Dr Thomas White

Early Career Development Fellow
School of Life and Environmental Sciences

A12 - Macleay Building
The University of Sydney


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Biographical details

I am an evolutionary biologist with a particular interest in sensory ecology, behaviour, and communication. Our research in the Evolutionary and Sensory Ecology Lab is motivated by a desire to understand life’s diversity, and we use experimental, observational, and mathematical tools to test evolutionary theory. We primarily works with understudied invertebrates, such as butterflies and spiders, for their tractability, but will draw on any system useful for the questions at hand.

Research interests

Our current research is broadly centred on three themes:

  1. The evolutionary ecology of visual communication. Visual communication is ubiquitous in nature. It underlies some of the most conspicuous aspects of biological diversity—such as the colours of animals and plants—and we are interested in understanding the mechanisms, causes, and consequences of this mode of information exchange. Current projects focus on examining how suites of signalling traits coevolve to enable the effective exchange of information in 'noisy', real-world conditions, and how the information encoded in diverse visual cues (e.g. colour, pattern, motion) is integrated and weighed by viewers to ultimately affect behaviour. To that end, we also enjoy testing and extending quantitative methods for analysing colour and vision in nature, as well as developing open software that improves the accessibility of such tools.
  2. The evolution and maintenance of extreme variation. Species that exhibit dramatic phenotypic variation—such as colour polymorphism and sexual dimorphism—offer exciting opportunities for studying the fundamental evolutionary processes thatgenerate diversity. We have a long-standing interest in these extremes, such as the potential for ‘sensory drive' to maintain colour polymorphism in the deceptive visual lures of orb-web spiders. We are still working to unravel that particular puzzle, and also have ongoing projects centred on understanding the evolution of sexual dimorphism using tropical butterflies.
  3. Natural and sexual selection in the wild. How are intersexual differences in sensory ecology reconciled with the fact that males and females largely share a genome? To what extent do signals and sensory systems coevolve? Can we predict the trajectory of signal evolution from knowledge of viewers and/or viewing environments? We are keen to understand how social and natural selection interact to shape phenotypic evolution at large. As part of this work, we are also testing whether particular phenotypes—such as brilliant structural colours—may be inherently favoured due to, for example, their suitability for encoding biological information (e.g. mate quality), or their unrivalled salience in chaotic visual environments.

Awards and honours

  • Phil Carne Award (2015), Australian Entomological Society
  • Commonwealth Science Conference Grant (2014), The Royal Society London

Themes

Ecology and Evolution; Animal behavior and ecophysiology

PhD and master's project opportunities

Selected publications

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Book Chapters

  • White, T. (2018). Cryptic Coloration. In J. Vonk, T. Shackelford (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Animal Cognition and Behavior, (pp. 1-3). Cham: Springer International Publishing. [More Information]
  • White, T. (2018). Disruptive Coloration. In J. Vonk, T. Shackelford (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Animal Cognition and Behavior, (pp. 1-3). Cham: Springer International Publishing. [More Information]
  • O'Hanlon, J., White, T., Umbers, K. (2018). Visual Communication. In Alex Cordoba-Aguilar, Daniel Gonzalez-Tokman and Isaac Gonzalez-Santoyo (Eds.), Insect Behaviour: From Mechanisms to Ecological and Evolutionary Consequences, (pp. 158-173). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Journals

