Tag Archives: communication

How the White-Crowned Sparrow changes its tune to be heard through the urban din

Last October, I was invited by Laurel Serieys (a graduate student at UCLA)  to present a paper at The Wildlife Society’s 20th Annual Conference in a symposium on how urbanization can cause wildlife populations to diverge by altering behavioral, physiological, and genetic aspects of populations occurring in cities compared to non-urban areas. This is an emerging field of research as we are beginning to build a better understanding of how different cities are as habitats for many species, and the different ways by which they may adapt to city life – or not. This approach is part of the research strategy which should help explain some of the broader patterns we are observing in the distribution of biodiversity in the world’s cities.

I spoke about the effects of urban noise on bird song, based on the excellent Masters thesis project by my (now former) graduate student Jenny Phillips, who studied migratory White-Crowned Sparrows spending the winter in California’s Central Valley. Jenny has since gone on to a Ph.D. program at Tulane University, working in the lab of Elizabeth Derryberry, who was on her MS thesis committee (and with whom I intend to continue collaborating to extend this research).

Photo of White-Crowned Sparrow sitting in a fence

A white crowned sparrow framed in the demarcated landscapes of California’s Central Valley. Photo by Madhusudan Katti, 2008.

I just remembered that TWS was recording talks and sessions throughout the conference, and went looking to see if my talk was recorded. Indeed it was! So if you are interested in hearing about some of Jenny’s and my work on urban bird song, have a listen to my talk on this page, which shows you my slides coupled with my ghati-accented voice:

Singing in the urban din: the effects of anthropogenic noise on song structure in urban birds

Note: the audio had glitches when I tried listening through Safari, but worked fine on Google Chrome; YMMV.

Here’s my abstract for that talk:

Female birds often use male song as an indicator of mate quality; thus the study of song provides insights into reproductive success. Song structure is constrained by the acoustic environment with selection favoring songs that transmit best through available channels given ambient noise and atmospheric conditions. Ecology_specifically those components of the environment that influence sound transmission_thus influences the cultural evolution of songs. One relatively new selection pressure on many birds’ song, is anthropogenic noise, from car traffic as well as industrial machinery and other urban sources. Urban noise resonates at low frequencies and has been shown to influence song frequencies in sedentary populations of song sparrows, great tits, and blackbirds. Increase in ambient noise has also been shown to diminish discriminatory ability in female zebra finches. I first present a brief conceptual overview of the potential and documented effects of urban noise on bird song and behavior. I then share results from ongoing studies of the effects of noise on song in White-crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii, a long distance migrant wintering in urbanizing areas of central California. Songs and noise were recorded across the urban-rural noise gradient in Fresno-Clovis Metropolitan Area and compared for acoustic differences in frequency and duration. Modulated note components of the song, the buzz and trill, decreased in bandwidth with increasing noise. The duration of the buzz portion can also be predicted by noise and habitat type. This trend towards short, pure tones in noisy areas is likely an adaptation to be better heard through the roar of the city. Playback experiments also found increased latency to respond to territorial simulations under high ambient noise levels. This may contribute to a breakdown of territoriality in urban habitats. Anthropogenic noise is likely to be an important driver of population divergence due to urbanization.

Following the footsteps of Darwin and Wallace into… Facebook and Twitter?

What would Darwin and Wallace have been doing in this age of online social networks? Or more accurately, had these social networking tools been available to them in their century? Would they have maintained active Facebook pages to share stories (blog posts, really) from their adventures on the high seas, and their many fascinating discoveries about the animals and plants they encountered? Would they have tweeted their emerging insights into the process of Evolution by Natural Selection, or revealed them one Facebook update at a time?

Darwin FB

If you look at the sheer volume of correspondence these gentlemen maintained during the 19th century (Darwin’s letters; Wallace’s letters), and the number of books they wrote for the public (i.e., non-academic readers), you’d have to think the answer to all of the above questions would have to be a fairly enthusiastic “yes“! Well, except may be that last one about sharing the theory of evolution, which Darwin (at least) might still have preferred to keep under wraps. In general, though, even a cursory reading of the biographies of these gentlemen naturalists makes it clear that they were really plugged in, well connected with their contemporary networks of naturalists (amateur and professional) and scientists throughout the western world, as well as in the remote countries where they traveled collecting rocks, fossils, plants, and animals.

