Category Archives: behaviour

Crepuscular companion from my youth…

Long tongue on the gecko

…how I miss having you around the house now!

Back – waaay back – in the days when I was a suburban kid without much access to “nature” and no television (yes – imagine that kids, no TV!), I spent countless hours staring up at the ceiling and walls watching the drama of our household population of geckos! Emerging from their daytime roosts under the fluorescent light fixtures, the geckos, small and large, would wait for a smorgasbord of insects to arrive as night fell, especially during the monsoon months. Big ones would chase little ones who might escape by dropping their tails to distract their pursuers and scuttle across the wall or ceiling. Occasionally one would drop, with a soft plop, sometimes down one’s shirt collar or trouser leg (happened to an uncle once! hilarious!!), sometimes onto the dinner table, but for the most part, amazingly, they managed to cling to the surface even at top speeds. And sometimes one would get overambitious and try to bite off more than it could chew – a large beetle, or mantis perhaps (although I never got lucky enough to see a battle royale like Gerald Durrell did) – and provide a different kind of amusement. Endless unscripted entertainment for a curious kid on those warm humid evenings. I miss having these critters around the house here in north America… I wonder what they’d make of the black widow spiders ruling the roost on our back porch now.

The young gecko in the above picture, which is my submission to this week’s Weekly Wildlife, Nature and Conservation Photography Challenge, I encountered on a wall of my in-laws’ house on the outskirts of Kolkata a few years ago. A few more images of this little fella are in this flickr gallery.

Meanwhile, it seems someone got lucky enough to spot (but not run into) a mountain lion just on the outskirts of Fresno earlier today! I hope they let the poor beast be and not hunt it down as a public menace…

A black bear heads for the beer cooler (like the Indian tiger?)

It seems, according to an official brochure from the Forest Department at India’s Sariska Tiger Reserve, that “The Tiger prefers to hunt large deer specially sambar, chital, nilgai and omnivore COLD BEER.” Really, I’m not making this up:

Could be why the tigers went extinct from Sariska several years ago – maybe they were too drunk to avoid the poachers – and had to be reintroduced! Well, one hopes the replacements stay off the brew and put on their best tigerish behavior this week when environment ministers from SAARC nations come to visit them.

Meanwhile, over in Hayward, Wisconsin, a young black bear (apparently unaware of or undeterred by the tigers’ misadventures) just wandered into a grocery store, and headed straight for the beer cooler in the liquor department:

The sad part is that the bear apparently didn’t even get a drink after all that effort – although it did get the tranquilizers! Was it just cooling off after a long hot walk through suburbia? Looking for a cool place to hibernate? Well, at least this bear didn’t become drunk and disorderly, unlike its cousins, the Indian Sloth Bears, which are well known for their predilection for alcohol from fermenting flowers of the mahua trees in central India!

Eloquent communicators: human and avian

I’m often looking for videos on the web to enhance my lectures (or merely to jolt students out of the slumber my soothing voice may put them into from time to time), especially when teaching about animal behavior. Its always more impressive to see an animal carry out some astonishingly bizarre behavior than to read about it or have it be described in class by someone who may never have seen the behavior either! Places like Youtube are therefore quite the boon for the modern professor of ethology, and a casual perusal of this blog will show you how much I fall into that happy camp. The exciting thing is that lately, competition has been heating up among the online video portals, bringing us access to all kinds of video treasures. I stumbled upon one such treasure today when I discovered that youtube now has, in its growing Nature channel, Sir David Attenborough‘s entire series on The Life of Birds!

Since we have been exploring acoustic signals in my Animal Communication class in recent weeks, with birds (of course) starring as prime examples, this is a perfect time to share this episode where one of humanity’s most eloquent communicators takes us on a wonderful exploration of some of nature’s most Eloquent Communicators:


Sunday snapshot: hummingbird caught in the bottle!

caught in the bottle!
Originally uploaded by leafwarbler

I captured this hummingbird in a feeder at the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park in Albuquerque, New Mexico last August when we visited the town to attend the 2009 annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America. It was a lovely break from the meetings sessions to go for a morning of birdwatching along the Rio, which must be getting plenty of action these days since it is one of the significant migratory flyways in the arid southwest! You can read more about the history of the park here, and view more of my pictures from that day in my flickr album, also accessible by clicking on this picture (I think – but this is my first attempt to blog directly from Flickr, so I don’t yet know how links work!).

