Listen to our podcast episode or read the transcript below featuring Dr. Jay Falk, hummingbird researcher, as we talk about queering biology and doing research on tiny untrackable birds in Panama.
“Diversity is normal. It’s everywhere.”
“We’re in a time where we’re really engaging with and acknowledging not only differences between males and females, but we’re also looking at variation and diversity within the sexes as well.”
“It’s truly incredible the amount of ways that you can exist in this world. And anything you can think of, you can find it in biological diversity.”
Tanya: Hi everyone and welcome to Ask-a-Scientist, a Science Journal for Kids podcast where we explore what it’s like to be a scientific researcher. I’m Tanya Dimitrova and I’m here with my co-host Dr. Miranda Wilson.
Miranda: Hey there!
T: Our guest today is Dr. Jay Jinsing Falk. He’s an evolutionary biologist and behavioral ecologist. Jay studies how social interactions in a species can lead to more diversity. He’s particularly interested in hummingbirds due to their immense variety. Here at Science Journal for Kids, we just adapted one of his papers about hummingbirds for school students in an article called, “What Does Hummingbird Coloration Tell Us About Competition?”
Today we will talk with Jay about his work, but we will also get to know, at least a little bit, the person behind the professional scientist. Hello, Jay, and welcome to the podcast.
Jay: Hi, thanks for having me.
T: At the start, can you give us a glimpse of where we reach you today? What is your office like, so to speak?
J: Yes, so I am tuning in from the town of Gamboa in Panama. And I’m in a small acoustic chamber meant for recording bats just for real high sound quality here. I’ve actually been coming back and forth to Panama for a really long time, since 2011 when I was an intern here and then I’ve been an intern and I’ve been a graduate student and now I’m a postdoctoral researcher here.
T: What is a typical day for you as a researcher in Panama?
J: Sort of my typical day when I’m doing fieldwork is I’ll get up pretty early, have my coffee, listen to some birds, and then I’ll go down to the lab on my bike, it’s pretty close by, and we’ll, so me and my team, we’ll get on to whatever project we have going.
T: Did you say that the first thing you do when you wake up is listen to some birds?
J: Yeah, I mean, it’s just sort of all the windows are open and you can just hear all the animals calling in the morning.
T: Is that part of your research or part of your wellness routine?
J: It’s just part of my waking up, getting some coffee and just sitting on the steps, just seeing and listening to everyone else wake up too.
M: So let’s talk a little bit about your educational background specifically. You got your bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin and then followed that up with a PhD from Cornell. When you were a student were you always interested in biology or did you have other interests as you were growing up?
J: I think I’ve always had an interest in biology. I had other interests, too, but you know I always had, I loved having an aquarium in my room and I would catch little minnows from wherever and put them in there.
M: What are those?
J: Minnows? Just some small fish that you would see in a pond. I don’t even know the real species name or anything. It was fun to just go out into a creek and, you know, try to catch some little fish with my small net. Yeah, and so I always had stuff like that. I had, like, tadpoles, little baby frogs, and I had toads in my room. It got a little, at some point, I think there was just so much stuff in there that there was maybe a tiny little roach infestation in my room, which my parents were quick to kind of take care of and made me make sure everything was very tidy and clean after that.
But I also had a real interest in music and I played piano growing up and actually in college my first year I spent as a piano performance major, a music major.
M: Oh wow.
J: And so, yeah, I spent a lot of time practicing alone. I loved that period, but I think it was just not the right calling for me. I was super, super interested in biology. And as I was taking undergraduate courses, I was just getting even more interested in that. And so that’s kind of where my journey started.
T: So we actually heard about your research experiment on flour beetles when you were in your undergrad, which got published in the journal Evolution. Lots of students think that science is really complicated, but my guess is that your experimental design was relatively simple. Tell us about it. What was your question? Just walk us through the experimental design.
J: Yeah, I love that question. We do think of needing all the scientific equipment and expensive stuff and, you know, lab coats and chemicals and stuff. But I mean, really, my start with actual research was with these flour beetles that, you know, you very often just find in your in your kitchen. And we really the whole lab was just, it was a cooler. And it had a bunch of the little Tupperware containers filled with wheat and corn flour. And then we were raising flour beetles in them, and the main tools we had were just little dishes. We would put the whole – all the flour and the beetles in, basically a strainer and knock out the flour so we could get the beetles. And then we had a little plastic spoon for picking up the flour beetles so that we could count them amd put them in another thing.
