Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Size matters: dominance relationships

Hello there - my name is Brian Huang and I graduated last spring from UCLA with a major in Biology. During my last two quarters, I worked on a honors senior thesis with Tina and Dan studying dominance in marmots. Using six years of interaction data collected by the very hardworking marmoteers, we examined whether body condition (size) influenced dominance, and whether dominance in turn influenced reproductive success and dispersal.

Several dominance matrices and linear models later, we found that marmots in better body condition were more dominant and produced more offspring. In addition, higher ranking males had greater reproductive success than those of lower rank. Dominance had no influence on yearling dispersal, but individuals in better body condition were less likely to leave the natal territory.

This project really helped me realize the importance of each social interaction between marmots. Because marmots spend most of their time doing other things, such as foraging or avoiding predation, these relatively rare interactions can potentially be quite revealing. Each interaction can offer greater insight and better define marmot sociality.

It would be interesting to see whether these patterns still apply many decades later. As the environment changes, many species, including marmots, may adapt new behaviors to adapt to their evolving surroundings. But for now, I suppose size matters after all!

Look out for our paper on this study later this year in Ethology!

Outside of marmot research, I have also participated in other field research as a student of the Field/Marine Biology Quarter (FMBQ). In the fall of 2009, I traveled to the US Virgin Islands to study the effects of ecotourism (primarily camera flashes and shutter noises) on tropical lizards. In other words, my group-mates and I ran around the islands scaring every other lizard in sight. Here is a picture of me searching for those poor, unsuspecting lizards.

For any undergrads reading this blog, I highly recommend participating in a FMBQ if you have the opportunity. It was one of the most defining and rewarding experiences of my undergrad career. And the tropical destination wasn't too bad either :) !

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