MSci Biomedical Sciences

Year of entry: 2021

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Course unit details:
Advanced Behavioural and Evolutionary Ecology (E)

Unit code BIOL31471
Credit rating 10
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by School of Biological Sciences
Available as a free choice unit? No


You will study in depth the principles of evolutionary biology and ecology, trace historical origins and discuss emerging concepts. In addition, we will explore advanced topics such as: evolution of sociality, indirect genetic effects, and morality and fairness, phenotypic plasticity and evolvability. You will also take part in seminars on identifying current hot topics, updated every year.


Unit title Unit code Requirement type Description
Genes, Evolution and Development BIOL10521 Pre-Requisite Recommended
Fundamentals of Evolutionary Biology BIOL21232 Pre-Requisite Recommended
Animal Behaviour BIOL21432 Pre-Requisite Recommended


This course provides a detailed perspective on the major concepts in behavioural ecology and evolutionary biology illustrated by in-depth current research examples. We will discuss fundamental questions, how and why they originated, in fields such as epigenetics, phenotypic plasticity, conservation biology, genomics and bioinformatics and what the links between these areas are. A particular focus is to understand the structure of evolutionary theory tracing its development from pre-Darwinian forms to the Extended Synthesis that incorporates aspects of epigenetics, plasticity, niche construction and indirect genetic effects. This is complemented by discussions on the most recent major advances in the field.

Learning outcomes


  • Introduction to the fundamentals of behavioural ecology such as optimality, game theory, and comparative approaches
  • In depth analysis of theoretical and empirical approaches with critiques, e.g., sexual selection, indirect genetic effects, phenotypic plasticity, Modern Synthesis
  • Application of behavioural ecology and animal behaviour studies (e.g. conservation biology) and the use of genomics, epigenetics, statistics and quantitative genetic tools in evolutionary biology
  • Being able to conceptualize current research areas, and identify quantitative, empirical and theoretical approaches suitable to tackle current fundamental questions in behavioural and evolutionary ecology through a focus on research papers


Lecture content

We begin by outlining key concepts in behavioural and evolutionary ecology with an in-depth discussion of fitness and adaptation. How does sociality arise and what are the selective forces underlying the various forms found in nature and humans is the focus of a set of lectures. We then discuss broader concepts such as plasticity, levels of selection, The New Synthesis and evo-devo to show how these form part of an extended definition of evolutionary biology. This is complemented by a case study where we look in detail at how a fundamental question has been addressed using quantitative genetics. We will then explore the genetic and epigenetic basis of variation in behaviour and look at modern tools in genomics and quantitative analysis used in current research. This is complemented by a discussion of how behavioural ecology is applied to conservation biology and by identifying current hot topics. We finally take a broader look at human evolution, and trace the ecological and social transitions to modern humans, identify signatures of recent selection at the genetic level and explore current and future selective changes.


eLearning Activity

Online case study: discussion and problem solving session

Employability skills

Analytical skills
Needed for practice exam and peer review
Group/team working
Study groups are possible for the essay but students need to submit their very own work.
Students are free to develop and motivate upon practice exam answers.
Project management
Required for practice exam.
Oral communication
Active lectures and seminars with student participation.
Problem solving
Needed for practice exam and peer review.
Literature research is required for exam and online seminar contribution.
Written communication
Essay during course and written examination. Further, online contribution to seminar.
Organizational skills, communication, writing and editing.

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Other 4%
Written exam 90%
Written assignment (inc essay) 6%

Select two questions from this “Practice Paper” and write an essay plan for each - maximum of 200 words per essay plan. Both plans should be submitted as a single Word file – and together on a single side of A4. (2% will be awarded for the satisfactory completion of each plan, 4% in total).

Blackboard will release the ‘Indicative Answers’ for the paper as well as two different sets of essay plans for peer-review (assigned randomly by Blackboard). Using the Indicative Answers, students should review & peer mark each plan (can be found in: Assessments > Essay – Past Paper – PeerMark Assignment 1). You will be asked to comment on the essay plans (2 plans, i.e. 4 question plans in total) with a 50 word minimum response for each, including both positive/negative comments & suggestions where appropriate.

(2% awarded for satisfactory completion of Peer Review).

Other - compulsory participation in online case study discussion / forum (4%)


Feedback methods

Feedback on student performance and participation is central to achieving the learning outcomes. Feedback on the exam will be given through a 1h feedback session during which each student can have the grade explained. Each script is annotated, giving individual feedback.


Recommended reading

  • Gini B, Hager R. 2012. Behavioural ecology. Encyclopaedia of Life Sciences. Chichester:Wiley.

  • Westneat DF & Fox CW. 2010. Evolutionary behavioral ecology. Oxford UP.
  • Piglucci M & Mueller GB. 2010. Evolution – The extended synthesis. MIT Press (sections I, II, IV, VI, rest is optional)
  • Other textbook used: Krebs JR, Davies NB, West SA. 2012. An Introduction to Behavioural Ecology. 4th ed; Oxford UP
  • For Matthew Cobb’s lecture: Broom DM. 2014. Sentience and animal welfare. CABI, Wallingford.

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Assessment written exam 2
Lectures 18
Independent study hours
Independent study 80

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Reinmar Hager Unit coordinator

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