Perhaps the only thing more interesting than the history of ethology itself, is the history of the crazy contraptions that have been designed to support such a science. The most temperamental, yet pervasive, of these tools is the ethogram device.
Looking a bit like a bloated calculator, an ethogram is made up of rows of cryptic keys that can be programmed to code in variables of interest. For example, it could be coded to specifically describe the sequence of actions that make up a duck preening its feathers. It could also be coded to log bird songs as they’re heard in a forest. Unfortunately, both ethogram hardware and software has left a lot to be desired resulting in frustrated scientists wrestling a baffling interface. The biggest problem I faced in the field with ethograms was the steep learning curve to a newly programmed set of keys and the uncomfortable knowledge that high error is just part of the game (“Ugh, did I hit A3 or B3 just now?”).
Recording behavior is fun and a behavioral recording tool should be just as fun while also making the job easier! A wearable apron or smock with sewn-in buttons representing behaviors, actions, or species representations might be just the thing to finally re-design the much-maligned ethogram.
Imagine you’re interested in the frequency, type, and maybe even geospatial location of birds calling in a forest. You could program buttons located on your arms, shoulders, hips, and/or thighs to represent different species. By tapping these different locations on your own body as birds call, you’d be leveraging the benefits of embodied cognition – you might learn faster, with less error, and it would be more fun and engaging. Built in feedback using LED lights, and possibly sound, would reinforce your understanding that yes! You did what you thought you were doing (an unfortunately rare feeling using traditional ethograms). You heard a cardinal, you tapped the associated cardinal button and it lit red in response to your touch.This data could be stored and analyzed later to understand call frequency and order sequencing by species. By pulling bird call mp3’s to match with the logged data, you could also aurally recreate that environment any time you like.
This kind of wearable could also be useful for recording transect lines of plants, trees, and other animals or even logging firefly flashes. I like the idea that the “etho-smock” could not only be a passive logger of information, but also play it back in the form of light and sound (reminiscent of Close Encounters of the Third Kind).
Part science and part performance arts piece – the ethogram might finally enter the 21st century!