Frontiers of Knowledge Award to three pioneers in studying the social behavior of animals

Frontiers of Knowledge Award to three pioneers in studying the social behavior of animals

The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Ecology and Conservation Biology has been awarded in its XV edition to Susan Alberts, Jeanne Altmann y Marlene Zuk “for his outstanding contribution to the behavioral and evolutionary ecology of animals”, according to the jury’s minutes.

“Behavior,” the report continues, “is a primary means that individuals use to respond and adapt to constantly changing conditions, including changes in their social environment. The three scientists have expanded knowledge about the evolutionary importance and functional behavior as a motor for survival, reproduction and adaptation of animals”.

“The work of Alberts, Altmann and Zuk enriches our understanding of the need to incorporate social interactions into conservation plans for animal species”, concludes the jury.

Altmann, Emeritus Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University, and Alberts, Professor of Evolutionary Biology and Anthropology at Duke University, have focused their research careers on the study of different aspects of the social behavior of baboonswhile Zuk, Professor of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior at the University of Minnesota, has explored how interactions between males and females or between parasites and their hosts explain mate choicerevealing the role of sexual selection in the diversification of species.

“The research carried out by the three award-winning scientists allows us to obtain an x-ray of the health and physiological situation of the different individuals of a species that may be in danger of extinction”, explains Pedro Jordano, a CSIC research professor at the Biological Station of Doana and secretary of the jury. This information, he adds, is essential to “optimize the selection process of different individuals and thus guarantee the success of reintroductions or captive breeding plans.”

Baboon social life

In 1963, Jeanne Altmann traveled to the Amboseli National Park, in Kenya, to study the baboons that inhabited this natural reserve for thirteen months. A few years later, in 1971, she returned to found an innovative research project that for more than five decades has tracked approximately 2,000 individuals over several generationsand which is still valid today.

The Amboseli Baboon Project soon became an international benchmark for the study of these primates, and Susan Alberts chose it as the destination for her first research experience as soon as she finished her degree in 1983. It was the beginning of four decades of collaboration. very close relationship between the two scientists, who were pioneers in the study of the social behavior of baboons.

Alberts now co-leads the Amboseli project with Altmann, who remembers how “39 years ago people questioned our line of inquiryand they repeated it to us for 15 or 20 years, but the enormous personal, professional and field benefits that our work gave us became increasingly clear”.

Through their observations, they understood, for example, the important role that males play in caring for their young. Although both male and female baboons mate with multiple partners, males are able to identify their own young and provide care for them, a phenomenon Altmann and Alberts called “true parental care.”

Altmann suspected that this phenomenon existed, but was only able to verify it thanks to the genetic analysis of fecal samples that he carried out together with Alberts. The DNA was key to tracing who the father of each calf was and finding out if it was the same one who provided care for them.

“For several decades we have been collecting fecal samples from known individuals, and now we have freezers full of thousands of these samples from which we can extract DNA, microbiota and hormones. All these compounds allow us to discover what is happening at the physiological level in animals, such as their stress levels, when they face the challenges they encounter every day,” explains Alberts.

At the same time, elucidating the role of females in animal societies has been a constant research goal of Altmann and Alberts. However, to achieve this, they had to break some moulds, as Altmann recalls: “There was a lot of literature saying that the only thing that mattered was big males and dominance among them, but we showed pretty early on that females and their relationships were especially important.” “.

Alberts believes that her mentor “played a central role in a movement that ended up changing the entire field and pushing it toward a greater understanding of primate social behavior.” They verified that females play as important a role as males in determining social processes and that they can go from being allies to competitors and vice versa in very short time scales, which determines the characteristic environment of any complex society.

The role of parasites

Marlene Zuk’s research has been key to understanding the relevance of parasites to the social behavior of animals. “Before we thought that all these organisms did was carry diseasesThey were terrible. But, in reality, they play a role not only in determining whether we get sick, but in everything related to the organisms they host: how they choose their mates, how they interact with each other… Because avoiding parasites and Diseases have been a primary engine of evolution”, explains the award-winning scientist, who was surprised by the award decision in the middle of a trip to Australia, where she will be conducting a research stay this year.

