Café Scientifique

31 October 2016 - By: Caroline Wood

Café Scientifique 

Northern Bald Ibis
Northern Bald Ibis. Photo: Tatjana Hubel

By Caroline Wood

Since they first started in 1998, Café Scientifiques have been bringing researchers and the public together to discuss the latest scientific ideas in cafes, bars and restaurants across the country. For the public, these events offer an insight into the real world of academic research. For the researchers meanwhile, it’s an opportunity to have their work scrutinised by a different audience, who often have very searching questions! At our 2016 Annual Meeting, the SEB joined forces with the Brighton Café Scientifique group to present “The good, the bad, and the ugly: Who benefits from living and moving in groups?”

Whilst the second poster session was winding down at the conference centre on Day 3 of the SEB Meeting, the doors were just opening at the Latest Musicbar, host for the Brighton Café Scientifique. One of our long-time SEB members and this year’s organiser of the Egg Symposium, Steve Portugal (Royal Holloway University of London) was getting ready to inspire some of Brighton’s public on the world of animal group dynamics. 

With over 1,060 members, Brighton’s Café Scientifique events are typically oversubscribed and members came out in force (despite the Football World Cup final). “Everyone who comes enjoys hearing an expert talking knowledgeably about their field of research” said David Sang, who coordinates the Brighton Café Scientifique’s events and chaired the session tonight. Steve gave an entertaining introduction to the world of animal behaviour before explaining how “we can use this knowledge to benefit our lives and technology”. One of his projects has addressed the question of why do birds often fly in V formations? Early models suggested that this saves energy as the birds position themselves to benefit from the updraft of the bird in front. However, these models presume that the birds have fixed-wings like aircraft: the only way to truly test the theory was to use living subjects. The endangered Northern Bald Ibis was chosen, a species that historically migrated from Austria to Southern Italy. Not wanting to lose their £3000 data loggers, the research team used a group of captive Ibises that had been trained to follow their human “foster parents”.

The birds were then taken on their very own ‘migration’ to Italy, following on behind ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’, who was strapped into a microlight (“like a chair with a hairdryer on the back of it” says Steve), bellowing encouragement through a megaphone. The results demonstrated that not only did the birds generally keep to the most energetically saving formation, but they also remembered which individuals had done their fair share of the hard work at the front. “The birds have a complicated social network – they remember each other and what they’ve done” said Steve. When a particularly keen bird put in a hard day’s work at the front for instance, the next day his fellows made sure they had a rest at the back. “The more work you are prepared to do for others, the more they will reward you” said Steve.

Fascinating as this is from a biological perspective, aviation companies are already looking to mimic V formations in passenger aircraft in the near future. “This could save money on fuel and allow planes to travel further” said Steve. “As an example, planes would take off from Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, etc. join together in the air to cross the Pacific, then peel off to their respective American destinations”. 
Steve’s talk certainly proved a hit with the audience and prompted a lively round of questions. “Absolutely gripping and totally immersing…Steve really demonstrated how we can learn from nature” said audience member Louise. It also proved useful for Steve, who said “It was unique experience presenting in such a curious venue and in a more relaxed atmosphere than normal. A couple of the audience’s questions really made me re-think the interpretations of some of my findings”. 


Fancy putting your research under the Café Scientifique spotlight?
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For information on how to train a Northern Bald Ibis see:

Category: Brighton 2016
Caroline Wood-Author Profile

Caroline Wood

Caroline Wood was the SEB’s 2014 science communication intern. Since then, Caroline has been a regular contributor the SEB, reporting on events and writing insightful features for our members.
Caroline has an undergraduate degree from Durham University in Cell Biology and is currently a PHD student at Sheffield University studying parasitic Striga weeds that infect food crops. You can read her blog here.