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Professor Daniel Franks



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Key Research Interests

Most animals are embedded in complex societies, and individuals differ in their tendency to interact with others and in their position in a social network. Animal social strategies are important to understand because they can impact fitness, health, collective actions, and life-history.

Figure 1: A social network of interactions among resident killer whales. Sons and daughters stick with their mother their entire lives, forming close-knit family groups.

A social network of interactions among resident killer whales.

Dan’s research group aims to understand ecological systems from a behavioural and evolutionary perspective, with a focus on social behaviour and life-history evolution. His interdisciplinary team uses a variety of empirical and statistical approaches, along with computational models and social network analysis. Dan has a keen interest in Bayesian statistics and causal inference applied to observational data.

One of my study species is the fish-eating resident killer whale (orca). Resident orcas is an endangered and iconic species, and lives in highly social and closely knit societies.  Their life-history is extremely interesting with females living into their 80s and 90s yet ceasing reproduction (as with menopause) half-way through their life. Our research has shown that killer whales are dependent on their mothers and grandmothers for their entire lives, and that old post-reproductive females play a crucial role in leading their family group to food - especially in years of need.

Figure 2: Older post-reproductive females lead their family group to food – especially in times of need.

Older post-reproductive females lead their family group to food

Teaching and Scholarship

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‌I believe that integrating research and teaching is the best way to immerse students in a topic. What I find most rewarding about teaching is helping students to develop general skills such as critical thinking and ability to synthesise and present arguments. I make use of my enthusiasm and my background in both biology and computer science to challenge students and train them with different ways of thinking and learning.

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I lecture in behavioural ecology - a subject that I specialize in for my research. I teach fundamental concepts in behavioural ecology such as animal social behaviour, conflicts, mating behaviour, predator-prey behaviour, and foraging behaviour.  I emphasise the evolutionary mechanisms that underpin these processes. As a joint appointment with computer science, I also lecture in evolutionary computation. Here, I teach how we can take inspiration from biological evolution to create self-evolving engineering solutions.

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‌I typically offer subjects related to behavioural ecology. In the past this has included topics such as the evolution of ageing and the evolution of reproductive cessation. I like to suggest broad topics to allow the students to lead discussion and move the tutorials into a direction within the topic of which they are enthusiastic. Tutorials are a fantastic way for students to develop their critical thinking skills and engage with scientific studies in more detail.

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I offer projects relating to the analysis of animal social networks, the evolution of ageing, and computer modelling.


Contact details

Professor Daniel Franks
Department of Biology
University of York
YO10 5DD

Tel: 01904 325342