Researchers have converted a former barn into a cutting-edge technology lab for complex behavioural analysis. In it, they can now study the intricate behaviour of animal groups.
A major limitation in behavioural research is that scientists can either study animals under highly-controlled, yet often unrealistically simplified and small, environments in the lab, or in largely uncontrolled conditions in the wild.
This has limited the ability to study many facets of behaviour, including collective behaviour – the movement and interactions among animals that underlie their complex social lives. What is needed to address this? Firstly, somewhere with lots of space. Secondly, state-of-the-art technology.
Both are now available in an 18th-century barn at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Möggingen near Konstanz and now in the Imaging Hangar, a hall the size of a gymnasium at the University of Konstanz. Both labs are used to closely examine the group behaviour of animals.
To do so in a multi-dimensional way, researchers have developed a tool called SMART-BARN, which is an acronym for Scalable Multimodal Arena for Real-time Tracking Behaviour of Animals in large numbers.
“It is a new tool that allows studying complex behaviour traits of an individual or interactions between groups of animals like insects, birds, or mammals”, says Hemal Naik, one of the developers of SMART-BARN.
The team was very interdisciplinary: Biologists, physicists, engineers and computer scientists developed it together.
Máté Nagy explains the tool further: “We are using high throughput measurement techniques like optical and acoustic tracking, with which we can study the exact 3D position and posture of animals and calculate their field of view”.
Users of the new facility will have the flexibility to perform different experimental paradigms by leveraging the modular nature of the system.
WHY SCALE MATTERS
“SMART-BARN is designed to enhance the scale of typical indoor behavioural experiments in terms of experimental volume and measured behaviour traits and group sizes”,
Computer scientist Hemal Naik adds: “This means that users can measure previously unseen behaviour because animals have more space.” The facility can – depending on the size of the animals – host 100s of animals simultaneously and extend the possibility of experiments to novel species typically not studied in indoor environments.
“In fact, we have now scaled this to work with many thousands of animals”, adds Couzin, “We recently conducted a study in the Imaging Hangar where we tracked 10,000 plague locusts. This would have been impossible without our SMART-BARN technology.”
HOW SMART-BARN CAN BE USED
So far, SMART-BARN was used within different experimental use cases involving subjects as diverse as pigeons, starlings, moth, bats, and humans.
Naik is delighted because: “The facility is shaping important new interdisciplinary collaborations.”
He continues: “For example, SMART-BARN offers the ability to track the 3D gaze and posture of birds in a group of ten or more while maintaining their identity. This technique is being used by researchers to explore the role of gaze in decision making.”
The same technique is used by computer scientists to design novel computer vision and AI based algorithms facilitating 3D tracking of animals without attaching any markers to them.
“Our method has resulted in an even larger system to track swarms of robots or thousands of insects”, says Iain Couzin.
Máté Nagy says: “In a nutshell, the scope of its applications is only limited by our ability to come up with ideas of experimentation.”
The team imagines the facility to be a collaborative space where researchers from all over the globe can contribute to the exploration of behavioural questions. Therefore, the team invites researchers across the world to connect with them and plan experiments.