A lion hunts in South Africa. Photo by SoenkeR via Pixabay.

Faced with a food shortage, every living thing has to decide what to do to survive. Strategies vary by species. Some lions and primates become less social during scarce times. Other critters, like locusts, slime molds, and bacteria, are more likely to band together. Scientists don’t have a solid understanding of the costs and benefits of these choices, or the environmental situations in which they’re most likely to arise.

Identifying the mechanisms that drive these social responses is the goal of a working group gathering in Santa Fe over five days in February. SFI Omidyar Fellows Joshua Garland and Albert Kao are co-organizing the meeting. Participants are first conducting a review of relevant studies, then collaborating to create a model to allow researchers to conduct simulations to test new ideas about the effect of scarcity on sociality.

Garland says understanding these behaviors is inherently an interdisciplinary problem. “You need experts in animal species and ecology who’ve done experimental work, and you need mathematicians and physicists who understand how to model a system.”

Biological observations are driving the design of the model, and the model will in turn help scientists gain insights into rules and trade- offs that might be operating in nature, says field biologist and participant Amanda Hund, a James S. McDonnell Foundation Fellow at the University of Minnesota. “The whole goal is that it’s a circle,” she says. Researchers can return to the field to run tests and gauge how well experimental and predicted data align.

The idea for the working group grew out of an informal “research jam” at the September 2018 James S. McDonnell Foundation-SFI Postdocs in Complexity Conference IV. Kao and Garland wanted to capitalize on the energy from that meeting and build on a broad base of expertise in biology, ecology, complexity, mathematics, and information theory. Instead of meeting on campus, the eight SFI and JSMF Postdoctoral Fellows have moved into a rental house near the Institute. The goal of that format, says Garland, is to promote deep interdisciplinary connections that will last beyond the working group.