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Study information

Sensory Ecology

Module titleSensory Ecology
Module codeBIO3410
Academic year2023/4
Module staff

Professor Martin Stevens (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks




Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

What’s it like to be a bat that hunts its prey with echolocation, a turtle that navigates using magnetic cues, or even a fish that uses electric signals in mating? The sensory systems that animals have are fundamental in determining how they interact with the world around them and go about their daily lives. Sensory ecology deals with how sensory systems work in gathering information from the environment, and how and why they have evolved in varied habitats from the deep sea to the air, and in species with different ecologies. This module will deal with fundamental questions in sensory ecology, including:

  1. the varied sensory systems that exist, how they work and process information (e.g. vision, smell, electric, magnetic, hearing);
  2. why sensory systems vary so much among and even within species with different life histories and for use in different tasks;
  3. how animals use their sensory systems to behave appropriately and communicate with one another;
  4. the role that sensory systems play in fundamental evolutionary processes such as speciation.

By doing so we will explore how sensory systems enable animals to:

  1. survive threats such as predators;
  2. find food and their homes;
  3. communicate with mates and rivals;
  4. respond to changing environments;
  5. inhabit diverse habitats.

The module will also cover how sensory systems are affected by human changes in the environment and can guide our understanding of ethics and animal welfare.

Module aims - intentions of the module

The aim of this module is to discuss the crucial way that sensory systems shape the ways that animals perceive and interact with their world, and the importance of sensory systems in guiding a wide range of behaviours and in living in varied and changing environments. It will provide the opportunity to explore key principles in the way that sensory systems form a link between neurobiology, animal behaviour, adaptation to environments, and our understanding of evolutionary processes such as diversification and speciation, as well as current pressures on animals through human influences on the environment, such as noise and pollution.

The teaching of this module involves ‘Research, Enquiry and Application Led Learning’, whereby the various components are driven by research and examples, including things like how sensory systems such as the electric sense work, implications of deceptive communication in manipulating behavior, and how knowledge of sensory ecology can shape human applications like shark deterrents and biomimetic skin, engaging you with current research, problems, and concepts. The module will involve elements of research undertaken by the module convenor, including adaptive coloration and behaviour and animal visual systems, and applications of understanding vision.

In addition, during the module you will take part in and lead group discussions, conduct a written critical assignment on modern methods used to research key topics in the subject, and critically evaluate the literature, all of which are skills key to future employability.

The skills you gain from discussion and critique of cutting edge research, coupled with independent review of the scientific literature, will all stand you in good stead for careers in the biological sciences and the environmental sector by developing or enhancing your employability. Transferable skills to other sectors include:

  • problem solving (linking theory to practice, responding to novel and unfamiliar problems, data handling)
  • time management (managing time effectively individually and within a group)
  • collaboration (taking initiative and leading others, supporting others in their work)
  • self and peer review (taking responsibility for own learning, using feedback from multiple sources)
  • presentation skills and audience awareness (presenting ideas effectively in multiple formats).

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Describe the range of sensory systems that exist in nature, how they work, and the information they gather
  • 2. Examine the varied reasons that lead animals to evolve and modify their sensory systems
  • 3. Evaluate the wide range of tasks that sensory systems are used for and how this varies among species
  • 4. Compare and contrast experimental approaches to studying how sensory systems work
  • 5. Discuss how sensory systems enable animals to cope with great diversity in habitats and environments

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 6. Describe in detail and analyse essential facts and theory across a sub-discipline of biosciences
  • 7. Analyse and evaluate independently a range of research-informed literature and synthesise examples from the literature into written work
  • 8. Identify and implement, with limited guidance, appropriate methodologies and theories for solving a range of complex problems in biosciences
  • 9. Evaluate established techniques of analysis, practical investigation, and enquiry within biosciences
  • 10. Describe and evaluate in detail approaches to our understanding of biosciences with reference to primary literature, reviews and research articles

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 11. Devise and sustain, with little guidance, a logical and reasoned argument with sound, convincing conclusions
  • 12. Communicate effectively arguments, evidence and conclusions using a variety of formats in a manner appropriate to the intended audience
  • 13. Analyse and evaluate appropriate data
  • 14. Evaluate own strengths and weaknesses in relation to graduate-level professional and practical skills, and act autonomously to develop new areas of skills as necessary
  • 15. Reflect effectively and independently on learning experiences and evaluate personal achievements
  • 16. Work in a small team and deal proficiently with the issues that teamwork requires (i.e. communication, motivation, decision-making, awareness, responsibility, and management skills, including setting and working to deadlines)

Syllabus plan

Lectures will cover:


  • The various types of sensory systems that exist;
  • the way sensory systems gather and process information;
  • trade-offs and costs associated with sensory systems;
  • how sensory systems guide communication among and within species, including deceptive communication;
  • the role of sensory systems in guiding biological arms races and coevolution;
  • how sensory systems adapt to different environments and enable animals to live in varied habitats;
  • human disturbance of the environment and how it affects sensory processing and behaviour;
  • how knowledge of sensory systems have led to human invention and problem solving;
  • the role of sensory systems in speciation.


You will work in groups to research and lead discussions on a different topic once per fortnight. Final project involves a written assignment on recent developments involved in sensory ecology research.


The module will be delivered with face-to-face lectures, discussions and workshops.

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled Learning and Teaching12Lectures and group activities covering all the material outlined above
Scheduled learning and teaching8Group-led discussion of key papers/topics
Guided independent study130Additional reading, research and preparation for module assessments

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Participation during activities and discussions, including essay writing practice and oral feedback in the first discussionOngoing throughout the module1-16Oral

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay 601,500 words1-12Written on request
Critical review essay401,500 words1-13Written

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Essay Essay 1-12August reassessment period
Critical review essayCritical review essay1-13August reassessment period

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to submit a further assessment. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of referral will count for 100% of the final mark and will be capped at 40%.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • Stevens M. (2013). Sensory Ecology, Behaviour, and Evolution. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Example papers:

  • Corcoran, AJ, Barber JR, Conner WE. (2009). Tiger moth jams bat sonar. Science 325:325-327.
  • Francis CD, Ortega CP, Cruz A. (2009). Noise pollution changes avian communities and species interactions. Current Biology 19 (16): 1415–1419.
  • Fugère V, Ortega H, Krahe R. (2011). Electrical signalling of dominance in a wild population of electric fish. Biology Letters 7: 197-200.
  • Girard MB, Kasumovic MM, Elias DO (2011) Multi-Modal Courtship in the Peacock Spider, Maratus volans (O.P.-Cambridge, 1874). PLoS ONE 6(9): e25390.
  • Lim ML, Land MF, Li D. (2007). Sex-specific UV and fluorescence signals in jumping spiders. Science. 315: 481.
  • Seehausen O. et al. (2008). Speciation through sensory drive in cichlid fish. Nature. 455. 620-626.

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Key words search

Sensory systems, ecology, species-interactions, communication, behaviour, life-history, evolutionary processes, conservation

Credit value15
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites

BIO2427 Animal Ecophysiology or BIO2414 Evolutionary Ecology

Module co-requisites


NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


Origin date


Last revision date