Guides for Students Writing Papers

Working with students writing their first research papers has gotten me thinking about the writing process. Sometimes people don’t know where to start, or once they start, get lost in the details and lose the big picture.

I’ve written out two related short guides. The first has some general information on what to put in different parts of a paper; these are not hard rules and there are all kinds of wonderful, beautiful exceptions. The second is the order that I like to write/plan the sections in. I like this order because I feel like the paper falls together as I go. They’re written to stand alone, so there is some repeated information.

(1) “Recipe” for a paper
Intro: Everything in the Intro should lead into the question, like a funnel.
– Start big/wide. What are the big concepts that you’re going to discuss? Provide enough theoretical background to understand the topics covered in the discussion. Stay focused on your subject area though. For example, starting with Darwin is probably too big.
– Narrow in. E.g. What species are you going to use? Why use them? Provide relevant background on their biology and, if applicable, research done in this area with your species in the past.
– Get specific. What question(s) will you address with this paper?

[Edit 26 July 2015]: The prose describing the background should lead into your question as the next logical step to take.

[Edit 26 July 2015]: The prose describing the background should lead into your question as the next logical step to take.

– What did you do and why, with enough detail that it can be repeated, but not so much that it’s overwhelming. For example, the height of the counters in the lab is not necessary, but the sizes of the Petri dishes or the amount of reagents might be.

– What did you find? Present this in the order you plan to discuss it in.

– What do each of the results mean? Walk through each result and perhaps discuss what you might have predicted vs what was found. Brainstorm all possible interpretations for each result (or group of results).
– What do results + interpretations mean for your original question(s)? How do your results fit into the current literature? How have you expanded on what was known?
– What’s left to do in this area? What are the next steps/future directions?

(2) Order for writing and planning papers:
1) Start with your goal(s)/question(s). What are your predictions? What do you need to know to assess your predictions?

2) Methods: What do you need to do to get the data necessary to assess your predictions? Write this section out as early as possible because otherwise you might forget details.

3) Analysis: Do the statistical tests you need to get the information from your data that will allow you to assess your predictions.

If you’ve already done the analysis and are on to writing, I’d still start with 1 (objectives) to stay grounded on what the paper needs to focus on, but 3 (analysis) is redundant and 2 (methods) can be written at any time (hopefully it’s already at least partially done).

4) Results: What order do you need to present the results in so that the story/answer to the question(s) naturally unfolds? Sometimes I find it helpful to make a presentation, or explain the results to a friend/colleague. When there are lots of analyses that are interrelated in potentially complicated ways, I sometimes create independent “figures” for each unique result that include the main message/conclusion of each, and tape them to a wall; that way I can easily move them around to see which order makes the most sense.

Sometimes I find it helpful to tape figures on the wall so I can see them all at once and move them around to the order that flows best.

Sometimes I find it helpful to tape figures on the wall so I can see them all at once and move them around to the order that flows best.

5) Discussion: explain what each result means, and what they mean when viewed as a whole. What does it mean on a small scale (i.e. your specific question) and on a larger scale (i.e. put it in the context of the literature on your topic… what have you added to the scientific community with this contribution?).

6) Discussion (Future Directions): given what you’ve just contributed to the scientific community, what needs to be done next to build our understanding of the universe in this area next?

7) Introduction: Now that you have your discussion, this is where you put any information/background that is necessary to understand what you did and what your conclusions were. Start with big concepts and narrow down to the specific part of the universe you’re planning to help clarify (your questions/goals).

8) Abstract: 1-2 sentences to summarize each section.

9) Revisions, revisions, revisions.

As I said, there are loads of exceptions to this guide. For example, I read a really great paper that started with an experiment, but in the Discussion the authors included an advancement to theory on the same topic, but wasn’t immediately applicable to the experiment’s results. It read well but was more of a 2-for-1 deal. Another example, some journals include the methods in the appendices, or if you’re writing a scientific note, then all of the sections will flow together and there may or may not be an abstract.

