Questions for Colleen McLinn

Learn more about my research In May, 2007, Colleen McLinn answered visitors questions about animal behavior.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Joe's picture
Joe says:

I heard that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology helps movies, like Harry Potter, with sound effects for animals - some make-believe, like hippogriffs. Is this true? Have you ever helped with this type of thing?

posted on Sun, 05/06/2007 - 9:22pm
Colleen McLinn's picture

That’s true! The Cornell Lab of Ornithology provided sounds for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, including a chiffchaff, burrowing owl, European robin, song thrush, common nightingale, and rooks.

We also provided sounds for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. They needed a sound for the hippogriff, a make-believe cross between an eagle and horse. They ended up using the screech of a limpkin, a swamp-wading bird that lives in Florida. Both of those requests were before I arrived, but I hope I can help out in the future! The best part about working at the Macaulay Library is that there is no typical day, we constantly have new requests for help with sounds and videos.

There are some famous misuses of animal sounds in movies (like using an Australian kookaburra in films set in the African jungle!). But, recently there has been a trend towards accurate natural sounds in films.

posted on Fri, 05/18/2007 - 10:47am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

So, you study animals - do you have any pets?

posted on Sun, 05/06/2007 - 9:24pm
Colleen McLinn's picture

Yes, two very mischievous cats. Sometimes having an animal behavior background is useful, like in using negative reinforcement--a squirt bottle--to train my cats not to meow in the middle of the night. But, my background is in behavioral ecology, the study of behavior from an ecological and evolutionary perspective. Domestic animals are another ballgame, since they’ve undergone a lot of artificial selection as well as natural selection. So, I can’t answer your pet behavior questions—you’d have to ask an applied animal behaviorist!

posted on Fri, 05/18/2007 - 10:53am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

What did you study to get the job you have now?

posted on Sun, 05/06/2007 - 9:24pm
Colleen McLinn's picture

I grew up in Minneapolis, and the Science Museum and Iggy were a big part of my childhood. My interest in birds started as an undergraduate in Florida, watching Roseate Spoonbills and Wood Storks on our campus. I was pretty sure that I wanted to major in biology, but I explored some different paths like stream ecology, marine science, and archaeology, before deciding to study animal behavior. I participated in summer undergraduate research (including at the Science Museum’s St. Croix Watershed Research Station), and that really encouraged my pursuit of an academic career.

I came back to the University of Minnesota for graduate school, intending to get a master’s degree to start. But once I was in graduate school I really liked teaching and thought I’d like to pursue a PhD. My degree was in the department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, and I studied learning and communication in blue jays.

About two years ago, I got to be a “classroom scientist” in the Minneapolis Public Schools as part of a National Science Foundation grant. I worked in a 2nd and 3rd grade classroom three days a week, but I also helped out with after-school science clubs for 5th-8th graders. I realized it was important to me to not only do research, but also promote science education. So, when I saw this opening at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, I jumped at the chance.

posted on Fri, 05/18/2007 - 10:55am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

What is your favorite bird and why?

posted on Mon, 05/14/2007 - 10:13am
Colleen McLinn's picture

No fair...there are too many to choose! I guess at the moment, my favorite is the Eastern Phoebe. The neat aerial foraging, fluffy head feathers and constant tail wagging... what's not to like? My favorite thing is their call, which sounds like they are saying their name in an irritable voice.

posted on Thu, 06/07/2007 - 6:41am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Do you know how or if fish communicate with each other?

posted on Thu, 05/17/2007 - 10:21am
Colleen McLinn's picture

Yes, fish have many means of communicating. Many fish communicate visually through coloration and movements. You’ve probably seen how males bettas (or Siamese fighting fish) display to one another with their fins and tails. Color is important in the mating and dominance interactions of three-spined sticklebacks and many other fish.

I know some University of Minnesota researchers are studying the importance of smell in fish behavior and communication. Many fish respond to pheromones, chemical cues from other fish.

Some fish can use receptors in their skin to detect movement or electrical impulses. South American knife fish generate an electric field at one end of their body, and receive it at the other end, allowing them to detect objects in murky water. They also use this system to communicate more actively. Males and females produce different frequencies (it sounds like humming if you amplify the sound), and can change their frequencies in response to encounters with other fish.

