Dr Robert Heathcote awarded Royal Society University Research Fellowship

Dr Robert Heathcote has been awarded a Royal Society University Research Fellowship 2023. The scheme is for outstanding scientists who are in the early stages of their research career and have the potential to become leaders in their field.

Robert, who is currently Senior Research Associate at the University of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences, will be starting his fellowship and joining the University of Oxford’s Department of Biology in December 2023. The project will be on ‘Antipredator colouration in aggregating prey’.

Many animals use visual tricks to deceive their predators, for example by using colour patterns to camouflage themselves against their environment or display bright warning colours to advertise their toxicity. Another common tactic that prey use is to form large groups which move in synchrony, such as the twisting murmurations of starlings or the swirling schools of sardines. Individuals within these coordinated groups often exhibit conspicuous colour patterns of their own, for example the stripes of a zebra, the metallic sheen of an anchovy, or the black and white patches of an avocet.

The combination of pattern and movement is known to distort the perception of objects – like a rotating, patterned spinning top – but our understanding of the benefits that colour gives to prey is almost entirely based on the study of stationary, solitary individuals. This leaves a substantial gap in our knowledge about how these two characteristics interact, particularly when combined with coordinated collective movement.

Robert’s project focuses on fish, which are the most diverse group of all vertebrates. It will incorporate cutting-edge visual modelling, lab and fieldwork-based behavioural experiments, and staged interactions between real and robotic fish. Recent advances in computer modelling are now allowing us to see various visual phenomena through the eyes of animals, and the biomimetic robotic system Robert is developing provides unprecedented opportunities to test how animals combine colour and movement with social behaviour to escape their predators. Overall, the aim is to determine how colour interacts with collective motion to confuse and deceive predators, and how it aids coordination within collectively moving groups. Robert says:

“I am still reeling from the news of being awarded a Royal Society University Research Fellowship, which would not have been possible without the support I have received over the years from truly outstanding mentors at the universities of Oxford, Exeter, and Bristol.

The time and funding provided by this fellowship provides me with an amazing opportunity to build a new group in the Department of Biology, working on an incredibly exciting research topic that I’ve been thinking about for many years. I simply couldn’t be more excited about beginning this latest chapter of my career."