Ultimately you’ve got to do whatever works best for you and the story you’re trying to tell, but hopefully this will be helpful!


Authorship as a topic has come up several times in my life recently. I wanted to share some helpful links (thanks Catherine Scott for finding them for me months ago) and hopefully helpful thoughts/summaries on what is expected from someone who appears as an author on a peer-reviewed scientific paper.

Background (helpful links):

As a quick summary, most people view research as coming in very roughly delineated steps or phases. In the beginning you start with (1) creating a research framework which needs to (2) get funding. Once there is funding, (3) specific, testable research questions need to be asked and experiments designed, then (4) data is collected. Once the data is in, it gets (5) analysed then (6) interpreted/discussed to make a sensible story that is then (7) written up for submission to a peer-reviewed journal with (8) help from colleagues to edit and revise. After it goes through peer-review, there will be (9) changes and edits (arguably, this should be part of (7)).

Many people I know feel that involvement in only ONE of the above (except perhaps 7) is NOT enough for authorship. For example, even though my graduate supervisor got funding for some of the materials that we used, many of the papers that I am currently working toward publishing this year will not include his name as an author. For another example, the undergraduate that did a co-op term to help me collect data for the largest part of my thesis will also not be an author on those papers, even though she helped me collect data 5 days a week for ~3 months. Both these people will, of course, feature VERY prominently in the Acknowledgments section of any papers they helped with but aren’t authors on.

That said, authorship is a very tricky topic in science. The above are just unofficial guidelines that I’ve seen from experience, reading (eg links above), and discussions with colleagues. Ultimately, the decision of who is included as an author on a paper requires discussion and agreement between the people involved, and that is all. There is no regulation or policing, and there are lots of completely reasonable exceptions to the rule.

I hope that was helpful. =]

Event Version of the Buggy Snack Box

Yesterday afternoon the after school teen program I help make content for, Future Science Leaders, participated in SFU’s Young Innovator’s Crawl. Crawlers traveled around the city visiting “innovators” (in art, tech, anything) to see demonstrations, talks, tours, etc.. FSL Fellows (like me) worked with FSL students to make a crawl stop at Science World. There were several tables including a gravity demonstration, 3D printers, and an entomophagy table. At the entomophagy table we tried out a crowd modification of the Buggy Snack Box experiment, rounded out with additional cookies that were all made with mealworm flour so that everyone could taste an entomophagous cookie.

Like the box, the goal of this activity is to combat the preconception of “gross flavour” people sometimes make in association with “insects”. I.e., we’re trying to combat the “Ick Factor”. This time, I’ve scaled the experiment up to be used for an outreach event instead of a snack box for one person. I’ve also made a few small modifications to make the cookies work a bit better.

I made “Chewy Brownie Chip Drops” which are essentially chocolate chocolate-chip cookies with walnuts. The point of changing the recipe was the cocoa powder, which helped mask the colour difference caused by the cricket flour. We still added a bit of food colouring, but much, much less than when I made the peanut butter cookies.



Just like last time, I baked half using a partial replacement of cricket flour, and half 100% white flour. To save on cookie-top real estate, this time I used only 2 Smarties for unique IDs, including orange (more on that another time). That gives me 36 unique IDs; 18 for flour, and 18 for cricket. I reused the same 18 for the same type several times so that I could bake more than 36 cookies but still have 2 Smarties reliably tell me the content.

Two Smarties per cookie.

Two Smarties per cookie.

On the day I displayed several cookies on the table, half of which were cricket and half of which were regular so that attendees would have a 50% chance of selecting a cricket cookie. It would be better to assign cookies to attendee by flipping a coin, just in case the cocoa powder and food colouring didn’t mask the colour difference well enough. However, on the day, this piece of scientific rigor was trumped by how nice it looked (and how much faster it was with groups of people) to have a big spread of cookies. If I do it again and have enough helpers, I’ll do it properly.

