Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Behavior 2011: Wonderful WonderLab

After the farewell luncheon for the Behavior 2011 conference, a handful of biologists headed over to Bloomington, Indiana's WonderLab in order to participate in one last activity: a science festival geared towards taking local children on "adventures in animal behavior." The program was the brainchild of the University of Minnesota's Dr. Emilie Snell-Rood, who not only conceived of the event but also manned one of its 18 activity stations and coordinated the grand finale of the show: releasing tagged butterflies into the lush Wonderlab garden after spending the day showing children how the insects are marked for identification and further research.

(Dr. Snell-Rood (in the butterfly t-shirt, of course), and a WonderLab technician examine a selection of butterflies captured from the Wonderlab garden. The insects were held on display all day so that visitors could see how they were individually marked--with a color-coded number on their wings, drawn on by a Sharpie--and also to allow observers to watch the animals feed on sugar water (distributed from sponges like the orange one seen in the cage at the near end of table). They were released back into the wild at closing time--a living fireworks display.)

The other 17 stations were run by researchers from a diverse array of laboratories across the country and featured a variety of study organisms and hands-on activities to stimulate all the senses.

On the museum's first floor, the closest exhibit to the entrance was also one of the most popular. Sarah DeLone, an educator from the Monroe County Humane Association, brought in Phoebe, a poodle, as well as Scout and Gage, two German shepherds, and discussed how an education in animal behavior is important for people who want to pursue a career in animal welfare.

Tammie King of Australia's Monash University had a related exhibit right next door, where she asked participants the question: "Can we accurately identify amicable dogs?" She played video footage of dogs and asked visitors to rate the animals on the five attributes that constitute amicability. Visitors' scores were then compared to those generated by experts and owners, giving children the opportunity to see whether they have what it takes to make a valid and reliable behavioral assessment.

Members from the laboratory of the University of Minnesota's Mark Bee brought along a microphone and computer in order to record participants' voices and show them spectrograms--visualizations of the frequency and amplitude characteristics of recorded noises.

Normally, researchers in the Bee lab use their equipment for analyses of frog vocalizations. One goal of their outreach effort was to teach visitors about the similarities and differences between human and frog communication.

Across the room, Jason Watters demonstrated how Chicago's Brookfield Zoo is incorporating modern technology into its animal displays. Visitors can use computers to access photos and videos of the animals on display, as well as read natural history information about different species. Armed with this knowledge, they can make behavioral observations and see what it's like to be a professional scientist.

Next door was an exhibit focusing on science journalism. Many people think that a science degree is only good for becoming a researcher or science teacher, but at this station, science writer Sarah Webb discussed how her career choice is a great alternative that is not only interesting to the journalist, but also useful to the public. One visitor seemed smitten with the idea, and roamed around WonderLab trying his hand at conducting interviews.

(Despite his age, he managed to look more professional than I did.)

The bulk of the outreach exhibits were on the second floor of the Wonderlab, where visitors were greeted at the top of the stairs by WonderLab's resident corn snake and some Madagascar hissing cockroaches.

Those who made it past these docile guardians could find out about some of the WonderLab's other creepy-crawly inhabitants: honeybees.

Researchers from the laboratory of the University of Arizona's Dan Papaj made use of WonderLab's indoor apiary (connected to the garden outside by a tube that runs from the apiary through the wall) in order to teach visitors about hive organization and bee behavior. They explained the bees' waggle dance and used maps to demonstrate how the foraging insects tell their hive-mates where to go find flowers. Then the researchers set forth a challenge: taste four types of honey and decide which plants had provided the pollen for them--mesquite, raspberry, blackberry, or orange. Few people were able to get all four answers correct, but pretty much everyone enjoyed sampling (sometimes repeatedly).

Kim Pollard, from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, was just around the corner talking about bone conduction hearing. Unlike "normal" hearing, during which vibrations travel through the air and ear canal, bone conduction hearing is when vibrations go straight through the skull and skin (the differences between these two processes cause our voices to sound different inside our own heads than when recorded and played back). Pollard demonstrated this process using bone-conduction headsets.

Across the room was an exhibit on beetles, manned by researchers from the lab of Indiana University's Armin Moczek. Here, visitors could observe specimens under a microscope, hear about beetle battles, examine a collection of preserved beetles, and learn about the life history of these fascinating animals.

Variations on this theme, focusing on black widow spiders and crickets, were available in the next room. Researchers from the laboratory of Arizona State University's Chad Johnson explained why male black widows are so much smaller than females, and gave visitors the chance to see these much-maligned and greatly feared arachnids up close.

Meanwhile, visitors at the cricket station could hear about how male crickets use their songs to advertise their attractiveness to females. A phonotaxis chamber was on hand to demonstrate how female crickets move towards songs that they find sexy. Also on show were live specimens, which clearly impressed some guests more than others.

