Wouter Van Der Bijl

Wouter van der Bijl


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Works at Department of Zoology
Visiting address Svante Arrheniusväg 18 B
Room D 522
Postal address Zoologiska institutionen: Etologi 106 91 Stockholm

About me

I am an evolutionary biologist, interested in trait evolution in general and in the evolution of brains, cognition and color in particular.


  • I was course leader for the Biostatisics I course in 2018.
  • I teach an advanced R workshop on the several of the tidyverse R packages, aimed at PhD-students and above.


My current work revolves around the coloration of European butterflies and the evoltion of sexual dimorphism. Why are the male and female of species very differently colored, while in other species the sexes look identical?

My PhD work was on understanding some of the selection pressures involved in vertebrate brain evolution. What are the costs and benefits of having a large brain? What specific behavioral advantages do large-brained individuals have? I use guppies that have been artificially selected for relative brain size and compare the behavior of small and large-brained fish. This helps us understand what larger brained individuals are good at. I focused on relating social cognition to brain size, such as social learning, social recognition and memory and contest resolution. I have also done experiments on predator responses of these fish, such as predator inspections and risk taking behavior.

I'm interested in using strong quantitative analysis of phenotypes, including behavior, such as video tracking and social networks.

I also do some work in R. I've written/am writing:
- The 'phylopath' package for phylogenetic path analysis. It's currently on CRAN.
- The 'trackr' package for analysis and visualization of video tracking data. It's currently in development, and can be found on GitHub.


A selection from Stockholm University publication database
  • 2018. Wouter van der Bijl, Niclas Kolm, Joah Madden.

    The evolution of the vertebrate brain has remained a topic of intense interest from biologists over many decades. Evolutionary biologists have seen it as an intriguing example of how the size and structure of a trait evolves across large phylogenies and under body size constraints, with both large shifts in deep evolutionary time and continuous smaller scale adaptation. Behavioral ecologists, on the other hand, have put great effort in trying to understand the costs and benefits of brain size and structural variation, usually assuming that the brain morphology of species is the result of a balance between energetic costs and cognitive benefits.

    I discuss two hypotheses that aim to explain under what circumstances a higher cognitive ability yields fitness benefits. The predation avoidance hypothesis states that large brains help to avoid predators. The social brain hypothesis predicts that cognition is especially beneficial for animals living in complex social environments. In practice these hypotheses are difficult to differentiate (paper I), as sociality often evolves in response to predation pressure. Comparative studies on either hypothesis should therefore aim to control for effects of the other hypothesis, and experiments may be especially useful in testing more explicit mechanistic explanations.

    I put the predation hypothesis to the test using two approaches, a comparative analysis and a within-species experiment. The comparative analysis (paper II) used published data on hawk predation and related it to both relative brain size and relative telencephalon size. While sparrowhawk predation was unrelated to brain morphology, birds that experience more goshawk predation had larger brains and telencephali. Next, I performed an experiment (paper III) on guppies that had been artificially selected for relative brain size. The selection lines have demonstrated differences in cognitive ability, as well as a marked survival difference under predation in females. I exposed fish to either a predator model or a novel object control, varying both sex and group size. Large-brained females performed fewer and shorter predator inspections than small-brained females, while keeping a larger distance from the predator model.

    I performed another experiment (paper IV) to investigate differences in social competence. I calculated the duration of contests between random pairs of small- and large-brained males, using movement data. When the loser was large-brained, contests were decided almost 40 minutes earlier than when the loser was small-brained, indicating that the decision for the loser to give up is made quicker with a larger brain.

    This thesis ends with an exploration of variation in the scaling relationship between brain and body size across vertebrates (paper V). The observed scaling between brain and body depends on what taxonomic level is under investigation. This effect, however, exclusively occurs in the two classes with the largest brains, mammals and birds. This indicates that strong developmental constraints have been alleviated in the two highly encephalized classes, but not elsewhere.

    In conclusion, I find evidence that both predator avoidance and social factors may contribute to the evolution of brain size. Further work on explicit behavioral frameworks for cognitive benefit hypotheses is likely to yield significant insight. Constraints in brain size may be hard to overcome and play an especially large role at a larger taxonomic scale.

  • Article phylopath
    2018. Wouter van der Bijl. PeerJ 6

    Confirmatory path analysis allows researchers to evaluate and compare causal models using observational data. This tool has great value for comparative biologists since they are often unable to gather experimental data on macro-evolutionary hypotheses, but is cumbersome and error-prone to perform. I introduce phylopath, an R package that implements phylogenetic path analysis (PPA) as described by von Hardenberg Gonzalez-Vayer (2113). In addition to the published method, I provide support for the inclusion of binary variables. I illustrate PPA and phylopath by recreating part of a study on the relationship between brain size and vulnerability to extinction. The package aims to make the analysis straight-forward, providing convenience functions, and several plotting methods, which I hope will encourage the spread of the method.

