Project Dissertation - "Does Social Structure Change in a Group of Zebra Finch, Taeniopygia guttata, between Two Feeding Contexts?"
As part of my final year at Oxford University studying Biological Sciences, I was required to design an independent research project and complete a write-up.
My project aimed to assess whether the social structure changed in a small study flock of birds depending on their social feeding opportunity, asking questions of general relevance in the field of social biology. I undertook this project by presenting the group with either one or two dishes where they could feed, and subsequently analysed 20 hours of video footage to assess what proportion of time individuals spent with other specified members of the group depending on the treatment (where the treatment, by extension, designates how much 'choice' they had to feed with certain individuals).
Using the programme RStudio, I was able to visualise the social structure under the two contexts and perform statistical tests on my results. The results showed that the social structure was relatively flexible between the two treatments, where the organisation changes but still retains aspects of its structure. I suggested that the similarity of the social structure under the two treatments might be disproportionately due to pair-bonds between mated (or future mating) pairs and parent-offspring associations, which maintain their relationships under different social feeding opportunity. I further speculated that this means that structural flexibility in the sociality of wild populations is very likely to be dependent on the sex- and age-structure of the group. I also speculated that previous studies proposing rigid dominance hierarchies in zebra finch flocks might overestimate their role in controlling social structure, as my study didn't offer much support for the presence of a hierarchical structure.
I really enjoyed my first taste of scientific research, finding it extremely exciting to discover results from my own experimental design and drawing conclusions from this. I hope that further research will take place in the field of social biology in the natural world and I look forward to keeping up to date with new findings.
Below is the full dissertation:
(Click "Read More" for the Abstract)
Social individuals interact with each other in populations of animal species, forming relationships that differ in strength, which in turn shapes the social structure of a group. However, the rigidity of animals’ social structure when subject to environmental change is poorly investigated within the literature. My study aims to assess whether the social structure in a flock of zebra finches, Taeniopygia guttata, changed under two feeding contexts. This was achieved by changing the way in which food was presented in two experimental treatments, therefore providing different social feeding opportunity. The strength at which individuals associated within the flock was evaluated under these two contexts, and was used to infer social structure. I demonstrate that the social structure within the group is relatively flexible between the two treatments, where the organisation shows similarity between them, but is not restricted such that it remains identical. I suggest that potential pair and kin bonds remain stable across treatments, which contribute to the overall similarity between the structures under different contexts, while other relationships are much more variable, such as those involving juveniles. I also speculate that although preferential associations between pairs exist, a dominance hierarchy is unlikely to restrict the flexibility of the social structure across contexts. My conclusions suggest that the rigidity of social structures in zebra finch populations subject to environmental change will be dependable on the phenotypic and demographic-structure of the group, and further studies might reveal that hierarchical relationships are unlikely to control this flexibility
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