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Research Interests


Urban Ecology


Cities differ in many ways from the natural environments that they replace, creating new selection pressures for species trying to adapt to these relatively novel environments. Hong Kong is one of the world's most densely populated cities, and therefore an excellent place to study urban ecology. We currently have a funded project to investigate the effects of anthropogenic noise on bird communication. We also are interested in investigating the effects of other aspects of the urban environment on the ecology and evolution of city-dwelling species, and are open to students who are interested in any projects related to the effects of urbanization on biodiversity.

Wildlife Trade (Conservation Forensics Lab)

In collaboration with colleagues at the University of Hong Kong, we are developing genetic, isotopic, and market-based tools to help in the fight against illegal wildlife trafficking in Asia. Our group is primarily working on birds brought into or moved through Hong Kong as part of the international pet trade and for wildlife projects, including the critically endangered Yellow-crested Cockatoo (Cacatua sulphurea) and the helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil). 

To see more about the work being conducted in the Conservation Forensics Lab @HKU, follow this link: 

Migration ecology

We are using stable isotopes and genetic tools to understand migratory ecology of birds along the East Asia-Australasian Flyway.

Culturally inherited traits and speciation


Theoretical models have shown that plasticity through social learning can lead to rapid generation of geographic diversification in acoustic signals, which under certain conditions could promote assortative mating. Song learning therefore has the potential to accelerate the rate of speciation. However, currently there is little empirical evidence of a role for learned signals in the creation of reproductive barriers. I am interested in testing the potential for learned mating signals to reduce gene flow in contact zones between closely related taxa in the South American Andes.

Sexual selection and female song


Traditionally, studies of sexual selection have examined how males use elaborate ornaments and displays to attract the attention of passive but choosy females. Species in which females sing provide an alternative scenario in which females actively court males. My PhD research on duetting behaviour in the grey-breasted wood-wrens revealed that males and females use their songs in similar contexts; both males and females sing to defend their territory and to repel same-sex rivals. My research also revealed that female songs are as complex as male songs, and that both males and females have large repertoires. These results suggest that female song may be shaped by sexual selection, and variation in female song may be important for mate choice and for maintaining species boundaries. I am interested in testing these hypotheses in the grey-breasted wood-wrens in Ecuador.

Photo by Tim Guffin

Photo by Tim Guffin

Vocal Duets


Bird song serves many important functions, including mate attraction and territory defence. In most species, only the male sings, but in some species, the females also sing, often joining the male in a precise vocal duet. The function of these duets is still not well known, although it is likely that they also are important for territory defence and mate choice. My research on the grey-breasted wood-wrens in Ecuador investigated the function and evolution of these duets.


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