Behaviour17 Conference

Scientific conferences are some of the biggest highlights of my year. I just attended the Behavior2017 Conference in the beautiful seaside town of Estoril, Portugal.

Pictures Colour Library  - PCL
Estoril: warm sun, cool breeze and seawater

I’m still early enough in my scientific career that when I attend a conference, I often meet, for the first time, people whose work I’ve read. Public speaking is always a bit scary, but it’s such a joy to come together with people from all around the world who are working on similar, related questions in different organisms. There is not enough time to go over all the talks, but here’s a small sample.

Jonathan Pruitt gave an engaging talk on something he calls “social susceptibility” which is the extent to which the collective behavior of a social group is affected by a “leader” or keystone individual. In his remarkable social spider system, there are different discrete behavioral types (personalities), and introduction of a single extremely bold aggressive individual can make the entire colony more aggressive (more individuals attack). But this effect only occurs in deserts, not in the less dry savannah, because the aggressiveness of a colony is only advantageous in deserts. Pruitt tested whether the social influence of the bold individual (the leader) is determined by the traits of the leader or the followers. And apparently, it’s the followers that matter, not the bold leader. In deserts, the shy followers are influenced by a bold individual from either a desert or a savannah or even a heterospecific spider. In savannahs where aggressiveness is not adaptive, the shy individuals were not influenced by this extreme individual. Pruitt ended by making a general (obviously political) metaphor that influential “leaders” can only have be influential if the surrounding society as whole follows them, and varying levels of this “social susceptibility” can exist from group to group due to different selection pressures. As Pruitt put it, given high enough social susceptibility, a society can even be greatly influenced by a “heterospecific sham” (I found that bit hilarious). It’s a fun and complex story, and Pruitt told it well.

Another favorite talk was by my friend Neeltje Boogert on the effects of early life stress on social learning in zebra finches. Using a series of clever experiments, she and others found that when solving foraging “puzzles” young birds copy their parents, but when the young were given stress hormones, they stopped copying their parents and instead copied unrelated adults! Neeltje then did a similar study with song learning and found that young males tended to copy the song of their father, but the experimentally stressed juveniles did a worse job copying their father’s song. The stressed males had weaker father-son bonds and they may also have been more likely to copy non-father males. I wonder if similar phenomenon exist in humans: do highly stressed kids start learning earlier from their peers rather than their parents?

Another great talk was by Amiyaal Ilany, also about parent-offspring relationships in the context of social networks. Ilany had previously worked on a model exploring the idea of maternal inheritance of social networks (something I hope to test in vampire bats when I get a large enough sample size). Here, Ilany applied this idea to a huge long-term dataset collected by the Holekamp Lab from wild hyaenas. He showed that a hyena does indeed have similar network ties to her mother. This similarity depends on maternal social rank, in that offspring of mothers of higher rank inherit a stronger similarity to their offspring’s network position. The social inheritance of bonds also depends on the amount of time that the individual spends with their mother. One of the great thing about this study is that it shows where social network structure comes from.

I finally met Thomas Bugnyar (even if only for a moment). He gave a terrific talk on social cognition in corvids. He showed that ravens adjust their calling behaviour according to who was in the audience. The victims of an attack from another raven called more when their kin and bonding partners were present but called less when friends of the aggressors were in the audience. I’m a big fan of his work on social cognition and sociality in ravens and the corvids themselves.

Rene van Dijk gave a great talk on vocal kin signatures and kin discrimination in social weaverbirds. I’m hoping to look at paternal vs maternal kinship signatures in calls soon in vampire bats; I’ve been collecting data on this since 2009.

Sue Healy gave a great talk on the how birds build nests. There’s surprisingly many decisions involved about materials, colors, shapes and structures, and again, how early life experience can affect nest-building. I always love reading or hearing about cognition experiments, because the experimental designs are always so clever.

