasts), we are tasked to develop those behavioral observation skills in our students, while supporting the development of both mechanistic and evolutionary thinking as to how behaviors function and came to be. Whether our questions be proximate or ultimate, it can be a challenge to get our students to ask questions about and express the realities of how a sexual system works. Removing the human bias from our observations is a good first step, but using logic to generate hypotheses and predictions for experiments must follow.

I feel we must encourage students to take the position of a male bed bug, or female mantis, for example, and ask, “How will I be most successful in surviving and leaving the most healthy offspring I can? What can my mate do to help or hurt this process?”. I have seen that my Spelman students are much more willing to throw strategies out there from this perspective, particularly when they are tasked with coming up with what males should do, despite not have a human experience as a male to influence their response. In contrast, my Michigan State co-ed classes are often able to more easily debunk human-biased reasoning, as each sex revels in retorting back to the other why a strategy may be favored, particularly when we discuss reproductive conflicts between the sexes. Already, I have had Spelman students echo my MSU students in saying that they understand human sexual strategies a bit better when they view them from an animal lens. At their core, they have realized viewing humans from a evolutionary perspective, as the animals we are, helps to explain what makes us, us.

Animals have an enjoyably diverse array of reproductive behaviors, far more shocking and wonderful than the variation we see within humans alone. In addition to various levels of hierarchy who mates (or who is chemically or physically suppressed not to), you’ve got systems where sperm gift-giving and mate cannibalism are the norm, where animals shed their sex cells into the seas to travel thousands of miles to meet a mate. You’ve got systems where the sperm can dwarf the male in size, or where ‘cloning’ for millions of years is interrupted, just for a day, for sex. Their are tons of cool things going on with sexual behavior and reproductive investment, and I encourage you to explore animal sexuality further.  You never know what you’ll learn about them, and us.

Mate Guarding: EPC’s and Side Pieces

We’ve begun another semester, and it never fails to see how interested students can be in the behavioral dynamics of sex. To start this semester, we’re looking at a few case studies from primary literature on mate guarding.

In short, my students might say that mate guarding is ‘stalking’ or ‘blocking’ other mates from screwing around with your partner. They wouldn’t be wrong, as generally, there are tons of strategies partners can use to be sure they are the only one to ‘do the deed’ with their partner. My students, astute as they are, picked up on this as being a behavior males typically do to protect females, but they were somewhat surprised to find out that mating with multiple males (a.k.a. ‘side pieces’) behind the back of a social partner (a.k.a. ‘hubby’ or ‘main man’) can have advantages for females, ranging from increased fertility to increased genetic diversity (and thereby survival) of offspring. These outside-the-social-partnership matings are called extra-pair copulations (EPC’s), which may result in extra-pair fertilizations (EPFs’) and cuckolding.

Where’s Maury when you need him?

You are NOT the father. Nope. From

We then examined the conflict between males, who want to be the only daddy (but often to several females), and females, who often profit from several dads. This brought up questions on reproductive investment, and how changes in mate availability might influence male and female behavior. As one student put it, “Well, if he is the ONLY guy around, better to have a mate than not. He just needs to get off my back”. True words indeed, as overzealous guarding by male ducks has been known to kill females. Guys, if you’re listening, back off, particularly when there isn’t a threat.

She’s mine. ALLLL mine. Quack. From


In the end, the strategies used in nature sparked more questions as to how species evolve and change through sexual conflict and sexual selection. The students began to hypothesize and design experiments to do in and around campus to see what the levels of mate guarding are among guy friends, and what factors (whether long-distance, length of the relationship, or ‘hotness’ of the partner) makes a difference to the level of mate guarding observed.

I’m hoping they will share their data, but I won’t be too upset if they’re guarded about it :)

Resolutions to Teach Science? Yes, ma’am!

One of the major concerns I was quickly made aware of when starting grad school is how foreign of a process it can be, particularly to friends and family who chose others paths. I find myself regularly commiserating with other grad students about how hard it can be to go home for the holidays and explain how academia works to friends and family whose questions, although asked through genuine interest, can be really off-the-mark and, at times, insulting. (Pro-tip: Asking, “Why aren’t you done yet?”, when I’m not even done with the number of years the program takes is a bit demotivating, as is the reminder “That’s why I left. You know, because there’s no future in that”. Geesh.)

Anyway, some holiday conversations did result in productive exchanges. Surprisingly, a conversation on resolutions not only helped me get across what it’s like to be a grad student, but also engender some basic appreciation for and understanding of science.

So, I was asked what my resolutions were, and they looked about like this:

 Image from PhDComics.

Friends and family definitely were supportive of making academic progress, but they were more excited about the goals to the left of that paper (eating better, getting sleep, exercising, etc.). Many of them shared these goals, and we began brainstorming about ways to accomplish them.

In brainstorming, it was incredibly apparent that the basics of why we gain/lose weight were not as basic as I thought. I was able to take some of the materials I used for my non-majors bio course (ISB 202 L) to talk about what calories, fat, and pounds really mean. With just a bit of conversation, I was able to get across the math behind weight, and talk about the factors which govern the difficulty of weight loss. For example, males and females, old and young, will tend to lose/gain weight and muscle mass at different rates, so a 1-1 family competition to get in shape and lose weight isn’t fair, as some will need to work harder than others. Thus, we’re adjusting by multipliers while keeping each other accountable until real habits are formed.

