I was invited to give a talk today as part of the yearly workshop of the White Sea Stickleback Research Group. Virtual because of covid of course, so unfortunately no trip to the White Sea yet. But some great questions, nice to see the research being conducted by Dmitry Lajus and his group, and meeting some fellow stickleback researchers. They also have a very active instagram account: three little spines.
Today my latest paper Schistocephalus parasite infection alters sticklebacks’ movement ability and thereby shapes social interactionshas been published in Scientific Reports! Although many fundamental aspects of host-parasite relationships have been unravelled, few studies have systematically investigated how parasites affect organismal movement. In this study we combine behavioural experiments of Schistocephalus solidus infected sticklebacks with individual-based simulations to understand how parasitism affects individual movement ability and how this in turn influences social interaction patterns.
By detailed tracking of the movements of the fish, we found that infected fish swam slower, accelerated slower, turned more slowly, and tended to be more predictable in their movements than did non-infected fish. Importantly, the strength of these effects increased with increasing parasite load (% of body weight), with the behaviour of more heavily infected fish being more impaired.
When grouped, pairs of infected fish moved more slowly, were less cohesive, less aligned, and less coordinated than healthy pairs. Mixed pairs exhibited intermediate behaviours and were primarily led by the non-infected fish. These social patterns emerged naturally in model simulations of self-organised groups composed of individuals with different speeds and turning tendency, consistent with changes in mobility and manoeuvrability due to infection.
Together, our results demonstrate how infection with a complex life cycle parasite affects the movement ability of individuals and how this in turn shapes social interactions, providing important mechanistic insights into the effects of parasites on host movement dynamics. Download our open access paper here!
Today I gave a talk at the 2020 ASAB Summer meeting about my recent work about the effects of Schistocephalus parasite infection on individual and social behaviour (paper here). It was my first talk at a virtual meeting, which took a bit more time to prepare, but despite being completely virtual due to the covid-19 pandemic, the conference turned out really well. Many people “attended” my talk, which was followed by a live Q&A with the other speakers in my session. All other conferences I was planning to attend this year (at least 4) have been cancelled this year, so it was great to that this conference was made possible in the virtual realm at least!
I am excited to hereby release this 3 min short about my work. With support from the Zukunftskolleg, I teamed up with Berlin filmmaker Nicolas Buenaventura to create this video to provide a visual overview of my research. It also gives some nice insights about the various aspects of my work, from catching fish, setting-up experimental systems, writing my own recording and tracking software, to analysing data.
After chairing one of the sessions at the ASAB Summer Conference in Konstanz today it was time to give a talk myself. I presented an exciting project that explores the role of Schistocephalus parasite infection on individual movement and social interactions. Using experiments and individual-based modelling we show mechanistically this fascinating parasite strongly impairs mobility, with large cascading effects for animal groups.
Today my latest paper came out in Animal Behaviour, one of my favourite journals. It is titled “Personality, plasticity and predictability in sticklebacks: bold fish are less plastic and more predictable than shy fish“. In this paper, which is a result of a collaboration with Neeltje Boogert and Yimen Araj-Ayoy and a MSc project of Helen Briggs, we present an extensive experimental study focused on better understanding the sources of behavioural variation among individual animals.
In short, we tested 80 three-spined sticklebacks repeatedly on their boldness across a 10-week testing period and automatically tracked their movements. We then employed advanced statistical model techniques (GLMMs and DHGLMs) to use this large behavioural dataset to investigate the potential links between the personality (consistent differences in average behaviour), the plasticity (how individuals change their behaviour over time/contexts), and predictability (the remaining intra-individual variation after accounting for personality and plasticity differences) in behaviour.
Besides detecting large consistent individual differences in boldness and the extent to which fish changed this behaviour over time (temporal plasticity), we found that boldness personality and plasticity were negatively linked, with bold fish changing little in their behaviour over time. Interestingly, there were still large individual differences in the remaining behavioural variation, with bold fish showing much less behavioural variation and thus behaving more predictable than shy fish. Importantly, these results suggest that boldness, plasticity and predictability may be fundamentally linked and form part of the same behavioural syndrome.
Jolles, J. W., Briggs, H. D., Araya-Ajoy, Y. G., & Boogert, N. J. (2019). Personality, plasticity and predictability in sticklebacks: bold fish are less plastic and more predictable than shy fish. Animal Behaviour, 154, 193–202.
