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IFLScience Meets: Professor Of Evolution Nichola Raihani On Audacious Cleaner Fish And Fieldwork Applications For A Butter Knife

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Rachael Funnell

Social Editor and Staff Writer

clockJun 3 2021, 17:03 UTC
IFLScience Meets: Professor Of Evolution Nichola Raihani On Audacious Cleaner Fish And Fieldwork Applications For A Butter Knife

"I explore when and why individuals help one another – and how conflicts are resolved." Image courtesy of Professor Nichola Raihani

In Professor Nichola Raihani’s book The Social Instinct, she details how humans aren’t alone in existing in complex social groups whose interactions are steeped in temptation and mistrust. Through her fieldwork and research (including principal investigator at University College London's (UCL) Social Evolution and Behaviour Lab), Raihani has honed unique insight into the selfish as well as altruistic motivations behind social behaviors seen in animals such as the pied babbler and tissue-munching cleaner fish. Here, she explains how embarking on zoology and psychology can take you in many directions career-wise, and reveals the many uses of a butter knife in the field.

What do you do?

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I am a Professor of Evolution & Behaviour at UCL and Royal Society University Research Fellow.

What did it take to get here?

Throughout my childhood, I was adamant that I was going to be a vet, although that didn’t transpire. I did go on to read Natural Sciences at university – even majoring in Zoology. But as I watched my university friends start to funnel off into the worlds of law, advertising, and consulting, I started wondering if I too should get a "real" job and, in my final year at university, I applied for a bunch of corporate positions. Thankfully, however, I didn’t get any of them!

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Instead, I ended up applying for a field assistant position to go and work on an obscure bird that lives in the Kalahari Desert: the pied babbler. I had never heard of this species but the job sounded interesting and being based in South Africa would give me a chance to explore a part of the world I hadn’t been to. At the very least, I thought it would give me a chance to work out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

Well the rest, as they say, is history. I ended up staying in the Kalahari not for four months, but for four years, as I pursued my PhD on these truly fascinating birds. Babblers live in tight-knit family groups. Within each group, only one male and female breed. Everyone else is relegated to helper status, their role being to help raise the dominant pair’s offspring. I was fortunate to have been one of the first people to study the behavior of pied babblers in detail, the focus of my research being to understand how babblers resolve their inevitable conflicts.

In 2010, after my PhD, I began working on another fascinating species: the bluestreak cleaner wrasse – or cleaner fish as they are more commonly known. Cleaner fish are found on coral reefs throughout the Indo-Pacific – and they offer a vital service to their "clients’ by removing skin parasites. But there is a conflict of interest between cleaner fish and clients because cleaner fish prefer to eat a client’s living tissue – its mucus and scales. So, the puzzle here is how cooperation can be maintained in a system where one party is tempted to cheat. In this system – much like in humans – cooperation is maintained by a combination of punishment and reputation-based mechanisms. Our work on cleaner fish shows that we see strikingly similar solutions to the puzzle of cooperation in humans and in other species.

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In recent years, my research focus has shifted towards understanding cooperation in human societies. However, this research is very much informed by my past as a zoologist – and by the viewpoint that we can learn much more about ourselves through comparison with other social species.

Imagine you’ve met yourself as a teenager at a careers fair: How would you describe what you do to your former self?

I think it would depend which stage of my career I was telling them about. During my PhD, I think a pretty apt description was that I chased birds around the desert for a living (!) My work these days is much more desk-based but the fundamental questions that keep me busy are the same: I explore when and why individuals help one another – and how conflicts are resolved.

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What's the most common misconception about your line of work?

When I used to describe myself as a zoologist, people used to think I worked in the zoo (e.g. feeding elephants or cleaning giraffe enclosures). As a psychologist, I think people often wonder if you’re trying to read their mind or surreptitiously influence their behavior. For people who work on cooperation – especially in humans – I think there is a really common misunderstanding that by showing how cooperation can be an individually-beneficial strategy, we are implying that all cooperative or kind acts are done with these self-centred outcomes in mind. Of course, that is not the case. Just as we all agree that sex increases reproductive success – but we don’t assume that sex is always motivated by the desire to produce offspring – we can show that cooperation can be individually-beneficial without implying that cooperation is motivated by the desire to obtain these benefits. In other words, acknowledging that cooperation can result from a genuine desire to help others doesn’t preclude the possibility that individuals might benefit from displaying these altruistic motives.