Likewise, nutrition was not really well understood. Honestly, I’m pretty lazy when it comes to food, so my choices are more about convenience than health, and I’d erroneously assumed that was true among my friends. It turns out, quite a few of my friends didn’t know what healthy means. So, we went through what your body needs when, and why. It was very nice to have a vegetarian friend of mine bolster the conversation and share resources she uses to be sure she’s got a balanced diet. It seemed the trend (among those with poorer diets, myself included) was to eat a ridiculous amount of meat and carbs and leave out greens. This probably doesn’t surprise anyone, but it was nice to share tips on making eating healthier brainlessly-easier to do. (Incidentally, I have recently fallen totally in love with Tupperware, my wok, and grilling on the George Foreman. Progress is happening, and it’s not out of the reach of a grad student, I promise. That said, check back in with me in a month. ;) )

Conversations continued on the negative effects of sleep deprivation and the importance of support. It was nice to see friends and family appreciate why nutrition science studies exist, and even more refreshing to see them start to point out potential flaws, such as studies being based all on male participants or based on low sample sizes. It seems at least diet/nutrition can be gateway to trusting in science, and in evaluating claims.

Before a movie night we hosted, I was so proud to see a friend of mine grab a bag of caramel popcorn and be shocked at the amount of sugar it contained. She poured it out anyway and of course we scarfed it up. Baby steps, right?

We resolved to do better, and having some knowledge is going to help.


Supporting Students

It’s finals week at MSU, and like any other university, that is a time of high-stakes and high stress. Students (and faculty) are often eagerly awaiting a small break, but challenged to give one last strong push before “freedom”.  Given that I’m in that weird stage of graduate student, where we often wear the hat of both instructor and student, I thought I’d put together a list of ways colleagues and I have found to support students that mean something to them, and will help you as an instructor survive the onslaught of multiple stressors.

  • Be prepared in your own class. Make sure students know what to expect from your assessments and try to avoid making corrections/updates during finals week. If you must amend/clarify something, send both an email and post the notice to the campus learning platform (ANGEL, D2L, etc.).
  • Attend your office hours mindfully. If a student has a concern, look at them (not the avalanche of emails in your inbox) and show you’re actively listening. If you are concerned the student is on the wrong track or may be confused, ask them to elaborate and explain their ideas. If there is a hang-up, point this out to the student and give them a way to correct it as quick and as accurately as possible. They are likely juggling several exams at once and may give up if things seem too daunting.
  • Do a check to be sure that the students who seek your help are getting it. Note if you are constantly or more thoroughly responding to the concerns of just a few students, and try to distribute your efforts. Try to divide up office hours or hold group office hour/independent review sessions if multiple students have the same concerns. Post common questions to the course platform, and consider offering a review sheet to limit the number of emails/office hours necessary to address common issues.
  • Do a check to be sure students who normally check in haven’t checked out. On more than one occasion I have had students “blow” their final grade because they thought they were secure in the points they earned. These students didn’t consult the project rubrics/perform as they did on average on the final assessment, thus they over-estimated their scores, and unfortunately fell short. That stinks. Reiterate the value of these last assignments/exams, and if an otherwise-ok student begins to flounder, check in with them.
  • Refer students to campus resources: Tons of de-stressing options go on around campus, especially during finals. Exercise at the campus gym, visits to counseling centers, and getting on a regular schedule with a healthy diet can all promote decreased stress.
  • Understand students are stressed and frazzled, and likely so are you. Take care of yourself and remember that emails may not come across well, as might conversations and other interactions. Try to stay productive and positive during this time.

This is by no means a complete list. What ways have you supported students, or been supported yourself? Tweet to @choosy_female and if you’re comfortable, give a public shout-out to those who helped make finals, or academia in general, just a little bit less stressful.

Oh, Behave! Experiences at NABT 2014

Oh Behave by rumper1

(Austin Powers Movie, Photo from Deviant Art)

I just got back from presenting at the National Association of Biology Teacher’s annual meeting in Cleveland, Ohio. Despite the mountains of snow, I had a really fun time and met plenty of outstanding teachers in biology and biology education. I was lucky enough to be able to go this year through an invitation from the BEACON/NESCent organizers of the Evolution Symposium. They gave me the task (*gulp*) to conduct a teacher workshop on a recent lesson I and my collaborators published:

Weigel, E. G., DeNieu, M., & Gall, A.J. (2014). Oh, Behave! Behavior as an interaction between genes and the environment. The American Biology Teacher.76(7): 460-465.

This lesson is designed to show the genes and the environment interact to form behaviors, and because the behaviors can change over time, they are subject to evolution. Students first read a review paper on how genes and behavior interact, then model relationships for examples given in the paper. Students are then presented with a novel example from primary literature on imprinting in stickleback. Students are then expected to make predictions and model the relationship between environment, genes, and evolution in forming this behavior.

