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Department of Zoology


Research in my group focuses on the relationship between social behaviour and evolution. With experiments in the field and the laboratory, we have derived novel general insights into the evolution of social behaviour and demonstrated how social behaviour can, in turn, affect evolution.

Our work on birds and insects has revealed hidden adaptations within the family that balance evolutionary cooperation against evolutionary conflict. We have shown how adults cooperate to provision offspring yet remain vulnerable to manipulation by a lazy partner; how siblings are rivals for resources yet can cooperate to obtain more food; and how offspring reliably advertise their need to provisioning parents yet can seek more food than is optimal for parents to supply.

Whereas our initial work showed how social behaviour is the outcome of adaptive evolution, our most recent research has demonstrated how social behaviour contributes to further evolutionary change: by acting as a ‘hidden’ agent of natural selection, by changing the pace at which traits change in response to selection, and providing diverse mechanisms for the non-genetic inheritance of key fitness-related traits.

I am also Director of the award-winning Cambridge University Museum of Zoology (and part of the Zoology Department). The Museum is home to a spectacular global collection, encompassing more than two million zoological specimens amassed over the course of more than two centuries. I lead the Museum team in using the collection to promote understanding of animal life in the past, present and future of our planet; and in engaging the Museum’s audiences in diverse interdisciplinary research and educational projects that are targeted at addressing societal inequalities and improving public health, in the aftermath of the global pandemic.


I've spent my academic career based at the Zoology Department in Cambridge, though during that time I've held visiting fellowships at the Australian National University and Cornell University, when I travelled there for fieldwork. After finishing my PhD, I was a Junior Research Fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge and then was awarded a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Research Fellowship followed by a Royal Society University Research Fellowship. In 2004, I was appointed to a University Lectureship, which I took up in 2007. In 2008 and 2010 I was on maternity leave. I was promoted to Reader in 2009 and to Professor in 2013, and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2021. I have been Director of the Cambridge University Museum of Zoology since October 2019.


Our research investigates how behaviour evolves and how adaptive behaviour in turn influences subsequent evolutionary change. We're specifically interested in how parental behaviour contributes to the evolutionary process through its effects on genetic and phenotypic diversity; through the way in which parents facilitate non-genetic inheritance; and the many ways in which parents act as agents of natural selection.

Our current research focuses mainly on burying beetles, though we continue to study bird species as well.

Our main collaborators are Dr Naomi Langmore (Australian National University), Dr Stuart Wigby and Prof Rob Beynon (University of Liverpool); and Dr Cassie Stoddard (Princeton).


Key publications: 


Sun, S. J. and Kilner, R. M. 2020 Temperature stress induces mites to help their carrion beetle hosts by eliminating rival blowflies. eLife 2020;9:e55649

Sun, S. J., Catherall, A. M., Pascoal, S., Jarrett, B. J., Miller, S. E., Sheehan, M. J. and Kilner, R. M. 2020 Rapid local adaptation linked with phenotypic plasticity. Evolution Letters

Rebar, R., Bailey, N. W., Jarrett, B. J. M., and Kilner, R. M. 2020 An evolutionary switch from sibling rivalry to sibling cooperation, caused by a sustained loss of parental care. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 117:2544-2550.

Jarrett, B.J. M., Evans E., Haynes H. B., Leaf M., Rebar D., Duarte A., Schrader M. and Kilner, R. M. 2018. A sustained change in the supply of parental care causes adaptive evolution of offspring morphology Nature Communications 9:3987

Pascoal, S., Jarrett. B. J. M., Evans, E. & Kilner, R. M. 2018 Superior stimulation of female fecundity by subordinate males provides a mechanism for telegony. Evolution Letters 2:114-125

Duarte, A., Welch, M., Swannack, C., Wagner, J. & Kilner, R. M. 2018 Strategies for managing rival bacterial communities: lessons from burying beetles. Journal of Animal Ecology 87:414-427

Jarrett, B.J. M., Schrader, M., Rebar, D. Houslay, T. M. & Kilner, R. M. 2017 Cooperative interactions within the family modulate the capacity for evolutionary change in body size. Nature Ecology and Evolution 1:0178


Other publications: 

Full list of publications via Google Scholar


Research supervision: 

I currently supervise several MPhil and PhD projects. Please contact me if you are interested in joining my lab.

1866 Professor of Zoology
Director, University Museum of Zoology
HoD Zoology
Professor Rebecca Kilner

Contact Details

Accepting applications for PhD students.