Bright and early on Monday the 4th July, Chrissie, Murray, Josie and I (Cass) set off across the Tasman to Sydney for the annual Australasian Society for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASSAB) conference. The sky was clear and the sun was warm when we touched down, and after a quick bite to eat at Central Station we hopped on a train for the 2 hour ride up to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, our home for the next 4 days. The temperature had plummeted by at least 5 degrees when we arrived at the station which was probably a good thing, as by the time we trudged up and down a few small hills to our accommodation we were all a little overheated. After getting settled in and making a quick trip to the supermarket for some food, Greg and Anne arrived with the kiddies and the celebration of Hazel’s first birthday commenced.
On Tuesday morning we headed up to the Carrington Hotel for registration and lunch, following which we were ushered into the Ballroom to receive the opening remarks of the conference. The talks began with a bang (“Boom, Angiosperms!”) as Dr Anne Gaskett presented a wonderful plenary on ‘pollinator behaviour and sensory ecology as the coevolutionary drivers of orchid diversity’, proposing the idea of ‘resilience’ as a new mechanism for maintaining asymmetric coevolutionary relationships. This was followed by a session on conservation and predator-prey interactions where our own Chrissie Painting gave an awesome talk on ‘ant-mimicry in reverse by a colourful jumping spider’. After a quick tea break featuring some amazing biscuits, we were back in the Ballroom for the next session of talks on signalling, where we heard about bird song diversity and singing behaviour, deimatic displays of katydid’s, and the relative importance of different colour aspects for sexual selection in guppies. This was followed by the presentation of the ASSAB 2016 awards. Next up we had a meet and greet at the hotel bar that Murray, Josie and I may or may not have skipped out on to get dinner… At 8pm we were back at the Carrington for a truly competitive and extremely challenging game of biological trivia that absolutely did not show off our biological knowledge and prowess, perhaps with the exception of Chrissie, whose team came in the top 3. The rest of us most definitely dishonoured the Holwell Lab with our second-to-last placement.
Wednesday morning Chrissie, Josie and I snuck in a quick walk down to Echo Point lookout to see The Three Sisters before catching another great plenary given by Dr Jennifer Kelley on ‘colour pattern variation and decision-making in colour-changing animals’. We had a big day of talks ahead and in the following session we heard about prenatal and nestling song learning in birds and visual discrimination and learning in fish. A short tea break (with yummy cream scones) provided some time to look over all the awesome posters that people had made, and then we were back to the Ballroom for our next session on sexual selection, parental care, management, and the speed talks. Murray was up second to present his research on ‘cavernicolous combat and sexual selection in the New Zealand Cave Weta, Pachyrhamma waitomoensis’, followed shortly by Josie with her ‘integrative approach to investigating male contest behaviour in New Zealand’s sheetweb spiders (Cambridgea spp)’. Both of them absolutely nailed their talks and made the Holwell Lab proud! After some more presentations on fish personalities, the nightlife of orphaned elephants, social lizards, and the secret lives of ducks, we adjourned for a delicious buffet lunch. The next session featured some interesting talks on the effects of weather on the social organisation in coral reef fish, the response of bellbirds to the different developmental stages of song, and the communication of task specific signals through cuticular hydrocarbons on the legs of meat ants. After another quick tea break (and some delectable caramel slices) we were back to the Ballroom for the speed talk session where we learned about visual navigation in mini ants, cuckoo host defences, the hunting choreography of net casting spiders, song complexities of fairy-wrens, and testosterone and sociability in grey kangaroos. Social networking along with drinks and nibbles in the lounge was the next order of business as we awaited the engaging public lecture by Dr Lee Ann Rollins on ‘what makes a species successful at invasion?’ where epigenetics was explored as a new approach to this age-old question. Energy levels were fairly low after such a long and exciting day so following the lecture we gathered a group and went down to the local pub for some more food and then called it a night.
Thursday morning we received the third and final plenary from Dr Camilla Whittington, a stimulating exploration on ‘the genetic basis of evolutionary innovations: seahorse pregnancy and birth’. In the subsequent sessions we were informed about defences against brood parasitism in eastern koel hosts, obligate pollination mutualisms, DNA methylation patterns in an introduced songbird, and inference by exclusion in cockatoos, among many other intriguing biological systems. Prior to lunch we braced the cold and made our way onto the steps of the Carrington for the official ASSAB conference photo. Everyone was grateful to be back in the warmth afterwards, and the delicious buffet topped it off nicely. The following sessions featured talks covering a range of interesting topics including a novel R package for analysing animal movement, the effect of ant social organisation on production and operation costs, body-size awareness in birds, abstract concept learning in honey bees, and stress reactivity, condition and foraging behaviour in zebra finches. A long and very animated AGM completed the days sessions and then everyone went back to their rooms to get dressed up in their finest attire for the conference dinner in the Grand Dining Room. Student prizes were announced at the conference dinner and Murray was awarded first prize for his talk! After the dinner most of the conference-goers headed over to the Baroque Room at the Harp and Fiddle (the oldest Irish pub in Katoomba) for a fun evening of drinks, dancing and socialising.
Friday morning started off with a Career Advice Workshop Breakfast where various academics discussed ways of taking your career to the next level, with Chrissie leading the talk on how to get a Postdoc. This was followed by a post-conference excursion to the Blue Mountains for a bush walk. Murray, Josie and I did not attend the excursion and instead made our way back to Sydney where we each went on our separate ways.
Overall the conference was an extraordinary experience and a wonderful opportunity to meet new people and hear about some fascinating research!