Posted January 13th 2021

St Hugh’s Stipendiary lecturer awarded research funding

Christopher Pull, PhD, Departmental Lecturer in Animal Behaviour, Department of Zoology and Stipendiary Lecturer at St Hugh’s, has been awarded a John Fell Fund to work on the “role of experience in social immunity in ants”.

Christopher’s research will look at whether social animals such as ant colonies can learn from prior disease outbreaks, and so eradicate them more effectively from their societies in the future.

Christopher said, “the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic demonstrates a key drawback of living socially: infectious diseases can spread more easily in social animals. In humans, we learn from past disease outbreaks to develop more effective control strategies and vaccines in the future, but our approach is far from perfect.”

With this John Fell Fund, Christopher will investigate the role of disease experience in another animal society – the ants – that have survived for millions of years despite their highly social lifestyle making them vulnerable to epidemics. Like humans, ants practice social distancing, use chemicals to sanitise themselves and their home, and even quarantine their sick. Christopher said, “I will test if these social disease responses become more effective and efficient as the ants gain experience with infections, and whether this reduces the risk of epidemics in their colonies. Thus, this research will shed light on how evolution has shaped animal societies to cope with recurrent disease outbreaks, a problem that human societies must also overcome.”

The image above shows in pink the areas where the ants sprayed their antimicrobial acid in the nest to keep it clean (the nest is lined with pH paper).