Edward O. Wilson Naturalist Award 2018

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Ben Sheldon

The E. O. Wilson Naturalist Award is awarded annually to an active mid-career scientist who has made significant contributions to the knowledge of a particular ecosystem or group of organisms, and who through this work has illuminated key principles of evolutionary biology and an enhanced appreciation of natural history. A list of previous recipients can be found here. In 2018, the award was conferred upon Ben Sheldon, the Luc Hoffmann Professor of Ornithology, Director of the Edward Grey Institute, and Head of the Department of Zoology at Oxford University.

Professor Sheldon has a prolific and remarkably diverse record of research revolving around ecology, evolution and behavior of birds.  Important features of his work are his early and clever use of molecular methods for quantifying reproductive success, his integration of observational studies with experiments that provided critical tests of his hypotheses and his continued inventiveness in developing new observational and experimental methodologies.  His earliest research addressed the role of pre- and post-copulatory sexual selection, the latter via sperm competition.  He was one of the first to apply new molecular methods for paternity identification and hence more accurate assessment of reproductive success.  His studies of collared flycatchers demonstrated, for the first time, that paternal investment in one year could influence investment by the same individuals in display behaviors in a subsequent year providing an empirical link between sexual selection and life history and a rare characterization of the long-term consequences of reproductive investment.   Professor Sheldon’s research on sex allocation provides some of the clearest evidence of adaptive variation in sex ratios.  While the concept has a long history in theory, Professor Sheldon’s studies are among the few to show that females use appraisals of mates to adjust clutch sex ratios.  More recently, Professor Sheldon has combined innovations in social network theory with new techniques to record behavior of many individuals to scale up our understanding of social behavior of birds.  His work recording and analyzing groups of thousands of birds reveals previously unknown mechanisms by which network structure influences the ability of winter flocks of great tits to identify novel food patches.  Using an experiment in which novel behavior was introduced into different subgroups, Professor Sheldon was able to demonstrate that social learning based on an innovation in a single individual was quickly adopted by entire groups and that these behaviors persisted as stable traditions across generations.