People

PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR 

Leticia Avilés, PhD  (laviles@zoology.ubc.ca)

Leticia’s work lies at the intersection of ecology and evolution.  A native of Ecuador, she obtained her PhD at Harvard University and held her first faculty position at the University of Arizona.  She is currently a Professor at the University of British Columbia, affiliated with the Biodiversity Research Centre.  She is a recipient of the Young Investigator Award from the Society of American Naturalists, a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Berlin, and a scholar funded by the James S. MacDonnell Foundation for the  Study of Complex Systems. A long-term goal of Leticia’s research is to elucidate the forces involved in the transition between levels of organization, in particular between individuals and social groups.  In doing so, Leticia and her students use a variety of research tools, including fieldwork in temperate and tropical areas, computer simulation, analytical modeling, and laboratory work employing behavioral and molecular techniques.  Central to her empirical studies and a source of inspiration for her theoretical work are the social spiders, a phylogenetically diverse set of species that have converged in evolving cooperative behavior and highly subdivided population structures.  Because colonies of these organisms constitute not only social groups, but also self-sustaining populations, they are ideally suited to address fundamental and often controversial issues at the intersection of ecology and evolution.  These include the causes and consequences of social evolution, multilevel selection, the evolution of local population dynamics in metapopulations, and the short- and long-term consequences of inbreeding.  Besides training graduate students and post-docs, Leticia teaches undergraduate courses on Darwinian Medicine, Animal Behaviour, and Methods of Field Ecology.

(check out Leticia’s Research Gate and Google Scholar pages where you can find pdfs of some of her papers)

COLLABORATORS

Angélica L. Gonzalez, PhD (agonzale@zoology.ubc.ca)

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The flux and allocation of energy and matter (i.e., chemical elements) fundamentally constrains all living organisms. Energy and matter uptake as well as allocation fuel metabolic processes and build new biomass for organismal growth and reproduction. These individual-level processes can scale-up to a community and ecosystem level by applying principles from Metabolic Theory of Ecology and Ecological Stoichiometry. My research seeks applies these theoretical frameworks to understand how energy and matter constrain the diversity, structure and functioning of biological systems. In the Aviles lab, I am studying 1) the building and maintenance cost and benefits (energy and nutrients) of different types of webs, and 2), whether social lifestyle is energetically more efficient than solitary life, resulting in a reduction of per-capita energy expenditure and material consumption during web-building. As web construction, affect individual spider metabolism and resource uptake but also depend on group size, social web construction and maintenance costs might follow principles from economy of scale. This is, larger webs might be less costly to build and maintain in terms of energy and material, and therefore, we think that living in a group may confer energetic benefits to spiders.

GRADUATE STUDENTS

Ruth Sharpe (rvsharpe.ubc@gmail.com)

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I investigate population dynamics in social spiders using both empirical and theoretical methods.

How scarce resources are distributed between colony members could affect the dynamics of populations. I am therefore investigating how food is allocated within social spider colonies. Do some individuals monopolize food (contest competition) or is food divided fairly equally between different colony members (scramble competition)?  If food is monopolized who monopolizes it? Is it simply the larger individuals or does personality (boldness or agressiveness) play a role?

How much competition is there between different instars? Are older and therefore larger instars more able to monopolize food? How does the size of prey affect monopolization? Is smaller prey more easily able to be monopolized? Does the amount of competition alter with colony size?

Can an overproduction of offspring within colonies affect the growth of individuals? If food is shared equally between colony members then if there are too many offspring, this would result in all individuals being smaller which could reduce the health of the colony, potentially leading to colony extinction.

To obtain further information visit Ruth Sharpe‘ website.

Mark Robertson 

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Many spiders build dense, three dimensional (3D) webs. These webs need a lot of silk and time to build and maintain, so what benefits do they offer spiders? I investigate factors affecting the relative abundance of 3D webs in western Ecuador. Using a natural rainfall gradient, I consider the cost of 3D webs’ destruction by intense rain events, versus the benefits of predator protection they provide.

