Media Releases

New study shows a genetic link between feeding behaviour and animal dispersal

February 24, 2014

TORONTO, ON — New research from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Scar­bor­ough shows that ani­mal dis­per­sal is influ­enced by a gene asso­ci­at­ed with feed­ing and food search behav­iours.

The study, which was car­ried out by UTSC Pro­fes­sor Mark Fitz­patrick and PhD stu­dent Allan Edelsparre, pro­vides one of the first aimed at gain­ing a func­tion­al under­stand­ing of how genes can influ­ence dis­per­sal ten­den­cies in nature.

Using com­mon fruit flies (Drosophi­la melanogaster), the researchers observed how two dif­fer­ent for­ag­ing types – known as sit­ter flies and rover flies – moved over large dis­tances when released in nature. They dis­cov­ered that the rover flies, which are very active for­agers as lar­vae, dis­persed far­ther and more fre­quent­ly than sit­ter flies, which are less active for­agers.

“What is fas­ci­nat­ing is that we were able to observe, both in nature and in the lab­o­ra­to­ry, a sys­tem that links their feed­ing activ­i­ty as lar­vae and how far they dis­perse as adults to lev­els of the for­ag­ing gene in their brain,” says Fitz­patrick.

In the lab­o­ra­to­ry, the researchers were also able to con­firm that the for­ag­ing gene influ­ences dis­per­sal by arti­fi­cial­ly induc­ing high­er lev­els of the gene in sit­ters, which caused them to dis­perse like rover flies.

Work on the dis­per­sal ten­den­cies of a vari­ety of ani­mals seem to con­verge on the notion that dis­per­sal is not a ran­dom process.

“Some indi­vid­u­als seem to have greater innate dis­per­sal ten­den­cies than oth­ers,” says Edelsparre. Like humans, ani­mals have per­son­al­i­ties includ­ing shy­ness, aggres­sive­ness and socia­bil­i­ty. Indi­vid­u­als with sim­i­lar per­son­al­i­ties often share sev­er­al relat­ed behav­iours and the authors sug­gest this may explain the link between feed­ing, food search­ing and dis­per­sal.

The find­ings may also shine light on links between feed­ing and dis­per­sal in oth­er ani­mals. For exam­ple, dis­pers­ing naked mole rats and lizards are more active eaters. Fitz­patrick and Edelsparre also point to stud­ies trac­ing the chem­i­cal sig­na­tures and den­tal records of ear­ly humans. While the chem­i­cal iso­topes and tooth wear of most spec­i­mens indi­cat­ed they for­aged and resided local­ly, a few spec­i­mens car­ried iso­topes from very dif­fer­ent habi­tats sug­gest­ing they may have immi­grat­ed from far away. Whether the for­ag­ing gene plays a role in their dis­per­sal ten­den­cies remains unknown.

The abil­i­ty to pre­dict dif­fer­ences in dis­per­sal ten­den­cies could also influ­ence how we build and main­tain nat­ur­al cor­ri­dors for threat­ened species or how we stop the spread of inva­sive species like the round goby, emer­ald ash bor­er, or the Asian long­horned bee­tle, adds Fitz­patrick. “We are at an excit­ing crit­i­cal junc­ture where work on genes and genomes are merg­ing with a wealth of work on behav­iour­al per­son­al­i­ties and ani­mal move­ment ecol­o­gy,” he says.

The research is cur­rent­ly avail­able online and will be pub­lished in the upcom­ing edi­tion of Ecol­o­gy Let­ters.


For more infor­ma­tion, con­tact:

Dr. Mark Fitz­patrick
Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor
Inte­gra­tive Behav­iour and Neu­ro­science Group
Dept. of Bio­log­i­cal Sci­ences at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Scar­bor­ough
Office: 416–208-2703
Lab: 416–208-2799

Allan Edelsparre
PhD Stu­dent, Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Scar­bor­ough
Cell: 905–809-8581