Specific project ideas (2018+)


I am not taking on new students/post-docs until 2018, but here are some potential projectson the horizon for then.

Does environmental enrichment make rodents more attractive to potential mates, or better at attracting empathy? (Any level: MSc coursework, MSc thesis, PhD and post-doc)

This project or projects would test the hypothesis that compared to barren-raised rodents (rats, mice or both), environmentally-enriched animals are better at eliciting ’empathic’ responses from other rodents; more attractive to members of the opposite sex (perhaps because they sing more attractive courtship songs); and better mothers. We would also test hypotheses as to why. For example,  are enriched-raised animals  more behaviourally flexible and thus better at the ‘give-and-take’ of normal social interaction? Less anxious, and so less prone to over-react to perceived threat? Less anhedonic, and so more motivated to interact socially? or what?

Some of this research would be co-supervised by Dr. Elena Choleris, of the Psychology department; potential candidates interested in joining Psychology rather than my own department could also seek funding via TA-ships (as well as via OGS and NSERC). We hope the results could shed light on the breeding problems that are common in some wild species when they are held captive.

Why does enrichment enhance animals’ resilience to stressors? (PhD/post-doc)

It has long been known that compared with isolated or impoverished housed animals, environmentally enriched, socially-housed rodents are better able to cope with acute challenges like being subjected to injections other aversive procedures (just as humans with happy stable lives are better able to cope with stressors than humans whose lives are already difficult). Recently, in our lab we have also found that farmed mink given simple enrichments are calmer around humans: less likely to scream, be aggressive or retreat. What is the link between living in a high welfare environment and being more resilient to stressors such as human handlers? Is this because when the stressor ends, the return to normalcy is a more effective antidote to the aversive experience when normalcy is ‘good’? Are stressors perceived differently by high and low welfare rodents, perhaps because of ‘pessimism’-like changes in the latter? Do enriched environments somehow ‘toughen animals up’, by exposing them to novelty? Or… what? This work could be conducted in part at the University of Bristol, with Professor Mike Mendl. It could involve mice, rats, mink or a combination.

What is boredom for? (PhD/post-doc)

This open-ended project would use any suitable model animal to test hypotheses about the functions of boredom. Why should at least some animals find monotony aversive, and be motivated out general stimulation? Does infomation-gain help them solve new problems rapidly (e.g. find food or avoid predators)? Or does being at an optimal level of arousal increase their abilities to learn new associations (cf. the Yerkes-Dobson Law)? Or… what?

Do stereotypic behaviours promote hippocampal neurogenesis, and proect animals from depression? (Any level: MSc coursework, MSc thesis, PhD and post-doc)

Stereotypic behaviours are abnormal, and typical of barren environments. However, paradoxically they might have some benefits, mimicking the hippocampal neurogenesis that occurs in environmentally-enriched animals (especially those given running wheels). We have more than 20 additional mink brains (again from differentially-housed, well-studied animals), frozen and awaiting sectioning and staining, for anyone interested in hippocampal development. The hypothesis could also be tested using differentially-raised mice, if the student wished, to investigate relationships with depression-like changes.  Drs. Elena Choleris (Psychology) and/or Lee Niel (Population Medicine) would probably be collaborators on this project.

What are the neurological or neurochemical characteristics of impulsive mink? (Any level:  MSc thesis, PhD or post-doc)

As in all species tested so far, individual mink differ in their abilities to “resist temptation”: their tendencies to behave impulsively faced with cues from food rewards. Data from primates and rats suggest that such differences reflect differential activity in the orbitofrontal cortex and/or nucleus accumbens. Stored brains from over 20 animals with well-characterised phenotypes would be sectioned, stained and analysed to test these hypotheses. This project would be co-supervised by Dr. Lee Niel (Population Medicine).


Further down my wish-list:

Assessing welfare in cats: Why do they purr? 

Purring is often assumed to signify “cat happiness”, but cats also perform a specific type of purring when they are begging for food. They also appear to perform a type of purring when injured or very ill. So does is this behaviour best characterised as an appeasement signal? Or are there certain forms they do indeed indicate contentment?

This project would be carried out in collaboration with local veterinarians, Professor Karen McComb (Sussex, UK), Dr Lee Niel (PopMed), and Dr. Jenna Cheal.

Other possible cat and dog questions

Are sweaty feet and shedding fur valid indicators of sympathetic arousal in cats? Does exposed eye white in dogs and cats reflect affective state and/or arousal, and if so, does the left eye respond more sensitively to negative affect that the right? This work would be co-supervised by Dr. Lee Niel (PopMed).

Why and how does environmental enrichment reduce fur-and feather-plucking?

In animals as diverse as mice, rhesus monkeys, chickens, parrots and mink, barren cages increase the prevalence and severity of abnormal plucking behaviours. Some hypotheses for this are motivational (e.g. perpetrators are trying to perform frustrating foraging activities), while others suggest altered brain functioning (e.g. perpetrators are abnormally impulsive or perseverative — behaviourally persistent and repetitive — in particular ways, like humans with the OCD-like hair-plucking condition of trichotillomania). Which type of explanation is correct? Can both types of idea be right, and if so, how do the motivational and the “brain dysfunction” hypotheses fit together? Dr Alexandra Harlander would be a collaborator on this project.

Other possible work on stereotypic behaviour:

If you’re interested in travelling, contact me for ideas of projects that might work with Prof. Neville Pillay in South Africa, or Dr. Jens Malmkvist in Denmark (a much nicer guy that his photo would suggest!).

Other possible work on mice:

If you’re interested in lab mouse welfare and would like to work in the US, contact me for ideas for projects we might run with Dr. Brianna Gaskill.