It’s funny because when you use a tool a lot, you get obsessed with all the intricacies of it. And it’s amazing how you can get obsessed with the perfect plastic spoon for counting flour beetles. We would go to like this one very specific Wendy’s for the perfect plastic spoon and you just couldn’t use any other one because you’re very snobby about it.
T: And that’s how you end up publishing in the journal Evolution.
J: Exactly. Yes, exactly.
Basically, you know, we had different strains of flour beetles, which just means they took flour beetles from different parts of the world, they collected them in different places, and then they’ve been keeping them in these isolated lines in a lab somewhere for sometimes decades. And so eventually different strains become genetically different from each other. And we wanted to know what would happen if you put just one strain in a little container with flour, or what would happen if you put multiple strains within a cup, and how that would change the extinction rate and the population dynamics of these little tiny populations of flour beetles. And yeah, one of the things we found was that basically the more strains we put into a population – the more genetic diversity you have – the less likely the populations are to just spontaneously go extinct.
M: And that’s such an important question, and you figured that out with kitchen materials.
So, going along your academic trajectory a little bit, you didn’t go straight from UT Austin. What did you do in between?
J: So I took some time off and I knew that I wanted to do field research at that point. I loved the flour beetles, but I took some courses that really made me fall in love with just being outside and, you know, tromping around in the forest and stuff like that. So I knew I wanted that, but I felt like I didn’t really know other than that what I wanted. So I wanted a few more experiences before I went to graduate school where you’re really, you know, supposed to specialize.
So it was kind of like in the middle of the recession at that time, but I just kind of picked up whatever jobs I could and I finally landed an assistantship here in Panama, actually. And that was my first trip here. That was my first time in the tropics. And it was just so magical.
At the time, I was working with bats and social learning and bats. And so we were training bats to listen to cell phone rings, actually.
T: Oh, wow.
J: After that, I knew like, I really love studying animal behavior. And that was the field that I wanted to go into. From there, that’s when I really started to apply to graduate school.
M: I think that’s really important for our younger audience members to hear, that you don’t have to know exactly what you want to do coming straight out of high school or college. There are opportunities out there.
J: Yeah, for sure.
T: So you have been studying hummingbirds in Panama for a few years now, and you’ve published a few papers about an interesting hummingbird species called the white-necked jacobins, where some, but not all, of the female birds look like males in their plumage and coloration. Can you summarize your findings for us in three sentences?
J: So, yeah, so I would say the males are more aggressive than the females, whatever the type of females. And the other hummingbirds, white-necked jacobins included, recognize the bright plumage of the males, and they learn to associate that with aggression. And these females that look like the males are actually escaping aggression from other hummingbirds because they look like these males. And other hummingbirds are avoiding them, because they themselves don’t want to get beaten up.
T: Would it be correct to say that this is mimicry, that the females are mimicking males? Because usually mimicry is when one organism takes on the appearance or the behavior of another to gain some kind of advantage, and it’s very common in nature. So what makes this finding in the jacobins unique or different from other known examples of mimicry in the animal kingdom?
J: This is a special case of mimicry where one sex, the females, has evolved to look like the other sex, the males. This isn’t too uncommon either. We see a lot of examples of this in which males have evolved to look like females, for some sort of advantage. And there are also other examples where we see females that look like males.
One of the best-studied examples is in damselflies, which are these really beautiful insects related to dragonflies. And there are several species of damselflies that have this very similar thing where only some of the females look like the males. There’s been a lot of research on them.
And this was basically another case of that. Besides the damselflies, there aren’t too many examples. It’s sort of a very small class of mimicry, but it is another example. And really, it’s the explanation for it that’s more novel in this case, but the pattern we do see repeatedly, which is really interesting.
T: The explanation being that the males are more aggressive.
J: Yes, so the explanation here being that they’re mimicking for access to food and they’re mimicking because the other sex is basically more socially aggressive or dominant within the hummingbird community.
