Daniel Blumstein, conservation biologist

From the heights of the Rockies to the corridors of Washington, D.C., a marmot provocateur asks: How can we stay safe? Interview by Stephanie Pappas

May 25, 2009

Photo courtesy of Daniel Blumstein

Daniel Blumstein knows how to manipulate a marmot. Setting out from a base camp built in the ruins of a Colorado ghost town, Blumstein and a team of volunteers lure marmots out of their burrows with horse feed. Then, like overenthusiastic guests at a surprise party, they try to make the rodents shriek.

It’s all part of an experiment designed to investigate how yellow-bellied marmots respond to danger. Using props like RoboBadger—a taxidermied badger mounted on a remote-controlled toy truck—Blumstein, a behavioral ecologist and conservation biologist at UCLA, spooks the marmots into emitting alarm calls. He’s studied eight species of these yellow-toothed, cat-sized rodents on three continents since 1989. Now, he leads a 47-year-old marmot-tracking project at The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, a remote field station perched at 9,500 feet in western Colorado.

He’s using marmot alarm calls to understand how similar species evolved different social behavior and communication strategies. And after years of studying the anti-predator behavior of marmots, wallabies, and birds, he’s asking what humans can learn about security from the rest of the animal kingdom.

As part of a natural security working group founded by marine ecologist Rafe Sagarin of Duke University, Blumstein is looking for ways to apply the diversity of animal adaptations to the problem of national security. He’s suggested that humans can take cues from the humble marmot: Learn to live with risk. Don’t overreact. When someone sounds the alarm, investigate further. The trick, Blumstein says, is to stay alert without wasting energy on false alarms.

In 2008, the group published a book, Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World, laying out their argument for what Nature subsequently called “an exciting merger between political science and evolutionary theory.”

At the 2009 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago, Blumstein sat down to talk about marmots and military strategy.

Tell me about fieldwork at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory.

If we’re doing experiments, we get up at 5:30 in the morning and set up way before the marmots get up. When they get up, there’s breakfast waiting for them and a hidden speaker or whatever we’re experimenting with. We also play with smells, models, and life-size photographs of predators.

If we’re trapping [using walk-in traps], we’ll start checking traps before it gets too warm. We get up really early to set traps. That way we don’t catch porcupines, because porcupines are active at night. It’s sort of a bummer to catch a porcupine—for everybody involved.

Depending on the time of year or day, we may collect blood for parasite studies. We may collect hair for DNA analysis. We may mark them again if their marks are off, and if they’re a new animal, we’ll give them some numbered earrings for permanent identification.

Do you have to sedate the marmots?

No, we wrestle them (laughs). We put them in a canvas handling bag. They calm down and then we expose whatever part we need to work with while trying to keep them in the bag. And we try to keep our fingers out of their mouths. Our techniques are very benign. Our goal is to not harm the marmots because we want to study their natural behavior throughout their lives.

"I think life illustrates a diversity of adaptations to solving problems. If you allocate too much energy to defense, you're going to go extinct. If you hide all the time, you're going to go extinct."

You study marmot calls all over the world. What questions are you answering?

A lot of people study biodiversity. What I try to understand is behavioral diversity. By looking at behavioral diversity of closely related species and distantly related species living in different ecological situations and social situations, we can understand the diversity of adaptations that we see.

I capitalize on the fact that marmots physically look a lot like each other, yet there’s social variation and there’s some habitat variation. I’m interested in the evolution of sociality and the evolution of communication.

What does the variation between marmot communication tell us about the evolution of human language?

You can study the evolution of linguistic abilities by looking at different species and seeing when and how those abilities evolved.

Some species of animals, it turns out, can label external objects and events. In a predator context, they can say “hawk” or they can say “snake” or they can say “wolf.” The question was, do marmots?

We spent hours, weeks, months out in the field recording, looking, watching, hearing, thinking, trying to detect when marmots called and trying to figure out what elicited those calls. So if they always say “whee” when they see an aerial predator and they always say “chuck” when they see a ground predator, you can assume “whee” is reserved for aerial predators and “chuck” is reserved for ground predators. So that’s fine, but we also want to do experiments.

