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Great British bioscience pioneers – Professor Marian Dawkins

Copyright: Marian Dawkins
Highlights from: 20 years of bioscience

Continuing our series of articles on Great British bioscience pioneers, we take a look at the career of Marian Dawkins CBE FRS, Professor of Animal Behaviour at the University of Oxford, and her pioneering research which helped to establish animal welfare as a field of scientific research.

Image: Marian Dawkins
Image: Marian Dawkins

How did your bioscience career first begin?

I cannot remember a time when I was not fascinated by animals but I do remember reading Niko Tinbergen's book Herring Gull's World when I was about 15 and wondering whether it might be possible to make a career out of studying animal behaviour. Tinbergen was by then working in Oxford and it became my ambition to go there to study with him, which I did. I wanted to understand how birds see the world and I began by trying to understand how they are able to find insects that are so highly camouflaged that we humans overlook them altogether. It was my first lesson in 'ask an interesting question and then think of a practical way of answering it'.

What are you working on now?

I have a long-standing interest in developing scientific ways of studying animal welfare and I am now working with a team of engineers to develop a camera system for automatically assessing the welfare of chicken flocks.

What advances have you seen in your chosen field in the last 20 years?

There has been a sea-change in attitudes to animal welfare and in particular to whether it can be studied by scientific means. When I started out, studying animal welfare was considered to be not entirely respectable as a scientific subject as it was much too vague and too concerned with scientifically intractable topics such as animal emotions and feelings. Now animal welfare is mainstream science and has even become one of the BBSRC's 'overarching priorities'.

What are the five key bioscience milestones that you've been part of and when did these occur?

Image: Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC)
Marian is seated front row, third from right.
Image: Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC)
  • 1971 Demonstrated that birds which are initially taken in by the camouflage of their prey to the point of overlooking them can learn with experience to break the camouflage
  • 1983 Developed choice tests to establish what animals want and demand theory to establish how much they want it. This meant that objective measurements of 'the animal's point of view' could become part of decisions about their welfare
  • 1991 With Tim Guilford, developed a theoretical framework for animal communication that stressed the importance on the receiver of a signal on how that signal evolved
  • 1995 Chickens shown to use different parts of the retina for viewing at different distances
  • 2004 Housing and environment shown to affect the welfare of broiler chickens even more than stocking density in commercial trials

How has BBSRC supported you throughout your career?

BBSRC has been essential in enabling our team to develop and validate our optical flow measures of chicken welfare.

Tags: 20 years of bioscience animal welfare University of Oxford people pioneers feature