T: So, your findings about these birds actually received a lot of public attention. They were covered by the New York Times, The Atlantic, National Geographic, and you just told us that you have another interview coming up in half an hour. Why do you think that is? What makes this research and these findings so relevant today?
J: Oh, that’s a really good question. I think in part, in part, it’s hummingbirds and just people love hummingbirds. And I also think a part of it is just we’re in a time where we’re really engaging with and acknowledging not only differences between males and females. We’re also looking at variation and diversity within the sexes as well. And so I think that we’re engaging with this at a social level right now.
My guess is that the fact that there is this really cool diversity in these hummingbirds and how they look and the fact that they can be so different and being the same sex, I think it just strikes a chord with a lot of people.
I had to be very careful in how I wanted to portray these birds. I didn’t want them to be portrayed as sort of overly bizarre or strange or something like that because diversity is normal. It’s everywhere.
M: On your website, you have a section called Queering Biology. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about what that is, what it means?
J: Yes, I would love to, and I’ll do my best here. It’s not necessarily a new topic, but I think that we’re sort of taking a lot of different ideas and kind of putting them together under this umbrella of what we’re calling queering biology.
So what this is, is basically everyone, including scientists and biologists, sort of live in our society within our culture and we absorb a lot of the assumptions and cultural practices of everyone around us. So we have inherent biases that we may not even be aware of about how males and females ‘should be’ different from each other or ‘should be’ similar to each other. And that includes who they ‘should be’ attracted to. One aspect of this is what we call heteronormativity, which is basically the idea that you should be attracted to the other sex: if you’re a man, you should be attracted to a woman; and if you’re a woman, you should be attracted to a man.
And the idea behind queering in general, not just in biology, is to question those assumptions. Question why we have those assumptions in the first place. And a lot of times those assumptions come from biology itself, unfortunately, because the way that we ask questions sometimes are sort of immersed in this social realm that we live in and we end up being biased ourselves within the science.
And so queering biology is really looking at biology itself and thinking about where do we have these inherent biases that may be affecting questions that we ask and also sometimes how we observe animals in the first place? And that can really affect what we see as what’s natural.
And it’s really important because what we see and what we understand as natural can get reflected back into society sometimes. And so we want to be really careful that we’re looking at nature from a perspective that really, truly tries to find the diversity in life itself because that’s really the fascinating thing that brings much of us to biology in the first place.
M: So you talked a little bit about how this could be kind of incorporated into science in general. Do you have any kind of specific examples for our listeners of like how queering biology could be integrated into scientific research? Like if someone was just kind of getting into it and wanted to take this perspective?
T: Or maybe if you have an example from your own work, how you have incorporated this idea?
J: Yeah, sure. So my website that you mentioned has a lot of links to some really great books, but also some talks. And my mentor for really engaging with this topic has been Karen Warkentin. And they’ve given some really amazing talks over the last few years on this topic. So I encourage everyone to watch those.
From my own perspective, I try to take a diversity first approach. So I see variation as the thing that we should be looking at. I’m less interested in sort of trying to find what is typical or what we would call as normal because to me when we’re saying what’s typical or normal we’re really deciding, we’re really choosing to look at a very specific set of animals and we can say this is normal for them or this is typical or common for them but really it’s truly incredible the amount of ways that you can exist in this world. And anything you can think of, you can find it in biological diversity.
And so that’s sort of the perspective I like to take and that’s the perspective that I like to take with the hummingbirds. And that’s why I’m so fascinated with this variation in the females.
I think a really good example of a perspective shift that recently came out… I was not involved with this project, but this other group looked, they were interested in looking at what we call same-sex sexual behavior in animal behavior. And so that’s sexual behavior between males or sexual behavior between females. They were looking across all species. This was a review.
And they did this review, but they also pointed out a lot of the explanations we have for same-sex sexual behavior sort of have the assumption that animals should mostly have cross-sex sexual behavior. So they ‘should’ be, males ‘should’ be having sexual behavior with females, and females ‘should’ be having sexual behavior with males.
