Evolutionary behavioural ecology
Our research is best described as evolutionary behavioural ecology. We ask adaptive questions about the evolution of behavioural strategies in the context of ecological conditions.
Working at the interface between theoretical and empirical research, we are involved in a wide range of activities from developing formal mathematical models to conducting experimental studies on wild populations.
Cooperation and producer-scrounger behaviour
The evolution of cooperation is one of the biggest questions in biology, because conflicts of interest between individuals should make stable cooperation unlikely. We have been answering this question by testing game theoretical (ESS) predictions in various systems of biparental cooperation, parent-offspring conflict and cooperative breeding in birds.
Recently we have been using this same approach to explain individual differences in producer-scrounger behaviours in foraging flocks of house sparrows.
Quantifying individual differences in plastic traits such as behaviours is crucial to understanding their evolution. As an extension of work on animal personality and behavioural syndromes, we have been borrowing statistical approaches to trait (co-)variation from quantitative genetics and applying them to various problems in behavioural ecology.
For example, behavioural reaction norms conceptualize the various genetic and environmental sources of individual phenotypic variation we expect to see in adaptively flexible social strategies (i.e. conditional ESSs).
Phenotypic plasticity is only one of a range of adaptations to predictable and unpredictable environmental variation. We have been investigating two of the least well understood of these in the form of variance (aka risk): sensitivity and bet-hedging.
Environmental stochasticity has important implications for evolutionary outcomes, especially as regards life history traits that must co-evolve in the context of stochastic variation in population densities.
Pace-of-life syndromes (POLS) provide a conceptual framework for studying the evolutionary dynamics of life histories in the context of such local ecological dynamics, and a way of understanding phenotypic (co-)variation at the level of the individual, the social group and the population.