University of Exeter
Our friendships and social interactions affect our decisions on what we buy and eat, where we travel and live, and even influence whether we become obese or start smoking. Such social networks and their effects might seem uniquely human. However, recent research shows that social networks can also affect animals’ lives in many ways, such as whether they discover food in winter, whether they manage to reproduce and how long they survive. Furthermore, diseases such as Bovine Tuberculosis and Ebola spread along social networks, with huge economic and societal impacts.
Although much recent research has focussed on animal social networks, we do not yet understand why some animals have few but strong relationships while others have many but weak connections. The conditions that animals experience when growing up could drive these differences in social behaviour. The first aim of my research is to test how stressful conditions during development affect the social behaviour of adult birds, and thus their social network positions, in wild populations. I will address this question in the great tits of Wytham Woods, in collaboration with researchers at the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology at Oxford University.
My second research aim is to explore how animals’ social behaviour and breeding success are affected by changing environmental conditions. Due to climate change, the availability of critical resources, such as water and food, have become more variable and unpredictable, and this can greatly affect animal populations. Surprisingly, we do not know how animals cope with changes in food quality at different life stages, how different social strategies affect individuals' fitness, and whether such social strategies can be transmitted across generations. I will answer this question using zebra finches as my model system.
My research will elucidate how early-life conditions drive later social behaviour in wild animal populations across generations, and whether animals can adjust their social strategies to successfully cope with unpredictable resource availability, as induced by climate change.