Click here for the workshop slides from the 2014 NABT Meeting highlighting this lesson

Those wishing to do the lesson can also email me for the papers, or contact me or the authors directly. They love for their work to be used in education!

You can also expand the lesson through HHMI’s resources on sticklebacks (videos, lesson plans, virtual labs):

For those wanting to use Data Nuggets (real research data) on sticklebacks, please check out my labmate Alycia Lackey’s two lesson plans here on mate choice and male competition: These have teacher guides, rubrics, and student worksheets scalable to your students’ needs and abilities.

Yay for teaching bio, and all the teachers that push their students to master it!

Remember that time the Pope backed me up?

Recently, I was quoted in an article about an upcoming event on campus. Although only my religious identity was used (ignoring that I’ve also done research and outreach in evolution education, as well as the other details I provided the journalist), I expressed that I was upset at the anti-academic way that the conference was taking place and that the organizers were attacking individuals.

I have gotten an unprecedented number of emails from across the nation and on campus thanking me for saying this. These came from those professing their faith, as both followers and Pastors, as well as fellow evolutionary biologists and evo-bio enthusiasts, and those that represent a mix of these. Interestingly, even the Pope’s recent statement advocated that evolution is not incompatible with faith (his serendipitous timing could not have helped more!). To be clear, because I understand that faith varies, and wonderfully so, I am not challenging this group’s beliefs, but the manner that they go about their efforts, particularly in academia.

Here’s the issue I have here: In academia, you acknowledge your sponsors, are explicit in who they are and are not, don’t use people’s names without permission, accurately represent the ideas you intend to refute, and don’t attack other scientists, but their ideas.

The overwhelming view within the scientific community is that evolution is the best explanation for the diversity of life on early, and the fact that this group does not advertise that they were brought in by a student group, rather than university-invited, misrepresents intentionally to give the impression that this is an equally-supported, well-evidenced, scientific view of the world. It is not. To see a respectful, concise response to the claims being made by this group, see this blog post.

Furthermore, it is anti-academic, charged language like this that I object to: “As an outspoken critic of intelligent design, Dr. Robert Pennock has written books and given speeches bashing the same.  But do his arguments hold water?  Can they withstand the scrutiny of debate?  Find out November 1st when Dr. Pennock debates Dr. Charles Jackson at MSU.  That is, if Pennock  accepts the invite. The challenge was made back in March and, as of to date, he has yet to reply.” If he hasn’t consented, it is unethical to use his name.

In addition, science is not settled in debate. It’s settled by evidence, so a debate is not the means by which science determines what is most accurate. In examining conflicting ideas, one of the basic principles in academia is that you present an argument accurately, then show why it is not applicable. A picture like the following does not do that:


Picture from Origin Summit Website

This photo (from spreads the misconception that humans arose directly from chimps, rather than both groups evolving from a common ancestor. Such a picture incorrectly represents the basic idea of how evolution from common ancestry works. In posting it, they are doing an academic disservice to the field and proliferating the use of arguments based on faulty understanding (and which are thereby inapplicable).

BEACONites consider MSU to be a free marketplace for ideas, and we would do nothing to jeopardize academic freedom on our campus. However, this is not a matter of academic freedom, but academic integrity. We are not in any way preventing this summit from happening, but I personally would like to encourage a more academic approach by this group, particularly if they are giving what they call academic (not religious) reasons to support Intelligent Design.

As far as my personal beliefs, here is one of the nicer comments I’m dealing with:


Screen Shot captured from UncommonDescent Blog

In this blog response, and the associated comments, my personal integrity and academic abilities are attacked as opposed to the ideas that I present (i.e., anti-academic nature of how it is being carried out or the attacking of specific individuals) or presenting the merit of having the event take place. Academic disagreements are not ad hominem, and note that I did not say the event should not take place, merely that the tactics by which it is being carried out (organized, promoted, advertised, etc.) are not academic in nature.

I am perfectly fine with people disagreeing, but I am not ok with people reportedly manipulating fellow Christian students into hosting an event, for which you do not give thanks or public acknowledgement. This makes an approach look bad, anti-academic, and creates a hassle for many Christian students on campus to clarify how one can profess Christianity, yet act in what most would consider very unchristian ways. The organizers have made this, unfortunately, a negative issue for many students, Christians and others alike, who are giving this group the benefit of the doubt to speak and be heard. Trying to defend the rights of those who attack your faith and work is quite difficult and draining, particularly when personal attacks continue.

If the goal is to get people to talk about faith, remember that you’d like for people to do this in a welcoming, not a negative or defensive way, thus how the issues are then approached is critical. Acknowledging the students who help might be a good first start to promote community and get these discussions going. I highly suggest that, to add credit to the campaign, that the words focus on what you feel the merits of your scientific ideas are, rather than on hurting the students on the campus you are visiting. Note that I am not the only student who harbors these feelings, but I am the one whose quote happened to appear in the media.

Please, if this is about academic pursuit of why we’re here, justify academically why you are here at MSU. You owe it to all Spartans and followers of your own cause.