How do brain chemicals influence who wins a fight?

fighting-fly-360wThe activities are as follows:

In nature, animals compete for resources. These resources include space, food, and mates. Animals use aggression as a way to capture or defend these resources, which can improve their chances of survival and mating. Aggression is a forceful behavior meant to overpower opponents that are competing for the same resource. The outcome (victory or defeat) depends on several factors. In insects, the bigger individuals often win. However, if two opponents are the same size, other factors can influence outcomes. For example, an individual with more experience may defeat an individual with less experience. Also individuals that are fighting to gain something necessary for their survival have a strong drive, or motivation, to defeat other individuals.

Researchers Andrew, Ken, and John study how the brain works to regulate behavior when motivation is present. They wanted to know if specific chemicals in the brain influenced the outcome of a physically aggressive competition. Andrew, Ken, and John read a lot papers written by other scientists, and learned that there was a chemical that played an important role in regulating aggressive behavior. This chemical compound, called serotonin is found in the brains of all animals, including humans. Even a small amount of this chemical can make a big impact on aggressive behavior, and perhaps the outcome of competition.

The researchers decided to do an experiment to test what happens with increasing serotonin levels in the brain. They used stalk-eyed flies in their experiment. Stalk-eyed flies have eyes on the ends of stalks that stick out from the sides of their heads. They thought that brain serotonin levels in stalk-eyed flies would influence their aggressive behaviors in battle and therefore impact the outcome of competition. If their hypothesis is true, they predicted that increasing the brain serotonin in a stalk-eyed fly would make it more likely to use aggressive behaviors, and flies that used more aggressive behaviors would be more likely to win. Battling flies use high-intensity aggressive attacks like jumping on or striking an opponent. They also use less aggressive behaviors like flexing their front legs or rearing up on their hind legs.

Two stalk-eyed flies rearing/extending forearms in battle. Photo credit: Sam Cotton.

Two stalk-eyed flies rearing/extending forearms in battle. Photo credit: Sam Cotton.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers set up a fair test. A fair test is a way to control an experiment by only changing one piece of the experiment at a time. By changing only one variable, scientists can determine if that change caused the differences they see. Since larger flies tend to win fights, the flies were all matched up with another fly that was the same size. This acted as an experimental control for size, and made it possible to look at only the impact of serotonin levels on aggression. The scientists also controlled for the age of the flies and made sure they had a similar environment since the time they were born. The experiment had 20 trials with a different pair of flies in each. In each trial, one fly received corn mixed with a dose of serotonin, while another fly received plain corn as a control. That way, both flies received corn to eat, but only one received serotonin.

The two flies were then placed in a fighting arena and starved for 12 hours to increase their motivation to fight over food. Next, food was placed in the center of the arena, but only enough for one fly! The researchers observed the flies, recording various behaviors of each opponent. They recorded three types of behaviors. High intensity behaviors were when the fighting flies touched one another. Low-intensity behaviors were when the flies did not come in contact with each other, for example jump attacks, swipes, and lunges. The last behavior type was retreating from the fight. Flies that retreated fewer times than their opponent were declared the winners. After the battles, the researchers killed the flies and collected their brains. They then measured the concentration of serotonin in each fly’s brain.

Featured scientists: Andrew Bubak and John Swallow from the University of Colorado at Denver, and Kenneth Renner from the University of South Dakota

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.2

There is a scientific paper associated with the data in this Data Nugget. The citation and PDF for the paper is below.

Bubak, A.N., K.J. Renner, and J.G. Swallow. 2014. Heightened serotonin influences contest outcome and enhances expression of high-intensity aggressive behaviors. Behavioral Brain Research 259: 137-142.

An article written about the research in this Data Nugget: John Swallow: Co-authors study on insect aggression and neurochemistry

Videos of a experimental trial – two stalk eyed flies battling in the fighting arena. The video was filmed during the experiment by the researchers listed in this Data Nugget!

Video showing how the long eyestalks of males form!

Beetle battles

Erin has always loved beetles! Here she is with a dung beetle in Tanzania, during a graduate school class trip.

