Whilst our core research is in behavioural ecology, our research interests span physiology to population ecology. This is inevitable, as behaviour evolves in response to selection pressures from both interactions with other individuals ('ecology') and the nature of the mechanisms producing the behaviour ('physiology', 'psychology'). Many of the most exciting avenues of research on behaviour lie at the interface between 'classical' behavioural ecology and other disciplines: for example, integrating functional and mechanistic explanations of behaviour, or integrating individual decisions with population processes. Our group has a rare combination of top theoreticians and empiricists testing theory - we believe that it is by such collaboration, the sharing of problems and insights, that the greatest advances in biological understanding can be achieved. No Ph.D. student is expected to do everything (!) but, through our research-group seminars, those doing largely empirical research learn how to frame their questions for modelling and those doing theory learn how to capture biological reality in their models. Of course, anyone keen on learning both modelling and whole-animal experimental techniques is strongly encouraged.
The specific projects available at any one time depend, of course, on funding constraints, but a broad description of our main research interests follow, with sub-topics highlighted. More information, and the feasibility of any particular research project, will be provided on request if you tell us where your interests lie.
The evolution of secondary sexual ornaments and displays, and of signalling systems in general, is one of the hottest research areas in evolutionary and behavioural ecology. To understand whether signals evolve as handicaps or Fisherian traits, requires an understanding of the physiological basis of individual variation and, in this light, the analysis of the development of bilateral traits which display fluctuating asymmetry has been of major interest to our group. Visual signals, such as plumage colour in birds, can only be understood with reference to the colour vision of the species involved, so we have a collaborative research programme with visual physiologists on 'objective' measurement of plumage colours and the nature of colour vision in birds, in particular ultraviolet vision. Mate choice involves two or more interacting individuals, as does parental investment if both parents care for young. Here, we use optimality and game theory to model both sequential search for a partner and the question of fidelity and parental investment once a partner has been chosen. Models can be tested with species, such as the Kentish plover, in which either sex can desert and leave the partner to bring up the young. We have tested assessment strategies between males in the field with both skylarks and crickets.
Why do animals feed, display, rest, etc. at particular times of day, or season, and not others? Why do animals show characteristic daily and annual routines of fat storage and other body constituents? To answer these questions, we need to understand the costs and benefits of each behaviour, and the trade-offs between them. One system that we have studied extensively with both theory and (field and lab) experiments is the dawn chorus in birds. More generally modelling behavioural trade-offs and experimentally quantifying the costs and benefits of foraging, fat storage and body mass change in birds, forms a large area of mutual interest in our group. The same approach can even be applied to behaviours such as diving in ducks, seals and marine iguanas! This leads on to mechanistic questions about how animals learn about prey distributions and habitat quality, how they represent such information (e.g. spatial memory), and the hormonal control of feeding behaviour (e.g. the corticosterone response to changing food availability). Individual feeding decisions can then be used to predict group and population behaviour (e.g. predator/prey relations, 'Ideal free' distributions).
Ant colonies embody all of the most important aspects of biological organisation. In simple terms they are more than the sum of their parts and they are robust flexible self-organising systems that are capable of self-repair. The fundamental advantage of ant colonies as experimental biological materials is that they can be quickly taken apart and rapidly and easily put together again. Our focus is on the simple rules of interaction among worker ants that generate complexity and sophistication at the level of the colony. We have developed mathematical models that show how the interaction of simple rules at the microscopic level (individual workers) can generate complexity at the macroscopic level (the colony). We have shown that the ability of ants to generate spatial structures in their societies is critical to their organisation. This work has been made possible by our development of dynamic, digital, image analysis systems. These systems are some of the most sophisticated of their kind used anywhere in the study of animal behaviour. Our research into the collective intelligence of ant colonies has been supported not just by biological funding sources but those from both the academic and industrial computer science communities.
We know that many simple optimal foraging models fail because the best choice depends on the animal's current energetic state. But modelling state-dependent strategies can be extended far beyond foraging, and a fruitful recent area of research concerns life-history decisions such as optimal parental effort, reproductive investment, arthropod moulting strategies and diapause. Of particular interest are the evolutionarily optimal strategies in unpredictable environments.
To most biologists, mathematics simply provides the tools with which theoretical models can be constructed, but to mathematicians many of the techniques used by theoretical biologists are of research interest in themselves. For example, the mathematical theory behind state-dependent dynamic games remains largely uninvestigated. Our group encourages both pure and applied mathematical research on stochastic processes, game theory, genetic algorithms, and neural networks.
Welfare can be improved if we understand what domestic animals need and also what they want. By studying behaviour we can discover how farm, companion and laboratory animals see the world and what their own priorities are. Obtaining this information from the animals' point of view, and using it to design humane housing and management systems are the primary aims of the Animal Behaviour Group at the Veterinary School. We are also keen to develop new approaches to assess animal welfare in the real world, and to identify factors that compromise animal health and well-being. This involves close collaboration with epidemiologists, vets and farmers. Our work is funded by a mix of external grants obtained from research councils, government departments and charities.