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The nose knows: How tri-trophic interactions and natural history shape bird foraging behavior. An introduction to statistical analysis in animal behavior research

Author(s): Julia Burrows

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Students investigate the role of olfaction and infochemicals on bird foraging behavior through two different quantitative activities where they generate hypotheses, create figures, conduct data analyses, and draw conclusions.


These activities were designed to develop students’ quantitative skills, and are applicable in both introductory biology and upper division ecology and animal behavior courses. 

Activity 1 focuses on how King penguins locate their foraging grounds, hundreds of kilometers from their breeding areas using dimethyl sulphide (DMS) as a chemical cue. For this activity, students generate hypotheses from background information and analyze data collected using a scaled categorical score of how King penguin adults and chicks respond to the presentation of DMS odor. Students conduct descriptive statistics, a t-test using MS Excel Analysis Toolpak, and a Mann-Whitney U test using VassarStats: Website for Statistical Computation. Students also create a bar chart to visually present results and practice properly labeling figures, in addition to interpreting statistical analyses.

Activity 2 examines how DMS sensitives developed in the penguin’s closest living relative, the Procellariiformes, who have a different natural history than King penguins. For this activity, students generate hypotheses from background information and analyze data from a Y-maze experiment conducted on Blue petrel chicks with either DMS or a control odor in each arm of the maze. Students create a figure, conduct a binomial statistical test using MS Excel, and interpret resulting p-values. Finally, students are asked to draw conclusions about how the differences in the natural history between the two groups of birds might impact their sensitives toward DMS in chicks versus adults.

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