Landscapes of information: how information use affects ecological communities

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Zoology

Abstract

Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media are the latest innovation to take advantage of our social networks of friends, friends of friends, and people we've met only once. Seeing or hearing of what they do, and what they buy, influences many of the decisions we make, and our social networks even affect how likely we are to contract and spread diseases. While social interactions like this might sound unique to humans and our modern lifestyle, social networks and learning by observing others also occurs in non-human animals, including insects, fish, reptiles and birds. For example, honeybees learn where it's best to forage by paying attention to the waggle dance displays given by other foragers, while canaries learn how to eat novel foods by watching females first. While some animals learn from others by direct teaching, many gain information by eavesdropping on others' interactions.

But social groups do not interact in isolation from the rest of their environment; decisions made by one individual, population, or species can have very important implications for others. For example, some butterflies avoid being eaten by birds by evolving toxins and/or becoming distasteful. They signal this to their predators by coming in bright colours that make them stand out from their environment. But how does this evolve? If a butterfly must be eaten for the predator to learn, how does the new form of butterfly survive to reproduce and spread its colourful adaptation? Perhaps like waiting to watch a friend try a hot curry first, the butterflies survive because predators learn quickly by watching their neighbours - less butterflies need to be tasted or eaten for the predators' aversion to spread. If animals with more social interactions are able to gather more information about their world, social networks may be far more important to the wider ecological community than previously realised.

What will happen in the future? The world is changing quickly, altering population sizes and their habitats. We do not know how environmental change will affect social networks and interactions, nor do we understand the importance of social information for many species who are already rapidly declining. I will In this fellowship I will investigate how social connections in one species vary and affect changes in others, as well as address its ramifications for the evolution and maintenance of biological diversity. First, I will combine established experimental methods for studying predator-prey interactions with those for studying social interactions. In aviary-based experiments with great tits as model predators I will ask (i) what information they gain about prey defences by watching others before (ii) testing how social information influences the speed of a predator's learning and then (iii) investigate how social learning by predators affects the success of prey that cheat by mimicking other prey species' defences. Next I will take advantage of technological advances in remote animal tracking to study the implications of social learning for the conservation of an endangered bird in New Zealand, the hihi. I will first (i) track how an aversion to an experimental warning symbol spreads through the adult population before (ii) asking if social groups of juveniles facilitate learning about food resources. Finally, (iii) I will determine how changing population densities affect social networks, and how social interactions change when hihi are moved to a new environment.

As we learn more about how animals interact and adapt to their environment, we are realising just how similar they are to us. Studying social interactions in other animals will therefore further our appreciation of how intricately entangled our own relationships are with the environment.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit from this research?

1. My research will benefit academics working in all fields where the role of information in interactions and adaptive decisions is fundamental. This includes the broader fields of biomedical science, pest control, and the social sciences.

2. Conservation scientists, practitioners, and policy-makers will benefit because of the link between my behavioural ecology oriented questions and effective population size.

3. Because my research uses two charismatic species as model systems and concepts that are easily accessible and relevant to the social lives of the public, it will be very attractive to the media and science educators and inspire young people in to science-related careers.

How will they benefit from this research?

1. The relationship between networks of social interactions and the spread of information is analogous to disease transmission. Controlling the spread of diseases is one of the main challenges we face, affecting not only our health but also our economy (e.g. bovine tb). Furthermore, understanding the processes of selection responsible for the evolution of novel pathogens and alternative pest disguises is our best hope for developing new and more effective means of controlling, for example, antibiotic resistance. By using birds as model predators and artificial prey my research will allow controlled experiments that are focussed on the same underlying principles.

2. Interactions among species underpin biological diversity and my research will shed light on the role of social interactions in particular. Conservation practice has traditionally focussed on single species, removing alien predators and/or initiating new populations through translocation. However, there has been little science underpinning what determines the minimum population size required to establish these new populations. Often populations fail without knowledge why. My research will demonstrate the importance of social interactions and associations for the spread of innovation, thus illustrating the cryptic variation necessary. Furthermore, by accentuating the approach of considering community interactions between predators and prey, my research will emphasise the newer ecosystem-based approaches to conservation. Gaining a greater understanding of the ways species adjust to environmental change is becoming more and more crucial, and it is paramount that basic science like that described here is conducted to ensure healthy ecosystems and the services they provide our wildlife and society.

3. Science is a major driver of innovation in our economy, and the most important challenge it faces is inspiring young people to choose science as a career. Being a young female scientist conducting exciting fieldwork on the other side of the world, I will help dispel the image that scientists are male and spend all of their time in the lab. As my research is concerned with social interactions, it will generate easily accessible and vivid examples of how similar human society is to how the natural world operates. Therefore, these examples will make it easy to engage with the public and inspire with my enthusiasm (see Pathways to Impact).

