First Person is a series of interviews with the first authors of a selection of papers published in Biology Open, helping researchers promote themselves alongside their papers. Franziska Hacker is first author on ‘ An ethogram identifies behavioural markers of attention to humans in European herring gulls (Larus argentatus)’, published in BiO. Franziska conducted the research described in this article while a Master of Research student in Professor Paul Graham's lab in the School of Life Sciences, University of Sussex, Brighton UK. She is now a scientific manuscript editor and aspiring PhD candidate with a strong interest in mammal and seabird cognition, behavior, sociality, communication, and conservation research.

Franziska Hacker

Describe your scientific journey and your current research focus

My scientific career began with a strong interest in human behavior and cognition and, therefore, an undergraduate degree in Neuroscience at the University of Sussex. However, during this degree, I realized that it was non-human animal rather than human behavior and cognition that drew in my interest more. Thus, I enrolled in a Master of Research in ethology at the same university and conducted a 5-month research project on the behavioral responses of herring gulls to human food cues, the results of which have resulted in two published papers, this being one of them. To further broaden the tools available to me for studying animal behavior and cognition, I then enrolled in the International Master of Bioacoustics at the Université Jean Monnet Saint-Etienne, for which I conducted a 6-month research project on the vocalizations of African penguins. I presented the preliminary results of this research at the African Bioacoustics Conference 2022 and prepared a publication, which is currently under review. Since then, I have been volunteering with a South African research organization, collecting data on Egyptian geese vocalizations and Cape fur seal mortality. Simultaneously, I have been developing my own PhD project proposal that aligns with my research interests.

Who or what inspired you to become a scientist?

It was my own curiosity. I love learning and I love reading about new scientific discoveries. And I realized, if I want to know more about something that hasn't been looked into yet … I need to do it myself! Additionally, satisfying my inner child, I love being outdoors and I love working with animals – so what could be better than field work and behavioral observations of fascinating animals?

How would you explain the main finding of your paper?

In simple terms, we identified certain behaviors that herring gulls only display when they are close to people in possession of food, but not when the person does not have any food with them. They turn their heads more often to look at their surroundings, face more towards us, and are more likely to approach a person that is holding an item they have recognized as food. We believe these behaviors to be indicative of increased vigilance or attention towards a person in possession of a food item.

“Our ethogram identifies specific behaviors gulls display and upregulate when in the proximity of a person in possession of food.”

What are the potential implications of this finding for your field of research?

Our ethogram identifies specific behaviors gulls display and upregulate when in the proximity of a person in possession of food. Being able to recognize such behaviors allow future studies to use them to investigate gull attention in a variety of contexts, such as how they develop (are they learned or innate?), how they change with varying contexts (are they people-specific?), and how they vary and transfer between and across populations (do they vary between urban and rural populations? Do gulls that cannot directly see a food item still display these behaviors based on the responses of other individuals that can see them?). Such studies will broaden our knowledge of urban gulls, their behaviors, their interactions with people, and their adaptation to urban environments.

During a recent 6-month field trip to South Africa to study the vocalizations of African penguins, I managed to capture this uniquely coloured individual at the colony. African penguins usually have black backs and cheeks with a white stomach and relatively few belly spots. However, this individual seems to have an inside-out coat: white cheeks and many belly spots, to the point where it almost looks like the stomach is black. It didn't seem to affect this individual's “attractiveness” to other penguins however, as he/she was still spotted breeding.

During a recent 6-month field trip to South Africa to study the vocalizations of African penguins, I managed to capture this uniquely coloured individual at the colony. African penguins usually have black backs and cheeks with a white stomach and relatively few belly spots. However, this individual seems to have an inside-out coat: white cheeks and many belly spots, to the point where it almost looks like the stomach is black. It didn't seem to affect this individual's “attractiveness” to other penguins however, as he/she was still spotted breeding.

Which part of this research project was the most rewarding?

To me, it was the fact that we were able to identify and describe the ways in which gulls respond specifically to human food cues. Additionally, being able to be in the field with these birds and observing these subtle behavioral changes (rather than only seeing them later on in videos) was fascinating to me. This was also my first proper field research project, which made it that much more exciting.

What do you enjoy most about being an early-career researcher?

It's the fact that I have so many options going forward. Early on we were always told that whatever we choose to study now will be the direction of our academic career for the rest of our life, which really scared me because I wanted to study so many different things! But I've now realized that the opposite is the case. I haven't specialized yet, so I can take my next step in a lot of different directions – both in terms of the study species and the research focus. It's also exciting to be able to meet so many different, brilliant people all the time. I'm currently making connections within my field, and hearing about all the different ideas and research projects is fascinating!

“I haven't specialized yet, so I can take my next step in a lot of different directions”

What piece of advice would you give to the next generation of researchers?

Work hard for what you want but take your time. This may sound contradictory, but a lot of people race to success, to the point where it becomes overwhelming. Yes, work hard for what you want to achieve or become but take time to enjoy the place you are at right now as well. For a while, I was stressing to find a PhD project that would start immediately after my Masters, and a friend of mine told me: “Calm down and take it easy. It will come to you”. At first, I thought “How could it come to me when I'm not giving everything to find a project?” But they were right. I kept working hard but I stopped stressing myself out, I took my time to figure out what I wanted to study, and now my next steps are clear.

What's next for you?

I'm in the process of developing a PhD project proposal that aligns with my research interests and involves a diverse team of supervisors and collaborators. I'm excited to finalize the proposal and get started, hopefully in early 2024.

Franziska Hacker's contact details: ffeist98@gmail.com

Hacker
,
F.
and
Graham
,
P.
(
2023
).
An ethogram identifies behavioural markers of attention to humans in European herring gulls (Larus argentatus)
.
Biol. Open
12
,
bio.060016
.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution and reproduction in any medium provided that the original work is properly attributed.