I am an evolutionary ecologist with broad interests (perhaps broader than is good for me). At the core, I’m interested in trying to explain, from an evolutionary perspective,  what has generated differences in behaviour, morphology and physiology between closely related species. Consequently much of my research involves using phylogenies (evolutionary trees) to answer questions about how and why traits have evolved, either by looking at the mode of evolution and extent of phylogenetic signal in the trait of interest (e.g. insect pheromone chemical composition), or by carrying out phylogenetic comparative analyses to identify ecological traits that are correlated with that trait (e.g. identifying that bird species that live in warm climates tend to have larger beaks). In addition to skills in phylogenetic comparative analysis, I often employ an information-theoretic approach to statistical analyses (and have published 2 overview papers on the use of this approach in behavioural ecology). If you want to get the best idea of the breadth of my research interests and projects, look no further than the publications page on this website.

In addition to my research, I am the Editor-in-Chief of the journal Evolutionary Ecology. I am also on the editorial board of the journal Oikos. I have previously been on the council of the Australasian Society for the Study of Animal Behaviour, and am a former president of the Australasian Evolution Society .

Current major research projects:

The evolution of the bird bill as a thermoregulatory organ, and the effects of climate change on avian morphology.

Bird beaks are iconic structures in evolutionary biology, with classic studies on Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos demonstrating the important role that diet and competition play on driving beak size and shape. Less well appreciated is the bird beaks are important areas of heat loss in birds and as such show evidence of being adapted to the thermal environment in which they live. Over 130 years ago, Joel Allen proposed that the extremities of endothermic animals are smaller in colder climates in order to reduce heat loss. We have demonstrated that, across bird species, there is clear evidence for Allen’s rule in bird beaks, with beaks being larger in species that live in more tropical environments (which may help in shedding excess heat loads). I am continuing to investigate these patterns within and across bird species, how birds with different beak sizes deal with particular climates, and what effect, if any, changes in climate may be having on beak size in birds, from a historical perspective (using museum specimen data), and what the fitness and survival effects of any such adaptation in birds are. This latter project is being funded by an ARC Discovery Grant.

We have also been investigating how this property of bird beaks influences other aspects of their thermoregulation, such as behavioural thermoregulation.

Principal collaborators: Dr Glenn Tattersall (Brock University, Canada);Dr Janet Gardner (Australian National University), A/Prof Mike Weston (Deakin University), Prof Marcel Klaassen (Deakin University)

Flight Initiation Distance in birds

Birds can respond to approaching threats by escaping (either by flying, or walking/swimming away), and this response is thought to be adaptive. I’ve been involved now for several years on examining the ecological and evolutionary determinants of this response (measured as flight initiation distance) in birds. Factors studied include the effects of urbanisation, brain size, body size, bicycles (!), drones.

Principal collaborators: A/Prof Mike Weston (Deakin University), Dr Patrick Jean-Guay (Deakin University)

Using phylogenies to predict medicinal potential in plants

Plants form the basis of most traditional medicines and as much as 50% of modern pharmaceuticals can be traced back to natural resources. However, with up to 400,000 species of angiosperms alone, the number of species used as medicines is likely to be a fraction of the actual number with the potential to be medicinally useful. The potential of understudied species to be medically, or economically, beneficial to humans in future is often cited as a reason to conserve biodiversity but, in order to be efficient with limited conservation resources, we need systematic means of identifying these beneficial species. Phylogenies based on DNA sequence information have the capacity to provide a predictive perspective by identifying clades where medicinal activity and relevant chemical profiles are abundant. Using phylogenies to systematically search for new medicinally useful plants, is an approach that has only recently been proposed. The idea came about because research has indicated the existence of significant phylogenetic ‘clumping’ not only in the medicinal activity of plants across families, but also in the presence of pharmaceutically relevant chemical compounds and bioactivity at the species level. Therefore, I (with collaborators) are interested in mapping medicinal use and chemical constituent data onto phylogenies to identify strength of phylogenetic signal, with the ultimately aim of producing a predictive tool that can identify new clades and species that might be strong candidates for investigation into medicinal properties. We are also interested in identifying the ecological correlates (environment, insect-interactions, morphology, life-history) of medicinal activity in plants to try and understand why some plants have evolved properties that make them medicinally useful to humans.