Last chance to be shagged by a rare parrot!

And it looks like this parrot, also of remarkable plumage, definitely was not “tired and shagged out after a long squawk” then, eh?! Television viewers in the UK have been fortunate these past few weeks, since the BBC has been airing the new documentary series “Last Chance to See” where Stephen Fry joined zoologist Mark Carwardine in retracing a journey the latter shared with the late Douglas Adams when they went around the world looking for species literally on the brink of extinction! Adams and Carwardine then wrote one of my favorite books about nature and wildlife conservation, full of delightful stories of strange animal behaviors and wry observations on the business of conservation in different parts of the world. Among the latter, my favorite was probably when they compared the govt. bureaucracies of post-colonial nations to headless chickens that continue to thrash around pointlessly even after being decapitated! Nevertheless, this snippet (and others like it on Youtube which is all that’s available to those of us outside the UK) from the new series suggests that 2 decades on since the original journey, some of these wonderful creatures are still hanging on, i.e., Carwardine did get more chances to see them. I hope our future generations do as well! And I hope we get to see this series on television in our part of the world soon also.


That’s just how I roll – as summed up in this graph!

PhD Comics has perfectly captured my work patterns, which should be familiar to anyone who has tried to collaborate with me, and noticed the time stamps on emails and documents I send (and blog posts too!)! Not to mention my students as well… but I had no idea that PHD Comics was also researching my work habits, and came up with this empirically supported optimal productivity curve! As good a fit as this is, I’m not sure I want to put it in my tenure file though… would you? 🙂

[via PHD Comics: Peak Productivity]

Lost Sounds

ResearchBlogging.orgDeep in the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh, where the mighty Siang river carves its way through the Himalayan wall, nestled the Adi hamlet of Tuting, surrounded by a sea of green—overgrown fields, verdant mountains, the river itself deep green. The very moonlight seemed green as it shone on the ghostly mist rising from the gorge. Eighteen years ago, a search for India’s last Takin—that strange-looking, mysterious kin of the musk-oxen—had led me (and colleagues from the Wildlife Institute of India) to this remote village, amid dense rainforests that we’d only read about, us kids of the concrete jungle. We were wide-eyed with wonder.

Talom Yaying, an Adi hunter from Tuting took us to look for takin in the mountains, where he hunted regularly—living the “simple, good” life of harmony with nature? Maybe…! He offered us his cave for the night, in the heart of the rainforest, high up on a ridge overlooking the great gorge. Such wonderful, magical country—and so hopeless my attempts to capture its rapturous beauty on a few square centimeters of celluloid! Put that camera away!

On our way back, Talom told me he felt compelled to spend a few nights every week in his cave—away from his village home and family. For in the village, the only sounds to awaken him at dawn were chicken and dogs and pigs. But up in his cave, he was serenaded by the songs of wild birds and other animals! Even in Tuting, a village completely surrounded by the rainforest, he missed the sounds of the forest! Unlike us city-bred wildlifers, he knew exactly what he missed and where to find it. We don’t even understand what we’ve lost, when or where. Growing up amid the steady din of city life, most of us don’t even recognize those other natural sounds, the warbling of birds, the croaking of frogs, the chirrupping of crickets. How, then, can we hope to recover what we don’t even know we’ve lost?

All these years later, many spent studying songbirds in the wild and amidst human habitats, I share Talom’s sense of loss more keenly as I contemplate how all the noise we make adds another, barely recognized, dimension to the loss of biodiversity that all of us bemoan. We recognize, of course, the many overt ways in which our cities displace (if not outright kill) wildlife species by destroying and transforming their habitats. But we are only just beginning to understand the less visble impacts, such as the steady and growing hum of traffic and industry, which alter the behavior and diversity of animals in / near our cities.

Like us, many animals rely on sound to communicate with their mates, relatives, competitors, even enemies—and birdsongs offer the best studied examples. Birds use a variety of sounds to communicate, from simple tweets / whistles to elaborate songs rivaling the finest tunes coming from your FM radio. The more complex songs are used by males to attract mates and to warn rivals for territories. In general, males with bigger repertoires and more complex songs are more successful in courting females and fathering young compared to those that can hum but a few bars of one tune. What’s more, avian pop charts can also vary from station to local station, resulting in regional dialects of song. Some of us (the subspecies of humans known as birdwatchers) can identify different bird species by their voices, even among the duller look-alike warblers (the little brown/green jobs)—while keener ears can learn to tell apart the Greenish Warblers that spend their winter in Maharashtra / Andhra Pradesh from their cousins who prefer to settle in Tamil Nadu or Kerala for the winter!