  • Maia, R., Gruson, H., Endler, J., White, T. (2019). pavo 2: new tools for the spectral and spatial analysis of colour in R. Methods in Ecology and Evolution. [More Information]
  • Umbers, K., White, T., De Bona, S., Haff, T., Ryeland, J., Drinkwater, E., Mappes, J. (2019). The protective value of a defensive display varies with the experience of wild predators. Scientific Reports, 9(1). [More Information]
  • Dalrymple, R., Flores-Moreno, H., Kemp, D., White, T., Laffan, S., Hemmings, F., Hitchcock, T., Moles, A. (2018). Abiotic and biotic predictors of macroecological patterns in bird and butterfly coloration. Ecological Monographs, 88(2), 204-224. [More Information]
  • Maia, R., White, T. (2018). Comparing colors using visual models. Behavioural Ecology, 29(3), 649-659. [More Information]
  • Gray, M., Stansberry, M., Lynn, J., Williams, C., White, T., Whitney, K. (2018). Consistent shifts in pollinator-relevant floral coloration along Rocky Mountain elevation gradients. Journal of Ecology, 106(5), 1910-1924. [More Information]
  • White, T. (2018). Illuminating the Evolution of Iridescence. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 33(6), 374-375. [More Information]
  • Bulbert, M., White, T., Saporito, R., Kraus, F. (2018). Ontogenetic colour change in Oreophyrne ezra (Anura: Microhylidae) reflects an unusual shift from conspicuousness to crypsis but not in toxicity. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 123(1), 12-20. [More Information]
  • Lynch, K., White, T., Kemp, D. (2018). The effect of captive breeding upon adult thermal preference in the Queensland fruit fly (Bactrocera tryoni). Journal of Thermal Biology. [More Information]
  • White, T., Rojas, B., Mappes, J., Rautiala, P., Kemp, D. (2017). Colour and luminance contrasts predict the human detection of natural stimuli in complex visual environments. Biology Letters, 13(9), 1-5. [More Information]
  • White, T., Kemp, D. (2017). Colour polymorphic lures exploit innate preferences for spectral versus luminance cues in dipteran prey. BMC Evolutionary Biology, 17(1), 1-10. [More Information]
  • Umbers, K., De Bona, S., White, T., Lehtonen, J., Mappes, J., Endler, J. (2017). Deimatism: a neglected component of antipredator defence. Biology Letters, 13(4), 1-5. [More Information]
  • White, T. (2017). Digest: Strengthening the link between sexual selection and color polymorphism. Evolution, 71(7), 1913-1914. [More Information]
  • White, T. (2017). Jewelled spiders manipulate colour-lure geometry to deceive prey. Biology Letters, 13(3), 1-5. [More Information]
  • White, T., Dalrymple, R., Herberstein, M., Kemp, D. (2017). The perceptual similarity of orb-spider prey lures and flower colours. Evolutionary Ecology, 31(1), 1-20. [More Information]
  • White, T., Kemp, D. (2016). Color polymorphic lures target differentvisual channels in prey. Evolution, 70(6), 1398-1408. [More Information]
  • White, T., Kemp, D. (2016). Colour polymorphism. Current Biology, 26(13), R516-R518. [More Information]
  • Dalrymple, R., Kemp, D., Flores-Moreno, H., Laffan, S., White, T., Hemmings, F., Tindall, M., Moles, A. (2015). Birds, butterflies, and flowers in the tropics are not more colourful than those in higher latitudes. Global Ecology and Biogeography, 24(12), 1424-1432. [More Information]
  • White, T., Dalrymple, R., Noble, D., O'Hanlon, J., Zurek, D., Umbers, K. (2015). Reproducible research in the study of biological coloration. Animal Behaviour, 106, 51-57. [More Information]
  • Barry, K., White, T., Rathnayake, D., Fabricant, S., Herberstein, M. (2015). Sexual signals for the colour-blind: cryptic female mantids signal quality through brightness. Functional Ecology, 29(4), 531-539. [More Information]
  • White, T., Zeil, J., Kemp, D. (2015). Signal design and courtship presentation coincide for highly biased delivery of an iridescent butterfly mating signal. Evolution, 69(1), 14-25. [More Information]
  • White, T., Kemp, D. (2015). Technicolour deceit: a sensory basis for the study of colour-based lures. Animal Behaviour, 105, 231-243. [More Information]
  • Kemp, D., White, T. (2014). Exploring the perceptual canvas of signal evolution: comment on Kelley and Kelley. Behavioral Ecology, 25(3), 467-468. [More Information]
  • White, T., Macedonia, J., Birch, D., Dawes, J., Kemp, D. (2012). The nanoanatomical basis of sexual dimorphism in iridescent butterfly colouration. Australian Journal of Zoology, 60(2), 101-107. [More Information]

Conferences

  • White, T. (2017). Light on the wing: iridescent visual signalling in butterflies. Australian Entomological Society 48th AGM and Scientific Conference, Terrigal, NSW: Australian Entomological Society.
  • White, T. (2015). Colour-polymorphic lures target different visual channels in prey. Behaviour, Cairns, QLD: Behaviour.
  • White, T., Herberstein, M., Kemp, D. (2014). Technicolor deceit: sensory drive and the evolution of colour-polymorphic prey lures. 15th International Behavioral Ecology Congress (ISBE), New York: ISBE.

2019

  • Maia, R., Gruson, H., Endler, J., White, T. (2019). pavo 2: new tools for the spectral and spatial analysis of colour in R. Methods in Ecology and Evolution. [More Information]
  • Umbers, K., White, T., De Bona, S., Haff, T., Ryeland, J., Drinkwater, E., Mappes, J. (2019). The protective value of a defensive display varies with the experience of wild predators. Scientific Reports, 9(1). [More Information]