Samantha Straus (straus@zoology.ubc.ca)

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I investigate how parasites of social spiders interact in a metapopulation to influence virulence and transmission, as well as assessing how behaviours by the social spiders helps to influence, and potentially police, parasite prevalence. This is being done through field observations of host and parasite behaviour, collections of parasites to assess species composition of the parasite community, and genomic techniques to assess how parasite population structures tracks with host population structure. My previous work in the lab also includes the development of an energy budget for Anelosimus eximius.

To obtain further details about this project visit the website Experiment “Why be social? The costs and benefits of sociality in spiders” by Samantha Straus

Luis Camacho

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I am interested in the ecological forces influencing sociality in organisms. My study model is treehoppers (Auchenorrhyncha, Membracidae) which exhibit a broad life strategy spectrum ranging from solitary species to subsocial species showing a complex maternal care. The altitudinal gradient in the Andes is the stage where treehopper’s different life strategies perform. In my current project, I aim to define the biogeographical patterns associated with the transition from solitude to subsociality in treehopper communities, and to understand the ecological forces shaping this transition. I am also interested to explore specific behavioral and morphological traits associated to each life strategy, and how these vary as an adaptation response to ecological pressures. I carry my research along the altitudinal gradient of the Andes of Ecuador.

PAST LAB MEMBERS (check also our Facebook page)

University of British Columbia

Postdoctoral Fellows: Jennifer Guevara (2005-2012), Angélica L. Gonzalez (2014) Edmund Hart (2011-2013), Maxence Salomon (2008-20012), Jeff Fletcher (2004-2006), Ingi Agnarsson (2004-2006).

Graduate Students: Philippe Fernandez-Fournier (MSc, 2013-2016), Catherine Hoffman (MSc, 2012-2014), Gyan Harwood (MSc, 2010-2013), Jennifer Guevara (PhD, 2005-2012), Kieran Samuk (MSc, 2009-2011), Jessica Purcell (PhD, 2004-2009)
, Patricio Salazar (MSc, 2003-2006)

Undergrads: 
Katrina Kaur (2015-2016), Lori Ludwig (2014); Sarah Bird (2014); Adrian Semmelink (2013); Marc-Antoine Leclerc (2013); Nathan Schuck (2012); Erin Crockett (2011); Emily LeDue (2010), 
Genevieve Leduc-Robert (2010); Rudi Verspoor (2010); Anthea Pun (2009-2010), 
Katie Zhu (2008-2009)
; Ricardo Bortolon (2008-2009); 
Karen Whitaker (2008-2009); 
Katie Zeron (2006-2006)
; Carly Sponarski (2005-2007); 
Alexander Leung (2005-2005); 
Allen Larocque (2005-2006)
; Sanaz Tabatabaie (2004-2005); 
Farnaz Housmand (2004-2005)

University of Arizona

Postdoctoral Fellows
:  Todd Bukowski (1998-2000); 
Donald Miller (1997-1998)

Graduate Students
: Asher Cutter (PhD, 1998 – 2004)
; Kim Powers (PhD, 1997-2004); 
Cora Varas-Nelson (MSc, 1995-1998)

Undergrads
: Jeff Cochrane (2002-2003); 
Cassandra Burry (2002-2002); 
Rosetta Mui (2002-2002); 
Eric Yip (2001-2004); 
Eric Higgins (2001); 
Cambel Berk (2000-2001)
; Natalie Doerr (2000-2000); 
Hanna Coy (2000-2000); 
Felipe Perez (1999)
; John McCormack (1997-1998)
; Joshua Hong (1997-98)
; Giana Gelsey (1996-1997)

Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador, Licenciatura Students

Esteban Calvache (2014-2016); Francisco Ramirez (2011-2013); Mauricio Vega (2005-2009); 
Gabriel Iturralde (2002-2004)
; Patricio Salazar (1997-2001)
; Paul Tufiño (1994-1999)