Leopards, hard-boiled eggs, “yip yip yip”-ping, and faeces collecting – just a typical day in the life of dwarf mongoose field researcher Amy Morris-Drake.
Having spent a holiday in South Africa before starting her undergraduate degree in Biology at the University of Bristol, Amy Morris-Drake fell in love with the noise and colours of the African bush. At the end of 2013, having graduated, she saw an advert seeking a Research Assistant that required the applicant to go to South Africa and study the behaviour of an adorable tiny mammal entirely unknown to Amy at the time, the dwarf mongoose.
The dwarf mongoose is the smallest of the three social mongoose species found in Africa, making termite mounds their home. Collectively known as a business, dwarf mongooses measure 18–30cm from head to tail. But despite their size, dwarf mongooses are hardy creatures who work tirelessly – foraging, grooming and defending one another from rival groups and scores of predators.
Always fascinated by animal behaviour and determined to return to Africa, Amy landed the Research Assistant job in Professor Andy Radford’s Dwarf Mongoose Research Project. She lived on Sorabi Rock Lodge reserve for 6 months, observing the creatures in their natural habitat. “It was originally going to be 3 months but I loved it and didn’t want to leave”, recalls Amy. The dwarf mongooses made such as impression that on her return to the UK, Amy decided to study them for her Masters and then her PhD (which she completed this year). She took a small break in between the Masters and PhD to try something new – observing elephant behaviour, also in South Africa – but that didn’t quite go to plan. “Instead of trying to focus on elephants, I was always scanning termite mounds so my eyes were just tuned in to these mongooses and their lives”.
At Sorabi, the researchers (normally 4 per year) all share a house, eating and sleeping in close quarters before heading out solo to observe the 8 habituated mongoose groups. Because none of the ‘Big Five’ live on this reserve, students can roam on foot. “There may be the occasional leopard that passes through” Amy mentions casually, “but they’re nocturnal so we’re alright”. In her first few days on the reserve back in 2013, Amy recalls being baffled by fellow researchers at the stove every night boiling eggs, but quickly learned the reason. Habituated mongooses adore eggs, and the promise of a mouthful is enough to get the tiny mammals onto some scales for the students to monitor their weight to observe foraging success and pregnancies. And so, for Amy, every day at the researcher house involved waking up, eating breakfast and mashing last-night’s eggs.
Dwarf mongooses rise with the sun at around 8 am, or 9 am if it’s a cold day. Amy would venture out to the burrow she tracked her mongoose family to the night before, kitted up with equipment, scales, a GPS, maps and, of course, eggs. She would sit by the mound with a flask of coffee and wait for the mongooses to emerge from their sleeping quarters. After the family finished up with their cuddles and grooming, Amy weighed them, treating them with a tiny piece of egg as a reward for jumping onto the scales. Repeated morning, midday and in the evening, handing over the egg with a “yip yip yip” to vocalise her thanks in mongoose for their cooperation, Amy could build a picture of how different situations affects the weight of individuals.
The focus of Amy’s PhD was social conflict, including territorial interactions with outsider groups. To simulate the current or recent presence of rival groups, Amy used playback of calls and introduced faeces from rival families to the group and then studied their response. This required collecting hundreds of faecal samples for different experiments. She describes wading through the bushes in gaiters to protect from ticks and thorns, and waiting for the mongooses to do their business, all the while enduring their judgmental stares. In one experiment, Amy stored “outsider” samples and distributed these on cue to the group being studied at the same time every day for a week; in control weeks, she presented herbivore faeces in the same fashion. In total, she managed to complete both trials weeks to 7 of the habituated groups; a feat of perseverance, skill and patience.
“When working with wild animals, things always go wrong”, she says. Sometimes the group would be preoccupied with sporadic territory-marking or birds of prey flying overhead, instead of reacting to the out-group scents and sounds. Due to certain reactions or conditions not going her way, Amy ultimately had to scrap nearly a month’s worth of data from that particular field season. It’s physically demanding work, with long hours spent alone in 35C heat with insects, invertebrates, and reptiles to contend with. Upon collecting the last few faeces samples, Amy remembers “falling on [her] knees and crying” with relief. But it was worth it: she found that, by the end of the week of rival-group faecal presentations, the test subjects were foraging closer together, grooming and scent-marking more, and putting on less weight, providing the first experimental evidence of cumulative effects of intergroup conflict.