(Watching a female cricket hiding in the corner of the phonotaxis chamber. She doesn't seem to be too impressed with the song emanating from the other end of the chamber.)

(A visitor regards the crickets with skepticism. All cricket communication activities were presented by researchers from Bill Wagner's laboratory at the University of Nebraska--Lincoln.)

Johnathon Pruitt, of the University of California--Davis, brought an exhibit that was much less fun for the crickets involved. Visitors had the opportunity to place these insects in with a captive spider and measure how long it took her to locate and kill her prey. Even though she had more than enough food available after the first few kills, she kept adding to her supply because it's in her nature to attack each new cricket that she encounters on/near her web. That might not be good news for the bugs that encounter these spiders in the wild, but, as Pruitt explained, we humans should be happy for help with pest control.

(These visitors look awfully happy despite the cricket carnage going on in the plastic box next to them.)

Tucked away in the corner amidst all the arthropods was Alison Leslie of Bloomington's Positive PAWSibilities. She and her canine companion, Marley, demonstrated how animals can be used to teach children communication skills that can be employed in a variety social situations. This can lead to improvements in self-esteem, coping mechanisms, and anger management.

(A visitor assigns photos of facial expressions to words describing different human emotions.)

In the next room over, members of Gail Patricelli's research group from the University of California--Davis had one of the more unusual exhibits of the day: a mechanized female sage-grouse.

The bird has been used in the field to investigate sexual selection and acoustic communication in free-living grouse. Here, it showed visitors how technology, and thinking outside the box, allow scientists to develop unique studies that yield novel and exciting results.

Bird research was also the topic of demonstrations by members from the laboratory of Ellen Ketterson of Indiana University. Both indoors and out in the garden, researchers demonstrated the techniques that ornithologists--or scientists who study birds--use to capture, mark, and track their focal species. Visitors had the opportunity to examine the aluminum bird bands that are distributed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for uniquely marking captured birds, as well as the plastic color bands that many researchers use to make their study animals easier to identify from afar. Participants could also attempt to extract "captured" model birds from a mist net--a thin, nearly invisible net used to safely entrap wild birds as they fly through their habitat.

(A participant identifies a banded model bird, a northern cardinal--Indiana's state bird.)

Kelly Weinersmith, who is affiliated with both the Santa Barbara and Davis campuses of the University of California, brought in some parasite-infected snails that could be inspected under a microscope. Weinersmith walked visitors through the strange and diverse life cycle of the parasites, which jump from one host to another multiple times before they die, wreaking havoc among their hosts along the way.

Members from Alexandra Basolo's laboratory at the University of Nebraska--Lincoln also did a presentation on water-loving animals--in this case, swordtail fish. With models and videos and live specimens, they demonstrated methods of observing and tracking wild fish, determining their gender, and understanding the meaning and purpose of their behaviors.

In addition to the butterfly and bird capture activities out in the garden, there was also a station devoted to interpreting the diverse colors and patterns of wild butterflies. Here, researchers from the laboratory of Ron Rutowski of Arizona State University laid out a butterfly collection that captured the rainbow of colors present in these insects. There was also a microscope that allowed visitors to see up close how the structure of butterfly wing scales causes this enormous chromatic variation.

The butterfly researchers also used a game to teach participants about the concept of aposematism, or the use of warning coloration by potential prey to convince predators to avoid them. Players had two turns during which they could chose between silver candies and red candies. The red ones looked flashier but the wrapper contained only a rock; the silver ones looked plainer but the wrappers contained a sugary reward. It turns out that children, like predators, learn the meaning of the warning signal very fast; after being disappointed by the red candies during the first round of the game, they focused on silver candies during the second round.

(Leaving behind the red-wrapped rocks during the second round of the aposematism game.)

Lucky for everyone who attended the outreach event, they were also free to explore the rest of the WonderLab facility, which was filled with a variety of animals, activities, and displays, including a temporary traveling exhibit called "Toys: Discover the Science Inside." These were fun for visitors of all ages, from budding scientists-to-be all the way through to retirees:

Overall, judging from the din of laughter and excited squeals, the day was a success. Hopefully the visiting scientists made a good impression and opened a few young minds to the many wonders that science has to offer. There's no word yet on whether the outreach fair will become an annual part of the ABS meeting, which will be held next year in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Thanks to the Indiana University Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior (CISAB), the Society for the Study of Evolution, and the University of Minnesota--College of Biological Sciences for sponsoring the outreach event.

For more photos, please click here or contact me. If you attended the event and would like to submit additional photos, have me add your name or a link to your research to a photo caption, or request an edit to the description of your presentation, let me know!

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