Published on: 4 March 2015
Paul Rose, and the flamingos at the heart of his study, appeared in the BBC One series 'Animals in love'.
You may have already heard about Behavioural Ecologist Paul Rose‘s work this year. The flamingos at the heart of his study have featured on David Attenborough’s Natural Curiosities, and on Liz Bonin’s BBC One series, Animals in Love.
In this Researcher in focus, we find out why it is important for researchers to engage with the media, how Paul really feels about animals’ emotions and how the public can help fundraise to find out if birds of a feather really do flock together.
You were involved in the BBC programme ‘Animals in love’; do you think animals experience the same emotions or attachments as humans?
I think they can experience attachments, they put a lot of energy and effort into the partnerships they form; I’m not sure about emotional intelligence in birds, though. I know we can measure emotional intelligence in primates but it is much more difficult to measure it in flamingos.
We find that there are physiological benefits for being in a partnership, particularly between flamingos; the birds in successful partnerships are more likely to be successful at raising their offspring and they’re more likely to be successful breeders over their lifetime. If you do break that partnership bond it would have negative consequences for the birds, and the flock.
Certainly attachment is important but as for how much emotion they show, I think it’s a difficult one to answer; personally, I don’t think we know enough about the stress response or how they perceive loss to say if they can be upset.
What behaviour have you seen in the flamingos that shows their attachments?
The male and female flamingo will follow each other around; their group displays are very obvious and over the top but once they have chosen a mate the displays become much more subtle and the male and female spend more and more time together, away from the rest of the group.
You are about to start a crowdfunding project; can you tell me about what you are hoping to research?
There are a couple of things which we’re hoping to get funding for; there’s an enormous behavioural ecology conference taking place in Australia, this year, which I’d like to go to. I would use this to build up my profile as a behavioural ecologist.
We also have some feather samples from one flock of Slimbridge flamingos which we’d like to do some genetic analysis on to see who is related to who.
I’ve got behavioural data which shows which birds have friendships, I’d really like to see if I can support this with data which shows they are genetically linked.
Do the birds hang around with birds they are related to or do you have unrelated individuals who form proper friendships? Is it family groups sticking together or are they sorting themselves simply on the fact they like another animal?
If you’re appearing on television or using social media then it’s your responsibility to make your research more accessible.
Paul Rose PhD
How important do you think it is to communicate your research with the media?
Working with the media is an important way to communicate your research. The reason that I have always said yes to these media opportunities is because of my background in zoo animal husbandry – if we don’t take these opportunities to explain why zoo animals are important, if we don’t explain why we have them and what they are used for and why they are so valuable for research, what is the point in them?
We don’t just keep animals in captivity any more for the sake of it– there has to be a reason and they have to have a role; the role of these flamingos, in my project, is to understand and explain social networks, why social behaviour has a purpose and why it is important.
That’s why I’m always happy to write my blog and to go on Twitter; if someone wants to come along and film me that’s fine too; I do it because I want to improve the welfare of the animals and I want the public to understand why we have these flamingos in captivity. If it helps people understand why we keep them then it’s worth it.
What are your top tips for academics who want to communicate their research?
I would say to them to not be dismissive of making your science accessible; we worry far too much about how we explain science. People who might explain their science in human terms are quickly written off but it doesn’t discredit your work to explain it in in plain language. When you’re writing for a journal, you’ll use totally different language to when you’re explaining animal behaviour on television.
We need to get away from using posh terminology for every audience – that can be so off-putting; people who go to the zoo and want to explain an animal’s behaviour to their kids, want to do so in a relatable way. If you can explain things to these audiences it doesn’t mean that your science is bad – it just means that you’re better at explaining things to a wider audience. It’s about knowing your audience.
I think it is right that a journal article should be very academic but if you’re appearing on television or using social media then it’s your responsibility to make your research more accessible.
You were involved in the David Attenborough series Natural Curiosities: curious feeders; how do flamingos fit into this category?
The programme compared how the flamingo feeds, by filtering, with how whales feed; it looked at how different animals used similar adaptations to address a problem.
I brought in a couple of the flamingo skulls I use in my teaching and a couple of the feathers to explain the link between the chemicals in the food and their colouring.
Although I wasn’t onscreen and it isn’t about the University of Exeter directly, I got to help with this programme because of my PhD.