The Systems Behaviour Lab is focussed on understanding the behaviour of biological systems, from group-living animals to ecosystems. We are interested in the evolutionary and ecological basis of behaviour, and how different behavioural strategies can allow organisms to adapt to changes of context. We use a range of organisms (principally hymenopterans including ants, bees and wasps) to investigate various themes.

Collective behaviour

Highly integrated groups of individuals can effectively function as single entities (‘super-organisms’). Social insects are paragons of cooperation and collective achievement: tens, thousands, or millions of individuals can act in concert to achieve complex tasks, far beyond the capacity of a single individual. Collective tasks are typically achieved through self-organisation, without any top-down control. Individuals acting on simple ‘rules of thumb’ are able to generate sophisticated adaptive behaviour at the level of the group. How do they do this?

Groups of organisms derive benefits from staying together, and thus must coordinate activities at the level of the group. Two contexts in which this is crucial are group movements (where to go) and decisions affecting the whole group – such as the choice of a place to live (where to stay). We use experiments and modelling to explore how group-living organisms from ants to vertebrates can achieve these tasks with the maximum possible speed and accuracy.

Adaptive strategies in super-organisms

Highly integrated social organisms can function as individual entities in their own right, and can exploit the extended phenotype of the colony. This may enable groups to achieve adaptive responses not available to unitary individuals.

We are using ant systems to investigate to what degree success in invasion can be ascribed to the capacity for colonies to employ adaptive behavioural strategies. We are also using facultatively social bees (Ceratina and Lasioglossum) to study the interactions between immunity and social living.

Alternative reproductive strategies

Offspring quantity and quality can greatly influence offspring survival and dispersal, and this has a profound impact on the ecology of a species and the ecosystem it inhabits. Reproductive strategies are diverse and can represent extremes of the offspring investment spectrum, particularly in social organisms. These different reproductive modes have major implications for various life-history traits and ecology. We use a combination of field studies, genetics, and modelling to explore how different reproductive and dispersal strategies mostly focussing on ants.

Pollinator network ecology

We investigate how disturbance and invasive species influence pollination networks using the tractable model system of the Ogasawara islands. We are using an ecological network approach to compare pollinator network structure in island ecosystems under different disturbance pressures and how invasive species can help or hinder pollinator services.

Adaptive evolution in invasive species

Invasive species must adapt to new environments and can do so in different ways in social and non-social organisms. We use invasive populations of Anolis carolinensis in islands of Japan to investigate how male and female lizards adapt morphologically and behaviourally to changes in context, with regard to habitat, resource availability and competition. We also investigate how the flexibility inherent in social behaviour can facilitate invasiveness in invasive ants.

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