Erin has always loved beetles! Here she is with a dung beetle in Tanzania, during a graduate school class trip.

The activities are as follows:

Male animals spend a lot of time and energy trying to attract females. In some species, males directly fight with other males to become socially dominant. They also fight to take over and control important territories. This process is known as male-male competition. The large antlers of male elk are an example of a trait that has been favored by male-male competition. In other species, males try to court females directly. This process is known as female choice. The flashy tails of male peacocks are a good example of a trait that has been favored by female choice. Lastly, in some species, both male-male competition AND female choice determine which males get to mate. In order to be successful, males have to be good at both fighting other males and making themselves attractive to females. Erin is a biologist interested in these different types of mating systems. She wondered if she could discover a single trait that was favored by both male-male competition and female choice.

Two dung beetle males fighting for ownership of the artificial tunnel. Why is the photo pink? Because beetles mate and fight in dark, underground tunnels, Erin carried out all of her experiments in a dark room under dim red-filtered light. Beetles can’t see the color red, so working under red-filtered light didn’t affect the beetles’ behavior, and allowed Erin to see what the beetles were doing.

Two dung beetle males fighting for ownership of the artificial tunnel. Why is the photo pink? Because beetles mate and fight in dark, underground tunnels, Erin carried out all of her experiments in a dark room under dim red-filtered light. Beetles can’t see the color red, so working under red-filtered light didn’t affect the beetles’ behavior, and allowed Erin to see what the beetles were doing.

In horned dung beetles, male-male competition and female choice are both important in determining which males get to mate. Females dig tunnels underneath fresh piles of dung where they mate and lay their eggs. Beetles only mate inside these underground tunnels, so males fight with other males to become the owner of a tunnel. Males that control the tunnels have a better chance to mate with the female that dug it. However, there is often more than one male inside a breeding tunnel. Small males will sneak inside a main tunnel by digging a connecting side tunnel. Additionally, the constant fights between large males means that the ownership of tunnels is constantly changing. As a result, females meet many different males inside their tunnels. It is up to them to choose the male they find the most attractive, and with whom they’ll mate. In this species of dung beetle, males try to persuade females to mate by quickly tapping on the females’ back with their forelegs and antennae. Previous research has found that females are more likely to mate with males that perform this courtship tapping at a fast rate. Because both fighting and courtship tapping take a lot of strength, Erin wondered if the trait of strength was what she was looking for. Would stronger male dung beetles be favored by both male-male competition and female choice?

To keep beetles alive in the lab, Erin set up a bucket with sand, and placed one pile of dung in the center. Female beetles dug tunnels below the dung.

To keep beetles alive in the lab, Erin set up a bucket with sand, and placed one pile of dung in the center. Female beetles dug tunnels below the dung.

To test her hypothesis, Erin conducted a series of experiments to measure the mating success, fighting success, and strength of male dung beetles. First, Erin measured the mating success of male beetles by placing one male and one female in an artificial tunnel (a piece of clear plastic tubing). She watched the pair for one hour, and measured how quickly the males courted, and whether or not the pair mated. Second, Erin measured the fighting success of males by staging fights between two males over ownership of an artificial tunnel. Beetle battles consist of a head-to-head pushing match that results in one male getting pushed out of the tunnel, and the other male remaining inside. To analyze the outcome of these fights, Erin randomly selected one male in each pair as the focal male, and scored the interaction as a “win” if the focal male remained inside the tunnel, and as a “loss” if the focal male got pushed out of the tunnel. In some cases, there was not a clear winner and loser because either both males left the tunnel, or both males remained inside. These interactions were scored as a “tie”. Finally, Erin determined each beetles’ strength. She measured strength as the amount of force it took to pull a male out of an artificial tunnel. To do this, she super-glued a piece of string to the back of the beetle, had it crawl into an artificial tunnel, attached the string to a spring scale, and then pulled on the scale until the beetle was pulled out of the tunnel.

