Scientific Outreach: Animal Behavior Day, Crab Comics, and Planet Earth III

Blog by: Mark Laidre, Dartmouth College professor and principal investigator of the Laidre Lab

It’s fun to discover new things about nature. That’s why scientists like doing science. And when it comes to the science of animal behavior, I like to think of Osa as a sort of ‘magic well’. My students and I have conducted animal behavior research around the world, with much of our research focusing in Osa, where we’ve spent many years studying ‘social hermit crabs’. At the Animal Behavior Society’s conference in Chicago in 2019 (its last in-person scientific conference before COVID halted such things), the Laidre Lab from Dartmouth College showed its passion for scientific research, with six conference talks, all on our beloved hermit crabs. These talks were presented by members of the lab spanning every scientific level, from undergrad to research assistant to PhD student to postdoc to professor:

  • Go with the flow? Individualism versus collective movement during travel’

-Clare Doherty (PhD student)

  • Blind herds: misinformation amplified via social contagion’

-Elliott Steele (PhD student)

  • ‘Social cues speed up tool-use cognition in an invertebrate’

-Jakob Krieger (postdoctoral fellow, visiting from Germany)

  • ‘Flooding the market: experimentally altered home supply and demand drives behavioral plasticity’

-Leah Valdes (undergraduate honors thesis student; now PhD student at Cornell)

  • Scent of eviction: opportunities for resource acquisition trigger rapid responsiveness’

-Nick Funnell (research assistant; now PhD student at UNC Chapel-Hill)

  • ‘How and why to become anti-social: lessons from hermits’

-Mark Laidre (Dartmouth College professor and principal investigator of the Laidre Lab)

I’m proud of our scientific discoveries. And as a scientist, scientific discovery is my overriding passion. But scientists shouldn’t just do science. Scientists should also make time to do scientific outreach, which involves engaging a broader audience beyond scientist themselves. So for the last few years, alongside our scientific research, the Laidre Lab has advanced three key scientific outreach projects. These outreach projects encompass both in-person gatherings as well as socially-distanced forms of outreach, with the latter continuing even in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. Below I describe two of our three scientific outreach projects: Animal Behavior Day in Osa (in 2019) and Crab Comics (in 2020). Stay tuned for Planet Earth III.

Animal Behavior Day

While not quite a worldwide phenomenon yet, the first ever ‘Animal Behavior Day’ kicked off in Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica on February 4, 2019. Let’s go back first though to 2008, during my first ever field season in Osa, when I was a grad student. In that first Osa field season, I gave an outreach talk on animal behavior to local schoolchildren at the Piro school, just down the path from Osa Conservation’s field station. My friend Aida Bustamante, who was then the field station director, kindly translated my talk from English to Spanish for the kids (her translation was a godsend for everybody, given how horrible my Spanish speaking skills were). In nearly every year since 2008, I would likewise give one or more scientific outreach talks during my yearly Osa field season (which meant my Spanish-translating friends often didn’t get much of a break).

Now, fast forward more than a decade later from 2008 to 2019: my lab and I decided to build on those earlier outreach efforts by doing an even bigger day of outreach in Osa, which we called ‘Animal Behavior Day’. In advance of this day, we advertised for several months with posters, which were beautifully designed by a Dartmouth undergrad, Callum Backstrom, who had taken the ‘Tropical Ecology’ field class I teach in Costa Rica. With the expert help of Osa Conservation’s own Hilary Brumberg, we disseminated copies of the poster (both in English and in Spanish), distributing them within the local community as well as on social media. Then, on Animal Behavior Day itself, the Laidre Lab took off the day from our scientific studies and headed to the little town of Puerto Jimenez, a short drive from the field station. All of us kept our fingers crossed that local people would actually show up for our scientific outreach. Several of us even wore our ‘Coconut Crab Conservation’ t-shirts, which had been stylishly designed by Laidre Lab member and Dartmouth undergrad Aaron Lit, as part of his conservation-minded fashion line.

Animal Behavior Day poster (English and Spanish version), featuring native Costa Rican animals, including social hermit crabs. This poster was beautifully designed by Callum Backstrom, an undergraduate who had taken the Dartmouth ‘Tropical Ecology’ field class that Mark teaches in Costa Rica.


Some of the Laidre Lab members assembled on Animal Behavior Day in Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica (from left to right: artist collaborator Sarah Smith; PhD student Clare Doherty; PhD student Elliott Steele; and research assistant Nick Funnell). We wore our ‘Coconut Crab Conservation’ t-shirts (front and back shown), which were stylishly designed by Aaron Lit, an undergraduate who took the ‘Animal Minds’ class that Mark teaches at Dartmouth. Aaron is shown at the top left, delivering the freshly printed t-shirts just before we departed for the field (Photos by Mark Laidre).

