Faculty of Science Department of Zoology

Animal Behaviour Group

Research in the Stuart-Fox lab

I am interested in animal signalling, and the roles of natural selection and sexual selection in the evolution of animal signals. Lizards are my preferred study organism but members of my group are working on a variety of organisms including lizards, squid, frogs and fish. Current themes include:

1. Visual ecology and signalling

What are the adaptive functions of animal coloration and what processes generate the spectacular colour differences that often characterise adaptive radiations? A focus of the research in my lab is how the environment (including human habitat modification) influences the kinds of colour patterns animals use for both communication and camouflage. For example, we are currently studying environmental effects on signal design in gliding lizards.

2. Adaptive significance of colour change

Stemming from four years working on chameleons in South Africa, I am fascinated by the function and evolution of colour change (reviewed in Stuart-Fox & Moussalli 2009, 2011). Currently, I am collaborating with Prof. John Endler and Prof. Warren Porter to study the adaptive significance of colour change in both the animal-visible and near-infrared part of the spectrum. We are studying the extent of colour change in these different parts of the spectrum, the relationship between them and their adaptive significance in bearded dragon lizards. 

3. Colour polymorphism and speciation

Colour polymorphic species, in which multiple, genetically determined, discrete colour forms coexist within an interbreeding population, have provided many insights into evolutionary processes. Theory suggests that the processes generating and maintaining the different colour forms can promote speciation. Andrew Hugall and I recently showed that in birds, colour polymorphism is associated with increased speciation rates (Hugall & Stuart-Fox 2012). To further explore the relationship between polymorphism and speciation we are studying geographic variation in polymorphism among populations as well processes maintaining polymorphism within populations of the tawny dragon lizard.

4. Sexual selection, female ornamentation and mating strategies

My interest in visual signals necessarily entails an interest in sexual selection. Together with my students, I have explored a range of topics in this general area including the dynamics of male-male contests; the evolution of sexual dimorphism; the costs of copulation; the evolution of multiple mating; and the evolution of conspicuous signals and behaviours used by females to avoid unwanted courtship and copulation attempts.

5. Macroevolution and comparative analyses

I like to complement studies of micro-evolutionary processes with studies identifying macro-evolutionary patterns. I and collaborators have used phylogenetic comparative approaches to address diverse topics, including the correlates of species richness, the evolution of sexual dimorphism in body size and ornamentation, the evolution of signal complexity and the relationship between sexual selection and ecological generalism.

Current collaborators:

I have numerous current and past collaborators – here I list only co-investigators in ongoing, funded projects.

Dr. Bob Wong, Monash University – environmental disturbance and animal communication; sexual selection in squid

Dr Mark Norman, Museum Victoria – sexual selection in squid

Dr Terry Ord, University of New South Wales - signal evolution in gliding lizards

Prof. John Endler, Deakin University – adaptive significance of colour change

Prof. Warren Porter, University of Wisconsin, Maddison – adaptive significance of colour change

Many of my projects have a molecular component (phylogenetics, phylogeography, population genetics, paternity assignment) and I collaborate with researchers at Museum Victoria on these aspects of my research:

Dr Adnan Moussalli, Museum Victoria – molecular phylogenetics, phylogeography and population genetics

Dr Jane Melville, Museum Victoria – phylogenetics and conservation genetics

Dr Joanna Sumner, Museum Victoria – demographic processes


Funding (ongoing projects only):

Australian Research Council (adaptive significance of colour change 2012-2015

National Geographic Society (signal evolution in gliding lizards) – 2011-2012

Australian Research Council (colour polymorphism and speciation) – 2010-2014

Hermon Slade Foundation (sexual selection in squid) – 2009-2011

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