Our research is motivated by a desire to understand life’s diversity, and we use experimental, observational, and theoretical tools to test and refine theory. We tend to prefer invertebrates for their experimental and bureaucratic tractability, though will use any system (including humans) appropriate for the questions at hand. Some areas of particular interest include:
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 broadly 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 (colour, pattern, motion etc.) is integrated and weighed by viewers to ultimately affect behaviour. We also enjoy testing and extending methods for analysing colour and vision in nature, as well as developing software that improves the accessibility of such tools.
The evolution and maintenance of extreme variation
Species that exhibit dramatic phenotypic variation—such as polymorphism and sexual dimorphism—offer exciting opportunities for studying the evolutionary processes that generate diversity. We have a long-standing interest in these extremes, such as the potential for ‘sensory drive’ to maintain colour polymorphism in deceptive visual lures. We’re still working to unravel that particular puzzle, and also have ongoing projects centred on understanding the evolution of sexual dimorphism using model butterflies.
Sexual selection, and predicting the direction of evolution
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’re 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.