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November 24, 2010

Distinguished UCLA professor strikes "fear" into ULM biology students

What do Hollywood horror films like "Psycho" and furry, heavy-set marmots have in common?

Turns out, quite a bit. That's according to Dr. Daniel Blumstein of the University of California-Los Angeles, featured speaker at a ULM Department of Biology forum titled "The Sound of Fear" on Nov. 18.

Blumstein, a professor and departmental chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA, has spent his professional life studying eight out of 14 species of marmot, and is especially familiar with Colorado's noisy yellow-bellied variety. In the process, he has discovered how the rodent's vocalizations provide insights into our own human responses. Like human beings, the highly individualistic "scream" of a marmot is quite different from its normal "call."

Because marmots assess risk differently, some are pretty laid-back creatures while others are "nervous Nellie's" - just like their human counterparts. Interestingly, those nervous Nellie's emit the same nonlinear, chaotic sounds frequently found in horror films filled with human screams and scary sound effects, according to Blumstein.

"That nonlinear sound is an honest signal of fear," Blumstein said. "Screams are noisier; the human response is a very common mammalian trait."

Marmots tend to be quite vocal and emit loud alarm whistles upon provocation, which explains why a common name of the yellow-bellied marmot is "whistle pig."

Marmots are closely related to both ground squirrels and prairie dogs, part of the species known as sciurid rodents. Blumstein noted that Groundhog Day is the only U.S. Holiday named after an animal and that some species of marmots have been threatened to the point of distinction.

Blumstein's work is widely cited, and he is often called upon to interview by national and international news sources such as National Public Radio, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

Earlier this year, he joined five other faculty members in being named among UCLA's best and most admired teachers. As a winner of a 2010 Distinguished Teaching Award, presented by the UCLA Academic Senate, Blumstein represents "the most skilled and inspiring masters of the classroom, as proven by the many letters from colleagues, students and former students as well as course evaluations," according to a UCLA statement.

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