Online conference explores animal behavior; Prof. Foster to moderate 'observational learning' session

Did you know that humans aren't the only primates that will barter with one another to achieve some mutual benefit? (Capuchin monkeys and chimpanzees also recognize the value of a fair trade.)

Or that various animal species, from insects to humans, spar over reproductive roles, with the “breeder” typically enjoying king-of-the-hill status?

Or that when it comes to exhibiting sophisticated behaviors of cooperation — a species’ brain size doesn’t always matter?

Scientists from around the globe will address these and other questions from an international audience during an online conference, “ethology Investigates: Cooperation,” hosted by the journal Ethology. All are welcome to watch or read the presentations (some are videocasts of the scientists in the field, others are scholarly papers) prior to the discussions, which will take the form of question-and-answer sessions.

The discussions will take place online (they will not be Skyped); to participate, sign up at ethologyinvestigates.com.

Susan Foster, professor and chair of the Biology Department at Clark, and the co-editor-in-chief of Ethology, says nearly 600 people have signed up for the free three-day conference, which begins Tuesday, Nov. 29, at 8 a.m. and concludes Thursday, Dec. 1, at 12 p.m. (A full schedule for the nine sessions is posted at the website, but don’t be fooled. The start times are listed in Greenwich Mean Time; subtract five hours to get the Eastern Standard Time).

Foster has done ground-breaking research on the threespine stickleback fish, whose origins date back to the last ice age. She moderates the conference’s final session by Dr. Ryan Earley on “observational learning.” Earley’s expertise is in integrative animal behavior with a focus on fish and lizards.

Participants may be surprised by how many of the behaviors exhibited in the animal world are reflected in mankind, Foster said. She expects the conference discussions will delve into topics ranging from the schooling habits of guppies to the bonding mechanisms of humans. Other subjects will include swarm intelligence, mutualism in marine cleaners, and reproductive conflict in cooperative breeders.

The ethology Investigates website promises an intriguing conversation. “While Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection emphasizes the importance of competition between individuals, survival often depends on complex systems of organisms working together to increase fitness, fight disease, watch for enemies or hunt for food —  all forms of cooperation. The ethology Investigates online conference on cooperation seeks to elucidate the occurrence of cooperative behavior within and between species,” the site says.

“I’ve been editing the journal for ten years, and this is the first time we’ve done something like this,” says Foster.