Would Darwin have even heard of Wallace’s independent discovery of the principle of Natural Selection if not for the social network of the day, which led the latter to mail Darwin a copy of his paper on the subject? And it was Darwin’s own network of friends (like Huxley) who knew about his earlier discovery of the principle, who made sure he got the credit he deserved. 

And without the extent of Darwin’s correspondence and social connectedness, would we have the wonderful story of Darwin’s last act of kindness towards a beetle collected by a fellow beetle-fancier and show salesman, narrated wonderfully by David Quammen in one of my absolute favorite radio segments: Charles Darwin and the Racing Asparagus?

Which is why I believe that Darwin and Wallace and the many active biologists of their generation would have absolutely been blogging about their work, and would have been early adopters of our 21st century social communication tools such as Facebook and Twitter and Google+. I am delighted that someone has set up twitter accounts in both their name (@cdarwin; @ARWallace). And I believe we modern day biologists have much to gain by following in their footsteps, and making the most of these tools to not only communicate our discoveries, but to also build collaborations, bring large datasets together, and in so many other ways, actually further the very process of conducting our science.

My own collaborative research and writing ventures over the past decade have relied greatly upon my being active in the blogosphere, and on twitter and Facebook. Yet so many of my colleagues remain skeptical of the value of online social networks, and continue to consider it a waste of time. The snootiness of some in today’s academic ivory towers towards such common communication baffles me. But their ranks are shrinking every day as more and more of my friends and colleagues are beginning to use Facebook and twitter, some of them even setting up blogs.

And so, when my friend Sue Bertram (blog, twitter) recently asked me to help write a paper addressing our luddite colleagues to tell them about the value of online social networking tools, and also how to use them and make the most of them, I jumped at the chance. We had fun writing the paper during our respective parallel sabbaticals: me bumming around in India, Sue surfing along the central California coast. Indeed, we would have had a much harder time writing this paper if not for twitter and dropbox, the two pillars of our collaboration (in this instance). I am happy to announce that our paper has just been published in the Future of Publication section of open access online journal Ideas in Ecology and Evolution!

So point your browsers this way and download today:

Bertram, S. and Katti, M. 2013. The Social Biology Professor: Effective Strategies for Social Media Engagement. Ideas in Ecology and Evolution 6:22-31. doi:10.4033/iee.2013.6.5.f.

We hope you find it useful, and welcome any thoughts or comments you might have on the paper – either on the journal website or right here, under this post.

ScienceOnline2012 in Review

Nice short video overview of the ScienceOnline2012 unconference I attended last january, just days before my life went into a turbulent period from which I am still recovering. I had several blog posts in mind to record my own experience at the meeting, and summarize the discussion in the un-session I was able to lead there. It is nice to see this video which reminds me of the warmth of that unconference, and jogs memories that should help me write those blog posts… just as soon as I’m done catching up with all the other more urgent scheisse that has piled up at work in my absence! In the meantime, enjoy this video, which even has my own hairy face on camera for a second, laughing at something Brian Malow, the Science Comedian said during lunch on the final day. Its only been a couple of months, but feels so long ago that I have to say: ah, the memories!

GREAT MIGRATIONS: National Geographic’s Global Television Event Starts November 7

I just received the following announcement via email, and thought it worth sharing here. A couple of days ago I also received a pre-screening packet from them with DVDs and a couple of books accompanying the series. I intend to post reviews here in time for the series to begin. In the meantime, here’s the announcement.


Women bloggers of science

I have come to know some excellent women bloggers who write eloquently about science in various fora, so I was a bit mystified by recent observations that they seem to be underrepresented in the more prominent blogging networks (which are proliferating a bit these days). Martin Robbins, who is now part of the Guardian’s new network of science bloggers, has crowdsourced this excellent list of female science bloggers. Know any that are missing?

[Update: The list is growing, of course, so follow the #wsb hashtag if you are on twitter, and the comments thread on Martin’s post.]

A recent blog post by Jenny Rohn observed that ‘celebrated science bloggers are predominantly male’, and points to the fact that across the various science blogging collectives – including our fledgling efforts here at the Guardian, although I can tell you we certainly tried to get a fair balance – there is a distinct over-abundance of Y chromosomes.

So like the armchair activist I am, I created a hashtag on Twitter – #wsb – and asked people to help me come up with a list. Over the next several hours, more than a hundred replies came in, and beautifully, the tag became an impromptu celebration of women in science blogging.

Here’s the resulting list:

(In alphabetical order of first name. Please post any errors or people I’ve missed in the comments, preferably with a URL where I can find their blog.)



