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The Australian National University

Professor Michael Jennions

PhD (Oxford, 1996)
ANU College of Medicine, Biology and Environment

Areas of expertise

  • Behavioural Ecology 060201
  • Ethology And Sociobiology 060304
  • Life Histories 060308
  • Evolutionary Biology Not Elsewhere Classified 060399
  • Biological Adaptation 060303
  • Population, Ecological And Evolutionary Genetics 060411
  • Freshwater Ecology 060204

Research interests

I am a evolutionary biologist with a special interest in behavioural ecology. I mainly work on sexual selection and reproductive decisions (female choice, male-male competition, sperm competition, parental care, life histories etc). I try to test predictions from general theory that can be widely applied across species: Do females prefer symmetrical males? Is the elaboration of sexual signals constrained by predation or by trade-offs with investment in other fitness-enhancing traits? I tend to ask a question and then pick a study animal that can be used to answer it. I have no taxonomic prejudice, but I do think it is important to feel some affinity with your study animal. You have to think it's cool. I am respectful of the incredible expertise many colleagues possess concerning the biology of specific taxa.

Practically speaking, my empirical research usually involves detailed observation of animal behaviour in the laboratory and, less so (unfortunately), in the field. Most of my work is experimental because of the need to determine causality, but I also try to collect data on phenotypic correlations between traits of interest. Together these data provide a fuller picture. For example, an experiment may show that courting is a costly act, but one would still like to know whether males that court more live longer. Both pieces of information are essential. The touted superiority of experimental approaches in behavioural ecology depends on the credibility of the manipulation. In my view, many experiments do not demonstrate what they purport to show if the animal's perception disagrees with the way in which the experimenter describes it. For example, many manipulations of 'confidence of paternity' or 'perceived sex ratio' are potentially flawed.

I have a long standing interest in meta-analysis. Meta-analytic techniques attempt to quantitatively review a field of study using custom-designed statistics. The alternative approach is the traditional narrative review. The later is clearly fraught with problems of prejudice and failure to consider fundamental factors such as the effect of sample size on the likelihood of detecting a relationship. Meta-analysis is still controversial in ecology and evolution, but it is gaining supporters.

Finally, I also collaborate with colleagues, notably Hanna Kokko & Rob Brooks, in developing/explaining sexual selection theory.

Biography

I grew up in South Africa. My MSc was on sperm competition in frogs. One highlight was designing a frog condom (yes, a plastic bag works). I was then lucky to get funding for a PhD in England. I was all set to work on meerkats, but ended up studying sexual selection in a range of animals and plants under the wonderful supervision of Marion Petrie at Oxford. This gave me a wide range of experience, but no technical or taxonomic specialty. In early 1996, Patricia Backwell and I headed off to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. While applying for post-docs I learned the pleasures of sundowners, how to fall off a motorbike, travelled to Barbados and Trinidad, and discovered the virtue of wearing boxers rather than briefs when living in the tropics. In late 1997 my unemployment ended when I received a STRI Fellowship. I continued my tradition of working on new taxa:  parental care and mate desertion in cichlids and life history evolution in a live-bearing fish. I arrived in Australia in 2001. Here I have mainly worked on crickets and mosquitofish, and occasionally helped with fieldwork on fiddler crabs in collaboration with Pat Backwell. My group web site with info on students and collaborators who do all the real work is here

Publications

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Updated:  30 March 2017 / Responsible Officer:  Director (Research Services Division) / Page Contact:  Researchers