According to Amy, to be a good experimental biologist you need an incredible amount of patience. In the early stages of her research, Amy would call up the project’s Principal Investigator, Andy Radford, frustrated that she wouldn’t be able to obtain enough behavioural data to complete her Masters. But with practice, she was able to train her eye to spot the mongoose’s subtle movements, expressions, and vocal responses to outgroup threats, and finished her PhD earlier this year. “Fieldwork isn’t for everyone”, Amy notes, “but it’s amazing seeing cool behaviours that you’ve learned about in lectures happen half a metre away from you”. The dwarf mongooses go about their daily lives as if you’re not even there, and Amy had a first-hand view into this cooperatively breeding society.
Amy visited the reserve every year for 7 years, spending 5 or 6 months out there at a time. She likes to think that the dwarf mongoose families remember her despite the months apart. The mongooses have blatant favourites in the researchers, giving out high-pitched calls to the ones they are most excited to see. Now that Amy has completed her PhD, she continues to work on the theme of outgroup conflict as a postdoc, with 10 years’ worth of mongoose data to sift through to uncover lasting behavioural and fitness impacts. As to the Dwarf Mongoose Research Project, Amy is hopeful that funding will be found so that many other researchers can follow her to Sorabi. One of her most rewarding moments has been to witness the experiences of her fellow scientists on the project as they fall in love with the vibrant beauty of South Africa and the diversity of its animals and landscapes. And the deepest love of all is for the mongooses. Contributors to the project have all stayed in touch, as members of a truly long-term community dedicated to the greater understanding and prosperity of these tiny but fearless creatures.
Rosie recently won the University of Bristol’s 3 Minute Thesis (3MT) competition for her talk on ‘Fungal secondary metabolites: exploring a kingdom of possibilities. Rosie tells us about her experience and some top tips about presenting your research in a virtual world.
3MT® (or Three Minute Thesis) is a competition for doctoral students, originating from the University of Queensland, which stipulates that competitors must present their research in just 3 minutes – any longer and they are immediately disqualified. Normally, the competition is held in person, in front of an audience, but due to COVID-19, in the past two years, the competitions have been moved online, presenting a new challenge – how do you engage an audience who can walk away from their screen at any time?
I decided to take part in Bristol Doctoral College’s 2021 3MT competition for several reasons. The first, to improve my presenting skills, especially in a virtual world I wanted to teach myself how to adapt to this. Secondly, I hadn’t set foot in the lab since December 2020, and I was just about to head back to research after a PIPS placement when I submitted my 3MT application – I needed to refamiliarize myself with my research and what made it so exciting (how better to do this than explaining your project and arguing why it is important in a concise way). Lastly, I’d heard great things from colleagues who had taken part in the Bristol Doctoral College 3MT in the past so why not give it a go myself?
The whole experience was hugely rewarding, and the support is given by the Bristol Doctoral College and the other candidates was key in my success. There were never any feelings of intense competition but rather mutual support and a desire to communicate research in an accessible manner. Potentially winning the competition was simply a bonus to all the skills you picked up along the way. So here are the key things I learnt:
1. Eye contact is crucial – we know that this is true for in-person presentations, you can’t stare at the floor the whole time, but how do you convey this when you’re using a computer or laptop? Look straight into the camera. The temptation is always to look at your audience to see how they are responding to you, as you would normally, but if you are looking at your screen you don’t seem as prepared. Perhaps the easiest way to teach yourself to make eye contact with a virtual audience is to record yourself and watch it back. This also helps you to see what your body language is like and if it adds to or distracts from your talk. Not only this but looking at the camera does actually help with nerves since you can ignore anything else going on in that video call and just focus on presenting.
