Curious about the legendary Winter Animal Behavior Conference, WABC, held each year in Steamboat Springs, Colorado?

DSC02925       Imagine skiing on world-class tree trails and well-groomed pistes through Colorado’s legendary powder. Consider afternoons and evenings with intense academic talks and post-talk discussions, perhaps involving exotic cocktails and recently legalized um… relaxants that made some people giggle, perhaps even relinquishing their roles as moderators. Now dream of doing this with some of the brightest in the next generation along with your animal behavior heroes, people who have formed the discipline and cross the bridges between countries, or between biology and psychology. It is no wonder that this meeting is dreamed about.

You may think WABC is a secretive club, almost an animal behavior cabal where big things are decided and you are excluded. Are you right? Here as much as I understand, I’ll tell the story, since I was finally lucky enough to have been invited to attend. If you know me, you know I’m generally in favor of openness, though I do understand sometimes there are closed meetings. Why Dave and I ourselves are running a small one-time closed meeting on what it takes to be an organism in a few months. But what should we think about a meeting that has been happening for 37 continuous years and has been closed that entire time? Here I’ll give you a short history of the meeting, a description of how closed it is, how to get in, and a taste of what I learned this year.IMG_4913

First, it is easy to discover how the meeting started because Jeff Galef writes about it in his autobiographical chapter in a book of animal behavior greats. Here is the Google Scholar page with the link to the preprint.
As I read it, he had been to a brain meeting at a ski resort and loved it. The next year he was turned down for attendance and was very disappointed, so he thought about simply running his own one time meeting at the same place with the 28 people he most wanted to see. So he booked the rooms at Jackson Hole and in 1978 convinced his dream group to come, paying their own way. With this meeting he began WABC. There are 27 signatures on that first page and it was in a big book, so perhaps Jeff already dreamed of continuing the meeting.IMG_4898

That first page from January 1979 is from Jackson Hole and is represented here. It is the only page I was allowed to photograph, though I did look through the rest and saw many interesting people. If you think this meeting is a bit secretive, you are right.

But it is really important to understand that this is an independent meeting. It has no affiliation with the Animal Behavior Society, or anything else. It has no funds. IDSC02973t has no leadership committee. I don’t even think it has a written set of rules, though there are clearly unwritten rules. There was no business meeting, no discussion of where the meeting is going, what its goals are, or even whom to invite next year.

There is an organizer, this year David White from Wilfred Laurier University. He set up the reservation with The Ranch at Steamboat. They have a great shuttle, a bunch of condos, and a fairly small room for the meeting. They let the group bring their own wine, beer, and soft drinks, which the organizer has to do. This time David even had to drive 5 hours to replace the recalcitrant projector. He did a ton of work to run the meeting. The snacks were excellent, cooked by a friendly woman at the Ranch.

To get this year’s meeting going, the organizer emailed people on the list, asking if they would come. I think the list is very long but I have not seen it. I don’t know how long one stays on the list if one does not come. After that group decided whether or not to come, the organizer emailed the new suggestions from the previous year to see if they wanted to come. David Queller and I were on that list. We decided to go. Then it was a matter of making our own reservation with The Ranch, the airlines, the shuttles, the lift ticIMG_4928kets, and the ski rentals. Knowing how ski resorts fill at all levels, I did all reservations immediately, in October, flights, lodging, lift tickets, skis, shuttle from airport to Steamboat.

Surprisingly, a good number of people do not ski. They use the day as quiet time to work, or dabble at the lovely Strawberry Park hotsprings, or stress themselves with cross country on the golf course. This attests to the academic importance of the meeting, though there was nothing shabby about us skiers and our chairlift and lunchtime discussions.IMG_4937

How do you get on that magic list? It is easy. Someone suggests you. We got little pieces of paper at the banquet on Wednesday and could write a name on it and then that person will be notified after the people on the older list have made up their minds. Usually, it is harder to fill the meeting than to decide whom to invite. So if you want to go, just find someone that has been, and ask to be suggested. There was no discussion of people. Bill Wright is organizing the meeting for 2016. I hope I can go.

So, the meeting is self-pay, always at Steamboat, with talks from 4pm to 10pm, beginning with a half hour reception, and an hour and a half for dinner. You may be amazed, but there is also socializing and science after dinner. If you wonder what exactly it cost, for me and Dave, the grand total was $3778.14 not including the couple hundred on food we bought and cooked. That broke down as $713.41 for the double room in a shared condo, $898.40 for two flights from St. Louis, and $560.00 for two registrations, generously covering the banquet, reception, pizza the last night, and tons of wine and snacks at other times. In addition to that, ski rental, top quality, was $573.67, and lift tickets, bought at discount early were $918 for 6 days for two. Was it worDSC02974th it? I would say yes for reasons that might come clear below.

Who was there this year? We had 32 people, apparently 10 Canadians, and about that number of psychologists. There were 4 people from University of California Davis, 3 from Wash U, 3 from McMaster, and 3 from Western Ontario. I would guess that Jeff Galef and Mike Ryan had the most former students also attending. We had one excellent Brazilian, but overall this is not a diverse meeting. Ten of 32 were women. It is impossible to complain about diversity or gender issues since it is self pay from a large list that is not too hard to get on. If that list had few women and diverse candidates, I would complain, but I haven’t seen the list. With this system, there is no way to balance any given meeting except by begging certain people to come. Maybe that is a problem in and of itself.

Here is an organismal breakdown of the talks: 12 birds, 8 mammals, 4 other vertebrates, 5 invertebrates, 1 microbe (me), and 2 theory talks. Those color image figures of brains were common. So were robots, models, decoys, and fakes, of cowbird eggs, túngara frogs, sage grouse, darters, and loons. I think of these models kind of like gene knockouts and replacements.IMG_4946

Multimodality in signaling had caught people’s attention, from ripples on water to female behavior to spider and darter behavior. Disease and its relationship to behavior infected a couple of talks on trematodes and one on song sparrows and migration. The most popular organism was the cowbird with 4 talks, most heart rending was the one on mate separation and longing calls to absent or distant mates.

Both theory talks were fascinating, one a clear demonstration of the flaws with Nowak’s attack on inclusive fitness and the other on the intersection of prisoner’s dilemma and dictator games in structured environments.IMG_6222

We heard a lot about animals in the wild, including haunting loons, white-crowned sparrows, song sparrows, Danish whales, Panamanian crabs, darters (a fish), Brazilian grassquits, and pronghorn antelope on the Bison Range.

Some important topics were under-represented to my taste. There were no social insects and little talk of social conflict or evolution. Phylogenetics and genomics were only slightly present. But everyone assured me that topics change a lot from meeting to meeting.

Did I learn enough to go again? Probably. Was the skiing wonderful? Yes, but we could have used more snow. What was the opportunity cost? Would I have rather spent the week in the rainforests of Ecuador or Peru? Possibly, but that wouldn’t have happened.

Would the meeting endure if it lost its exclusivity, if it lost its “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” feeling? I don’t know.DSC02934


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in behavioral ecology, Scientific meetings and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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