The Portugal Lab

31 03 2018

Our group is interested in animal behaviour and physiology, and all things in between. We’re essentially comparative ecophysiologists and behaviouralists, or, comparative behavioural ecophysiologists – we haven’t really decided yet. Our research sits at the interface of the physiology, sensory ecology and behaviour of vertebrates, fused with elements of collective behaviour, cognition and biomechanics. We currently consist of Dan Sankey, Sam Jones, Lara Nouri, Stephanie McClelland, Jack ThirkellJenny Cantlay, Rhianna Ricketts, Miranda Reynolds and myself, with Anthony Fish looking after the, well, the fish. We study a range of model species including brood parasitic birds, homing pigeons, tropical passerines, Siamese fighting fish, naked-mole rats, and a wealth of waterbirds. All of our questions sit under the umbrella term of physiological and behavioural adaptations, and we undertake a mixture of field and laboratory work.


Dan has recently been working through last summer’s flight data, discovering that the pigeons have different preferred flight speeds: the heavier birds being faster (speed measured with high-resolution GPS; from N = 299 solo flights). However, when flying in a group (N = 264 flights in a group context), despite potentially great energetic costs to birds to modify their speed, they seemingly average each group member’s preferred speeds to reach a compromise and remain cohesive. Miranda and Rhianna joined us in September of last year, after finishing their final year BSc projects in our group. They both decided that cuckoos and pigeons, respectively, were addictive, and had to continue working on them. Miranda has spent the last few months working through thousands of videos of heart rate and muscle twitching data from a range of brood parasitic species, which has mainly made her eyes fall out (if you see them, do return them), but early analyses suggests some very exciting findings. Rhianna has been investigating personality traits and dominance in pigeons, while figuring out to how attach devices to the birds that actually stay on them – it’s not as easy as it sounds. Last autumn, Dan and I spent time in South Africa gathering new data on the mechanics of movement in the fascinating Bathyergidae group, to compliment data I had gathered the month before in Cambodia on Siamese fighting fish. The theme of this work focuses on living in low oxygen environments, which both species do, and follows on from data Rebecca McGorran collected in 2016 as part of her MSc with us. Right now, Sam is doing fieldwork up a mountain somewhere in Honduras, and we’ve currently been led to believe he’s alive and well. Stephanie and Jenny joined us recently, and will be studying the energetics of brood parasitism and avian sensory ecology, respectively, while Lara starts with us next month to begin working on the metabolic responses of birds to wearing biologging equipment.


Looking ahead, Stephanie and Miranda will be heading to the swamplands of south Illinois (they’re thrilled) this April to work with our collaborator, Mark Hauber, on his extensive fieldsite just outside of Vienna (well, Vienna is the nearest town in an approximate 100-mile radius). The purpose of this fieldwork is to study the developmental energetics of Brown-headed Cowbirds and their hosts. Cowbirds are obligate brood parasites, the chicks of which develop faster than those of the hosts, rather than evict the competition like many of the Cuculus cuckoos. The quest to study the energetics of brood parasitism will also lead Stephanie to visit fieldsites in Panama, Mozambique, Zambia and Czech Republic (those they are thrilled about). While Stephanie and Miranda are both knee deep in swamps, Jenny will be just across a couple of States, working at a US Government facility in Maryland. Jenny will be working with some enigmatic species of seaducks which are not typically kept in captivity due to specific and tricky husbandry requirements – Spectacled Eiders, White-winged Scoters, Long-tailed Ducks and Common Scoters. The purpose of these captive experiments is to determine what sorts of deterrent may stop these vulnerable species from swimming into gillnets and drowning. Working with the RSPB, Birdlife International and the tech-company Fishtek, the idea is to trial various modes of visual deterrents to ascertain which approach works best at disrupting typical foraging behaviour in these species. Further ahead, Jenny will be visiting seabird colonies around the world (South Georgia, New Zealand, Antilles, Hebrides) to measure the visual fields of key species that appear to have a propensity for flying or swimming into man-made structures. Sam will be back in Honduras this summer working with the Catharus thrushes, investigating the links between physiological condition and territoriality. A bit closer to home, Dan, Rhianna and Lara will be working diligently with our captive homing pigeons. Thanks to some funding, we have tripled our pigeon capacity and facilities, and we’re all set for a busy summer. Dan will be undertaking a series of flight experiments looking to understand what underpins whether you are a leader or not, and what determines your position in the flock. This will involve many experimental flights, including manipulations of body mass, knowledge and experience, flock composition (based on personality traits, morphology) and release site. While Dan is focusing on what’s going on in the air, Rhianna will be looking into what makes you dominant on the ground – studying aspect of social learning, cognitive abilities and individual recognition within flocks. Lara will be busy working with the pigeons and their metabolic rates, studying their metabolic responses to carrying biologgers (e.g. GPS), and general flight, while also lending a hand to Dan and Rhianna. While this is all going on I shall be sat in my office writing grants and being suitably jealous at the exciting stuff the rest of my group is up too. There might be tennis on in the background.



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