ABS 2013 – Day One with Dr. Constance O’Connor

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Dr. Constance O’Connor is a postdoctoral fellow at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. She studies the mechanisms underlying social behaviour in cichlid fishes, and is trying to understand how social behaviour evolved, and how environmental stressors affect social behaviour.

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When most people think of a behavioural biologist, I suspect that the image that comes to mind might be something along the lines of an earnest, scatter-brained David Attenborough with a clipboard. Clad in a Tilley hat and Wellington boots, clutching a clipboard and binoculars, your behavioural biologist can give an enthusiastic discourse on the mating habits of the sugar crab, but needs help finding his spectacles. In other words, I suspect that when most people think of a behavioural biologist, they don’t think of someone who is particularly practical, and the research is not usually considered particularly useful.

A growing group of behavioural biologists is trying to change this, and a special symposium at the 50th Animal Behaviour Society meeting was dedicated to discussions of how behavioural research can be applied in practical, useful ways to guide wildlife management. Animal behaviour is a rapidly changing field, and behavioural biologists are now using new tools and new approaches to understand why some animal populations are declining, and how to reverse these alarming trends.

Traditionally, behavioural biologists have examined how evolution has shaped animal behaviour. Why do animals do what they do? In todays rapidly changing world, however, these behaviours that have been shaped by thousands or millions of years of natural selection are often no longer be adaptive. Newly hatched sea turtles head towards city lights instead of the ocean. Naïve island birds don’t recognize invasive cats as potential predators. Fish migrating upstream are stymied by a dam, and spend the rest of their days swimming into the concrete. Male beetles are so enchanted by beer bottles – the biggest, shiniest beetles they have ever seen! – that they no longer mate with female beetles. In todays changing world, behavioural biologists therefore need to research not just how evolution has shaped animal behaviour, but also understand and predict how animals will behave in a world with habitat alterations, pollution, invasive species, and a changing climate.

Through the symposium, there were positive examples of how behavioural biologists have already helped wildlife managers. For example, behavioural biologists have helped reduce the number of animals hit by vehicles, reduce the bycatch of dolphins and sea turtles in fisheries, and helped discourage bears from harassing visitors in National Parks. More importantly, there were discussions throughout the symposium about how animal behaviour research can be better used in the future to understand and solve conservation problems. The take-home message of the symposium was that behavioural biologists are already poised to contribute practical solutions to the current biodiversity crisis. The only thing left to do is for us, the behavioural biologists, to take up the challenge! We need to put on our Tilley hats and Wellington boots, and march off into our rapidly changing world to research both why animals do what they do, and how to make sure that animals can keep doing it for generations to come.

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