Meet the Researchers

| Dr. Sean Twiss |  Principle Investigator

My research encompasses four main areas: (1) Behavioural and evolutionary ecology, specifically empirical studies of individual mating decisions and reproductive behaviour. (2) Spatial behavioural ecology: the development and application of spatially explicit analytical and modelling procedures to studies of the evolution of animal behaviour. (3) Evolutionary ecology of colony formation and social dynamics within animal groups. (4) Use of spatial approaches to integrate knowledge of individual animal behaviour into Environmental Change Ecology. My innovative approach to studies of animal behaviour has been to apply modern Geo-spatial analytical and spatially explicit modelling procedures, as developed in the field of Landscape Ecology, to long-term, empirical, field based studies of individual animal behaviour. This spatial emphasis allows me to examine individual behavioural decisions within their physical, social and genetic contexts, quantified at appropriately fine spatial and temporal scales. The aim of my research is to understand how heterogeneity in these contexts, quantified at the variety of hierarchical scales at which they impinge upon individuals, constrains or alters the behavioural decisions of individuals. This perspective provides a deeper understanding of those choices, and perhaps more importantly, how context sets the behavioural options amongst which individuals choose (e.g. habitat and mate choice decisions in relation to local availability and quality of these resources/mates).

I have applied this approach to various studies and a range of taxa (Mammals, Birds, Insects), but the focus of my research is a long-term (currently 19 years) study of breeding grey seals at various Scottish island colonies, in particular that of North Rona. My grey seal research is conducted in collaboration with Dr Paddy Pomeroy at the Sea Mammal Research Unit (University of St. Andrews) and is supported by UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Fellowships, Grants and Core funding. The study benefits from over 5000 known and genetically typed individuals and the integration of individual reproductive histories within the accurately quantified physical, social and genetic contexts provided by my sub-metre accurate Geographical Information System (GIS) databases. My application of this spatially explicit approach to behavioural studies has proved highly productive, providing novel and key insights into the environmental causes of individual variation in behaviour and success that drive population and ecosystem scale processes. I am keen to extend my research approach to other pinniped species and ecosystems, both nationally and internationally, to provide an integrative examination of the effects of environmental change on individuals, populations and ecosystems at a range of spatial and temporal scales.

For more information contact me at:


See my Durham University page for more details and publications.

| Courtney Shuert |  PhD Student


My interests have focused on how an individual survives and what drives that survival based on various aspects of physiology, behaviour and ecology with specific focus on high(er) latitude species. During my Masters thesis, I developed a keen interest in pinnipeds for the challenges that they face having to deal with both an aquatic and terrestrial life as well as the inherent difficulty in studying them. Joining with Dr. Twiss for my PhD, I will be investigating fine-scale individual differences in activity budgets and behaviour of lactating female grey seals using tri-axial accelerometers. More specifically, I seek to develop methods for remote monitoring of fine-scale behaviour as well as to investigate the potential physiological and energetic costs and trade-offs of different behavioural types. New developments in technology and tagging methods present an exciting way to evaluate many research questions that were previously unattainable. Pinnipeds and other marine mammals therefore offer an excellent proving ground for these new technologies. It is my hope that my contribution to this field will help to improve these methods in the hopes that they could be applied to other cryptic or relatively inaccessible species.

I also enjoy Pina coladas, getting caught in the rain (literally on the Isle of May, my field site), large databases (accelerometers amass a lot of data), as well as the odd well written piece of code in R. My favorite colour is green.


| Elana Hobkirk |  Research Masters Student


I am a key member of Dr Twiss’ research team, but I am a little different to the other key members as I am primarily a wolf (Canis lupus) biologist. My research interests include animal behaviour, forms and functions of communicative signalling, and canine behavioural ecology. My current research aims to unravel some of the complexities of facial signalling in wolves and domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris), and is essentially the brainchild of research I conducted as an undergraduate student.

