Isabella Capellini


  • Room 02.072 - Biological Sciences

    United Kingdom

Accepting PhD Students

PhD projects

(1) Evolution and ecology of diversity in parental care, placental morphology and reproductive strategies in mammals, amphibians and/or fish; (2) The ecology of sleep in mammals; (3) Global scale studies of the drivers of the invasion success - what 'makes' a successful invader; (4) Or more broadly, projects on fundamental questions on the evolution of animal phenotypic diversity


Research activity per year

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Personal profile

Research Interests

  1. My research is deeply rooted in life history theory and, using cutting edge phylogenetic comparative approaches, I investigate fundamental questions on the evolution of reproductive strategies, the tradeoff between self maintenance and reproduction, and how different life history strategies affect population growth. Specifically, I am interested in:

    • Reproductive strategies: how traits, such as diversity in parental care and placental morphology, influence life history evolution;
    • Sleep ecology and evolution: how sleep is related to the tradeoff between self maintenance and reproduction;
    • Biological invasions: how life history strategies facilitate population growth from small sizes in alien species.

    Beyond these research areas, I collaborate on studies in a diversity of organisms - ranging from jellyfish to vertebrates - and research areas, including the evolution of hermaphroditism, the scaling of metabolic rates, brain evolution, and the role of evolutionary history in ecotoxicological studies.

    (1) Biological invasions

    I am particularly interested in the core question in ecology of how small populations grow from small numbers, a process that is central to speciation, island colonisation, metapopulations, and key to applied problems like reintroductions of threatened species, fragmentation of native populations due to anthropogenic disturbance (e.g. due to habitat alteration), population recovery following a decline, alien population establishment and spread, or the management of zoo populations. Alien populations are ideal models for this question, as they typically start small. We show that successful alien mammal, amphibian and reptile species are characterised by high reproductive rates, which help them boost population growth and reach quickly the size at which the driver of extinction of small populations become negligible. This research in  has been funded externally by NERC (New Investigator, 2014-7).

    (2) Reproduction and Parental Care

    Parental care has attracted much research attention as it is core to the fitness of parents and offspring, it is expected to alter a species’ life history strategy, and to lead to sexual conflict and parent-offspring conflict. I investigate the drivers of the evolutionary origin and maintenance of parental care and the relationship with life histories across species. We show that energetically expensive male care forms in mammals, such as  provisioning the mother or carrying heavy offspring, boosts maternal fecundity but does not help increase offspring weight. In amphibians, we find that parental care evolves in a step by step process, but prolonged care from the egg to the tadpole and juvenile statge can be easily lost. Moreover, we demonstrate that biparental care in amphibians is evolutionarily labile, even with division of labour between the parents.

    The placenta is fundamental in mammalian reproduction and is one of the most diverse organs between mammals species. While there is much research on the clinical and physiological aspects of placental structure in human and farm animals, we know very little about how the diversity in placental morphology among species evolved and whether it has any implications for their reproductive strategies. My work reveals the importance of differences in placental structure for a species' life history strategies and how this is affected by parent offspring conflict. This research has been funded externally by NERC and BBSRC.

    (3) Sleep ecology and evolution

    Sleep is essential for animals. Lack of sleep can impair cognitive abilities and brain functioning, and undermine immune functions. Daily sleep time and how sleep is accommodated within the 24 hours cycle varies remarkably between species, but why this is so is poorly understood. My work has led to fundamental insights how ecology drives the evolution of diversity in sleep times and patterns in mammals, revealing the key influence of predation risk and the tight relationship between sleep, immunity and parasites.



Peer Review College Membership

2017-present: NERC Peer Review College, Panel C (biology, ecology & environmental sciences) 

2018-present: UK Research and Innovation Future Leaders FellowshipPeer Review College & Panel.

Funding agencies refereed for:

BBSRC (UK), Leverhulme Trust (UK), The Royal Society (UK), Swiss National Science Foundation (Switzerland), Agence Nationale de la Recherche, ANR (National Agency for Research; France), German Research Foundation (Germany), Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (Netherlands), Leaky Foundation (USA), Chilean National Fund for Scientific and Technological Development (Chile), National Research Foundation of South Africa (South Africa).


2020-present: Associate Editor for the Journal of Animal Ecology

Journals refereed for:

Nature, Nature Communications, Nature Ecology and Evolution, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Ecology Letters, Current Biology, Global Change Biology, Proceedings of the Royal Society Biological Sciences, Evolution, Evolution and Development, Global Ecology and Biogeography, American Naturalist, Journal of Animal Ecology, Journal of Applied Ecology, Journal of Biogeography, Journal of Evolutionary Biology, Animal Behaviour, Biology Letters, BMC Evolutionary Biology, Oikos, Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology, Behavioral Ecology, Biological Reviews, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, Scientific Reports, PLoS One, Journal of Zoology, Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology A, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society Biological Sciences, Evolutionary Anthropology, Behavioral Brain Research, Brain Behavior and Evolution, Mammalian Biology, International Journal of Primatology, Evolutionary Psychology, Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, Human Nature.



2020-present: Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Queen’s University Belfast (U. K.)

2019-2020  Lecturer in Ecology, Queen’s University Belfast (U. K.)

2016-2019:     Senior Lecturer in Vertebrate Zoology, University of Hull (U. K.)

2011-2016:     Lecturer in Vertebrate Zoology, University of Hull (U.K.)

2011:              Fixed Term Lecturer in Ecology, Queen's University Belfast (U. K.)