Featured scientist: Erin McCullough from the University of Western Australia

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.8

There is one scientific paper associated with the data in this Data Nugget. The citation and PDF of the paper is below:

McCullough, E.L. and L.W. Simmons (2016) Selection on male physical performance during male–male competition and female choice. Behavioral Ecology


erinAbout Erin: I am fascinated by morphological diversity, and my research aims to understand the selective pressures that drive (and constrain) the evolution of animal form. Competition for mates is a particularly strong evolutionary force, and my research focuses on how sexual selection has contributed to the elaborate and diverse morphologies found throughout the animal kingdom. Using horned beetles as a model system, I am interested in how male-male competition has driven the evolution of diverse weapon morphologies, and how sexual selection has shaped the evolution of physical performance capabilities. I am first and foremost a behavioral ecologist, but my research integrates many disciplines, including functional morphology, physiology, biomechanics, ecology, and evolution.

Feral chickens fly the coop

Red Junglefowl are the same species as chickens (Gallus gallus). On Kauai island, they have mated with feral chickens to produce hybrids (photo by Tontantours).

Red Junglefowl are the same species as chickens (Gallus gallus). On Kauai island, they have mated with feral chickens to produce hybrids (photo by Tontantours).

The activities are as follows:

When domesticated animals that humans keep in captivity escape into the wild, we call them feral. You may have seen feral animals, such as pigeons, cats, or dogs, right in your own backyard. But did you know that there are dozens of other feral species all over the world, including goats, parrots, donkeys, wallabies, and chameleons?

Sometimes feral species interbreed with closely related wild relatives to produce hybrid offspring. Feral dogs, for example, occasionally mate with wolves to produce hybrid pups, which resemble both their wolf and dog parents. Over many generations, a population made up of these wolf-dog hybrids can evolve to become more wolf-like or more dog-like. Which direction they take will depend on whether dog or wolf traits help the individual survive and reproduce in the wild. In other words, hybrids will evolve traits that are favored by natural selection.

Photograph of a feral hen on Kauai, with her recently hatched chicks (photo by Pamela Willis).

Photograph of a feral hen on Kauai, with her recently hatched chicks (photo by Pamela Willis).

You might be surprised to learn that like dogs, chickens also have close relatives living in the wild. These birds, called Red Junglefowl, inhabit the jungles of Asia and also many Pacific islands. Eben is a biologist who studies how the island populations of these birds are evolving over time. He has discovered that Red Junglefowl on Kauai Island, which is part of Hawaii, have recently started interbreeding with feral chickens. Now there is a hybrid population. Eben wanted to figure out if the hybrids on Kauai are evolving to be more like chickens, or more like Red Junglefowl. One of the biggest differences between chickens and Red Junglefowl is their breeding behaviors: Red Junglefowl females only lay a handful of eggs every spring, whereas chickens can lay eggs throughout the entire year… up to 300 or more eggs! What about Kauai’s feral hybrids? Do they lay eggs seasonally (like Red Junglefowl), or year-round (like many chickens)? Eben thought that Kauai’s feral hybrids would breed year round. He figured that natural selection would favor the hens that lay the most eggs (and therefore produce the most offspring). These hens’ offspring would inherit traits from their mother, and therefore breed year-round too. Thus, after multiple generations, hens that lay year-round might begin to outnumber hens that reproduce only in the spring.

To test his hypothesis, Eben’s research group collected hundreds of photographs and videos of Kauai’s hybrid chickens. Tourists delight in photographing Kauai’s wild chickens and uploading their media to the internet. Fortunately for Eben, their cameras and cell phones often record the dates that images are taken. Eben looked at media posted on websites like Flickr and YouTube to find documentation of feral chickens throughout the year. This allowed him to see whether chicks are present during each of the four seasons. He knew that any hen observed with chicks had recently mated and hatched eggs, because the chicks only stay with their mothers for a few weeks.

Featured scientist: Eben Gering from Michigan State University 

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.1

To learn more about feral chickens and Eben’s research, check out the popular science articles below:

Mini documentary you can watch in class. The video gives a brief history of chickens on the island of Kauai, and shows mother hens with their chicks:

Cock a Doodle Doo from John Goheen on Vimeo.

