Small and hungry prawns are more likely to be resourceful in the face of adversity than their less desperate counterparts according to new research published today in the journal PLOS ONE. However the study found that size and hunger have different effects depending on whether the prawns are acting alone or in a group. Small individuals were more likely to innovate when alone, but when in a group, size didn't matter and it was the hungry prawns that tended to be most resourceful.
Dr Alex Thornton from the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter's Penryn Campus in Cornwall said: "Innovation can allow individuals, be they prawns or primates, to access new resources and cope when conditions change.
"Our study shows that the drivers of innovation are more complex than we previously thought. We found that not only is necessity a factor, but the context - either a single individual or a group - matters as well."
The researchers tested rock-pool prawns to find what factors influenced their tendency to innovate. Rock-pool prawns are at the mercy of tides and waves, and often find themselves suddenly alone or in a group within the confines of a rock-pool. This extreme environmental variation, where physical and social conditions change dramatically from moment to moment, can drive prawns to innovate in an attempt to secure food or shelter.
To mimic these conditions the researchers tested the prawns' spatial and manipulation skills as individuals and in groups in the lab.
In the spatial task, prawns had to take a roundabout route, detouring through a hole in a clear screen to gain access to food at the bottom of a tank. In the manipulation task, a transparent box blocked access to the food rewards and the prawns had to either turn the box over or laboriously reach through the tiny holes in the box to reach the food piece by piece.
When tested alone, small prawns were more than twice as likely to succeed in locating the food compared to their larger counterparts - and were faster to get there - but hunger had no effect.
When in a group, size had no effect and hunger was the driving factor leading individuals to innovate.
Previous studies have suggested that necessity is the mother of invention and individuals are driven to innovate when they are unable to find resources in other ways. These results indicate that not only can desperation lead to innovation, but that the factors that drive innovation in one context may not do so in another.
Innovation is essential for behavioural flexibility and potentially of vital importance to species that are forced to adjust to changes in their environments.
The study received support from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
Desperate Prawns: Drivers of Behavioural Innovation Vary across Social Contexts in Rock Pool Crustaceans by Callum Duffield, Alastair J. Wilson and Alex Thornton is published in PLOS ONE.
Video: Large food deprived prawn successfully completes single manipulation task by turning over the box to access the reward of five blood worms. Credit: University of Exeter
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The University of Exeter is a Russell Group university and in the top one percent of institutions globally. It combines world-class research with very high levels of student satisfaction. Exeter has over 19,000 students and is one of the global top 100 universities according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2015-16, positioned 93rd. Exeter is also ranked 7th in The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide 2016, 9th in the Guardian University Guide 2016 and 10th in The Complete University Guide 2016. In the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF), the University ranked 16th nationally, with 98% of its research rated as being of international quality. Exeter was named The Times and The Sunday Times Sports University of the Year 2015-16, in recognition of excellence in performance, education and research. Exeter was The Sunday Times University of the Year 2012-13.
The University has four campuses. The Streatham and St Luke's campuses are in Exeter and there are two campuses in Cornwall, Penryn and Truro. The 2014-2015 academic year marks the 10-year anniversary of the two Cornwall campuses. In a pioneering arrangement in the UK, the Penryn Campus is jointly owned and managed with Falmouth University. At the campus, University of Exeter students can study programmes in the following areas: Animal Behaviour, Conservation Biology and Ecology, English, Environmental Science, Evolutionary Biology, Geography, Geology, History, Human Sciences, Marine Biology, Mining and Minerals Engineering, Politics and International Relations, Renewable Energy and Zoology.
The University has invested strategically to deliver more than £350 million worth of new facilities across its campuses in the past few years; including landmark new student services centres - the Forum in Exeter and The Exchange at Penryn - together with world-class new facilities for Biosciences, the Business School and the Environment and Sustainability Institute. There are plans for further investment between now and 2016.
About the University of Exeter's Centre for Ecology and Conservation (CEC)
Staff at the Centre for Ecology and Conservation, based on the Penryn Campus, undertake cutting-edge research that focusses on whole organism biology. The CEC has three interlinked research groups: Behaviour, Ecology and Conservation, and Evolution which constitute 40 academics and over 100 early career researchers. It engages widely with businesses, charities and government agencies and organisations in Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly and beyond to translate its research into societal impact. Staff at the CEC deliver educational programs to some 500 undergraduate and 100 postgraduate students.
A new £5.5 million Science and Engineering Research Support Facility (SERSF) is currently under construction at the Penryn Campus. The facility will bring pioneering business, science and engineering together and will provide space for the growing CEC alongside the University of Exeter Business School, which is expanding into Cornwall, and the University's Marine Renewables team.
The University of Exeter and Falmouth University are founding partners in the Combined Universities in Cornwall (CUC), a unique collaboration between six universities and colleges to promote regional economic regeneration through Higher Education, funded mainly by the European Union (Objective One and Convergence), the South West Regional Development Agency and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, with support from Cornwall Council.
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