Dr Lucy Aplin

Research Interests

I graduated from the Australian National University in 2009 with a Bachelor of Laws (Environmental and International laws), a Bachelor of Science (Evolution and Ecology), and first class Honours in Zoology. My Honours thesis investigated the evolution and ecology of sexual bill dimorphism in Sooty oystercatchers (H. fuliginosus). During my time at A.N.U., I spent most of my spare time working as a research assistant for the Evolutionary Ecology Group at the Research School of Biology, studying the behavioural ecology of the cooperatively breeding Superb fairy-wren (M. cyaneus).

In 2013 I completed a PhD jointly undertaken at the Australian National University and the University of Oxford, supervised by Prof. Ben Sheldon, Dr Julie Morand-Ferron and Prof. Andrew Cockburn. I used social network analysis to investigate two important components of the ecology of tits: individual variation in behaviour (personality) and social information use. In particular, I conducted a series of captive and wild experiments to show that individual differences in behaviour lead to emergent social structure in tits. This social structure is in turn important for social learning and the transmission of information. I then undertook postdoctoral research, employed on a 3 year BBSRC research grant (PI Ben Sheldon) to investigate the social dynamics associated with the transmission of information in great tits. In autumn 2015, I began a junior research fellowship at St John’s College, Oxford, focusing my research on the evolution and ecology of cultural inheritance in non-human animals.

Research Activities

The cultural transmission of information is considered to be a potentially important inheritance system in evolutionary theory. Yet we still have little understanding of its operation, evolution and ecology in non-human animals. I research these questions in wild birds using a combination of automated tracking technologies, cultural diffusion experiments and social network analysis. Previously, I introduced novel foraging techniques into populations of great tits (Parus major). I then mapped both their spread to establishment through the social structure of the population, and their trans-generational patterns of persistence. My current research aims to understand the evolution of more complex cultural behaviours, as well as the importance of socially acquired behaviours as a means of phenotypic plasticity. To do so, I utilise a mix of wild and laboratory experiments in several bird species.

Some of this work has been featured in two recent programmes: BBC Winterwatch (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01qfnxt), and in the Oxford University web series “Laboratory with Leaves” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mRRPUGEB7dY)