Funniest moment on the job?

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When I worked in the Kalahari I had a very unreliable Isuzu 4WD – one that frequently used to break down and consumed more engine oil than petrol. At the end of one field season, a friend and I decided to take a trip to Kruger National Park to see some of the famous African wildlife. Predictably, on a game drive when we were deep in the heart of the reserve, the car broke down. We had stopped to watch some elephants and I had turned the engine off. When I turned the key to restart the engine, we heard only a "click": the starter motor had gone. Stuck on a back road in Kruger National Park in the early evening, we quickly considered our options. Martha, my friend, would sit on the cab of the vehicle to scan for lions and other predators, while I attempted to "fix" the starter motor, using the only tool I had available: a butter knife.

After half an hour or so of tinkering under the hood, I did indeed fix something. Unfortunately, it was not the starter motor (it was the engine heat sensor, which had been broken for quite some time). Although I was quite proud that I had fixed something – anything – with my butter knife, this did not resolve our more immediate problem. Very luckily for us, another car soon appeared and the occupants (who must have thought I was a strange sight, waving them down while brandishing my butter knife) kindly helped us to push start the car.

An insatiable curiosity and a high boredome threshold is the perfect personality trait recipe for science, says Raihani. Image courtesy of Professor Nichola Raihani

Memorable misstep on the job?

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When I worked on pied babblers in South Africa, we needed a very tall ladder to be able to reach the nests (which the babblers often built 10 or 15 meters (33 to 49 feet) up, hidden in the thorny branches of hostile acacia trees). It fell to me to buy the ladder we needed – and to transport this the 600 kilometers (373 miles) or so across the country, from Pretoria to the field site in the Kalahari where we worked. I had a four-wheel-drive vehicle with a load bed – so I stuck the ladder in the load bed of the car, and secured it so that it was resting up against the cab of the vehicle. It added an extra 4 or 5 meters in height to the car.

At some point, I needed to stop for petrol. As I pulled off the road and into the petrol station, some guys came running towards my car, shouting and gesticulating. By that point in the journey, several men had approached me, somewhat incredulously, to ask "what a young girl was doing with such a big ladder". I was starting to take umbrage at the insinuation that I didn’t know what I was doing and that big ladders were for men. As I saw the men trying to direct me to a different petrol pump, I therefore assumed that they thought that my car was diesel – when of course I knew it was petrol. Just another example of men trying to patronize me, I thought. I continued driving towards my desired pump – the men’s shouting and pointing becoming louder and more urgent as I did. As one guy rushed toward my car bonnet, I reluctantly stopped and noticed, as he pointed upwards, that I was about a foot away from crashing my large ladder into the roof of the petrol station. A very big disaster averted – and a very valuable lesson in humility learned!

What’s your most treasured piece of kit?

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When I was doing fieldwork in the Kalahari, undoubtedly my handheld Garmin GPS device. I have a terrible sense of direction and without this bit of kit it is quite likely that I would still be wandering around in search of my car to this day.

What’s one piece of advice you'd give to someone wanting to embark on the same career?

I think if you want to have a career in science, it is important to have two seemingly opposite character traits. The first is an insatiable curiosity, the desire to solve puzzles and seek answers to thorny questions. The second, rather counter-intuitively, is a high boredom threshold. At least as far as field work goes, it often takes rather a lot of patient trudging or running different versions or conditions of an experiment before you start to amass enough data to be able to know what is going on.

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I think the other important thing is to remember just how much luck is involved in having what people might call a "successful" scientific career. I am extremely grateful for the many lucky breaks I have had (for example, experiments producing interesting results, receiving an award or fellowship at a critical point in my career) that have allowed me to keep afloat in what is a rather competitive industry.

 


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