Animal Behaviour Lab

Research Interests

We consider a diverse range of topics within our research, and of course these topics very often overlap. In addressing our research questions, we primarily (though not exclusively) use fish as our model study species and we divide our time between the laboratory at the University of Sydney and various field sites including One Tree Island on the Great Barrier Reef, Narrabeen Lagoon in NSW, and even the estuaries of Lincolnshire in the UK.

Below is a selection of our main research themes:

Social and Collective Behaviour of Animals

social

Thousands of animal species form into groups and in many cases, these groups are characterised by highly synchronised, co-ordinated collective behaviour.

But how can a multitude of individuals act as though they were all of one mind?

How do social animals make collective decisions? Should social animals, such as fish, lemmings or even humans, blindly follow their leaders, or should they risk isolation from the group by acting more independently?

Learning and Information Use by Animals

learning

Animals constantly gather information which can then be used to make decisions. They can acquire information either directly, by sampling their environment and collecting their own information, or indirectly, by gathering information socially, usually from conspecifics. Acquiring direct, ‘private’ information is costly and time-consuming, but it does have the important benefit of accuracy.

Social information by contrast is inexpensive to acquire but there is no guarantee of its accuracy. How then should animals balance their use of private and social information, when should they rely on private information and when on social? And can they adapt their behaviour so that they preferentially weight social information that comes from a reliable source, i.e. can they discriminate between conspecifics and the information that they provide?

Recognition and Communication

communication

The ability to recognise and differentiate between conspecifics is crucial for structuring the interactions between animals and ultimately for their social organisation. In freshwater fishes, social recognition is known to be achieved using a combination of different sensory cues though recent findings suggest that chemical cues may be of greatest importance.

These cues are strongly influenced by the fish’s physiology, and its recent habitat and diet, hence not only do fish use these cues to recognise they can also gather information about each other which will influence their interactions. Far less is known about how marine fish recognise and communicate with each other and this remains an important topic for research.

Integrating Behaviour and Physiology

integrating

Physiology is the driver of animal behaviour and by combining behavioural and physiological approaches to research questions, we can gain fascinating insights into what makes animals ‘tick’. For example, how do animal respond to stress? What determines fighting ability? Why do individuals vary in their willingness to accept risk in order to gain rewards, thereby occupying different positions on the so-called ‘bold-shy continuum’?

These and many other areas of animal behaviour can benefit hugely from the adoption of a multi-disciplinary research perspective.

While these four topics represent the bulk of our research, we do not restrict ourselves to these. In recent years we have also researched and published on allied topics, including predator-prey interactions, sexual and mate-choice behaviour, and aquatic toxicology.

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