Feature Stories

Biology Researchers Learn by Observing Animal Behavior

Associate Professor Eric Fortune studies the mechanisms of animal behavior, how their brains work, and what can be learned from them about how creatures, including humans, cooperate.

Researchers in NJIT's Department of Biological Sciences pay close attention to the birds and the bees – as well as to the ants, schools of fish, and even dung beetles.

Their research is uncovering new insights into human behavior, as well as a greater understanding of climate change, urbanization and other ecological issues. Associate Professor Eric Fortune studies the mechanisms of animal behavior, how their brains work, and what can be learned from them about how creatures, including humans, cooperate.

"I study how the brains of animals control their behavior," he says. "Animals, generally speaking, use the same neural strategies as humans do.  So I hope my research will help us better understand how human brains control our own behavior."

Learning Cooperation from the Birds

His studies, which are based in the Galapagos Islands and  sites in the Amazon basin and cloud forest habitats of eastern Ecuador, include careful measurements of natural animal behavior which, when coupled with sophisticated quantitative approaches, can be applied in brain experiments to discover the cellular mechanisms used by the brain to control behavior. He says that engineers can, in turn, translate these insights gained from the animal world into improved control systems for use in robots and prosthetic devices.

The focus of Fortune’s research has been recently revolutionized by exciting results from investigation of the neurophysiological basis of cooperation in a unique species

of Andean songbird — the plain-tailed wren. This work, published in the journal Science, demonstrates that a premotor neuronal circuit encodes the cooperative output of a pair of duetting birds rather than each individual’s own, autogenous motor output.

He also studies weakly electric fish, which of all the vertebrate animals are the best model for studying neural control, he says. “The fish produce an electrical field which is almost a direct one-to-one read out of its central nervous system,” he adds. “If we understand their neural activity it might help us understand neural activity in the human brain.”

With a grant from the National Science Foundation, he is continuing his studies of the wren in Ecuador to uncover more about the neural mechanisms for cooperative behavior. He says that cooperative behaviors often involve extraordinary precision for success.

"Consider, for example, the level of coordination and control that is necessary for an Olympic couples' figure skating,” he said. "We hope to learn how the brains of two or more individual animals integrate sensory cues to modulate an animal's motor systems to achieve these sorts of remarkable performances."

The new project will look at the specific neural mechanisms and computations that are used in the coordination of vocal behavior between individual wrens. Because birds and other vertebrate animals (including humans) use nearly identical neural structures and mechanisms, these data will have implications that are relevant across animal species. The work will also include the construction of mathematical models that capture the findings, which will facilitate the translation of insights from the brains of these unique animals to the study of other species and into engineering principles and applications.

What Bees Can Tell Us about Climate Change

Daniel BunkerAssistant Professor Daniel E. Bunker specializes in biodiversity and aims to understand the effects of global environmental change on ecological communities and ecosystems. His current research, funded by an NSF grant, aims to find out what effect an earlier spring might have on bees and plants they pollinate.

“Species that rely closely upon one another, such as bees and the plants they pollinate, may respond differently to global climate change, with potentially dire consequences such as poor crop pollination and low yields,” he said. “For instance, the bees may respond strongly to climate warming and emerge earlier in the growing season, while their preferred flowers respond less strongly and emerge later. This mismatch in timing could severely impact either organism if one relies strongly on the other.”

The research project will test the importance of such mismatches for cavity-nesting bees and the trees they pollinate, by experimentally manipulating bee springtime emergence. In the process, his team will develop two novel technologies – one that will enable bee nests to be warmed in the field and cause the resident bees to emerge earlier in the spring, and another that will employ tiny labels, similar to bar-codes, that can be placed on the backs of bees. The bees and tags can then be monitored using computer assisted image recognition. By placing a video camera at each nest, this technology will allow researchers to study in detail how bees respond to a warming climate and shifting schedules of flowering.

“Understanding and predicting how species and ecological communities respond to global climate change is critical because the pace of climate change over the next few decades may greatly exceed what species have previously experienced over the previous millennium” he explained. 

He said the proposed micro-tagging and tracking technologies may redefine how scientists study small mobile organisms, which often have outsized impacts on ecosystems but are difficult to study due to their small size.

Bees and Power Lines

Kimberly RussellKimberly Russell, research associate in the Spatial Ecology and Conservation Biology Laboratory, studies the most efficient and accurate methods to conserve biodiversity in terrestrial systems. She has been looking into the idea of making use of powerline rights-of-way – where transmission lines must be kept free of tall growing vegetation -- as mini-nature reserves. She has been studying the local bee communities near power lines to see if the idea is feasible.

"This land, if properly managed, has the potential to provide millions of acres of suitable habitat for early successional species including birds, small mammals, rare plants, butterflies and bees," she said.

She said that power companies already intensively manage the land under their lines, and land managers from several companies have indicated that they are amenable to tailoring their management practices to maximize biodiversity under their lines, as long as the vegetation does not interfere with their ability to deliver power. With funding from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) she is looking specifically at which management techniques would provide the most stable and beneficial habitats for native bees as well as how transmission line rights-of-way compare with other open habitats in the landscape.

This past summer, she and biology major Kayla Drobnis compared the impact of periodic mowing to a technique known as Integrated Vegetation Management (IVM) that uses selective herbicides on the native bee communities.  They compared the diversity and abundance of the local bee communities in both types of settings as well as pollination patterns.

Analyzing Swarm Intelligence

Simon GarnierAssistant Professor Simon Garnier recently launched a new interdisciplinary research group called the Swarm Lab to study the mechanisms underlying the coordination of large animal groups, such as ant colonies or human crowds, and their applications to complex problems such the organization of pedestrian traffic or the control of robotic swarms.

“We study how information is exchanged and transformed during interactions between the members of a group, and how this can lead to the emergence of "intelligent" group behaviors,” he explained.

According to Garnier, the Swarm Lab’s research aims to reveal the detailed functioning of human and non-human collective intelligence in systems as diverse as ant colonies, fish schools, human crowds or robotic swarms. He is particularly interested in the mechanisms of information transfer and integration in large groups that can lead to adaptive collective responses to environmental challenges.

“I look for the emergence of intelligent collective behaviors in groups of social animals using the observation, description and modeling of the self-organized processes leading to consensus decision making in groups such as social insect colonies and schools of fish,” he said. He also studies phenomena related to traffic organization in ants and human beings.