Contributed by Alexis Billings
My name is Alexis Billings and I am a PhD candidate in the Organismal Biology and Ecology program in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Montana. I study animal behavior and communication. My research is focused on alarm calls, which are acoustic signals animals give in response to predators. Alarm calls are varied in their acoustic structure to obtain optimal transmission and to encode important information about predator type, predator threat level and even predator behavior. The acoustic structure of an alarm call can have radical effects on how well an it travels over long distances and through different habitats. I measure the loss of energy of different types of alarm calls over different distances and in different habitats. I compare these measurements to the loss of power calculated from wave transmission equations used in physics. I can then estimate the transmission properties of different habitat types and pair acoustic structures to certain habitat types. This combines biology and physics and gives us an idea of how animals are making sure their signals are being received. Alarm calls can also encode important information about predators. This information is used by numerous individuals that span species and even taxa in what is called a communication network. These communication networks add a new level to our understanding of how species are interacting and even cooperating to avoid predation. My research has found that communication networks in western Montana include multiple species of birds such as chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers, as well as red squirrels. I have also found that the information travels incredibly fast within a communication network reaching numerous individuals in a matter of seconds. Understanding how animals communicate about danger involves understanding the physics of sound and how sound travels as well as how animals are really using these signals to avoid predation.
Contributed by Katelyn Driscoll
One of the goals of the UM Interdisciplinary Collaborative Network is to encourage cross-disciplinary collaborations between UM students and colleagues outside the university community. With this in mind, the ICN met for our February seminar during which each member gave a five minute presentation on their background, interests, and research. It was a great opportunity to get to know each other better and I wasn’t surprised that each presentation went a bit over the time limit because everyone was engaged and had several questions about each member’s work.
As I was preparing my talk, I figured that the presentations would be fairly similar and that we all had a lot of interests in common. That could not be farther from the truth! I was surprised at the variation in topics and how much potential for collaboration exists within such a small group. The topics covered included effects of restoration treatments, cultural wilderness meanings, time use of Americans with and without disabilities, plant interactions that occur above and below ground, variations in habitat use, evolution of genomic architecture, the potential carbon release from bark beetle epidemics, modeling the behavior of irrigation networks, effects of discharge on aquatic habitat complexity, and biogeochemistry in tropical systems. Through these discussions, it became clear that not only do the ICN members have a wealth of knowledge concerning various topics, but also that we each have unique skill sets such as field sampling techniques, GIS, modeling, surveying, or specific laboratory techniques. I think this is another one of the strengths of being involved in the ICN. Great opportunity exists to approach a member who has a better understanding of a certain field or skill, if not to work together on a project, at least to answer some questions. Other members are a great resource for perfecting one’s own methods or project with a skill or technology that may have otherwise been impossible to figure out. With these connections, it seems that personal projects will only grow stronger.
With this in mind, I’m looking forward to meeting other members who could not make the meeting and hoping the group grows to include more disciplines including statistics, economics, policy, communications, and psychology. One of the most interesting points made in this seminar was how collaborations with psychologists could help scientists to convey their results most effectively. This is a topic that I think about frequently because my own project involves accessing rivers that flow through private property, mostly large ranches. Historically many scientists have been so removed and unapproachable that the general public view them in a negative light. Interacting with landowners, who can range from skeptical to hostile, has taught me that scientists have to figure out a way to be a part of the general public, not a removed, exclusive group. I was just recently told by a professor that the new generation of emerging scientists must be better at communicating our findings and convincing land managers, policy makers, and individuals of our results. We are facing numerous serious problems that will not be solved if scientists don’t figure out a way to successfully communicate and convey results. Because the ICN is a graduate student group, it seems there is no better time to start practicing these interactions and collaborations than at the beginning of one’s career. I really hope that in the coming months more students from diverse disciplines join the ICN so we can all continue to make these positive connections.