This week I visited Shaun Killen in Glasgow and gave a seminar at the Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine. Three stimulating days with lots of productive discussion and research ideas for collaboration on the relationship between physiology, personality differences and collective behaviour. Really great to meet the Killen lab and drink some proper Ales and Whiskeys. Thanks to Shaun for hosting me!
The last few weeks I delved into learning , a code language for more aesthetically pleasing article writing, especially in terms of mathematical formulas. As my research has increasingly been focused on the mechanisms underlying collective behaviour, for which I do a lot of mathematical computations, such an advanced yet simple text-editor is very helpful and overcomes the many pains I have with MS word!
It was quite a steep learning curve, but I managed to write my first paper with it last week. The great thing is that it is also possible to use in wordpress (which I used to create this website). It is also the standard language for drafting preprint articles, which is increasingly suggested and done in the biological sciences, thus a very relevant skill to learn.
Observations of schooling Mediterranean barbel
Last week I was in Catalunya visiting friends and family and some undistracted paper writing. Catalunya, where my wife grew up, is an amazing place and feels like a second home to me. With the Mediterranean sea and the Pyrenean mountains within half an hour’s drive, there is always a lot to explore.
During some recent trips, I went hiking in the Pyrenean foothills and discovered schools of Mediterranean barbel (Barbus meridionalis). They seemed to be separate populations living in semi-isolated pools of a small mountain river. This species of Barbus is only native to a small area in and around the Eastern Pyrenees. Sadly, in recent years its numbers have plummeted with 30% (source: IUCN), highlighting an urgent need to better understand their ecology and vulnerabilities.
Yesterday our research at the Department of Collective Behaviour was featured in a half hour show on the German television: “Schwarmverhalten – Die Intelligenz der Vielen“. You can see the full program below or at this link. My postdoc supervisor Iain Couzin is featured from 01:18 and I make my appearance at 06:44.
Fische, Ameisen, Heuschrecken: Schwärme verhalten sich schlau, ohne, dass die einzelnen Tiere besonders intelligent sind. Der Schwarm ist die Intelligenz der Vielen. Können Menschen auch Schwarmverhalten nutzen – und Roboter?
The last few months I have been working hard on the sophisticated new experimental set-ups in the lab with which we will be able to get high spatial and temporal resolution tracking of large schools of fish, in tanks that are up to 3x3m in size!
To get highly accurate spatial data of the fish we need to correct for the distortion of the camera lens, which almost all lenses have to some extent. I just finished the script (in Python) that enables us to undistort the image from a camera using functions in opencv based on a video of a moving checkerboard.
It works pretty well already, even with non-optimal videos. Next step will be to stitch the videos of multiple linked camera’s.
Recently I started a couple experiments related to parasite infection of Sticklebacks with Schistocephalus, a tapeworm with a fascinating life cycle that requires three separate host species. Our experiments focus on how the parasite affect the fish’s movements, its social interactions and positioning, collective behaviour, and survival in the context of predation.
Today, when moving fish around for experiments, I noticed one particularly bulged individual that, instead of a the smooth elongated body had the body shape of a brick! A clear sign of Schistocephalus infection. We put it down and measured its body weight, both before and after opening up its stomach cavity. What we found was not one, not two, not three, but four individual flatworms with a total weight of 55% of that of the fish! Incredibly how the fish could actually survive with such an immense parasite load.
Went out again with the boat yesterday to catch sticklebacks. A cold but beautiful day. At first we couldn’t find them where I saw them last week, but soon enough it was clear they were still there but just very well camouflaged against the pebbled background!
With the three of us we managed to catch about 300 of them in half an hour by wading through the shallow waters. Most of the fish are likely 1st-years, but we also caught a couple older individuals that were huge, close to 10 cm!
After mooring the boat, we moved all fish to a large social housing tank at the Limnological institute where they will undergo a anti-parasite treatment for a couple weeks. After that I will move them to our fish lab at the University of Konstanz as well as to outside mesocosms. There they will ‘participate’ in a range of my behavioural experiments focused on individual differences in collective behaviour.
The past summer, I successfully completed a motorboat course to enable me to drive a motorboat on the Bodensee, required for my ongoing research on fish collective behaviour. I got my “Sportbootführershein” in the post a couple weeks ago, and finally this weekend was able to ‘take the boat out’.
In the cold rainy weather of early November, I set-off with with a good friend on one of the motorboots from the Limnological Institute. The water was considerably clearer than during the summer, providing a visibility of just over 5 meters. It was beautiful being out on the water. However, in the first hour almost being out, we still hadn’t seen our first fish!
We navigated around the island of Mainau, and started exploring the very shallow areas near the mainland. I was a bit annoyed I hadn’t seen any fish yet, let alone any sticklebacks, but when we decided to cross under the bridge leading to Mainau we suddenly found thousands of them!
