Mis-Smash

Understanding how birds find their insect prey tells us a lot about an ecosystem. It can help us understand everything from bird population dynamics to insect effects on the local plant community. In order to determine what determines which prey birds might be selecting it would require observation of said predation events – which is challenging since we can’t be everywhere all the time.

One way researchers have overcome this challenge is to use clay modelled as insects to see if birds will try and take a bite out of them. They can then look at the clay insects for scratches or missing chunks to indicate possible ‘predation’. Although these clay insects are modelled to look like insects, new research finds that clay prey items might be attractive to birds regardless of their shape. In this case, even clay figurines moulded into the Incredible Hulk (we don’t know if it’s the Mark Ruffalo or Edward Norton version) prey where attacked by birds.

Read more: Do prey shape, time of day, and plant trichomes affect the predation rate on plasticine prey in tropical rainforests?

The has some interesting ramifications for researchers, since what might be interpreted as ‘predation’ of the clay prey might actually be indicative of birds investigating these weird superhero shaped clay items in their environment. Or… alternatively… birds are totally down to throw hands with the Incredible Hulk.


Tanya Strydom is a PhD candidate at the Université de Montréal, mostly focusing on how we can use machine learning and artificial intelligence in ecology. Current research interests include (but are not limited to) predicting ecological networks, the role species traits and scale in ecological networks, general computer (and maths) geekiness, and a (seemingly) ever growing list of side projects. Tweets (sometimes related to actual science) can be found @TanyaS_08.

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