The behavioral ecology of the limpet, Lottia gigantic.
My PhD dissertation focused on the behavioral ecology of a very interesting limpet. There were several chapters ranging from the geometry of territories to the determinants of sex change to the mechanisms of territoriality. The last named is the topic of the dance. How do these simple animals accomplish a behavioral life that seems so complex? How do they know where to go, when to fight, when to flee?
First I observed them in nature. Then I watched them for hundreds of hours, carefully noting their responses to each other. I found that most, but not all, encounters ended with almost no fighting, the smaller retreating rapidly from the larger limpet. Next I ‘staged’ encounters by placing “bait” limpets in front of moving limpets, while the tide was in. Aggression was strong and fast, but retreat was much quicker and more effective. Finally I performed controlled experiments in which I forced limpets to have particular experiences, either territorial victories or territorial defeats (the dance depicts this process with surprising accuracy). After territorial defeats, limpets learned very rapidly, usually after one experience, to retreat. Conversely, territorial victories transformed a retreater’s behavior to aggression, albeit much more slowly.
Simple scientific lessons came from this research. Previous experience creates very diverse behaviors. Limpets rely on it, rather than recognition to guide their behavior.
I wanted to share an insight that this dance has given me, 25 years post-Ph.D.: Nature is an incredibly beautiful thing, not the least because of its capacity to intermittently allow the clumsy experimentations of humans to reveal its secrets.
William Wright PhD
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