We are broadly interested in behavioural and evolutionary ecology. More specifically, we look at a range of diverse aspects, including the evolution of alternative reproductive strategies, colour signalling, mate choice, male competition, multiple mating, parental care, maternal investment, physiological adaptations, speciation and conservation.

We use a combination of field and captive studies and details on some of the current research projects are provided below.

1. Colour Polymorphism and alternative behavioural strategies

Most animals display only a single colour type, however a few species display a number of discrete, genetically determined colour forms (colour polymorphism) within a single interbreeding population. These systems provide unique opportunities to gain insight into the evolutionary process that promote and maintain biological diversity.The Gouldian finch exhibits a genetic colour polymorphism where red, black and yellow head-colour morphs all coexist together in wild populations. We are interested in how these alternative forms initially arose and how (and even if) they are maintained over time. We are currently looking at a variety of aspects related to the origin and maintenance of these forms, including genetics, physiology, sexual selection, sperm competition, maternal effects and life-history trade-offs.

People involved:
Simon Griffith (Macquarie University)
Lee Ann Rollins (Deakin University)
Terry Burke (Sheffield University, UK)
Hanna Kokko (ANU)

Funding: ARC (LP110200782; DP120104368)


2. Maternal effects and mother-offspring conflicts

Can mothers shape the lives of their offspring and their grand-offspring? Can siblings shape the lives of their brothers and sisters?By integrating the proximate causes (e.g. hormones) and behavioural and evolutionary consequences of maternal effects for all family members throughout their lifetimes (and future generations), we are looking at the role of maternal effects and sibling conflicts in directing and shaping evolutionary change.

People involved:
Kate Buchanan (Deakin University)
Bill Buttemer (Deakin University)

 Funding: ARC (DP120104368)

Photo by Sarah Pryke

3. Sexual selection and colour signals

Elaborate colour displays are often used in sexual selection to attract mates or repel males. We are interested in the function and significance of colour displays in a range of systems, including birds and lizards. One current project is on the crimson finch (locally known as the ‘red devil’), which is a highly aggressive yet highly colonial breeding finch. This work is looking at the function of bright red colouration in males, as well as the underlying mechanisms and function of overt aggression in this group-living species.

People involved:
Catherine Young (PhD student)


4. Visual ecology and colour signals

We are not only interested in the processes that generate colour variation within populations, but also in what generates the often spectacular colour differences between populations.The frillneck lizard has a large coloured frill, which varies from grey to yellow, orange and red across their range, and is often displayed prominently when threatened by predators and conspecifics. We are looking at the function of the frill, and the role of genetics, environment and behaviour in explaining the geographic variation in frill colour across northern tropical Australia.

People involved:
Martin Whiting (Macquarie University)
Devi Stuart-Fox (Melbourne University)
Scott Keogh (ANU)


 5. Conservation, ecology and behaviour

The Gouldian finch is endemic to northern tropical Australia. However, due to recent large-scale habitat changes, Gouldian populations have suffered major declines and they are now listed as endangered. Along with research on fundamental behavioural and evolutionary questions (above), we are looking at the processes affecting the decline of the species in the hope of developing management strategies.A major problem faced by the bird is frequent wildfires that severely reduce the availability and diversity of perennial grass seeds (the Gouldian finches’ diet), causing the finches to starve. We are looking at the effects of wildfire on the availability, phenology and nutritional content of seeding grasses, and their consequent effects on the behaviour, habitat use and distribution of Gouldian finches.

People involved:
Anna Weier (PhD student)
Michael Lawes (Charles Darwin University)
Ian Radford (Parks and Wildlife, WA)

Funding: Biodiversity Fund

A related problem is that tree hollows used for nesting are severely limited, because of the frequent wildfires (i.e. remove established trees) and intense interspecific competition. We are trialling the use of specialised artificial nest boxes as a tool to promote population growth and reintroduce birds back into their former habitat and range.

Funding: ARC (LP110200782)


Pryke - Gouldian male at nest-box