Dr Sasha Dall FLS
Associate Professor of Theoretical Biology
+44 (0) 1326 371860
Daphne du Maurier 3.061
Daphne du Maurier Building, University of Exeter, Penryn Campus, Penryn, Cornwall, TR10 9FE, UK
Office hours: I operate an open door policy after 12 noon most days during term time
I operate an open door policy after 12 noon most days during term time
Sasha with MSc students on a field course in Kenya
The primary aim of my research is to explore how animals cope with the unexpected opportunities and dangers they face in their day-to-day lives. To this end, I study how animals collect and provide information to reduce uncertainty about significant events, or how they insure against it, along with evolutionary and ecological consequences of such risk management. Research in my group ranges from the development of explicit theoretical (mathematical and computational) models, through work on captive birds in aviaries (zebra finches, starlings) to work in the field with birds (pied flycatchers, barn swallows, red grouse, European shags, chestnut-crowned babblers) and mammals (badgers, lions, wolves, grey squirrels). I am a member of the Behaviour research group. I am also a (senior) Editor for Proceedings of the Royal Society of London - Biological Sciences.
Click here to listen to a piece I did for US Public Radio (The Academic Minute) about my work, and here for a 2021 update interview for Faculti. Here is a podcast of me being interviewed by our students about some recent work.
1991 BSc (Bristol)
1996 PhD (Bristol)
2017-now Associate Professor of Mathematical Ecology, Biosciences, University of Exeter
2010-2017 Senior Lecturer in Mathematical Ecology, School of Biosciences, University of Exeter
2005-2009 Lecturer in Mathematical Ecology, School of Biosciences, University of Exeter
2000-2004 Research Associate (NERC, UK), Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, UK
1998-1999 Research Fellow (The Royal Society, UK), Mitrani Center for Desert Ecology, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel
1997-1998 Research Fellow (NSF, USA), Department of Mathematics, Florida State University, USA
1996-1997 Temporary Lecturer in Behavioural Ecology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol UK
Research group links
I am interested in how animals manage the unexpected dangers and opportunities they face in their lives. Broadly speaking, there are two main strategies for managing such uncertainty adaptively, be it when attempting to find food or mates, navigate, avoid predators or interact socially. Individuals can attempt to reduce it in a particular context by gathering or providing information, or they can attempt to minimise the impact of uncertainty by insuring themselves. Examples of the latter include: developing and maintaining a range of options to guarantee a back-up should the current situation deteriorate - being flexible or generalist; developing and maintaining buffers - like protective morphologies and energy reserves; or altering their local environment (niche construction).
1. Phenotypic cue integration. I am investigating how various sources of information affect phenotype determination (during development and adult maintenance). Sources of information include cues received during development, cues passed on by the parents (epigenetic cues) and cues from genes. This is involving the development of general and specific theoretical models of phenotypic "decision making". This theoretical development is closely coupled with empirical collaborations (in the lab and field) to test predictions and insights arising from it.
2. Animal information use. I am exploring information (and - because they are inextricably linked - insurance) use in a range of contexts including sexual signalling (acoustic, plumage-based), social information use (and its consequences) and strategic body mass regulation. I am working extensively in this arena with a combination of theoretical modelling, philosophical debate and empirical collaborations.
3. The evolution of personality variation. I have been exploring the notion that consistent individual differences in behaviour (‘personality differences’) can be selected for either as a direct response to uncertainty (mostly social in origin), or as a consequence of responding adaptively to it. This involves investigating the theoretical issues explicitly with formal mathematical models and measuring personality differences in captive zebra finches in various social and sexual contexts. As well as having fundamental and applied ramifications, this work is proving of immense popular interest. Outstanding questions include: Why should individuals differ consistently within populations? Why should individuals link their responses to different biological demands, and which types of response should they link together? How stable should such consistency and linkages be over a life history?
