A few years ago, my daughter and I were talking about her high school homework. I cannot recall precisely what class we were discussing, but a moment occurred when I became concerned that she was unprepared for an upcoming test. Anxiety hung in the air for a second before she reassured me. “Dad”, she said with a twinge of impatience, “I am a nerd”. It was her way of telling me that she was studious, exacting, and did not need to be told to get her work done.
As you all know by now, I too am a nerd. I wear that label — like my daughter does — as a badge of honor. The nerds I know are thoughtful, bookish folks who enjoy making fine distinctions and extracting subtle patterns from scientific data. Nerdiness of this kind is essential to a scientist, of course. Publishing our work and being taken seriously by our colleagues requires that we navigate a mine field of biased samples, uncontrolled variables, and specious correlations to arrive at valid conclusions to our questions.
Nerds are different. Most people, while chatting with a stranger in a supermarket line, can get away with saying, “Aaron Rodgers killed the Packers last year with his erratic passing in big games”. A nerd, however, would want to look at the data. S/he would examine Rodger’s passing statistics against teams with winning records and division rivals to see if, truly, he played worse in those games than in less important contests. While nerds can be annoying nit-pickers in society — the kind of people you want to avoid sitting next to at a party — we are quite valuable as scientists. We have the patience and passion to discover true causes of patterns in nature.
I was able to bring this patience to bear on a recent question about loon behavior. In my ongoing investigation of senescence in male loons, I faced a puzzle. The territorial yodel of males serves two purposes. It is, most obviously, a territorial call that males emit when a competitor is flying overhead or sitting nearby in the water. At such times, the yodel announces the willingness of a male to fight for territory ownership. But the yodel also serves to protect the young (see Linda’s photo, above); that is, male parents often yodel to prevent landings of flying intruders, which sometimes attack and kill chicks. Why does it matter that the yodel serves two purposes? Because I am trying to make a nerdy distinction: Do old male loons yodel more than young males because they are defending their territories, or do old-timers yodel more simply to defend their chicks?
This distinction is important. If you have been following this blog, you know that old male loons make a terminal investment in reproduction. The most obvious evidence of terminal investment by old males is their tendency to yodel more often than young males. But since yodels occur both in territory defense and in chick defense, it was not immediately obvious whether old males were yodeling their heads off at intruders simply to protect their chicks or to maintain ownership of their territories. Fortunately, we have enough yodel data from periods with and without chicks to see if the increased yodeling of old males occurs at both times. It does! Hence it seems that old males are employing the yodel call to defend their territories as well as to defend their offspring.
To a nerd, the ramifications of this finding are profound. An old male who yodels simply to protect his chicks is investing extra energy to rear his offspring to adulthood at the possible expense of his own survival. This is rather a short-term strategy, as it is aimed at rearing young to 11 weeks of age, after which young are out of the woods, and the investment has been successful. An old male without chicks that yodels, however, is taking a long-term view. Chickless males are months away from producing young. Their yodeling is aimed at guaranteeing territory ownership for many future months, even years. Although terminal investment in offspring is rare in animals, terminal investment in territory ownership is virtually unknown. So the stepped-up yodeling by old, chickless male loons is an exciting finding. As you might imagine, this result has set off quite a nerd celebration!