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The Macrophysiology Lab: Diving into the mysteries of animal behaviour

The MacrophysiologyLab at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, IISc, asks a very fundamental question: “How do you survive?”. And they ask it to animals. Since they can’t answer in English, the lab has methods to understand what the animal perceives and how it’s making decisions.

The animal world has never failed to fascinate the curious human mind with the mysteries it has to offer. For ages, many have strived to understand how our fellow beings are surviving in a world that is perpetually challenging.

Headed by Assistant Professor Maria Thaker, The MacrophysiologyLab focuses on how animals deal with stress. For animals in the wild, stress is a factor that has to be dealt with constantly as it can arise in the form of a predator, a competitor, changes in habitat or unfavourable climatic conditions; how an animal copes with this stress will consequently determine its survival.

“Life is tough. And we want to know how they survive”, says Thaker.

The research carried out at the lab explores the general decision making capabilities of animals. In order to study decision making, they study animals under stress; for example, they study prey animals in the presence of predators. Thaker believes that prey animals are best adapted for survival as they run a far greater risk of death as compared to those at the top of the food chain. As Thaker puts it -- “They cannot afford to lose”.

Thaker’s approach to her research is from two different, yet important directions. One, trying to understand how the animal’s immediate environment plays a role in its behavior. Two, understanding the physiological processes that mediate behaviour. Thaker and her team consider these two approaches as inseparable and critical for providing a complete picture of animal behaviour.

Another important aspect that the team considers for its behavioural studies is maintaining a natural or a semi-natural condition while studying the animals. This ensures that the results they produce are compatible with the natural environment. The researchers combine studying animals in their natural habitat with controlled observations in laboratory conditions to fit all the pieces of the puzzle.

In the lab, researchers use two main methods to study stress reactions: observations and physiological manipulation. Physiological traits such as hormonal changes, energy levels and thermoregulation are the key factors measured in order to better understand their behaviour. 

Lizards are one of the study animals. Many lizards do not move around much in the wild, often being highly territorial. They can also be housed easily in the lab, being small and relatively easy to maintain. One of their current research programmes is focused in Maharashtra, where they are studying the effects of windmills on the population and behaviour of fan-throated lizards. The approach to this study is from a bird’s eye view of the food chain; the setting provides an opportunity to study lizard behaviour in a predation free zone (no avian predators), and the resulting effect of this, further down the food chain. The results of this study are expected to paint a picture of the changing ecosystem due to the presence of windmills and improve conservation efforts in the area.

Part of the team is also studying the survival tactics of the Peninsular rock agama - a commonly found agama in South India – in the contrasting urban and wild conditions. This is to better understand their ability to adapt to changing environments. These studies seem to indicate that rock agamas have different courtship and aggressive behaviours depending on whether they are in urban or rural environments.

Thaker’s research team also works on the behaviours of large mammals such as African elephants and meso-carnivores such as jungle cats, foxes and jackals. The team is interested in understanding the variations in the behaviour of these different animal groups and is trying to answer the ultimate question of how they survive in human dominated landscapes.

The research group’s efforts to study varying behaviours in accordance with a varying environment will fit more pieces to the bigger puzzle of the evolution of animals. Her current question that evokes curiosity, however still remains, “How do you survive (given social and environmental challenges)?”

About the Lab:

Maria Thaker leads the research at the lab, which functions in the Centre of Ecological Sciences. The lab consists of five members of which three are PhD students and two are Junior Research Fellows.

 

She can be reached at mthaker@ces.iisc.ernet.in