Hughes Lab


Social evolution: cooperation, conflict and organisation. Many of the most ecologically dominant species are social. Indeed, given that multicellularity, eukaryotic cells, and even genomes all arose from the interaction of individual components, it can in one sense be said, to quote the evolutionary biologist Steve Frank, that “all of life is social”. Our work in this area uses primarily social insects, ranging from species with complex societies with distinct queen and worker castes, to those with simple societies in which all individuals in the colony have the potential to become the ‘queen’. Our work includes understanding the roles of nature and nurture in determining who gets to be the queen, how the many conflicts between individuals within a colony are resolved, the ways in which work is organised within the colony, and how members of a colony communicate with each other to produce the complex division of labour that many species exhibit.

Host-symbiont evolution and ecology. All species are involved in symbiotic relationships of one form or another and these have profound effects on the biology and evolution of both symbiont and host. Symbiotic organisms all have the same basic objective, to convert host resources into their own reproductive output as efficiently as possible. However, they may adopt widely different strategies to achieve this, ranging along a continuum from parasitic to mutualistic relationships. Relationships may be obligate or facultative and, crucially, while our understanding is largely based on investigation of bipartite relationships, symbioses in fact almost always involve multiple symbiotic organisms which interact within the host. Some of these relationships between symbionts may be antagonistic while others may be synergistic, with both extremes potentially having positive or negative effects on the host. Our work includes understanding the within-host interactions and evolution of symbionts, the diversity of symbionts which infect organisms and how this relates to host life-history, and the ways in which individual and social immunity combine to protect social insects against the myriad of parasites that would otherwise overcome their societies.

Animal behaviour and ‘personalities’. One of the most interesting and important developments in animal behaviour research in recent years, is the recognition that individuals vary a lot in their behaviour, and that this individual variation can have significant effects on the evolution, ecology and conservation of species. It is now well established individuals in many animal species have ‘personalities’ (consistent, statistically significant differences between individuals in behaviour or behavioural syndromes. Working with social insects and white sharks, we’re interested in understanding the proximate mechanisms that produce individual variation in behaviour, the implications of it, and the reasons why it involves.

Sexual cooperation and conflict. Most, if not all, social insects, choose their partners during a brief window early in their lives, and their success or failure in this will define their lifetime reproductive success. Unlike other animals that can correct their mistakes in subsequent mating events, social insect queens (and males) have no room for error when selecting with whom to have sex. Our research is combining a comparative overview with focussed experimental studies to try and understand the mating strategies used by social insects, in particular why queens mate with as many as 100 males in a few derived genera, while for queens of the most species once is enough.

Applied biology and conservation. Although our research primarily addresses ‘pure’ questions in biology, many aspects of it are also of applied relevance. Social insects include pest species of agriculture, and our research on the parasites, pheromonal communication and general biology of certain pest species has developed into collaborations and consultancy work with industry. Social insects also include beneficial species such as bumblebees and honeybees, and our work on bee diseases has helped inform conservation policy and management. White sharks are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, with a global population of only around 5,000 individuals probably, and our work on them is in collaboration with a marine conservation organisation in South Africa.