Current Research Program:
My major research interests are in the development and testing of cost-benefit models of behaviour, and experimental studies of the decision rules used by animals to ensure adaptive behaviour in various contexts. The emphasis is on understanding how behaviours maximize individual fitness; this is achieved by experimental analyses of the benefits and costs of the various behavioural alternatives available to the animal.
My research program has emphasized foraging and predator avoidance behaviours, and the interactions (trade-offs) between these. We have shown experimentally that animals choose among foraging patches using information about both food availability and predation risk; when these two indices of habitat quality are in conflict (i.e., the richer patch is also the most dangerous one) the animals trade-off these variables in an adaptive fashion. Predation risk potentially may have effects on a variety of other behaviours (especially reproduction) and life-history traits, and my students and I have also examined some of these.
We have also applied this economic approach to the study of antipredator behaviours, such as escape flight and hiding. Fleeing and hiding have costs (e.g. lost opportunity to feed) so their performance should be optimized. Our experiments on a variety of species have shown that decisions to flee or to remain in hiding are in fact influenced by the magnitude of both the benefits and the costs. For example, the length of time marine worms remain in hiding following a disturbance is inversely related to the availability of food in the surrounding water, and thus to the lost opportunity cost of hiding. Other anti-predator behaviours may profitably be analyzed in the same theoretical framework.
I am a strong believer in the notion that the research question should be motivated by the desire to develop or test general theory in behavioural ecology, and that one should choose as a study species the one which is most appropriate to the question asked. Accordingly, the study organisms used by my students, post-doctoral fellows and myself range widely throughout the animal kingdom, from polychaetes to humpback whales, and nearly everything in between.
Although I am biased towards laboratory studies, where experimental variables can be more readily controlled, field work is often necessary to put the findings into a proper ecological context, and thus forms an important component of my overall research program. Indeed, we are currently engaged in a long term research program in Western Australia, examining the behavioural interactions between a number of large marine species (bottlenose dolphins, tiger sharks and sea turtles) and the consequences for community structure and ecosystem function.
- Research Collaborators
- Dr. Michael Heithaus
- Dr. Remy Rochette
- Dr. Aaron Wirsing
- Dr. Alejandro Frid
My Ig Nobel award: