Investigating communal pathogen defense and its role in social evolution

Presenting person: Maximilian KörnerDr. Maximilian Körner, Evolutionary Animal Ecology, BayCEER / University of Bayreuth (Homepage)
Th. 2021-05-20 (12:15-13:45)

The study of the emergence of group living and its evolution into permanent and complex societal systems is a major topic of interest in evolutionary biology. Sociality is both widespread across taxa but rare across species, making careful study of the cost and benefits constraining and driving the evolution of social systems both enticing and paramount if we are to understand how solitary organisms form simple families, and how more coherent groups make the transition into permanently social superorganisms such as eusocial insects. Sociality is thought to thrive in face of environmental adversity, but because social structures are frequently characterized by high organismic density, close relatedness, and frequent physical interactions, infections can spread rapidly and are considered one of the greatest hurdles during social evolution. To overcome this threat, individuals in groups can not only increase their investment into personal defenses, such as physiological and behavioral immunity, but also exhibit communal defenses which have been described as collective or social immunity. Recent studies have suggested that this communal defense plays a key part in the early emergence of sociality – yet little is known about the role of collective defenses in primitive groups, such as facultative family associations where offspring benefit from parental care, but do not require these benefits to survive. In particular, it remains largely unknown to what degree collective immunity in subsocial species is mediated by parental care or how it shapes investment into personal immunity in these family groups. Similarly, whether or not the increased risk of pathogen spread hinders the gregarious nature of facultative family associations or facilitates it by selecting for cooperation is not yet understood. I aim to shed light on these issues by investigating individual and collective pathogen and parasite defenses and their associated costs and trade-offs with life-history traits in a model system featuring species of varying dependence on parental care. Beetles of the genus Nicrophorus boast offspring ranging from completely independent to utterly helpless without parental assistance. By comparing the impact of both pristine and harsh environments, I hope to reveal to what degree offspring & parental adjustments to care and pathogen threats shift with varying dependence on care, and whether these changes are reflected in overall fitness and individual pathogen resistance. Overall, my research will attempt to reveal key interactions between personal & collective efforts to best adverse conditions with the consolidation of facultatively social individuals into interdependent social systems.

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