Students can watch the same videos that Eben used to collect his experimental data. They can find these videos by searching YouTube for “feral chickens Kauai” and many examples will come up, like this video:


2013-02-25 18.11.57

About Eben: One of the most exciting things I learned as a college student was that natural populations sometimes evolve very quickly. Biologists used to think evolution was too slow to be studied “in action”, so their research focused on evolutionary changes that occurred over thousands (or even millions) of years. I study feral animal populations to learn how rapid evolutionary changes help them survive and reproduce, without direct help from us.

How the cricket lost its song, Part II

In Part 1 you determined that the Kauai flatwing mutation led to a decrease in parasitism rates for male crickets. Today, most of the male crickets on Kauai have evolved flat wings and can no longer produce songs that were previously used to attract female crickets. Without their songs, how do males attract females?

Robin collecting data on satellite behavior in normal and flatwing mutation males.

Robin collecting data on satellite behavior in normal and flatwing mutation males.

The activities are as follows:

Without their song, how are flatwing crickets able to attract females? In some other animal species, like birds, males use an alternative to singing, called satellite behavior. Satellite males hang out near a singing male and attempt to mate with females who have been attracted by the song. This helps satellite males in two ways: they don’t use energy to make a song, and they avoid attracting enemies like the fly. Perhaps the satellite behavior gives flatwing males the opportunity to mate with females who were attracted to the few singing males left on Kauai.

Collecting crickets at the speaker.

Collecting crickets at the speaker.

To test this idea, Robin set up a speaker playing cricket songs in the fields where the crickets live on Kauai, Oahu, and the Island of Hawaii. The speaker tricks male and female crickets into thinking there is a male cricket in the area making songs. Before the start of the experiment, Robin removed all the males found within a 2-meter circle around the speaker. She then broadcast cricket songs from the speaker for 20 minutes. She then returned and counted the number of males in the 2-meter circle, measured the distance from male to the speaker, and noted whether each male was normal or flatwing. Robin expected that flatwing males would be more likely to use satellite behavior and, therefore, would be on average closer to the speaker than normal males.

Featured scientist: Robin Tinghitella from the University of Denver

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.0

Additional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget include:

  • A video introducing the study system and describing how, in fewer than 20 generations, crickets on the island of Kuai went from singing to silent!

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Make way for mummichogs

Collecting mummichogs and other fish out of research traps.

Collecting mummichogs and other fish out of research traps.

The activities are as follows:

Salt marshes are important habitats and contain a wide diversity of species. These ecosystems flood with salt water during the ocean’s high tide and drain as the tide goes out. Fresh water also flows into marshes from rivers and streams. Many species in the salt marsh can be affected when the movement of salt and fresh water across a tidal marsh is blocked by human activity, for example by the construction of roads. These restrictions to water movement, or tidal restrictions, can have many negative effects on salt marshes, such as changing the amount of salt in the marsh waters, or blocking fish from accessing different areas.

Local managers are working to remove tidal restrictions and bring back valuable habitat. At the same time, scientists are working to study how the remaining tidal restrictions impact fish populations. To do this, they measure the number of fish found upstream of tidal restrictions, which is the side connected to the river’s freshwater but cut off from the ocean when the restriction is in place. By taking measurements before and after the restriction is removed, scientists can study the impacts that the restriction had on fish populations

Mummichogs are a small species of fish that live in tidal marshes all along the Atlantic coast of the United States.

Mummichogs are a small species of fish that live in tidal marshes all along the Atlantic coast of the United States.

Mummichogs are a small species of fish that live in tidal marshes all along the Atlantic coast of the United States. They can be found in most streams and marsh areas and are therefore a valuable tool for scientists interested in comparing different marshes. The absence of mummichogs in a salt marsh is likely a sign that it is highly damaged.

In Gloucester, MA, students participating in Mass Audubon’s Salt Marsh Science Project are helping Liz and Robert use mummichogs to examine the health of a salt march. In 2002 and 2003 Liz, Robert, and the students set traps upstream of a road, which was acting as a tidal restriction. These traps collected mummichogs and other species of fish. The day after they set the traps, the students counted the number of each fish species found in the traps.

