Associate Professor Terry Ord, Director of Research at UNSW Science’s School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences (BEES,) has received the Quest Award from the US Animal Behavior Society (ABS). Based on multiple nominations from senior researchers and discipline leaders across the US, the award recognises an outstanding seminal contribution in animal behaviour.

A/Prof. Ord has been recognised for his “outstanding seminal contribution uncovering the broad macroevolutionary consequences of sexual selection, natural selection and phylogeny in shaping differences and similarities in animal behaviour across large groups of closely related species”. He is the first Australian to win the Quest Award and only the second Australian to win any ABS award.

“I was shocked when I was told I had won the Quest Award. You hope your work will have some type of legacy, but to be acknowledged with an international award like this is such a surprise. I couldn’t be more thrilled,” A/ Prof. Ord said. “It means everything when others recognise you’ve done something of value.

“Studying animal behaviour and evolution in the wild can be really hard. Sometimes you wonder whether it’s all worth it, especially when you’re struggling with conditions in the field. If you’re not soaked to the bone, you’re sweltering in the heat.

“To have some of the world’s leading scientists tip a hat to you like this is validation that what I’m doing really is worth all the hard work.”

UNSW Dean of Science, Scientia Professor Sven Rogge, congratulated A/Prof. Ord on the award.

“Terry is a leader in researching how evolution operates in nature, what drives diversity over evolutionary and ecological timescales, and why species live where they do. His focus is explaining why animals behave the way they do, and he has adopted a novel approach that combines ‘old school’ methods with the use of robotics.”

Read more: Same dance, different species: how natural selection drives common behaviour of lizards

A report from one of A/Prof. Ord’s nominators said, “While much of Terry's work has focused on lizards and the evolution of their territorial displays, the questions he addresses have broad implications for our understanding of animal communication and evolution more generally. Why do animals behave the way they do and why does that behaviour vary among closely related species? It's irrelevant whether you study birds, mammals, fish, insects or any other taxonomic system, Terry's contributions have implications for all taxa.”

A/Prof. Ord’s “curiosity-driven science” also translates well to broadcast media and his research has featured in several BBC Attenborough documentaries. Elaborate behavioural displays of gliding lizards featured in Planet Earth II (2016) and the behaviour of land-dwelling blenny fishes in Blue Planet II (2017).

An integrative approach marrying the ‘old’ with the ‘new’

A/Prof. Ord’s approach is ‘old school’ in the sense that it relies heavily on behavioural observation and a detailed understanding of the natural history of a species, the nominator’s report said.

“His research also shows how natural history observations can be central to answering big conceptual questions. How does adaptation unfold? Why is there diversity – or lack thereof – in behaviour across species? What role does evolutionary history play in shaping the way animals respond to present-day challenges?”

A/Prof. Ord is well known for his integration of detailed field studies of behaviour with sophisticated comparative methods to uncover macroevolutionary processes in behavioural evolution with the novel use of robotics to 'ask the animals' to confirm casualty. Constructing and programming the robots himself, A/Prof. Ord uses them to perform playbacks to free-living animals to investigate the significance of signals in animal communication systems.

A snapshot of A/Prof. Ord’s contributions to the field

Some of A/Prof. Ord’s contributions to our current understanding of animal behaviour listed in the nominator’s report include:

Signal complexity and male-male competition: During his graduate research, A/Prof. Ord was the first to discover that the intensity of aggressive interactions can drive the evolution of increasingly elaborate territorial signals across lizard species.

Signal adaptation and noise: A/Prof. Ord was the first to discover that lizards using visual displays are just as likely to be impacted by environmental noise — in the form of windblown vegetation — as acoustically communicating species, and to adopt a strategy of exaggerating display movements that is comparable to vocalising animals increasing the volume of their calls.

Behavioural plasticity and its role in adaptive evolution: A/Prof. Ord was one of the first to reveal how the flexibility of behaviour – its contextual plasticity – allows lizards to tailor their signals to the prevailing conditions of the environment, and critically how this plasticity subsequently impacts the adaptive evolution of those signals as species colonise new environments.

Widespread convergent evolution in animal communication: Most recently, A/Prof. Ord has shown how the phenomena of plasticity and adaptation to environmental noise is virtually ubiquitous across all animal species and has repeatedly led to the independent evolution of animals using identical strategies to cope with environmental noise. He has shown that this repeated, convergent evolution of behaviour has occurred at a massive scale across animal groups, including insects, fish, reptiles, birds and mammals, and across sensory modalities where animals are using sound, vision or touch in their social communication.

Read more: Fish evolution in action: land fish forced to adapt after leap out of water

Impact of predation on conspicuous behaviour: In a new study, A/Prof. Ord has revised the gold standard for measuring predation in the wild. He has made a major advance in using robotics to study animal behaviour by mass producing hundreds of robotic prey mimics to test how conspicuous behaviour impacts predation risk.

Why evolutionary history matters in animal behaviour: A/Prof. Ord has shown how whole groups of closely related species can perform the same behaviour with little variation among species because it has been retained in descendent species despite millions of years of evolution. This is important for our understanding of animal behaviour because it shows the events occurring in deep evolutionary history can explain the existence of behaviour that otherwise might be impossible to explain from present-day interactions. This discovery is perhaps one of A/Prof. Ord’s most important contributions in animal behaviour because it reveals what can't be understood from studying single species in isolation of their evolutionary history.

Behavioural plasticity and its role in colonisation: A/Prof. Ord has obtained rare insights from free-living fishes that show the vital role that the flexibility of behaviour plays in allowing animals to initially survive in novel environments. That is, plasticity in foraging behaviour and activity has allowed aquatic blenny fishes to progressively invade land and exploit the conditions unique to a life out of the water.