- Alex Thornton (University of Exeter)
- Bram Kuijper (University of Exeter)
- Wiebke Schuett (University of Sussex)
- Olof Leimar (Stockholm University, Sweden)
- Peter Hammerstein (Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany)
- Simon Griffith (Macquarie University, Australia)
- Stuart Bearhop (University of Exeter)
- Alastair Wilson (University of Exeter)
- Andy Russell (University of Exeter)
- Tim Coulson (University of Oxford)
- John McNamara (University of Bristol)
- Innes Cuthill (University of Bristol)
- Rufus Johnstone (University of Cambridge)
- Andy Sih (University of California - Davis, USA)
- Per Lundberg (University of Lund, Sweden)
- Luc-Alain Giraldeau (University of Quebec - Montreal, Canada)
- Jean-Guy Godin (Carleton University, Canada)
- Stephen Votier (Edinburgh Napier University)
- Toni Laaksonen (University of Turku, Finland)
- 2020 Leverhulme Trust
The role of social relationships in cognitive evolution
- 2014 Royal Society
Alternative life histories, risk and personality variation in wild zebra finches
- 2014 Leverhulme Trust
A Darwinian framework for phenotypically integrating genetic and epigenetic cues
- 2011 European Social fund
Group-foraging and information transfer in European shags Phalacrocorax aristotelis: Implications for seabird conservation
- 2010 NSF
The effects of ambient noise on song learning and mate choice in zebra finches
- 2008 FERA
Contact rates among badgers and implications for disease transmission
- 2007 British Ecological Society (UK)
Dung beetles: strategic ecosystem engineers
- 2007 Natural Environment Research Council
The impact of interacting processes on population dynamics
- 2007 Basque Country Government
Avian sexual plumage: does it maximise or optimise information content?
- 2005 European Social fund
Personality and sexual selection in zebra finches
- 2002 Cambridge Philosophical Society
Research Visit (University of Lausanne)
- 2001 European Science Foundation
Information and adaptive behaviour
Publications by category
Publications by year
External Engagement and Impact
2013: elected Fellow of the Linnean Society of London
2000: elected Fellow of the Cambridge Philosophical Society
2000-2001: Complimentary Visiting Scholar, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Rice University, USA
1999: Visiting Research Fellow, School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol, UK
1999: Visiting Research Fellow, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Essex, UK
1997: Royal Society Overseas Fellowship
2021 : Living Earth Committee of the Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR: France).
2015- : Convention on Migratory Species Expert Working Group on Culture and Social Complexity.
2014-2018: Member of Council for the International Society for Behavioral Ecology.
2011-2015: Subject External Examiner, BSc (Hons) Environmental Resource Management, University of Plymouth Partner Colleges (Cornwall College), University of Plymouth.
2011-2012: Ordinary Member of Council for the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.
2009-2014: Coordinator, Exeter Behavioural and Sensory Ecology (ExBASE) research network: a cross-discipline (Biosciences, Psychology, Maths, Economics, Physics) network of researchers interested in behaviour.
2009-2012: PhD committee of Alecia Carter: joint Institute of Zoology/Australian National University student with Guy Cowlinshaw and Rob Heinsohn. Project: personality and sociality in chacma baboons.
2007-2010: International Panel Member to Comitée de These UMR CNRS 5561 Biogéosciences, Université de Bourgogne, France.
Editor for: Proceedings of the Royal Society - Biological Sciences (2015 - ongoing), Integrative Zoology (2015 - ongoing), Advances in Evolutionary Biology (2013 - ongoing), The Open Ecology Journal (2007 - 2012)
Associate Editor for: Frontiers in Behavioral and Evolutionary Ecology (2013 - ongoing), Proceedings of the Royal Society - Biological Sciences (2010 - 2015), Behavioural Processes (2005 - 2012)
Consulting Editor for: Animal Behaviour (2005 - 2008)
I have edited special issues of: Oikos, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences
Regular reviewer for major international journals: Science, Current Biology, Ecology Letters, Ecology, Proc Roy Soc B, TrEE, American Naturalist, Evolution, Phil Trans Roy Soc B etc
Book reviewer for major academic publishers: Oxford Univ Press, Stanford Univ Press, Cambridge Univ Press etc
Reviewer of grant applications to national and international funding bodies: European Research Council - EU, NERC - UK, BBSRC - UK, The Royal Society - UK, NSF - USA, NSERC - Canada, BSF - Israel/USA, NWO - The Netherlands, SNF - Swtizerland, ANF - France, The Leakey Foundation - USA, The Wellcome Trust - UK
2019 - “Evolutionary Consequences of Social Transmission and Animal Culture” Symposium, 2019 Congress of the European Society for Evolutionary Biology, Turku, Finland. (Plenary Speaker)
2019 - “Probing the Foundations of Cultural Evolution” Workshop, Lorentz Center, Leiden, Netherlands.
2018 - CMS Workshop on Conservation Implications of Animal Culture and Social Complexity, Parma, Italy.
2018 - “Lookahead Optimization in Artificial and Natural Systems” Working Group, Santa Fe Institute, NM USA.