Barbara Taborsky discussed evidence from their cooperatively breeding cichlids about how a subordinate uses either helping or a submissive display to prevent aggression and eviction by dominants. The submissive display might somehow honestly signal that there is no challenge to the dominant. Interestingly, although the strategy can vary based on the immediate social context, there is consistent individual variation in strategy use. But it is not heritable. Instead, it comes about through something like a lifetime specialization into either ‘helper’ or a ‘submissive’ type based on early life experience. This later influences whether the subordinates either disperses, or stays and helps at the nest.

There were many other studies that manipulated the early environment and looked at effects on social behavior. For example, in zebrafish early environments influence social competence and gene expression in the brain years later.

Michael Taborsky gave some interesting new results on different cooperative strategies employed by cooperatively breeding cichlids, including reciprocity. I’m excited to see those papers when they come out. I’m hoping to do some experiments with reciprocity in rats next year.

There were several terrific posters from University of Exeter on cooperativeness in predator-inspecting guppies. They seem to have a really fantastic department there for animal behavior.

I enjoyed Dustin Rubenstein‘s “big picture” talk about comparing animal societies (including the often ignored taxa like spiders, thrips, and shrimps) to understand social evolution with some neat results from his work on snapping shrimp. It was great to finally see what these snapping shrimp look like! I’m really impressed with the number of systems that his lab works on in the field.

I had an interesting discussion with Dieter Lukas and Corina Logan about brain size evolution (see their recent review manuscript) and the necessity for open access (and other changes to publishing in science).

Yvonne Zurcher had an interesting poster showing evidence that vocal similarity influences the development of pair bonds in common marmosets (in addition to call convergence once bonds form).

Frans de Waal gave an entertaining talk with fun videos of nonhuman primates cooperating.

I have better appreciation for the idea of indirect genetic effects after this meeting.

Hanna Kokko, a leading theoretical biologist in evolution and ecology, gave a talk that changed the way I thought about evolutionary bet-hedging (which I mentioned at the start of my talk on “social bet-hedging”). I was a bit worried she would not like my rather loose use of the term “bet-hedging” but instead she seemed quite interested in my idea of how individuals invest in social relationships, which was very exciting for me. When we spoke I was a bit too nervous and star-struck actually. I think I stammered something like “I really love your book on modeling. But I’m really sorry…. I did not finish it…. I only made it to Chapter 3 when I was in grad school…” [And then maybe I trailed off because my brain was screaming: WHY ARE YOU SAYING THIS?]. Alas, this is one of those embarrassing moments that I’ll think about later randomly and shudder.

Barbara Koenig described her recent work on sickness behavior and its effects on social networks. This is of great interest to me, because we are now doing similar experiments in the vampire bats, led by Sebastian Stockmaier. The first paper should be out next year.

I took notes on far more talks and posters, but this blogpost could go on forever, so I’ll stop here.

There were several more prolific people I wanted to meet such Redouan Bshary and Frans de Waal. But so often I think to introduce myself, they are talking with someone else, and I started to think to myself, Do you actually have anything to say other than ‘I love your work!’ ?”. Then I would think, “What’s a good question I have for him?” … and then I start overthinking and then the moment is gone, hahaha. If I read enough papers that I like by someone, they eventually (and quite irrationally) begin to seem like some sort of celebrity to me. This is strange because I don’t generally like the idea of celebrities, focusing on people rather than ideas, but… it still happens. For better or worse, academia is just inherently social, with so many of phenomena that are being discussed at this very conference:

  • dominance hierarchies
  • networks of association with individuals greatly varying in centrality
  • leaders and followers
  • early career experiences that set individuals on different paths and specializations
  • reciprocity and other strategies for making cooperative investments while avoiding exploitation,
  • and (of course) “social bet-hedging“– the strategic tradeoff between investing in strengthening of existing relationships and creating new ones


Conferences give me a boost of inspiration. One of the main reasons I love conferences is that I get a lot of ideas while I’m sitting there listening to talks, or from the talk itself, or from conversations with people. In my crazy busy life at Panama, I almost never have time to just sit and think about ideas; I’m always caught up in the details of a particular experiment.

The next meetings I hope to attend are something called “CBEN 2017” and this one, both on social complexity and cooperation.



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