Quantitative genetics of social behaviours. Dr. H.L. Dugdale. Bezoeker: Dr. H.L. Dugdale.


Understanding how individuals respond to change within their own natural environment is crucial to our gaining insight into how individuals, populations and species respond to environmental change. Despite intensive research, many questions into the adaptiveness of behaviour have not been answered in sufficient detail, due to a lack of long-term studies (that measure behavioural, genetic and environmental traits), imprecise fitness measures, and the need for complex models to separate environmental from genetic effects.

We therefore currently don't know whether behaviour is culturally learnt or genetically inherited, or whether the context in which it is expressed matters. We inherit our genes from our parents and they inherit them from their parents. By building a family tree and looking at how the behaviours of family members are more similar than the behaviours of unrelated individuals, we can discover the genetically inherited contribution to these behaviours. We can then look at the benefits of these behaviours, and begin to understand why these behaviours have evolved in the way that they have.

It is also very important to consider the situation or environment in which behaviour is expressed. For example, if a stranger asks us for directions we may help them on a sunny day, but may be less inclined to help them when it is freezing cold and pouring with rain; equally the people around us may influence our decision. Situations or environments clearly have the ability to influence our behaviour. If our behaviour influences our survival or breeding success (e.g. we get pneumonia helping someone when it's raining), and this behaviour (tendency to help) is inherited, then the environment has the ability to influence which behaviours evolve. Evolution is the result of selection; selection is the process that leads to the survival of successful behaviours. Individuals evolve behaviour that maximises their success in the conditions they experience; however, the environment or individuals that we interact with are constantly varying or changing, over time and space, and individuals must have a range of flexible behaviours to allow them to respond. Environmental or social factors can therefore influence the way in which our behaviour evolves, thus, if behaviour changes as a result of selection, the environment will also change. It is therefore important to study how environmental and social variation influences behaviours in natural populations so that we understand how behaviour evolves and what maintains the diversity of behavioural strategies that occur.

Dr Dugdale, Prof Weissing and Prof Komdeur will use recent analytical developments, in a Bayesian framework, to explore whether helping and extra-pair paternity are genetically inherited and how the environment influences this. In particular we will examine how social interactions influence the evolution of behaviours. Although previous pioneering studies have quantified the heritability of social behaviour in natural systems, none have considered interactions with relatives. This is vital when considering evolutionary change, given that if selection acts on behaviour, not only will the behaviour evolve but the environment in which it is expressed will also change. We will investigate this using our long-term dataset of Seychelles warblers that represents the most detailed genetic dataset of cooperative breeders. Cooperative breeding occurs in many fish, insects, birds and mammals. Our study species lives in family groups on territories. Some territories are better than others, the weather is better in some years than others, and territories contain different individuals. We will ask how this environmental and social variation affects the expression of behaviours. By exploring how the environment and social surroundings influence evolutionary dynamics in this natural cooperative-breeding system, we will gain insights into the genetic basis of behaviours that are likely to be similar in other cooperative species such as humans. This will improve our understanding of the degree to which individuals can adapt to environmental variability and change, crucial to species of conservation concern (e.g. the Seychelles warbler) in these times of accelerated anthropogenic change.

Finally, we will assess the foundations on which our understanding of the evolution of social behaviour is based. We will do this by developing theoretical models (which Prof Weissing has a wealth of expertise in) using precise fitness estimates from the closed Seychelles warbler population, to investigate the performance of quantitative genetic 'animal' models when estimating the heritability of behaviours. This will have widespread relevance to cooperative breeding and evolutionary biology studies in general.


Wetenschappelijk artikel

  • HL Dugdale, J. Komdeur, J Schroeder(2011): Biased sampling: no 'Homer Simpson Effect' among high achievers Trends in Ecology and Evolution pp. 622 - 623
  • Y W Sin, HL Dugdale, C Newman, J. Komdeur, T Burke(2012): MHC class II genes in the European badger (Meles meles): characterization, patterns of variation, and transcription analysis Immunogenetics pp. 313 - 327
  • YW Sin, HL Dugdale, C Newman, J. Komdeur, T Burke(2012): Evolution of MHC class I genes in the European badger (Meles meles) Ecology and Evolution pp. 1 - 19
  • J Schroeder, H L Dugdale, + 37 co-authors(2013): Fewer invited talks by women in evolutionary biology symposia Journal of Evolutionary Biology pp. 2063 - 2069


  • J. Komdeur(2011): Quantitative genetics of behaviour: cooperative breeding and lifetime fitness
  • D.S. Richardson(2012): Translocation of Seychelles warblers (Acrocephalus sechellensis) to Frégate: Post-release preliminary report





Prof. dr. ir. J. Komdeur

Verbonden aan

Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, Faculteit Wiskunde en Natuurwetenschappen, Groningen Institute for Evolutionary Life Sciences (GELIFES)


01/07/2011 tot 04/10/2012