Precisely his approach from the study of insects has allowed us to understand “the universality of the forces of evolution in animals so different from humans”, explains the scientist. For her, behavior is one more characteristic of the evolution of organisms.

“Animals not only interact with each other or with members of the opposite sex, but are also affected by parasites and pathogens that change the traits that females might find more attractive in a mate,” he points out.

Zuk, according to his account, attended the live rapid evolutionary behavioral response of a species of crickets in response to pressure from a parasite. In general, male crickets sing to attract females, so natural selection tends to favor those males that sing the most and best. However, the song of a species of cricket not only attracts females, but also attracts the attention of a parasitic fly. These flies deposit their larvae in the crickets, and the larvae feed on the insects from within, eating them alive.

That is, the male experiences a conflict resulting from a struggle between sexual selection (obtaining a partner) and natural selection (survival): the more the male sings, the more he seduces the females, which is key when it comes to transmitting his genes. But, at the same time, its song attracts the fly, which may end up killing it, which is a clear evolutionary disadvantage to the threat of the parasite. “This conflict of selection pressures acting in completely opposite directions has attracted the attention of scientists since Darwin,” Zuk emphasizes.

What ecology was able to observe is that, over a few generations, a mutation spread in cricket populations that rendered them silent. In this way, the detection by the flies was greatly diminished, although with the counterpart of a lower effectiveness of attraction of the opposite sex. This illustrates that evolution turns in one direction or another depending on the pressures of the environment.

The continual push and pull of evolution has always fascinated me, and shows that evolution never stops,” says Zuk.

Health and social environment

More generally, the award-winning scientists have shown through their research the importance of social interaction in health, which in turn mediates the evolution of species. For example, Alberts and Altmann deduced through their research with baboons that, in these primates, having strong social ties is associated with a longer life expectancyand, in the case of females, it is also associated with greater survival of the pups.

“Our research has contributed to the understanding that the social environment is just as important as the physical one in determining health and survival, both for the primates we have studied and for many other organisms that are highly social creatures,” she highlights. Alberts. “This means,” he continues, “that animals solve problems in their environment through social behaviorand the different ways in which they achieve this reflect the multiple solutions they have found to these challenges over millennia of evolution.”

species conservation

The scientific contributions that Altmann, Alberts, and Zuk have provided on how animals’ social interactions influence their health and survival have become key tools for conservation strategies for threatened species.

“Mating systems and sexual interactions have very important implications for the conservationbecause, after all, they determine the viability of a population”, explains Francisco García González, a researcher at the Doana Biological Station who has collaborated and co-signed studies with Zuk. “When females choose a mate, in some way they are choosing genetic quality . Sexual selection is linked to reproductive success, and therefore to population viability. Therefore, when carrying out a conservation plan, it is essential to take into account knowledge about socio-sexual interactions and mating behaviors such as those revealed by the research of the award-winning scientists.”

Although many conservation actions focus on the most emblematic animals, Zuk herself points out, “creatures that are neither large nor hairy can play a crucial role in the evolution of biodiversity.” The parasites that she has studied for decades are a good example: “Animals do not exist in a vacuumneither in terms of their interactions with each other nor in terms of their interactions with other species”, he points out, as the example of crickets illustrates.

Marlene Zuk, during field work.Courtesy of Marlene Zuk

The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards, endowed with 400,000 euros in each of its eight categories, recognize and encourage contributions of singular impact in science, technology, the humanities and music, especially those that significantly expand the field of what is known. known in a discipline, give rise to new fields or build bridges between different disciplinary areas.

The Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) collaborates with the BBVA Foundation by appointing part of the members of the Technical Support Committees, made up of leading specialists in the corresponding field of knowledge, who carry out the first evaluation of the candidacies, submitting to the jury a reasoned proposal of finalists. The CSIC also designates the presidency of each of the eight juries.

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