2. Check your presentation is appropriate for your audience by practising it in front of people in your target group. This could be friends, family, or colleagues, and they don’t have to listen to the whole thing, even just 1 slide or the first 30 seconds would be useful. If you’ve lost them already, you need to rethink things. Even though I was lucky enough to be the winner of this year’s competition, I’m definitely guilty of this too. In my first version of my 3MT talk, the first word I said was “peptide”. Admittedly this was key to my presentation but perhaps not the most exciting way to start off, especially if your audience doesn’t know what a peptide is – something my fellow 3MT competitors pointed out to me. On that note, if you have to include something technical or complex in a presentation to a lay audience, give yourself plenty of time to explain it and metaphors can really help with this – but make sure you use something most people will know (i.e., you shouldn’t need to explain your metaphor too).
I’m looking forward to going onto the next stages of the competition, seeing what other doctoral students across the UK are up to, and picking up some useful skills as I go along.
Deep after hours in the Life Sciences Building, the elevator doors closed on the faded light outside. They reopened to the sight of Patrick Kennedy, seated on a chair, perched between the printer, glass panels and offices. He was reading an edition of “Narrow Roads of Gene Land” by W. D. Hamilton, with well-turned pages. I asked him what he was still doing there, but the question didn’t feel like the right one. Why not? Patrick is known by many of his research group to be easily found with books in hand. He reads much and many, remembering snippets and quotes which he weaves through his own work. This particular book, a collection of Hamilton’s papers and theories, formed some of the first written roots to theories that explain how social animals have evolved and they have been the basis of thousands of papers, discoveries, and Patrick’s award-winning PhD thesis.
Hamilton’s rule is well engrained in studies of how social animals navigate their interactions and choices to live within or without their group. Altruism is the effort donated by one individual to another at its own cost. Such selfless acts for others would be favoured by natural selection if the benefit for the related recipient outweighs the cost for the altruist (image 1). Hamilton’s rule explains why animals are altruistic, and his theories were woven with living examples, wasps in attendance from the very beginning. “Hamilton was really taken with wasps” Patrick says smiling. “His revolutionary ideas about social evolution needed to be tested” and wasps were brilliant social insects to do so. Hamilton’s work took stage in 1963 and has inspired generations of social insect biologists ever since.
Insects are the most diverse group of animals, with their species tallying up more than half of all we know to live on this planet. Sifting down the biological behaviours of this incredibly diverse and abundant groups of organisms, we come to the eusocial insects. Their Greek-given name translating as “good” and “social”, these social insects divide labour to support the collective, and this behaviour places them within a small proportion of insect diversity. Of these wasps, ants and bees, the Polistes wasps form just over 300 recognised species and make up a lineage that is almost entirely ‘primitively’ eusocial (meaning members of the group haven’t lost the capacity to reproduce). This small subsection of particular wasps have been the workhorses to test Hamilton’s ideas for at least four decades in terms of inclusive fitness theory and how eusocial insects could have evolved to behave in this way (Nowak et al 2010).
Definitions (from Oxford Languages):
Kin selection: natural selection in which an apparently disadvantageous characteristic (especially altruistic behaviour) increases in the population due to increased survival of individuals genetically related to those possessing the characteristic.
Inclusive Fitness: an individual’s success at spreading copies of its genes in the population, whether by helping close relatives or by reproducing itself,
Altruism: behaviour of an animal that benefits another at its own expense.
Yet even back in 1964, when Hamilton’s theories described how relatedness (the proportion of shared genes) was what held societies together, it was those very societies of social wasps that did not fit the rules. “These are the big themes that we use now to explain social behaviour…” Patrick says. “At the end [of Hamilton’s book] there was a section called “anomalies” and among these anomalies were his observations of the paper wasps of Brazil moving between nests”. The irregular behaviour of these “drifting” wasps did not quite fit expectations of social animal behaviour. Like all animals, Polistes wasps should strive to increase the success of their own genes in the population. They have two options: attempt reproduction themselves or altruistically help their closest relatives who share the same genes.
