Thursday, August 21, 2014

Allie's project: What did she say?

 My name is Allie Burnett and I am an undergraduate at Michigan State University in Zoology. This summer I returned to KBS to work on another project related to Cara's research.

When I first started studying birds, I found the varying types of songs and responses to these songs interesting. I wanted to know what these birds were "saying" to each other and what determined which type of song was used. The discovery of female song in our House Wren population intensified this curiosity, especially since female song is unexpected in temperate zone House Wrens. The huge difference in responses to various female songs supported the idea that each song was communicating something specific to the recipient. Perhaps these females, who responded most aggressively to other female song, were using songs to communicate and compete with rival females. One of the most important things to communicate to a rival female is something that will influence the outcome of a fight, such as physical condition. We knew from prior experiments that specific song characteristics elicited greater aggressive responses; did these song characteristics also correlate with physical characteristics of the female singing them? In order to find this out, we spent the summer recording songs and gathering physical measurements from each female. After hours of song analysis, we found that female condition does influence female song. Not only did females of higher condition sing a greater variety of songs, but they also sang more notes per second and a higher percentage of a syllable named "R." These characteristics were the same ones that elicited high aggressive responses. These results lead me to further question why females of higher condition sing differently. It is possible these females can afford to sing songs that elicit more aggressive responses in order to obtain resources. Alternatively, maybe these song characteristics elicit such aggressive responses because they are more likely to be sung by a high condition female, and therefore a much larger threat. Only more research will be able to tease apart the secrets of female song.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Animal Behavior Society Conference

The Getty lab just returned from the annual Animal Behavior Society Conference held at Princeton.  We had a strong showing this year.  I gave a short talk on the relationship between female aggression and offspring performance.  I've found that more aggressive females have heavier babies.  In many birds, the heavier your babies, the better the chance they have at surviving.  This is an important finding because it could be a way that female aggression evolved in female house wrens.

A blurry picture of me from the audience of my talk

The other members of the Getty lab presented their latest findings too.  Sara presented a poster on her work on how growing up with or without your siblings changes your growth and development in tree frog tadpoles.  Michael also had a poster on his work on whether aging or physical condition changes the risks tree frogs are willing to take when finding a mate. 

Michael's former URA and current research assistant, Levi, joined us and presented a poster on a project he did with Michael.  Levi found that poor condition male frogs are willing to take more risks when they think predators are around in order to attract females.  Levi's poster was so good he won the Genesis award for the best undergrad poster at the whole conference!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Undergrad Research Symposium

Half of science is communication.  The results of your experiments don't mean much if you never tell anyone about them.  Scientists share their results through articles in scientific journals, talk to various audiences, and poster sessions at scientific conferences.

The undergraduates at KBS celebrated the end of their field season with a poster session.  Each undergrad made a poster about their project and then explained them to visitors as they filtered through the room.  Both Aaron and Allie's posters came out beautifully.  Allie's poster explained how certain things about a female's song may communicate her fighting condition to female rivals.  Aaron's poster showed how female house wrens can use their egg color to tell males they are in good condition.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Aaron's project: What's in an egg?

 My name is Aaron Aguirre and I am an undergraduate at Michigan State University studying Fisheries and Wildlife. This summer I was lucky enough to be Cara’s assistant as she conducted her research.

As part of helping Cara with her work, I was also responsible for developing my own topic of study and designing an experiment to conduct throughout my time here. Delving away from bird songs and calls, I decided to put more of a focus on the other ways in which house wrens communicate with each other.  Something Cara had said to me sparked my curiosity in the eggs of these birds. She told me that the last egg of a female’s clutch will often be much lighter than the others because male house wrens seem to be attracted to lighter eggs and more willing to invest in caring for them. After collaborating with Cara I decided to study if the brightness of a female’s eggs relates to their physical condition as well as if stress on the females will affect the brightness of their eggs. 

 Above: An example of the photos Aaron used to collect data on eggs.  As you can see above, the last egg is often brighter than the ones before.  A previous graduate student in the Getty lab, Lindsay Walters, studied the connection between egg color and male investment.

My interest in this topic stems in a similar way from why Cara is studying house wrens. When people think “bird communication,” they will probably think about the multitude of bird songs and calls they hear in the early morning. Similarly, most will think that male song birds are the gender that are competing and proving themselves to the females; a nice song tells the female that a male is in high condition worthy of being their mating partner. This is why I find my topic to be so interesting; it is the unexpected. By looking at the eggs, I am seeing how females are communicating to the males and how they show males that they are physically fit and worth investing time and energy into ensuring the success of their offspring.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

This season by the numbers

  Despite the population being roughly half the size of a typical year, we've accomplished a lot this season so far!  So far there have been 33 females and 34 males at our field site (that we know of).  All but one are currently banded.  We've collected 77 blood slides and samples from these birds and run 98 aggression trials.

These females have been busy.  They've laid 266 eggs (and they're still going!).  We've measured all and photographed most.  159 eggs have hatched and 82 of these offspring have successfully fledged.  We've measured babies 524 times and there are many more still to come!  

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Nature and Nurture

What makes you who you are?  The color of your eyes or the shape of your nose come from the genes you inherited from your parents.  Something like your personal beliefs come from your social and cultural environment.  However many things, such as your risk of developing a particular disease, are influenced by both your genes ("nature") and your environment ("nurture").  Scientists studying animals must keep in mind the influences of both nature and nurture when studying a particular trait or behavior.

We've found in previous years that more aggressive house wren moms have bigger babies.  Why is this?  We know more aggressive moms don't feed their babies more often (at least as far as we've observed).  Maybe aggressive females have genes that produce bigger babies.  Maybe they lay eggs with more hormones that make babies grow faster.  Maybe they are better at foraging for high quality food or they interact with their babies in some other way that promotes growth.

To try to disentangle the influences of nature and nurture, this summer I'm doing a "cross-foster" experiment.  This is common experimental approach where scientists swap eggs or babies between nests.  Birds like house wrens treat anything in their nests as their own offspring.  This allows scientists to look at the influence of one genetic background in a different social environment.  This summer we're swapping some clutches before incubation starts.  If more aggressive females have genetic offspring that are bigger, the cause is likely in the genes or in the eggs.  If more aggressive females instead have bigger social offspring, the cause is likely something in the environment or the female's behavior.  However, the answer may be somewhere in between.

   Two clutches that were swapped earlier this summer

Saturday, July 12, 2014


11-day-old baby nestling
Raising baby house wrens is hard work.  After a ~7 day egg laying period and a ~12 day incubation, the house wrens hatch and start growing quickly.  The babies gain around a gram each day, reaching adult weight in just 10 days!  By day 18 they can fly and look just like adult wrens.  This is a lot of work for the females.  Not only does she help the male feed them every several minutes throughout the day, but she cuts down on her feeding time drastically when she is incubating and may lay 2 or sometimes almost 3 times her body weight in eggs during the season.  Whew!
One of the explanations for why females are generally less aggressive than males is that aggression interferes with reproductive demands on females.  This trade-off exists for some males.  The Ketterson lab has found that  male juncos given testosterone implants (the hormone linked to aggression in males) are not as good at feeding their nestlings.  We don't know yet if testosterone is responsible for aggression in female wrens.  Regardless of the hormonal mechanism, fighting with other females could take time and energy away from the busy work of raising babies.  
I originally predicted that more aggressive females would have smaller babies.  However, I was surprised to find that babies from aggressive moms actually end up bigger!  In other migratory bird species, the size of the nestling at fledging has a big impact on it's chances for survival.  If these babies have a survival advantage and aggression is passed down in house wren genes, female aggression will continue in the house wren population.