The water was so shallow that it was necessary to take the motor out, and continue by oars. But this also meant we could observe the swarming fish from very close. Despite sticklebacks being very abundant in the Bodensee, in the autumn and early winter most of them move to deeper waters, likely following the movements of their invertebrate prey. These remaining fish were apparently some of the last ones remaining in the shallows, likely seeking shelter in the shadow of bridge, and I was therefore very happy to have found them.
We spent about half an hour observing their movements and behaviour and I got some good ideas to come back for some more quantitative field measures of their group sizes and compositions. After that we decided to go for a quick snorkel before going back to the harbour.
With my freediving wetsuit, the 11 degrees C actually still felt very comfortable, and I was enjoying the relatively clear waters of the lake. The Bodensee has a very interesting geology, with relatively shallow water on its edges that can suddenly drop almost vertically tens and tens of meters into the deep.
We only snorkeled a bit above a drop-off near the harbour to check our wetsuits and the visisbility, which both passed our expectations. I therefore can’t wait to go back again and take the boat out the lake to catch wild individuals for my experiments, get some more quantitative observations of the sticklebacks and their predators, and explore underwater.
Today I submitted a grant application for an Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship, entitled The ecological and evolutionary implications of individual differences in collective behaviour. The goal of the proposed project is to develop an interdisciplinary research program to investigate the link between consistent behavioural variation, the emergence of collective properties, group functioning, and ultimately individual fitness and between-group dynamics. I am very excited about this project and have started to lay the foundations for it here in Konstanz. Now 10 months wait ahead!
Last weekend I went exploring the streams and lakes in the countryside near Konstanz to search for Moderlischen and determine the possibilities for doing fieldwork to investigate group movement dynamics and composition in the wild.
I was able to find them in some tiny streams leading to a small lake, showcasing some nice examples of collective shelter use and leadership and exploration of the stream, see the video below. Looking forward to starting exploring possibilities to start some actual field work on these populations.
For my new research projects on the role of individuality in collective movements and decision making at the University of Konstanz, I have been getting new sticklebacks from the Bodensee. Last weekend I went to see them together with my 10mo son! I think it was the first time he actually ever saw moving fish. Although I showed him fish in aquaria before, he was too young to react to them, but this time he was amazed by the large school of fish swimming back and forth. The sticklebacks from the lake were absolutely huge, I estimate up to about 9cm, much bigger than the ones I ever saw in Cambridge and the ones in the ponds near the University here. I hope to go on a trip soon to observe the collective behaviour of the sticklebacks in lake Konstanz, the ponds, and streams in the area to set-up some exciting experiments on the population-specific differences of this amazing species.
My research is currently centred around understanding the role of consistent behavioural differences in the collective movements and functioning of animal groups. In particular, I assay large numbers of stickleback fish on various personality traits and expose them in groups to different ecological scenario’s. I have written custom tracking software in Python using the OpenCV library to be able to accurately track the position of individual fish in the freely-moving schools.
Today I wanted to share a simple visual that highlights the detailed individual-based tracking of a small fish school over time. Each fish is represented by a different colour, with the arrow showing its vectorized movement, with larger arrows indicating a higher speed. The video is centred around the vector of the group as a whole to better visualize the structure of the group over time. Lines indicate the smallest polygon encompassing all individuals and Individual Centre Distances. The moving axes indicate the relative speed of the group in a large circular arena.
In this short section of a 30-min long experimental trial it is clear that the group speed, cohesion, and structure fluctuate over time. At the same time, individuals also maintain to some extent their positions relative to the group centre, such as the green and yellow individual clearly having a stronger pulling power on the movements of the group as a whole.
I used RaspberryPi computers to film the fish, custom Python tracking scripts to acquire individual X,Y coordinates for each individual in the group, R to process the tracking data and acquire movement characteristics, and R with ffmpeg to create the visual.
I have been trying to improve my drawing skills to better illustrate how my sticklebacks behave and in what way personalities matter in collective behaviour. I still have a far way to go but this is my latest quick sketch that shows four sticklebacks with different morphologies. When I get more time on my hands after I hand in I will try to get some more elaborate drawings done!
Just over three years ago I was standing up to my waist in cold water, somewhere in the vicinity of Cambridge. I was catching sticklebacks for the first experiments of my PhD. Now, 37 months later, I am in the final stages of writing-up and will actually hand in my thesis in ten days time! During this last chapter of my PhD, I have also become a dad and am actually writing this with my 5 month-old son in the carrier on my chest. Luckily, after a nice walk with our dog in the cold autumn air, he has fallen vast asleep.
If it wasn’t for all funding falling away at the 3 year mark, one and a half month ago, I would be continuing with some additional exciting data chapters of which I already got the data. However, with five data chapters, two of which are published and two have been accepted, I have enough exciting work to talk about. In the months to come, I will be wrapping up a lot of small and large stickleback projects that I have done over the years and that have not made it into my thesis, besides some nice collaborative studies, and will continue with further experiments on the link between personality and collective behaviour as a Postdoc!
Now, time to get back to thesis writing..