From individual behavior to social organization: Learning to navigate a diverse range of environments is essential for individual success, and the most challenging environment is the social organization of the group. The non-random interaction patterns that define a group’s organization shape the challenges individuals face, and the information and resources available to them. Most groups show characteristic patterns of social organization over time and across generations. My research investigates how the resilience of social organization over time reflects differences in how individuals modify their social behavior in response to internal or external group changes. This approach goes beyond traditional descriptive studies by identifying the behavioral mechanisms behind the persistence of social organization.
By experimentally perturbing cowbird flocks, my research has shown how differences in behavior shape the stability and flexibility of social organization. In response to group changes, females maintained stable differences in how they interact (such as in the use of ritualized social displays) and with whom they interact, whereas males changed both how and with whom they interacted. This resulted in stable female social sub-groups, such that juvenile females preferentially associated with other juvenile females, and adult females with other familiar adults.
These findings showed that the ability to form enduring relationships among females is the bedrock of the group’s social organization. Future research will study how early social networks shape the development of individual responses to group changes, in ways that reconstruct such early social networks (creating resilient social organization) or change them (creating novel patterns of social organization).
Reproductive and Developmental Outcomes of Social Connections: Social networks have cascading influences across every aspect of an individual’s life. There is growing general interest in the links between social connections (especially during early life) and later behavioral and reproductive outcomes, but these links and their underlying mechanisms are only beginning to be characterized and understood.
My work investigates how early differences in social interactions, behaviors and challenges in the group facilitate or inhibit the ability to navigate interactions with potential mates and successfully reproduce. I demonstrated that enduring strong social connections in autumn are predictive of later reproductive outcomes during the following spring. I found that juvenile female cowbirds that frequently used ritualized autumn affiliative displays showed better courtship behavior and stronger pair bonds during their first breeding season. In adults, I showed that females who sustain enduring connections with familiar individuals across autumn group changes lay more eggs during the breeding season. In males, I found that spring flocks composed of males who frequently used ritualized affiliative displays in autumn were better at coordinating counter-singing displays that stimulate higher female egg production.
My findings show the predictive nature of social connections on later reproductive performance across a cowbird’s life. Future research will investigate the mechanisms whereby autumn social interactions prepare individuals for the breeding season by buffering against stressful interactions and priming female reproductive physiology.
Neurogenetic mechanisms of communication and social integration: Social interactions revolve around effective communication. Nonetheless, the relationship between the neural mechanisms underlying vocal communication and the formation of stable social networks is largely unknown.
My postdoctoral research is focusing on investigating how the neurogenetic mechanisms of vocal learning shape the quality, frequency, and stability of social interaction networks. In budgerigars, small flocks converge upon communally-shared vocal contact calls that facilitate integration into a group by signaling group membership. Using viral vectors I have up-regulated FoxP2—a critical translational factor shaping neural connectivity—in a brain region essential for vocal learning in budgerigars, MMsT. Such up-regulation of FoxP2 should disrupt the ability of individuals to learn these shared contact calls, and their ability to build strong enduring social networks in the group. While work is ongoing, this project is the first to look at the cascading influences of neurogenetic learning mechanisms on the organization of individual and group social interaction, from individual social integration to the stability of group-specific dialects.