Predator-prey interactions were featured in more than 4,000 papers, and hundreds of presentations in numerous meetings and symposia, last year alone. Though interest in this topic is very great, research addressing it is dispersed across many diverse fields. The conference will promote the creation of a multi-disciplinary research community of scientists studying ecology, evolutionary biology, genetics, neuroscience, physiology, developmental biology and psychiatry; the ultimate goal being to accelerate the integration of these diverse fields in order to foster truly translational frontier research. Publications involving predator-prey interactions have increased dramatically in recent years because neuroscientists, physiologists, developmental biologists, psychiatrists and other researchers have begun to recognize that predator-prey interactions are directly pertinent to their fields of study. At the same time ecologists and evolutionary biologists are also recognizing that understanding individual-level (i.e. neurological, physiological and developmental) effects is critical to exploring the impacts of predator-prey interactions at scales ranging from genes to ecosystems. Further progress in these fields is being impeded by the lack of a forum for the needed inter-disciplinary communication of information and ideas. The ‘Predator-Prey Interactions’ Gordon Research Conference will provide this necessary forum for the presentation and discussion of frontier, multi-disciplinary research.
Predator-prey interactions have shaped all life on earth. This underlying commonality is why so many diverse fields have developed parallel research paths. Though we tend to think of predator-prey interactions as pertaining to other species more so than humans there is increasing recognition that many aspects of the human condition have been shaped by our evolutionary history as both predators and prey. For most animals, exposure to a predator constitutes a traumatic event which takes priority over virtually every other aspect of the prey’s existence because if the prey fails to respond appropriately its existence will be at an end. Physiologists have increasingly begun to consider that this critical need to escape from predators explains why the core of the stress response is built around the rapid mobilization of energy to one’s muscles. Predators also provoke powerful emotional responses, making them ideal stressors for use in animal studies on the etiology and treatment of human anxiety and stress disorders. As a result, predator presentation has become one of the principal stressors used in studies of the animal model of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One of the hallmarks of PTSD is the transformational change in patients that can result from even a single traumatic event. Neuroscientists have begun documenting that even a single exposure to a predator can induce just such a transformational change in brain function, prompting some psychiatrists to begin discussing the “evolution of PTSD” as a response to predators. Developmental biologists are similarly now exploring if the reason why maternal stress often induces anxiety disorders in children is because, evolutionarily, mothers living in stressful environments full of predators could provide an adaptive benefit to their offspring by “programming” them to be especially anxious and vigilant.
Research on the ecology and evolutionary biology of predator-prey interactions is currently being transformed by the recognition that the neurological, physiological, developmental, genetic and behavioral effects that predators have on individual prey may in most cases be more important to population- and ecosystem-level processes than the sum of the number of prey directly killed by predators. This new focus on the prey as an individual is exemplified by the growing research on whether animals demonstrate distinct ‘personalities’ and behavioral syndromes, and the discovery that the perception of predation risk (i.e. ‘fear’) itself can significantly affect population dynamics. Research in this area supports findings from conservation science indicating that the ecosystem-level impacts of predator introductions and eradications are too great to be explained by lethal effects alone. Similarly, it has become increasingly clear that lethal effects alone are insufficient to explain the role that predators play in shaping prey genotypes and phenotypes. New research, for example, suggests that exposure to predators may affect gene expression, and so produce inter-generational effects via epigenetic changes.
The Gordon Research Conference model of promoting discussion, rather than a long series of presentations, is critical to fostering communication and establishing synergies among scientists from so many different fields, given the corresponding diversity of terminologies and approaches involved.
What is a GRC? Gordon Research Conferences (GRC) are 5-day meetings that bring scientists together from around the world to present and discuss unpublished research with other leaders in their field.