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  • Andrew MacIntosh

The Making of Zooentropy: Part I

Updated: Mar 8, 2023

This is the first part of our origin story… stay tuned for Part II

Zooentropy is the product of many, many years of research into the intricacies of behavioral sequences produced by animals. I have been studying behavioral complexity in animals since conducting doctoral research with Japanese macaques on the island of Yakushima in southern Japan. Over the ensuing decade and a half, I’ve come to recognize all the diverse ways this framework can be applied to animals, in all sorts of contexts.

I was first keenly interested in non-invasive health monitoring techniques for wildlife. My doctoral research focused on patterns, processes and consequences of gastrointestinal parasite infection in wild macaques. It’s not an easy feat to figure out just how impactful parasites might be on their wildlife hosts – at least in the majority of cases – so I was hoping to find new ways to approach this. Behavioral complexity offered just such an approach, and so I embarked on a mission to discover how complexity science could be applied to health monitoring of animals.

At the time I was also devouring all kinds of literature on the topics of chaos and fractals, and the possibilities seemed limitless. I read James Gleick’s classic “Chaos: Making a New Science” and it completely blew my mind. Perhaps naively, I related to the characters in those diverse fields – meteorology, hydrology, geography, and later even in market forecasting and medicine – all discovering new ways of interpreting their reams of data. I imagined myself having similar key insights.

Though in this, I am completely fine and 100% accurate in saying that any accomplishments I have made in this area are solely from standing on the shoulders of giants in the field. But at least I can say I was hooked.

I published a paper based on my findings with Japanese macaques (Paywall). Though there were no smoking guns that would clearly indicate to us which individuals were heavily impacted by parasites based on their behaviors, I and my coauthors did find subtle relationships between behavioral complexity – as measured by fractal analysis – related to monkey-specific factors such as parasitism, age, dominance status within the social group, but also to environmental factors such as what types of foods they were eating and on what substrates they were foraging or moving.

After I graduated, I took a short tour around parts of Europe presenting my work. At the Département Ecologie, Physiologie et Ethologie at the Institut Pluridisciplinaire Hubert CURIEN (IPHC) in Strasbourg, France, I met some colleagues that changed my life (and work) forever.

Yan Ropert-Coudert and Akiko Kato are both research scientists at France’s CNRS (now the Centre d’Etudes Biologiques de Chizé). They are predominantly ornithologists with specializations in seabirds (especially penguins), and they quite literally took me under their wings as we set out to use fractal tools to uncover novel aspects in penguin diving behavior.

You can read a little more about our joint seabird project on the Project Details page. Long story short, it was this encounter that made possible my foray into marine ornithology, a trip to the French Antarctic base at Dumont d’Urville, a float on l’Astrolabe (which I now see has a new name, Ywam Liberty), and all sorts of interesting works on penguin behavior and ecology over the years.

l’Astrolabe docked at a Wharf in Hobart ahead of a journey to Antarctica. Photo Credit: Andrew MacIntosh

This collaboration has allowed us to explore not only how animal-intrinsic factors such as circulating stress hormones influence dive sequence complexity or even how the attachment of data recording devices to penguin bodies can have similar effects by impacting hydrodynamicity – among other behavioral measures – but also how the environment shapes these behavioral complexity signatures.

Working with Dr. Xavier Meyer, we discovered that more challenging foraging conditions lead little penguins in Australia to produce more complex dive patterns. In the same study, we also show that these more complex dive sequences are likely to be more energy intensive, but do not seem to lead to increased foraging efficiency. Or, in other words, penguins experience better prey capture rates in less challenging environments where they do not have to expend so much effort to succeed.

We continue to examine the relationship between foraging complexity, energy expenditure and foraging efficiency in work being led by Dr. Olivia Hicks, who is showing experimentally that, indeed, dive complexity is energy-intensive.

This is critical to the theory behind why fractal patterns in animal behavior look the way they do. If pattern complexity is a necessary component of behavior – either because it allows more efficient animal-environment interactions OR because it is error tolerant and flexible in the face of change – then animals must have the adequate energy reserves to produce said complexity.

If they cannot, there may be downstream consequences in terms of survival and reproduction.

We now know that penguins are sensitive to environmental conditions, producing complexity signatures that differ according to ocean thermal structure and sea ice conditions (Paywall); two ocean features that depend on prevailing climatic conditions.

But just how tolerant penguins and other species in marine ecosystems increasingly affected by climate change are remains to be seen.

to be continued…

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