2008-2010:     Postdoctoral Research Associate, Durham University (U. K.)                                                             Evolutionary architecture of reproduction in female mammals, PI: Prof. R. Barton, Co-Investigator: Dr I. Capellini, BBSRC/NERC grant no. BB/E014593/1, £312.000.

2005-2007:     Postdoctoral Research Associate, Durham University (U. K.)                                            Phylogeny of sleep: the correlated evolution of sleep, brain and behaviour, PI: Dr P. McNamara (Boston University), Prof. R. Barton (Durham University), Dr C. Nunn (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology Leipzig; Harvard University), NIH grant no. 1 R01 MH070415-01A1, $1million.



2018-2023:     I co-developed and co-wrote the grant for the successful NERC DTP2 PANORAMA of the Universities of Leeds, York and Hull (grant n. NE/S007458/1), and co-led the submission for the University of Hull together with Professor D. Parsons (PI: S. Rost, Univ. Leeds; Co-Is: Prof. D Parsons, Univ. Hull; Prof. M Evans, Univ. York)~5.7M£.

2017-2020:     University of Hull Research Excellence Award:Evolution of parental care,PI: Dr I. Capellini, Co-I: Dr L. Morrell and Dr J. Gilbert - £178,000.

2015:              University of Hull, Masters Scholarship: The evolution of delayed implantation in mammals,PI: Dr I. Capellini£19,000.

2014-2017:     NERC New Investigator AwardUnderstanding biological invasions: a phylogenetic comparative approach, grant n. NE/K013777/1, PI: Dr I. Capellini (100% ownership) - £520K.

2014:              Nuffield Foundation, Undergraduate Bursary: A new quantitative method for studying sex differences in sleep time in fishPI: Dr I. Capellini, Co-I: Dr D. Joyce - £1,500.

2013-2017:     University of Hull grant for a PhD scholarship: The evolution of biparental care in mammals. PI: Dr I. Capellini£59,000.

2011:              University of Hull, 1 year Masters Scholarship: The role of life history traits in mammal invasion success,PI: Dr I. Capellini£19,000.

2009:              British Council & Spanish Research Council grant to attend the Workshop: Evolutionary Biology: Evolution 150, Cuenca (Spain) - £250 plus accommodation and subsistence.

2008-2011:     BBSRC/NERC Research Grant, PI: Prof. R. Barton, Co-I.: Dr I. CapelliniEvolutionary architecture of reproduction in female mammals, grant n. BB/E014593/1 -  £312K.

2008:              Italian Society for Evolutionary Biology (SIBE) grant to organize the 2008 School in Evolutionary Biology - The logic of the evolutionary discovery: experimental design, statistical methods and inference techniques - £1000 to Dr I. Capellini, Dr I. Scotti (INRA, France) and Prof. M. Ferraguti (University of Milan, Italy).

2004:              ASAB travel grant to attend the International Society for Behavioural Ecology 2004 conference, Jyavaskyla (Finland) - €600.

2002-2004:     Newcastle University Postgraduate Studentship - £11,600/yr. 

2003:              ASAB travel grant to attend the ASAB Postgraduate conference, Leeds (U. K.) - €400.

2003:              Colparsyst grant for data collection at the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris - €700.

2002:              ABC-RBINS grant for data collection at the Royal Belgian Institute for Natural Sciences, Brussels - €900.

2001-2003:     University of Milan Outgoing Postgraduate Studentship - €10,000/yr. 


Postdoctoral supervision 

2017-2020: Dr Andrew Furness, Hull funded postdoc working on my project on Parental care in amphibians and fish.

2016-2017: Dr Jorge Gutierrez, NERC postdoc on my grant on the Macroecology of alien invasive vertebrates. Currently postdoc at the University of Lisbon.

2014-2017: Dr Sally Street, NERC postdoc on my grant on the Macroecology of alien invasive vertebrates. Currently Lecturer in Cognition and Culture at Durham University.

2014-2016: Dr William Allen, NERC postdoc on my grant on the Macroecology of alien invasive vertebrates. Currently Lecturer in Biosciences at Swansea University.

Postgraduates (Lead supervisor):

2020-present, Euan Mortlock: Sleep ecology in wild animals. PhD, Queen's University Belfast

2013-2017, Hannah West: The evolution of male care in mammals. PhD, University of Hull. 

2015-2016, Adam Bakewell: Sperm competition and the evolution of delayed implantation and delayed development in mammals. Research Masters, University of Hull. Currently PhD student at the University of York.

2013-2015, Max Scale: Sleep and sex in cichlid fish. Research Masters, University of Hull. Currently Student Engagement Officer at the University of Hull.

2011-2012, Joanna Baker: Life histories and mammalian invasion success. Research Masters, Univ. Hull, moved to a PhD at the University of Reading, currently Leverhulme Fellow at the UoReading.

2010-2011, Sara Louise Elder: Evolution of caching behaviour in mammals. MSc in Animal Behaviour and Welfare, Queen’s University of Belfast. Currently lead technician in industry.

Postgraduates (Co-Supervisor):

2020-present,  Connie Baker-Arney (PhD student). Maternal stress and maternal reproductive investment in fallow deer. QUB (Lead Supervisor: Dr Domhnall Jennings)

2017-2021, Yannis Dimopoulos (PhD student): Parents feeding offspring; the ecology and evolution of parental care in insects. University of Hull (Lead supervisor: Dr Gilbert).

2017-2020, Stephanie Mclean (PhD student): Laterality and parental care in fish. Univ. Hull (Lead supervisor: Dr Morell).

2014-2015, Khia Dobbinson (Research Masters): Confusion effect in turbid environments.University of Hull (Lead supervisor: Dr Morrell). 


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