Our research group uses quantitative approaches to study the evolution and adaptive value of animal behaviour in natural contexts. We are interested in how behaviour has evolved, what the adaptive value of behaviour is, and what the mechanisms that underlie behaviour are.  

Although we are traditional behavioural ecologists at heart, we borrow computational approaches developed for model laboratory systems like Drosophila and Zebrafish, and employ them in settings where animal behaviour has evolved – Lake Tanganyika, the Mediterranean Sea, coral reefs, and tropical rainforests. Using techniques like computer vision and machine learning, automated tracking of behaviour, and 3D reconstruction of environments, we aim for a quantitative assessment of the expression and value of behaviour in the places it naturally occurs. 

Using many different taxa, we seek to understand how social interactions are modified by current context, how animals perceive and process social cues, and how environments – both social and physical – change and are changed by behaviour. We take a broad approach, combining studies of proximate neurobiological and genetic mechanisms, with analyses of the physics of interactions, up to broad evolutionary and ecological studies of social influence and behaviour.

Here are some of our current projects.

The evolution of social behaviour

When complex social structures evolve, what needs to change in terms of the behaviour animals express? Do social animals need to do more, that is, must a richer or more complex behavioural repertoire evolve? Are we as human observers able to detect the potentially subtle ways that behaviour may differ in what appear to be similar contexts? And can machine learning approaches help us in this endeavour?

We ask these questions across a range of systems, from the explosive adaptive radiation in Tanganyikan cichlids, damselfish on Jamaican coral reefs, Trinidadian guppies, and spiders in the Latin American rainforests.

The interaction between physical and social spaces

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us” – Winston Churchill

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Animals affect, and are affected by, their environments. This simple relationship means that it is difficult to assess how removing animals from their natural contexts might influence their behavioural expression. We aim to quantify the natural structures in which animals live and interact, and manipulate attributes of these structures to experimentally test their effects.

Sexual selection, mate choice, and parental care in complex social conditions

Payoffs of reproductive strategies vary depending on the social context in which they are employed, but quantifying how social conditions change can be difficult. With spiders and fish, we manipulate elements of the social context, track all interactions among individuals, and measure the fitness payoffs of varying strategies.

The evolution of social competence and cognition

Living in groups potentially imposes cognitive challenges that solitary animals do not face. Memory of past interactions, inference of unknown relationships, and recognition of individuals may be required to maintain functional social groups. Using a blend of virtual and traditional approaches, we try to understand the range of cognitive abilities that have evolved along with social living, along with how these differences may be encoded in the brain itself.



Grant successes with some friends

We’ll soon start working (again) with Satoshi Awata, Masanori Kohda, Takashi Hotta, Masaya Morita, Kazuya Fukuda and Deo Mushagalusa on the neural mechanisms of differences in mating and parental care in Taganyikan Cichlids.

…And, we will also start up a project with Rui Oliveira, Jingtao Lilue, Walter Salzburger, Giovanni Petri, Gil Levkowitz, Ricardo Leite, and Ana Rita Nunes on the molecular evolution of social behavior, again with our beloved Tanganyikan cichlids.

Why bad bosses are lonely at the top

Among fish, dominance reduces influence; study suggests it’s the passive that really lead

If fish are any guide, subordinate males may actually have more influence on groups than their domineering and aggressive counterparts, according to a new study in the journal Proceedings in the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers, led by Alex Jordan from Germany’s Max Planck Institute, were interested in the interplay between power, dominance and influence – a theme permeating animal and human populations.

“In many societies, whether animal or human, individuals in positions of power all possess a similar suite of traits,” says Jordan. “They are often loud, aggressive, pushy, and at least in our current political climate, overconfident in their knowledge of specialist matters.”

Gaining positions of power tends to be a competitive process, thus favouring individuals that use aggression and intimidation to get their way.

“But are these powerful individuals most influential?” Jordan asks.

“And if our goal is to create groups and social structures that are responsive to change, and through which new information spreads quickly and effectively, do we really want the most aggressive individuals in powerful positions?” READ MORE

High-resolution, non-invasive animal tracking and reconstruction of local environment in aquatic ecosystems

Wanna build a 3D underwater animal tracking rig for a few hundred bucks? Wanna run it using open source, deep-learning based code that can be run on free computing clusters? Check out our new technique just published:

The complex choices of animals – 3D technology meets behavioural research.


Associated with our new paper in PRSB, here’s a nice little news story:

Writing Retreat

We had a fun and productive winter break in a small (freezing!) hut in Hittisau

For more news, head to OLD NEWS