Behavioural Ecology

dr at dr at
Wed Jun 2 20:22:32 EST 1993

In article <93146.155052NORVALC at QUCDN.QueensU.CA>, <NORVALC at QUCDN.QueensU.CA> writes:
> I am planning a course on Behavioural Ecology.  I hope to capture student's
> interest by organising tutorial discussions around areas of current research
> controversy.  I would like to ask netters which current theories in behavioural
> ecology or animal behaviour they consider to be the most controversial and/or
> the most interesting?  Similarly, if you were to teach an introductory course
> in behavioural ecology, but because of time constraints could only give three
> one hour lectures, what would you cover in those lectures?
> Thanks in advance.
> Barry Campbell
> Molecular Ecology Laboratory
> Queen's University in Kingston

This may be a bit dated, but if I were privileged to give lectures on
behavioural ecology, but restricted to three and only three lectures...

1st Lecture:  Optimal Foraging.  It has several advantages:
-- It's accessible.  It can be presented in such 
   a way as to be intuitively obvious.  
-- It was hot for a reasonably long time; there is 
   a wealth of data and papers to draw from. 
-- It demonstrates the usefulness of fields and 
   talents that are often underdeveloped in biology, 
   eg. mathematics and economics.  
-- It also unabashedly admits the limits of those fields;
   I still smile upon remembering an exam question: 

   "You are an optimal foraging theorist and have just given 
    a seminar on the marginal value theorem (using all the 
    examples in Krebs'[1] chapter).  Five evil people stand 
    up and issue you the following challenges.  How would 
    you respond to them?"
    a) [...]
    b) Why would you expect food intake to be maximized? 
       [...] What about predators on our forager?  Or
       disease resistance?  How can you talk about food
       without considering all these other things?
    c) Why do you use *energy* intake?  What about 
       nutrients?  Or protein?
    d) Your models assume perfect knowledge on the part of
       the forager (ie. it knows the average and marginal rates).
       But...the forager can't know that in advance. [...]
    e) [...]

    General answer:  Because we are developing a model; 
    we have to start somewhere.  We start with something 
    that seems reasonable, is mathematically convenient, 
    and test and refine our theory from there.

    (Digression remark:  Had fun with that exam; didn't 
    even get marked off for making the flippant remark
    that a useful rhetorical device would be to identify
    and destroy the systematist among the evil people -
    win an argument with a systematist, and *no one* 
    will mess with you ;^)). (Rhetorical question: Has
    this ever happened?  Has a non-systematist *ever*
    won an argument against a systematist?)

2nd Lecture:  Parental investment.  Most, if not all, of the
advantages listed above hold here, too.  There are many choices 
for models, several of which are charismatically accessible.  
Morover, there are a number of important related topics: 
Kin Selection; Mate Choice; Resource Acquisition; Sex Allocation... 

3rd Lecture: Controversial stuff.  Popular stuff that makes it 
into the lay literature; Bad science that somehow got published
in the flagships of the peer-reviewed journals; Good science that 
got published under misleading "hot" titles (eg. a good examination 
of the _physiology_ of sexual dimorphism, but wrongly flying under 
the subject "Sexual Selection"); Beautiful theories which collapsed 
upon the appearance of an ugly, disrespectful fact; Poor articles
written by Big Names... In short, a lecture with lots of topics,
designed to shake up any staid acceptance of a published work, just 
because it was published.

Pedagogical remarks:

The presentation order and style would vary with the
class composition; my intuition today says, ideally:
two lecture type formats, to lay some groundwork, and
the last a free-for-all where I hopefully stay quiet.
A possibly more realistic variation: Start with the
lecture, with an open discussion toward the end of 
each lecture.

A really effective format that Ric Charnov used was:
Three lectures and a discussion lab.  The technique
for the discussion lab was impressively effective --
each week, participants would turn in a set of (4-6?) 
questions they'd be interested in discussing or having 
answered in the lab.  No relevant question was out-of-bounds: 
Wildly ranging questions were encouraged and generated, 
  -- "I don't fully understand how Muller's Rachet applies..." 
  -- "Discuss the ESS concept in more detail; What is a 
      mixed ESS?"  
  -- "Do all cats purr?" (this generated lots of anecdotes) 
  -- "Why do birds fly south for the winter?"  
      (Best answer: "Because their parents do")

The questions would be reviewed and returned with (minor, often no) 
comments ("Good!", "Yes/No, see the article in _Nature_", "Do the math, 
what *is* the answer?"), and...

**A compendium of the questions was distributed for the lab**

This technique had several advantages --  It:
  a) Guaranteed preparation for the lab; 
  b) Kept the student mind occupied through the week
     mulling over ramifications.  It simultaneously:
       1) broke down rigidity
       2) encouraged rigor
  c) Gave feedback on points unclear in the lecture; 
  d) Re-assured those who were unclear on lecture points 
     that others also were unclear on seemingly obvious points.  
  e) Insured the more reticent student's participation; 

I think about teaching style and effectiveness a *lot*, especially
how to achieve (e); this technique continues to strike me as one
of the most inspired methods I've encountered.  

Woof!  I *really* didn't expect this to be so long.

I've added bit.listserv.ecolog-l to the distribution and followup; 
I reckon they'll know a thing or two about this...

David Roller  |    Bitnet = dr at auducvax           | "Sometimes it is hard
Parker Hall   |  Internet = dr at  |  to form an opinion..."
Auburn Univ.  |  Voicenet = (205) 844-4512        |   -- Charles Darwin     

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