Luckily, we had a strong turnout, with many eager Costa Rican locals of all ages—from children to parents to grandparents—showing up. Perhaps the abundant snacks and juice we provided helped. But the real substance of the day was our series of outreach presentations (all free of scientific jargon), which included talks by: PhD student Clare Doherty, PhD student Elliott Steele, research assistant Nick Funnell, myself, and also our artist collaborator Sarah Smith (more about Sarah in the next section). All our presentations focused on the fascinating behaviors of animals native to Costa Rica, including social hermit crabs of course, but also all sorts of other animals, from the tiniest of invertebrates up to the largest of mammals. Osa Conservation’s Lucia Vargas kindly translated our talks from English to Spanish (including my own talk, since admittedly my Spanish skills still need a boost). In all our talks, we highlighted the cool things that Costa Rican animals do, showing both pictures and videos of these animals’ behaviors, including: capuchin monkeys trying to solve tool-use puzzles, scarlet macaws loudly squawking, whales breaching the water, coatis huddling together in groups, and social hermit crabs exchanging shells. And yup, we made sure to bring along live animals, our favorites—the social hermit crabs—which the kids loved playing with. At the end of our talks, we emphasized the most critical message: the role that all of us must play in conservation if we are to conserve Costa Rica’s unique heritage and its amazing animals. So we concluded with a quote from The Lorax (that imaginary creature created by perhaps Dartmouth College’s most famous alumnus, Dr. Seuss). As the Lorax wisely noted: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Scientific outreach during Animal Behavior Day in Puerto Jimenez, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica. (A) Some of the attendees of all ages in the audience (Photo by Hilary Brumberg). (B) Mark passing around a hermit crab shell (Photo by Hilary Brumberg). (C) Future scientist (Isabella) getting excited about the coconut crab picture on Mark’s laptop (Photo by Mark Laidre). (D) Future scientist (Alessandro) picking up one of the social hermit crabs that ‘volunteered’ to help with our outreach efforts (Photo by Hilary Brumberg).

It gave us all a warm feeling to engage in scientific outreach on Animal Behavior Day, since it meant we were contributing to something much bigger than just our own scientific research. We think one of the most important forms of scientific outreach is when scientists themselves directly engage with local communities, especially in the actual locations where scientists do their research. In 2020, because of COVID, our hotly anticipated 2nd annual Animal Behavior Day was not possible, alas. However, in future years (2021 and far beyond) we look forward to many subsequent Animal Behavior Days, as well as to more in-person outreach. Meanwhile, in the face of COVID, we have launched a socially-distanced outlet for our scientific outreach, which we hope might make you laugh, literally.

Crab Comics

The biologist Robert Sapolsky has quipped that: “The number of times your average science paper is cited can be counted on one hand, with most of the citations by the scientist’s mother.” Well, Sapolsky is right; and that’s just the nature of science, with most scientific papers being read by, let alone cited by, at most a few people. Scientific research necessarily involves extreme specialization, with enormous levels of hard work and carefully controlled experiments over long periods of time, such that the most important scientific questions often require years or even decades to adequately address. And then, after all that effort (including a lengthy peer-review process) the esoteric discovery is finally published, typically in a specialized journal, where the discovery can only be narrowly understood and appreciated by a few other scientists. Our ‘Crab Comics’ outreach project aims to expand the audience who can understand and appreciate our scientific discoveries, with the broader goal of better engaging non-scientists in the scientific study of animal behavior. Notably, the ‘non-scientist’ category includes those who may not yet be scientists, but who may well become future scientists!

My own interest in comics can be traced back to long before I was scientist, when I would doodle primitive cartoons while sitting in the back of classrooms as a distracted student. In middle school, I even thought I might grow up to be a cartoonist, so much so that for my ‘home and careers’ class I interviewed a cartoonist, John McPherson, the genius behind the charming ‘Close to Home’ comic series (who coincidentally lived close to my home, just 15-min drive from where I grew up in Saratoga Springs, NY). Ultimately, I took a different career path, becoming a biologist, which I love more than anything. But my interest in cartoons and comics remains. So in December 2017, I ran a crazy idea (which I dubbed ‘Crab Comics’) by Sarah Smith, who runs the Book Arts Workshop at Dartmouth College’s Library. Sarah, along with a bunch of my other artist colleagues, had already contributed to an art-science exhibit I created at Dartmouth on coconut crabs, animals which we study on remote coral atolls in the Indo-Pacific. After seeing some of Sarah’s hilarious drawings, I wondered if it might be possible to make a comic series on the social hermit crabs that we study in Costa Rica. Certainly, the ‘housing market’ antics of these social hermit crabs have many parallels with human life, and also lend themselves well to black comedy. Most importantly, comics might be capable of translating our technical scientific papers into a form that would be accessible, funny, and easily digestible for non-scientists (including kids who sit in the back of classrooms daydreaming, like me). I thus imagined that, through comics, we could highlight our core scientific discoveries and simultaneously provide an intellectual gateway for those who wished to dig deeper into the actual science.

