Animal Biology

NOTE: Animal Biology is changing 2018-2019, so is different from what every past student has done. It now comprises 4 modules: Behavioural Evolution, Genes and Genomes, Macroevolution and Diversity, and Adaptations.


As it is so new, we don’t entirely know what this will be like, so the previous information has been left below. Up to date information can be found at:


Animal Biology covers a variety of topics which makes it appealing to both those interested in whole organism biology and those interested in genetics and cell biology. If you studied Evolution and Behaviour in Part IA, Animal Biology may well be for you. There are 3 lectures a week, accompanied by an afternoon of practicals every other week which is assessed by a write-up.

In Michaelmas term you will first study Behavioural Ecology investigating how ecology can shape an animal’s behaviour. It revolves around optimality models, which involves how particular costs and benefits influence observed behaviour, and how we could predict such behaviour. Questions answered include: Why do these birds lay this number of eggs? Why do wild dogs hunt in groups of 10-15? The recommended textbook is An Introduction to Behavioural Ecologyby Krebs and Davies, and is a pretty good bible for the whole course. The next set of lectures focuses on the adaptive development of behaviour, the old debate of whether genes or the environment are more important in determining behaviour (both!) and what types of natural selection are involved in driving the evolution of adaptive behaviour. It also includes a thoughtful last lecture on animal welfare.

The second half of Michaelmas is devoted to the neurology of animal behaviour, exploring sensory and motor nervous systems in a variety of animals and the principles involved in efficient processing of information in the brain. You will study insect vision, insect flight, electroreception and owl and bat auditory systems. Although the first lecture takes you on a general revision course of neurons, synapses etc, it’s a good idea to dig out old A Level Biology notes, especially if you’re not taking Neurobiology. The details of information processing in the brain can be rather hard to understand, which is where Nerve Cells and Animal Behaviouris a life saver, as it explains the processes very clearly and more leisurely than the lecturer is able to in the time given.

The first half of Lent term is devoted to insects – the mechanisms of their flight, respiration, moulting and feeding, and then the evolution of the extraordinary social systems seen in e.g. ants and termites, as well as parasitoids (you can get insects which lay their eggs inside other insect larvae which are inside other larvae). You might wonder, why insects? But they do account for more than half of all living organisms on the planet.

In the second half of Lent you will study vertebrate evolution. This fascinating and complex journey takes you from the origin of the chordates to the invasion of land and through to the evolution of mammals. To avoid getting lost on the way, this is one lecture series where you really should re-read what happened in the last episode. The plethora of new names may be confusing at first but a big phylogenetic tree on the wall helps. One resource which isn’t often used enough is the Museum of Zoology, which has exhibitions clearly charting a lot of vertebrate evolution and showing actual skeletons and models of the animal which you might not have had a chance to comprehend on the PowerPoint slide. The accompanying practicals involve examining skeletons and are extremely interesting.

Easter Term is devoted to population genetics, covering genetic drift, heritability, frequency dependent selection and game theory, as well as phylogenetic and character reconstruction. This involves some maths but is manageable. Those of you who have studied E&B are likely to have an advantage.

If you are thinking of selecting Neurobiology or Ecology, Animal Biology will compliment these nicely. In particular the lectures on behavioural ecology cover the same principles as the behavioural ecology lectures in Ecology and are delivered by the same lecturer.

More information can be found at:

The Natural Sciences Society of St John's College