UF/IFAS Modern Day da Vinci: Katie Sieving

This May, the world marks the 500th anniversary of the death of scientist, artist, inventor and innovator, Leonardo da Vinci. In honor of this occasion, UF/IFAS has chosen four faculty members who each exemplify at least one of da Vinci’s four most well-known talents and contributions to society.

Kathryn Sieving
Professor
Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Department

Katie Sieving’s research expertise includes conserving forest biodiversity, especially birds, in disturbed, fragmented, urbanized and otherwise human-dominated landscapes in historically forested biomes. Conceptually, her lab’s work is rooted in behavioral, community and landscape ecology.

Tell us about your enthusiasm for da Vinci.

I’ve read his biographies and I think we was a brilliant scientist. I teach a class called Research Design in Wildlife Ecology where we touch pretty heavily on the philosophy of science. You can’t understand how scientists test hypotheses unless you know where the logic of testing in science actually comes from, and it comes from philosophers who have defined those kinds of ideas.

What about da Vinci resonates with you?
Da Vinci used to dissect bodies and I remember he had to do it in the dark, because at the time it was verboten for people to do that kind of thing.

He’d do this in a deep, dark basement in low lighting. So when his eyes got weak, he invented a crude version of bottle lenses to magnify things so he could still work, which I thought was fascinating. He has a problem, he solves it. [It] doesn’t matter what it takes him into.

I tell my students, sometimes they get biased toward studying one type of animal or one type of system and they don’t want to hear about anything else, but to really understand one thing you really have to understand everything. Da Vinci strikes me as someone who knew that one thing leads to another and you might as well follow it.

Tell us about one of your scientific discoveries.

When it comes to birds, people always focus on song – the loud, beautiful vocalization that birds use to woo their mates. But some smart birds like titmice and chickadees have lots of different calls including alarm calls for predators, angry calls they use with competitors, and some simple contact calls that they use with their mates and kids.

Everyone knows about avian alarm calls to warn of predators, but one of the things we’ve discovered is that the simple, soft contact calls can also change in structure depending on — well in the case of the titmouse we discovered two versions of the contact call. One is happy, nothing is wrong, and the other is something is very wrong, I’m nervous.

It could be a predator or something the bird is trying to warn their kids about, but it’s not an overt social signal, it’s like an emotive change. It is similar to when someone is speaking and they are getting nervous. You can tell it in their voice. We think the birds change to a nervous contact call when they sense something is wrong, but are still uncertain what that something is. So along with studies of the other major calls of titmice that are overt social calls, we’ve also learned what we thought was a private titmouse call, is being listened to by everybody else too – squirrels, other birds, etc. and they are reacting to it.

I’ve been working on this project with a researcher from Purdue University and a researcher from the University of Tennessee. Our work is focused on the causes of vocal complexity in the family of birds we know as chickadees and titmice (family Paridae).

Social structure affects their vocal complexity and the environment that they are in affects their vocal complexity. If they’re in an environment that doesn’t have much cover, they’ll feel more nervous and so they will have more nervous, uncertain calls. A lot of factors influence vocal complexity and that’s what the research is about. How did complex language evolve and for what purpose? These guys are sort of telling us that.

Just in Florida, there are about 40 species of mostly birds, but squirrels too, that listen to all the calls of titmice constantly and change their behavior based on what those species are saying in small and large ways depending on what is going on.

If that’s true across the range of the entire family that encompasses Eurasia, that’s thousands of species that listen to birds in this chatty family. Not only birds but we also determined squirrels and chipmunks are listening to them. I was out in the woods the other day playing a recording of a specific call indicating a flying hawk that’s about to attack. If you play that call to a gray squirrel that’s on the ground, they flick their tails and run up the tree immediately. They know exactly what the birds are saying.

I always call it the real Twitter feed. People get on Twitter to find out what’s happening in the world. All I have to do is open my window to know what’s happening in the little world outside my office.

What are your thoughts on the role of a scientist in society?

My PhD adviser, Dr. James Karr, studied bird and fish communities and developed the Index of Biotic Integrity which says if you look at the structure of a fish community, you can tell whether an aquatic system is unhealthy. People all over the world use this index to help keep our freshwaters clean and healthy.

He always told us that as a scientist, if you know something, it’s your responsibility to speak out for the safety of the public good because science is a publicly-funded activity and I do feel lucky to be a scientist. To have a job where people trust me to find out things that are true and share it, is very impactful.

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By: April Martin, 352-294-3302, april.martin@ufl.edu

The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS website at ifas.ufl.eduand follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.

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