But this post isn’t really just about my work; it’s about the other cool studies shown on camera. The thing that surprised me the most about the most about this series was the amount of the research that I had either seen presented at conferences or had been done by scientists that I personally know or that I had helped out with. This just goes to show how small a world the behavioural ecology field is, but also how many exciting young scientist there are currently picking apart the natural world (as all of the below research is by young academics). So below I will put a brief description of what is shown on the TV show, a comment on how I knew about it and then a link to the research (as it’s always far more exciting than the 5-10 mins of footage you’ll see on screen).
Firstly, the mimetic orchid mantis, whose mimicry is good that they actually attract more pollinators to them than the flowers they are mimicking. This work was done by James O’Hanlon, and I first saw it presented at ISBE in Lund 2012. He’s a great speaker, as shown by this YouTube video: LINK. Because the mantis is larger than and appears brighter than (to the insects they are predating on) than the flowers they are mimicking then they are a supernormal stimulus. It’s just a really cool bit of nature and very elegant research.
It appears at 4:09 in Episode 2 (The Hunger Game).
Secondly, drongos stealing food from unsuspecting host species. This bit of storytelling was really a combination of a couple of papers. The first is a paper that I helped with and whose first author is Bruce Baigrie, investigated how drongos use sentinel calls to manipulate sociable weavers in a fascinating mutualism. The second paper and third papers, by Tom Flower, delves into the mimetic alarm calls that drongos use to steal food from their host species. Every time the drongos have appeared on TV it has always been with them shown as stealing food from meerkats, but the species that they hammer the most are the sociable weavers and then possibly the pied babblers. In fact, much of the early work was done looking at the dynamics of how drongos and babblers interacted.
It appears at 49:12 in Episode 2 (The Hunger Game).
Thirdly, the show describes how honeyguides parasitise other species to have them raise their own offspring. This is based on the work of Claire Spottiswoode, an amazing field researcher who splits her time between Cambridge, Cape Town and Zambia. Honeyguides lay their eggs in the underground nests of bee-eaters and when their young hatch they hatch early and then grow a sharp hook at the end of their beak that they use to kill their unrelated brood mates - very deadly. By doing this they can monopolise the provisioning of their host offspring. This section of the show also goes into the natural history of cuckoos, and who is a better expert on the subject than Nick Davies. So for the cuckoos I will recommend a great book that goes through not only Prof Davies’ work but that of his forbears and contemporaries.
It appears at 43:47 in Episode 3 (Sex, Lies and Dirty Tricks).
Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature – Nick Davies
Lastly, as it was actually the final part of the series, my work on fledgling provisioning in pied babblers. My work shows that young fledgling babblers, who are amazingly incompetent fliers who are very slow to respond to alarm calls can get fed up to 9 times as much food by moving to areas of danger when predators have been spotted in the local environment. Adults feed the chicks to shut them up and move them to safety.
It appears at 51:46 in Episode 3 (Sex, Lies and Dirty Tricks).
Other notable studies in the final episode of the series are on Kangeroos (that I think an ex-Cambridg classmate Emily Best) and bowerbirds (which is similar to the work of an ex-colleague Jess Isden), and fiddler crabs that I have blogged about before. It’s a very small world.