Research Themes: C-Wild Warrington Lab
Cooperation allows animals to cope with many different challenges of life, and there are many adaptive benefits to cooperation. Our lab examines ecological drivers of cooperation in Cape ground squirrels and Siberian Jays, species that suffer harsh environmental conditions in regions undergoing large impacts of climate change. Both species suffer high predation rates and cooperate with anti-predator behaviours. Cape ground squirrels also allogroom and give allocare to group members. Investigating the context, extent and consequences of these cooperative behaviours allow for understanding the benefits and costs of group-living in these species.
Image: Allogrooming; Jane Waterman
Cognition, is defined as all ways in which animals uptake information through their senses, and process, retain and act on this information, and it is pivotal in how animals can adapt to environmental change. As cognition underlies behavioral plasticity by allowing animals to track environmental changes and respond appropriately, cognitive abilities may allow individuals to cope with novel and challenging situations brought upon by human-induced rapid environmental and climate change. Cognition is also strongly linked to group and family living. Brains are very costly to grow and extensive provisioning by parents or non-parental helpers allows their young to grow large brains. The presence of experienced group members (e.g., helpers) also provides social learning opportunities, favouring the evolution of diverse domain general cognitive skills. As social living presents many challenges associated with balancing the costs and benefits of social living (e.g., competition vs. increased access to resources, respectively), individuals with more social information may be better able to optimize which individuals they cooperate with, and thus increase their benefits.
Image: Michael Griesser
Animals gain information about their environment via diverse sensory modalities, including the use of communication systems, (e.g., visual or acoustic signals). Communication signals may also facilitate social interactions, allowing for increased group cohesion, task partitioning or reduced conflict. Understanding how, why and under which contexts an animal gains information within the social environment is important in furthering our knowledge on the evolution of social behaviour. Group-living species are good model systems for examining these questions, as these highly social environments provide individuals with opportunities to gather and use information from single and repeated interactions with individuals and groups of individuals.
Siberian Jays are family-living species, with a rich vocal repertoire. They have a well-developed communication system for dealing with their high predation rate, including different alarm call types that encode information on the state of the predator (perch, prey search, attack). Cape ground squirrels also have diverse visual and vocal signals. Our lab is examining communication systems in both species, and the role it plays in social and cooperative behaviours.
Image: Tail-flagging; Miya Warrington
Animals face many challenges in response to human activity and human-induced climate change.
Habitat change: Animals’ habitats are changing as a result of climate change and human activity with downstream consequences to fitness and population viability. Our lab examines a variety of behavioural responses such as habitat selection, dispersal, acoustic signal modification and social system changes.
Sustainable living and green technology: As humans respond to the climate crisis with sustainable energy technologies (e.g. electric cars, wind farms), the need to rapidly assess the response of species is essential to acting quickly to mitigate negative effects of new technology use, which includes new technology and support structure, as well as changes in human activity.
Environmental Impact Assessments in Grenada; Images: Joshua Yetman (St. George's University, Grenada, West Indies)
There is overwhelming evidence that the ecology of animals are changing in response to climate change. Animals may respond to environmental changes with alterations in their physical, physiological and behavioural traits. However, behaviors can provide some of the first clues that animals are being affected by their changing environment. Furthermore, in social species, interactions between ecological factors and social behaviors may influence individual and population responses. Thus, sociality may either mediate or exacerbate the negative effects of environmental change and influence a species’ resilience to rapid environmental change.
Our lab is examining how animals are responding to rapid environmental changes, and whether observed changes are adaptive. We focus particularly on behaviours, but because an individual’s behaviour is tied to internal states and influenced by their physical traits, we also examine behaviourally-associated morphological and physiological response.
Image: Large feet may help dissipate heat & burrows become refugia during unfavourable weather; Jane Waterman