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Research Interests

We are located in the Division of Ecology and Evolution (Research School of Biology) at the Australian National University. Our research group is highly integrative combining observational and experimental work with statistical modelling and molecular genetics to address evolutionary questions. While we mainly use lizards as model systems for testing theoretical frameworks in evolutionary and behavioural ecology, we are also working in other systems that lend themselves well to tackling important empirical questions (e.g. seed beetles).

Currently our groups explores questions in a number of key research areas:

Impact of developmental environments on metabolism and mitochondrial function and its implications for life-history evolution

Metabolic processes are an essential and universal feature of life; they provide all the available energy organisms have to invest in growth, reproduction and survival. It therefore comes as no surprise that understanding the factors affecting energy production is of major interest to biologists – energetic costs and gains form the foundation of theory across a diversity of research fields, from sexual selection to behavioural, population and community ecology. Rates of energy turnover and investment by individuals provide powerful explanations for diverse biological patterns including why larger fish are important for population sustainability, patterns of ageing and why animals behave and look so different.

My research group explores how early developmental experiences impact physiology and metabolic function using targeted experimental manipulations of early life stages in ectotherms combined with large-scale meta-analytic and comparative approaches. We explore how physiological changes brought about by developmental responses cascade to affect life-history and fitness – insights that are critical to ascertain the long-term consequences of such changes. My team is currently exploring how thermal and resource environment interact to impact metabolism, and subsequently life-history, using a few widespread model lizards species that vary in ecology. We are using integrative, interdisciplinary tools to elucidate answers to proximate and ultimate questions in this area.

Understanding the covariance between behaviour, life-history and learning

Recent theoretical developments in behavioural ecology suggest that personality (i.e. repeatable individual differences in behaviour within and across contexts), life-history (growth rates, age at maturity, reproductive output) and learning should covary as a result of differences in the “pace-of life” or differences in the energetic needs of individuals. While we have some support for these ideas there are conceptual and methodological challenges in this area. We explore how individual metabolism influences behaviour and learning in a short-lived skink (lizard) species across time.

The role of both maternal and environmental effects in generating phenotypic variability and shaping trait covariance

Maternal and environmental effects interact  in complex ways to shape developmental trajectories and thus phenotypic variation. We are interested in understanding how such environmental effects interact and the consequences such interactions have for the evolution of phenotypic plasticity. Through experimental manipulations of early environments as well as parental environments we can understand the degree to which phenotypic variability is affected and whether such responses are adaptive or not.

Natural selection on function-valued traits

Many traits are not simply static features of the individual phenotype but they develop and are influenced by the environment and as such can be viewed as functions. This is a formal way in which we can incorporate phenotypic plasticity and development into evolutionary theory, yet treating traits as being ‘function-valued’ has important statistical and conceptual challenges. Understanding how natural and sexual selection operate on curves and whether genetic variance exists on the parameters estimates describing these curves is thus important in understanding how developmental trajectories evolve. I am interested in developing and applying statistical models to test the utility of the function-valued approach in helping us understand the phenotypic evolution of plastic traits.

Developing new statistical approaches and software for meta-analysis and experimental design

My group is intersted in developing new tools that can be used by researchers to deal with challenges in how data is collected and analysed. We are currently interested in the use of missing data methods and planned-missing data design to overcome challenges in collecting large amounts of data, and are involved in the development of new tools and analytical approaches, such as the R package metaDigitise for collecting data from figures for meta-analysis and new meta-analytic effect sizes to deal with matrix based data.

For more details on potential honours, P.h.D and M.Sc. projects please see the projects page on the RSB website.

My group collaborates exstensively with wonderful colleagues from around the world who can only be described as world-class in all respects! They include the following colleagues:

Shinichi Nakagawa (UNSW)

Martin Whiting (MQ)

Scott Keogh (ANU)

Tobias Uller (Lund)

Lisa Schwanz (UNSW)

Chris Friesen (Wollongong)

Geoff While (UTas)

Megan Head (ANU)

Alistair Senior (Sydney)

Pau Carazo (Valencia)

Frank Seebacher (Sydney)

plus more to come……