And this paper really questioned that basic assumption and they looked at sexual behavior across all animals and they found it to be extremely common and they said well, you know, basically we shouldn’t really expect specific different-sex sexual behavior. What is probably most common is that both same-sex sexual behavior and different-sex sexual behavior happen in most animals. And you might, in some cases, have very strong selection, evolution, towards having very distinct differences in very common different-sex sexual behavior.
But just questioning the assumption, really, I think it changes your whole perspective on what the starting place is. And it changes a lot of, there’s been more mathematical modeling following that perspective piece. And I think it’s bringing a new perspective that’s very important.
M: In your emails, you sign off with the pronouns he or any. Do you think that including pronouns in communications is a good way to open up the conversation about identity and diversity and maybe even the question of querying biology with your research colleagues?
J: That’s a great question, and I’ll do my best to answer. I’m very new to interacting with the concept of queer, especially when it comes to myself. But I think that a big reason for that is growing up and throughout college and becoming an adult, I did not have a lot of the language that we have now to interact with that. Really, you know, no one talked about being non-binary and queer and, you know, gay. These words had a very negative connotation.
And so I think it’s been very recent that I’ve really sort of, you know, what brought me there was the hummingbirds, but I started really engaging with these ideas because I was concerned that, you know, my biases and assumptions could be influencing my own research.
And really what I found was this beautiful world that really perfectly described how I was feeling, how I had always felt. And not only for pronouns or for my gender identification, but also for how I think of my own race. I’m what many would call mixed race, both Jewish and Chinese background from my parents.
And a lot of people sort of have a hard time exactly identifying what I am without asking. I kind of fluidly move between cultures of being Jewish and being Chinese. And so a lot of the language and a lot of the commentary in the queer space has helped me understand my own race, my own identity in general.
For me, I’m comfortable with whatever anyone wants to identify me as, and I’m very accustomed to people kind of identifying me as something that I may not be entirely. So here in Panama, I get identified as Latin very much or Latin American. And so I’m comfortable with that, with having sort of like this difference between my external and internal feelings.
Um, but I think having those things, it does help make people more comfortable within their own skin. So, um, I’m, I’m really interested in, in sort of experimenting with pronouns in order to sort of, um, help other people. And, and as I, as I become postdoctoral researcher, I have my own mentees and assistants and people who are looking up to me and I really want to like open up that space.
T: So let’s move on to a Q&A session with some students who had some questions about your hummingbird article.
Adyant: Hi, I’m Adyant Bhavsar, an eighth grader from San Jose, California. Did you encounter any instances where other animals were able to successfully distinguish between males and fancy females? And is it even possible to distinguish the two based solely on looks or behavior?
J: That’s a great question. So, when I was really testing whether or not hummingbirds could tell the difference between males and the females that looked like the males, I was actually using taxidermy mounts of these hummingbirds. So these birds were, you know, they weren’t alive, they were just sitting there in the position of being perched basically on a stick. And that was advantageous for me because I was basically able to control all variables other than the plumage itself.
But I have to imagine that there are ways that these hummingbirds can tell based on something like behavior. And when they interact with each other, I can imagine that there are other ways that they signal each other if they want to, that they are female, if they want to show that. And then…
M: Can you tell the difference between?
J: I can sometimes tell the difference, especially if I have, if I’ve caught one of these birds. And I have it in hand, then I can tell the difference about 90% of the time. And basically, it comes down to the thickness of a black strip on the tail. And that and often in the wild, that strip is sort of covered up because they have their tails closed. So I actually have to open, like spread the tail feathers open in order to see that.
J: So they really are remarkably similar.
T: Adyant has another question.
A: Why do you think only about 20% of females have this fancy appearance when it’s actually favorable to their survival chances?
J: Okay, so that is another really great question and it’s sort of one of the big questions for the future. So, so far I’ve really found only advantages to looking like a male for the females. I imagine that this has something to do with costs at the nest. So there’s theory within animals in general that you don’t want to be brightly colored at your nest because you’re basically just sitting there with your vulnerable children. You want to escape visibility in as many ways as you can. And having that bright blue, bright white plumage is maybe an issue. And so I don’t have evidence for this yet because it’s very, very hard to find hummingbird nests.
But it is something that I want to investigate in the future. In general, there needs to be some sort of disadvantage to looking like that. And it may be genetic as well. And that’s something that I’m looking into right now.
