Biology Professor Templeton Publishes Study on the Way Birds Relay Threat Information Overheard From Other Species

Christopher Templeton, a professor in the Pacific University Biology Department, is the lead author of a study published today by the journal Nature Communications. The study, Nuthatches Vary Their Alarm Calls Based Upon the Source of the Eavesdropped Signals, measures how well one species of bird can convey alarm signals conveyed by another species.

The study offers a glimpse into the process of natural selection, examining the ways species that are preyed upon respond to the threats posed by predators. “Propagating incorrect information could cause a receiver to increase its risk of predation by under- or overestimating a threat,” the researchers wrote.

The paper examined the behavior of red-breasted nuthatches who heard black-capped chickadees vocalizing about the presence of low-threat predators — great horned owls — and high-threat predators — northern pygmy owls. Researchers’ findings suggested that nuthatches vary their own warning signals according to whether they hear them directly or from other species.

“Due to the potential unreliability of public information obtained from eavesdropping … nuthatches may avoid further propagating this information … until they have assessed the situation and obtained more reliable, direct information themselves,” the researchers write.

Templeton has been abroad this month, teaching an undergraduate class in the Galapagos and Ecuador. In addition to teaching biology courses, he conducts research that tends to focus on the question: How do animals obtain, communicate, and use information in their environments to make behavioral decisions?

Pacific University is ranked the No. 1 private research university in the Pacific Northwest and is also committed to civic engagement, sustainability and interprofessional education as part of its core teaching philosophy.

Monday, Jan. 27, 2020