Thomas MacGillavry

Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology, University of Veterinary Medicine

■  Nationality: Belgian 

■  Supervisor: Prof. Leonida Fusani 

■  Key topics: The evolution of courtship behaviour


PhD project:

Darwin was the first to recognise that organisms are not just shaped by natural selection, but that individuals can be agents in the evolution of their species by choosing their mates. A great source of inspiration for Darwin in developing this hypothesis was what he called the 'strange antics' of birds. We now refer to these as 'courtship' displays, and in few bird families are they as extraordinary as in the Birds of paradise. Encompassing little over 40 species distributed across Australasia, the Birds of paradise are an intriguing system in which to study the evolution of display behaviours, which is why my PhD project revolves around these remarkable birds.  

I am interested in the evolutionary history of display behaviours, how these displays are flexibly controlled, and which morphological adaptations are required for their production. Using comparative methods to address these questions at a family-wide level, and field studies of Victoria's riflebird (Ptiloris victoriae) in the Australian wet tropics, I hope to improve our understanding of how birds perform their strange antics, and how they evolved.

Past experiences:

I attended the University of Glasgow (Scotland) starting in 2016 and graduated with an integrated masters degree in Zoology in 2021, for which I spent a placement year at the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology in Munich (Germany). During my undergraduate degree, I worked with Dr. Davide Dominoni on a system of urban nest-boxes for small songbirds to study responses to urbanisation. My master thesis on the other hand was strictly molecular, and I worked on the evolution of a gene  important for starch-digestion across birds and other vertebrates in Dr. Maude Baldwin's lab. After graduating, I moved to Vienna to start my current PhD-project at the University of Veterinary medicine.

Outside the lab:

Understanding and explaining nature is my main passion, so I spend much of my free time reading about science and natural history. I also play the drums, listen to music, photograph wildlife, lift weights, and brew delicious Chinese and Japanese teas.