Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour

Published on: 24 November 2014

Find out how a cow's social network can increase its productivity

Improving whale conservation and learning how a cow’s social network can increase productivity are just some of the ways research from University of Exeter’s Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour (CRAB) (CRAB) is making a difference.

CRAB looks at the causes, functions and evolution of animal behaviour and how each species adapts to its natural environment, with recent research already being used to inform things as diverse as conservation and retail purchasing policies.

The future conservation of Killer Whales has been enhanced with research from Associate Professor of Animal Behaviour, Professor Darren Croft, after he found that orca mothers live longer to protect their sons. This work provided the first test of current theory for the evolution of menopause in non-human animals.

The NERC funded research, which made national headlines; used data that had been collected over the last 40 years to examine how social factors shape fertility and survival in two resident populations of orcas living off the coast of North America. These populations are critically endangered with the southern resident population numbers down to just 79 and are important to eco-tourism in the US attracting more than 850,000 whale watchers annually.

Whales are unusual because females have their last calf in their 30s but can live into their late 90s meaning they have a post reproductive lifespan directly comparable to humans – there are only three species that do this; orcas, pilot whales and humans.

Professor Croft is interested in understanding fundamental questions about evolution, the evolution of menopause and the roles individuals may play in populations even though they are not breading themselves. But by answering those questions he is also providing an insight into patterns of mortality which can be used to inform whale conservation.

Professor Croft explained: “Advancing our understanding of the relationship between population, social structure and patterns of survival and mortality will help inform future conservation strategies of this and other killer whale populations.”

Professor Croft is also working with dairy cattle studying the 'social network' of dairy cows to explore how relationships between them affect their health and productivity.

His work with Dr Joah Madden is co-funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and DairyCo and will help us understand how a cow’s social environment can lead to improvements in productivity.

The project team are using collars that track who interacts with whom, this allows researchers to assign variables to assess a cow’s social environment and quantify how important interactions are in terms of health and productivity. The devices will also be able to track what happens when a cows’ social network is disrupted.

Professor Croft explained: “In humans we know our social relationships can predict our life expectancy. We know cows recognise individuals and develop relationships, so this work will help us see how social disruption due to the movement of cows in and out of groups affects health and productivity.”

He added: “We hope the results of our study will contribute towards a blueprint for herd management that will help farmers continue to improve the health and welfare of their cows.”

Another project recently started by the group hopes to reduce mortality rates amongst fish in the aquarium trade. The work with Professor of environmental biology Charles Tyler, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) and Pets at Home will look at the vulnerability of different species of fish to stress and develop interventions to reduce improve health and reduce mortality.

Dr Madden is working with The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust on a project to determine how cognitive abilities evolve under natural selection. The evolution of cognition is one of the most important but poorly understood issues in modern biology. Comparative studies inform us how species or populations differ and from these it is possible to infer possible selective pressures.

This work will see several generations of pheasants monitored in a bid to uncover how cognition is inherited and how early life and diet influences how the birds face the pressure off natural selection. Pheasants are an ideal animal to study to tackle this question as large numbers are reared under controlled conditions and then exposed to natural selection pressures in terms of their survival and mating success.

It is hoped this study will provide a robust framework in which to tackle the broad question of how cognitive performance may evolve that can then be applied across a wider suite of conditions and taxa, including humans.

The University of Exeter has a long history researching animal behaviour which gives the psychology department a unique flavour. The group builds on the existing strengths of the department as animals are important models for understanding human psychology.

CRAB research group leader Dr Natalie Hempel de Ibarra explained: “We can learn a lot by asking behavioural questions in animals. The group works on a range of questions from social behaviour in animals - that spans from understanding how social factors drive evolution to understanding cooperation and social strategies - to the evolution of cognition and mechanisms of learning and memory.”

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