Open positions at Zurich Population Ecology group – click here.
Principal investigator: Arpat Ozgul, Ph.D., Assistant professor
Eco-evolutionary mechanisms and demographic consequences of dispersal in socially structured populations
Many species live in socially and spatially structured populations, and dispersal is an important process governing the dynamics of these systems. However, our understanding of the complexity of dispersal is limited due largely to technological constraints. As a result, our investigations of the dynamics of socially and spatially structured populations often fail to incorporate the true complexity of dispersal, and thus, fail to describe the overall system dynamics adequately.
In our research, we bring together quantitative models, long-term individual-based life-history data, state-of-the-art tracking technology, and novel telemetry data on dispersal to provide an explicit investigation of dispersal in the Kalahari meerkat. With an interdisciplinary network of expertise (Population Ecology Research Group – UZH,Laboratory of Movement Analysis and Measurement, EPFL, Large Animal Research Group – Cambridge), we aim to overcome the technological challenges, and explore the patterns and mechanisms of dispersal, the resulting population-dynamics implications of dispersal, and the consequent selective costs and benefits of alternative dispersal strategies.
More information about current projects can be found by clicking on the group members’ names below.
Zurich Population Ecology Group
Socially informed dispersal in a spatially structured population
For species such as the Kalahari meerkat, that live in socially and spatially structured groups, the presence and distribution of conspecifics are fundamental ecological drivers influencing, among others, aggression and territorial behaviour, breeding strategies, group formation and social organisation. Dispersers too (i.e. individual that leave the natal group), are exposed to the social influence exerted by conspecifics and such pressure can be anticipated to effect decision-making and dispersal success.
Each stage of dispersal is dependent on different internal, ecological, environmental, and social drivers, and our ability to understand the mechanisms of dispersal relies greatly on our knowledge of the landscape through which dispersal occurs. Yet, while acquisition of ecological and environmental data (e.g. habitat type) is made possible by advances in remote sensing techniques; information on the social landscape is inherently difficult to obtain and requires simulataneous monitoring of the spatial distribution of dispersers and conspecifics.
With this subproject, that is conducted at the Population Ecology Research Group at Zurich University and in collaboration with the Laboratory of Movement Analysis and Measurement – EPFL, Department of Biosciences – Swansea, we want to test the hypothesis that dispersing meerkats prefer to move in areas less visited by territorial groups to reduce aggressive interactions. For this we fit GPS radio collars on dispersing coalitions of female meerkats and daily followed their movements across territories occupied by resident groups.
Mechanisms and demographic consequences of dispersal in meerkats
Dispersal is an important process governing the dynamics of spatially and socially structured populations, and the high fitness costs associated with dispersal are likely to induce strong selective pressures on individual social and reproductive strategies. However, mainly due to practical and technological limitations, very few studies were able to follow the fate of individuals during dispersal. Recent advances in tracking technology now enable incorporating detailed information on dispersal, and thus, a better understanding of dispersal as a life-history strategy and its influence on population dynamics.
I investigate the influence of individual, social and environmental factors on dispersal in meerkats (Suricata suricatta) by fitting GPS collars to dispersing subordinate females. Individual-based life-history and climatic data from the long-term data set of the KMP will be used to investigate the individual, social and environmental mechanisms underlying dispersal characteristics, dispersal mortality and settlement dynamics. By coupling novel data on dispersing individuals with the already existing long-term life-history data on within-group dynamics, it will be possible to re-evaluate the fitness consequences of alternative life history strategies. Data from this study will thus allow testing hypotheses on the evolutionary mechanisms of dispersal by adding a new, unexplored dimension to our understanding of the dynamics of spatially and socially structured populations.