August 15, 2007
Behaving like animals
Whale expert Hal Whitehead opens conference
By Marla Cranston
Social networking and communication. Finding a good mate. Fitness and the aging process. Teenage rebellion.
These topics and more are in the spotlight this week as more than 400 scientists from as far away as Japan and Brazil converge on Dalhousie University – and no, they’re not studying humans.
The 2007 International Ethological Congress is the 30th annual gathering of the planet’s leading animal behaviour experts and scholars, hosted in Halifax for the first time by Dalhousie’s Department of Psychology, August 15 to 23.
“Dal has world-renowned researchers in whale and fish biology and behaviour, birdsong, invertebrates and brain studies, and is thus a natural location to host this meeting,” says Dr. Richard Brown, a psychology professor and local conference organizer.
Dalhousie whale specialist Hal Whitehead opens the conference August 15 at 7 p.m. with a keynote lecture on his adventures at sea, studying how whales organize themselves into societies and cultures.
In one of his early South Pacific studies, Dr. Whitehead expected sperm whale populations to be organized by geography, oceanography and genetics. Instead, he found them living in nearly permanent social units, forming matrilineal clans with distinct cultures expressed through a diversity of vocalizations, movement patterns, feeding and reproductive success. As with humans, when culture becomes a determinant of animal behaviour, it can lead to large-scale cooperative societies, ecological success and potentially even societal collapse.
The desire to understand the animal world has made ethology a rapidly growing field. Through the centuries, naturalists have studied many aspects of animal behaviour but the modern science of ethology arose in the 1920s as a combination of laboratory and field science, with strong ties to such disciplines as neuroscience, ecology, developmental biology and evolutionary biology. The term ethology derives from the Greek words ethos, or "custom," and logos, or "knowledge."
The week-long conference includes 12 plenary speakers, 17 symposia and hundreds of presentations by delegates from 34 countries. Scientists will share their latest data and theories on everything from the sexual behaviour of banana slugs to human and environmental impacts on the breeding habits of piping plover and penguins.