Fish also communicate through sound, by grinding teeth, scraping bony parts together, or expanding and contracting their swim bladder. I didn't realize until I started working at the Macaulay Library what a large number of marine animals produce sound. Here is a staff favorite, the foghorn sound of the oyster toadfish.

posted on Thu, 05/31/2007 - 7:53pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

How do you feel about zoos?

posted on Wed, 05/23/2007 - 10:49am
Colleen McLinn's picture

Conservationists have an uphill battle. As well as dealing with human-animal conflicts over habitat, they have the problem of getting people to appreciate species they may have never seen. Some approaches that have been used to educate people about endangered or faraway animals are through video footage and keeping some animals of a species in zoos.

A close friend and colleague of mine works at an urban zoo with a strong conservation mission. As well as interpretive exhibits about the animals in their zoo, they assist with captive breeding programs and research and conservation efforts to study and protect the animals in their natural habitats.

If we are going to keep animals in captivity, we need to be responsible for providing an enriched and healthy environment for them. Many zoos take this responsibility very seriously. I am sensitive to the fact that some people think we should not keep animals in captivity, though. I think we need to consider the purpose and the nature of our interactions with the animals.

posted on Thu, 05/31/2007 - 9:53am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Do frogs communicate with each other?

posted on Thu, 05/24/2007 - 10:46am
Colleen McLinn's picture

Yes, frogs communicate quite a bit through calls. The peeps and croaks you hear outside at night in springtime are often male frogs calling to attract mates. The complicated whines and chucks of the tungara frog have been extensively studied as a model of communication. Like many male animals, tungara frogs face a tradeoff. While complex calls make them more attractive to females, these calls also make them more vulnerable to predators.

There have been many neat recent findings about frog communication, including that their lungs are involved in hearing, that some species use hollow trees as a megaphone to amplify their calls, and that other species can hear ultrasonic sounds. Frogs also seem to communicate through visual signals and possibly through vibrations and scent.

posted on Mon, 06/04/2007 - 8:11pm
Tina's picture
Tina says:

Do animals need to be in the same species to understand each other?

posted on Thu, 05/24/2007 - 12:06pm
Colleen McLinn's picture

Great question. There appear to be several good examples of communication across species.

One is predator-prey interactions. Brightly colored insects like the monarch butterfly advertise their bad taste to avoid being eaten by birds. Gazelles perform a behavior called stotting where they jump extra high as they run away from cheetahs to advertise how healthy they are and how hard they would be to catch. The idea in both cases is to encourage the predator to give up on attacking them.

Another example is alarm calls. Many smaller species have the same predators and seem to pay attention to one another's alarm calls. Jays are often the first birds in a neighborhood to detect a crow or raptor, and their calls attract others to join in mobbing the predator until it goes away. In Africa, vervet monkeys and superb starlings both give separate alarm calls to terrestrial versus aerial predators. Vervets seem to respond appropriately to starling alarm calls. Just recently in the news, there was a story about how red-breasted nuthatches appear to pay attention to the number of "dees" in black-capped chickadee alarm calls to assess the risk of predation.

posted on Thu, 05/31/2007 - 9:31am
Brandi Bauer's picture
Brandi Bauer says:

Are cats saying anything when they meow?

posted on Fri, 05/25/2007 - 9:52am
Colleen McLinn's picture

Without getting too much into domestic animal behavior (since it's not my specialty), I will say that generally animals communicate in order to get the receiver of the signal to do something. My cats often use a demanding meow when they are hungry or want a door opened, and use other sounds to express emotional states like being content (purring), feeling threatened (hissing), or being in pain (yowling), presumably because it gets the desired reaction from me (like petting them or stopping cutting their claws).

I know cats communicate through body language and scent as well as vocalizations. House cat behaviors are probably a bit complicated to interpret. In the wild most cats are solitary (except for lions). But, we have selected for behaviors that make good pets. The growing field of applied animal behavior will hopefully shed more light on the interactions between humans and domestic animals. Maybe it's something you could study if you're interested!

posted on Thu, 06/07/2007 - 6:47am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Which animal is the most cooperative with humans and/or other animals?

posted on Sat, 05/26/2007 - 10:42am
Colleen McLinn's picture

I'm not sure I totally understand the question, but I'll talk a little bit about cooperation in animals. In general, it's a bit of an evolutionary puzzle, because if animals are struggling to survive and reproduce, shouldn't they compete with others for resources? The answer seems to be that cooperation does happen, often between family members that share genes, but also between unrelated individuals if the cooperator will benefit in the short or long term from its efforts. Eusocial insects like ants and bees are one of the ultimate examples of altruistic cooperation, because workers don't reproduce but instead care for their sisters (who through some interesting genetics are actually more closely related to them then their offspring would have been). Some birds stay around and help raise siblings for a few years after leaving the nest, especially if breeding sites are limited.