T: Super cool. The next question is from Natalie.
Natalie: Hi Dr Jay, my name is Natalie and I am a grade 10 student located in Canada. I read your article about hummingbirds and thought it was really informative and interesting. My question for you is if you think hummingbirds have more or less competition when compared to other species of birds. Thank you so much.
J: Awesome question. I think they have more competition. If you ever have the chance to watch hummingbirds at a feeder, they’re fighting with each other constantly. And it’s so funny because sometimes they’re not even eating the food very much and they’re still just like aggressively chasing other birds away from feeders.
So I think that they are very competitive with each other. And you could imagine that’s because hummingbirds have extremely high metabolic rates. They’re constantly consuming energy, in part because they have such crazy flight maneuvers. But then they’re also eating this resource that’s pretty limited, and that’s flower nectar. And so having access and getting access to nectar and flower resources is probably very important for them.
And actually a lot of cultures have recognized the fact that hummingbirds are very competitive and aggressive. A lot of the Mesoamerican civilizations represented their gods of war as hummingbirds. And so even there’s some bloodletting tools from the Aztecs that are in the form of a hummingbird. So they really recognized their sort of tiny power.
T: Okay, the next question is from a first grader.
Aili: Hi, I’m Aili and I’m six years old and I have a question for you. Why do hummingbirds sip the nectar from the flowers when the bees have already pollinated them?
J: Oh, that is a really nice question. So bees are one type of pollinator and oftentimes bees will go to certain flowers while hummingbirds go to other types of flowers. And so sometimes, within a small amount of space, if you have many different types of flowers, you can get both bees and hummingbirds going to flowers to drink nectar and hopefully pollinate those flowers.
And, also, flowers have this cool ability a lot of them do at least to, once they’ve drank their nectar, they can refill the flower with more nectar so that they can have other visitors. And from a flower’s perspective, a lot of them want multiple types of pollinators so they can get their pollen to a more wide amount of space.
M: Great. We have one final question for you, which is a kind of fun question. If you had a million dollars to do whatever kind of research you wanted, what would that pie-in-the-sky research project be about?
J: Wow, okay, so the thing that immediately comes to mind is developing tracking devices for hummingbirds. So a lot of the reasons hummingbirds are still so mysterious to us is because they’re too small to put, are sort of, you know, you can’t put GPS tags on them. That’s way too big. And even radio tags, which are much smaller, most of them are far too large for them. And so developing methods to track where hummingbirds go and why would be so, so cool, because then you have a story, right?
And animal behavior, we really just want to know everything that the animal is doing. And it’s hard to do that when you can’t track them. And with most birds, you can put color tags on their feet. But hummingbirds have really, really tiny feet. And if you put color, you could put color tags on them, but you would never see them. And so this is one of the reasons why they’re so challenging to study.
But I think I would put that money towards making tracking devices for myself.
T: Using nanotechnology, apparently.
J: Oh man, that would, yeah, who even knows? I don’t even know how this stuff works, but there’s got to be a way to do it, right?
T: Wow. Thank you so much, Jay, for your time today. We learned a lot about hummingbirds, about your life as a researcher, about so many important and interesting topics.
J: Thank you so much for having me. This was really fun and I really enjoyed talking to you guys and hearing everyone’s questions.
M: Did you know that you can directly read one of Jay’s scientific papers, stripped from its complex scientific jargon, and made understandable to readers as young as 5th grade in school? The link is in the show notes. You can also just Google its title, “What does hummingbird coloration tell us about competition?” or directly go to www.sciencejournalforkids.org and search for hummingbird.
T: That’s all for today. This podcast was produced with help from students Adyan Bafsar, Natalie Zhu, Ailya Mladenova, and research assistant Natalia Torres Behar, sound engineer Maria Mikhailova, and hosts Miranda Wilson and me, Tanya Dimitrova. Thank you for listening. Subscribe to this podcast to receive notifications about the next episode of Science Journal for Kids, Ask a Scientist. Till then!
All photo credits: Jay Falk
Title image credit: Jay Falk
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Read Jay’s original article or our student-friendly adaptation “What does hummingbird coloration tell us about competition?” It’s available in two reading levels in English and also translated into Spanish.