PeerJ Award Winner at ABS 2023

by | Aug 11, 2023 | Award Winner Interviews, Awards, Community, Conferences

The Animal Behavior Society (ABS) was founded in 1964 to promote the study of animal behavior in the broadest sense, including studies using descriptive and experimental methods under natural and controlled conditions. Current members’ research activities span the invertebrates and vertebrates, both in the field and in the laboratory, and include experimental psychology, behavioral ecology, neuroscience, zoology, biology, applied ethology, and human ethology as well as many other specialized areas. The Animal Behavior Society enthusiastically welcomed participants to ABS 2023, held in Portland, USA between 12th – 15th July. The aim of the meeting was to allow scientific excellence to flourishes in an environment where a diversity of voices and perspectives are freely expressed. PeerJ sponsored the Warder Clyde Allee Award for Best Student Paper, and recently caught up with the winner, Lea Pollack, to discuss her research.


Lea Pollack Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Rice University, USA. 

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your research interests? I am a behavioral ecologist broadly interested in evolutionary traps and social dynamics. I did my PhD at UC Davis, and I’m currently wrapping up an NSF postdoc fellowship at Rice University. My research is at the intersection of animal behavior, evolutionary biology, and environmental change. In particular, a lot of my work has centered on evolutionary traps. Evolutionary traps are a common type of behavioral pitfall, in which animals make decisions based on cues that have been decoupled from their previous beneficial outcome. For example, insects might attempt to lay eggs on a glass surface because it gives off cues that mimic the surface of natural bodies of water. Why are some animals more or less susceptible to these misleading cues? My research focuses on how animal social environments are can influences responses to evolutionary traps, and in turn how these traps could alter social environments.

What first interested you in this field of research? The frustrating and absolutely wonderful thing about working on animal behavior is that organisms rarely behave as I initially expect them to. I first became interested in the impact of social environments when a series of preliminary observations did not go as planned. I was working with fish and trying to figure out the number of individuals I should observe at a time, as subtle changes in the social environment could have a big impact on the behaviors I could observe. I realized that understanding how changing social environments impact behavior was a fascinating avenue of research in its own right.

Can you briefly explain the research you presented at ABS 2023? The first three chapters of my dissertation focused on how something as simple and fluctuating as group size can alter individual behaviors of fish, including the common evolutionary trap of eating plastic. I studied these questions in Western mosquitofish (Gambusia affinis), an ideal system to test how variation in group size might influence behaviors because they naturally live in fission-fusion societies, and thus experience constant changes in social aggregations. By studying individual foraging behaviors toward both known and novel food items, I was able to directly compare how individuals changed in their responses across the different foraging situations.

How will you continue to build on this research? If social information changes abruptly from adaptive to misleading, social individuals might be particularly disadvantaged. On the other hand, if tight-knit groups avoid harm, then highly social individuals might be at an advantage. These and other conflicting theories about if, when, and how anthropogenic change drive the rapid evolution of social traits and ultimately group formation remain untested. Funded by an NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Biology, my current postdoctoral work uses artificial evolution coupled with quantitative behavioral genetics to identify the underlying individual and group traits that influence behavior toward an evolutionary trap. For this work, I am using fruit flies falling for apple cider vinegar traps, another common evolutionary trap created by humans. This approach connects feedbacks between anthropogenic change and social behavior by investigating how variation in response to anthropogenic pitfalls can in turn shape future social environments.

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