February 14, 2009
This weekend, blog overseer Laura and I are writing from the AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago.
It’s difficult to get birds to act on cue for an experiment, especially out in the wild. The solution for University of California, Davis researcher Gail Patricelli, who was studying courtship displays and tactics, was to build a robot. Actually a couple of them.
One of the birds Patricelli has studied using her robots is the rather odd-looking greater sage grouse. Despite the male’s crazy looks (above), females care more about the quality and quantity of their courtship displays (check out the Patricelli Lab YouTube channel for videos). But males cannot have both high quality displays and a high quantity of them–it would require too much energy–so Patricelli wanted to know how successful males balanced the two. She made a female robot, complete with a tiny robot cam, to see how the males would court it.
The robot ran on tiny train tracks, but her lack of feet didn’t seem to deter most males. In fact, in her AAAS presentation, Patricelli showed video of one male that would rush the fembot and derail it–an action that he tried with real females, as well. Patricelli called this an “unsuccessful courtship tactic.” Using the fembot, Patricelli was able to show that the successful males were tactical in their displays, strutting more when females were closer, likely not wasting energy with displays farther away from a female, where she wouldn’t pay so much attention. The successful males, Patricelli said, used their signals more effectively than unsuccessful males.
Patricelli says that the ability to use tactics is a sign of social intelligence, something usually associated with humans. Maybe “birdbrain” isn’t quite the insult we take it to be.
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