Unrelated animals usually cooperate to get better access to food or mates than they could achieve working solo. For example, two male lance-tailed manakins (a tropical bird species) cooperatively display to a female, although generally the alpha male monopolizes the mating opportunities. It seems like by participating the beta male improves his eventual chances of having an attractive display or inheriting the alpha role.

I'm sure there are a lot of examples of domestic animals cooperating with humans, because we have selected for docile behavior and responsiveness to human demands. There is some anecdotal evidence of wild animal cooperation with humans, for example, that ravens attract wolves or hunters to a large prey animal like a moose (that they later scavenge on). Another bird species called a honeyguide gets its name from supposedly leading large mammals to a beehive and then hanging around to eat the remnants once it is opened. I haven't seen either case firsthand, but I bring it up as an example of just how self-interested "cooperation" can be!

posted on Tue, 06/05/2007 - 4:03pm
RD's picture
RD says:

Are their birds cooings comparable to words and expressions, each sound having a different meaning, that science can interpret? Is it possible to learn this language?

posted on Sat, 06/02/2007 - 10:50am
Colleen McLinn's picture

Yes, without being able to put ourselves in the minds of birds, we can start to understand the function of different animal sounds by paying attention to who is using them and in what context. Bird songs can generally be broken down into calls, used for alarm or contact between members of a group, and songs, used for mate attraction and territory defense. Researchers often visualize sounds in a spectrogram or waveform in order to study them more, or slow them down to analyze the different notes of a song.

The distinction between human language and animal communication is a bit controversial. However, we are learning that many species have much more complicated communication systems than we previously thought. As well as communicating information about individual identity or immediate physical state, we are now finding animal signals that give information about features of the external environment, including the distance, direction and type of food (conveyed in honeybee waggle dances), and the presence and even type of predators (conveyed in vervet monkey alarm calls).

posted on Tue, 06/05/2007 - 4:47pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

what kinds of animals do you work with?

posted on Wed, 06/06/2007 - 3:03pm
Colleen McLinn's picture

I mainly study birds. I think they have really interesting behavior. Since they don't have big fat reserves like mammals, they are active all the time during daylight, trying to find food. Their every decision is important. (Not to knock mammals--I'd sleep 19 hours a day like my cat if I could!)

The species I have studied most include the Black-Hooded Parakeet and Blue Jay. Right now I'm mainly studying animal behavior through the sounds and videos in our archive (all kinds of species). I also just went on a sound recording trip to California where I used a shotgun microphone and digital recorder to capture the sounds of various western bird species. My favorite was the Red-breasted sapsucker.

posted on Fri, 06/29/2007 - 1:42pm
Natalie Crosby's picture
Natalie Crosby says:

What was your favorite subject in school?

posted on Sat, 06/16/2007 - 2:48pm
Colleen McLinn's picture

From about 4th-8th grade, it was life science. In high school I was more interested in English and French and thought I wanted to be a writer. But then I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, and had one of those life-changing "ah ha" moments. She described the natural world so carefully that I realized writing and science weren't incompatible. In college I really enjoyed taking ecology, because it showed how everything else I'd been learning in biology classes really fit together.

posted on Fri, 06/22/2007 - 5:48am
Daniel's picture
Daniel says:

Our cat makes eh-eh-ehe-eh sounds while she sits in the window watching the birds and small animals go by. What is she saying (beisdes LET ME OUT)? Seems odd that she would be making noise while in predator mode.

posted on Sun, 06/17/2007 - 2:28pm
Colleen McLinn's picture

Yes, I've had cats that did this too, and it is strange. My hunch is that they would not be making noise if they had a real chance to stalk the animal. Maybe it is some kind of frustration or displacement activity.

posted on Wed, 06/27/2007 - 8:09am
Felicia's picture
Felicia says:

How many types of animals do you "work with" or do research on?

posted on Wed, 06/20/2007 - 2:40pm
Colleen McLinn's picture

Right now I'm working on developing lessons using sounds and video, so I'm focusing on communication and flight in a number of species: mostly birds, but crickets and some other species as well. The animal behavior research I've done has been mainly on three species: the Black-hooded parakeet, Blue jay, and a little work with Japanese quail. I also had some other interesting research along the way as a student--I did an intensive measurement study of ancient goat bones from the Middle East to look at early animal domestication, and I helped with some stream ecology work where I even looked at plants. A great thing about biology is that there are so many related fields, looking at different scales, from microscopic processes to ecosystem function.

posted on Wed, 06/27/2007 - 8:06am