The main framework in which we approach research questions is as follows: individuals' traits influence the frequency and nature of their social interactions. Meanwhile, characteristics of the social environment alter the expression of individual traits. These two factors jointly influence the collective outcomes of social groups, like the execution of collective behaviors and risk of disease outbreaks.
Which behavioral traits are important and under what circumstances do they drive disease dynamics?
Individual and social determinants of disease risk
Social aggregation of individually marked fruit flies. (inset) Fly infected with entomopathogenic fungus
For many infectious diseases, individuals vary immensely in their risk of infection and in their severity of disease symptoms. This variability is influenced not only by hosts’ traits, but also that of the conspecifics with whom they interact. Another branch of our research focuses on identifying the degree to which individuals’ infection risk is attributable to their own traits vs. factors of their social environment.
Environmental determinants of disease
Just as the relationship between individual traits and disease risk can vary depending on the social environment, these dynamics can similarly be influenced by the abiotic environment in which social interaction occur. Research in aquatic ecosystems has focused on the role of the environment in determining disease outcomes, with graduate student Eric Trotman using a One Health perspective to address the relationship between animals, the environment, and people.
Collective behavior and disease susceptibility
Social groups are confronted with multiple ecological stressors simultaneously. How, then, can groups optimize their phenotypic composition to cope with multiple challenges like foraging, navigation, and disease? We study the relationship between groups' collective behaviors, like foraging and brood care, and susceptibility to infectious disease. Since many of these outcomes share underlying mechanisms, we aim to test whether groups regulate collective traits to optimize group success while minimizing the costs associated with disease.
Given that parasitism is one of the most common lifestyles among animals, it is surprising that the behavior of parasites is rarely studies directly. This branch of research was spearheaded by Dr. Emily Durkin, a former postdoc now at the University of Tampa, and former grad student Elise Richardson. Emily studies the role of parasitic behavior in the evolution of symbioses (using facultative ectoparasitic mites as a model system) and Elise studied host-seeking behavior in lone-star ticks across different habitat types.
PARASITES and parasitoids OF SPIDERS
Spiders are some of the most important predators of invertebrate communities globally. However, our understanding of their role in trophic webs is hindered by a lack of information regarding the parasites that affect spider populations. Pathogenic fungi, parasitic worms, mites, and parasitoid wasps all likely influence the behavior and population dynamics of their spider hosts, but research is still in its infancy relative to other host-parasite systems. Our lab manages the Spider Parasite Digital Research (SPDR) Collection to unite scientists and amateur naturalists in the quest to discover the diversity and ecology of spider parasites and parasitoids.