Over the Christmas break I couldn’t resit playing around with some detailed stickleback photos I took for one of our experiments, and created my first full-size non-academic poster! It just arrived and I am very excited about the result:
The poster shows the 33 individual sticklebacks that we used for an experiment in which we investigated consistent individual differences. As is clear from the poster, despite the fish being size-matched for the experiments, the fish have a beautiful range of colour and shading patterns. Let’s see if I’ll continue doing this for all my future experiments..!
Today I visited Münster to give an invited departmental seminar at the Institute for Evolution & Biodiversity. It was great to see the nice stickleback labs of Jörn Scharsack and Joachim Kurz and the way in which they are able to experimentally parasitise the fish with Schistocephalus.
Really enjoyed meeting many other members of the department and the very enthusiastic students in the group. I am excited about the possibilities for future collaborations with Jörn to unravel the mechanistic underpinnings of parasite infection and its link to personality variation. Thanks again to Jörn and Nicolle for inviting me!
From swarm to school, stickleback groups differ repeatedly in their collective performance
among schooling fish, groups can have different collective personalities, with some shoals sticking closer together, being better coordinated, and showing clearer leadership than others.
For centuries, scientists and non-scientists alike have been fascinated by the beautiful and often complex collective behaviour of animal groups, such as the highly synchronised movements of flocks of birds and schools of fish. Often, those spectacular collective patterns emerge from individual group members using simple rules in their interactions, without requiring global knowledge of their group.
In recent years it has also become apparent that, across the animal kingdom, individual animals often differ considerably and consistently in their behaviour, with some individuals being bolder, more active, or more social than others.
New research conducted at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology suggests that observations of different groups of schooling fish could provide important insights into how the make-up of groups can drive collective behaviour and performance.
In the study, published today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the researchers created random groups of wild-caught stickleback fish and subjected them repeatedly to a range of environments that included open spaces, plant cover, and patches of food.
The last 6 weeks master students Jana and Fe did an exciting project with me to understand if and how fish school under different light conditions, including complete darkness. They did an excellent job and although still preliminary we already got some exciting results, giving insights into what senses sticklebacks use for schooling and how they manage to school even under very low light conditions. More about this soon!
My latest paper on the collective behaviour of stickleback shoals is out today in the journal Current Biology!
Jolles, JW, Boogert, NJ, Sridhar, VH, Couzin, ID, Manica, A. (2017) Consistent individual differences drive collective behaviour and group functioning of schooling fish. Current Biology 27: 1-7. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.08.004 (link).
New research sheds light on how “animal personalities” – inter-individual differences in animal behaviour – can drive the collective behaviour and functioning of animal groups such as schools of fish, including their cohesion, leadership, movement dynamics, and group performance. These research findings from the University of Konstanz, the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology and the University of Cambridge provide important new insights that could help explain and predict the emergence of complex collective behavioural patterns across social and ecological scales, with implications for conservation and fisheries and potentially creating bio-inspired robot swarms. It may even help us understand human society and team performance. The study is published in the 7 September 2017 issue of Current Biology.
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.
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!
Two part II Zoology students of mine have just finished an exciting new project with the sticklebacks! I can’t say too much about it yet but the photo can give an idea ;-) In short, it involved large numbers of tagged three-spine sticklebacks. ∞
Very recently two part IB students of mine finished a nice little experiment on the spine-use of three-spine sticklebacks. We were interested to see how personality might be related to the raising of the spines of three-spine sticklebacks as it helps them in protection against predators. Watch this close-up video that I took that nicely shows one individual stickleback raising its spines and lowering them again after feeling threatened by my presence. Hopefully soon we have the manuscript out with the findings of our study!
Last Wednesday I gave the Student Lecture at the Linnean Society in London. It was a great honour for me to be invited to talk at this wonderful society, which is the oldest active biological Society in the world!
My hour-long lecture was mainly aimed at students with a general biological background. I therefore made a much broader talk about my work, which is a nice change from all the conference talks the last year.
I talked about a range of things, from how I decided to be a scientists and what fascinates me in the natural world around me to why I study sticklebacks to study these questions and how to do behavioural experiments. I then discussed the various experiments I have done to investigate the role of animal personality in collective behaviour.
It was great to see so many enthusiastic students with very bright questions at the end that hopefully got inspired by my talk to become zoologists themselves. My talk should become viewable online next week so check back soon!
Today I took a new video of the stickleback in my lab to use to talk about my work and these amazing fish during public lectures and conference presentations!
What you can see really well in this short little video is the large morphological and behavioural variation of the fish. Despite being similar in age the fish are quite different in body size as well as their colouration. Also pay attention to the spines, you can see individual fish often raising their spines at the moment they feel threatened by my presence.