How grackles have adapted to survive

  • July 11, 2016
How grackles have adapted to survive

New research spreads light on how the great-tailed grackle has spread across North America

These results provide further support that behavioural flexibility represents a distinct axis of individual variation in behaviour.

Corina Logan

The successful spread of the great-tailed grackle across North America may be down to individual birds' ability to adapt their behaviour to new circumstances and environments, according to a new study.

Great-tailed grackles originated in Central and South America, but moved into North America between 1880 and 2000, expanding their range north from Central America into North America by over 5,500% over the course of 120 years following the expansion of human modified environments, their preferred habitat. They can currently be found in regions stretching from Venezuela to Louisiana and some have even been spotted in southern Canada.  In Colombia, they are the official bird of Cartagena de Indias and its intelligence, adaptability and sociability have inspired many works by local artist Enrique Grau.

The new study led by Gates Cambridge Scholar Corina Logan [2008] and published today in PeerJ investigates whether there is a link between grackles' behavioural flexibility and other behaviour, for instance, a fear of new objects, risk aversion or motor diversity.

Behavioral flexibility is a characteristic which is considered important for a species to adapt to environmental change.

For her study, Corina put the birds through a series of tests, for instance, in their neophobia sessions they were subjected to 10-minute trials involving the placing of new objects next to their food bowl.

She found grackles did not vary in flexibility according to how neophobic they were. In fact, they were not generally neophobic because no significant differences were found in behaviour between controls and novel object trials.

She also found that flexibility did not vary according to how persistent an individual was or how many motor actions it tried when solving a new task. Additionally, she examined whether their exploratory tendencies explained flexibility variation by placing grackles in a novel environment and measuring how active they were and how much time they spent in the riskiest areas. Flexibility also did not vary according to these measures.

She says: "These results provide further support that behavioural flexibility represents a distinct axis of individual variation in behaviour."

Corina is now applying for grants to investigate this variation between grackle populations across their range in North and Central America. She is interested to find out if certain circumstances, such as length of stay in one particular area, how well fed they are or genetics play any part in determining which populations are best able to adapt to new challenges. She is also interested to see if grackles are more flexible in particular contexts.

*See Corina's experiments in action: https://youtu.be/_PQEaYxw0fw

For an overview of her research, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WtanQqoISCs

Behind the scenes with Tequila: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_Xl8cK5LLk

Latest News

Lifetime honour for former Provost

Professor Barry Everitt, former Provost of the Gates Cambridge Trust, has been elected a lifetime Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the Science family of journals. AAAS has elected more than 500 scientists, engineers and innovators from around the world and […]

‘Tackle climate change misinformation through computational social science’

Future leaders and researchers need to be urgently trained to tackle climate change misinformation through an interdisciplinary approach that foregrounds computational social science and extends beyond laboratories and university campuses to shape the science-policy interface and rebuild public trust in climate research, according to leading academics. Writing in Nature Human Behaviour, the academics, including Dr Ramit […]

An existential psychological thriller for aesthetes

Christy Edwall’s first novel, History Keeps Me Awake at Night, out in early February, has been described as “an existential psychological thriller for aesthetes and lovers of cultural London and the world… A story cleverly told of a young woman involved in contemporary forms of global voyeurism”. It tells the story of Margit, a London […]

A detective of ancient climate change

Stijn De Schepper is an ancient detective. His job is to investigate past climate change through working his way down the ocean bed, starting with today’s sediment and moving back through thousands of years of Earth’s history.  He maps ancient marine sediments to find out if, why and how the environment changed in the past. […]