Kalahari Desert

Behavioural Ecology and Physiology

Research Group

Learn more about the work of the group

The Behavioural Ecology and Physiology Research Group studies the functions, mechanisms and development of behavioural and physiological interactions between organisms’ and the environment. We use a range of approaches to address our research questions. These include observations of behaviour and physiology in the laboratory and in the wild with particular focus on social interactions, phenotypic plasticity, cognitive abilities, transgenerational effects and circadian rhythms. Our research includes analyses of energy metabolism and nutrition, methylation, neurophysiology, photosynthesis and climate change, gene expression, communication, and personality. Members of this group have published recent findings in high profile journals in their fields, including Genome Research, Biological Psychiatry, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Animal Behaviour, Elife, Functional Ecology and Behavioral Ecology.

Expertise
  • Social behaviour, including communication and signalling, cooperation and conflict 
  • Learning and cognition  
  • Behavioural neuroscience and neurophysiology
  • Ecophysiology, especially thermal biology and metabolism
  • Plant environmental physiology
  • Functional ecology 
  • Circadian biology  
  • Metabolism  
  • Microbiomes
  • Neuroendocrinology
  • Nutrition and obesity
  • Phenotypic plasticity  
  • Epigenetics
  • Animal personality
Facilities

Molecular biology, histology, tissue culture and cell biology laboratories, hormone analysis facilities, freshwater fish colonies (Tanganyikan cichlids and zebrafish), dedicated behaviour observation and experimentation facilities, respirometry and photosynthesis laboratories, glasshouses.

Collaborations

We have close links with many academic institutions across the world, including Monash University and University of New South Wales (Australia), Universities of McGill, McMaster and Alberta (Canada), Universities of Pisa and Ferrara (Italy), University of Wageningen (Holland), CNRS (France), Universities of Potsdam, Heidelberg and Aachen (Germany), CSIC (Spain), Nanjing Agricultural University (China), Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School UCLA and University of Illinois (USA), Universities of Bristol, Brighton, Cambridge, Chester, Liverpool, London (Birkbeck College), Manchester and Salford (UK).

Projects/case studies

Colour polymorphism – more than just different colours

Colour polymorphism describes the occurrence of different colour morphs in the same population and is a widespread phenomenon in vertebrates. Such variation is difficult to explain from an evolutionary point as all morphs need to be in equilibrium to persist over time. Colour morphs often differ in behaviours and physiological traits due to different predation pressures and social attractiveness. The Gouldian finch is polymorphic in its head colour with about 70% black-headed birds, 30% red-headed birds and less than 1% yellow-headed birds in a population. Research in our BEP group has shown that the birds signal their personality (representing consistent differences in behaviour between individuals) with their head colour; red-headed birds are more aggressive but less explorative and risk-taking than black-headed birds. Recent research also found that head colour morphs respond differently to novel environments with red-heads being more willing to venture into novel environments than black-heads. See: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.anbehav.2012.04.025

Communication in animal social groups

The daffodil cichlid fish lives in tightly knit cooperative groups which work together to defend their small territory and raise the young of the breeding pair. Conflict is common in these groups and understanding how these animals communicate with each other when disputes arise is essential to understanding how these groups are formed, structured, and maintained. Recent work in the BEP group has shown that when threatened aggressively by a group mate, subordinate fish may tilt their heads up in the water column and give a little shake. This head up display serves as a submission signal and reduces the likelihood of further aggression. Whether or not this signal is produced depends on the social status, sex, and relative size of the interacting fish, as well as the physical structure of their territory. e.g., see: http://doi.org/10.1016/j.anbehav.2019.06.026

Hibernation comes with costs

Many mammals survive the cold winter months by lowering body temperature and their energy expenditure during hibernation. The lower their body temperature, the more energy hibernators can save. However, hibernation also comes at costs. A recent study has found that the lower the body temperatures during hibernation the faster the rate at which the protective endcaps of their chromosomes shorten, which can lead to cell death and may reduce the lifespan of the animal. These findings could explain why many animals in good body condition try to keep a warmer body temperature during hibernation, although this costs them more energy. See: https://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2019.0466

Photoperiods and Nasonia

Circadian rhythm studies of Nasonia (a small species of parasitoid wasp) have shown that changes in photoperiod lead to changes in DNA methylation which in turn affect diapause. This provides important insights into the molecular mechanisms that underpin responses to changing day lengths. See Genome Res. 2016;26(2):203-210. doi:10.1101/gr.196204.115.

The mammalian brain and circadian rhythms

Collaborative research involving members of the group provided the first description of circadian time-keeping properties in the subfornical organ of the mammalian brain, an area critical to the control of thirst and drinking behaviour. This work raises the possibility that the activity of this brain region may contribute to the daily regulation of drinking behaviour and osmotic regulation in mammals. See FASEB J. 2020 Jan; 34(1):974-987. doi: 10.1096/fj.201901111R.

Highly productive plants

It was not known until recently why the Mediterranean Giant Reed Arundo donax was so productive, growing up to six meters in one year. Paradoxically, it was found to be a less-efficient C3 photosynthesizing species but overcomes this through high levels of Rubisco activity. This plant has potential as a bioenergy species, and may hold insights into how to improve productivity in other C3 species in high temperature environments. For more information read the article: High C3 photosynthetic capacity and high intrinsic water use efficiency underlies the high productivity of the bioenergy grass Arundo donax.

Human environmental physiology

Our wide range of research topics also include human environmental physiology. For example, one area of investigation addresses the mechanisms by which stressors, the prenatal environment, energy availability, endocrine disrupting chemicals and social interactions affect reproductive function. Another recently instigated collaborative study project will investigate the impact of COVID-19 on quality of life, wellbeing, food intake and physical activity in cardiac rehabilitation patients.

Search for a research paper

12 papers found

  • Journal article

    Cognition in a changing world: Red-headed Gouldian finches enter spatially unfamiliar habitats more readily than do black-headed birds

    Mettke-Hofmann C, Eccles G and Greggor A and Bethell E

    Publish date:17/09/2020 00:00:00

  • Journal article

    The genetic basis of diurnal preference in Drosophila melanogaster.

    Pegoraro M, Flavell LMM, Menegazzi P, Colombi P, Dao P and Helfrich-Förster C and Tauber E

    Publish date:31/08/2020 00:00:00

  • Journal article

    The colonisation of remains by the sarcophagid fly Sarcophaga argyrostoma (Robineau-Desvoidy) (Diptera: Sarcophagidae).

    Gunn A

    Publish date:19/08/2020 00:00:00

  • Journal article

    Dataset of electrophysiological patch-clamp recordings of the effect of the compounds deltamethrin, ATx-II and β4-peptide on human cardiac Nav1.5 sodium channel gating properties

    Thull S, Neacsu C, O'Reilly AO, Bothe S, Hausmann R, Huth T and Meents J and Lampert A

    Publish date:01/08/2020 00:00:00

  • Journal article

    Open-flow respirometry under field conditions: How does the airflow through the nest influence our results?

    Nowack J and Dill V and Dausmann KH

    Publish date:01/08/2020 00:00:00

  • Journal article

    Mechanism underlying hooked resurgent-like tail currents induced by an insecticide in human cardiac Nav1.5

    Thull S, Neacsu C, O'Reilly AO, Bothe S, Hausmann R, Huth T and Meents J and Lampert A

    Publish date:15/06/2020 00:00:00