Professor Ben Sheldon, Director of the Edward Grey Institute, Head of the Department of Zoology

Professor Ben Sheldon, Director of the Edward Grey Institute, Head of the Department of Zoology


Name: Professor Ben Sheldon, Director of the Edward Grey Institute, Head of the Department of Zoology
Position: Luc Hoffmann Chair of Field Ornithology, Director of the Edward Grey Institute and Associate Head of Department


I studied zoology at Cambridge, obtained my PhD at Sheffield, and then held a succession of postdoctoral fellowships at the Universities of Uppsala and Edinburgh. I moved to Oxford as a Royal Society University Research Fellow in 2000, became Head of the EGI in October 2002 and became the Director of the EGI and the first holder of the Luc Hoffmann Chair in Field Ornithology in 2004. I was appointed Associate Head of Department in 2011.


I typically have a group of between 4-6 postdocs and 4-6 DPhil students working on any of the areas below. I welcome inquiries from prospective DPhil students or postdocs interested in bringing, or applying for, their own funding to work on any of the areas below. I do not have unallocated research funding; any vacancies are advertised on the EGI website, as well as Oxford University’s vacancies page.


I have broad interests in evolutionary biology, ecology and behavioural ecology. Much of my work has addressed the ecological and evolutionary causes of variation in natural populations, particularly using experimental manipulation with analysis of long-term data sets.

Current research interests centre on four broad questions (and particularly on the linkages between them):

1 – The Role of Social Processes in Evolutionary Ecology: Funded by an ERC Advanced Investigator Award from 2010-2015, and a BBSRC grant from 2014-17, this research aims to understand the causes of individual variation in social behaviour and the consequences of social structure for a range of processes, including information and disease spread, and the way that individual and social effects interact in wild bird populations. In particular we are now expanding our work to understand how social structure and social learning operate to determine the spread of information and persistence of traditions in wild populations.

2 – Ecology and Epidemiology of Avian Diseases: Funded by successive NERC grants (2004-2012) this work has focussed primarily on understanding the ecology and epidemiology of avian malaria in blue and great tits, using longitudinal time series; I have also recently worked on avian flu in swans and a newly emergent form of avian pox in great tits. We have also worked on the molecular genetic basis of disease resistance. I would be interested in collaborating with postdocs wishing to develop this work in terms of either parasite genetic population structure, or host immunology.

3 – Quantitative and Molecular Genetics of Ecologically Relevant Traits: Using long-term data from population studies of tits and swans (and in collaboration with Dr Jon Slate, who was awarded an ERC grant for genetic mapping in great tits) we seek to understand the role of genes and the environment on traits that are under selection in natural populations, as well as their spatial and temporal dynamics. A particular emphasis has been on life history traits, rates of senescence, and behavioural syndromes.

4 – Ecology of Phenology and Plasticity in Birds: We use long-term data, but also increasingly fine-scale spatial and temporal information (this work funded by a NERC grant from 2013-16), to try to understand how different degrees of synchronization with the environment at different scales drives the evolution of plasticity, and how birds adjust foraging and parental behaviour in response.


Our work is currently funded by grants from BBSRC, ERC and NERC and in the past we have also attracted funds from the Royal Society and the European Commission, in addition to external fellowships and scholarships from the Royal Society, NERC, NSERC (Canada), NSF, the Tertiary Education Commission of New Zealand, and the Christopher Welch Trust, and numerous European national funding schemes. If you are interested in joining my research group please feel free to contact any of my current group for an informal opinion concerning what it’s like to be here; you should also read the information concerning funding routes to joining the EGI.


I am one of the four Editors of the Journal of Animal Ecology, and currently on the Editorial Board of Current Biology (2014-) and Trends in Ecology and Evolution (2009-). I have also served as editor or associate editor for The American Naturalist (2001-2010); Evolution (2010-12); Animal Behaviour (2001-2003), Proceedings of the Royal Society Series B (2001-2008), Journal  of Animal Ecology (2006-2008), PLoS Biology (2006-2014) and was a member of NERC’s Peer Review College (2004-2007; 2009-2012).

I was awarded the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour’s Outstanding New Researcher Prize in 1998, the Scientific Medal of the Zoological Society of London in 2005 and a Wolfson Research Merit Award by the Royal Society in 2013.


Firth, J.A., Voelkl, B., Farine, D.R., Sheldon, B.C. (2015) Experimental evidence that social relationships determine individual foraging behaviour. Current Biology, 25,

Firth, J. & Sheldon, B.C. 2015. Experimental manipulation of avian social structure reveals segregation is carried over across contexts. Proc R Soc Lond B,  DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2014.2350.

Bouwhuis, S., Vedder, O., Garroway, C.J. & Sheldon, B.C. 2015. Ecological causes of multi-level covariance between size and survival in a wild bird population. J. Anim. Ecol. 84, 208-218.

Aplin, L.M., Farine, D.R., Morand-Ferron, J., Cockburn, A., Thornton, A. & Sheldon, B.C. 2015. Experimentally induced innovations lead to persistent culture via conformity in wild birds. Nature 518, 538-541.

Aplin, L.M., Farine, D.R., Cole, E.F., Morand-Ferron, J., Cockburn, A. & Sheldon, B.C. 2013. Individual personality predicts social behaviour in wild social networks of great tits (Parus major). Ecol Lett. 16, 1365-1372.

Garroway, C.J., Radersma, R., Sepil, I., Santure, A.W., de Cauwer, I., Slate, J. & Sheldon, B.C. 2013. Small scale genetic structure in a wild bird population: the role of limited dispersal and environmentally-based selection as causal factors. Evolution 67, 3488-3500.

Vedder, O., Bouwhuis, S. & Sheldon, B.C. 2013. Quantitative assessment of the importance of phenotypic plasticity in adaptation to climate change in wild bird populations. PLOS Biology 11, e1001605.

Aplin, L.M., Farine, D.R., Morand-Ferron, J. & Sheldon, B.C. 2012. Social networks predict patch discovery in a wild population of songbirds. Proc. R. Soc. B 279, 4199-4205.

Clutton-Brock, T.H. & Sheldon, B.C. 2010. Individuals and populations: the role of long-term, individual-based studies in ecology and evolutionary biology. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 25, 562-573.

Knowles, S.C.L., Palinauskas, V. & Sheldon, B.C. 2010. Chronic malaria infections reduce fitness by increasing family inequalities: experimental evidence from a wild bird population. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 23, 557-569.

Wilkin, T.A. & Sheldon, B.C. 2009. Sex differences in the persistence of natal environmental effects on life-histories. Current Biology 19, 1998-2002.

Bouwhuis, S., Sheldon, B.C. , Verhuslt, S. & Charmantier, A. 2009. Great tits growing old: selective disappearance and the architecture of reproductive senescence. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 276, 2769-2777.

Charmantier, A., McCleery, R.H., Cole, L., Perrins, C.M., Kruuk, L.E.B. & Sheldon, B.C. 2008. Adaptive phenotypic plasticity in response to climate change in a wild bird population. Science 320, 800-803.

Ellegren, H. & Sheldon, B.C. 2008. Genetic basis of fitness differences in wild populations. Nature 452, 169-175.