The Behavioural Ecology Research Group was established in 2017, following our recent strategic growth in behavioural ecology research.
Behavioural ecology can be broadly thought of as the study of adaptations; it is the study of animal behaviour in an evolutionary context.
Core areas of research in the Behavioural Ecology Research Group currently include animal communication, cognition, social behaviour, and animal welfare. We cover a wide range of study organisms, including mammals, birds, insects, crustaceans, fish and cephalopods. Our research involves fieldwork in South America, the Antarctic and the Arctic, Tanzania, Mexico, Australia, Japan, Austria, Spain, Portugal and the UK. We also carry out work in museums, zoos, and laboratories.
Members of our group include academics, postgraduate researchers and professional staff. We are an active research community with recent achievements that include papers in Current Biology, Nature Communications, Nature Scientific Reports, Proceedings of the Royal Society Biology and Biology Letters, as well as funding from the Royal Society and National Geographic.
We welcome collaboration and enquiries from potential incoming Marie Sklodowska-Curie fellows under the European Union's new Horizon 2020 programme.
If you would like to find out more about our research, please contact Dr Jacob Dunn, Director of the Behavioural Ecology Research Group.
Find out more about our members by exploring their staff profiles.
Dr Jacob Dunn, Director of the Behavioural Ecology Research Group and a Senior Lecturer in the School of Life Sciences, recently won a £10K research grant.
Jacob’s research is focused on animal vocal communication and its relevance for our understanding of the evolution of human language. His work is multi-disciplinary, and ranges from detailed anatomical and physiological investigation of vocal production to understanding the evolutionary processes that shape communication across species.
Jacob has recently taken on the curation of a large historical collection of mammalian larynges, called the Harrison Collection. This unique collection, dating from the 1970s, includes over 500 larynges from an incredibly wide range of mammalian species, and offers the opportunity to investigate the origin, development and mechanism of this unique and fascinating organ.
Jacob recently won a £10K research grant from the Rhinology and Laryngology Research Fund so that the collection can be modernised and maintained for research. The grant will also provide funds to start digitising the larynges to create 3D virtual models, allowing the collection to be shared openly, and modern morphometric analyses to be carried out. These analyses will allow us to better understand the evolutionary pressures that lead to variation in vocal communication among species, and, ultimately, provide insight into the reasons why humans evolved the incredible ability to articulate speech.
This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of 'First', our Faculty Research Newsletter.
Dr Jacob Dunn, Senior Lecturer in our Department of Biology and Director of the Behavioural Ecology Research Group, won a £20K research grant from the Royal Society for a project on the evolution of speech.
The project, entitled ‘The evolution of speech: insight from variation in primate laryngeal anatomy’, forms part of Jacob’s research that’s focused on primate vocal communication and its relevance for our understanding of the evolution of human language. His work is multi-disciplinary, and ranges from detailed anatomical and physiological investigation of vocal production, to understanding the evolutionary processes that shape communication across species.
He conducts and supervises theoretical, observational and experimental studies on a wide range of species, which take place in the lab, in museum collections, in captivity and in the field. His research is highly collaborative and includes close links with researchers in the USA, Austria, Japan, and the UK.
The award will allow Jacob to travel to Japan and Austria in order to carry out anatomical investigation of primate museum collections. He will use CT and MRI scanning, as well as traditional dissection techniques to learn more about the structure and function of the larynx. These analyses will allow us to better understand the evolutionary pressures that lead to variation in vocal communication among species and, ultimately, gain insight into the reasons why humans evolved the incredible ability to articulate speech.
This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of 'First', our Faculty Research Newsletter.
Together with Dr Claudia Wascher from the Department of Biology, Dr Didone Frigerio and her team from the Konrad Lorenz Research Station (KLF) presented a session ‘Citizens as Behavioural Biologists?’ at the Cambridge Science Festival in March.
At the KLF in Austria, long-term behavioural research is conducted on different avian model organisms, such as greylag geese, Northern bald ibis and common ravens. In an on-going project ‘GRASS - Greylag geese as a model for animal social systems’, pupils from local schools visit the research station and collect data on spatial and temporal distribution patterns of the greylag geese.
A number of pupils from the Körner Gymansium in Linz joined the researchers from the KLF and presented their work at the Cambridge Science festival. In five interactive workstations, visitors could learn about the history of KLF, how to individually identify greylag geese with the help of coloured leg bands, differentiate between different behaviours and how to record behaviour of greylag geese with the help of an online app.
Finally, the pupils presented the scientific results of their project. The event was visited by more than 100 people from all age groups.
This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of 'First', our Faculty Research Newsletter.
Dr Claudia Wascher is leading a new study into the relationships of greylag geese with results suggesting potential health effects following mate loss or social isolation.
Greylag geese are highly social animals and within their flock form strong relationships with their pair-partner and family members. These bonds are important and help individuals to cope with social stress. Agonistic encounters with other flock members are amongst the strongest stressors in greylag geese, as confirmed by heart rate measurements. Greylag geese at resting have a heart rate of about 100 beats per minute, but during aggressive encounters this can increase to nearer 500 beats per minute, illustrating how stressful these events are for those involved.