2017 - Migration Workshop (European Research Council funded), St Michael’s Hotel, Falmouth, UK.
2015 - Ernst Strungmann Forum, Evolutionary and Economic Strategies for Benefitting from Other Agents Investments, Frankfurt, Germany.
2015 - European Meeting of PhD Students in Evolutionary Biology (EMPSEB), Stirling, UK. (Plenary Speaker)
2015 - Conference Universitaire de Suisse Occidentale (CUSO), The costs and benefits of information acquisition and use in social interactions, DPEE workshop, Arolla, Switzerland (Plenary Speaker).
2015 - CTW: Evolutionary Game Theory workshop, Mathematical Biosciences Institute, Ohio State University, USA.
2013 - Sexual selection studies Catalysis Group Meeting, National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, Duke University, USA.
2013 - Adaptive Behavioural Variation Symposium, Behaviour 2013 (joint ASAB, International Ethology Conference), Newcastle/Gateshead, UK.
2013 - Ethologische Gesellschaft (German Ethological Society) 2013, Bielefeld, Germany (Plenary Speaker).
2012 - Evolutionary Personality Psychology Symposium, 16th European Conference on Personality, Trieste, Italy.
2011 - Intraspecific variation in behaviour: functions and proximate explanations Symposium, Society for Experimental Biology 2011 Annual Main Meeting, Glasgow, UK.
2011 - Ernst Strungmann Forum Evolving mechanisms of decision making: toward a Darwinian decision theory, Frankfurt, Germany. (Rapporteur)
2010 - Operational Adaptation Conference, US Office of Naval Research Global-University of Edinburgh, UK.
2010 - Animal Personality Symposium, University of Bielefeld, Germany.
2009 - Evoluion of Personality in Wild Animals Workshop, University of Oxford, UK.
2009 - Evolutionary Biology: Evolution 150 British Council-CSIC Workshop, Cuenca, Spain.
2008 - Social Information Use GRECA Workshop, Universite de Quebec a Montreal, Canada.
2008 - 2nd Avian Personality Workshop, Max-Planck Research Centre for Ornithology, Seewiesen, Germany.
2007 - Origins and Evolution of Chemoreception Catalysis Group Meeting, National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, Duke University, USA.
2003 - ASAB Summer Meeting 2003, Konrad Lorenz Research Institute, Austria (Plenary Speaker).
2003 - Bayesian Foraging Symposium, Lund University, Sweden.
2002 - Stellar Sea Lion Workshop, Seattle, WA, USA.
2002 - Deception Evolving symposium, VI International Congress of Systematic and Evolutionary Biology, Patras, Greece.
Since 2001 I have been invited to present my work at the following institutions: University of Groningen, Brigham Young University, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Cardiff University, Swansea University, Oxford University, Tulane University, Australian National University, University of Melbourne, University of Bergen, Universite Toulouse III Paul Sabatier, Macquarie University, University of New South Wales, Stanford University, UCLA, California State University - Long Beach, Princeton University, Yale University, Columbia University, Boston University, Mainz University, University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna (Konrad Lorenz Insitute of Ethology), University of Bristol (Psychology), University of Edinburgh, University of Lincoln, Netherlands Institute of Ecology, Indian Institute of Science, Purdue University, Ohio State University, University of Cape Town, University of Osnabrueck, University of Plymouth, University of Exeter - CEC, University of Exeter - Psychology, Universite de Quebec a Montreal, Cafe Scientifique (Exeter, Falmouth, St Ives), University of Aberystwyth, Trinity College Dublin, University College London, University of Valencia, University of Bern, Zoological Society of London, Imperial College London - Silwood Park, University of Bath, University of Sheffield, UC Santa Cruz (in 2004, 2015), UC Davis (in 2004, 2015), Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, University of Liverpool, University of Cambridge, University of St Andrews, University of Lausanne (in 2003, 2012), British Trust for Ornithology, University of Bristol (Biological Sciences), Rice University.
