I have been collaborating with Ruediger Wehner of the Brain Research Instiitute, University of Zurich on research on desert ants. Wehner has established and run a field research station in Tunisia for over 30 years. The subject of his research has been various species of the desert ant, genus Cataglyphis. Much about the navigational behaviour of these ants is known as a result of the very fruitful work of Wehner and his collaborators. But of course much more remains to be researched.
More recently, starting this century, we have collaborated on studying an Australian desert ant located in Central Australia. Known as the red honey ant (pictured here), Melophorus bagoti shares many characteristics with Cataglyphis. It is long-legged, active in the heat of the day, and moves fast. But their ecology differs from that of Cataglyphis's. The deserts of Central Australia are richer in plant life, making the visual world of M. bagoti cluttered with landmarks in the form of grass tussocks, bushes, and trees. We are interested in comparing the navigational behaviours of Melophorus with those of Cataglyphis. We have two reviews on the work (Cheng et al., 2009, Behavioural Processes; Cheng et al., 2014, Behavioural Processes).
We have also done some research on a species of Melophorus ants (yet to be named) living on the salt pans of South Australia. This environment is barren and devoid of landmarks. We only found the animal in December 2011. One paper has been published (Schultheiss et al., 2012, Australian Journal of Zoology).
In the latest venture, I am collaborating with a team (Jochen Zeil,
Ajay Narendra, Andy Barron, and including Ruediger Wehner) to delve into
the neurobiology of navigation in ants. Australian bull ants, genus Myrmecia, will feature. We are only just getting started.
My experiments on honeybees have investigated how the foragers find a rewarding place. Past work focussed on the theme of the mechanisms by which honeybees find a place. Current research focuses on the topic of how the worker retrieves the correct memory of a place and whether and how multiple memories are integrated. Catherine Prabhu recently completed a thesis on how honeybees deal with conflicting evidence.
This is a topic that I started to study in my graduate school years. It has quite taken off. I haven't done any more empirical work on it, but have contributed theoretically. The unkind might say that I have milked other people's work. The kinder might say that theoretically contributions can be important.
Geometry is the layout of surfaces in the environment. What any animal learns about geometric cues is a matter of some debate. The link has more information.
The Clark's nutcracker has a prolific spatial memory. The bird lives in the Rocky Mountains of North America, and stores a lot of food, mostly pine seeds. It relies on its stored caches for sustenance over winter. It can remember thousands of caches for months. Alan Kamil and Russell Balda have done many studies on this bird. We now know that they use landmarks to remember and retrieve their caches. I collaborated with Debbie Kelly, now at the University of Manitoba, and Alan Kamil in figuring out the cues used by these birds to remember cache locations in the lab.
I collaborated with Astrid Heiling and Marie Herberstein of the Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, on the study of signal interactions between crab spiders, flowers, and bees, which are potential prey for spiders. Crab spiders may lure bees deceptively with their body coloration, to the detriment of the bees.
In spatial generalisation, a worker is trained to find food in a container at one location. After sufficient training, she is presented a container at various locations, including the training location. The question at stake is: how should the animal 'bet' on whether the container at each location has food or not. See the link for some answers.
In experiments on self control, the forager is presented with two choices of rewards. One is immediately available but is small. The other reward is larger, but the forager has to wait some time for it. Waiting for a larger reward is technically called self control, lack of which is often a nemesis in human behaviour. Bees show a good deal of self control.
I have an ongoing collaboration with Marcia Spetch of the Department of Psychology, University of Alberta. Students and colleagues have been collaborators, including Colin Clifford of the School of Psychology, University of Sydney. We investigated a number of topics in spatial and temporal cognition in pigeons and humans. A story on spatial cognition is linked below.
We found both peak shift and range effects in human face identification.
Marcia Spetch and I have published a substantial story on spatial cognition in university students, investigating spatial generalisation and peak shift. Students were presented marked locations on a computer screen, and had to bet whether it was the rewarding 'hot' spot. Our latest work, published in 2010 online, tries to provide functional explanations for all range effects in human learning.
Two colleagues at our University, Chris Evans and Peter Wenderoth, both now deceased, collaborated with me in studying the perception of bilateral symmetry in complex stimuli in humans. Bilateral symmetry means mirror symmetry. It is often an attractive property in mate selection. We studied in human subjects the perception of symmetry in complex, naturalistic objects.
Chris Evans and I have been exploring this topic 'on the back burner' for a number of years. The idea is to present virtual flowers, generated on computer to real bees. Each flower contains the same reward, but the bees get to choose which flower to land on and get their sugar water from. The virtual aspect makes it possible to manipulate key parameters in evolution, such as costs in producing flowers. It also speeds up the 'evolutionary' process, making generations go by in days. We think that this makes a great project for an interested graduate student.
Cody Freas: studying navigation in ants
Tim Pearson: studying auditory communication in flying foxes
I teach BIOL122 Biological Basis of Behaviour. A brief description:
The Greatest Show on the Planet. BIOL122 is a suitable introductory science course for all students. It offers an integrative approach to the amazing world of behaviour. Basic mechanisms are covered, together with function and evolution. Lecture topics include micro- and macro-evolution, evolutionary origins of behaviour, basic neuroscience, perception, learning, brain and behaviour, and topics in animal behaviour. Lectures culminate with some reflections on the lives of humans in our modern world and the role of culture in human evolution.