2022 start September 

Evolution and Behaviour

School of Biosciences, Faculty of Science

Work alongside students and staff who are at the forefront of research into organism evolution and behaviour.
Emily working in the lab

Course description

The connection between how organisms have evolved and how they behave is a fundamental principle of biology. It can show us why organisms are the way they are, and answer deep questions about the diversity of life on earth.

Our world-class research in this area spans topics including animal behaviour, molecular ecology, sexual selection and sexual conflict, speciation, the evolutionary genomics of adaptation, evolutionary developmental, ecological immunity, and bioinformatics and life history evolution, giving you the opportunity to carry out cutting-edge research in an area of evolution and behaviour that interests you most.

Research experience

This research-focused course allows you to spend an academic year embedded in one of our research groups, working alongside students and staff who are at the forefront of their research field. Throughout your course, you’ll develop your research skills, giving you the opportunity to contribute new knowledge in your chosen area.

Whether you complete your research in the field, the lab or in industry, in the UK or abroad, you’ll be provided with a research budget for your project. Previous students have conducted fieldwork in locations including Brazil, South Africa and Sweden as well as closer to home in the wonderful Peak District National Park on our doorstep.

Example research projects include:

  • The diet restriction response in Drosophila melanogaster: precise mechanisms and a novel genetic screen using fecundity
  • The effect of breeding interactions on the post-breeding social system of a cooperative bird
  • Reconstructing ROMA population history

How to apply

Because of the research-intensive nature of this course, we ask you to include a short supporting statement with your application. This should explain how your interests and experience relate to the evolution and behaviour research we do in the School of Biosciences, including which particular supervisors or research groups you would be most interested in working with.

Please submit your application by 15 August if you require a student visa and by 31 August if you do not require a visa.

Potential supervisors

Choose a subject area:

Animal behaviour
  • Dr Penelope J Watt - Behavioural ecology including; personality traits, the genetic basis of behaviour and the impact of stress on behaviour in fish (transgenerational effects and potential epigenetic mechanisms). Also earthworm behaviour, distribution and health
  • Dr Deborah Dawson - Conservation genetics of otters and salmon; reproductive genetics and genomics; molecular ecology including eDNA analysis
  • Dr Nicola Hemmings - We study how and why reproductive success varies across individuals, with a particular focus on post-copulatory processes
  • Professor Ben J Hatchwell - Cooperative behaviour and social evolution, using long-term studies of birds to investigate the causes and consequences of sociality
Animal evolution
  • Dr Alison Wright - The genomic and evolutionary processes underlying sex differences, and the relationship between genotype and complex phenotypes. We integrate bioinformatic tools with data from species across a range of sexual dimorphisms
  • Dr Deborah Dawson - Conservation genetics of otters and salmon; reproductive genetics and genomics; molecular ecology including eDNA analysis
  • Dr Nicola Nadeau - Genomic approaches to understand biodiversity, speciation and adaptation, with a particular focus on the tropical Heliconius butterflies
  • Dr Mirre Simons - Biology of ageing: why and how all life slowly deteriorates to eventually cause disease and death
  • Dr Gavin Thomas - How and why present day biodiversity has (i) arisen over time (macroevolution), and (ii) varies across geographic space (macroecology). Combines museum based data collection with citizen science and computational modelling to assess macroevolutionary and macroecological patterns and processes
  • Professor Jon Slate - Evolutionary genetics of adaptation. Genetic architecture and evolution of phenotypic variation in wild populations. Combines molecular quantitative genetic approaches with data from long-term field studies
  • Professor Roger K Butlin - Processes that lead to speciation and the genetic basis of barriers to gene exchange, using analysis of contact zones in Littorina snails and experimental evolution of rotifer populations
  • Professor Andrew Beckerman - Structure, complexity and dynamics of food webs; ecology and evolution of phenotypic plasticity; distribution and abundance of organisms and the diversity and structure of communities; conservation and demography of endangered parrots. Combines mathematical modelling and lab and field experiments
Plant evolution
  • Dr Stuart Campbell - Plant chemical and molecular ecology; secondary metabolite diversity and function; plant-insect interactions in wild species and crops; mechanisms and consequences of self-incompatibility
  • Dr Pascal-Antoine Christin - Genomic origins and ecological consequences of novel adaptations in plants
  • Professor Colin P Osborne - How evolution leads to physiological diversity in wild plants and the significance of physiological differences for ecological behaviour. Photosynthesis, growth, climate change and sustainability are central themes, as is the significance of physiological responses for ecosystems
  • Professor Charles H Wellman - Evolution of land plants over geological time, with emphasis on their origin and early diversification
  • Dr Luke Dunning - How plants rapidly adapt to extreme environments using a combination of genomic techniques, comparative analyses and experimental approaches
Population modelling
  • Dr Dylan Childs - How demographic processes and environmental factors interact to shape population-level processes. Combines mathematical and statistical modelling with lab and field data population dynamics and natural selection in a wide range of laboratory and free-living animal and plant populations
  • Dr Kai Zeng - Population genetics; fundamental evolutionary processes such as mutation, genetic drift, genetic recombination, and natural selection. How these processes interact with one another, and the impact of these interactions on evolution
Microbial evolution
  • Dr Ellie Harrison - Ecology and evolution of plant associated microbial communities. Specifically, how communities are shaped by mobile genetic elements and horizontal gene transfer

Apply now


The modules listed below are examples from the last academic year. There may be some changes before you start your course. For the very latest module information, check with the department directly.

