Andrew Cockburn

Group membership

After an honours degree in botany and a PhD in zoology from Monash University, I moved to UC Berkeley to study population dynamics in microtine rodents. I soon realized the error of my ways, and returned to Australia to study life history evolution and behavioural ecology of Antechinus, a bizarre group of marsupials that exhibit semelparity. All males plunge to their deaths immediately after mating. This not only requires special explanation, but also allows clear tests of otherwise intractable hypotheses, because the extreme simplicity of the life history throws several issues into sharp relief. After postdocs at Monash, CSIRO Wildlife & Ecology, and RSBS ANU, I got a real job in the Department of Zoology at ANU, which allowed me to pursue a growing interest in studies of lifetime reproductive performance in free-living animals. After studying antechinuses for almost a decade, I realised that I was not having nearly as much fun tramping through leech-infested rainforest, as one of my graduate students was having teasing apart the intricate sex lives of superb fairy-wrens in the croissant-infested Botanic Gardens in Canberra. I have worked on fairy-wrens for more than two decades, seeking an answer to the centrally important questions of the benefits that females obtain from discrimination among mates, the implications of those benefits for understanding the maintenance of genetic variation, and the evolution of the extraordinarily complex societies of cooperatively breeding birds. Along the way I was head of the School of Botany and Zoology for 13 years, Dean of Science for a year, and the Director of the ANU College of Medicine, Biology & Environment from June 2009 - April 2014.

Editorial Boards

  • Journal of Computational and Theoretical Nanoscience
  • PMC Biophysics
  • Biophysical Review and Letters

Research interests

I am interested in the evolution of life histories, complex mating systems, and gender and sex in animal societies, and my favourite study animals are birds and dasyurid marsupials. Most of my research group work on the following:

Cooperative breeding in birds. Cooperative breeding occurs where more than two individuals combine to rear a single brood of young. It is extraordinarily prevalent in the Australian avifauna, for both phylogenetic and ecological reasons, and we are conducting a number of studies to understand this prevalence. Current work focuses on superb fairy-wrens and woodswallows, though we have worked with kookaburras, bee-eaters, kingfishers, thornbills, choughs and parrots. In addition to this empirical work, I have developed a 'back-to-basics' comparative study on the phylogenetic patterns of parental care in all 9700 species of birds. I hope to develop a web-based version of the related database, which integrates data from thousands of references, and summarises the basic life histories, diets and patterns of parental care in all the species of birds for which there are relevant data.

Recent grants

  • Australian Research Council Discovery Grant: Cockburn, A. 2004-2009. $1,100,000; Evolution of cooperative breeding in birds
  • Australian Research Council Discovery Grant: Cockburn, A., M. van de Pol and L.E.B. Kruuk. 2010-2014. $626,000; Fitness in free-living populations in a changing world.

Selected publications

All publications