The new master’s course in Quantitative Field Biology, which kicked off its field work programme phase on the Mediterranean island of Corsica today, is equipping a cohort of students with a suite of interdisciplinary skills at the cutting edge of research in behavioural biology.
The programme brings students in touch with a team of international experts across evolutionary theory, behavioural ecology, and computer science that will guide them in applying the latest quantitative tools to pressing questions in behaviour—all in the biodiversity hot spot and pristine waters of the STARESO field station in Corsica.
“Observing animals in their natural habitat offers unparalleled understanding of how and why they behave the way they do,” says Dr Alex Jordan, director of the master’s course and Principal Investigator at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology (MPIO).
“It is only by taking students to the field that we make biology jump from the textbook pages into real experience. Taking the students into the Mediterranean presents unique challenges, but more importantly, unique experiences for the students to understand and engage with the topics they are studying.”
On top of offering an invaluable opportunity to learn about field-based scientific research, the Quantitative Field Biology programme will arm students with the computational tool kit needed to keep pace with the data-driven future of biology.
“The modern behavioural biologist has the ability to collect vast amounts of data, so we must train the next generation to analyse and make sense of these data. In addition to direct experience with the animals and traditional ethological techniques, we are training students in techniques for tracking and analysing behaviour that are truly at the leading edge of what’s possible.”
A synergy of theory, analysis, and field skills
The Quantitative Field Biology master’s course synergizes theory, analysis, and practice, providing students with foundational knowledge on animal behaviour and evolutionary theory, as well as offering hands-on training in field work, tracking, programming, and deep learning.
Participants take part in lectures, workshops, and field experiments over a six-week time period – two of which are spent at the STARESO field station in Corsica. The course syllabus been developed by scientists from the University of Konstanz, the MPIO, and the University of Bern.
The calibre of instructors leading the Quantitative Field Biology master’s programme represents a unique opportunity, says Dr Jordan: “Konstanz is one of the only places in the world where you can find experts in the theory and techniques that are at the forefront of behavioural biology.”
Course instructor Dr Ariana Strandburg-Peshkin, a leading expert in the quantitative analysis of behaviour of animals in the wild, and Gips-Schüle Junior Research Group Leader at the University of Konstanz, believes that the field element of the Quantitative Field Biology course offers undeniable benefits for learning quantitative methods in animal behaviour.
“Programming is now a basic skill that biologists need for all types of research, but it can be hard for biology students to really become motivated to pick up this skillset until they experience it directly,” says Dr Strandburg-Peshkin. “A great way to learn how to programme is for a student to collect their own data to address a research question they are really interested in, thereby realising that the way to find the answer is to write some code. In that way, the programming is tied to something they actually care about, which is much more motivating than working through problem sets.”
Dr Jordan, who conducts research in the African Rift Lakes and coral reefs worldwide, combines his expertise in aquatic field biology with the quantitative approaches of the MPIO’s Department of Collective Behaviour, which is renowned for ground-breaking research on tracking animals and analysing movement data to understand behaviour.
Expertise on animal behaviour and evolutionary theory comes from Michael Taborsky, a pioneer in behavioural ecology at the University of Bern, Christian Kropf, curator of invertebrates at the Natural History Museum in Bern, and Julian Torres-Dowdall, a Zukunftskolleg Fellow working in the evolution group of Axel Meyer, who has conducted numerous field expeditions to Nicaragua, Trinidad and Brazil. Techniques in computational analysis will be taught by experts from the University of Konstanz Departments of Biology (Ariana Strandburg-Peshkin) as well as Computer and Information Science, including Bastian Goldlücke (automated tracking of behaviour), Oliver Deussen (visualising data) and Falk Schreiber (network analysis).
From Konstanz to Corsica and back
In order to provide course participants with experience in conducting field work and gathering as well analysing data, they will complete a full schedule from 11 June to 20 July 2018, during which time they will complete three programme phases at two locations in Konstanz and Corsica.
In the first week of the course in Konstanz, students were introduced to animal behaviour, the analysis of movement and behaviour, field work, and computational approaches to studying behaviour.
During the second and third weeks at the STARESO field station in Corsica, the days are filled with morning lectures, snorkelling for many hours to gather data, archiving and analysing data with the help of colleagues from computer science in the evening.
Once back in Konstanz, the focus will be on making sense of the massive datasets brought back from the field. Students will concentrate on computational methods, from deep learning to visual scene reconstruction, tracking animal movement, and behavioural decomposition. Finally, the course will culminate in a final presentation of their results via talks and reports.
Transdisciplinary in scope
In addition to being the field component of the master’s programme, the stay in Corsica will also provide the opportunity to take advantage of innovative and collaborative research across disciplines. An additional 15 researchers from biology, computer science and the life sciences will work together at STARESO for two weeks—creating a crucible for future projects that will cover decision-making, collective behaviour, game theory, and analysis as well as the tracking of wild animal groups.
Interdisciplinary projects include remote sensing of stress physiology of animals in collectives, which combines researchers from computer vision, stress psychology, and animal behaviour, as well as the examination of feeding decisions of wild animals conducted by researchers from computer science, health psychology, and collective behaviour.