I’m fascinated by the many different forms of conflict which result from sexual and natural selection. I spent my PhD investigating sexual conflict and sperm competition in the broad-horned flour beetle Gnatocerus cornutus. During this time I watched a lot of interactions both male-male and male-female, in which males would often court other males while aggressively wrestling with females. These observations of unexpected and seemingly maladaptive behaviour sparked my interest in social interactions, in particular agonistic encounters.
My current research focuses on the fighting behaviour of the beadlet sea anemone Actinia equina. These anemones are extraordinary, they are in many ways extremely simple in form, lacking a central nervous system and specialised organs for processes such as excretion, yet they possess weapons. Beadlets are named for the ring of blue bead-like structures called acrorhagi that border their body columns. These acrorhagi are crammed full of stinging nematocysts, which are deployed during fights with conspecifics, leaving the opponent covered in necrotising scars.
Using these fascinating creatures I aim to discover more about contest behaviour and how individuals make decisions during fights. Something I am extremely interested in is the fact that in order to inflict damage onto an opponent, an anemone has to rip off pieces of its own acrorhagi and thus these anemones are unable to inflict damage onto each other without also hurting themselves. This concept which I have coined ‘self-inflicted damage’ (see Lane and Briffa 2017 ‘The price of attack: Rethinking damage costs in animal contests’) is not restricted to sea anemones, examples can be found in taxa from humans to beetles, but has never before been studied. I want to explore the costs of this self-inflicted damage and the effect these costs have on the decisions an individual makes during a fight.
Outside of sea anemones, I am eager to learn more about the use of weapons during conflicts. What differentiates weapons from other kinds of traits? How do individuals cope with the costs of using weapons (specifically self-inflicted damage)? How do the costs and benefits of offensive and defensive weapons differ from one another?
‘The role of additive and non-additive genetic effects during animal contests in the beadlet sea anemone Actinia equina’
(with Prof Mark Briffa, Prof Alistair Wilson (Uni of Exeter) & Dr Manuela Truebano Garcia)
Behaviour is shaped both by genetics and by the environment, both physical and social. During interactions with others, such as contests, an individual’s behaviour may be determined not only by its own genotype but by the genotype of its social partner. By pairing individuals of different genotypes we can examine whether some genotypes are consistently more aggressive than others regardless of who they are fighting or whether the behaviour of individuals changes depending on the genotype of their opponent. This project aims to explore these concepts using the clonal beadlet sea anemone.
However, we have recently discovered that the reproductive system of this species may not be quite what it seems… so watch this space!