my faculty experience

Natural Sciences Professor Returns To His First Love

While on sabbatical, Ben Steele, professor and chair of the Natural Sciences Department, researched the common eider, a sea duck in Finland. He shares news about his work and plans stemming from his research.

I studied the common eider, a sea duck, in Finland with Dr. Mikael Kilpi of Aronia Environmental Center and Dr. Markus Öst of Helsinki University. The research was conducted at the Tvärminne Zoological Station in southwest Finland on the shore of the Baltic Sea. This is an area of hundreds of islands and rocky ledges where more than 1,000 eiders nest.

I was in Finland during the entire breeding season. The common eider is the same species that breeds in Maine and can be seen near shore south to Massachusetts in winter.

I have always been interested in birds, but recently forest birds. When I met Mikael at an international conference, I saw an opportunity to return to sea birds, which was my first introduction to ornithology. My first job in biology was counting eiders from Maine to Canada from the back of a converted lobster boat.

The Habits of Sea Birds

We focused on two projects. First, we looked at the behavior of unmated males compared to males that were defending a female. This was primarily my project and was conducted before nesting.

We suspected that unmated males may enjoy an advantage by having more time to dive for their preferred food, blue mussels, while mated males must stay on the surface more to keep other males away from their female. We found that unmated males did indeed forage more of the time, but the data are still being analyzed.

The second project was to determine what causes a female taking care of her brood of two to six ducklings to employ one of three strategies of duckling care: to take care of them herself, to join with other females and care for several broods together, or to first join and then abandon the duckling to another female's care. Ducklings from two days old must go into the water and find food while black-backed gulls and other predators fly over searching for unprotected ducklings.

The most interesting discovery was that female eiders are very discerning about whom they join for joint care of ducklings. Females that are still in good condition after not feeding for 26 days of incubation will only join with females in poor condition, apparently because they expect to get the most benefit from the coalition by having their ducklings in the most protected center of the group. Consequently, the females in good condition expect to put in the most effort into looking for predators and fending them off. The amount of effort put in by each female is predicted by a computer model and awaits confirmation as Markus sifts through hundreds of hours of observations.

More Complex than Expected

Animal behavior is much more complex and sophisticated than we expect. Animals do not randomly band together, but follow predictions of natural selection.

Other rewarding aspects of the sabbatical were navigating small boats between the islands and submerged ledges, and the smooth granite shores and pine covered islands. I also enjoyed the Finnish food and culture, numerous saunas, and traveling throughout Finland for three weeks with my wife.

Challenges included being shore bound by sea ice for the first two weeks of my stay, falling through the ice into the Baltic, being away from home for three and a half months and a problem with the Finnish government with the length of my stay.

I plan to teach a course called Bird Ecology that will include what I learned in Finland. Also, ideas, models, examples and pictures from my sabbatical will make it into all my courses.