Monday, August 18, 2008

Report from ISBE

I spent last week at ISBE (International Society for Behavioral Ecology), which was held at Cornell this year. I've never been to this meeting before, I usually go to Animal Behavior, which returned to Snowbird for the third time this year. I have to acknowledge Anne Clark's role in getting me up there - we had a meeting of the advisory board to Ethosource and heard an update to the Ethosearch project.

Ethosearch is a database of ethograms that Anne and Sue Margulis have been overseeing development of. They demonstrated the web interface for searching (not publicly available yet) and have started soliciting for people to submit ethograms for the database in the near future (I'd guess toward the end of the year). They are also busy writing text definitions and doing some revision of the ABO Core ontology. I won't update the OWL version I have made available with OwlWatcher until they are ready and OwlWatcher knows how to deal with updates to included ontologies. I will keep you updated when Ethosource goes live.

Anne and Sue each brought students who have been entering ethograms from the published literature. Their method is simply to break up published ontologies into pieces and use the ABO core ontology as a pair of term taxonomies for classifying the pieces from each ethogram. There will be some text search and matching tools in a release at some point.

Besides Anne and Sue and some students they brought along, Cynthia Parr and Ed Scholes also attended. Cynthia, who recently took a position with Encylopedia of Life, was involved at the Cornell workshops and has acquired a substantial expertise in semantic web ontologies. Ed, who has published a couple of papers using a methodology very similar to ontologies to code ethograms of Bird of Paradise courtship has been the video curator at Cornell's Macaulay library for the past six months. Getting Ed and Cynthia talking about sharing between EoL and Macaulay may actually have been the most important outcome of the board meeting. Getting to meet Ed, though I didn't have any time to talk comparative methods, was a high point for me as well.

On to the meeting: there were a lot of papers on social learning and animal cognition. There were also lots of spider papers, though not much overlap between the two. The meeting was substantially larger than Animal Behavior, with 1006 registered for the full scientific program. Most of the time there were six concurrent tracks. Among the plenery talks, certainly Nico Michiels talk on Hermaphroditic invertebrates was memorably lurid - many cases of partners trying to manipulate the other into the female role with the manipulator taking the male role, with no reciprication. The Hamilton lecture, given by Alasdair Houston and John McNamara at the end of the conference program, included a predication of the return of ethology - certainly something that I and others that focus on the comparative study of behavior would welcome.

I also enjoyed talks that related to my social learning work with the Scrub-jays: Steve Scheoch has been continuing his endocrine studies of the jays, and has developed some field methods for assessing personality in fledgling jays. One of them involves a brightly colored ring (though it's bigger than an Aerobie). I also heard about a field experiment by Sarah Benson-Amram which involved placing puzzle boxes in the range of free-living spotted hyenas. Very cool, her data might have something to say about social learning, innovation or both - using a population that has been under long-term study.

I got to discuss Habronattus with Damian Elias, whom I had only briefly met before. I also discussed comparative methods for data sets that include intraspecific variation with Terry Ord, both the method I was involved with (Ives, Midford, Garland 2007) as well as Felsenstein's recent paper (Felsenstein 2008). He has also run into Ed Schole's work with some interest, as Terry works on a range of lizard visual displays. I also briefly spoke with someone from Louis Lefebvre's lab about the use of ontologies in the study of animal innovation

I'll discuss my poster in another post.