Publications

10 25 50
 
Title Animal Diplomacy Bureau 
Description I provided expert knowledge to help artist Kaylene Kau (Royal College of Art) to develop an interactive game to enhance the general public's understanding of life as a bird in urban environments. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2018 
Impact Kaylene Kau has run several of these events, including at popular local London festivals (e.g. SoundCamp 2018), and is now collaborating with other artists on projects to inspire the public. 
URL https://www.kaylenekau.com/animal-diplomacy-bureau
 
Description During first year of award I initiated two new experimental methods: (1) a new method to manipulate social information for great tits using video playback, (2) acquiring permission and attaching radio frequency ID tags to hihi, a bird in New Zealand. During the second year my group is investigating why and how individuals vary in the ways they use information to assess risk. I discovered that reed warblers, a species that plays host to cuckoo eggs, can assess threat levels of cuckoo-parasitism by paying attention to the activity of their neighbours. However they only act on this information if they also have personal experience of cuckoos at their nest. This is important as it means cuckoos must be secretive - not only do they risk alerting their target hosts, but they also risk information spreading rapidly through the local neighbourhood of potential hosts. Nine months of the second year of this award was taken as maternity leave. During the third year of this award we have continued to trial application of RFID tags to produce data for evolutionary research and conservation. We discovered that the industry-standard tags do not function as well as advertised (recording 60% of events and suffering 10% complete failure) and have alerted other groups using this technology. We have since developed new bespoke tags and readers that are fit for purpose with the New Zealand Department of Conservation. The tags are currently being trialled and will be deployed in 2018. Meanwhile, my group investigated the broader applicability of our findings from year 1. We performed pilot experiments with blue tits that suggest that they are reluctant to use social information about prey signals, but information use influences the speed of decision making. This is important because it highlights that not all species use information in equal ways, reaffirming the importance of considering ecological communities and not just single-species studies. In Year 4 we have published our key finding that social information use among predators creates the conditions necessary for the evolution of warning signals, solving a 150 year old puzzle in evolutionary biology. In Year 5 we consolidated these findings with further experiments that have helped us to understand the variation we detected in our initial experiments on warning signals, and that predator species can also learn from observing each other. This has implications for understanding how predator and prey communities function in nature, which we have also tested through a large scale field experiment. Manuscripts for these findings are expected to be published in 2019. Finally, our work together with the New Zealand Department of Conservation has lead to the final trials of a new style of RFID tag and implementation of remote monitoring for accurate population assessments. This collaboration will continue beyond the life of this fellowship and continue to produce data for the future that can be used to understand social networks, social interactions over resources, social transmission routes for disease and effects of stress, and the potential evolutionary consequences for this threatened species.
Exploitation Route Our work developing custom-built, field-ready RFID tags and logging software, together with the New Zealand Department of Conservation will lead to the roll-out of this technology across all monitored populations of hihi in New Zealand in 2019/2020. As well as generating data for accurate population assessments, this work will produce open data that can be used by the scientific community of data scientists, evolutionary ecologists, behavioural ecologists, and conservation biologists.
Sectors Environment,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL http://www.informedbirds.com
 
Description Findings have been used to educate the public during outreach events conceived by myself, and to school children during event organised by the University.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

 
Description Society in Science - Branco Weiss
Amount SFr. 200,000 (CHF)
Organisation ETH Zurich 
Department Society in Science - Branco Weiss Fellowship
Sector Academic/University
Country Switzerland
Start 10/2013 
End 03/2016
 
Title Video playback for foraging studies 
Description I have developed the use of video playback to manipulate foraging information available to focal birds. Using video playback in my experiments reduces the number of animals required and the number of times they must be manipulated. In one experiment, I reduced handling and manipulation for the birds by 75% using video playback. 
Type Of Material Physiological assessment or outcome measure 
Year Produced 2014 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact This method has allowed careful collection of data which are currently being prepared for publication. 
 
Description Hanna Kokko 
Organisation University of Zurich
Country Switzerland 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I provided initial ideas for analytical modelling.
Collaborator Contribution Hanna Kokko provided modelling expertise to support experimental data I had collected. This resulted in a publication in Nature Ecology & Evolution.
Impact Thorogood, R., Kokko, H., & Mappes, J. (2018). Social transmission of avoidance among predators facilitates the spread of novel prey. Nature ecology & evolution, 2, 254.
Start Year 2016
 
Description Hannah Rowland - social networks in the wild & information use in captivity 
Organisation University of Cambridge
Department Department of Zoology
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I suggested concept for study, linking my experience with captive studies with Dr Rowland's study population of passerines in Cambridgeshire woodland. My PhD student is currently conducting experiments under my supervision.
Collaborator Contribution Dr Rowland has established a study population of passerines near Cambridge which we are using for this study. She has contributed substantial time and effort to ensure data collection proceeds smoothly and is co-supervising the experimental work of my PhD student.
Impact Data collection in progress
Start Year 2015
 
Description Johanna Mappes 
Organisation University of Jyvaskyla
Country Finland 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Designed and performed experiments.
Collaborator Contribution Advised on experimental design and provided facilities for experiments. Advising on data interpretation and output.
Impact Outcome pending
Start Year 2013
 
