Our research encompasses a range of topics related to animal behaviour and evolution; particularly social learning, cultural evolution, the evolution of intelligence, and niche construction. We integrate rigorous laboratory and captive animal experimentation with sophisticated statistical and theoretical approaches, including the development of new methods. Current projects include:
Social Learning Strategies
Animals learn from others selectively according to evolved rules called ‘social learning strategies’. We investigate such strategies through experimental studies in monkeys, birds and fishes, and through evolutionary game theory modelling.
Predicting the Diffusion and Inheritance of Behavioural Innovations
A challenge for social learning researchers is to identify animal ‘traditions’ and to work out how novel behaviour and skills spread. We use experimental studies of monkeys and budgerigars, combined with mathematical/statistical methods, to determine where animals have acquired their behaviour through social learning, and how novel behaviour spreads in animal populations. The methods are applied to isolate ‘culture’ in natural animal populations, including chimpanzees and dolphins.
Intelligence and brain evolution in primates
We conduct comparative statistical analyses exploring the correlates and causes of the large primate brain and the evolution of intelligence. For instance, we have found that social learning, innovation and tool use all co-vary with primate relative brain size and may have been drivers of brain evolution.
The activities of organisms can modify selective pressures and affect subsequent evolution. We investigate the effects of this ‘niche construction’ using theoretical population genetics modelling and through experimental analyses. The recognition of niche construction as an evolutionary process, which imposes directional biases on natural selection, is a central concept in the emerging extended evolutionary synthesis.
Other projects include an examination of the relative reliance of animals on asocial and social learning, investigations of animal innovation, and mathematical models of gene-culture co-evolution. In addition to this basic research, we endeavour to apply our findings to develop training procedures for enhancing the life-skills of captivity-reared animals (e.g. hatchery fishes, endangered primates), designed to improve the efficiency of stocking and reintroductions.
Our research is well supported by grants and fellowships from the ERC, BBSRC, NERC, the EU, The Royal Society, the John Templeton Foundation, and the AHRC. The final reports of all of our previous research council funded projects have been graded ‘A’ for excellent value for money.