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Chicks, insects and learning: Why is Iliana in Canberra?

I’m a postdoctoral researcher at the Stuart-Fox lab, and I am currently collaborating with Dr. Megan Head at Australian National University in a project that involves chicks, insects and learning.

For many years I have been interested in how animals use colouration for different purposes. Many animals use colour to communicate with other individuals from the same species (e.g sexual selection) but there are many other animals that use colour to communicate with other species. Warning signals are used by colourful animals like dart-poison frogs, ladybirds, snakes, nudibranchs and potentially even Pithoui birds, to advertise their toxicity, and teach potential predators that they should be avoided.

Being colourful is not enough to suggest an animal is aposematic. There are different steps to test properly this syndrome. First, we need to be sure that the animal is toxic and then we need to test whether the combination of colour and toxicity can actually work to deter predators. I am interested in understanding the aposematic syndrome in the cotton harlequin bug (Tectocoris diophthalmus), a very beautiful and common Australian insect. To do this, I am using Daphnia (little crustaceans) to test whether they die when exposed to extracts of the harlequin bug. Additionally, I am using the aviary facilities at ANU to teach little chicks to avoid these insects. The idea is that, by associating the distastefulness with the colour, chicks will rapidly learn to avoid individuals with that colouration. Eventually, colouration will become an advantage for the insects which will stop being predated.

Right now I have 20 very cute baby chicks and more than 10 plants feeding ~50 insects. It has been a challenge to try to keep plants, insects, chicks and daphnia alive all at the same time but I think everything is going well so far. Hopefully before June I will have some exciting results to report!