I was also careful not to put two of the same colour combination on the table at the same time because then attendees could have guessed that they were the same. I slipped up a few times, but luckily only the FSL student volunteers spotted the discrepancy (as far as I know).

After tasting their cookie, each attendee would guess “Cricket” or “Plain”. One of the FSL students was on patrol continuously updated a simplification of the results on a big pad of paper as “correct guess” and “incorrect guess” bar charts. Next time I will remember my computer and have someone continuously updating and projecting the actual results.

Speaking of results, here they are! Scroll to the bottom of this entry to see how to do the analyses in JMP11, online with GraphPad, or with R.

Mosaic plot of the data.

Mosaic plot of the data.

Based on a Chi-Square (1, n=30)=0.54, p=0.46
Based on Fisher’s Exact test p=0.72

We can say that we have NO EVIDENCE to suggest the Young Innovator’s Crawl attendees who stopped at my table were able to correctly identify cricket flour in cookies.

Take THAT “Ick-Factor”!

If you give this activity a try, please write to me to let me know how it goes!

We want to see whether people attending this event could correctly guess if their cookie had or did not have cricket four in it. Our null is that they cannot tell.

Analyses with JMP 11:
Set your data up like so:

Data set up for JMP

Data set up for JMP.

In JMP select Analyze>Fit Y by X. We’d like to know if the Truth about the cookie (made with cricket or plain flour) predicts what people guess, so Response is Guess and Factor (AKA predictor) will be Truth. Remember that this is frequency data.

Setting up the analyses in JMP.

Setting up the analyses in JMP.

JMP will generate a Contingency Table, a mosaic plot, and show results of both the chi-squared and Fisher’s Exact test.

Output from JMP11.

Output from JMP11.

Analyses with Graph Pad
You can do the analyses online with Graph Pad, in which case you will need to enter your data into the contingency table as shown. I’m not sure if you can use it to generate your mosaic plots.

Contingency Tables for GraphPad.

Contingency Tables for GraphPad.

Analyses with R:
You will need your data to be a CSV with 1 row per observation (printed below for illustration).

> library(MASS)
> library(vcd)
> cookiedata <- read.csv(“YOURDATALOCATION”, header=T,

> cookiedata
Guess   Truth
1  Cricket Cricket
2  Cricket Cricket
3  Cricket Cricket
4  Cricket Cricket
5  Cricket Cricket
6  Cricket Cricket
7  Cricket Cricket
8  Cricket Cricket
9    Plain Cricket
10   Plain Cricket
11   Plain Cricket
12   Plain Cricket
13   Plain Cricket
14   Plain Cricket
15   Plain   Plain
16   Plain   Plain
17   Plain   Plain
18   Plain   Plain
19   Plain   Plain
20   Plain   Plain
21   Plain   Plain
22   Plain   Plain
23   Plain   Plain
24 Cricket   Plain
25 Cricket   Plain
26 Cricket   Plain
27 Cricket   Plain
28 Cricket   Plain
29 Cricket   Plain
30 Cricket   Plain

> cookietable <- table(cookiedata)
> cookietable
Guess     Cricket Plain
Cricket       8     7
Plain         6     9

> mosaic(cookietable, shade=T, legend=T)
> chisq.test(cookietable)

Pearson’s Chi-squared test with Yates’ continuity correction

data:  cookietable
X-squared = 0.1339, df = 1, p-value = 0.7144

Mosaic plot generated by: > mosaic(cookietable, shade=T, legend=T)

Mosaic plot generated by:
> mosaic(cookietable, shade=T, legend=T)

Buggy Snack Boxes

When I talk to adults, teens, and older children about entomophagy, they often seem to see the benefits (nutritional, sustainability, etc) but hit a wall made of insecurities about insects. People think they’re scary, gross, weird – and this somehow translates into expectations for scary, gross, weird flavours. However, I’ve also noticed that when people are nervous about trying an entomophagous snack, they’re more willing to try smoothies or muffins made with insect flour because the insects are invisible.