(With particular thanks to: @alicebell, @smallcasserole, @sarahkendrew, @scicurious, @biochembelle, @geekingambia, @jomarchant, @aetiology, @BecCrew, @droenn, @tdelene, @hpringle, @kateclancy, @oanasandu, @elakdawalla, @tkingdoll, @anthinpractice,@hpringle and @culturingsci.)

That’s 86 women science bloggers – clearly no shortage – so why aren’t they breaking through and gaining more prominence?

What do you think, and who have I missed in the list above?


Scientia Pro Publica #37


Welcome to the 37th iteration of Scientia Pro Publica, the carnival that brings together a selection of writings from the blogosphere on the environment, human health, and various other sciences. This week we have a whole gamut of essays ranging across the spectrum, so I won’t keep you long before you can start sampling the goods. Just remember to leave a comment to let the authors know what you think of their writing. And note that the next edition will be hosted by Dr. Shock on Aug 30th, so don’t forget to submit links to blog posts that catch your eye over the next couple of weeks.

Journeys through space and time

Let us start the journey at the biggest of scales, shall we? Ever wondered what a Galaxy is, really? Astro Basics offers a comprehensive overview of what a Galaxy is, and what it has meant to us, astronomers and laypersons, through the history of astronomy. Staying with history, but closer to home, Romeo Vitelli at Provedentia shares an interesting tale of extreme, you might even say pathological, denialism in the 19th century when Alfred Russell Wallace took on John Hampden’s Flat Earth Wager looking for some easy cash but ending up with more than he had bargained for. There a lesson in there somewhere for the current “debates” between scientists and denialists of various sorts, I’m sure.

Meanwhile, Matthew Willis of Backyard and Beyond takes us on a journey from Iceland, home of the infamous Eyjafjallajökull that had our tongues atwist earlier this year, all the way to his neighborhood of Brooklyn, the Hudson river valley and the Palisades, while ruminating on volcanoes, their power and their effects on human history. He has a wonderful way of connecting the global with the local and personal both in geology and history. On a lighter, more (or less) poetic note, Sarah Zielinski at Smithsonian’s Surprising Science blog is on a quest for bad poetry about geology. And she would like your help deciding which couplet she’s discovered is the worst, so go vote in the poll at the bottom of her delightful post!

If you still in the mood for travel, you have two wonderful excursions to share in, virtually. Kazimierz Lebowski of Science and Soul takes us on a class trip through the cloud forest and montane landscapes of Costa Rica, illustrated with beautiful photographs. Over at eco logic, Kulbhushansingh Suryawanshi shares a more adventurous expedition to the Hidden Fortress of Gya, the tallest Himalayan peak in Himachal Pradesh, in search of the snow leopard and the blue sheep.

Of human glory and folly

This business of science has led us on some amazing journeys, from the galactic to the molecular scales. At Reciprocal Space, Stephen Curry tells us the fascinating story of an amazing molecule without which we would not survive, a molecule of life and deathAkshat Rathi at the Allotrope tells us how far we have come from the discovery of that critical molecule, to becoming molecular architects, for we have mastered the art and science of constructing complex naturally occurring molecules in the laboratory from easily available raw materials! How’s that for human achievement?! Or hubris? Because we still don’t fully understand how many of the more complex molecules, such as proteins, fold into their three-dimensional functional forms after being transcribed from their DNA code. Which is why scientists have to turn to gamers for help, with Foldit, a game reviewed by GrrlScientist who is now at Scientopia.

It is difficult to escape humanity’s influence in even the remotest places on earth, as both the travel essays above also indicate. We humans have a tendency to start and get into all kinds of trouble, for ourselves and for other species on this planet. Patrick Clarkin has tried to unravel one of the biggest knots in this human tendency to self-destruct, the biology of war, by exploring the connections between war, health, and evolution. Much to think about in that there post!

So what does make humans tick, then? Eric Michael Johnson, in a guest post at Neuron Culture, reviews a recent paper to discuss how in Great Apes and in humans, simple games that children play often prepare them (us) for the complex social skills they will need as adults. Michelle, entertaining as ever, reviews the role of menopause (that human oddity) as an evolutionary strategy, and tells us of more research in the “duh” category demonstrating how sex, like exercise, can reduce anxiety!