How well sound waves carry your message depends, of course, on the medium they travel through—and background noise can seriously interfere with audio communication. As you know if you’ve tried to make a phonecall while stuck in traffic, or to sustain that philosophical discussion during a dinner party, the noisier the background, the harder it is to convey your message or understand what the other party is saying! Birds have the same problems: male birds are unable to show off the full extent of their vocal repertoire, especially the subtle vocal modulations, if their habitat is too noisy; and females suffer too because they cannot find the best males, thereby losing the chance to produce attractive sons who will in turn produce the most grandchildren (for that, indeed, is what the evolutionary game is all about when you get right down to it). A recent study found that Australian Zebra Finch females, given the choice between several different male songs (in the laboratory where they listened to recordings) were quite discriminating when the background was quiet, but became rather poor in distinguishing between songs when traffic noise was broadcast along with the same songs! Isn’t the audience always quieter—and more touchy about any noise—at a classical than at a pop music concert?

One way birds can cope with all the noise we make is by singing louder when it gets noisy—and this so called cocktail party effect has been observed in some species. Urban noise, especially traffic, also tends to be generally low-pitched, so an alternative is for birds to get shriller, sing at a higher pitch–exactly what Great Tits have been observed to be doing in Europe. A more subtle effect is for birds to simplify their songs, cutting out some of the fantastic frequency modulations, harmonics, and other vocal gymnastics they are capable of—not unlike how maestros of classical music may be forced to stoop to Bollywood tunes or advertising jingles to make a living! If those tricks don’t work, one has to find relatively quieter times during the busy urban day to sing one’s melodies—which may be why that annoying Magpie Robin keeps waking you up at 4 in the morning, well before dawn!

Of course, not many species are flexible enough to make these adjustments and continue living in the city. Those that cannot cope likely go extinct locally, leaving behind a poorer urban bird community. Chalk up another reason why cities worldwide are occupied mostly by the depressingly familiar contingent of pigeons and starlings and crows—the usual suspects in the homogenization of urban wildlife that seems part and parcel of the globalization package. In the long run, if our cities keep growing, and we keep finding more ways to make noise, we will chase away most of our more discriminating feathered singing friends, while those that remain will sing an impoverished urban dialect. And we all lose the symphony of biodiversity to the homogeneous urban cacaphony. We must all share Talom Yaying’s sense of loss—even though some of us just don’t know it yet!


Katti, M. (2001). Vocal communication and territoriality during the non-breeding season in a migrant warbler Current Science, 80 (3), 419-423 PDF 

Warren, P., Katti, M., Ermann, M., & Brazel, A. (2006). Urban bioacoustics: it’s not just noise Animal Behaviour, 71 (3), 491-502 DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2005.07.014  

Swaddle, J., & Page, L. (2007). High levels of environmental noise erode pair preferences in zebra finches: implications for noise pollution Animal Behaviour, 74 (3), 363-368 DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2007.01.004 

Slabbekoorn, H., & Peet, M. (2003). Birds sing at a higher pitch in urban noise Nature, 424 (6946), 267-267 DOI: 10.1038/424267a 

Fuller, R., Warren, P., & Gaston, K. (2007). Daytime noise predicts nocturnal singing in urban robins Biology Letters, 3 (4), 368-370 DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2007.0134

The Ant Whisperer on PBS (tonight if you live in the right place)

Many PBS stations will be airing this new NOVA biopic about EO Wilson’s remarkable life and career tonight. Not our Valley Public Television station, though – they’d rather raise funds by broadcasting self-help guru Wayne Dyer, if you can believe it! Can’t spare even one of their now four digital channels for NOVA. Such is life in this lovely valley… sigh! But, despair not if you too would rather spend time with Wilson, for you can watch all 5 chapters on the show’s website, and PBS has also put the entire film on YouTube’s new TV channels! So watch it online instead, if your internet tubes are broad enough…

