Honours Project Opportunities in Nutrition and sociality

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Keywords: social evolution, collective behaviour, cognition, insects, nutrition, modelling

Supervisors: Dr Mathieu Lihoreau, Prof Steve Simpson

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Research in social evolution has long been restricted to the study of sophisticated societies in eusocial insects (ants, termites, many bees and wasps) and cooperative breeding birds and mammals. A central tenet arising from this research is the pre-eminent role of genetic factors (relatedness and kin selection) in the evolution and maintenance of social behaviour.

In recent years, however, growing interest in collective animal behaviour in a larger diversity of organisms and social systems - from slime moulds to humans – has revealed the much widespread dimension of sociality, including a varieties of forms from solitary to eusocial lifestyles. Ecological factors (food availability, climate conditions, predation pressures, competition etc.) have arisen as key determinant for the many of these collective phenomena. In this context, examining the impact of the biotic and social environments on the regulation of social behaviour thus constitutes a fundamental step for a full understanding of the origin and spread of social life.

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At the most conspicuous level, nutrition (the need for individuals to acquire and balance different types of compounds in foods) determines the spatial distribution, the temporal activities, and the social interactions among individuals in populations. Our goal is to further examine how nutritional interactions affects social behaviour by acting at different levels of the social biology or organisms from the formation of groups to their differentiation into advanced societies. Our work combines experimental manipulations on insects exhibiting different levels of social complexity (eg. locusts, fruit flies, cockroaches, caterpillars, ants etc.) and modelling, using numerical simulations of agent based models.

Several questions of general interest could be addressed. For instance:

  • How does food distribution (patchiness, coverage, nutritional composition) and affects the formation of a group and social transitions? Do the same rules apply for herbivores and predators?
  • How is nutritional information transferred within a group? Can communication and learning form each other help individuals to locate and select profitable food in their environment? How does it affect their ability to balance their diet? How are speed and accuracy of foraging decisions improved?
  • How are collective decisions taken in cohesive between individuals with divergent nutritional states (hungry vs well fed) and thus divergent interests? How is it related the emergence of animal personalities, temporary roles or permanent castes?

Visit Behaviour and Physiology Research Lab for more information.