RESEARCH – BEHAVIORAL INTERACTIONS & EVOLUTION

My research is explained by the lab header: Animal Behaviour, Coevolution, Sociality, terms sorted and driven by a pressing question:

Can you gain insight into Evolution by watching what social animals do?

My first research interest was on, and only on, animal behaviour. Observing animals is fun (a lot!), whatever they do, how and when they do it; it is enjoyable, it is challenging and is very rewarding unto itself. Then the whys come and start flipping  (i.e. messing with) your mind so that it goes from fun to extremely exciting, although daring and ambitious. It is there when you turn from an always-thrilled student to a never-satisfied researcher.

  • Why social behaviours may be modified by ecological context?
  • Why behavioural landscapes may trigger evolutionary mechanisms?
  • If you like, put in a gross, oversimplified manner, may we state, ecology drives (social/interspecific) behaviour which triggers evolution?

My focus species are mostly wild birds but in the past I also enjoyed working with fish and in the future I would really like to explore the insect world. Field sites range from lake shoreline in North America, to marshes in Northern Italy, to Mediterranean pseudo-steppes in Sicily, to green urban parks. Below I provide details from past, current and future investigations. 

 

Recently, I started collaborations with projects aimed to popularise science and raise awareness on the importance of biodiversity conservation by involving the general public to actively participate in Citizen Science projects. Schools, public institutions and environmental associations have been wonderful partners inpast, and desirable future, projects.

JOB & THESIS OPPORTUNITIES

see below for details

Avian brood parasitism

An arms race with a twist, or is it? They are parasites and as such inflict damage on others. The damage comes when, laid in other species nests, parasite eggs hatch into chicks either killing or reducing the survival probability of their foster siblings by monopolising the foster parent’s attention.

“They” are the avian brood parasites, such as  the common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) in Europe and brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) in North America. The “others” are technically called parasite hosts, such as the reed warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus) and yellow warbler (Setophaga petechia). 

Commencing my first experiments in 2002 for my PhD thesis, I enjoyed jumping across continents to study these two parasitism systems, specifically to compare the learning nature of one of the alleged weapons hosts have at their disposal, the nest defence. We revealed a rather complex and articulated combination of social and individual learning, each mode adopted by the parasite victims likely in accord with the ecological circumstances they experience. 

Other results provided more questions than answers. Why defence is able to deter egg predation but not parasitism in North American hosts? Is group mobbing adopted by European hosts facilitated by specific intra- and inter-specific social networks built during the nesting season?

Now, helped by the exceptional skills of the volunteeers from the Modena Ornithological Station (SOM) and collaborating with the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia (unimore), I am recently back to my old European site. Martina Esposito recently graduated finding interesting bioacoustic and behavioural cuckoo aspects but there are many others to unveil.

This is a crucial area for the common cuckoo as it is an optimal stop over area possessing unique, yet still unknown, features enabling cuckoos to safely continue their journey to their African overwinter destinations, as shown by the satellite-tracking BTO study.

BiodiverCITY

It is a brand new project, a study of urban biodiversity. Helped by Bruno Massa, we placed nest boxes for great tits (Parus major) in thet Botanical Garden of the University of Palermo, Sicily. Then we expanded our invesitgation to other urban parks. There, we have been describing qualitative and quantitative composition of avian species, their reproductive performance in nest boxes, time budget and agonistic behaviours at the feeders. There, Eleonora Di Fede was able for her MSc thesis to build some social networks per feeder.

Soon, we will start ringing sessions so that we will be able to identify single individuals, run manipulative experiments to verify the presence of personality syndrome and understand whether social networks can provide useful information for both promoting  biodiversity and optimising urban park management.

 By comparing social network metrics between this urban population and others nesting in more rural areas, we aim to reveal drivers and consequences of intra- and inter-specific social networks in relation to the degree of urbanization.

