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   from the issue of April 22, 2004

Kamil’s work on birds, memory gains respect


When Al Kamil came down from the mountain in 1975, he wasn’t carrying two stone tablets, but he was carrying renewed conviction that he was on the right path in studying learning and memory acquisition in birds.

Al Kamil, George Holmes university professor of biological sciences and psychology, received a 2004 Outstanding Research and Creative Activity Award...
 Al Kamil, George Holmes university professor of biological sciences and psychology, received a 2004 Outstanding Research and Creative Activity Award from the University of Nebraska. He has studied the way birds learn and use memory for more than 35 years.

That birds learn and use memory is a well-accepted fact among biologists these days, but in 1975, the proposition was widely regarded as preposterous.

Not by Kamil, however, who became intrigued with the idea while doing an undergraduate research project under Professor Bob Gossette at New York’s Hofstra University in the early 1960s. Kamil said he found the idea so fascinating that he wanted to continue that investigation in graduate school. But when he got to the University of Wisconsin, he was discouraged from focusing exclusively on that and instead pursued master’s and doctoral degrees in experimental psychology and animal learning and behavior.

“I got sidetracked, but as soon as I got a job as a faculty member, I went back to what I wanted to do,” he said.

Now George Holmes university professor of biological sciences and psychology at UNL and a 2004 recipient of the NU System’s Outstanding Research and Creative Activity Award, Kamil took that first faculty position as an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst in 1967 and went right to work on learning and memory in birds. He acquired some bluejays, got the first of his many National Science Foundation grants and spent nearly six years conducting research on learning-sets, a kind of complex learning that had been studied extensively in monkeys.

“The details don’t matter anymore, but the thing I found was that the bluejays were very similar to rhesus monkeys on this task,” Kamil said. “It was so unexpected to most psychologists that no one knew what to make of it. In fact, what they tended to do was ignore it. The reason they couldn’t make sense out of it was because they had this idea that birds are stupid and the data didn’t fit.

“What I realized was that there must be a lot of variation among different species of birds in their learning. I started thinking, ‘Why would some species be better at learning than others?’ Well, probably because they use their ability to learn in their natural environments, and different kinds of environments might tend to favor birds with different kinds of learning abilities. It’s hard to remember, but back then, that was a controversial idea.”

Given the cool reception for his study, it may have been fortunate for Kamil that he had a sabbatical coming, which he used to pursue a new interest he had acquired in learning behavior in nectar-feeding animals. He wanted to find out if nectar-feeding birds remembered which flowers they had visited recently, thus avoiding flowers they had already emptied of nectar. It was fortunate, too, that he had colleagues with a study site set up with the birds already banded, so all he had to do to set up his experiment was mark the flowers. It didn’t hurt, either, that the study site was on the island of Hawaii.

So Kamil spent three months in the 1974-75 academic year in a primitive camp more than 7,000 feet up on the slopes of the volcano Mauna Loa. It was a beautiful site, and its remoteness gave it the added advantage for a scientist that there was not much to do except study the birds and think about what was going on.

When he came down from Mauna Loa and returned to Massachusetts, he not only had enough data for two papers that showed that the birds did, indeed, remember which flowers they had visited, he said he also realized he had had a transforming experience.

“Even if I hadn’t been able to publish any of the data I had, the experience of being in the field, watching animals and thinking about learning, changed the rest of my career, because I knew,” Kamil said. “I came back from that experience knowing that I was on the right track, knowing that my idea that learning was important. People might laugh at it, people might not think that it’s important - but I was really convinced it was.

“And so today, it’s interesting how things have changed. I was just at a symposium in Germany where almost all of the people on the program were biologists and everyone was talking about learning, and why it was important to the different groups of animals that they study. I leaned over and asked a young friend of mine from Germany, ‘Are there any biologists who study ecology and behavior who don’t think learning is important?’ He looked at me and he said, ‘No. Of course not.’ So the biologists have changed quite a bit. The psychologists haven’t changed as much, but there are more psychologists doing the kind of work that several of us do than there used to be.”

Kamil reached another important decision when he returned from Hawaii, one that eventually led to his move to UNL in December 1991. Although he said he had enjoyed working in the field, he decided that since he had been so well-trained in laboratory techniques, he would be able to contribute more as an experimental psychologist using laboratory techniques to study problems known to be important in the field.

In the 1970s, he began a long-term study on the general problem of bluejays finding moths; and in 1981, he began another long-term study (assisted by longtime colleague Russell P. Balda, now at Northern Arizona University) on spatial memory in Clark’s nutcrackers. Both studies continued to grow and by 1991 had outgrown the available lab space at UMass. When the university was unable to provide additional space, Kamil accepted an offer from UNL and moved his lab and his experiments to the lower level of Manter Hall, where the studies continue to unfold, along with a new major project on how animals use cognitive abilities to figure out social relationships.

Facilities weren’t the only factor involved in the move, however. Kamil said he thought the opportunity to move from the Psychology Department at UMass to the School of Biological Sciences at UNL would make sense, given the trajectory his career had taken.

“My work was so biological because it was so focused on evolution that I thought switching departments would be good for me,” Kamil said. “That turned out to be very important. I recently added up the number of papers I published in my last 10 years at UMass and the number of papers I published in my first 10 years here, and the rate had more than doubled.

“That’s partly because of the facilities and it’s partly because of the people I’ve interacted with since I’ve been here. I feel very strongly that a substantial part of the reason that my research program has continued to grow is due to my colleagues in the School of Biological Sciences. There have been some particular individuals like Alan Bond, a research professor who’s an absolutely fantastic scientist. The collaboration we’ve had has just been fantastic.”

Kamil, who has also served as director of UNL’s Cedar Point Biological Station near Ogallala the last five years, was one of three UNL faculty members honored with the NU System’s top awards this year. Susan Rosowski, Adele Hall distinguished professor of English, also won an ORCA, while Joy Ritchie, professor of English and women’s studies, received an Outstanding Teaching and Instructional Creativity Award.

Third in a series

This is the third and final story in a series spotlighting UNL’s winners of the University of Nebraska’s Outstanding Research and Creative Activity Awards and Outstanding Teaching and Instructional Creativity Awards.



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