We may be getting a better understanding of the brain, but, are we any good at testing our mental abilities? – asks Andrew Bernardin at 360DegreeSkeptic. While on the subject of mental abilities, how can one not think of Sara Palin? Bob O’Hara at This Scientific Life over on Scientopia has a review of a recent study of the Palin Effect – how much did she actually help John McCain lose the election?

From understanding the evolutionary roots of how our brains work, to developing ways to make them work better when they don’t: Sharpbrains has an insightful interview with Dr. John Docherty on the value of technology as a missing link to enable a brain-based
model of brain care. While on brain care, David Rabiner, also at Sharp Brains reviews the long-term effects of neurofeedback treatment for ADHD. But if you are under such novel medical care, or any sort of medical care at all, wouldn’t you like to be able to access your own medical records electronically? An experiment in allowing such access is under way in Massachusetts, reports Pascale Lane in her Stream of Thought.

Not only are we tinkering with molecules in the lab, we have also messed with a variety of ecosystems, often by moving species around for sometimes odd reasons. Brendan Locke at the BioNode gives us a quick overview of what invasive species are, and why we should care about them. But sometimes, not matter how much you care, it is already too late – for Bambi has already run the Bears off the island all the way to extinction, says Anne-Marie Hodge of Endless Forms, with a surprising tale of a species introduction that went horribly awry.

If you think, however, that wildlife conservation is a simple matter of removing undesirable introduced elements from an ecosystem, especially elements of human disturbance such as invasive species or cattle in national parks, Pavithra Sankaran’s post at eco logic should serve to dispel you of such notions. She shares troubling and intriguing lessons (but not entirely clear ones) from experiments to mitigate conflicts between two sets of desperate neighbors: the endangered wildlife of Bandipur Tiger Reserve, and the rural poor who eke out a marginal existence at the edges of that park. What drives the people to take their cattle grazing into Bandipur, despite ongoing low-intensity trench warfare against the official forces that make this one of the best protected Tiger Reserves in India? The answer may surprise you. Just as a lasting solution continues to elude.

David at Southern Fried Science reviews the literature to give us an excellent overview of what it will take to conserve sharks. In a separate post, he also offers a review of television’s Shark Week, which apparently is getting better in terms of not exploiting the sharks for entertainment. Long way to go still, but any steps by the media towards helping rather than exploiting endangered species is to be welcomed. Back on land, Lab Rat has a look at the hidden effects of forest fires on organisms less visible than trees.

So is there hope for biodiversity? Well, we all have to do our bit, don’t we? And so have the taxonomic splitters at the American Ornithologists’ Union (of which I have been an itinerant member)! They have gone and increased the diversity of bird species yet again simply by splitting a number of former species into two (or more) new ones! How’s that for reversing the loss of biodiversity?! All joking aside, this taxonomist’s scalpel can actually be a valuable tool for conservation because it forces us to recognize the extent of genetic and evolutionary diversity within what we may think of as but one species. And so the work continues, says John Beetham at a DC Birding Blog.

If, like birdwatchers, you are into lists, here are a few science/medical lists that might be useful: 10 incredibly unlikely & inspiritational physical therapy stories at A Hearty Blog, 50 best psychology blogs worth following, and 100 best YouTube videos for science teachers
On the other hand, if you prefer to scratch your head or twirl your facial hair thoughtfully while pondering the broader implications of this business of taxonomy and classification, you may enjoy John Wilkins’ essay on natural classification and the dynamics of science.

The lows and highs of doing science

Speaking of the dynamics of science, and of human folly, this last week plunged the animal behavior/cognitive science community into some despair when Harvard University announced that it had placed eminent primate behavioral psychologist Marc Hauser on a year’s leave because an internal investigation had found potentially serious scientific misconduct in his lab. Of course this story is getting much play in the press, but I found  the perspectives of David Dobbs at Neuron CultureMelodye of Child’s Play at the new Scientopia blog network, and John Hawkes worth reading. Undoubtedly there is a lot more being written in the science blogosphere about this still unfolding situation, another bump in the road for behavioral science which has weathered a few such setbacks, and will no doubt emerge stronger from all the soul-searching engendered by this controversy.

But I can’t leave you on that sour note now, can I? Not at the end of a science carnival? So let me turn you to a more uplifting story about the true joy of doing science, the profound sense of wonder and amazement about the natural world that propels us all on this shared journey to the ever expanding frontiers of science. Alistair Dove at Deep Type Flow shares the pure bliss of dancing with a giant!

May we all find such bliss!