Robofrogs: When a machine will do... more
July 09, 2012
Nic, Kelsey and Kyle are part of a team headed by Ryan Taylor, Mike Ryan and Rachel Page that’s asking how communication signals evolve
“Lights off.” The room plunges into darkness. “Door closed.” Nic turns on the computer display and we see an infrared image of Kyle crawling around on the floor of what looks like a whitetiled shower stall. He’s trying to put a plastic funnel over a frog in the center of an open space between two small speakers. We see Kyle on the monitor, but he can’t see anything in the darkness so Kelsey tells him to move the funnel to the left to cover the frog.
Kyle leaves the chamber to join us: “When we lift up the funnel by pulling on this string, the female frog has two minutes to choose between an active robofrog in front of a speaker playing a frog call and an inactive robofrog with a speaker playing a sexier call.” The female doesn’t move. Two minutes go by and she still hasn’t moved. She fouled out, or maybe she just wasn’t convinced. They try another frog. She fouls out too. Finally a third frog decides to hop toward the speaker with the robofrog. “That one counts as a choice,” says Nic.
Nic, Kelsey and Kyle are part of a team headed by Ryan Taylor, Mike Ryan and Rachel Page that’s asking how communication signals evolve. How do animals integrate visual and sound cues as they make a decision? The decision-maker is a female tungara frog: a quartersized, nondescript brown frog, made famous among behavioral researchers by Mike Ryan and STRI’s Stan Rand who used it as a model to work out how mate choice influences evolution. Stan would be thrilled to see the “faux frogs” or “robofrogs” developed by Barrett Klein and Joey Stein. Because the models have an inflatable vocal sac, created by modifying a urinary catheter, researchers can now find out how a female evaluates both sound and visual signals as she picks a mate.