Can adaptations to environmental challenges help us explain the evolution of social complexity?

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Mads Fristrup Schou


DKK 437,501




Internationalisation Fellowships


My project is about why animals cooperate. Given natural selection is expected to favour individuals that maximise their own success, why would animals ever help each other? I will address this question by a species that sometimes breeds alone and sometimes breeds in groups - the ostrich. This is the only facultative cooperative breeding vertebrate kept in high numbers where experimental group manipulation is possible, making it a perfect model organism for understanding why animals cooperate. When cooperating, several ostrich females lay multiple eggs in the same nest, and cooperate in protecting the eggs against predators and overheating. But we know very little of when and why this cooperative breeding occurs.


Cooperation amongst individuals has been incredibly important for the evolution at all levels of life from genes forming genomes to animals forming societies. Recent research argues that cooperation has enabled organisms to overcome ecological barriers and colonise harsh environments, for example where temperatures are high. However, there are many species that do not live in cooperative groups that have adapted to these conditions, suggesting that we lack a thorough understanding of why cooperation evolves. One potential resolution to this issue is that cooperation is only one way to solve ecological problems and that alternatively higher individual tolerance to environments may evolve. I will test this idea, which will help us understand when and why cooperation evolves.


I will use a large database of breeding success and blood samples of ostrich individuals under different weather conditions spanning eight generations. With this data, and measurements of heat tolerance, I will use genomic tools to understand genetic basis of heat tolerance. With this knowledge at hand, I will manipulate the opportunity for cooperative breeding at experimental field sites, to estimate if the heat tolerant individuals are less likely to cooperate and under what environmental conditions this applies. The genetic basis of heat tolerance in the ostrich is likely to be conserved in other bird species, allowing me to make inferences on the evolution of cooperation across bird species.

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