Core modules:

Research Project

This module allows students to develop skills relevant to a career in biological research. It will consist of a laboratory, field-based or computational research project where each student will work under the supervision of a member of academic staff. The student will formulate the hypotheses and questions to be addressed and plan and carry out experiments to test these hypotheses. The project will be written up in the form of a scientific paper and the student will keep a notebook of the research.

120 credits
Literature Review

The literature review requires the student to write a critical review of a biological topic of choice. The literature review will involve extensive reading of original research papers, reviews and books together with information extracted from other media. The student will be required to critically analyse hypotheses in the field and critically analyse the quality of the evidence used to support them. Where controversies exist the student should be prepared to indicate which side has the stronger case. The literature review should also identify gaps in our current knowledge and understanding and make suggestions for the future developments in the field.

15 credits
Scientific Skills and Project Management

This module provides training in the skills and approaches necessary to design, manage, conduct, analyse and present research in whole organism biology and environmental science. Generic skills involve designing and planning an effective and reproducible study, making best use of available resources; collecting and managing data to address study aims; conducting research in an ethical manner; and communicating results orally and in writing to different audiences. There are also workshops explaining key aspects of the research process, introducing peer review and describing the science funding landscape. The module also covers advanced principles of experimental design, data interpretation, and graphical presentation, introduced in the statistical computing environment R using a series of workshops and student-centred learning assignments to develop skills and proficiency.

30 credits
Science Communication for Researchers

This module provides training in the skills and approaches necessary to effectively communicate science. The module has three main components:
1. An intensive science communication workshop focusing on interactions with the print and broadcast media;
2. A poster presentation, where students design and produce a poster to communicate their research project to a target audience (e.g. general public,
research audience);
3. A formal oral presentation, where students present their research results to their peers.

15 credits

The content of our courses is reviewed annually to make sure it's up-to-date and relevant. Individual modules are occasionally updated or withdrawn. This is in response to discoveries through our world-leading research; funding changes; professional accreditation requirements; student or employer feedback; outcomes of reviews; and variations in staff or student numbers. In the event of any change we'll consult and inform students in good time and take reasonable steps to minimise disruption. We are no longer offering unrestricted module choice. If your course included unrestricted modules, your department will provide a list of modules from their own and other subject areas that you can choose from.


1 academic year full-time


You’ll learn through a mixture of working in a research laboratory or on a field-based research project, tutorials, discussion groups, seminars, and statistics and other workshops.


Most assessment is through coursework. Your assessment includes, but is not limited to, a project report, literature review, poster presentations, oral presentations, written grant proposals and online statistics exams.

Your career

This degree provides an ideal springboard for a research career in your chosen field, including crop and soil science, evolutionary and behavioural research, genomics and related technologies and ecological and environmental research. Past students have gone on to study for PhDs, as well as taking up positions in government science, environmental consultancy and industry.

Student profiles

Sam Fenton

As part of my MRes, I carried out the fieldwork for my project investigating local adaptation in snails while working at the Sven Lovén Centre in Tjärnö, Sweden. It's such an incredible country and the chance to be there on a Masters budget is pretty incredible.

Sam Fenton
MRes Evolution and Behaviour

Entry requirements

A 2:1 BSc honours degree, or equivalent, in biology or a closely related quantitative subject. In addition, you should be able to demonstrate evidence of aptitude and enthusiasm for research eg an undergraduate research project.

Overall IELTS score of 6.5 with a minimum of 6.0 in each component, or equivalent.

We also accept a range of other UK qualifications and other EU/international qualifications.

If you have any questions about entry requirements, please contact the department.

Fees and funding


The cost of all core fieldwork and practical project work is included in your tuition fees, this includes both one day field trips and compulsory field courses as well as obligatory safety equipment. Travel to field sites for project work may incur additional costs.


Because of the research-intensive nature of this course, we ask you to include a short supporting statement with your application. Please see the course description above for more details.

Apply now

+44 114 222 2341

Any supervisors and research areas listed are indicative and may change before the start of the course.

Our student protection plan

Recognition of professional qualifications: from 1 January 2021, in order to have any UK professional qualifications recognised for work in an EU country across a number of regulated and other professions you need to apply to the host country for recognition. Read information from the UK government and the EU Regulated Professions Database.

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