One of the activities we did within other recent outreach events was to have people (typically kids) write down what they expected the entomophagous treats to taste like, and then what they actually tasted like. Their expectations were along the lines of “gross”, “vomit”, or just “bad”, regardless of what kind of snack they were going to try. However, they consistently wrote that they ended up tasting like “muffins”, and “sweet” when the flour was mixed in with other things, or “salty” and “crunchy” when they had seasoned snacks.

By mixing ground insects in with other recipes, we can sidestep people’s skin-crawling reaction of seeing little legs going into their mouths, but still have to contend with the idea of “it will taste bad”.

To celebrate my supervisor’s retirement I put together an entomophagous snack box activity. Because, what better way to celebrate a career in science than with more science?! The idea is to have a completely self-contained science experiment that you can give away as a delicious, fun gift. The activity implicitly teaches a little bit about entomophagy and the scientific method. Most importantly, it will also combat the “it will taste bad!” reflex for entomophagous snacks!

Hypothesis: The recipient can identify cookies baked with cricket flour.
Alternate Hypothesis: They can’t identify cookies baked with cricket flour.

I mixed peanut butter chocolate chip cookie dough, but split the batch into two before adding the last 20% of the flour. To one half I added regular flour, and the other half got cricket flour.

The cricket flour is the dark flour.

Split the dough, add regular flour to one and cricket flour to the other.

Cricket flour is darker than regular flour; the dough was obviously different. With a bit of colour theory help, food colouring made the doughs nearly indistinguishable.

Adding food colouring to make the doughs almost indistinguishable.

Adding food colouring to make the doughs almost indistinguishable.

Once the dough was ready I randomly assigned a combination of 3 colours to every cookie and pressed 3 smarties into the tops so that every cookie had a unique ID. I didn’t use orange smarties because orange flavour is added to the chocolate. Which cookie (cricket or flour) ended up with each colour was recorded.

Time for delicious but unique IDs!

Time for delicious but unique IDs!

Then I baked them and packaged them up into a tin containing half of each variety. A list of all the colours was included so that the recipient could record their guess (cricket or flour?).

Unbaked (left) and baked (right) cookies with IDs.

Unbaked (left) and baked (right) cookies with IDs.

If you’re giving this as a gift and want it to be completely self-contained, also include an envelope with the answers so that they can score themselves at the end, but don’t accidentally look at it. Also make sure they know they shouldn’t score themselves until they have finished; absolutely not after every cookie, otherwise their results could influence their behaviour on the next cookie.

Their results will fall into a 2×2 grid:

Stats Stats Stats

Contingency Table for your Chi-Squared test.

Depending on how many cookies your recipient ate, they will wither do a Fisher’s Exact Test (low sample size) or a Chi Squared (larger sample size). You can do the tests online with Graph Pad.


I haven’t gotten any formal results back on this activity, but I can say that informally, people seem to be able to identify a difference pretty consistently – but they can’t always tell which is which. I.e. people will consistently say “cricket” when it’s actually flour! And vise versa.

Regardless of whether your recipient can tell if it’s cricket flour or not, you just got them to eat 1/2 a box of cookies baked with cricket flour. Entomophagy outreach success!

If you decide to give this activity a try, please let me know! I’d love to hear about how you and your recipients perform.

Entomophagous Outreach

This month has seen two outreach events on consecutive weekends (Richmond Nature Park’s Bugs and More! and Spiders Unraveled at Iona Beach in Richmond) where I’ve been lucky enough to be able to introduce families to the fun of Entomophagy!

These two girls had the BEST jokes.

Iona Beach is a beautiful setting to talk about (and eat) insects and arachnids! Photo by Mike Boers.