Patrick mentions that biologists have observed what would be 10% of 10,000 wasps drifting between their nests. He leans forward: “We all like to think to be a wasp is quite simple, you just have to help at home, help your own family and be mean to everyone else”. But these wasps fly out of their own nest and go babysit for the neighbours, constantly moving between the nests next-door and helping each other. Patrick opens his palms “what on earth are these wasps doing? It’s like they haven’t read the textbook”. Some wasps may be moving for selfish reasons, such as attempting to lay eggs in other nests or attempt to inherit the role of queen. However, most of the wandering wasps show little interest in personal reproduction, and instead appear to lend a hand. Why waste effort on more distant relatives next-door when your closest relatives are in your home nest? This was part of what Patrick investigated.
Patrick initially learnt of this from a 2007 paper by Seirian Sumner, documenting the extraordinary extent of nest drifting observed in tagged wasps moving between the walls of a leprosy hospital near Panama City (Sumner et al 2007). As the study demonstrated, 56% of the observed wasps became drifters, but not due to mistaken nest identity, social parasitism, or bids for a succession of queens. So why this altruistic self-sacrifice of your own survival and reproduction to help less related neighbours? Patrick had read Sumner’s paper whilst working as a research assistant on a beetle project in the Panamanian rainforest and contacted Seirian to learn more. It was an enquiry borne out of curiosity, but then became the very questions nested into his PhD. Patrick explains how almost all other social insects are very hostile to other colonies, “bristling with rivalry”, earning colonies the title of ‘social fortresses’. The mystery of neighbourliness, generosity and babysitting in the wasps of South America earnt the drifting workers the title of ‘anomaly’ in Hamilton’s work in the 1960s.
The first question of Patrick’s PhD was to explore why the paper wasps of South America drifted. At first, it seemed like drifting might be a clever response to risk in a world of rapid changes and harsh consequences. “These wasps live in a really risky world. One day their nest is fine and the next it’s collapsing because all the babies are being eaten alive by flesh-fly maggots”. These wasps might therefore also invest in the nests of more distant relatives as a form of ‘bet-hedging’ (Sumner et al 2007). From the perspective of the drifter, your home brood and closest relatives might not make it from one day to the next, so spreading helping effort to your (albeit less-related) nesting neighbours could become more beneficial overall. When the stakes are high, “investment bankers would hedge their bets”. No one puts all their eggs in one basket, and no Polistes wasp drifter all their energy into one nest. Yet Patrick found that though this seemed so inherently logical, it did not work so neatly when modelled mathematically. So why drift, Polistes? Together with biologists at UCL and Exeter, he investigated another possibility. Using long-term observations of broods, the team showed that as the number of workers in a colony rose, their relative contribution to the home brood diminished. With nest sizes varying from 10s to 100s of individuals, a drifter might simply be more useful to its distant kin in neighbouring nests than those in a busy home, and therefore might replace its bet-hedging ideas with calculations of diminishing returns (Kennedy et al 2021).
This volatile reality of a wasp’s world, however, did snag in Patrick’s thinking. How might a variable environment tilt the equation of Hamilton’s rule and thereby impact the choice to be altruistic? This formed Patrick’s second question for his PhD thesis. Reaching out to various gurus of evolutionary biology, Patrick dove into theoretical modelling and resurfaced with the idea that altruism in a volatile world may not directly impact the expected quantity of related offspring produced, but increase the certainty that those offspring will survive (Kennedy et al 2018). Patrick concluded this section of his thesis saying “sheilding relatives from a volatile world can drive the evolution of sociality”. This showed that these ‘rule-defying’ wasps may not be defending their fortresses as viciously as other insects, but they fly as an example of how variable conditions can, and do, affect the evolution of altruism.
What Patrick seems reluctant to accept is praise for the unique quality and creativity of his work. A sheepish smile admits to the awards he won for best PhD thesis. He enjoyed the unravelling of function as a form of appreciation of the natural beauty of the biological world. “It’s great you can explain animal behaviour in this way”.
