normal service will (probably) be resumed shortly…

Test Card FOkay, maybe a few weeks until the next scientific post. This term (not quite finished) has been killer hard, and exhausting – twelve week teaching blocks without any gaps in them seem to be quite hard for the students, as well as us doing the teaching. Personally, I have about a week more of administration and marking, and some final year MSci project student talks and posters to look forward to, and then I should be mentally free to get back to some bits of research that I’m itching continue with.

Standard moaning aside, there is much to be happy about at the moment. Richard Pearce and David Lawson are deep into writing their dissertations, and both have papers I am very keen for the world to see at various stages of the review process. Ongoing shared students are also coming along nicely, and I hope to be able to say something good about several of them soon (and show off my Lego skills)!

I should be posting shortly about a paper I was happily involved with, looking at how personality and leadership decisions can be influenced by what the rest of your social group are doing.  If you’re curious about this, have a look at what Christos Ioannou says about it. There will also be another post thinking about something new and exciting we can do with bird feeder experiments, tying in with a paper I have coming out in Royal Society Open Science at some point in the next month…


Further reading

McDonald ND, Rands SA, Hill F, Elder C & Ioannou CC (2016). Consensus and experience trump leadership, suppressing individual personality during social foraging. Science Advances 2: e1600892 | full text (open access) | pdf


Pollinator movement through fragmented landscapes

beeMany pollinators live in complex and changeable environments. The location of of their food sources changes with time of year (as plants flower), time of day (as flowers open and close or nectar flows) and physical location (for although plants may not move very much during a flowering season, the places that flowers may be found may differ dramatically with time). Natural selection has shaped the behaviours of pollinators so that they have a suite of behaviours that allow them to exploit their environment: although it is unlikely that they know exactly when and where food will be available, they are able to couple clues from the environment with a repertoire of behaviours that will allow them to find food.

Agriculture and other human-generated change is altering the enviroment that pollinators live within, and it is very likely that the rules they are following are not ideal for the changed landscape. Because pollinators are essential for crop production, agricultural policies often dictate that there is some concession to the pollinators. This could be through leaving set-aside ‘wild’ land for nests and wild flowers, or by adding corridors of uncropped land or hedgerows where beneficial species can travel between environments. However, the pollinators will still be following their evolved rule sets, which means that we need to consider whether our concessions to them are of any use. This is something that is difficult to measure, and we need to use a wide range of techniques to ask whether particular manipulations are of benefit to some or many helpful species.

As a behavioural ecologist, I’m interested in how the behavioural decisions made by individual animals allow them to interact with the environment. For most animals, the environment that they live in is highly complex and frequently unpredictable, and it is often a challenge for us to understand how a particular decision gives the animal an advantage over an alternative behaviour. As well as conducting experiments and making observations of behaviour, we can also use theoretical techniques for exploring how simple behaviours could be the best solutions for dealing with complex environments. Simulation techniques are particularly useful for understanding how particular sets of decision allow an animal to cope with changes at the landscape level (bringing together two very different disciplines: landscape ecology and behavioural ecology).

In a paper that has just been published in PeerJ (Rands 2014), I describe a series of models describe a framework for considering how landscape alterations affect the foraging success of a pollinator nesting within the environment. These models build on earlier ideas presented by Rands and Whitney (2010, 2012, discussed in an earlier blog entry), where we simulated landscapes with simple geometries and allowed pollinators to forage within them. In the new PeerJ paper, I describe how hedgerow removal and set-aside field creation may affect the movement of pollinators. The models demonstrate that decreasing either landscape connectivity (be removing hedges) or wild land availability (through having lots of fields of unusable crops) affect how often pollinators have to switch between different environmental types. This may be important for how they find and collect food: for example, swapping between habitats may lead to a temporary reduction in nectar uptake if the pollinator has to work out how to collect it from a newly-encountered shape of flower.

The models are a first step, and are presented as a means of discussing how we can manipulate the environment in a reproducible way within a model. What needs to be done now is to identify a suitable set of behavioural rules to follow (for those presented in the models are basic, and are very likely to be improved upon!). Ongoing work should be able to demonstrate whether particular environmental manipulations are of value to some of our threatened pollinator species.

Further reading

Rands SA (2014). Landscape fragmentation and pollinator movement within agricultural environments: a modelling framework for exploring foraging and movement ecology. PeerJ 2: e269 | full text | pdf

Rands SA & Whitney HM (2010). Effects of pollinator density-dependent preferences on field margin pollination in the midst of agricultural monocultures: a modelling approach. Ecological Modelling 221: 1310-1316 | abstract | pdf (postprint version)

Rands SA & Whitney HM (2011). Field margins, foraging distances and their impacts on nesting pollinator success. PLoS One 6: e25971 | full text | pdf

Mission statement

I’ve been thinking of opening up a blog for a few years now, but have constantly been held back due to a fairly standard professional uneasiness with the prospect of opening up candid and uncensored opinions to the general reader.  We (at least, the scientific community that I most often interact with, who may now howl back in denial) like to have our ideas poked, prodded and checked over multiple times before we unleash them on the world.

However, having been playing on the web since some time around Mosaic 1.0, and being a ‘passive user’ of usergroups, blogs, and countless other social content, it does feel strange not to have anything other than a static presence in a few poorly designed personal pages in a dusty corner of an academic server. What we often forget is that it’s fun to talk about the things that we’re passionate about.  We all have our own world views, so why not take the opportunity to unleash our own skewed take on what’s important, or interesting, or just plain strange? Social media gives us the opportunity to do just this. In a recent issue of Ideas in Ecology and Evolution, Bertram and Katti give some very succinct arguments for why the social media is important for scientists, both as a work tool and as a means of communication. If you’re a ‘passive user’, like I have been, read the article, then decide how to progress.

So, expect irregular postings about random things, all lumped together under the common theme of ‘interaction biology’. I realise this vague phrase could be seen as being close to ‘systems biology’ in its overarching vagueness, but I promise I have a very clear idea of what it means to me (honest!). As well as blatant self-advertisement of my group and my colleagues, I’ll be looking at papers and trends that are catching my eye, talking about (well-formed) ideas as they progress, become over-enthusiastic at conferences, and even, just very occasionally, rant against the system. I hope to get my students and colleagues to contribute as well (Sarah Giles, currently in the third year of her PhD, has already dipped her toes into the blogosphere during her recent three month policy internship at the Royal Society). There may even be some dancing weasels, if you’re good!

Further reading

Bertram SM & Katti M (2013). The social biology professor: effective strategies for social media engagement. Ideas in Ecology and Evolution 6: 22-31. doi:10.4033/iee.2013.6.5.f