At the first event, Bugs and More!, Grant Olson and I presented attendees with a number of tasty options. We weren’t sure what flavours to expect from the cricket flour, mealworm flour, roasted crickets, and other snacks we ordered from Next Millennium Farms. Erring on the side of caution, we decided to go with recipes that had been pre-approved “delicious” by the company/their collaborators rather than trying something new. We chose the cricket flour blueberry muffins (a mini-cupcake sized version), caramel roasted cricket popcorn, mealworm flour smoothies, and their pre-made cricket and mealworm snacks.

Fearless parents and fearless kids.

Caramel and Cricket Popcorn!

We wanted there to be a selection of options ranging from ‘daring’ to ‘easy’. ‘Daring’ options would clearly be insects like the pre-made snacks, and ‘easy’ would be the smoothie or muffins; if we didn’t tell you what’s in them, you’d never know. The caramel corn with visible crickets fell in-between because the crickets were obvious, but somewhat hidden by the distracting popcorn.

Lots of people were nervous at first but then came back for more!

Explaining the options. Photo by Sean McCann.

I got a head cold just before the event, so we decided I should keep me well away from the cooking process until I was healthy. I have to put all cooking/baking credit on Grant’s well-deserving shoulders: all the treats we tried that day turned out great. If you decide to make the blueberry muffins, I recommend using sturdier cupcake liners than the paper ones we used though, because the sticky muffins made them difficult to remove.

Our initial concern about how the flour might flavour the muffins and smoothies were unfounded. The muffins didn’t have any unexpected flavours to make them obviously different from any other muffin. The smoothies were delicious, though they did have a whole-wheat sort of flavour and texture about them. If you’re used to adding protein powder to smoothies, then the texture won’t phase you at all. I think the texture was so noticeable in these smoothies because the recipe was much more juice-like than others. I tested this theory for my next entomophagy outreach event.

That's a LOT of protein.

Grant finished the last of the smoothies.

The following weekend was Spider’s Unraveled at Iona Beach in Richmond. My collaborators from Iona Beach provided mealworm snax from HotLix and I brought some more caramel popcorn that I had frozen in a tupperware container to keep it fresh. Freezing worked really well! They were delicious.

This was a spider-themed outreach event, so the idea was to “eat like a spider” at my table. Spiders, of course, eat insects. I think most people knew that before coming to talk to me. What a lot of people don’t realize is that they don’t eat like other carnivores. They inject their prey with venom to paralyze them, then use digestive enzymes (like in our saliva) to make their prey into a nutritious goop to slurp up (read more!).

2 tablespoons is 10g of cricket flour. 6g/10g is protein.

Pouring Cricket and Fruit Smoothies. Photo by Mike Boers.

To work with this theme, the main event of my table was smoothies! At Bugs and More! we made the pre-approved smoothie recipe, but this time I wanted to be able to have more variation with less effort and lower access to regular kitchen infrastructure. I bought bags of frozen fruit (blueberries, blueberries+strawberries, strawberries, mango+peaches, blueberry+blackberry+strawberry+raspberry), several bunches of bananas, plain yogurt, apple juice, and orange juice. The recipe is roughly 1 banana with an approximately equal mass of frozen fruit (any kind), 1 large tablespoon scoop of yogurt, and enough juice (or milk) to cover about half the fruit in the blender. Get a keen kid to scoop two tablespoons of cricket flour in (properly measured – the only ingredient I was precise about), and blend blend blend. This strategy made it easy to make many different flavours by swapping out different frozen fruits without needing to completely wash out the blender (a difficult task without a kitchen).

No venom was used in the making of this metaphor.

I started getting keen attendees to help bend up our nutritious slurry. Photo by Sean McCann.

The results were much thicker than the mealworm flour smoothies from the previous week, with much stronger fruit flavours. Whatever flavours and textures the flour might have added were not noticeable at all. Presenting the smoothies to the many cyclists who happened by as a health drink with a kick of adventure and environmental sustainability was a huge hit.

