Burying into the science of evolution

Professor Rebecca Kilner explains what evolutionary biology can learn from beetles.

Following her recent appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Today to talk about new research on the generational effects of parenting on burying beetle populations, Professor Rebecca Kilner explains how social evolution might generate biodiversity: 

“Understanding the evolutionary process has arguably never before been more exciting nor more important. It is exciting because there is disagreement among evolutionary biologists over which processes contribute most to evolutionary change, and thus the extent to which traditional evolutionary theory requires revision. It is important because evolutionary biology can play a key role in addressing key conservation problems. It can potentially predict which species will flexibly adapt in a changing world, for example, as well as how rapidly evolutionary change can arise, and whether the loss of a single species will precipitate a collapse in local biodiversity. My research contributes substantially on both fronts by investigating the importance of social evolution in generating biodiversity.

Social evolution yields traits whose function is to influence the fitness of others. An example is parental behaviour, common in many species, which functions to promote offspring fitness. Our model laboratory animal is the burying beetle, a common UK species which exhibits parental care. Reproduction centres on a small vertebrate carcass, which the beetles locate through flight. The pair shaves the body, rolls the flesh into a ball and inters it in a shallow grave. Their larvae reside in the carcass like chicks in a nest and are fed carrion by their parents, although they are not dependent upon parental feeding to survive.

With the support of a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award we will use the burying beetle to analyse the importance of parental care in generating biodiversity, using two different approaches. An interesting property of all family life is that a complex ecosystem commonly flourishes around the family. We propose experiments that will to work out whether burying beetles actively structure this ecosystem to promote their own fitness.

In addition, we have recently discovered that we can evolve populations of burying beetles in the laboratory. The procedure involves establishing several different experimental populations, in which offspring experience contrasting regimes of care for many generations, and comparing the resulting evolutionary outcomes across the populations. We can apply this technique to analyse how parental care generates genetic and phenotypic diversity and to test whether it even promotes speciation.”

You can listen again to Professor Kilner's interview by following the link to the BBC Radio 4 website (start at 54 minutes), and read more about the research on the University of Cambridge’s Research News website.

The group's latest research paper - 'Parental effects alter the adaptive value of an adult behavioural trait' - is published in the open-access journal eLife.

For further information please contact the Fellow Communications Officer, Dr Tom Lambert (FellowCommunicationsOfficer@sid.cam.ac.uk)

This is an archived news story first posted in September, 2015