Mysteries in the Kingdom of the Blue Whale

KingdomOfTheBlueWhale.jpgMy daughter and I just previewed (as did Kevin Zelnio of Deep Sea News) National Geographic’s new documentary “Kingdom of the Blue Whale” premiering tonight at 8:00 PM on the NatGeo channel here in the US. The girls (3 and almost 9) were skeptical at first, especially because it had interrupted something else they were watching while waiting for brunch, but really got into it as the story unfolded. The younger one – no surprise – loved it whenever they actually showed the creatures underwater, culminating, of course, in the amazing first-time-ever footage of an infant Blue Whale. That comes at the end, of course, but the story leading up to it is quite fascinating too, told as it is in two intertwining threads which gradually pulled in 9-year old Sanzari:

One strand follows biologists tagging and tracking the whales from the California coast all the way into the warm tropical “nursery” of the Costa Rica dome (watch the show to find out what a “dome” might mean in the ocean), trying to solve the puzzles of their life-cycle, which is surprisingly poorly understood for the largest creatures on the planet! Sanzari, who spent a year in the field with her mom studying another charismatic yet elusive (and much smaller!) mammal, the Slender Loris, in the forests of southern India, could relate to the challenges of tagging the whales, but couldn’t quite imagine tracking them across half an ocean! Tough to scale up from tracking the tiny lorises, hard enough to track in their several hectare sized home-ranges, to creatures occupying half of the world’s biggest ocean!! She therefore enjoyed it when the biologists got their payoff after months on the ocean, including sad episodes when they found whales dead from being hit by ships!

Intertwined with this is a second thread which follows researchers investigating the whale meat market in Japan, using undercover operatives and portable genetics labs set up in hotel rooms! Exciting stuff, especially when they teamed up with a local female biologist who posed as a regular shopper to obtain samples from the whale meat market; and when they hung up the “do not disturb” sign on their hotel door to set up the portable genetics lab to extract DNA from the samples. What Nancy Drew fan wouldn’t want to do such investigative work? Although we did wonder why the biologists weren’t simply collaborating with Japanese scientists to analyze the samples in a proper lab?! What’s the story there?

The whale-meat trade itself provoked some anger in the girls (carnivorous though they both are), with the sushi-loving Sanzari fuming all the way through about the Japanese and the Icelanders who wouldn’t stop hunting whales! The genetic findings from one sample were even more intriguing to me… but I better not give that away before the show airs, eh? If you can’t wait, or don’t get the channel, check out this clip on the show’s website.

What I can’t resist giving away, however, is this money-shot at the end, when the first team finally caught up with a mother and infant:

I am simply amazed that we share our planet with such magnificent creatures – and also that we know so little about even some of the largest living animals! And I hope we can find ways to ensure that my girls’ generation, and future ones too, get the opportunity to see the Blue Whales thrive once again.

Can a brain scan really tell if someone committed a crime?

Here’s another disturbing story this week about India’s march into a brave new world:

When 24 year-old Aditi Sharma was tried for the murder of her former fiance, her brain was the chief witness for the prosecution. Sharma had submitted to the highly controversial Brain Electrical Oscillations Signature test (BEOS), now employed by prosecutors in the Indian states of Maharashta and Gujarat. Going beyond lie detection, the BEOS test is supposedly able to identify whether an individual possesses memories related to a specific event. And Sharma’s conviction represents the first time an Indian court has accepted the BEOS results as proof of guilt, although neuroscientists remain skeptical about the technology’s reliability.

The NY Times also covered the story.

So how is this supposed to work? You can read the two stories above for the proposed mechanism of, is it BEOS: it depends upon certain memory-related brain areas lighting up on an EEG when the alleged perpetrator of a crime listens to an account of the alleged crime. If certain areas involved in processing smell light up, for example, the interrogator may infer that you are reliving the experience, and therefore you committed the crime! And this was apparently sufficient to convince the judge in this case to issue a life sentence!

I’m not sure what to make of my still-developing country being ahead of the curve on this new technology, but perhaps it goes hand in hand with the apparent rise in the far-right in the country and the escalation of state responses towards terrorism. So now, in addition to hardening so called anti-terror laws that further curtail civil liberties, we will have these new technologies to defeat the terrorists as well as stop your everyday garden-variety crime of passion, is it? Doesn’t all this make you feel safer already?

It apparently does not trouble the judges in Maharashtra and Gujarat (two of the most industrialized, “forward” states in the nation) that the science underlying BEOS hasn’t really passed the normal standards of scientific peer review. So are we now going to accept new tools based on non-expert judicial review alone since this judgement has now set the precedent?

Who needs expert scientific peer review anyway? Welcome to the brave new world!