To round both these events out, we made up “Entomophagy Achievement Awards” to give to the daring kids who were willing to give it a try. They turned out to be immensely motivating! We also had a colouring activity with either a cricket or mealworm line drawing to colour in and a fill-in activity that read: “I thought the mealworm/cricket would taste like _______________ but it actually tasted like _______________! Sometimes hesitant children would want to colour and do the written activity, then decide to try some treats so they could complete the activity. Completed sheets were then displayed for everyone to see. For adults, we also made up a 1/2 page information sheet including comparisons of protein content and sustainability of entomophagy vs chicken, beef, etc..

Rainbow bugs are popular.

A lot of kids thought the insects would taste “crunchy”. See if you can guess who tasted which treats by their description of what it actually tasted like!

If I do another entomophagy-themed outreach event, I’m going to add a comparison activity; can you tell the difference between this baked good with and without the added cricket/mealworm flour?!

Big thanks to Catherine Scott and Sean McCann for inviting me to participate in Spiders Unraveled!

The Pseudo Lab and Interesting Times

Today Catherine Scott, Sean McCann, Mike Boers, and I met for our first “Pseudo-Lab” meeting. This will be our inclusive, weekly-ish, semi-official, unofficial time/place to seek help, learn new things, keep each other on track, and generally have a sense of community. You know… like a lab. The Pseudo Lab website is coming soon! It’s just the four of us today, but maybe in the future we will have more people who predominantly work from home who are seeking this sort of safe-space will join us.

We’re already off to a great start. At our first meeting we shared our recent activities and struggles, discussed opportunities and solutions to explore, made a list of goals to do our best to accomplish in the coming days, made plans for our website, and generally had a motivating-ly-good time.

Mike is taking the photo

(L-R:) Sean, Catherine, and Tanya discussing and writing plans.

For anyone who has wondered about the large gap between entries here, it has been a long time since I’ve had time to think about this much neglected blog. This summer has been interesting in the (apparently not particularly Chinese) Chinese Curse sort of way. I’ve spent as much time out of town as I have at home, and haven’t spent more than 14 days consecutively in one place since May. Hopefully it will be less neglected when I stop spending so much time recovering from jetlag (at the end of the summer). Here’s for hoping!

The Distance Traveled: An Anecdote

I’m putting together a guest lecture for the Evolution course I’m TAing about the winding paths that research can take. Mostly it’s just to get the students thinking about the diversity of research in evolutionary biology, data, data-interpretation, and most importantly, to get them thinking about going out to get their hands dirty with some research of their own to learn what they love or couldn’t care less for.

In the process, I’ve been running through some of the projects I’ve done over the years as well as the projects that sputtered out and went nowhere. I remembered one summer early in my undergrad when I tried to do a Tetragnathid spider project…

The project started with a big set of photos and a suggestion that I look at <a word that I had never heard before>. I measured all the photos but then had no idea what to do or how to build a plan. I went to the Royal Ontario Museum for several days to go through their samples and record stuff, but still didn’t know what to do with what I had. Instead I went out to the field to check out their behaviours at dusk. And it still didn’t go anywhere.

Looking back on it, I was so lost and incompetent. Sometimes it’s easy to forget how far you’ve come until you stop to look back. Realizing this only makes me empathize more with my students at all levels. No questions are stupid questions… you have to ask the questions you think are stupid before you’ll be capable of tackling the questions you think have value. Everyone starts at the beginning. There are no shortcuts, only paths with variable amounts of winding. And there are people along the way who help smooth the road in a thousand tiny or gigantic ways.

“Just-So” Stories

This evening one of my Evolution students asked me to explain “just-so” stories. Since it’s such a fun topic, I thought I would blog a bit about it.

The term comes from narrative myths and legends that explain things about nature – they are also sometimes called “just-so” stories. Here is an illustrated example.

In biology, it refers specifically to an explanation of a trait using an adaptionist framework that may be difficult to test of falsify. I.e. it explains a trait with a story/idea about why it must be an adaptation to serve some purpose that it serves now, or that it served in the environment in which it evolved (which is inaccessible for testing).

