The study of animal societies and corresponding social affiliations is ever growing and important as the concepts span a large area of biology; from animal welfare to developing treatments for human autistic spectrum disorders. The same can be said for animal cognition or their ‘intelligence’. With the continual refinement of molecular and cellular technology, the neural mechanisms driving expression of social behaviour and higher cognition are being discovered. Honey bee colonies are the epitome of sociality as they consist of thousands of individuals, all intelligent in their own right, yet all working cooperatively for the survival of the group. Coinciding with their rich repertoire of social behaviour and cognitive abilities, bees have an accessible and very small brain consisting just under 1 million neurons. Consequently, the honey bee is an ideal model species to investigate social cognition and behaviour and the original neural mechanisms driving it all.
This year I started a PhD to uncover the neural mechanisms driving social cohesion in the honey bee (Apis mellifera). Social groups require members to recognise other members from non-members. Bees use olfactory cues, predominantly from the self-constructed wax comb in the hive. This provides an excellent opportunity to develop a social cue preference test for honey bees. Once the bioassay is established, various neuro-pharmacological manipulations and neuro-anatomical analyses will be done to decipher the neural correlates behind these cognitive and behavioural phenomena. I will also collaborate on an in-hive tracking system to record intra-colony social networks and whole-colony treatment effects.
Previous social behaviour and brain research
I was awarded my MSc. Neuroscience and Cognition (Behavioural track) from the University of Utrecht in The Netherlands. During these two years I completed two research projects, the first with Will Swaney and Simon Reader. We compared the hypothalamic neuro-anatomy of two feral groups of guppies expressing different levels of grouping behaviour that correlated with the presence and absence of predation pressure. I compared the number of nonapeptide (mammalian homologues are vasopressin and oxytocin) neurons as there is ample evidence across several taxonomic groups that hypothalamic nonapeptides are part of the ‘social brain’ circuitry. Next, I worked with Rebecca Nordquist and looked at the effects of maternal care and genetic selection on laying-hen chick behaviour and spatial cognition (Hewlett et al. in prep), and the pattern of hypothalamic mesotocin (avian nonapeptide) and tyrosine hydroxylase (Hewlett et al. 2014).
Hewlett et al. 2014: http://www.biomedcentral.com/1746-6148/10/167
Animal welfare research and study
I obtained my BSc. Biological Sciences at the University of Birmingham, UK. I completed with a dissertation at Chester Zoo looking at the changes in activity and behaviour of a group of Orangtuans that had been moved to a new, and improved, enclosure. I’m happy to report that they were expressing more natural behaviours and with a daily rhythm seen in the wild. In keeping with my passion for animal welfare and the ethics of animal under the care of humans, my published research discussed the findings in the light of poultry welfare. Also, during my Masters I followed taught modules about animal emotion and welfare and conservation zoo biology. Prior to starting my PhD, I worked as a field assistant in the Colombian Amazon for a non-profit conservation organisation (Entropika.org).