Parrot Pecking Order Hints at Humans' Social Lives
Elizabeth Hobson catches a parakeet in a mist net. She studies how animals behave in their social interactions and what motivates these interactions.
Credit: Elizabeth Hobson

This ScienceLives article was provided to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

Elizabeth Hobson's research has taken her to the remote fields of Argentina to study monk parakeets and also to the jungles of suburbia in the United States to study invasive populations in their feral ranges and in captivity. 

Today, as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, Hobson mines the data she has collected to investigate the social complexity of the parrots, as well as other species. She wants to know how animals think about their social worlds and what motivates their social interactions. 

Approaching these questions from a quantitative perspective reveals patterns that she and her colleagues could not necessarily observe in the field.

Below, she answers our 10 questions.

Name: Elizabeth Hobson
Institution: National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis
Field of Study: Behavioral ecology

The National Science Foundation: What is your field and why does it inspire you? 

Elizabeth Hobson: I am a behavioral ecologist, which means I study how animals behave in their environments. I seek to determine how animals socially interact with one another and the types of social structures that are found in groups. For example, groups can be structured into dominance hierarchies where individuals are ranked. Those ranks often influence an individual's access to food or mates. Breaking down these complex behaviors into simpler patterns or rules provides insight into how animals think about their social worlds, which I find really fascinating.

NSF: What is the primary aim of your research? 

E.H.: The long-term goal of my research is to understand how and why animals interact with one another, how they choose which others to interact with, and how that impacts both the individual and the group. I also want to understand how the actions of individuals form a group-level social structure and why certain species form more complex societies than others.

NSF: Describe your current research.

E.H.: Understanding why some species, such as primates and humans, exhibit complex social structures is a topic of long-standing and fundamental interest in biology. However, there aren't standardized ways to define or quantify levels of social complexity. Most methods can really only be applied to certain groups, like primates, but don't work as well when applied to another group, like parrots. In my current research, I am developing new ways to think about and measure social complexity from a broader perspective. This will allow me to begin to compare sociality across species to start to figure out how different social structures evolved and why some species live within more complex societies.

NSF: What is the biggest obstacle to achieving your objective(s)? 

E.H.: The biggest obstacles I face in my current research are defining social complexity and dealing with missing data. Defining what "social complexity" means and deciding which types of interactions and sociality should be considered "complex" is a tricky problem. Developing a definition for social complexity, and a way to measure it, is a major part of my current work. Because I'm interested in understanding how complex sociality developed and evolved, I also need to be able to compare sociality across lots of different species, so finding a measure of social complexity that is general enough to allow for broad comparisons but specific enough to be meaningful is also quite tricky. The other big obstacle is that for many species, we really don't actually know how individuals interact or what types of social structures may be present. Without these data, it's difficult to begin to compare complexity across species.

NSF: How does your work benefit society?

E.H.: Humans are generally thought of as having the highest social complexity of any species, but certain levels of social complexity are also found in many primates, as well as marine mammals like whales and dolphins, social carnivores like hyenas, and some birds like parrots and crows. A better understanding of why some species have complex sociality and how complex sociality developed and evolved could provide insight into how we gained our own social structures and cognitive abilities. 

NSF: What do you like best about your work?

E.H.: I've had the chance to do biological field work in some really amazing places and work with some captivating species. My work has taken me from studying parrots and endangered sea birds in the Caribbean, to parrots in the rainforests of Peru, to migrating hawks in the mountains of Nevada, to songbirds in Oregon, and endangered honeycreepers in Hawaii. Being in these areas for an extended field season gives me a unique opportunity to really get to know these new environments.

For me, it's also fascinating to collect social data in the field, where so many things can be happening at once. As an observer, it's almost impossible to pick out the really subtle patterns in the data. It's only when I start to analyze the data quantitatively that I can begin uncovering these patterns buried in this complex data. For example, it's often pretty easy to figure out which birds in a group are at the top and bottom of a dominance hierarchy, but for the middle-ranked birds, it's much harder to keep track of which individual is ranked above another. Determining the full rank order for a larger group is something that I do back in the lab using more quantitative methods. Making sense of these data provides a window into the social lives of these animals, which is really exciting.

NSF: What has been your most discouraging professional moment and how did you recover? What did you learn? 

E.H.: Much of my previous work has been with parrots, where I studied different species in the wild and in captivity. Parrots are sometimes frustrating to work with because it sometimes seemed like they were plotting to ruin my research. For example, one year I was in a remote area of Argentina doing field work with the monk parakeets. I had planned how I was going to put colored plastic bands on the legs of birds I caught so that when I released them, I could tell which individual was which.

Unfortunately, the birds did not cooperate. Many of the birds were able to chew right through the bands, which then fell off. Even the birds that kept the bands were a problem – in the freezing weather of the Argentine winter, they fluffed up their feathers and sat on their feet, so I couldn't see their legs at all, much less the bands.

I needed to come up with a new marking solution on short notice, and without the possibility of getting another tag manufactured and shipped from the U.S., so I needed to work with local materials. My field site was on an active ranch and I noticed that all the sheep were tagged on their ears with numbered plastic tags. Eureka! I got a bag from the local hardware store and modified the tags so that they could be hung around the parakeets' necks like necklaces. Working in remote locations taught me to approach research problems from a very creative perspective in order to come up with solutions and work with available materials. 

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NSF: What is the best professional advice you ever received?

E.H.: One of my committee members used to tell me "Just don't quit." Science can be a long and frustrating process at times, but it pays off for the persistent. The ability to work around problems and bounce back and learn from setbacks is really essential and ultimately often makes the science better in the long run.

NSF: What is the most surprising aspect of your work?

E.H.: Before getting into science, I didn't know that creativity was such a big part of the scientific process. I need to be creative in thinking about different ways to approach theoretical problems, creative in designing methods to get at these new questions, creative in writing up and interpreting the results in a way that makes sense and creative in thinking about new ways to present results and data in ways that are intuitive to understand.

I was also surprised at how important strong writing skills are in science. Writing journal articles is the main way that we scientists communicate our results to one another, so the ability to write clearly is really essential. There's a lot of creative energy that goes into designing an article with a clearly constructed argument. It's especially important to effectively communicate the results of the study and also to put those results into context with previous research. 

NSF: What exciting developments lie in the future for your field?

E.H.: As a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, I am currently branching out from my roots as a field biologist and learning new skills that will allow me to use a more computational and mathematical approach to my research. These new skills will allow me to approach scientific questions from a different angle. Using this new more mathematical perspective will be very valuable in understanding how and why animals interact and how different social structures compare across species.

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