There are two questions that I am frequently asked about my research; One, why am I a researcher in empirical behavioural ecology? Two, why wolves? So, I will answer these questions here – question one – do you remember being a child and being captivated by everything and trying to work out why everything happened in the way it did? Well, I guess I never grew out of that. I cannot remember a time in my life that I was not captivated by the behaviours of non-human animals, from watching countless documentaries to wandering about the countryside all day, every day, watching wildlife live, and asking questions such as, why is that kestrel hovering right there? Why is that fox screaming like that? Why is that blue tit attacking the wing mirror of that car!? Why? Being able to understand behavioural ecology allows one to understand these animal behaviours and understand how the natural world works; why everything is the way it is and how things can change temporarily and spatially.

Question two? I honestly do not have a solid scientific reason for this, I am just fascinated by everything about wolves, and I want to understand everything about them. I have spent a lifetime with my head in books and scientific publications on wolves and with my eyes and ears fixated on wolf documentaries – as a kid I would buy expensive animal books even if they just had one page on wolves – why? Because I wanted to know everything about them, and I still do. But, there is only so much you can learn from a book, publication or documentary – a wolf picture in a book does not move, it cannot interact with another pack member – you can only learn everything by actually observing the behaviour of wolves yourself, and dedicating time and effort to wait for the less obvious and less frequent, yet, important behaviours – so, this is what I do – and with the hope that one day my research will help remove the negative stereotype that generally plagues wild wolves.


Blog: Researching Wolves

Facebook page: @ElanaHobkirk

Twitter: @ElanaHobkirk

Researching Wolves YouTube channel

You can also find me on LinkedIn and ResearchGate

 Elana’s motto: “I canid get enough of canids”

| Jodie Wells | MBiol Student


Also known as ‘Zoe mark II’, I am the Twiss lab’s current resident MBiol student. My interest in animal behaviour began with horses, but now extends to a range of species, including pinnipeds such as grey seals. During my fourth year project, I aim to investigate how wild lactating female grey seals respond to natural and anthropogenic stress, by observing their behaviour, and collecting heart rate data. I am interested in links between physiology and behaviour, and particularly hope to explore consistent individual differences that we may find and further develop our understanding of ‘animal personality types’, their potential evolutionary advantages, and trade-offs.

I also enjoy painting, playing guitar/ukulele, and outdoor adventures. My own animals include three Harry Potter themed cats, a leopard gecko named Luna Lemon, and an Andalusian mare. All of these very much have their own personalities, and have been taught all manner of tricks, that range from useful to ridiculous.


Twiss Lab Alumni

| Zoe Fraser |  Masters of Biology, 2016

Zoe Fraser

A comparison of diurnal and nocturnal behaviour in lactating female grey seals

| Dr. Amanda (Amy) Bishop |  PhD, 2015

Behavioural mechanisms of conflict and conflict reduction in a wild breeding polygynous pinniped

Where is she now? North to the Future!

| Naomi Brannan |  Research Masters Student, 2015

Research Profile Picture

Investigating the physiological underpinnings of behavioural types in a wild, free-ranging pinniped.

| Amy Holt |  Research Masters Student, 2014

Amy Holt

Identifying the effects of anthropogenic disturbance on the breeding behaviour of female grey seals (Halichoerus grypus), at a mainland UK colony

Where is she now? Not all those who wander are lost.

| James Stewart |  Research Masters Student, 2013

Fine-scale determinants of female grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) pupping site and habitat preferences at North Rona, Scotland

Where is he now? Moving up and scaling down.

| Sam Hardman |  Research Masters Student, 2013


Investigating the links between behavioural types and mate choice in a polygynous pinniped

Where is he now? The Bird is the Word.

| Dr. Ross Colloch |  PhD, 2012

The application of modern statistical approaches to identify consistent individual differences in the behaviour of wild postpartum female grey seals (Halichoerus grypus)

Where is he now? Mostly stuck behind a desk or in meetings!


| Charlotte Cairns |  Research Masters Student, 2012

The early ethology of wild grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) neonates over the period of maternal dependency: An assessment of the nature and function of behaviour

Where is she now? The Student Becomes the Teacher.

| Hani James |  Research Masters Student, 2012

Individual differences in maternal behaviour in the grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) and the impact of disturbance at Donna Nook

Where is she now? Inspiring the next generation.



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