Cousin island research station

Essential infrastructure for field research

Tropical island systems have had a disproportionate influence on our knowledge of evolution. The most famous example is the inspiration that Darwin obtained about the process of speciation and evolution by natural selection from his observations of animals on the Galapagos archipelago. In more recent times the special power of studies of birds on small isolated islands has come from the opportunity that they offer to study contemporary evolutionary processes; this is because in the absence of the migration that occurs in other populations the success – in terms of survival and reproduction – of every individual can be tracked in real time. With the help of DNA profiling, the genealogy of an entire population can be constructed. Consequently we can discover which traits and behaviours have a genetic component, understand how these traits and behaviours influence an individual’s genetic contribution to future generations, and therefore understand how natural selection continues to shape the population.

The Seychelles warbler is the focus of our research mainly because it is a cooperative breeder: many individuals stay to assist with rearing the young in their natal territory instead of breeding themselves. Our aim is to understand why such altruism – which is initially counterintuitive – has evolved. The study, which has been a continuous collaboration between the Universities of Sheffield and Groningen since 1997, and with UEA since 2004, has become a classic of its kind. Amongst many important discoveries (e.g. adaptive sex-ratio modification1, associative kin recognition4, grandparent helpers2, the role of MHC genotype in mate choice8 and the fitness consequences of inbreeding5) it has been particularly influential in elucidating the alternative benefits that an individual can gain by being a helper3,6,7 – work that is now become a classic textbook example9,10

The four partners in the consortium have each raised significant research council funding to ensure that the project has run continuously without a break in the field programme – a vital feature of a long-term demographic study like this. Two of our grants have been large 4-year NERC projects led by Sheffield7,8, two have been large 3-year NERC standard grants led by UEA, two were NWO grants lead by RUG, and two were NERC fellowships. The consortium cooperates closely with Nature Seychelles, which manages Cousin Island as a reserve under a sustainable ecotourism model. Nature Seychelles is highly supportive of our studies but conservation rather than research is its priority. The infrastructure on Cousin can only support a very small number of visitors and it has been increasingly difficult for Cousin to accommodate our team in addition to the staff and volunteers needed to run the reserve. Nature Seychelles has however offered us a long-term solution to this perennial problem: we have the opportunity to refurbish an abandoned house as a research base. We envisage that this will become the Cousin Island Research Station. This will enable us to ensure the longer term future of our existing study, enhance the questions that we can ask in that study, and give us and others the opportunity to establish new projects that focus on other unique aspects of the fauna and flora. The latter include, for example host-pathogen coevolution in avian systems, the genetic benefits of mate choice, tropical forest community restoration and the evolutionary significance of the seabird mortality caused by Pisonia seeds, but these opportunities have been prevented by the lack of accommodation and facilities. These myriad opportunities, which we believe to have the potential to attract significant RC funding, would become readily available to the staff of the sponsoring institutes.

The refurbishment will cost ca £100,000. This will provide three twin-bedded rooms, kitchen, bathroom and communal space in a low-energy building designed to cope with the extremes of the tropical climate. This is an unusual request for Faculty funding, but the project so far has been highly productive in (RAE submitted) outputs and brings in significant research funding. Without this investment there is a real risk that the project will be forced to end (this nearly happened in 2008 because of these logistical problems). It is unfortunately not possible to raise the required funds via RC grants as field stations are seen as infrastructure, rather like laboratories, to be funded via indirect costs (though a direct contribution to running costs can be claimed once the facility exists). We are therefore approaching all the potential sponsors that we can, including our own universities. A contribution from Sheffield is likely to encourage the other institutions to make a similar contribution. Any contribution would of course be welcome, but our target for each institution is £20,000, with the balance to be raised from trusts and charities.

References

  1. Komdeur J., Daan S., Tinbergen J., Mateman C. (1997) Extreme adaptive modification in sex ratio of the Seychelles warbler’s eggs. Nature 385, 522-525.
  2. Richardson DS, Burke, T. & Komdeur, J. (2007) Grandparent helpers: the adaptive significance of older, post-dominant helpers in the Seychelles warbler. Evolution 61, 2790-2800
  3. Richardson DS, Komdeur J, Burke T. (2002) Direct benefits explain the evolution of cooperative breeding in the Seychelles warblers. Evolution 56, 2313-2321
  4. Komdeur J, Richardson DS, Burke T (2004) Experimental evidence that kin discrimination in the Seychelles warbler is based on association and not on genetic relatedness. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 271, 963–969.
  5. Richardson DS, Komdeur J, Burke T (2004) Inbreeding in the Seychelles warbler: environment-dependent maternal effects. Evolution 58, 2037–2048.
  6. Richardson DS, Komdeur J, Burke T (2003) Altruism and infidelity in the Seychelles warbler. Nature 422, 581
  7. Richardson DS, Burke T, Komdeur J (2003) Sex–specific associative learning cues and inclusive fitness benefits in the Seychelles warbler. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 16, 854–861.
  8. Richardson DS, Komdeur J, Burke T, von Schantz T  MHC-based patterns of social and extra-pair mate choice in the Seychelles warbler. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 272, 759–767.
  9. Futuyma DJ (2009) Evolution. Sinauer Associates Inc. Massachusetts USA.
  10. Davies NB, West S, in prep. An Introduction to Behavioural Ecology, 5th edition.

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