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Durham University

Research & business

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Dr Sean Twiss

Associate Professor in the Department of Biosciences
Telephone: +44 (0) 191 33 41350

Contact Dr Sean Twiss (email at s.d.twiss@durham.ac.uk)

Biography

My research encompasses four main areas: (1) Behavioural and evolutionary ecology, specifically empirical studies of individual mating decisions and reproductive behaviour. (2) Spatial behavioural ecology: the development and application of spatially explicit analytical and modelling procedures to studies of the evolution of animal behaviour. (3) Evolutionary ecology of colony formation and social dynamics within animal groups. (4) Use of spatial approaches to integrate knowledge of individual animal behaviour into Environmental Change Ecology.
My innovative approach to studies of animal behaviour has been to apply modern Geo-spatial analytical and spatially explicit modelling procedures, as developed in the field of Landscape Ecology, to long-term, empirical, field based studies of individual animal behaviour. This spatial emphasis allows me to examine individual behavioural decisions within their physical, social and genetic contexts, quantified at appropriately fine spatial and temporal scales. The aim of my research is to understand how heterogeneity in these contexts, quantified at the variety of hierarchical scales at which they impinge upon individuals, constrains or alters the behavioural decisions of individuals. This perspective provides a deeper understanding of those choices, and perhaps more importantly, how context sets the behavioural options amongst which individuals choose (e.g. habitat and mate choice decisions in relation to local availability and quality of these resources/mates). This approach is designed to explain more of the observed variation between individuals than can be achieved by viewing individuals in isolation, and thereby provide improved empirical data for testing and developing hypotheses. Further, individual behaviour, examined in such spatially explicit frameworks also provides new insights for testing and improving models of meta-population and population scale processes and for predicting responses to future environmental change. This is an important, but often neglected component of environmental change ecology, as the range of an individual’s preferences and responses is typically narrower than those measured for the population as a whole. As population change is largely a result of individual behaviour it is vital to understand how individuals react to their environment in order to predict population responses to natural or anthropogenic environmental change and the consequent impact on ecosystem and population structure and function. Further, most animal species have social constraints that affect their spatial habitat requirements (e.g. spatial requirement for successfully reproducing units), thus, effective prediction of individual, population and ecosystem responses to environmental change also necessitates an understanding of how local environment both determines and interacts with the social dynamics of species. Understanding how organisms interact with their changing environment at all of these hierarchical scales is fundamental to effective efforts to assess and mitigate undesirable effects of environmental change.
I have applied this approach to various studies and a range of taxa (Mammals, Birds, Insects), but the focus of my research is a long-term (currently 19 years) study of breeding grey seals at various Scottish island colonies, in particular that of North Rona. My grey seal research is conducted in collaboration with Dr Paddy Pomeroy at the Sea Mammal Research Unit (University of St. Andrews) and is supported by UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Fellowships, Grants and Core funding. The study benefits from over 5000 known and genetically typed individuals and the integration of individual reproductive histories within the accurately quantified physical, social and genetic contexts provided by my sub-metre accurate Geographical Information System (GIS) databases. My application of this spatially explicit approach to behavioural studies has proved highly productive, providing novel and key insights into the environmental causes of individual variation in behaviour and success that drive population and ecosystem scale processes. I am keen to extend my research approach to other pinniped species and ecosystems, both nationally and internationally, to provide an integrative examination of the effects of environmental change on individuals, populations and ecosystems at a range of spatial and temporal scales.

Research Groups

Department of Biosciences

Research Interests

  • Breeding Behaviour In Relation To Fine Scale Physical, Social And Genetic Landscapes
  • Landscape Behavioural Ecology
  • Vertebrate Mating Pattern Research - Specifically Grey Seal
  • Individual variation in behaviour
  • Animal personality
  • Field based behavioural studies

Indicators of Esteem

  • 2001: Invited presentation: Ed Gregr & Sean Twiss at the "Use of Geomatic Technologies for Marine Mammal Scientists: workshop for the 14th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals (2001).

Publications

Chapter in book

Conference Proceeding

Doctoral Thesis

  • Twiss SD. (1992). Behavioural and energetic determinants of individual mating success in male grey seals (Halichoerus grypus, Fabricius 1791). Zoology Department. University of Glasgow. PhD.

Journal Article

Report

  • O’Connell MJ., Thomas CJ., Twiss SD., Downie IS., Coulson JC., Evans PR. & Whitfield DP. (1996). Functional ecology of peatland animals in the Flow Country of northern Scotland. I. Habitat requirements of breeding waders (Charadrii). Edinburgh, Battleby.

Supervises