Dr Sarah Lane
Post-doctoral Research Fellow
School of Biological and Marine Sciences (Faculty of Science and Engineering)
I’m a behavioural ecologist interested in different forms of animal conflict. My current research with Professor Mark Briffa focuses on the the idea that a good fighter may not always be the one who fights with the most vigour, but that skill may play a role in determining fighting success too. While we know that skill plays an important role in human conflict, both in warfare and sports, this phenomenon has yet to be explored in animal contests.
2017-2018 Member of the organising committee for Easter 2018 conference of Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB).
Roles on external bodies
2019-present Biology Letters editorial board member
2017-present Member of the British Ecological Society (BES) Review College
I’m fascinated by the many different forms of conflict which result from sexual and natural selection. I spent my PhD investigating sexual conflict and sperm competition in the broad-horned flour beetle Gnatocerus cornutus. During this time I watched a lot of interactions both male-male and male-female, in which males would often court other males while aggressively wrestling with females. These observations of unexpected and seemingly maladaptive behaviour sparked my interest in social interactions, in particular agonistic encounters.
My current research focuses on the the idea that a good fighter may not always be the one who fights with the most vigour, but that skill may play a role in determining fighting success too. While we know that skill plays an important role in human conflict, both in warfare and sports, this phenomenon has yet to be explored in animal contests. Professor Mark Briffa and I have recently secured a BBSRC grant to explore the role of skill in hermit crab fights using the common European hermit crab Pagurus bernhardus. Unlike many crustaceans, hermit crabs have soft abdomens making them vulnerable to predation unless they can secure the safety of an empty gastropod shell. However, not just any shell will do, hermit crabs need a perfect fit which will allow them to retract their whole body inside when threatened but that is still easy to move around in. Thus hermit crabs grapple with one another over the ownership of the ‘perfect’ shell. During these fights, hermit crabs take on either the role of the attacker or the role of the defender (whose shell has caught the attention of the attacker). In an effort to make the defender give up the goods, the attacker raps its shell against the defender’s shell, all the while trying to pull the defender out. We know from previous research that the likelihood of the attacker succeeding is influenced by the vigour with which he raps but we want to know whether where he raps matters too. For instance is an attacker who raps on the same spot continually more likely to secure a victory? Or is it better to cover a greater area of the defender’s shell in raps? These are just some of the questions we hope to answer with this project over the next three years.
Outside of hermit crabs, I am eager to learn more about the use of weapons during conflicts and the injuries that they inflict. What differentiates weapons from other kinds of traits? How do individuals cope with the costs of using weapons (specifically self-inflicted damage)? How do the costs of injury affect fighting decisions?
Creative practice & artistic projects
October 2018 ‘The fighting life of sea anemones’ - Talk to public at Wembury Marine Centre, Wembury, UK.
October 2018 ‘Sea an-enemies’ – Filmed segment for BBC1 The One Show
May 2018 'Fighting like an animal doesn't always mean a duel to the death' - Science News magazine
Briffa, M. & Lane, S. M. 2018 Signals in conflict resolution: Conventional signals, aggression and territoriality. In Breed, M. D. & Moore, J (Eds) Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior (2nd ed.) Elsevier.
Reports & invited lectures
October 2019 University of Exeter, UK. Talk title: ‘Animal contests: Insights into injury and skill’
January 2019 Universität Bielefeld, Germany. Talk title: ‘Sea anemone contests: Drivers and constraints’
January 2019 Coastwise North Devon, Barnstaple, UK. Talk title: ‘The fighting life of sea anemones’
March 2018 Plymouth University. Talk title: ‘Costs and determinants of weapon use in animal contests’
February 2017 University of Exeter. Talk title: ‘From BSc Zoology to researching anemones’
May 2018 Guest lecturer on third year Behavioural Ecology module, Plymouth University, UK.
August 2018 Joint organiser of ‘Broader perspectives on animal contests’ held at Queen’s University Belfast.
Other academic activities
2021 ASAB Easter virtual meeting 2021. Talk: ‘Technique during “training” predicts skill in real fights'
2018 ASAB Easter conference 2018, University of Plymouth, Plymouth, UK. Talk: ‘Extrinsic determinants of contest dynamics in a sea anemone’
2017 Behaviour 2017, Estoril, Portugal. Oral presentation: 'Immune function as a cause and consequence of weapon use'