I welcome informal applications from potential PhD and MPhil students. If you are interested in joining my research group then please email me.

NERC project: Interspecific information transfer as a driver of community structure

My colleague Jakob Bro-Jorgensen and I will soon begin a four-year NERC project looking in to how communication between different species can drive the mixed-species community structure that emerges.

An example of and African savannah mixed-species herbivore community
Mixed-species groups are widespread in nature and often have an important role in structuring ecological communities. The value of heterospecifics as information sources can affect social affinity between species, yet little is known about importance of information transfer as a driver of community structure. In this project, we will use the herbivore community of African savannahs as an empirical model to study the impact of interspecific communication networks on community ecology. We will investigate the system using innovative social network analysis, involving acoustic analysis and GIS modelling. The project also includes theoretical modelling of mixed-species group formation.

We are looking for PhD candidates to apply to work on the modelling side of this project.  If you are interested please email me.

Funded PhDs available: Gamification

I am currently recruiting potential PhD applicants for fully-funded 4-year PhDs in the area of 'Gamification'.

This is where we use computer games as a tool for gathering experimental behavioural data in order to advance science and achieve societal benefits. Areas include:
  • Using tailored games as a tool for understanding players as biological agents
  • Using games to test biological hypotheses (e.g. behavioural ecology)
  • Investigating games for training and dissemination of science
  • Understanding player economic behaviours in massively multi-player online games
  • Data mining in commercial games to understand player psychology
Feel free to email me if you are interested in discussing the potential for an application.

Killer whales may have menopause so grandma can look after the kids

Killer whales are just one of three species – we’re one of the others ‐ that we know continue to live long after they’ve stopped reproducing. Here's an article in The Guardian about our research: www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/oct/17/killer-whales-menopause

Orca are amazing, intelligent, and highly social animals.
We want to know know why these three alone evolved this unusual menopausal trait. I'm pleased to say that NERC has agreed to fund our project to look at why killer whales stop reproducing a third of the way through their lives, dedicating the rest of their lives to protecting and caring for children and grandchildren. We have ideas that menopause, which the whales experience in their 30s or 40s, is related to the animals’ social structure.

We are employing two researchers for three years to work with us on this project.  Exciting times are ahead. Watch this space.

Menopause, Ageing, Parental Care, and Mummy's Boys!

We have a new paper published in the journal Science!  See the York press release.

Have you ever wondered why women have a menopause, giving up their reproductive abilities half way through their lives? The reason for the menopause remains one of nature’s great mysteries and very few species have a prolonged period of their lifespan when they no longer reproduce, as in humans. A key theory is that the menopause evolved in humans partly to allow women to focus on providing support for their grandchildren. Women then live a long time after their menopause to care for their grandchildren into maturity.
A post-reproductive mother and her son form strong lifelong bonds. Photo by David Ellifrit.
Female killer whales also stop reproducing half way through their lives, and can live into their 90s.  We analysed records of two killer whale populations spanning 36 years, to examine menopause, aging, and parental care. Our analysis shows that male killer whales are pretty much mommy's boys who struggle to survive without their mother's help. The need for mothers to care for their sons into adulthood explains why killer whales have evolved the longest post-reproductive lifespan of any non-human animal.

For the article see:


Floqua: Free game app inspired by behavioural ecology!

team (especially some very talented summer students) at The University of York have developed a game app based on some of the research on animal flocks and animal social networks that I have been involved in!

Floqua is a fun, flocking fish game for Android. Find all of the lost fish in each level and guide them to safety in the castle. The tricky part is keeping them in your shoal. Swim too fast and you'll leave your fish behind. Watch out for the predators: they're hungry!

Download Floqua here. It currently works Android devices (phones and tablets) but keep an eye out for other platform versions soon.
Floqua is based on the science of collective motion and animal social networks. Read more about the science behind the game.

The game - which we intend to use for education and outreach - is the first of what we hope to be many from Complex City Apps.

Creating more useful network data visualisations

I have recently started using the software Tulip to visualise my networks. It has a steep learning curve, but is extremely flexible.  Tulip gives you the ability to open a Python window and add your own code to manipulate the visualisation. Here is an example of an Orca social network that I plotted using Tulip. Among other things, I have coded the edges to be increasingly thicker and more opaque for edges that carry a heavier weighting. This means I do not have to either a) plot all connections the same thickness and transparency and have a fully-connected mess; or b) threshold the network to get rid of the (important) weaker connections, leaving me with a fractured network.  There's information in the weights!