Broadly, my research focuses on the intersection of social evolution and sexual selection. A good example is a recent project (a collaboration with Janis Dickinson and Kern Reeve) on the effects of competition over extra-pair paternity on the costs of breeding near kin versus non-kin.This project was partially inspired by a review by Professor Ben Hatchwell highlighting the recently-discovered prevalence of kin structure (the spatially non-random distribution of genetically-related individuals) in populations without documented cooperative behavior. This discovery poses a challenge to existing theory for the following reason.
Imagine we are comparing the inclusive fitness consequences of breeding near kin (philopatry) versus breeding near non-kin (dispersal). For the moment, we'll ignore all other factors that could influence the inclusive fitness consequences of these options (e.g., familiarity with the natal environment) and assume that a focal male gains equal inclusive fitness whether he is philopatric or disperses.
If individuals are more likely to cooperate with kin, individuals that are philopatric can receive an inclusive fitness benefit in the form of kin-biased cooperation. This increases the inclusive fitness benefits of philopatry relative to those of dispersal.
However, individuals that live near relatives have classically been thought to also suffer the cost of kin competition, reducing their inclusive fitness. This kin competition cost reduces the inclusive fitness benefits of philopatry relative to dispersal.
The problem now becomes clear: in kin-structured populations without kin-directed cooperation, individuals should be suffering the costs of philopatry (kin competition) without gaining the potential benefits. How can philopatry persist as a strategy under these conditions?
One possibility, proposed by Professor Hatchwell, is that kin-directed cooperation may occur in these kin-structured populations, but it is so difficult to observe that it has not yet been recorded.
Another possibility is that kin competition may not always exert costs that contribute to the evolution of dispersal. We investigated this second idea using a game theoretic model, deriving some extremely interesting results. And that is all I'll say until the paper is out!