Facebook for fruitbats. Chester lecturer explores how animals social networks can help wildlife conservation.

Posted on 27th June 2017

A Lecturer in Animal Behaviour and Welfare at the University of Chester is part of an international group of behavioural ecologists who have been analysing how relationships between animals could help support wildlife conservation.

Dr Christina Stanley.
Dr Christina Stanley.

Dr Christina Stanley is co-author of a report being published this week in the international journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution. She has been working with a group of scientists who share a common research interest in the applications of social network analysis to practical conservation schemes. They are exploring how the understanding of relationships between animals could be applied by wildlife managers and conservationists to support their work in such areas as disease management, breeding programmes, and controlling problem behaviours. 

The rest of the team are: Dr Lysanne Snijders, Post Doctoral Researcher at the Department of Biology and Ecology of Fishes at the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB), Germany; Dr Daniel Blumstein, Professor and Chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA, US and a Professor in UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability; and Dr Daniel Franks, Reader in the Departments of Biology and Computer Science at the University of York.

Animal social network studies examine how the individuals of a population are socially connected, how they interact and associate. Knowledge of the social structure can help to identify the flow of information or the spread of disease, and has potential to be used as an indicator of upcoming population changes. Information of that kind would be less – or not at all – noticeable using methods purely based on population size or the observation of single individuals. 

Dr Stanley said: “Whilst social network analysis is now a widely used technique in animal behavioural research, it is not always clear how results can be directly applied to practical conservation efforts, such as the management of populations of endangered species. 

“It is our hope that this paper provides this link between theory and practice, so that conservation practitioners can use this valuable toolkit to make significant improvements to these projects. My own research focuses on animal social networks; I am currently working with Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust at Jersey Zoo, on applications of these methods to monitor and improve reproductive success rates of their critically endangered Livingstone’s fruit bats. As a behavioural ecologist, I am always interested in applying our understanding of behaviour to practical conservation projects – I hope this paper will make a real difference in this field.” 

Dr Lysanne Snijders, Post Doctoral Researcher at the Department of Biology and Ecology at IGB, describes this approach with the help of Aristotle: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Combined effects of social interactions in wildlife populations do not only have important theoretical but also practical implications. Linking animal social network theory to practice can therefore stimulate the design of new practical conservation tools and generate novel insights into how animal social networks change over time.” 

Dr Stanley is also applying her research to her teaching at the University of Chester. She added: “This year I have introduced the idea of animal social networks to our Biological Sciences undergraduates as part of a new Level Six module, “Behavioural and Evolutionary Ecology”. This has been a great success – student engagement with this topic, as well as with other exciting new areas of behavioural ecology, was brilliant, especially where lecturers could bring in examples from our own research. 

“Our students also excelled at a novel form of coursework used in this module; they were asked to complete a portfolio demonstrating their skills in communicating science to the public. This included writing an article for the BBC Wildlife magazine or a blog, followed by a documentary storyboard, school lesson plan or public talk, as well as using Twitter to disseminate interesting new publications on the topics covered in this module. Topics such as social network analysis allowed students a much deeper understanding of animal behaviour and it was wonderful to read these students’ interpretations in their assessed work. Communication skills are vital in the modern job market; I’m excited to see where this new generation of science communicators will end up!” 

The full report - Snijders, L., Blumstein, D. T., Stanley C. R., Franks, D. W. (2017): Animal Social Network Theory Can Help Wildlife Conservation. Trends in Ecology and Evolution – can be accessed here: http://www.cell.com/trends/ecology-evolution/fulltext/S0169-5347(17)30130-1