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