I began my career broadly interested in behavioural ecology, and have developed a specific emphasis on collective behaviour, communication and infrastructure resilience. My research is establishing a strong multi-disciplinary component with joint publications with researchers in logistics and operations research (in prep). I intend to further this approach, building on my experience and skills, and incorporating links to computational modelling of collective behaviour in eusocial insects. I plan to use my strong background in ecology to help develop modelling and programming techniques that complement these natural and dynamic systems.
Resilience in Social Insect Infrastructure
Beginning with my work as a Senior Research Technician for the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI), I learnt that some of the most intelligently designed robotics programs have been inspired by the resilience and adaptiveness of natural systems. Indeed, part of my work at QBI was to model how aggressive honey bees track moving targets to develop more accurate and predictive missile tracking software for the US Air Force. It is clear that the natural world provides much potential for inspiring and providing solutions to a multitude of problems, and this area remains relatively untapped. Natural disasters, fluctuations in supply and demand, outbreaks of disease, and other events disrupt human infrastructure. These networks are deliberately planned, complex, and highly coordinated. Social insects, such as ants, experience similar disruptions in their infrastructure networks, yet their networks are not deliberately planned. There is currently a gap between experimental work on social insect infrastructure resilience and the potential modelling and implementation of lessons in the human world. I am interested in filling this knowledge gap, bringing the differing areas of expertise together, through my experience as a behavioural ecologist: dissecting the behaviours that allow ant colonies to make ‘smart’ decisions and solve ‘complex’ problems.
Communication Networks and Recruitment in Social Insects
I am very interested in the development of recruitment networks and communication within colonies. As social insects only have access to limited, local information, the development of sophisticated pheromone trails, and tandem running, in many species is of great interest. In my current work on the Australian meat ant Iridomyrmex purpureus, I am researching the connection between traffic rates and emergent collective behaviour of trail clearing. The meat ant utilises pheromones in the development of trails, but establishes cleared trunk trails to major and consistent foraging areas. It is unclear how trail clearing is initiated within a colony, whether increases in traffic flow and head on encounters between individuals is a simple enough rule to begin such a complex collective behaviour.
During my PhD I examined the foraging behaviour of the Australian Banded Sugar Ant, Camponotus consobrinus. Part of their foraging behaviour involves a type of recruitment known as tandem running. I was fascinated to discover that in this species, those individuals involved as recruits are not necessarily naïve to foraging. That is, they can be considered experienced foragers with sufficient navigational information to make their way successfully to and from the food tree. For the optimisation of foraging efficiency, it makes sense that experienced individuals would become recruits, as perhaps the cost of time investment in a slower progression of tandem recruits to the food location is less than the benefit of time gained by not searching hundreds or potentially thousands of tree branches for very localised food sources. This is something I’m interested in modelling, to learn more about the cost and benefits of different recruitment strategies and how they lead to optimised outcomes for a colony’s resilience and sustainability.
My experience with tandem running has enhanced my understanding of recruitment and piqued my curiosity of communication networks in social insects. The differences in recruitment styles, the pheromones of the meat ants leading to mass recruitment and the one-on-one style of tandem running, begs the question, how do different recruitment styles adapt to disturbances? Are tandem running species more flexible, and can flexibility be compared between such different systems? Is it harder for a mass recruiting species to change from one resource to another when the quality changes than it is for tandem recruiting species? Tandem running has been well studied in Temnothorax ants, a species I have longed to work with, due to their small colony size, ability to keep in the lab, and ease of tracking and individual labelling. Along with their tandem running recruitment style, I am interested in their house-hunting behaviour, and would like to study flow of information throughout the colony, and develop my modelling skills based around such communication.
Private versus public information
With the popularity of social media, and the presence of highly connected individuals within online networks, such as Facebook, or Twitter, I am very interested in the similarities and differences between social networks of insects and humans. Furthermore, I am interested in examining the emergent behaviour of colonies and individuals, and whether there are any parallels that can be drawn between collective behaviour emergent properties such as intelligence in social insects, and the collective behaviour of human crowds. This is an area I would like to examine both experimentally and through a theoretical approach, modelling both groups.
In social wasps, and in house hunting Temnothorax, the presence of highly connected individuals demonstrated the importance of heterogeneity among colony members in the spread of social information and the decision making process. How such systems avoid cascades of incorrect information is of great interest to me, and an area I would like to investigate more, through experimental work and the development of models with sophisticated algorithms, incorporating machine learning techniques such as artificial neural networks that can aid in prediction of temporal or spatial flows of information within eusocial insect colonies. Further, this interplay of private and public information is something I am examining currently in I. purpurues. These ants lay pheromone trails and mass recruit to food sources. Currently, I am undertaking experiments designed to put public information (i.e. pheromone trails) in conflict with private information (i.e. the experience and memory of an individual ant), to determine the priority rules of such information.
Social Insect Ecology
By studying the underlying ecology of social insects, from the individual to the colony level, I believe we can gain great insights into the emergent behaviours of groups, and how the behaviours and interactions of individuals contributes to the bigger collective picture. I am interested in the natural history of social insects and the role they play within a broader environmental context. By expanding the scientific knowledge in both of these areas, and modelling their implementation in the human world, great improvements can be made in not only the operations of our day to day systems, but also the resilience they possess in the face of future changes.