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Synopses of lectures and practicals

Michaelmas Term
Behaviour and Ecology
Brains and Behaviour

Lent Term
Insect Biology
Vertebrate Evolutionary Biology

Easter Term
Evolutionary Principles

 

Michaelmas Term

Behaviour and Ecology

 


Prof Rebecca Kilner

Aims. To introduce the scientific study of animal behaviour, showing how predictions can be derived from evolutionary theory and tested by comparative studies and experiments. To encourage the ability to think critically about how well observations match theoretical predictions and to consider alternative hypotheses.

The first two lectures give an evolutionary perspective of how animals' survival and reproductive strategies relate to their physical environment and an environment consisting of competitors and predators. Then follow four lectures considering in detail the various problems individuals have concerning survival and reproduction: foraging, avoidance of predators and brood parasites, parental care and co-operation and conflict in societies. The next four lectures look at the mechanisms that underpin adaptive behaviour, and the way in which it develops, by examining trade-offs, navigation and recognition cues. The final two lectures show how understanding the mechanisms underpinning adaptive behaviour can help us understand the process of speciation and can also help improve the welfare of captive animals. Throughout the course the emphasis is on the links between ecology, behaviour and evolution. Ecological factors provide the stage on which behaviour is played and, during evolution, natural selection will favour those behavioural strategies which maximise an individual's chances of survival and its reproductive efficiency.

The practicals involve experiments to test some of the hypotheses discussed in the lectures so students will gain first-hand experience of collecting and analysing quantitative data on behaviour, of testing alternative predictions, and of writing concise reports to summarise conclusions.

 

Brains and Behaviour

Prof Simon Laughlin
Dr Berthold Hedwig

Aims. The lectures will describe the ways in which the brains of animals function, how they operate in the detection and processing of sensory information, how they organise responses to environmental change, how sensory and motor functions are integrated, and how nervous systems are involved in learning.

One of the most challenging problems of modern biology is to understand the organization of nervous systems, especially in the control of behaviour and learning. The course draws upon examples of the specialized behaviour of certain animals and explains how their neurones and brains function. The lectures are designed to develop an understanding of common principles of neural function that are shared by a wide range of animals. These principles include the roles played by sensory and motor systems in permitting the exploitation of different habitats and the development of different lifestyles, how nervous systems generate reliable patterns of behaviour, and the logical progression from the simple to the more complex. Specific topics include:

  • An introduction to the cellular basis of neural processing.
  • Capturing and interpreting pictures of the world with compound eyes.
  • How bats and owls hunt in the dark with sound.
  • Information from odour.
  • Electrical signalling in the murky world of electric fish.
  • Simple mechanisms for generating motor patterns.
  • Control of locomotion in different environments.

The first practical investigates motor mechanisms in insects. The second practical is concerned with the electric discharges and electric sense found in certain families of fish. A seminar provides the opportunity to discuss the ethics of the use of animals in science.

 

Lent Term

Insect Biology

Dr William Foster
Dr Walter Federle

Aims. To provide an understanding of the biology of the most successful animals on Earth, the insects, in particular their physiology, locomotion, feeding biology, mating and reproductive behaviour, and the evolution of their social behaviour. To show how the study of insects contributes to our understanding of broad principles of physiology and evolutionary biology. To provide students with direct experience of handling, observing and studying living insects.

Insects are the most abundant and successful group of land animals. The course will seek to explain the secret of the insects’ success by a detailed study of insect design and the adaptations of this design to an enormous diversity of life styles.

The lectures will cover insect cuticle, respiration, water balance, locomotion, insect parasitoids, mating strategies, and insect biodiversity and conservation.

The practical classes will explore the physiology, structure, behaviour and classification of insects, and are supported by the wealth of insect material in the University Museum of Zoology.

 

Vertebrate Evolutionary Biology

Prof Jenny Clack
Dr Robert Asher

Aims. To demonstrate that an integration of developmental and evolutionary studies enhances our understanding of vertebrate biology. To explore major evolutionary transitions and the adaptive radiations of living and extinct groups of vertebrates.

The first lecture will introduce the different groups of vertebrates, familiar and unfamiliar, and briefly outline their relationships. The second lecture will cover vertebrate embryology, and introduce some basic concepts of vertebrate structure. Some examples of ‘primitive’ vertebrates will be introduced in more detail. The third lecture will deal with vertebrate hard tissues, their structure, origin and distribution in the body and throughout the vertebrate family tree. The structure of the skull will be introduced. In the fourth lecture, the structure of the postcranial skeleton - limbs, fins, vertebrae, will be studied, while the fifth looks at blood circulation and breathing. A lecture on sensory systems completes this part of the course and recaps the previous material.

In the second part of the course, the biology of amniotes is considered to illustrate how a common set of embryonic features unifies a vertebrate group whose members otherwise appear to be quite diverse. Topics include amniote diversity, embryonic adaptations, the evolution of viviparity, heart and circulatory systems in relation to mode of life, locomotor systems and their design, feeding mechanisms and head structure, and hearing in amniotes.

The lectures in both halves of the course are backed-up by practical classes designed to teach the elements of vertebrate structure, function and diversity.

 

Easter Term

Evolutionary Principles

Prof Rufus Johnstone
Dr Nick Mundy

Aims. This module will review the fundamental theories underlying evolutionary biology, and consider the methods available to interpret, understand and predict the pattern and process of evolution.

An understanding of evolutionary processes is of fundamental importance in Animal Biology. This module will investigate how organisms evolve at both phenotypic and genotypic levels, building up from models of evolution in populations to large-scale macroevolutionary patterns. We will examine the mechanisms of adaptation in populations involving single or multiple loci and how these can lead to predictions of future evolutionary change. The important topic of reproductive isolation among populations, and hence speciation, will also be considered. In the final series of lectures we will discuss the powerful methodology that has been developed to uncover phylogenetic relationships among organisms, and the patterns and processes of character evolution.

The practicals will provide an introduction to some commonly used methods to reconstruct phylogenies and investigate evolution in a comparative framework.