Students participating in Mass Audubon’s Salt Marsh Science Project Count fish at Eastern Point Wildlife Sanctuary, Gloucester, MA

Students participating in Mass Audubon’s Salt Marsh Science Project Count fish at Eastern Point Wildlife Sanctuary, Gloucester, MA

In December 2003, a channel was dug below the road to remove the tidal restriction and restore the marsh. From 2004 to 2007, students in the program continued to place traps in the same upstream location and collect data in the same way each year. Students then compared the number of fish from before the restoration to the numbers found after the restriction was removed. The students thought that once the tidal restriction was removed, mummichogs would return to the upstream locations in the marsh.

Featured scientists: Liz Duff and Robert Buchsbaum from Mass Audubon. Written by: Maria Maradianos, Samantha Scola, and Megan Wagner.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.9

trap_locations

Additional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget:

Bye bye birdie? Part II

In Part I, you examined the patterns of total bird abundance at Hubbard Brook Experimental ForestThese data showed bird numbers at Hubbard Brook have declined since 1969. Is this true for every species of bird? You will now examine data for four species of birds to see if each of these species follows the same trend.

Red-eyed vireo in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest

Red-eyed vireo in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest

The activities are as follows:

It is very hard to study migratory birds because they are at Hubbard Brook only during their breeding season (summer in the northern hemisphere). They spend the rest of their time in the neotropics, or migrating back and forth between their two homes. Therefore, it can be difficult to tease out the many variables affecting bird populations over their entire range. To start, scientists decided to focus on what they could study, the habitat types at Hubbard Brook, and how they might affect bird populations.

Hubbard Brook Forest was heavily logged and disturbed in the early 1900s. Trees were cut down to make wood products, like paper and housing materials. Logging ended in 1915, and various plants began to grow back. The area went through secondary succession, which refers to the naturally occurring changes in forest structure that happen as a forest recovers after it was cut down or otherwise disturbed. Today, the forest has grown back. Scientists today know that as the forest grew older, its structure changed: trees grew taller, and there was less shrubby understory. It contains a mixture of deciduous trees that lose their leaves in the winter (about 80–90%; mostly beech, maples, and birches) and evergreen trees that stay green all year (about 10–20%; mostly hemlock, spruce, and fir).

Richard and his fellow scientists used their knowledge of bird species and thought that some bird species would prefer habitats found in younger forests, and others would prefer habitats found in older forests. They decided to look into the habitat preferences of four important species of birds: the Least Flycatcher, Red-eyed Vireo, Black-throated Green Warbler, and American Redstart and compare them to habitats available at each stage of succession.

  • Least Flycatcher: The Least Flycatcher prefers to live in semi-open, mid-successional forests. The term mid-successional refers to forests that are still growing back after a disturbance. These forests usually consist of trees that are all about the same age, have a thick canopy at the top with few gaps, an open middle canopy, and a denser shrub layer close to the ground.
  • Red-eyed Vireo: The Red-eyed Vireo breeds in deciduous forests as well as forests that are mixed with deciduous and evergreen trees. They are abundant deep in the center of a forest. It avoids areas where trees have been cut down, and does not live near the edge. After logging, it often takes a very long time for this species to return.
  • Black-throated Green Warbler: The Black-throated Green Warbler occupies a wide variety of habitats. It seems to prefer areas where deciduous and evergreen forests meet, and can be found in both forest types. It avoids disturbed areas and forests that are just beginning succession. This species prefers both mid-successional and mature forests.
  • American Redstart: The American Redstart generally prefers moist, deciduous, forests with many shrubs. Like the Least Flycatcher, this species prefers mid-successional forests.

birds

Featured scientist: Richard Holmes from the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest. Data Nugget written by: Sarah Turtle and Jackie Wilson.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.2

A view of the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest

A view of the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest

Additional teacher resource related to this Data Nugget:

There are two publications related to the data included in this activity:

  • Holmes, R. T. 2010. Birds in northern hardwoods ecosystems: Long-term research on population and community processes in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest. Forest Ecology and Management doi:10.1016/j.foreco.2010.06.021
  • Holmes, R.T., 2007. Understanding population change in migratory songbirds: long-term and experimental studies of Neotropical migrants in breeding and wintering areas. Ibis 149 (Suppl. 2), 2-13

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Bye bye birdie? Part I

Male Black-throated Blue Warbler feeding nestlings. Nests of this species are built typically less than one meter above ground in a shrub such as hobblebush. Photo by N. Rodenhouse.