I am regularly interviewed and consulted by popular media organisations around the world (e.g. Daily Mail, BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio 2, Channel 5, New York Times, Boston Globe, Sky TV, ITV, Jack Magazine, CBC TV) and my work has been covered by a wide range of scientific media (BBC Wildlife Magazine, Discover Magazine, New Scientist, NERC Planet Earth, CNN.com, ScienceDaily.com, AudubonMagazine.org, TheMoneyTimes.com, Breitbart.com)
Our work in the news: We developed an innovative mathematical model for exploring why some individuals evolve to be genetically programmed to be nice, while others stay nasty; Covered by over 450 news outlets around the world, including: Glamour Magazine, Mail On Sunday, Malaysia Sun, Knoxville Times, The Huffington Post, MSN South Africa, Wired and Science 2.0 . We show that pea aphids that are subject to more severe trade-offs between growth and mortality (i.e. from non-cryptic red clones rather than cryptic green clones) do best if they consistently take or avoid risks than if they vary in how they respond to ladybird predators; Covered by ScienceDaily and SciGuru. We show that badgers infected with bovine TB are less socially connected within their social groups but are more connected to badgers from other social groups than non-infected badgers; Covered by the BBC, The London Evening Standard and The Daily Express. We show that variation in metabolic rates among individuals within populations can explain dramatic differences in information use when it comes to food; Covered by Medical News Today and Europe Nouvelles. We show that, in zebra finches, "personality" differences are mainly inherited non-genetically; Covered by The Daily Mail and The Australian. We show that male zebra finch song rate may give strange females a false impression of the male's condition but his partner cannot be fooled in this way; Covered by The Conversation, France 24, TV5 Monde and in a Science Update Radio (AAS) podcast. We show for the first time that the non-sexual "personalities" of both males and females can influence mate choice in non-humans (zebra finches); Covered by The Telegraph, Metro and Australian Geographic. In zebra finch families, personality matters - couples with similar habits make better parents, regardless of genetic make-up; Covered by BBC Wildlife and NERC PlanetEarth. Blindly copying what your parents did – no matter how stupid it may seem – could be the best strategy for the long-term success of your genes; Covered by ScienceDaily. Males show more pronounced personalities than females in a wide range of species; Covered by Marie Claire, NERC PlanetEarth, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. Evolutionary feedback between social information use and individual variation drives cooperative personalities; Covered by NERC Planet Earth. Game theory predicts the bizarre behaviour of a group of ravens; Covered by CNN, The Falmouth Packet, Discover Magazine, Audubon Magazine and Breitbart.
2016 - I organised ISBE 2016 (the 16th Congress of the International Society for Behavioral Ecology) held at the University of Exeter, Streatham Campus.
2009 - I organised the 2009 Winter Conference of the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (held at Zoological Society of London). Theme: Individual specialisation.
2007 - I organised (with Tom Tregenza and Nina Wedell) the 2007 Easter (student) Conference of the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour at the University of Exeter, Cornwall Campus.
2001 - I organised (with Rufus Johnstone, University of Cambridge) the Information and adaptive behaviour symposium at the 8th Congress of the European Society for Evolutionary Biology, Aarhus, Denmark (supported by ESF funding)
I coordinate and teach on the following modules:
Supervision / Group
- Philippa Brakes - Significance of social complexity and culture for cetacean conservation management
- Ellie Bushnell (with Chris Bass) - The genetic basis of adaptive behavioural traits in a global aphid crop pest
- Tristan Canterbury (with Alex Thronton) - Co-evolution of social relationships and cognition: a theoretical investigation
- Molly Margaret Kressler (with Richard Sherley) - Foraging success, predator-prey dynamics, habitat complexity, and individual variation in lemon sharks
- Claire Asher (MSc 2009): PhD at University of Leeds
- Philippa Brakes (PhD 2022) - Fellow at Whale and Dolphin Conservation
- Ellie Bushnell-Crowther
- Alecia Carter (PhD 2011): postdoc at University of Cambridge
- Matthew Creasey
- Morgan David (Bettencourt-Schueller Foundation Research Fellow): Founder and director of Analytica
- Jonathan England (MSc 2011): PhD at University of Wales, Bangor
- Julian Evans (PhD 2016) Postdoc at University of Zurich
- Anika Immer (PhD 2020)
- Caitlin Kight (NSF Fellow 2010-12): Marketing/Communications Manager - University of Exeter
- Jesus Martinez-Padilla (NERC PDRA 2008-11): Research Fellow at Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales (CSIC), Spain
- Wayne Rostant (MSc 2009): postdoc at UEA
- Wiebke Schuett (PhD 2009): faculty at University of Sussex
- Katy Scott (MSc 2010): PhD with Mike Cant
- Kristin Thompson (PhD 2020)
- Iker Vaquero-Alba (PhD 2011)
- Nicola Weber (Reed) (PhD 2011): Darwin Research Fellow at Ascension Island Government/ University of Exeter
- Wendi Wolfram (PhD 2013): faculty at Hardin-Simmons University
- Mo Zeineddine (NERC PDRA 2008-11)