Dr Josh Firth

Dr Josh Firth


Name: Dr Josh Firth
Position: Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Email: joshua.firth@zoo.ox.ac.uk



I began my undergraduate degree at the University of Sheffield in 2009 and graduated with a first class BSc in ‘Biology with Conservation & Biodiversity’ in 2012. Later that year, I moved to Oxford University to begin a NERC funded DPhil at the EGI under the supervision of Prof Ben Sheldon. My DPhil research took place in the context of a larger project examining avian social networks at Wytham Woods, Oxford, where I carried out much of my fieldwork and data collection – primarily focusing on examining the carry-over and consequences of social associations. After submitting my thesis, I began a Research Fellowship position at the EGI in April 2016.


My primary interests lie in understanding the factors that shape social behaviour and examining the consequences of this for wider ecological processes. Through monitoring a large population of wild birds using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, we are able to simultaneously track the movements and occurrences of thousands of unique individuals. Using this system, I employ two overlapping approaches:

1) Firstly, I apply machine learning algorithms that allows flocks of birds to be identified from raw tracking data. From this, the social connections between individuals can be inferred and used to create social networks that span across the entire woodland as well as over multiple years. I then focus on identifying non-random patterns in individuals’ positions within these networks, as well as in their dyadic associations. Building on this, I designing and implementing null models to examine how social networks are shaped by biological processes (such as environmental factors or individuals’ traits), as well as how sociality can carry over to influence various aspects of ecology.

2) Secondly, it is also important to experimentally test hypotheses surrounding social structure. I have developed and utilised a ‘selective feeding system’ that allows the automatic control of which wild birds are allowed to feed together, and which are only allowed to feed at separate feeding stations to one another. This work has demonstrated how social connections formed during foraging carry-over into other contexts, and also that mated pairs who hold strong social relationships will shape their activity, social network position and foraging strategies around each other. Further, I also look to examine the causal relationship between social networks and various other processes, such as the flow of information and development of social learning strategies, and how this influences individual life history.

Through the combining large-scale observational data, novel analytical approaches and experiments that directly manipulate social processes, I hope to develop our understanding of the implications and consequences that social structure holds for wild populations.


Firth JA. et al. 2017. Wild birds respond to flockmate loss by increasing their social network associations to others. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences; DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2017.0299.

Firth, JA. & Sheldon, BC. 2016. Social carry-over effects underpin trans-seasonally linked structure in a wild bird population. Ecology Letters; 19 (11): 1324–1332

Firth, JA. et al. 2016. Pathways of information transmission amongst wild songbirds follow experimentally imposed changes to social foraging structure. Biology Letters; 12 (6): 20160144

Firth, JA. et al. 2015. Experimental Evidence that Social Relationships Determine Individual Foraging Behavior. Current Biology; 25 (23): 3138–43

Firth, JA. & Sheldon, BC. 2015. Experimental manipulation of avian social structure reveals segregation is carried over across contexts. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences; 282 (1802): 20142350

Firth, JA. et al. 2015. The influence of nonrandom extra-pair paternity on heritability estimates derived from wild pedigrees. Evolution; 69(5): 1336-44

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