Male Black-throated Blue Warbler feeding nestlings. Nests of this species are built typically less than one meter above ground in a shrub such as hobblebush. Photo by N. Rodenhouse.

The activities are as follows:

The Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest is an area where scientists have collected ecological data for many years. It is located in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and data collected in this forest helps uncover trends that happen over long periods of time. It is important to collect data on ecosystems over time, because these patterns could be missed with shorter experiments.

Richard Holmes is an avian ecologist who began this study because he was interested in how bird populations were responding to long-term environmental change.

Richard Holmes is an avian ecologist who began this study because he was interested in how bird populations were responding to long-term environmental change.

Each spring, Hubbard Brook comes alive with the arrival of migratory birds. Many migrate from wintering areas in the tropics to take advantage of the abundant insects and the long summer days of northern areas, which are beneficial when raising young. Avian ecologists, scientists who study the ecology of birds, have been keeping records on the birds that live in the experimental forest for over 40 years. These data are important because they represent one of the longest bird studies ever conducted!

Richard is an avian ecologist who began this study. He was interested in how bird populations were responding to long-term environmental changes in Hubbard Brook. Every summer since 1969, Richard takes his team of scientists, students, and technicians into the field to count the number of birds that are in the forest and identify which species are present. Richard’s team monitors populations of over 30 different bird species. They wake up every morning before the sun rises and travel to the far reaches of the forest. They listen for, look for, identify, and count all the birds they find. The scientists record the number of birds observed in four different study areas, each of which are 10 hectare in size – roughly the same size as 19 football fields! Each of the four study areas contain data collection points that are arranged in transects that run east to west along the valley. Transects are parallel lines along which the measurements are taken. Each transect is approximately 500m apart from the next. At each point on each transect, an observer stands for ten minutes recording all birds seen or heard during a ten minute interval, and estimates the distance the bird is from the observer. The team has been trained to be able to identify the birds by sight, but also by their calls. Team members are even able to identify how far away a bird is by hearing its call! The entire valley is covered three times a season. By looking at bird abundance data, Richard can identify trends that reveal how avian populations change over time.

Featured scientist: Richard Holmes from the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest. Data Nugget written by: Sarah Turtle, Jackie Wilson and Elizabeth Schultheis.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.6

A view of the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest

A view of the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest

Additional teacher resource related to this Data Nugget:

There are two publications related to the data included in this activity:

  • Holmes, R. T. 2010. Birds in northern hardwoods ecosystems: Long-term research on population and community processes in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest. Forest Ecology and Management doi:10.1016/j.foreco.2010.06.021
  • Holmes, R.T., 2007. Understanding population change in migratory songbirds: long-term and experimental studies of Neotropical migrants in breeding and wintering areas. Ibis 149 (Suppl. 2), 2-13

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Does sea level rise harm Saltmarsh Sparrows?

Painting of the saltmarsh sparrow

Painting of the saltmarsh sparrow

The activities are as follows:

For the last 100 years, sea levels around the globe have increased dramatically. The cause of sea level rise has been investigated and debated. Data from around the world supports the hypothesis that increasing sea levels are a result of climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels. As we warm the Earth, the oceans get warmer and polar ice caps melt. The dramatic increase in sea level that results could seriously threaten ecosystems and the land that humans have developed along the coast.

