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Current research programmes

Pied Babblers and Fork-tailed Drongos

Since 2003, Amanda Ridley’s Pied Babbler Research Project has explored the causes and consequences of cooperative breeding behaviour in Southern Pied Babblers Turdoides bicolor. Amanda maintains an exceptional study population of habituated, free-living babbler groups on the Kuruman River Reserve in the southern Kalahari Desert. Her research has provided fascinating insights into the evolution of cooperative societies. Additionally, she has supported research on her study population contributing to our understanding of animal communication and cognition. In 2006, Amanda expanded her study to include the local Fork-tailed Drongo Dicrurus adsimilis population, investigating interactions between drongos, babblers and other species. Tom Flower also began to conduct research on the drongos, and in 2008 greatly expanded the population, establishing the Drongo Project to enable detailed research on species interactions, with a focus on the drongos’ use of false alarm calls to steal food from other animals. Recently, both Amanda and Tom have collaborated with Dr Susie Cunningham to explore how increasing temperatures resulting from climate change will affect the reproduction and survival of babblers and drongos in marginal semi-arid savanna environments.

The causes of conflict and cooperation in group-living societies

The Pied Babbler Research Project investigates the benefits of cooperation and the causes of conflict in this highly cooperative, group-living species. The study population of 12-19 habituated, colour-ringed groups has been monitored continuously for 16 years. Both group size and number varies considerably according to weather conditions in the Kalahari, with the population suffering a considerable decline following breeding seasons with poor rainfall and high temperatures. The population also declines during very cold winters, when juveniles experience high mortality. Long-term life history data, along with short-term observations and experiments, have helped the team understand the causes and consequences of cooperative breeding behaviour. These findings help to reveal the benefits of cooperation and the causes of conflict not just in babblers, but from a broader evolutionary perspective..

How interactions between species shape animal behaviour

The Fork-tailed Drongo project focuses on a population of over 40 pairs of habituated and colour-banded drongos that are individually recognisable. This study population provides a unique opportunity to explore how climate change will affect birds, and biodiversity more generally. Tom Flower and Susie Cunningham have previously demonstrated how increasing temperatures place thermoregulatory constraints on drongo foraging and offspring provisioning, thereby reducing chick fitness. Presently they are co-supervising PhD student, Ben Murphy, whose research is focusing on how drongos adjust their behaviour to reduce the impact of high temperatures on reproductive success, including through offspring shading, foraging tactics and even shifting to crepuscular or nocturnal activity.

Activities in 2018

  • PhD student Amanda Bourne successfully completed her second field season on Southern Pied Babbler behaviour and physiology and had her first paper accepted for publication in Functional Ecology. This paper looked at the efficacy of determining metabolic rates using non-invasive techniques. She is busy collating her data from her final season and preparing further manuscripts for submission in 2019.
  • Elizabeth Wiley and Amanda Ridley’s research on the benefits of pair bond tenure in Pied Babblers was published in the journal Ecology & Evolution.
  • Martha Nelson-Flower published a paper in Journal of Animal Ecology that used the long-term Pied Babbler database coupled with a genetic pedigree to illustrate when and why Pied Babblers disperse from their cooperative groups.
  • Martha Nelson-Flower published a paper in Molecular Ecology which used the genetic and long-term Pied Babbler databases to illustrate the causes of sex differences in male and female reproductive skew.
  • A new PhD student, Camilla Soravia, started her research project on the relationship between heat stress, cognition and sociality, supervised by Amanda Ridley. Her work will build on the ground-breaking research on the relationship between sociality and cognition recently uncovered by Amanda and her colleagues in cooperative magpies (Ashton et al, Nature 2018). .

Highlights

  • Papers from the Pied Babbler Research Project were published in Journal of Animal Ecology, Molecular Ecology, Ecology and Evolution and Behavioral Ecology.
  • Pied babbler research published in 2018 received considerable international attention: it was featured on the front cover of Ecology and Evolution (Wiley & Ridley 2018), as the Editor’s Choice article for Behavioral Ecology (Engesser et al. 2018), and as the InFocus article for Journal of Animal Ecology (Nelson-Flower et al. 2018).
  • Pied Babbler and Fork-tailed Drongo research was presented at several national and international conferences including the International Ornithological Congress in Vancouver in August 2018.
  • A fully funded PhD scholarship was awarded to Camilla Soravia to allow her to begin her research on pied babblers.
  • PhD student Ben Murphy joined the Fork-tailed Drongo Project and began field research in September 2018 to explore how drongos adjust their behaviour to reduce fitness costs associated with foraging and breeding at high temperatures. His work will help us predict the impact of climate change on biodiversity

For more details on the collaborative work between the Pied Babbler and Fork-tailed Drongo Projects and the Hot Birds Project, see the Hot Birds Project page.

Key supporters

DST-NRF CoE grant; Australian Research Council.

Research team

Assoc. Prof. Amanda Ridley (FIAO, UCT and UWA)
Dr Thomas Flower (FIAO, UCT and Simon Fraser University)
Dr Susie Cunningham (FIAO, UCT)
Dr Ben Ashton (UWA)
Prof. Andrew McKechnie (U. Pretoria)
Dr Sabrina Essenger (U. Zurich)
Dr Martha Nelson-Flower (U. British Colombia)
Dr Ben Smit (Rhodes University)
Prof. Claire Spottiswoode (FIAO, UCT and U. Cambridge)
Dr Simon Townsend (U. Zurich)

Students:  Amanda Bourne (PhD, UCT); Benjamin Murphy (PhD, UCT); Camilla Soravia (PhD, UWA)

Research assistants:  Lesedi Moagi..