Principal collaborators: Dr Nina Rønsted (National Tropical Botanic Garden, Hawaii), Dr Anne Gaskett (University of Auckland), Dr Damien Callahan (Deakin University), Dr Rachael Gallagher (Macquarie University)

Evolution of insect chemical signals and receiver structures

I am interested in trying to understand what drives pheromone diversity. Why do even quite closely related species produced different combinations of chemicals in order to invoke, behaviourally, the same response (e.g. attract a mate, recognise kin, instigate aggregation)? This involves understanding not only the mode of evolution (is diversity acheived through gradual changes in pheromone composition, or by larger shifts in composition at speciation events?) but also the ecological drivers of that change (e.g. does environment influence the kind of chemicals that can be used, does the presence of overlapping competing species promote divergence in chemical signals?). Also, why do some species produce relatively complex blends of chemicals, whilst others rely on a single compound for the same ‘message’. I have addressed these questions across species of bark beetles, fruit flies, ants and moths. I’m also interested in diversity in the other side of the communication equation, the receiver structures (antennae). Some insects have enormously long or elaborate antennae (for example as seen in some moths), but why is there variation? Why are some species able to get by with shorter thin antennae, despite, ostensibly responding the same type of chemical cues. I am examining this question in moths, parasitoid wasps and ants, relating antennal structure and size to pheromone dynamics, body size, host use and life history.

Principal collaborators: Prof Mark Elgar (Melbourne)

Harem polygyny in insects

Harem polygyny is a mating system where individual males are associated with (and mate with) an exclusive group of females, often defending access to that group from other males. The mating system is well known from some mammal groups (e.g. seals, deal, gorillas), but is little known from insect groups, although examples of ‘harem polygynous’ species can be found across orders as diverse as the Hymenoptera, Coleoptera, Orthopera, Zoraptera and Heteroptera. I am interested in the ecological determinants that have led to evolution of this behaviour and why females ‘allocate’ themselves to individual males in this manner.

Principal collaborators: A/Prof Greg Holwell (University of Auckland)

Q & A

Describe yourself in three words or less

Approachable biological dabbler

What is your earliest memory?

Vague memory: Watching my Mum doing the ironing whilst sitting in a high chair listening to “Listen with Mother” on the Radio. No idea how old I was – but I suspect less than 3.

Definite memory: Being taken to see the cockpit of a Singapore Airlines 747 on a flight to Australia when I was 3 and half years old – back in the days when they weren’t so worried about showing people the cockpit

What (or who) inspired your interest in biology?

What: I was always interested in compiling lists of facts or data (particularly, as a kid, cricket averages) – and biology is quite amenable to that

Who: I did have a very good biology teacher at school in Nottingham called Jim Cook, but I would also say Naomi Langmore, who supervised me briefly as an undergraduate and was the person who made me realise that biology (and science) is as much about ideas as it is about facts. It all become a lot more interesting after that. 

What was your favourite book as a child?

I was really into The Tripods trilogy by John Christopher 

Name your three favourite films

Vertigo, Brazil, True Romance

Which do you prefer – Cheese or chocolate?

A good creamy stilton is hard to beat

Who would play you in a film about your life?

I was told once I looked very much like Robert Sean Leonard (from Dead Poets Society, and latterly House), and also, more disturbingly Mackenzie Crook (Gareth from the original BBC version of The Office). However, I’ll aim high and suggest Matt Damon. It really would be a terrible film though.

Which three people would you invite to your dream dinner party?

David Mitchell (the comedian, not the author), Gioacchino Rossini, Charles Darwin (I know it’s unoriginal, but for personality and experience he would be hard to beat) 

What is your fancy dress costume of choice?

I never would choose a fancy dress costume willingly. But probably the best experience I’ve had was dressing as the Grim Reaper – so I’ll go for that one.

What would your super power be?

Being able to transport myself anywhere instantaneously. I could pop and have breakfast with friends in the UK, and wouldn’t have to drive to work every day.

What TV programme best describes your personality?

The Orville – a bit nerdy, fundamentally good-hearted (I hope) but don’t take myself too seriously.

If you could bring something extinct back to life, what would it be?

Again, not original, but to have thylacines prowling around Tasmania again would be exciting wouldn’t it?


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  1. […] Matthew R. E. Symonds, Michael A. Weston, Wouter F. D. van Dongen, Alan Lill, Randall W. Robinson and Patrick-Jean […]

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