My research applies a multi-disciplinary approach involving field observations, social network analysis, behavioural experiments, quantitative genetics, and life-history analysis to address questions about the social ethology and ecology of animals.
My work is/has been funded by The Leverhulme Trust, the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH), the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Duke Center for Interdisciplinary Decision Sciences, the International Primatological Society, the Leakey Trust, the University of Exeter, and the University of Roehampton.
Current and Recent Research Projects
Social dynamics and the evolution of cooperation
I am currently exploring the mechanisms that underpin the exchange of behavioural services using highly cooperative rhesus macaques as a model system. This research is funded by a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship and was highlighted in their monthly newsletter.
Did social relationships evolve and, if so, why?
I examine whether social relationships impact upon survival and reproductive output and attempt to determine the mechanisms that underpin the relationship between sociality and evolutonary fitness. To do this, I use extensive demographic, behavioural, and life-history data from long-term field sites. I am also interested in how we quantify social relationships and what aspects of those relationships are, and are not, important.
Male and female rhesus macaques that are more connected in the grooming, aggression, and proximity networks produce infants that are more likely to survive. From: Brent et al. 2013 Scientific Reports.
Survival benefits of family network size, from Brent et al. 2017 Proceedings of the Royal Society, B.
Our paper about how leadership and ecological knowledge contributes to the inclusive fitness of menopausal killer whales (Brent et al. 2015 Current Biology) received some terrific media coverage
I summarize what we currently know (and don't know) about 'friend of a friend' connections
in animal social networks, including their fitness consequences, in a recent review (Brent, 2015, Animal Behaviour)
An association with the stress response indicates that social relationships are important to the maintenance of health and homeostasis and is therefore indicative of the current utility of these social traits. I have explored the relationship between the stress response and sociality in gregarious animals using non-invasive endocrinological techniques. This work was featured in a Time Magazine article by Carl Zimmer.
Are social phenotypes heritable?
I examine the heritable basis of individual differences in sociality using quantitative genetic techniques. In rhesus macaques I have explored the heritability of social network position, personality, and face colour (a socio-sexual signal). Along with collaborators at the University of Pennsylvania and Duke University, I also apply modern genetic techniques to explore the impact of inter-individual variation in functional gene candidates on the expression of those phenotypes.