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Research Fellows Directory

Michael Cant

Professor Michael Cant

Research Fellow

Organisation

University of Exeter

Research summary

An outstanding question in evolutionary and biomedical science is why individuals vary so much in their behaviour, fertility and survival. A plausible answer comes from research showing that the conditions experienced in early life interact with an individual’s genetic makeup and exert a strong and lasting influence on adult behaviour and physiology. For animals that live in close-knit family groups, such as humans, meerkats, and ants, early life conditions are largely determined by the social environment, in particular the quality and amount of care received from parents and helpers, and the intensity of within-group competition for resources. In insects, for example, the type and quantity of food eaten by larvae triggers developmental switches which determine whether individuals develop as queens or workers. In vertebrates, these types of irreversible castes are lacking, but research on lab mammals and humans shows that the conditions experienced in utero and after birth affect the expression of neural and hormonal genes, and lead to predictable individual differences in behaviour and physiology in adulthood. Some of these changes are heritable, and can persist to influence the features of offspring and even grand-offspring. Little is known, however, about (i) how the social environment affects patterns of behaviour, fertility and survival in social vertebrates, or (ii) whether developmental sensitivity is adaptive. My work aims to answer these questions through the long-term field study of a highly social mammal, the banded mongoose Mungos mungo, at our study site in Uganda. Banded mongooses are an ideal system to investigate maternal and social influences on development because multiple females in each group give birth together on the same day, so we can compare the offspring of different mothers within the same communal litter, and use a powerful ‘split-plot’ experimental design to investigate maternal effects on development. The research will reveal how maternal condition and early life care affect social behaviour, fertility, and aging processes in social mammals living in the environment in which they evolved. The overall aim is to advance conceptual understanding of the causes life history variation in social animals, from insects to humans.

Grants awarded

Social development and life history evolution in animal societies

Scheme: Wolfson Research Merit Awards

Dates: May 2015 - Apr 2020

Value: £37,500

Cooperation and conflict over reproduction in animal societies

Scheme: University Research Fellowship

Dates: Oct 2007 - Mar 2011

Value: £307,378.40

Scheme: University Research Fellowship

Dates: Jan 2003 - Sep 2007

Value: £233,546.60