Skip to main content

Unit information: Sensory Ecology in 2015/16

Please note: you are viewing unit and programme information for a past academic year. Please see the current academic year for up to date information.

Unit name Sensory Ecology
Unit code BIOL31132
Credit points 10
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 4 (weeks 1-24)
Unit director Professor. Robert
Open unit status Not open

None, but we recommend that students should have taken BIOL11000 or BIOL12000 or equivalent. Some interest in biophysics is of advantage.



School/department School of Biological Sciences
Faculty Faculty of Life Sciences

Description including Unit Aims

Aims: This unit will provide instruction on the physiology, neurophysiology, biophysics, ecology and evolution of sensory systems in animals.

Description: Emphasis will be given to: 1) developing a solid appreciation of the concepts of physical and sensory ecologies; 2) understanding the information available to animals via different sensory modalities; 3) understanding physiological, biomechanical and biomolecular mechanisms underpinning sensory mechanisms; and 4) the evolutionary adaptation of sense organs to particular ecological niches and behavioral strategies. The course will consider both vertebrates and invertebrates, in both terrestrial and aquatic habitats. Topics will cover the sensory modalities of vision, and audition primarily, but will also explore infrared reception, thermoreception, olfaction, mechanoreception, magnetoreception.

Intended Learning Outcomes

  • the structure and function of major sense organs across the animal kingdom and the physiology and sensory mechanisms underlying the senses, especially vision and audition.
  • other sensory modalities, such as olfaction, taste, infrared reception, mechanoreception, hygroreception, thermoreception and magnetoreception.
  • the physical ecology of hearing; directionality and limits to sensitivity.
  • the physical constraints to sensory perception; the ecology of information in the environment.
  • the evolution and evolutionary constraints affecting the structure and function of sensory organs.
  • the ecology of vision - how animal vision, particularly spectral sensitivity, is related to animals' behaviour and ecology.
  • visual pigments- their phylogeny, absorption and visual transduction; birds and how they compare to other vertebrates; light underwater - fish vision and the evolution of colour vision in vertebrates; vision in the deep sea; mammalian colour vision.

Teaching Information

Lectures, interactive seminars/workshops and independent study.

Assessment Information

End of year exam (100%).

Reading and References

Most of the lecture material for the specific subjects considered in the Unit is taken from research papers and is not covered in any one text book. For each lecture, you will receive a recently updated reading list, and instructions on how to use this literature. Most lectures are supported by lecture notes and formative self-assessment documents. These, and PowerPoint slides from lectures, are made available via BlackBoard after lectures.

As background to this Unit, you will find a range of general textbooks in the library. Amongst these, you will find a good coverage of basic information in sensory ecology, sensory systems and behaviour.

Key textbooks are Bradbury and Vehrencamp: Principles of animal communication, and Dusenbery: Sensory ecology.