2018

  • Dalrymple, R., Flores-Moreno, H., Kemp, D., White, T., Laffan, S., Hemmings, F., Hitchcock, T., Moles, A. (2018). Abiotic and biotic predictors of macroecological patterns in bird and butterfly coloration. Ecological Monographs, 88(2), 204-224. [More Information]
  • Maia, R., White, T. (2018). Comparing colors using visual models. Behavioural Ecology, 29(3), 649-659. [More Information]
  • Gray, M., Stansberry, M., Lynn, J., Williams, C., White, T., Whitney, K. (2018). Consistent shifts in pollinator-relevant floral coloration along Rocky Mountain elevation gradients. Journal of Ecology, 106(5), 1910-1924. [More Information]
  • White, T. (2018). Cryptic Coloration. In J. Vonk, T. Shackelford (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Animal Cognition and Behavior, (pp. 1-3). Cham: Springer International Publishing. [More Information]
  • White, T. (2018). Disruptive Coloration. In J. Vonk, T. Shackelford (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Animal Cognition and Behavior, (pp. 1-3). Cham: Springer International Publishing. [More Information]
  • White, T. (2018). Illuminating the Evolution of Iridescence. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 33(6), 374-375. [More Information]
  • Bulbert, M., White, T., Saporito, R., Kraus, F. (2018). Ontogenetic colour change in Oreophyrne ezra (Anura: Microhylidae) reflects an unusual shift from conspicuousness to crypsis but not in toxicity. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 123(1), 12-20. [More Information]
  • Lynch, K., White, T., Kemp, D. (2018). The effect of captive breeding upon adult thermal preference in the Queensland fruit fly (Bactrocera tryoni). Journal of Thermal Biology. [More Information]
  • O'Hanlon, J., White, T., Umbers, K. (2018). Visual Communication. In Alex Cordoba-Aguilar, Daniel Gonzalez-Tokman and Isaac Gonzalez-Santoyo (Eds.), Insect Behaviour: From Mechanisms to Ecological and Evolutionary Consequences, (pp. 158-173). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

2017

  • White, T., Rojas, B., Mappes, J., Rautiala, P., Kemp, D. (2017). Colour and luminance contrasts predict the human detection of natural stimuli in complex visual environments. Biology Letters, 13(9), 1-5. [More Information]
  • White, T., Kemp, D. (2017). Colour polymorphic lures exploit innate preferences for spectral versus luminance cues in dipteran prey. BMC Evolutionary Biology, 17(1), 1-10. [More Information]
  • Umbers, K., De Bona, S., White, T., Lehtonen, J., Mappes, J., Endler, J. (2017). Deimatism: a neglected component of antipredator defence. Biology Letters, 13(4), 1-5. [More Information]
  • White, T. (2017). Digest: Strengthening the link between sexual selection and color polymorphism. Evolution, 71(7), 1913-1914. [More Information]
  • White, T. (2017). Jewelled spiders manipulate colour-lure geometry to deceive prey. Biology Letters, 13(3), 1-5. [More Information]
  • White, T. (2017). Light on the wing: iridescent visual signalling in butterflies. Australian Entomological Society 48th AGM and Scientific Conference, Terrigal, NSW: Australian Entomological Society.
  • White, T., Dalrymple, R., Herberstein, M., Kemp, D. (2017). The perceptual similarity of orb-spider prey lures and flower colours. Evolutionary Ecology, 31(1), 1-20. [More Information]

2016

  • White, T., Kemp, D. (2016). Color polymorphic lures target differentvisual channels in prey. Evolution, 70(6), 1398-1408. [More Information]
  • White, T., Kemp, D. (2016). Colour polymorphism. Current Biology, 26(13), R516-R518. [More Information]

2015

  • Dalrymple, R., Kemp, D., Flores-Moreno, H., Laffan, S., White, T., Hemmings, F., Tindall, M., Moles, A. (2015). Birds, butterflies, and flowers in the tropics are not more colourful than those in higher latitudes. Global Ecology and Biogeography, 24(12), 1424-1432. [More Information]
  • White, T. (2015). Colour-polymorphic lures target different visual channels in prey. Behaviour, Cairns, QLD: Behaviour.
  • White, T., Dalrymple, R., Noble, D., O'Hanlon, J., Zurek, D., Umbers, K. (2015). Reproducible research in the study of biological coloration. Animal Behaviour, 106, 51-57. [More Information]
  • Barry, K., White, T., Rathnayake, D., Fabricant, S., Herberstein, M. (2015). Sexual signals for the colour-blind: cryptic female mantids signal quality through brightness. Functional Ecology, 29(4), 531-539. [More Information]
  • White, T., Zeil, J., Kemp, D. (2015). Signal design and courtship presentation coincide for highly biased delivery of an iridescent butterfly mating signal. Evolution, 69(1), 14-25. [More Information]
  • White, T., Kemp, D. (2015). Technicolour deceit: a sensory basis for the study of colour-based lures. Animal Behaviour, 105, 231-243. [More Information]

2014

  • Kemp, D., White, T. (2014). Exploring the perceptual canvas of signal evolution: comment on Kelley and Kelley. Behavioral Ecology, 25(3), 467-468. [More Information]
  • White, T., Herberstein, M., Kemp, D. (2014). Technicolor deceit: sensory drive and the evolution of colour-polymorphic prey lures. 15th International Behavioral Ecology Congress (ISBE), New York: ISBE.

2012

  • White, T., Macedonia, J., Birch, D., Dawes, J., Kemp, D. (2012). The nanoanatomical basis of sexual dimorphism in iridescent butterfly colouration. Australian Journal of Zoology, 60(2), 101-107. [More Information]

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