Our latest #StoryBehindThePaper comes from Quinn Webber, a PhD student working with Dr Eric Vander Wal in the Wildlife Evolutionary Ecology Lab at Memorial University in Newfoundland, Canada. Quinn is studying social and spatial behaviour of caribou on the Island of Newfoundland and Fogo Island. His work focuses on improving scientific unerstanding of how social network structure is related to habitat selection and space use, and how these behaviours might affect fitness. His latest paper in the Journal of Animal Ecology discusses an evolutionary framework outlining the integration of individual social and spatial ecology. But how did this paper come about?
In this post, I will describe the background of this paper, both the process in developing the ideas, and some of the broader goals and objectives. Many of the core ideas communicated in the paper were developed as I was applying for scholarships before starting my PhD (in Canada, the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council, or NSERC). At the time, I did not imagine the ideas in my scholarship applications would become a distinct paper – I assumed they were establishing the framework for my research and would be integrated into my thesis chapters. As these ideas were being formulated, we began developing a conceptual framework that we eventually called ‘the socioecological environment’ (originally used by Sueur et al. 2011).
As ideas for the paper were formulated and refined, two primary objectives emerged. First, integrating social and spatial ecology as a unified and testable framework was our primary objective. In the paper, we highlight the proximate links between individually-based social and spatial phenotypes and fitness, as well as the ultimate consequences for these traits associated with changes in population density. We unify these concepts as ‘the socioecological environment’. The ecological, evolutionary, and applied implications of our proposed socioecological environment framework are broad and changes in population density could influence individual fitness and population dynamics.
Second, we wanted to bridge the social network literature with the habitat selection literature – two distinct sub-disciplines of ecology. We wanted to ensure that researchers from both disciplines would benefit from our integrative framework. One way we did this was by producing boxes. Box 1 outlines the conceptual and analytical process of quantifying an adaptive landscape (the relationship between a social or spatial behaviour, fitness, and population density in this case). This box illustrates how the behavioural reaction norm framework is one way the relationship between individually-based social and spatial traits could be modeled, while also accounting for differences in this relationship across a range of population densities. We also posit that social and spatial behaviours may be repeatable, and possibly heritable, as well as display plasticity across a population density gradient.
Meanwhile, Box 2 integrates behavioural ecology and habitat selection theory using a (relatively) simple conceptual model. Specifically, we integrate optimal group size theory with the ideal free distribution concept, where, in an ideal environment, animals settle in habitats such that fitness is equal across habitat types. Our goal for this box was to highlight two bodies of theory which could help explain variation why animals organize in fission-fusion groups. We suggest that, for social animals, fitness will be equal if group sizes are optimized across habitats, and animals will select certain habitats, but also chose to be in groups of a given size. Our inclusion of these boxes allowed us to integrate what we thought were the most germane topics in ecology and evolution that contributed to the overarching theme of integrating social and spatial ecology.
Many readers may notice that we omit discussion of a number of relevant ecological processes, e.g., inter-specific competition, predation, and parasitism, among others. While these topics are important considerations within our framework, we hope that empiricists, modellers, and theoreticians interested in the socioecological environment can incorporate them into future studies. For example, parasitism or predation my affect the relationship between social and spatial behaviour in the context of fitness, a phenomenon which remains relatively unexplored. Our hope is to inform readers from different research communities about the wealth of empirical, theoretical, and methodological research that may be applicable in the context of the socioecological environment. In summary, our goals with this paper are to bring together two bodies of literature, develop more precise predictions about how social and spatial traits might affect fitness, and highlight potential for an eco-evolutionary feedback in the context of the socioecological environment.
Webber, Q.M.R. and Vander Wal, E. (2018) An evolutionary framework outlining the integration of individual social and spatial ecology. Journal of Animal Ecology, 87: 113-127 PDF