Take 10 with... Kristal Cain

Dr Kristal Cain is a lecturer at the School of Biological Sciences and is an integrative organismal biologist. She gives us 10 minutes of her time to discuss her research that tests long-standing ideas and assumptions about why animals do the things they do.

Dr Kristal Cain, School of Biological Sciences
Dr Kristal Cain, School of Biological Sciences

1.  Describe your research

I am an integrative organismal biologist. My research investigates the eco-evolutionary pressures and physiological mechanisms mediating the expression of traits and behaviours important in social interactions. Much of my research focuses on investigating assumptions in evolutionary biology and animal behaviour that are entrenched, but empirically untested.

2.  Now describe it in everyday terms!

I’m interested in how an animal’s ecology, behaviour and evolution all interact with each other to shape how animals look and behaviour, and how they respond to changing environments. Most of my research focuses on wild animals and on social behaviours like learning, competition, communication and parental care. In particular, I like to test long-standing ideas and assumptions about why animals do the things they do.

3.  Describe some of your day-to-day research activities

Because most of my research focuses on wild birds, I spend a lot of time in the field following the animals or trying to catch them. Once we’ve caught a bird, we can put bands/rings on their legs so we can tell them apart from all the other birds for the rest of their lives. We then follow those individuals and learn about who survives the winter, who pairs up with who, who fights with who, and who the parents are. It also allows use to get other samples, such as a bit of DNA, usually via faeces, a small drop of blood or a feather. Using those tiny samples, we can learn a lot about the bird’s physiology and health; are they stressed out, is their testosterone level super high/low; do they have an infection that is altering their behaviour? Measuring these things requires big chunks of time in the lab, lots of squirting small volumes of clear liquids into small containers of other clear liquids.

4.  What do you enjoy most about your research

I enjoy my research because I am constantly challenged and spend a lot of time problem solving. Animals rarely cooperate with the researchers’ plans and we have to be creative and MacGyver our solutions on the fly. Animals often always surprise me. Even when I’ve worked with a species for years, they will sometimes do something completely unexpected. Spending large amount of time in the bush means you get to see lots of incredible things. Finally, this type of research allows me to see a lot of wonderful natural places, and work with some very bright and interesting people. So I am never bored.

5.  Tell us something that has surprised you in the course of your research.

I’ve been continually surprised by the number of assumptions engrained in our understanding of evolutionary biology that are just flat wrong, but have never been tested. We have ideas in our heads that make total sense, so we assume they are right, but when we test them they often don’t hold up. I learn more from testing things and being wrong than from being right.

For example, it has long been assumed that being brightly coloured makes you more vulnerable to predation. It makes sense, if you are easier to see you are easier to attack. But when we explicitly tested this, we found that predators often prefer to attack the dull cryptic animals.

6.  What questions have emerged as a result?

The above example generates a lot of questions. Why do predators attack cryptic birds more often, is it b/c they are less vigilant or more willing to take risks? What does this mean for the evolution of bright plumage? If predators avoid bright birds why aren’t more birds bright? We’re just starting to look into these questions, but if we’d never tested whether bright birds really get attacked more, we wouldn’t even know to ask these questions.

7.  How have you approached any challenges you’ve faced in your research?

I am a problem-solver by nature, so I like to tackle challenges head on. I find that if I look hard enough, someone has already solved a similar problem and that gives you a good starting place. It also helps to talk to others, including non-researchers and the public. Looking at the problem from a different angle can often provide an unexpected solution.

But most importantly, I've learned that it’s okay to fail, a lot. Research is a lot of failure. At first this is hard to wrap your brain around. But once you embrace it, it’s much less frustrating.

8.  What kind of impact do you hope your research will have?

I’m a fundamental researcher, so it’s really hard to predict what consequences my research will have. Primarily, I hope that it shifts the way we look at certain problems and issues, and makes people question what they ‘know’ a bit more.

For instance, a lot of our opinions about human sex differences comes from our (sometimes limited) knowledge of sex differences in animals, and this spills over into our every day lives. But a lot of what we think we know about sex differences is wrong, overly simplified, or based on bad assumptions. I’d love for my work to help people re-evaluate how they look at things like sex roles.

9.  If you collaborate across the faculty or University, who do you work with and how does it benefit your research?

I still feel relatively new at the university and am certainly still in the process of making connections. I’m have started some projects with some of my great colleagues in SBS and I have had some great chats with folks in FMHS, Psychology and Computer Science about some future projects. I look forward to seeing what opportunities pop up next.

10.   What one piece of advice would you give your younger, less experienced research self?

Take really good notes on how you solve problems or sort out a complicated task. Odds are, you’ll need to do it again and will have forgotten how you did it, meaning you get to reinvent the wheel, which wastes time and energy.