A strong social embedding helps individuals cope with social stress. The unpaired males exhibit a higher increase in heart rate during agonistic encounters compared to paired males. However, a short term increase in heart rate may be beneficial for unpaired males, as it activates the energy to cope with an aggressive interaction and potentially win, and may not have any long-term costs.
In a recent experiment Claudia aimed to investigate potential health benefits of having a social partner.
“For a two day period we isolated eight paired males from their female partners and the flock and measured adrenocortical, haematological and parasitological responses of both the male and female partner.
“Females showed no elevated levels of corticosterone metabolites in their droppings, but their haematocrit decreased during mate removal, whereas leucocyte number and heterophil/lymphocyte (H/L) ratio remained unchanged. In contrast, the socially isolated males excreted significantly elevated levels of corticosterone metabolites and showed a decrease in haematocrit as well as elevated leucocyte number and H/L ratio. In both sexes, the excretion of coccidian oocysts, a common protozoan parasite species, increased within 48 hours of separation.”
Claudia’s results suggest relatively swift potential health effects of mate loss and social isolation in free-living geese.
This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of 'First', our Faculty Research Newsletter.
Dr Sophie Mowles has carried out new research on the fiddler crab, recently published in the journal Biology Letters, 2018, and referenced below in key publications. Robotic crabs helped Sophie understand the importance of tempo for fiddler crabs during mating.
A new study led by Dr Claudia Wascher shows that geese cope with the harsh winter climate by reducing their heart rate and body temperature. Read the full news article for more information. The research has recently been published in the journal Scientific Reports, 2018, and is referenced below in key publications.
PhD researcher Max Kerney led a new study that indicates why play has such an important role in the development of the brain in different species. The research was published in Primates, 2017, and is referenced below in key publications. Read the full news article entitled 'How play helps brain development'.
Research, led by Dr Sophie Mowles and published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, 2017, studied the behaviour of the male banana fiddler crab showing that their elaborate courtship displays help to advertise both their physical fitness and the size of their home. Read the full news article for further details.
Casewell, N.R., Visser, J.C., Baumann, K., Dobson, J., Han, H., Kuruppu, S., Morgan, M., Romilio, A., Weisbecker, V., Ali, S.A., Debono, J., Koludarov, I., Que, I., Bird, G.C., Cooke, G.M., Nouwens, A., Hodgson, W.C., Wagstaff, S.C., Cheney, K.L., Vetter, I., van der Weerd, L., Richardson, M.K. and Fry, B.G., 2017. The Evolution of Fangs, Venom, and Mimicry Systems in Blenny Fishes. Current Biology, 8(27), pp.1184-1191.
Ponte, G., Sykes, A.V., Cooke, G.M., Almansa, E. and Andrews, P.L.R., 2017. The digestive tract of cephalopods: Toward non-invasive in vivo monitoring of its physiology. Frontiers in Physiology, 6(8).
Cooke, G.M., 2017. Stereotypic behavior is not limited to terrestrial taxa: A response to Rose et al. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, (22) pp.17-18.
Bowling, D.L., Garcia, M., Dunn, J.C., Ruprecht, R., Stewart, A., Frommolt, K-H. and Fitch, W.T., 2017. Body size and vocalization in primates and carnivores. Scientific Reports, (7).
Garcia, M., Herbst, C.T., Bowling, D.L., Dunn, J.C. and Fitch, W.T., 2017. Acoustic allometry revisited: morphological determinants of fundamental frequency in primate vocal production. Scientific Reports, 1(7).
Kerney, M., Smaers, J.B., Schoenemann, P.T. and Dunn, J.C., 2017. The coevolution of play and the cortico-cerebellar system in primates. Primates, 4(58), pp.485-491.
Mowles, S.L., Jennions, M.D. and Backwell, P.R.Y., 2018. Robotic crabs reveal that female fiddler crabs are sensitive to changes in male display rate. Biology Letters, 14(1).
Wascher, C.A.F., Kotrschal, K., and Arnold, A., 2018. Free-living greylag geese adjust their heart rates and body core temperatures to season and reproductive context. Scientific Reports, 8(1).
Frigerio, D., Ludwig, S.C., Hemetsberger, J., Kotrschal, K. and Wascher, C.A.F., 2017. Social and environmental factors modulate leucocyte profiles in free-living Greylag geese (Anser anser). PEERJ, (5).
Ludwig, S.C., Kapetanopoulos, K., Kotrschal, K. and Wascher, C.A.F., 2017. Effects of mate separation in female and social isolation in male free-living Greylag geese on behavioural and physiological measures. Behavioural Processes, (138), pp.134-141.
Wascher, C.A.F., Hemetsberger, J., Kotrschal, K. and Frigerio, D., 2017. Leucocyte profiles and family size in fledgling Greylag Geese (Anser anser). Avian Biology Research, 4(10), pp.246-252.