Description John Cockrem - Stress and social learning 
Organisation Massey University
Department Institute of Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences
Country New Zealand 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Provided samples to investigate variability in circulating corticosterone levels in nestling hihi.
Collaborator Contribution Collaborator's lab analysed samples and returned results for preparation for publication.
Impact Preparation of manuscript is ongoing
Start Year 2016
 
Description John Ewen 
Organisation Zoological Society of London
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Learned Society 
PI Contribution Proposed project and experimental design.
Collaborator Contribution Facilitating research at field site and with stakeholders
Impact outcomes from current grant in progress
 
Description Kristal Cain - hihi stress 
Organisation University of Auckland
Country New Zealand 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We supplied samples, some consumables, and conceived the project idea
Collaborator Contribution Processing the samples, analysing data, and developing this project was performed by a post-doc funded through an Endeavour Scholarship held with the PI, Kristal Cain.
Impact No outputs yet.
Start Year 2018
 
Description Neeltje Boogert - Stress and social learning in wild birds 
Organisation University of Oxford
Department Department of Zoology
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Dr Boogert and I planned experiments with my PhD student; data collection is in progress under my supervision.
Collaborator Contribution Dr Boogert helped plan experiments and data collection.
Impact data collection in progress
Start Year 2015
 
Description Commentary for popular science website 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact I provided in-depth comments on paper recently published in Current Biology after being approached by science journalist.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.forbes.com/sites/grrlscientist/2019/01/29/climate-change-transforms-these-cute-little-bi...
 
Description Commentary for popular science website 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact I provided a commentary on a recently published paper in Nature after being emailed directly by a science journalist from sciencenews.org
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.sciencenews.org/article/parasitic-cuckoo-bird-shows-cheaters-dont-always-get-ahead
 
Description Hihi Recovery Group meeting 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presented research to NZ Department of Conservation working group on recovering our study species, hihi. Contributed to discussions held over two days and outlined plans for how our research can aid in future conservation plans.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Interview with KCBS Radio, San Francisco 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I was interviewed for 5 minutes for a live broadcast as part of a morning radio show.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Interview with Science reporter, Virginia Morell 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I was interviewed about the press release for our published work and assisted in making a video story of the study.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/12/yuck-video-reveals-how-birds-share-knowledge-disgusting-foods...
 
Description Invited seminar (Cambridge) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Approx. 60 people (including undergraduates and postgraduates) attended a seminar I gave to mark the end of my fellowship at University of Cambridge.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Invited seminar (University of Helsinki) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Approx. 55 people attended a seminar I gave to the Faculty of Biological & Environmental Sciences and the Institute of Biotechnology.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Invited seminar (University of Oslo) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Approx. 40 people attended a seminar I gave at the University of Oslo (Norway).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Invited seminar (University of Turku) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Approx. 40 people attended a seminar I gave at the University of Turku (Finland)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Liverpool presentation 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact Invited seminar to Department of Biology at Liverpool University, attended by ~ 60 people. Followed by stimulating discussions over dinner.

approached by undergraduate who is interested in graduate study in my research group.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description McGill seminar 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact 50 scientists from Department of Natural Resources, McGill University, Canada attended my invited research seminar.

Collaboration offered with conservation physiologist
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description Oxford seminar 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact Invited seminar to Animal behaviour group, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford.

Suggestions for collaboration on paper and new projects.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description Press release - Scientific Reports publication 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A press release was prepared by the media relations team of my university, to publicise my most recent publication. This press release was picked up by The Daily Telegraph, www.iflscience.com, and various other online media outlets.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/wildlife/12115682/Reed-Warblers-operate-neighbourhood-watch-to...
 
Description Schools masterclass at Sidney Sussex College 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact 50 sixth-form pupils attended a talk I presented as an introduction to studying at Cambridge University. The school children were from backgrounds who would not normally apply to study at Oxbridge. The teachers reported a very favourable response with many of the pupils commenting that it was the best part of their day at Cambridge.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description Science Cafe 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact During two days of the University of Cambridge Science Festival, we run an event which reaches a broad audience that would not necessarily have been reached by the Festival. We collaborate with a local coffee vendor in the Cambridge market square, and encourage conversation between scientists and the general public. We use various means to engage the public, including photographs and hands-on activities. Our event was very successful in 2015 and we have been invited to take part again in this year's festival (March 5 and 12).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015,2016,2017
URL https://scicafecambridge.wordpress.com/
 
Description Seminar at University of Helsinki 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I publicised my work to an open audience at the University of Helsinki. This seminar led to discussion about the broad implications of my work across life sciences.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Talk at Exeter University 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact 40 people attended a seminar held at Exeter University. This encouraged discussion for two days and the potential for a new collaboration.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Talk to School of Biomedical Sciences, University of Leeds 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I was invited to visit the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Leeds to discuss my work with virologists and host-pathogen biologists. The visit included a seminar and dinner, which included discussion about similarities and differences across disciplines.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Wicken Fen ringing group 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Presented study conducted with help of general public at Wicken Fen. Reporting early results from study has motivated continued involvement in this project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016