Salt marshes are plains of grass that grow along the east coast of the United States and many coasts worldwide. Salt marshes grow right at sea level and are therefore very sensitive to sea level rise. In Boston Harbor, Massachusetts, the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Tide Gauge has measured a 21mm rise in sea level over the last 8 years. That means every year sea level has gone up an average of 2.6mm since 2008 – more than two and a half times faster than before we started burning fossil fuels! Because sea level is going up at such a fast rate, Robert, a scientist in Boston, became concerned for the local salt marsh habitats near his home. Robert was curious about what will happen to species that depend on Boston’s Plum Island Sound salt marshes when sea levels continue to rise.

Robert preparing his team for a morning of salt marsh bird surveys.

Robert preparing his team for a morning of salt marsh bird surveys.

Robert decided to look at species that are very sensitive to changes in the salt marsh. When these sensitive species are present, they indicate the marsh is healthy. When these species are no longer found in the salt marsh, there might be something wrong. The Saltmarsh Sparrow is one of the few bird species that builds its nests in the salt marsh, and is totally dependent on this habitat. Saltmarsh Sparrows rely completely on salt marshes for feeding and nesting, and therefore their numbers are expected to decline as sea levels rise and they lose nesting sites. Robert heard that scientists studying Connecticut marshes reported the nests of these sparrows have been flooded in recent years. He wanted to know if the sparrows in Massachusetts were also losing their nests because of high sea levels.

For the past two decades Robert has kept track of salt marsh breeding birds at Plum Island Sound. In his surveys since 2006, Robert counted the number of Saltmarsh Sparrows in a given area. He did these surveys in June when birds are most likely to be breeding. He used the “point count” method – standing at a center point he measured out a 100 meter circle around him. Then, for 10 minutes, he counted how many and what kinds of birds he saw or heard within and just outside the circle. Each year he set up six count circles and performed counts three times in June each year at each circle. Robert also used sea level data from Boston Harbor that he can relate to the data from his bird surveys. He predicted that sea levels would be rising in Plum Island Sound and Saltmarsh Sparrow populations would be falling over time.

Featured scientist: Robert Buchsbaum from Mass Audubon. Written by: Wendy Castagna, Daniel Gesin, Mike McCarthy, and Laura Johnson

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.5

Saltmarsh-Sparrow-104-crAdditional teacher resources related to this Data Nugget include:

coordinates

station locations

CSI: Crime Solving Insects

Scientist Paula catching blow flies in the field using an insect net.

Scientist Paula catching blow flies in the field using an insect net.

The activities are as follows:

Most people think that maggots (larvae of blow flies) are gross, but they are important decomposers in many ecosystems. Without maggots, we would all trip over dead bodies every time we went outside! Not only do maggots break down dead animal bodies in nature, but they decompose human bodies as well!

Forensic entomology uses these amazing insects to help the criminal justice system. Remember the next time you swat away a fly, these little insects help police solve crimes! Adult blow flies are usually the first to arrive at a crime scene with a dead body. The blow flies oviposit, or lay their eggs, shortly after their arrival. These eggs hatch and become maggots that feed on the body. Scientists can use the age of the maggot to help estimate how long someone has been dead. The longer a body has been dead, the longer ago the eggs hatched and the older the maggot larvae will be.

Kristi and Paula, two forensic entomologists, were in the field on day, documenting the timing of blow fly oviposition. They noticed something unexpected! There were wasps stuck in the traps they were using to catch blow flies. The scientists wondered if these wasps would affect a blow fly’s decision to oviposit. Wasps will attack adult blow flies and will also eat their eggs. Blow flies have an incredible sense of smell and sight. Blow flies may be able to use their senses to detect if a wasp is near a body. If a wasp is detected, blow flies could choose to avoid the area or delay laying their eggs. The scientists predicted that blow flies would delay their oviposition when wasps were present near a body. If wasps cause blow flies to delay oviposition, this could change how scientist’s use maggot age to determine how long ago a body died.