One classic example is that noses are an adaptation for humans to wear glasses. It seems pretty far-fetched, but it would be difficult to test… observationally – do humans wear glasses on their noses? Yes. Do they wear glasses anywhere else? Generally… no.

A trait may be an adaptation that evolved as a response to selection. However, this is not the only possible explanation: Drift, indirect selection or preadaptation all could have led to traits in the way they are. Some traits may be the way they are now because of their evolutionary history, but are no longer adaptive in the current environment.

For the record, we probably did not evolve noses to hold glasses; we probably designed glasses to fit on noses. ^.~ In fact, glasses went through a number of different renditions before they developed into the wide range of modern styles and fits we have now.

Read the spandrels debate:

(1) S.J. Gould and R. Lewontin, 1979. The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B. Biological Sciences 205:581-598.

(2) Pigliucci, M., and J. Kaplan. 2000. The fall and rise of Dr. Pangloss: adaptationism and the Spandrels paper 20 years later. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 15:66-70.

Big Kitty Kisses

It’s Saturday. This morning after shuffling passed the pile of work on my desk to take groggy refuge on the couch, I decided to do something mildly frivolous. I dropped the search terms “Felis catus” (domestic cat) and “behaviour” into Web Of Science.


My cat, Jasmine, has a sometimes endearing, sometimes frustrating propensity to kitty kisses. It’s endearing when you come home from a long day and she’s so pleased to see you. It’s frustrating when you’re trying to sleep and her sandpaper tongue finds your nose while your eyes are closed and you’ve just started to drift your way into that elusive but beautiful paradise of sleep.

When I say “your” here… I really mean “my”. “My” poor, sleepy, pillow-squished nose or cheek or forehead. Or exposed arm. Or sometimes my duvet if it has the gall to get in the way of her ministrations.

The first relevant article I came across was “Head Rubbing and Licking Reinforce Social Bonds in a Group of Captive African Lions, Panthera leo” by Matoba, Kutsukake, and Hasegawa (2013). While the species isn’t right, this certainly sounds like the right suite of behaviours. I’m willing to cast my net pretty wide to understand Jasmine anyway because she’s a Bengal; a breed of domestic cat that comes from back-crossing hybrids of Asian Leopard Cats with domestic cats. Maybe some of her quirkiness comes from her non F. catus Felidae roots.

Screen Shot 2014-02-01 at 2.42.26 PM

Matoba et al. conveniently start by reviewing literature on other felids. Apparently domestic cats use grooming in a lot of ways. Some seem to use it to maintain relationships with their feline housemates (Curtis et al. 2003). However, some seem to use it to establish or maintain dominance structures (van den Bos 1998)! Later they go on to talk about lion behaviours, such as head-butting or rubbing, and licking/grooming, which is typically considered to be both hygienic and social (Schaller 1972, Rudnai 1973), just as it is in other mammalian taxa including primates (Kutsukake and Clutton-Brock 2006, Wilkinson 1986, Schino 2007, 2008).

Matoba et al. had three non-exclusive hypotheses for the social function of grooming and head-butting in lions.

(1) Tension Reduction: like kissing to make up. The idea here is that some of these behaviours strengthen stressed or uncertain relationships, for example, after conflict or separation. If this was the case, they would predict higher frequencies of these behaviours after periods of separation. Since cub-rearing is communal for lions, individuals of similar ages have probably been closely associated for a long time; if tension reduction is at play, they predicted that lions with bigger age differences would share more head-butts and kitty kisses.

(2) Social Bond: The behaviours may be to strengthen or maintain pre-existing social bonds. Female lions spend their whole lives together in one pride, while male lions form groups and leave their parent prides to become nomadic. These nomadic groups of males fight with other prides, and if successful, take over residency (Bertrum 1975). If the social bond hypothesis is correct, the authors predicted that grooming etc would be more common in same-sex pairs, closely related pairs, and similarly aged pairs because these pairs would have spent more time together. This would be in contrast to the predictions of the Tension Reduction Hypothesis. They also predicted that the behaviours should be reciprocal.

