Social Environment and Group Living

Social behaviour includes everything from the cooperative and/or competitive interactions between two individuals right up to the collective movement of flocks, shoals and herds of many thousands of individuals. Individual social interactions can have both positive and negative consequences for the development, reproduction and survival for group living animals. Importantly, these impacts differ between the individuals involved, leading behavioural researchers to question: how are social interactions shaped by the participants’ current state, their development, their experience and their ecology? How do these animals signal/communicate and at times show seemingly complex coordinated actions? 

These themes are explored in a wide variety of contexts, including foraging, predator evasion, sexual selection and parental care. However, across contexts, there is a shared drive to understand the cost-benefit trade-offs, and underlying behavioural, physiological and genetic mechanisms that underlie individual- and group-level interactions.

In the Behaviour Group, we are interested in understanding how cooperation and conflict shape interactions between closely-related family groups living in stable structured groups, through to unrelated individuals existing in large, dynamic and ephemeral social aggregations. Our fundamental research ranges from contest behaviour between individual beadlet sea anemones to social networks in wild fish shoals. This fundamental understanding provides the basis also for our applied welfare and conservation research, where we seek to understand and manage contextual or anthropogenic impacts on social environment in zoo species, farm animals and wild populations. In both pure and applied settings, we have a particular interest in the role of behavioural syndromes, or ‘personality’ differences between individuals in shaping the social environment. 

To explore these questions, we use a range of techniques to gather behavioural data, including animal tracking technologies, acoustic analysis, and non-invasive thermal monitoring. To understand the physiological mechanisms that underlie social interactions, we study the role of the endocrine system, especially stress and reproductive hormones, in shaping behaviour and the effects of social environment on growth, metabolism, oxidative stress, immunity and telomeres.

Current projects

Social environment effects on reproductive traits

Funder: School of Biological and Marine Sciences, collaboration with Professor Calvin Dytham, University of York, Professor Helen White-Cooper, University of Cardiff

This PhD project investigates the role of varying quality and number of conspecifics on mating-related traits in the model organism Drosophila melanogaster. To learn more about this topic, contact Alicia Eveson.

The role of spatial environment in mediating social interactions

Funder: School of Biological and Marine Sciences; Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour, collaboration with Dr Jon Bridle, University of Bristol.

The spatial organisation of resources, such as food and suitable egg laying sites, in turn influences the rate of intraspecific encounters. This has knock on effects on fitness-determining traits. This project tries to untangle these in the lab and in the field, using the fruitfly Drosophila melanogaster. For further information please contact Emily Churchill or Dr Michael Thom.

Automated welfare assessment on poultry farms

Previous funders: BBSRC, Innovate; collaboration Dr Lucy Asher (Newcastle University).

This recently completed project and ongoing collaboration explores welfare aspects of social environment and group behaviour in large, commercial flocks, such as social contagion in emotion and stress-induced movement patterns. If you want to know more about this research, contact Dr Katherine Herborn.