Grant awarded for disentangling the three C’s of collectives

Research on how conflict, cooperation and communication shape collectives will be given a boost thanks to 3-year grant from the Heineman Foundation.

Life, more often than not, is a social phenomenon. Living in groups undeniably yields benefits that would be impossible for individuals in isolation. But what happens to the group after the inevitable occurs? What happens when conflict arises among social partners?

Research addressing this question—led by Alex Jordan and collaborator Ofer Feinerman—has been selected for funding by the Minna-James-Heineman-Stiftung. With the goal of strengthening German-Israeli ties, the grant is awarded annually to two projects that bring together researchers from the Max Planck Society and the Weizmann Institute of Science.

Alex and Ofer’s study will seek to answer a fundamental question in the functioning of biological collectives: how cooperation withstands the inherent conflict between individuals.

To tease apart the various effects, the study will exploit the unique socio-biological traits of two group-living invertebrates—the eusocial ant Cataglyphis livida and the social spider Philoponella republicana. Both species exhibit remarkably similar behaviours of cooperation (both share food) and collective decision-making (both move as cohesive groups to new nest sites). However, they differ in one key aspect that should influence their propensity for cooperation and collective decision-making: intra-group relatedness.

The species thus provide an opportune separation between ultimate and proximate conflict, which can then be manipulated through experimental work to get to the heart of understanding how cooperation, communication, and conflict shape the collective function of biological ensembles.

To see how proximate (or informational) conflict affects collective decision-making, individuals within groups will be given differing experiences of food density through selective feeding experiments, and ensuing changes in the cohesiveness of the group will be examined. Average relatedness within colonies will be manipulated by mixing broods (spiders) or matrilines (ants) to determine the effect of ultimate (relatedness) conflict on cooperative interactions such as food sharing, as well as group-level collective movement decisions.

Cutting-edge technologies developed in the Feinerman lab will augment sociobiological experiments on group behaviour developed in the Jordan group. A barcoding system (see top video) will allow for automated tracking of the movement and interaction of every animal in real time. Further, fluorescence technology (bottom video) will make it possible to measure exactly how much food has been consumed—and shared—by each individual.

Funds will also go towards an educational symposium where students from both institutes come together for a summer course titled ‘Conflict, cooperation, and collective behaviour.’ The course will foster cooperation between the two labs, and enrich professional development in experiments and theory underpinning the study, including evolution of sociality, direct and indirect selection acting on individuals within groups, and collective behaviour.


(Above) Ants are tagged with custom-made barcodes, which enables real-time tracking of up to 200 individuals at rates close to 10Hz.

(Above) Feinerman’s group have developed fluorescent dyes to quantitatively track the flow of food as it is shared between donor and and acceptor ants.