Behavioral Ecology

Almost everything an animal does affects other organisms in diverse ways. Behavioral ecology, which has a long tradition at STRI, is the study of these effects and interactions. Some of these interactions have evolved due to selection acting on both participants over many generations. Predator-prey interactions such as those between bats and insects are an obvious example and a topic of active research at STRI. Symbioses, perhaps the pinnacle of such behaviorally mediated interactions, also are a STRI research mainstay.

One example is the symbiosis between figs and the tiny wasps that, as larvae, develop in fig fruits where they consume some seeds and then, as adults, pollinate those trees. One cannot begin to understand the size, shape, color, odor and nectar content of tropical flowers without understanding how these characteristics affect the behavior of the diverse animals that visit and pollinate them. Current ideas about the processes that govern the diversity of tropical forests emphasize the importance of knowing how far seeds disperse from parent trees. STRI research on the behavioral interactions between fruits, fruit eaters and seed dispersers can provide the answer.

Other interactions are secondary and some are incidental, but also important. For example a limpet feeding on algae in the intertidal zone may dislodge settling barnacle larvae and therefore keep the algae free of this particular competitor for space. The alga may grow better and the limpet may benefit from the additional food. But this mutually beneficial interaction may be an incidental consequence of how limpets glide over rocks and there may be no evidence that special barnacle removal behavior has evolved in the limpet.

Careful observation of behavioral interactions can help resolve incidental effects from those that arise from a long history of co-adaptation between the inter-actors. This information improves our understanding of how and under what circumstances behavioral traits evolve as adaptations for a particular function. This knowledge can help us develop effective methods to manage and conserve forests, control pests or limit the spread of exotic species.

 

Staff scientists researching Behavioral Ecology