Ecology, Robotics and Love on the Lek

To attract females on the mating grounds, male sage-grouse employ complex courtship displays that scientists study to understand the vast diversity in animal behavior. (Getty Images)
To attract females on the mating grounds, male sage-grouse employ complex courtship displays that scientists study to understand the vast diversity in animal behavior. (Getty Images)

If you’ve watched actor Mike Myers portray Austin Powers as many times as I have, then you’re familiar with the FemBots that tempt the fictitious International Man of Mystery. These deadly, lifelike, female robots were created by the antagonist of the movie, Doctor Evil, to charm and ensnare the mojo-powered British spy. But what if fembots were used for good instead of evil? Gail Patricelli, a professor within the Department of Evolution and Ecology in the College of Biological Sciences at UC Davis and self-titled “pornothologist,” has developed her own FemBots to gain a better understanding of the sexual selection behaviors of sage-grouse.

The idea and engineering behind Patricelli’s FemBot is a great example of scientists integrating technology into environmental research to improve our knowledge of the natural world. Getting creative across disciplines—like the researchers in the Patricelli lab have done—provides scientists with new, non-invasive ways of observing and gathering important data. 

The moves that make a healthy population

Patricelli, recipient of a 2016 Faculty Teaching Award, studies the sage-grouse as a model species of mating behaviors and selection. The sage-grouse, which gather communally once a year for breeding on the lek in Wyoming, display complicated rituals to attract females. It is not unheard of for a dominant male to copulate with up to 80 percent of the females in just a few short days. Prior to this research, there wasn’t a good understanding of what makes certain males successful with females.

It was clear Patricelli needed a way to get up close and personal with the male-female interactions on the mating grounds. This is where the FemBots come into play. These bird robots mimic female sage-grouse and are equipped with a camera and microphone to record the struts of males during mating season, which can be reviewed and evaluated frame by frame later on.

Similar to an RC toy car, the robots move around the ground via wheels and can move their heads up, down and side-to-side. Going incognito as a hen allows scientists to get up close in a way that would be impossible with standard direct visual observation techniques.

“It allows us to send a female out there and test a bunch of different males with these standardized female behaviors and how they respond to those behaviors,” says Patricelli. “It also allows us to see if those that are more responsive to the female signals are the ones that are mating more often with real females.”

Noise pollution may kill the moment

This novel observational tool has led Patricelli and her team to evidence of other behaviors that affect sage-grouse breeding, namely human-generated noise pollution. Noise due to airplanes and helicopters, for example, can warp and distort the sounds made by the birds during courting. The man-made noises can confuse the sage-grouse, complicating an already complex system of communication.

“It's not just about sage-grouse,” Patricelli says, “They're sort of the umbrella species and we're trying to protect the whole sagebrush landscape and people are understanding noise pollution is potentially a huge impact on wildlife. It's ubiquitous. Noise is everywhere.”

The cleverly designed bots, with their hidden recording features, life-like movements and non-intrusive nature are advancing science in a way that would have seemed impossible a generation ago. 

This story originally appeared on the UC Davis On Health Blog.

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