  • 2018. Séverine D. Buechel (et al.). Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Biological Sciences 285 (1871)

    It has become increasingly clear that a larger brain can confer cognitive benefits. Yet not all of the numerous aspects of cognition seem to be affected by brain size. Recent evidence suggests that some more basic forms of cognition, for instance colour vision, are not influenced by brain size. We therefore hypothesize that a larger brain is especially beneficial for distinct and gradually more complex aspects of cognition. To test this hypothesis, we assessed the performance of brain size selected female guppies (Poecilia reticulata) in two distinct aspects of cognition that differ in cognitive complexity. In a standard reversal-learning test we first investigated basic learning ability with a colour discrimination test, then reversed the reward contingency to specifically test for cognitive flexibility. We found that large-brained females outperformed small-brained females in the reversed-learning part of the test but not in the colour discrimination part of the test. Large-brained individuals are hence cognitively more flexible, which probably yields fitness benefits, as they may adapt more quickly to social and/or ecological cognitive challenges. Our results also suggest that a larger brain becomes especially advantageous with increasing cognitive complexity. These findings corroborate the significance of brain size for cognitive evolution.

  • 2017. Alberto Corral-López (et al.). Science Advances 3 (3)

    Mate choice decisions are central in sexual selection theory aimed to understand how sexual traits evolve and their role in evolutionary diversification. We test the hypothesis that brain size and cognitive ability are important for accurate assessment of partner quality and that variation in brain size and cognitive ability underlies variation in mate choice. We compared sexual preference in guppy female lines selected for divergence in relative brain size, which we have previously shown to have substantial differences in cognitive ability. In a dichotomous choice test, large-brained and wild-type females showed strong preference for males with color traits that predict attractiveness in this species. In contrast, small-brained females showed no preference for males with these traits. In-depth analysis of optomotor response to color cues and gene expression of key opsins in the eye revealed that the observed differences were not due to differences in visual perception of color, indicating that differences in the ability to process indicators of attractiveness are responsible. We thus provide the first experimental support that individual variation in brain size affects mate choice decisions and conclude that differences in cognitive ability may be an important underlying mechanism behind variation in female mate choice.

  • 2017. Alexander Kotrschal (et al.). Evolution 71 (12), 2942-2951

    The vertebrate brain shows an extremely conserved layout across taxa. Still, the relative sizes of separate brain regions vary markedly between species. One interesting pattern is that larger brains seem associated with increased relative sizes only of certain brain regions, for instance telencephalon and cerebellum. Till now, the evolutionary association between separate brain regions and overall brain size is based on comparative evidence and remains experimentally untested. Here, we test the evolutionary response of brain regions to directional selection on brain size in guppies (Poecilia reticulata) selected for large and small relative brain size. In these animals, artificial selection led to a fast response in relative brain size, while body size remained unchanged. We use microcomputer tomography to investigate how the volumes of 11 main brain regions respond to selection for larger versus smaller brains. We found no differences in relative brain region volumes between large- and small-brained animals and only minor sex-specific variation. Also, selection did not change allometric scaling between brain and brain region sizes. Our results suggest that brain regions respond similarly to strong directional selection on relative brain size, which indicates that brain anatomy variation in contemporary species most likely stem from direct selection on key regions.

  • 2016. Wouter van der Bijl, Niclas Kolm. Bioessays 38 (6), 568-577

    A growing number of studies have found that large brains may help animals survive by avoiding predation. These studies provide an alternative explanation for existing correlative evidence for one of the dominant hypotheses regarding the evolution of brain size in animals, the social brain hypothesis (SBH). The SBH proposes that social complexity is a major evolutionary driver of large brains. However, if predation both directly selects for large brains and higher levels of sociality, correlations between sociality and brain size may be spurious. We argue that tests of the SBH should take direct effects of predation into account, either by explicitly including them in comparative analyses or by pin-pointing the brain-behavior-fitness pathway through which the SBH operates. Existing data and theory on social behavior can then be used to identify precise candidate mechanisms and formulate new testable predictions.

  • 2015. Wouter van der Bijl (et al.). Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Biological Sciences 282 (1812), 116-124

    Large brains are thought to result from selection for cognitive benefits, but how enhanced cognition leads to increased fitness remains poorly understood. One explanation is that increased cognitive ability results in improved monitoring and assessment of predator threats. Here, we use male and female guppies (Poecilia reticulata), artificially selected for large and small brain size, to provide an experimental evaluation of this hypothesis. We examined their behavioural response as singletons, pairs or shoals of four towards a model predator. Large-brained females, but not males, spent less time performing predator inspections, an inherently risky behaviour. Video analysis revealed that large-brained females were further away from the model predator when in pairs but that they habituated quickly towards the model when in shoals of four. Males stayed further away from the predator model than females but again we found no brain size effect in males. We conclude that differences in brain size affect the female predator response. Large-brained females might be able to assess risk better or need less sensory information to reach an accurate conclusion. Our results provide experimental support for the general idea that predation pressure is likely to be important for the evolution of brain size in prey species.

Show all publications by Wouter van der Bijl at Stockholm University

Last updated: November 6, 2018

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