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 Head of Department


I studied Natural Sciences (Part II 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, 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 and have been Head of the Department of Zoology since 2016.


I typically have a group of between 3-5 postdocs/postdoc fellows, 4-6 DPhil students and 2-3 research assistants 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, either independently, or as part of a funded programme. I generally do not have unallocated research funding; any vacancies are advertised on the EGI website, as well as the Department and 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 – Social Ecology: Funded by an ERC Advanced Investigator Award from 2010-2015, a BBSRC grant from 2014-17, and a NERC grant from 2019-2022, 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 ecological variation influences the spread of information in wild populations.

2 – 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 several NERC awards), 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.

3 —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.

4 – 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.


Our work has been funded by grants from BBSRC, ERC and NERC, 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’m currently taking a break from Editorial duties while I am Head of Department, but in the past I have been Editor or Associate Editor of Journal of Animal Ecology, Evolution, American Naturalist, Proceedings of the Royal Society Series B, Animal Behaviourand PLOS Biology, and on the Editorial Board of Current Biologyand Trends in Ecology and Evolution. I’m a member of the Scientific Advisory Boards of the Netherlands Institute for Ecology and the Centre for Biodiversity Dynamics in Trondheim, Norway.

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, a Wolfson Research Merit Award by the Royal Society in 2013, and the E O Wilson award of the American Society of Naturalists.


Bosse, M., Spurgin, L.G., Laine, V.N., Gosler, A.G., Firth, J.A., Cole, E.F., McMahon, K., Gienapp, P., Verhagen, I., Poissant, J., Groenen, M.A.M, van Oers, K., Sheldon, B.C., Visser, M.E., Slate, J. 2017 Recent natural selection causes adaptive evolution of an avian polygenic trait.Science 358, 365-368.

Aplin, L., Sheldon, B.C.& McElreath, R. 2017. Conformity does not perpetuate subpotimal traditions in a wild population of songbirds. PNAS114, 7830-7837.

Cole, E.F. & Sheldon, B.C. 2017. The shifting phenological landscape: inter- and intraspecific variation in deciduous tree phenology across scales in a mixed deciduous woodland. Ecology & Evolution 7, 1135-1147.

 Hinks, A.E., Cole, E.F., Fannon, K., Wilkin, T.A., Nakagawa, S. & Sheldon, B.C.2015. Scale-dependent phenological synchrony between songbirds and their caterpillar food source.Amer. Nat.186, 84-97.

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

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.

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.

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.