ENiGMA – European Network of Gut microbiota

Teeny tiny but still interactions. This is another type of interspecific interaction, the one between gut micro-organisms (microbiota) and their feathered hosts during migration. Are these affected their immune-competence or sexual preferences? Can microbiota reveal whether their hosts had a poor-quality diet along their migratory route? This is a new project whose data sampling and analyses are still in progress. We already collected samples in the most common migratory species captured by an extensive network of ringing stations, including those in Spain, Switzerland, Austria, Romania and Italy

Sociality in avian communities

On War and Truce. As a postdoc in the LABZEA, I looked at potential reciprocal advantages of living in the same colony structure or, on the contrary, maladaptive associations between two cavity nesters, the lesser kestrel (Falco naumanni) and the jackdaw (Corvus monedula), nesting in the Gela Plain (Southern Sicily). Project goals integrated ecological aspects, such as biotic and abiotic nest conditions, with visual and vocal behaviours of the two species nesting in pure versus mixed-species colonies. Kestrels and jackdaws modified their nest vigilance if they nested together, indicating an extended social phenotype with unique evolutionary implications. Here our story told by the BBC.

JOB & THESIS OPPORTUNITIES

 JOB OPPORTUNITIES

ENIGMA project offers a 1-year research contract (possibly renewing for 1- 2 additional years) for conducting molecular analyses on micro-organisms in buccal swabs sampled from migratory birds at several ringing stations across Europe, from Spain to Austria. Annual pay may increase in case of documented skills of the candidate to interpret lab data and to prepare manuscript drafts. Contact us for more details.

THESIS TOPIC

Avian brood parasitism. The Valli Mirandolesi is a marsh area perfectly suited to study common cuckoos parasitizing mostly Acrocephalus Still many questions to address on both parasites and hosts, from behavioural to evolutionary aspects. Questions will be tailored to the student academic career stage and skills, in line with the research lines of the lab. Most field work occurs during spring time and is quite demanding on physical efforts as most activities are conducted from very early morning to late night, including weekends, and entails long walkswith waders in unpleasant conditions (i.e. hot temperatures and lots of mosquitos!)

Below some of the activities students are required to do:

  • searching host nests within the reedbeds
  • carrying observation sessions both live or with videocamera and directional microphone
  • assisting certified ringers at SOM from setting mistnets to compiling datasheets during ringing sessions
  • assisting during sampling of buccal swabs and other biological material (i.e. feathers, blood)
  • assisting during deployment of tracking devices on cuckoos

THESIS TOPIC

Urban versus rural biodiversity. The urban part occurs, at this stage, only in Palermo city but working to expand this research to other urban centres. The rural part occurs at Monte Cammarata where Bruno Massa and collaborators have been following for almost 30 years a population of both great and blue tits breeding in nest boxes within three different rural habitats. Questions will be tailored to the student academic career stage and skills, in line with the research lines of the LAB. Field work both in urban and rural setting is less demanding as it occurs along defined paths within both urban and rural parks and where the presence of nest boxes and feeders makes nest checks and experiments easier to conduct in more controlled conditions.

Below some of the activities students are required to do:

  • checking nest boxes to record reproductive parameters
  • carrying point count censuses
  • carrying experiments mostly at the feeders to determine personality traits
  • managing cameratraps and soundrecorders placed mostly at feeders
  • assisting certified ringers during colour-ringing sessions
  • assisting during sampling of buccal swabs and other biological material (i.e. feathers, blood)

Outreach – Media & Citizen Science

  • Media coverage

    BBC Nature

  • Media coverage

  • Ateneo News

    Specie diverse di animali comunicano tra loro, lo rivela ricerca di studiosi Unipa

  • BIODIVERSITÀ CON UNIPA

    Campobello LAB as organizer, together with Associazione Comuni Modena Nord and Legambiente, of a workshop aimed to illustrate planning and management of Citizen Science projects by showing results of Biodiversità con Unipà where little citizens acted as big scientists!

  • SHARPER - EUROPEAN RESEARCHERS' NIGHT

    Together with the Zoologists @ UNIPA we showed our research at the Animal House gazebo. We had lot of fun with kids (and adult-kids!) by building chimeras and playing a special version of Taboos, that with animal taboos!

  • VxN - Urban Ecoblitz

    Together with Legambiente, Campobello LAB organised the first urban ecoblitz in Palermo where most expert guides were students and former students UNIPA