Animal Behavior Gives Us Grief

Back in Massachusetts at Clark University…

The trials continue – both literally and figuratively! John and Susan realized the other day that if anything were to happen to Dianne (Dianne Suggs, one of our PhD students) and she was unable to run the testing on the lab’s male stickleback, that we would be short one essential lab process. These tests show how the males respond to gravid females and foraging groups at the time of reproduction.

To wit – John gave Anna, Jeff, and Meghan the Very Important task of learning how to test male stickleback. My commission in this instance was to write down every step for testing males in exquisite detail for posterity, and to learn the basics of the process myself so that I am able to help in the event that I am needed. (Truly, I am becoming a universal assistant in the stickleback lab. Go fish!)

Yesterday we took it upon ourselves to learn the setup for these tests. It’s quite complicated in that we test six males at the same time all in separate tanks and each tank must have two computer monitors on either end of it so that the researcher can show the male video of both the very pleasing gravid females and more sinister foraging groups. All of these males must be placed in the tanks during a time convenient for them to make a nest. Wires run across the floor in a dizzying array of electricity – spilling any tank water in here is not a smart idea! Cameras must be hooked to power sources, monitors must be hooked to computers, computers must be hooked to other monitors… It all gets quite confusing and we spent the better part of two hours figuring it all out yesterday, hooking together splitters, trying not to plug too many power strips into other power strips… etc.

Today we are still missing equipment. Each male’s tank should have two cameras in front of it to record the male during the trial. One camera records the entire trial to give us a good view of the set of behavior exhibited by the male; the other is placed directly in front of a color card in the tank by the male’s nest that allows us to make color measurements. We are currently short a couple of tripods and repeated scouring of the bio building has shown us only the interior of several other labs where cameras and tripods are hard at use. [See, for example, Justin Golub’s experiments.]

As if running all over the building looking for cameras and tripods wasn’t enough, our right computer monitor that controls the right monitors being shown to the six male fish is acting up and even our local lab techies can’t seem to figure it out. So far, it’s been an hour since we were supposed to begin trials and things aren’t looking much brighter. I suppose it’s one thing when you have trouble with your computer at the office, but when some technology you are supposed to be using in lieu with essential scientific trials doesn’t work, things are so beyond frustrating…

After an hour or two we fixed the right computer monitors, decided to borrow a couple of tripods from the female testing area, and … went to lunch. Cause fiddling with reluctant technology and equipment is hard work, doncha know.