So we walked towards marmots and popped up at them from different directions and stalked them. We also had scary things, which included Eagle Knieval—a radio-controlled glider painted brown, which scared the bejesus out of them, and also Robobadger.

I saw Robobadger in Science News.

Our hero. Marmots don’t like Robobadger. And the question was, will they always say the same thing? And the answer was no. None of the species that I looked at had evidence of word-like communication, but they communicate risk in a variety of ways. Some call faster, some call slower, others have different call types.

The take-home message from that is, yeah, we can ask questions about the diversity of animal behavior with an anthropocentric view, or we can celebrate diversity and try to understand the diversity of mechanisms and adaptations out there.

When did you start thinking about terrorist networks?

A couple of years ago I was giving my tenure talk about anti-predator behavior. This guy, Rafe Sagarin, came up and said, “I’m putting together this working group and we’re thinking about insights from evolution and ecology and behavior.” They called this 'Darwinian homeland security.' And I said, “What a great idea.”

So over three different sessions lasting three to four days each, over a year and a half, a bunch of us got together. And we had these incredibly intellectually stimulating conversations. We had people from the defense industry, we had NGOs [non-governmental organizations], we had the former head of science and technology from the CIA, we had weapons inspectors, we had suicide terrorism experts. It was just this really exciting melding of minds.

What do you bring to this national security discussion?

Comedy. The marmot. (Laughs). I think life illustrates a diversity of adaptations to solving problems. If you allocate too much energy to defense, you’re going to go extinct. If you hide all the time, you’re going to go extinct. We can use the diversity of anti-predator adaptations as biological inspiration and, potentially, validation for techniques that have been demonstrated to work over the history of life.

What about your idea of signaling from safety?

Animals often communicate from safety. There’s a lot of communication between predators and prey.

They’re telling the predators that they know they’re there. That actually reduces their risk?

For predators that require stealth to be successful, and many do, then every inch they can get closer to their prey, the higher their success rate. Once the predators have been detected, then the probability of predation decreases rapidly. So communicating to predators to tell them they’ve been detected is a very effective strategy to reduce risk.

How can that idea in marmots be applied to humans?

I was talking with someone who was in the administration after 9/11, and his comment was that part of the idea of changing Department of Homeland Security threat levels was to communicate to the terrorists that they were being tracked, they were being followed.

So an actionable piece of information about that is you should communicate to foes: “I’ve detected you.”

Some argue that the security threat levels are useless, because we all ignore them now.

Some species discount their Nervous Nellies, while other species pay more attention to them. How you respond to unreliable signals may vary based on—we don’t know what. That’s an evolutionary question out there to be asked: What are the situations under which you should pay more or less attention to unreliable signals?

Of all the thousands of anti-predator behaviors out there, how do you go about picking out what would be applicable to human situations?

Give me a human situation.

Say 9/11.

If you’re searching people, whom do you search? Should you search randomly? That’s sort of analogous to if you’re out foraging and you’re under threat of predation. Should you look every two seconds, five seconds, or should you look randomly? And random sorts of patterns are better for detecting things that are coming toward you, because the thing coming can’t predict what your behavior is going to be. So random searches might be good ideas.

What would you say to skeptics who argue that thanks to our intelligence and technology, humans are outside of the realm of these selection pressures?

Oh, but there are Darwinian processes going on in cultural evolution. Those individuals or militaries that adopt effective strategies will prosper. There is variation, there are consequences, and there is a mechanism by which variation can be transferred. That’s really what evolutionary dynamics are.

Stephanie Pappas, a graduate student in the Science Communication Program at UC Santa Cruz, earned a bachelor's degree in psychology at the University of South Carolina. She has worked as a reporting intern at the news office of Stanford Medical Center, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, and ScienceNOW, the daily online news service of Science. She will complete a summer internship as a science writer at Stanford Medical Center.

© 2009 Stephanie Pappas