The BEER group currently runs several large research programs aimed at addressing fundamental questions in Behavioural and Evolutionary Ecology. Most of our research falls within the following main research areas.
1) The Origins of Family Living – Why animal’s live together is one of the fundamental questions in Evolutionary Biology. Despite this we know relatively little about the factors which triggered the initial emergence of group living. Geoff’s work takes a unique system, a group of family living Australian lizards (the Egernia group), in which males and females form long-term monogamous pair bonds and juveniles delay dispersal and remain with mum and dad to address this question.
2) The Evolutionary Significance of Thermal Developmental Plasticity – Thermal developmental plasticity is common in ectotherms, however its ecological or evolutionary consequences are poorly understood. We integrate field and lab based experimental work, sophisticated molecular methods and comparative and meta-analytical approaches across a range of oviparous and viviparous systems to address this.
3) Understanding Evolutionary Transitions between Sex Determining Systems – Sex determination is a fundamental biological process, yet its mechanisms are remarkably diverse. In vertebrates, sex can be determined by inherited genetic factors or by the temperature experienced during development. However, the evolutionary causes of this diversity remain an enigma. Erik’s research utilises a system which displays both genetic and temperature sex determination to examine both the proximate and ultimate causes of this divergence.
4) Predicting the Effects of Global Climate Change – Understanding how species will respond to climate change is fundamental to predicting the impacts of climate change on global biodiversity. Erik and Geoff’s work uses a combination of experimental work and detailed climatic modelling to predict the response of various lizard species to climate change.
5) Identifying the Causes and Consequences of Hybridisation – Genetic exchange between species is increasingly recognised as playing an important role in evolution. Geoff’s work (in collaboration with Tobias Uller of the University of Lund) uses experimental work, field studies and sophisticated molecular and genomic techniques to examine how individuals from different species interact upon secondary contact, the consequences of those interactions for reproductive success and how this influences the strength and direction of gene flow between species.
6) Exploring Colonisation Dynamics in Invasive Species – Invasive species represent one of the globes biggest ecological and economic threats. Geoff’s work (in collaboration with Tobias Uller) aims to examine the factors that promote the initial persistence and expansion of invasive species in their non-native range and the consequences of this for adaptive evolution.
7) Evolution of Live Birth – Giving birth to live young represents a major biological innovation. Despite this, our understanding how live birth itself first evolved and how mothers control the timing of birth remains a major challenge. The Egernia group represent a excellent system to address this challenge because females not only give birth to live young but have evolved extremely fine-scale control over exactly when they give birth. Our work (in collaboration with Camilla Whittington, Martin Whiting, and James van Dyke) aims to uncover the mechanisms by which females (or their offspring) influence this.
8) Telomeres and Senescence – Telomeres are repeat sequences of DNA at the ends of chromosomes that protect the genetic information from errors in recombination. Cellular senescence occurs when telomeres become critically short. In many organisms these protective caps get eroded away throughout life (cellular aging) resulting in declines in organism function that can ultimately contribute to an increase in mortality. Identifying the factors that influence the nature and extent of this cellular aging is a key challenge in evolutionary biology. Our work (in collaboration with Mats Olsson) uses a combination of longitudinal data and experimental approaches in the snow skink to disentangle the factors that influence telomere length at birth and how telomere dynamics change across an individual’s lifetime.