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 in social organisms, and how different behavioural strategies can allow organisms to adapt to changes of context. We use a range of social organisms (principally hymenopterans including ants, bees and wasps) to investigate various themes.
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?
Collective movements and decision making
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 individual and social immunity.
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 in social insects are diverse and can represent extremes of the offspring investment spectrum. While many ant species initiate new colonies by sending out hundreds or thousands of winged queens, which disperse via flight and found new colonies alone (Independent Colony Foundation or ICF), others employ ‘swarm tactics’ and queens are accompanied by many workers (Dependent Colony Foundation, or DCF). 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 the distribution of different colony founding strategies in social insects and how the evolution of different strategies is linked to ecological and environmental characteristics.
Characterising island pollinator networks
Quantifying the influence of disturbance, such as invasive species or habitat modification, on ecosystems can be facilitated through the use of comparative approaches which can characterise system-level variation. We are using an ecological network approach to compare pollinator network structure in island ecosystems under different disturbance pressures in the Ogasawara Islands of southern Japan.