Skip to main content

Sex and death: how evolutionary biology can lead to protecting wildlife

From navigating avian romance to engaging local communities, Professor Tamás Székely’s research group aims to protect wildlife and preserve biodiversity.

A Kentish plover chick nuzzles into its mother's chest
Kentish plovers offer a unique opportunity for evolutionary biologists to study breeding behaviours

One of the most fundamental questions in biology is who to mate with. This is a question that shapes reproductive behaviours across the animal kingdom. Birds exhibit a remarkable array of breeding strategies, and shorebirds in particular offer evolutionary biologists a unique perspective.

Shorebirds, or waders, are found throughout the world, breeding on all continents. Coming in a variety of colours, shapes and sizes, they are often found foraging along muddy shorelines, rocky beaches and in shallow seas. In some species, males will mate with multiple females; in others, females will mate with multiple males; and some species form pair bonds to raise their young together.

Gathering in vast numbers to find a mate and raise young, their rich diversity and complex mating systems make them ideal subjects to observe breeding behaviours and study sex roles.

Professor Tamás Székely and his research group in the Department of Life Sciences have made it their mission to unravel the evolutionary mysteries behind different mating strategies and apply this understanding to protect and preserve biodiversity.

Exploring island evolution

Much of the group’s research takes place on the island of Maio in Cabo Verde, an archipelago of volcanic islands, located in the Atlantic Ocean off the western coast of Africa.

Islands can be seen as laboratories of evolution, offering unique insights into the processes that drive adaptation. Isolation, limited resources, and natural selection all lead to diversification and speciation on islands. Historically, naturalists like Charles Darwin have recognised the significance of islands in shaping our understanding of evolution – his travels through the Galápagos Islands laid the foundation for his theory of evolution by natural selection.

On the island of Maio, Tamás and his group have focussed their studies on two populations of shorebirds, the Kentish plover (Charadrius alexandrinus) and the endemic, or native, subspecies, the cream-coloured courser (Cursorius cursor exsul).

Over the last decade, their research has generated valuable insight into the breeding biology, behaviour, and population dynamics of these island birds. By analysing population genetics, observing different parental strategies, and monitoring local ecological conditions, their findings contribute to a broader understanding of island endemism, and highlight the importance of islands in studying evolutionary processes.

Kentish plovers, for example, are polygamous in many populations worldwide. This means they have multiple breeding partners, however, in Maio, both the male and female breed together for many years, and they also share the rearing of their young.

Recent research by a Bath-based PhD student, Noemie Engel, also revealed that climate can have a big impact on reproduction. Her study showed that chicks that hatch in dry years face an uncertain future compared to chicks that hatch in years with substantial rain.

Strengthening conservation efforts on Maio

Alongside expanding our knowledge of evolutionary dynamics, the team are also working hard to preserve biodiversity on the island. Working closely with local conservation organisations, the team’s research on shorebird populations has sparked impactful conservation initiatives.

In 2010, Tamás established the Maio Biodiversity Foundation (FMB), a non-profit organisation that has emerged as a central force in safeguarding Maio’s fragile ecosystems.

In the years since, FMB has developed four conservation programmes, targeting different conservation challenges on the island. These include sea turtle monitoring; a terrestrial management programme, including the management of protected areas, and reptile, bird and plant monitoring; a marine programme monitoring marine biodiversity and promoting sustainable fishing practices; and sustainable development initiatives.

The organisation also works closely with local communities, engaging them in educational activities and promoting environmental awareness. Not only does this public engagement work improve conservation consciousness, but it also fosters opportunities for local communities to develop conservation skills and amplifies conservation efforts.

To educate the local children in evolution and conservation, Romy Rice, another PhD student from Bath, has designed a series of exercises in the classroom and in the field. These studies have shown that children in Maio are open to learning new information and scientific concepts, especially if it is delivered in the context they are familiar with, such as their local wildlife.

Continuing academic and community collaborations

Thanks to Tamás’ continued involvement with the organisation, collaborative research between the University of Bath and FMB have produced significant academic contributions and practical outcomes.

Bath-based PhD students have delved into various aspects of avian biology and conservation on Maio, with research projects ranging from the evolution of breeding systems in relation to adult sex ratios, to the demography and population dynamics of shorebird populations. The resulting research papers have contributed to the scientific understanding of island ecology and evolutionary processes.

The collaborative efforts of the University have also catalysed significant international initiatives, including the establishment of the Élvonal Shorebird Science project in Hungary. This initiative brings together over 50 researchers from across the world, carrying out cutting-edge shorebird research and focussing on the evolution of breeding systems.

Leveraging behavioural, genomic, immunological and demographic approaches, the project has tested key hypotheses around shorebird mating systems and parental care. With contributions from Tamás’ group at the University of Bath, Élvonal Shorebird Science has conducted research on 69 populations of 42 species, from 45 locations globally. This marks a significant research contribution and advances global conservation efforts for shorebirds.

By continuing to bridge the gap between academic research and practical conservation efforts, Tamás’ group aims to protect wildlife and preserve biodiversity for future generations.

Related case studies

Read more about conservation and evolutionary biology from the Department of Life Sciences.