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Do Birds Even Facebook? Social Networks in a Dancing Bird

The Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio
BiologyEcologyGrant: Ornithology
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Ended on 12/06/16
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About This Project

Social network analysis provides a mathematical framework for analyzing patterns of animal interactions. The Lesser Prairie-Chicken (LPC) is a communally breeding grouse in which males have aggressive encounters but also perform coordinated displays. By analyzing the structure of aggressive and cooperative encounters in LPC, I will investigate if ritualized display evolved in order to reduce violent conflict. The function of this behavior is not known and has never been analyzed quantitatively.

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What is the context of this research?

Lekking (communal breeding behavior) is a complex form of behavior practiced by many types of animals which is not fully understood. Communal breeding grounds (leks) provide an arena for mate competition, so the evolution of cooperative behavior on leks is puzzling. Why should males who seem to be there only to compete with each other engage in cooperative behavior? There must be some selfish form of benefit which outweighs the cost of cooperating with a competitor, but for the LPC it is not known exactly what that benefit is. My project looks at relationships between males and females and what factors influence mate choice, but I have a special interest in the interactions of competing males and the unusual coordinated call and response display which is called “antiphonal booming.”

What is the significance of this project?

Antiphonal booming is a unique form of display among lekking grouse, but no researcher has tried to determine why LPC engage in it and how it may help the individuals performing it. The LPC is a declining species, so it is important to learn as much as we can about it while we can. Studying the evolution of social behavior can give us insight into human behavior. Social scientists believe ritualized warfare reduces human conflict. Cultures which lose the ability to use ritual display experience more destructive warfare, and devastating violence has occurred when cultures without shared norms for ritualized warfare have come into contact. As globalization leads to new cultural contacts, the ability to model and predict responses to these new interactions can help to minimize the human cost.

What are the goals of the project?

The main goal of the project is to use social network analysis and behavioral modelling to determine the function and significance of antiphonal booming displays in LPC. A likely explanation is that this form of display helps to reduce the occurrence of actual violent fighting which would help the birds save energy, avoid injury, and survive to the next year. I will determine if this is the case by analyzing video recordings of male interactions and mapping their structure. This will allow me to determine if antiphonal booming tends to de-escalate or end aggressive interactions. I will also simulate lekking behavior with computer models to see if behavior I observe in the field differs from randomly generated results.

Budget

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My project will greatly benefit from having a large sample size. Working with a field technician will allow me to cover two breeding grounds (leks) every day and double the amount of data I can collect on my own. This will allow for a more accurate representation of Lesser Prairie-Chicken behavior in my data. The ability to cover two leks will also play a very important role in allowing me to determine which males mate successfully. Mating on the lek occurs in a small window of time, and one male often mates with many females in the same morning. Increased coverage will prevent me from missing these crucial mating events which can provide insight into the significance of different male behaviors. It is important to have experienced technicians who have demonstrated an ability to accurately gather data under difficult conditions such as those experienced in the late winter and early spring in the grasslands of Kansas. The requested amount covers a technician's salary for 2 months.

Endorsed by

The social displays of prairie-chickens are fascinating to watch, but their purpose and meaning are little understood. This project will make great advancements in our understanding of how the social dynamics influence the behaviors we see. Geoff has a wealth of experience with prairie-chickens specifically, and declining species generally, that will be a great asset to the project.

Meet the Team

Geoffrey Gould
Geoffrey Gould
Graduate Teaching Assistant

Geoffrey Gould

I have worked with birds for many years, ranging from small songbirds to hawks and owls. I always enjoyed being outdoors and seeing wildlife, so about a month after getting my Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Sciences, I started volunteering at my local nature center doing bird surveys. Working with birds was a great way for me to experience many different habitats and see a lot of remote and beautiful parts of the country, but I realized that I enjoyed observing bird behavior more than just going out and finding as many birds as I could. My favorite jobs focused on one or two species and allowed me to spend a lot of time observing individual behavior and learning about their preferences. Working with lekking grouse is a natural step for someone who appreciates animal behavior, as grouse leks are dynamic and exciting atmospheres defined by complex suites of behavior. Prairie-chickens in particular provide this atmosphere due to the strange sounds they produce with specialized air sacs, their dance-like movements such as rapid foot stomping and energetic vertical jumps, along with the occasional all-out battle. I worked with prairie-chickens in Kansas and New Mexico and I realized that I wanted to study their behavior in greater depth. Entering a PhD program at The Ohio State University has given me the opportunity to design my own research which deals with aspects of prairie-chicken breeding behavior which have not received the scholarly attention they merit. Being in graduate school allows me to pursue my passion for fieldwork while helping to advance my career goal of working in the field of wildlife science and conservation. Every spring I look forward to the ability to leave the classroom behind for a couple of months and get up before dawn every morning so I can be at the edge of a lek with a front row seat for some of the most interesting bird behavior in the world.

Lab Notes

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Additional Information

The Lesser Prairie-Chicken (LPC) is a charismatic species with fascinating behavior which has not been completely explained. Unfortunately the LPC population has experienced a very steep decline (over 90% by some estimates) in recent decades. Learning as much as we can about this species is a priority in the short term, but I hope that learning more about the complex behavior of the LPC will convince people to work to prevent the loss of this iconic grassland species. Prairie-chicken festivals have provided economic benefits to communities within the LPC's range in the past, but several of these events have been cancelled in recent years due to population declines. While preservation of the LPC is worthwhile for the sake of the birds alone, it can also benefit rural communities and behavioral researchers.


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