The start of 2019 has been busy, with one Herd Hover masters student, Sven Lauke, entering the final stages of his thesis writing, and another, Felicitas Oehler, just getting started! Below, Felicitas introduces her plan for her thesis project, for which she will investigate movement and association patterns within zebra herds, and particularly how these change when the group responds to a disturbance (humans approaching on foot). Check back here for future updates from Felicitas and Sven!
“Sometimes great opportunities just pop up in your life when you are at the right place at the right time. That happened to me when I was looking for a job as a research assistant at the university, and saw Blair’s announcement for the field assistant position at the Mpala Research Center!
With the field assistant position in Blair’s ungulate project I got the amazing opportunity to accompany and assist Blair, Ben and Mike in the field, which means in the savannah in Kenya! Furthermore taking that position meant to follow up the work with a master thesis project in the Couzin Lab in the Herd Hover project with Blair and Ben. And that’s where I am at the moment. One month passed already since I’ve started with my master thesis.
In the thesis I want to analyze different aspects of social and collective anti-predation-behavior of the two zebra species, which have two different social organization systems. I want to focus on subgroup formation in a herd and the changes of group composition before, during and after the scare. Furthermore I would like to take the impact of the vegetation on their movement away from the scare impulse into account. Additionally I could imagine having a closer look at the line formation during and after flight and the underlying coordination, order and pattern of this line formation in zebras.
So far I’m diving in into data processing, annotations and track corrections of the existing drone footage, background reading and learning to analyze data with Python.
Having all these enriching remembers of the animal wildlife in Kenya and the great time working together with the group in my mind I’m very motivated to find out some nice and important facts about zebras and their behavior! Then this knowledge can help us to improve the understanding of the anti-predation behavior of ungulate species and the cooperation and interaction between individuals within herds.”
In December Ben Koger visited the Intelligent Control Lab at the Peking University School of Engineering. The lab, run by Professor Xie Guangming, studies control theory for complex dynamical systems and uses these insights to develop real world robotic applications. The lab uses natural systems as inspiration for much of their work. In particular, they have developed very realistic swimming robotic fish that they use to study the potential energy benefits of schooling. Further information about how real groups in the wild respond to complex environments is very useful for their work.
Ben presented the techniques developed by Herd Hover to collect data about diverse ungulate groups in the wild. One of the challenges in designing real world robotic systems is learning how to efficiently observe the environment and then using that information to make fast correct decisions to solve a task. The ungulate groups we study have evolved to do just that whether it be threat detection and evasion, resource search strategies, or distributed decision making. Understanding how animal groups solve these challenges is good inspiration for roboticists. For us, understanding how an engineered agent might optimally solve these problems is very useful as a starting point to think about how animals might really be behaving.
Thanks so much to the Professor Xie and Zhang Tianhao for showing Ben around.
Blair visited Dartmouth College earlier this month and gave a departmental seminar. Her update below:
“It was great to visit Hanover and get to know folks in the Ecology, Evolution, Ecosystems and Society program. Although it was early in the semester, I got to have some really interesting chats with a number of students and faculty. I was also invited to give a brief guest lecture in Jeff Kerby’s undergrad course on animal movement and landscape ecology, which led to a good class discussion. It was an honor to open the department’s spring seminar series, where I got to share Herd Hover’s methodologies and demonstrate how these will be used to answer questions relating to collective detection and movement behavior in ungulates.
I’m grateful to everyone who made time to attend the talk or meet with me one-on-one, and to Carey Nadell for hosting my visit!”
Since early November, three University of Konstanz masters students have been working with the Herd Hover project as part of their intensive course on collective behaviour. Liliana, Kathy and Nadim have gained experience with all stages of data processing and analysis, including annotating drone footage, reviewing and correcting pre-processed tracks, and planning and executing their own analyses of our zebra data.
Earlier this month they gave a short presentation on their project, in which they classified distinct herd “shapes”, used a Markov Chain analysis to quantify transition probabilities between states, and investigated individual-level behaviors that drive these group-level phenomena. We’ve greatly enjoyed working with them and look forward to reading their final reports at the end of January!
Blair Costelloe attended two conferences this summer, where she presented our tracking and posture estimation tools. In early August she gave a talk at the Animal Behavior Society annual meeting at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Slides from the talk, entitled “Collective detection in ungulate groups: novel tools for field studies of collective behavior,” will be available online soon.
In mid-August, Blair was in Minneapolis, Minnesota at the biennial meeting of the International Society for Behavioral Ecology where she presented a poster titled “Collective detection in free-ranging African ungulates: generating dynamic behavioral datasets with drones and computer vision”. You can view the poster on Researchgate.
Both the talk and the poster were well-received, and Blair got to speak with a number of other researchers interested in using drones and computer vision in their own projects. We are now putting these tools to work to explore the dynamics of collective behavior in African ungulates!
The project site is live! Stay tuned for updates.