Susanne Shultz

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I am currently a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow in the Institute for Cogntive and Evolutionary Anthropology. I completed my Ph.D. in 2003, working on predator-prey interactions between primates and African crowned eagles. I have since worked for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds on Asian vulture declines and taught at the University of Liverpool.

What are your main interests? Feel free to include a "pie in the sky" big idea!

My research interest focus on the evolution of behavioral complexity and flexibility in vertebrates. However, within this broad topic I am currently working on a number of research projects.

Firstly, I am developing comparative quantitative measure of stability and network structure across vertebrates. Although social complexity is considered a human hallmark, and more widely a defining characteristic of primates, we have little understanding of what constitutes complex social behaviour and how social network structure varies across species. However, I have recently shown that this group size relationship is not universal. Primates, and especially anthropoids, are characterised by cohesive groups, whereas stable social structure in non-primates appears to be exceptional. This characterisation is both qualitative and descriptive, and now needs to be confirmed by quantitatively comparing group structure across taxa. However, issues such as scaling and group size effects have thus far limited the utility of network analyses as a tool to compare across species. The main questions I will address in this work program are: a) How does network structure differ across species? The first part of the project will use long-term demographic data to compare social structures and stability across species using network characteristics, quantifying turnover rates (using a markov chain approach), and duration of inter-individual relationships, and evaluating stability in individual social niches. b) Why form stable groups? This part of the project will identify associations between social stability, ecology and life history using Phylogenetic Generalised Least Squares analysis. c) What are the evolutionary routes leading to social cohesion and complexity? To address this question, comparative analyses will be used to evaluate a cross species database and identify the probable evolutionary pathways, and the intermediate step-wise changes that led to bonded sociality. d) Are social networks kin networks? Here we will compare relatedness coefficients with patterns of association. In key populations where the genetics/pedigrees are not complete, a longer-term goal will be to collect DNA samples from as many individuals as possible within target groups.

Secondly, I am supervising projects that evaluate how species characteristics affect their sensitivity to environmental change. I currently supervise two students working in this theme. The first project seeks to identify intrinsic traits associated with sensitivity, using UK passerines as a model. This project involves comparative approaches and spatial/temporal modeling. To date, we have identified phonological plasticity as a strong predictor of long-term population trends. The second project is exploring the links between environment, behavior, physiology and reproductive performance in black rhinos. We are using population models to forecast future growth trajectories under different management strategies. We are also using hormone profiling to identify factors associated with poor reproductive performance. Part of this program involves rigorous validation of current interpretations of fecal glucocorticoids as indicators of stress.

What sort of expertise can you bring to the group?

  • Comparative analyses
  • Enthusiasm
  • General experience
  • Interdisciplinary perspective

What do you hope to get out of the CSSS?

  • I feel that the analytical tool kit available for answering questions about evolutionary processes is expanding at a very rapid rate. I also fear I am being left behind. Therefore, I am extremely keen to attend CSSS to refresh and extend my own toolkit.
  • I think this is especially important as many of the analyses I currently use are self-taught and i am sure my understanding of them is somewhat incomplete.

Do you have any possible projects in mind for the CSSS?

  • I am keen to develop agent based models of dispersal and association patterns in animals to explore the effect of population/social structure on network metrics, relatedness and community structure.