Control bait cup with a large number of blow flies on the chicken liver

Control bait cup with a large number of blow flies on the chicken liver

To test their hypothesis, the scientists did 10 trials in the field. They used bait cups that contained chicken liver to simulate a dead human body. A total of 9 bait cups were used in each of the 10 trials, for a total of 90 cups. Of the 9 cups used in each trial, three contained only chicken liver, to represent a body with no wasps present. These cups were used as controls. Three cups contained chicken liver and a wasp pinned to the side of the bait cup so that there was a visual cue of the wasp. The final three cups had a crushed wasp sprinkled over chicken liver to see if blow flies could use a smell cue to tell that a wasp was present without seeing them. Researchers checked the cups every half hour for the presence of blow fly eggs. If they saw any eggs, they recorded the time of oviposition in hours after sunrise. They then brought the maggots to the lab and raised them to the third larval stage and identified them to species.

Featured scientists: Kristi Bugajski and Paula Stoller from Valparaiso University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 7.6

The Flight of the Stalk-Eyed Fly

Variation between stalk-eyed fly species in eyestalk length.

Variation between stalk-eyed fly species in eyestalk length.

The activities are as follows:

Stalk-eyed flies are insects with eyes located on the ends of long projections on the sides of their head, called eyestalks. Male stalk-eyed flies have longer eyestalks than females, and this plays an important role in the flies’ mating patterns. Female stalk-eyed flies prefer to mate with males with longer eyestalks. In this way, the eyestalks are much like the bright and colorful peacock’s tail. This kind of sexual selection can lead to the evolution of longer and longer eyestalks over generations. But do these long eyestalks come at a cost? For example, longer eyestalks could make it more difficult to turn quickly when flying. As with all flies, stalk-eyed flies do not fly in a straight line all the time, and often zigzag in air. If long eyestalks make quick turns more difficult, we might expect there to be a trade-off between attracting mates and flight.

Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 2.45.44 PMMoment of inertia (I) is defined as an object’s tendency to resist rotation – in other words how difficult it is to make something turn. An object is more difficult to turn (has a higher moment of inertia) when it is more massive, and when it is further from its axis of rotation. Imagine trying to swing around quickly holding a gallon of water – this is difficult because the water has a lot of mass. Now imagine trying to swing around holding a baseball bat with a jug of water attached to the end. This will be even more difficult, because the mass is further away from the axis of rotation (your body). Now lets bring that back to the stalk-eyed fly. The baseball bat now represents the eyestalk of the fly, while the gallon of water represents the eye at the end of the stalk. We can express the relationship between the mass of the object (m = mass of the eye), its distance from the axis of rotation (R = length of eyestalk), and the moment of inertia (I) using the following equation: I = mR2.

Because moment of inertia goes up with the square of the distance from the axis, we might expect that as the length of the flies’ eyestalks goes up, the harder and harder it will be for the fly to maneuver during flight. If this is the case, we would predict that male stalk-eyed flies would make slower turns compared to similar sized female flies with shorter eyestalks.

Differences in male and female eyestalk length.

Differences in male and female eyestalk length.

To address this idea, scientists measured the effect of eyestalk length on the moment of inertia of the body needs. In addition, they measured differences in turning performance during flight. Scientists Gal and John tracked free flight trajectories of female and male stalk-eyed flies in a large flight chamber. Because female and male stalk-eyed flies have large differences in eyestalk length, their flight performance can be compared to determine the effects of eyestalk length on flight. However, other traits may differ between males and females, so body size and wing length measurements were also taken. If increased moment of inertia does limit turning performance as expected, the male flies that have significantly longer eyestalks should demonstrate slower and less tight turns, indicating a decrease in free flight performance. If there is no difference in turning performance between males and females with significantly different eyestalk lengths, then males must have a way to compensate for the higher moment of inertia.

Featured scientists: Gal Ribak from Tel-Aviv University, Israel and John Swallow from University of Colorado, Denver. Written by: Brooke Ravanelli from Denver Public School, Zoё Buck Bracey from BSCS, and John Swallow.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.0

Once your students have completed this Data Nugget, there is an extension lab activity where students can conduct their own experiment testing moment of inertia. Students simulate the flying experience of stalk-eyed flies and go through an obstacle course carrying their eyestalks with them as they maneuver through the cones to the finish line. To access this lab, click here!

Video showing how the long eyestalks of males form!