‘Crab Comics’ created by our artist collaborator Sarah Smith. (A). Outside cover of comic book and one of the cartoon panels inside. (B) Sarah visiting the Laidre Lab in the field in Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica. (C) Sarah making her very first sketches on the beach while watching the social hermit crabs (Photos by Mark Laidre).

Well, Sarah not only signed on to the idea, she also plowed through the stack of technical scientific papers and books I dropped off to her at the library; and she attended countless practice talks given by members of my lab at Dartmouth. As if that wasn’t enough, Sarah also joined us in the field, overlapping for a week with the entire Laidre Lab field crew during our Osa 2019 field season. During her visit to the field, Sarah got to see the crabs first-hand and even got to help out with some of our scientific experiments, thereby learning to appreciate the energy and sweat that goes into collecting raw data for all the scientific papers she had patiently sifted through. Impressively for someone who had never been to the tropics before, Sarah cheerfully survived the Costa Rican beach heat and humidity, the many biting insects, and the poisonous snakes. She also managed to sketch some comics right in the field, both on the crabs and even on the researchers, which made for a good laugh! When Sarah got back from Osa, she then took a formal class on cartooning during summer 2019 at the Center for Cartoon Studies, which is in her hometown of White River Junction VT, the town next door to Dartmouth College. Sarah and I also gave a public talk on this art-science collaboration at the Dartmouth College library in spring 2019. And now in 2020—as horrible as the worldwide pandemic is—one silver lining is that if an artist is stuck at home, then a lot of comics can get inked. Seriously, who couldn’t use a distracting laugh right now? So Sarah has created an entire, polished comic book on the social hermit crabs and their ‘housing market’ antics, which she has titled ‘Compressus’ (in honor of the species’ name: Coenobita compressus). Gary Larson better watch out, since even if Larson is back in action drawing more ‘Far Side’ comics, he now has some major competition, courtesy of Sarah Smith.

We’re excited to say that, for each new scientific paper the Laidre Lab publishes on social hermit crabs, we will be pairing it with a brand new ‘Crab Comic’ (created by Sarah) as well as with a brand new blog contribution (written by yours truly). Each new comic will be released simultaneously on Sarah’s website and on this Osa Conservation blog. Thus, we will combine two key elements in our scientific outreach: a jargon-free ‘written translation’ (via the blog I will write, together with any of my co-authors from the original scientific paper) and an even more elegant ‘comic translation’ (created by Sarah to encapsulate the scientific paper in an accessible and humorous form). We hope this combination of blog and comic may ultimately engage a broader audience, thereby helping a more diverse group of people appreciate not just the Laidre Lab’s research, but also the science of animal behavior more generally. At the very least, it’ll be an experiment, which is something we scientists do endlessly. So stay tuned for Sarah’s next comic and for my next blog, which will launch together with PhD student Clare Doherty’s recently accepted and soon-to-be published paper (Doherty and Laidre 2020, in press). Incidentally, that’s Clare’s first scientific publication – congrats Clare!

Planet Earth III

Our third scientific outreach project is still very much in the ‘in progress’ stage. Following our 2019 conference talks, the BBC emailed me to inquire about filming the social hermit crabs in Osa for their coastal seas episode of Planet Earth III.

Conclusion: integrating scientific outreach alongside scientific research

To conclude on a somewhat philosophical note, I suggest that scientists not only should engage in scientific outreach, but that they have an obligation to do so alongside their scientific research. Indeed, this really must be part of the job of being a scientist. Particularly at a time when misinformation is rampant; when all of humanity is being impacted by a worldwide pandemic and an associated economic crisis; when wildfires are raging on the west coast; and when a looming presidential election exists, with major implications for climate change and conservation. Now, perhaps more than ever before, scientists have the obligation to speak up and to engage a broader audience. Only by communicating science more broadly can all of us benefit from scientific discoveries, including discoveries as humble as our own in the field of animal behavior.

Thus, the Laidre Lab will continue integrating scientific outreach alongside our scientific research, both in the field in Costa Rica and also back home at Dartmouth, where ‘volunteer’ hermit crabs regularly help us give scientific outreach talks at nearby elementary, middle, and high schools. By engaging in scientific outreach, we can have broader impacts that extend far beyond our own research. These broader impacts include shaping our society for the better in the near term and also enhancing the diversity of scientists in the long term. Critically, we current scientists need to ensure that the next generation of future scientists gets excited about science before they grow up. Since if there’s one thing we know, it’s that scientists are just kids who never grew up.

Mark giving a scientific outreach talk on social hermit crabs at a local elementary school nearby Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH. In his hand, he’s holding a ‘volunteer’ hermit crab, which kids get to interact with and which forms an integral part of our scientific outreach.

Osa Conservation
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