Robots in the Service of Animal Behavior

B.KleinDr. Barrett Klein is an Assistant Professor of Biology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Brought up in an artistic environment, he developed a passion for art and nature, so studied Entomology at Cornell University and the University of Arizona, before Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at the University of Texas at Austin.

In additional to his academic background, Dr. Klein has worked at Chase Studio Inc. in Southwest Missouri, and at the American Museum of Natural history, creating a range of exhibits including insects and giant viruses.

His research focuses on work with honey bees to figure out how sleep operates in colonies, and why it might be of specific benefit to its different members. He recently published a paper titled: ‘Robots in the Service of Animal Behavior’ in the journal Communicative & Integrative Biology.

Background of the study

Intrigued by the demands of Ryan Taylor’s and Michael Ryan’s behavioral research, I proposed to help create robotic frogs (with Joey Stein of Moey Inc.) to test what would otherwise be unfeasible for the animal behaviorist. By doing so, I could apply my natural history display-making skills to test questions about mate selection, and explore esthetics of biology in a true, biologically-relevant sense.

There are several aspects of the work that we consider important. First, our work is elucidating evolutionary processes that are responsible for driving the diversification of animal signals. For example, if you consider how closely related species of birds or frogs have distinctly different songs, our work is helping to explain how these differences have evolved. One important mechanism for these changes involves female mate preferences. The vertebrate nervous system is sensitive to specific types of stimulation. As with all life, there is variation in male courtship song and female sensitivity to the song. The males who produce songs that are most aligned with female sensitivities are the males most likely to mate. Our work with the robotic frogs show that females pay attention to both the auditory component of the male courtship signal as well as the visual component (the movement of the vocal sac).

In humans, we lip read in noisy environments and this improves our ability to comprehend the speech of a particular speaker (e.g. having a conversation at a noisy cocktail party). Frogs seem to do a similar thing – paying attention to the movement of the vocal sac to help distinguish individuals among the multitude of males who are calling in close proximity. This suggests a common mechanism of audio-visual integration across vertebrates that helps explain how individuals comprehend the acoustic signals of an individual in noisy settings.

Like humans at a noisy cocktail party, male frogs court females in noisy settings where multiple males vocalize to attract a mate. The many vocalizations overlap and create a noisy environment where it becomes difficult for females to distinguish individual callers. So our work with the robotic frog is elucidating the process by which females integrate audio-visual components of male courtship signals when making mate choice decisions.

Robotic Frog
Robotic Frog

Additional Research

We have so many studies we’d love to perform. I personally would like to begin introducing more perceptual modalities, like touch, as well as introduce additional natural variables to test how females make choices when more than visual and acoustic information is varied. I am also interested in the limits of realism necessary and sufficient to elicit responses from females. Are lessons from this species generalizable across other species? What are the cognitive limits of processing sensory information in different contexts?

Increasing awareness

By continuing our basic research, extending our studies to be more inclusive in a multi-disciplinary sense, and by sharing our results beyond peer-reviewed publications, we hope to generate interest in basic organismal biology. This strategy may lead to larger, grander investigations, understanding, and appreciation of how nature operates, including in our own lives.

Advice from the field

Leap on what excites you most, and ask questions to which you would most like to know the answers. Find out from others what pieces to the puzzle are missing, and look for the question marks and gaps in relevant publications. And from my personal perspective as an artist, be open to exploring seemingly less related fields to cultivate talents that may uniquely push your science forward.

About the department

The Department offers a Bachelor of Science in Biology with five tracks, or concentrations: General Biology, Biomedical Science, Cellular and Molecular Biology, Aquatic Science and Environmental Science. We also have a strong graduate program leading to a Master of Science in Biology with several specializations. There are presently over 700 Biology majors who receive personalized instruction from a dedicated and enthusiastic group of over 20 faculty and academic staff.