When a predator approaches, options are limited – especially if you’re a tadpole. The woodfrog tadpole (Rana sylvatica) is known to stop swimming and sink to the pond bottom, an action called “freezing behavior.”
In one study, researchers exposed woodfrog embryos to some water from a predator’s tank with or without an injured tadpole (1). When the embryos hatched, the ones that had smelled both the predator and injured relative showed very reduced activity (freezing behavior) if re-exposed to just predator-water.
In mice, freezing behavior is affected by the size and speed of an object. Video showing lab mice exposed to various dots indicates that small, slow objects trigger mice to freeze. When exposed to terrifying large dots, mice take off.
- Mathis, A., M.C.O. Ferrari, N. Windel, F. Messier, and D.P. Chivers. 2008. Learning by embryos and the ghost of predation future. Proc Biol Sci. 275(1651): 2603-2607.
Two robins (Turdus migratorius) hopped through the yard this week – spring is on its way. The sound of lawn mowers now drift through the air, confirming the avian prediction. Shockingly, these two very distinct signs of warming weather are actually related, according to a backyard research study conducted in 1979.
L.A. Eiserer conducted a series of scientific (well, somewhat) studies examining the impacts of lawn mowing on robin-hunting behaviors. Robins spend more time foraging when grass is short, especially just after it has been mowed.
So is it the mowing or the height of the grass that impacts robin behavior? Eiserer mowed his lawn to two different heights, 2.5 and 4.5 inches. (I wonder if his neighbors complained.) The robins spent 10x as much time in the shorter patch. Apparently, the birds eat different foods when exposed to different heights of grasses. In short grass, robins go for worms; in longer grass, they pluck small insects off the blades. The short-grassed hunting grounds may just be more efficient for finding a heartier meal.
But that doesn’t discount the act of mowing. Observations over the same time of day show the birds prefer hunting in a freshly mowed yard rather than the day after. No difference in grass height, but perhaps the act of mowing disturbs invertebrates, allowing for a more successful hunt.
Overall, I miss the days when a researcher could sit on a suburban porch and time how long a couple of robins spend looking for food. As I struggle to teach my students how to think like scientists, reading a study like this makes me long for the good old days.
Eiserer, L.A. 1980. Effects of Grass Length and Mowing on Foraging Behavior of the American Robin. The Auk. 97(3) 576-580.