“The breadth of approaches adopted by Patrick for his PhD alone is unusual” says Professor Andy Radford, one of Patrick’s PhD supervisors. “Through a combination of wide reading, deep thinking and detailed discussions with academics in several different research fields, he drove forward a theoretical reworking of Hamilton’s rule”. This formed part of first winning the University of Bristol prize for the best thesis in the Faculty of Life Sciences 2018/2019, followed by being awarded the Zoological Society of London Thomas Henry Huxley Award and Marsh Prize for the best PhD thesis submitted by a university in the UK. “By focusing on important, profound questions (rather than getting distracted by low-hanging peripherals), drawing together disparate research fields, and combining theoretical and empirical work, Patrick produced a thesis of rare quality” Andy says, and this goes along more generally with him being “interested, and interesting”.
Despite being awarded particular recognition for his PhD thesis, Patrick has had to learn comebacks to justify the worth of his work. Friends and strangers alike, awaiting their pint at the pub, have challenged the “usefulness” of understanding wasp behaviour. “I once was cornered in a bar in Clapham by a plumber who told me I should be ashamed of wasting taxpayer’s money on something as completely pointless as wasps”. He smiles and says that it is important to “eye each other with a questioning suspicion”, as this challenge pushes you to justify the question of ‘why’, especially “in the context of a 6th mass extinction where I’m fiddling about with wasps”. People often carry the assumption that research has to be immediately practically useful to be valuable, but Patrick argues that it is important to keep asking these evolutionary and ecological questions. If we cannot answer them in wasps, then where is our basis for further and perhaps deeper understanding?
34 years ago, the ecologist E. O Wilson started his address to an audience at an invertebrate exhibit: “Let me say a word on behalf of these little things that run the world”. Enter the jungles of Brazil (where Patrick’s study species also roam) and gather up 200kg of dry weight of animal tissue per hectare – 93% of that will be invertebrate (Wilson 1987). We live in an invertebrate world. They were the masters for some 100 million years before we vertebrates evolved, their small size enabling them to divide up niches into domains of countless little specialists. This 500-million-year-long co-existence should remind us that we humans are not the only movers and shakers of our planet and “the truth is that we need invertebrates but they don’t need us. If human beings were to disappear tomorrow, the world would go on with little change… but if invertebrates were to disappear, I doubt that the human species could last more than a few months” (Wilson 1987). Patrick laughs: understanding the many unanswered questions about these creatures, their behaviour and how it evolved to be so is at least as useful as fixing the burst pipes of London.
An important part of Patrick’s work is his openness with fascination. In his thesis he quotes monks and their biological theories from the 1800’s as readily as new publications on theoretical models of animal behaviour. When pestered for his advice to PhD researchers, Patrick hesitantly responded “I suppose my one bit of advice would be to never feel guilty for reading something that doesn’t obviously link to your PhD title”. He shares ideas, he writes, both academic and not, on the story in the research and he is a favourite amongst his research group to delve into any idea for the fun of exploring it. Surely this passion to question plays a major part in his successes? It is definitely an aspect of Patrick’s way of thinking and doing that encourages those around him.
Richard Dawkins describes in his book “Unweaving the Rainbow” that to better understand nature is to better place ourselves within life’s wonders. Many people feel explaining the world’s mysteries removes the very marvel and magic they possess, while many scientists would argue the very opposite (Dawkins 2006). Patrick says, “we live in such a mind-bogglingly weird universe and it is boggling to think we even evolved at all”. Evolution links us all to common ancestors, and so studying how and why we are, as we are, allows us to reweave the world, which is not only meaningful, but it is beautiful. Patrick not only sees that but recognises the need to convey that in his work. Perhaps it is in the telling of these unravelled mysteries wherein lies the opportunity to inspire, ignite or re-kindle the fascination with what we perceive on this planet.
Written by Isla Keesje Davidson (PhD)
To learn more about papers that have been published as part of Patrick’s thesis see:
Sumner, Seirian., Lucas, Eric., Barker, Jessie., & Isaac, Nick. (2007). Radio-Tagging Technology Reveals Extreme Nest-Drifting Behavior in a Eusocial Insect. Current Biology, 17(2), 140-145. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2006.11.064
Wilson, E. (1987). The Little Things That Run the World (The Importance and Conservation of Invertebrates). Conservation Biology,1(4), 344-346. Retrieved February 22, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2386020