(3) Expression of Social Status: The behaviours could be to express dominance to subordinate pride-mates, or vise versa. Lions do not maintain a social structure within each sex (Packer et al. 2001, Schaller 1972), however, because males are larger than females and thus able to win physical contests, Matoba et al. suggested that there may be a dominance hierarchy with males higher than females. If these behaviours are an assertion of dominance, they predicted that they should be more frequent from males to females, or the opposite if it is an expression of submission. This is opposed to the Social Bond Hypothesis that suggested the behaviours would be reciprocal.

To test their hypotheses, the authors collected 101 hours of observational data across 27 days for a captive pride that included 6 adult males, 12 adult females, 1 subadult male, and 2 subadult females (total 21).

Grooming and head butting was not seen more after separation, and was more common if the lions were closer in age – so they found no evidence to support the Tension Reduction Hypothesis.

Female-female grooming was highly correlated with relatedness, and was reciprocal. Head-butting behaviour was also found to be reciprocal, especially between pairs that were closely related. Thus, they found support the Social Bond Hypothesis.

Lastly, their results show mixed support for the Expression of Social Status Hypothesis. They found that males rubbed heads with males significantly more frequently than they did with females, and that females rubbed heads with males more frequently than with other females. This suggests that head-rubbing might be used to express submission, but there was nothing to suggest they used it to express dominance. Grooming was observed almost exclusively between females, so there was no evidence that this behaviour is related to dominance at all.

This is all fascinating stuff, but from reading this paper alone, I don’t feel like I’m any closer to understanding my kitty’s kitty kisses. After all, I’m not a cat, she doesn’t restrict her kisses to other cats or other female cats. Anyone who dares to scoop her up is in serious danger of getting their nose sandpapered.

I suppose if she sees us all as cats, then she could be trying to strengthen our social bonds. It’s not reciprocal (I don’t make a habit of licking her back; I don’t fancy the thought of a hairball), and it does frequently happen when we’ve been separated (me being asleep is a separation, right?), so there could be some evidence for either the Tension Reduction or Expression of Social Status Hypothesis!

… My intuition tells me that she’s using it to demand attention though. “Wake up and cuddle me!”, “You’re home, play with me!”, “Stop blogging and get the itch on my back!”… Actually, this sounds like an expression of dominance. Yes, kitty master, right away, kitty master.

Luckily, Matoba et al. 2013 contained lots of references to other papers to follow as leads. I have plenty to keep me busy during those groggy mornings when I quest to understand the inner workings of Jasmine’s brain; if I discover anything worth sharing, maybe I will!

On my reading list:

  1. Cameron-Beaumont C, Lowe SE, Bradshaw JW (2002) Evidence suggesting preadaptation to domestication throughout the small Felidae. Biol J Linn Soc 75:361–366.
  2. Atsuko Saito, Kazutaka Shinozuka (2013) Vocal recognition of owners by domestic cats (Felis catus). Anim Cogn 16:685-690.

Two Minute Tutorial: Learn to be a Graph Whisperer

I recently heard that undergraduates frequently do poorly on exam questions involving graphs. I spent some time strolling about the internet trying to understand why graphs might be a particularly tricky topic.

One site told me that a common mistake was conceptually jumping the gun. Ie people look at the shape and try to interpret it before looking at the other critical information that provides context. This potential problem stuck in my head because I could easily imagine how this could become very confusing, very quickly. Once an idea takes root, it’s hard to go back and start from scratch. During an exam when time, sleep, and sanity are all in short supply, students may not even think to go back and check – after all, they thought they understood and answered correctly! If this is what’s happening, it’s no wonder confused and distraught students come knocking at TA and instructor doors.

If you think this describes the trouble that YOU are having, then at least take heart that it’s a problem with a solution, even if it’s easier said than done. I made this two minute tutorial video to try to address this common mistake in a fun way.