WINTER 2007/VOLUME 21, NUMBER 1
Digitizing the Dance of a Bird-of-Paradise
Video access revolutionizes behavioral studies
When it comes time to win mates, a mysterious bird from New Guinea performs one of the world's most complex courtship displays. After clearing a stage on the forest floor and laying down a mat of fungi, the male might do a Hop and Shake, Head-shake Walk, or Ballerina Dance, in which he flares out his feathers dramatically, resembling a tutu. These are just a few of the dances he performs to impress a female, along with rhythmic vocalizations, wing rattling, and enhancements such as iridescent plumage and wire-like feathers protruding from his head.
In a landmark study published in the October 2006 issue of The Auk, biologist Edwin Scholes fully describes the displays of Carola's Parotia bird-of-paradise for the first time and offers access to video footage that anyone can watch online through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Macaulay Library, a multimedia "museum" of animal behavior.
Greg Budney, acting director of the Macaulay Library, said the study is exciting, not only because it describes the spectacular courtship rituals of the Carola's Parotia, but because it is the first ever example of how animal behavior can be preserved as video "voucher specimens" that are fully archived in a museum and accessible online.
"We are at a technological crossroads," Budney said. "In the past, researchers described the behavior of animals in publications, but in no case did others have ready access to actually see them."
Scholes, a visiting fellow in the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates, recorded Carola's Parotias in the mountains of central New Guinea. Although most of the 40 species of birds-of-paradise have bizarre and complicated mating rituals, Scholes says the Carola's Parotia may have the most complex one of all.
An exacting architect, the male first selects a display area, clears it of debris, lays down a mat of fungal material, and decorates it with objects such as brightly colored leaves, mammal fur, and snakeskin. He may even remove leaves from branches that impede a clear view.
With the stage set, he performs before an audience of females who perch on a branch and peer down to watch him. Scholes recorded 20 distinct courtship behaviors with 52 discrete elements. If impressed, a female invites the male to alight on her back to mate.
Video footage of the displays is now accessible along with 18,000 other video clips of animal behavior in the Macaulay Library's collection.
"The Macaulay Library is a wonderful resource because it makes it much easier for both the public and scientists to interpret the complex courtship behaviors I'm describing," Scholes says. "And importantly, these rare behaviors will be preserved for future scientists to study again, or maybe someday, reinterpret in a new light."
Eventually Scholes hopes to use video to document and archive the behaviors of dozens of bird-of-paradise species. His goal is to determine how complex behaviors and plumages evolved from the crowlike ancestor that all birds-of-paradise have in common.
To view sample video clips of Carola's Parotia bird-of-paradise, visit www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/paradise.
To access all the clips or explore the Macaulay Library's multimedia collection of animal behavior, visit www.animalbehaviorarchive.org.
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