Professor Mark Briffa

Professor Mark Briffa

Associate Head of School (Teaching and Learning)

School of Biological and Marine Sciences (Faculty of Science and Engineering)

Professor Mark Briffa can be contacted through arrangement with our Press Office, to speak to the media on these areas of expertise.
  • Animal behaviour
  • Hermit crabs
  • Animal communication
  • Marine biology
  • Animal aggression


  • Associate Head of School (Teaching & Learning) (2018 - 2022) 
  • Programme leader, BSc Marine Biology (f 2012-2017)
  • Deputy programme leader, MRes Marine Biology (012-2014)
  • Programme leader, MRes Marine Biology (2009 -2012)
  • Deputy programme leader, BSc Marine Biology and Coastal Ecology (2005-2009)


2016 Professor of Animal Behaviour, Plymouth University
2014 Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
2012 Reader in Animal Behaviour, Plymouth University.
2005 PG Cert. Learning and teaching in higher education, Plymouth University.
2004 - 2012 Lecturer in Marine Biology, Plymouth University.
1999 - 2004 Post-Doc, Queen's University Belfast.
2013 Grade 1 Piano (Merit)
1995- 1998 PhD in Animal Behaviour, Queen's University Belfast: "Communication during shell exchange in the hermit crab Pagurus bernhardus".
1991 - 1995 BSc (Hons) Biology, First Class, University of Aberdeen. 

Professional membership

  • Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour
  • Marine Biological Association of the UK 
  • Council Member, International Council of Ethologists


Teaching interests

Lecturing on: 
  • Introduction to our natural world (FYM003) 
  • Issues in Marine Biology (MBIO001) 
  • Introduction to Marine Biology (MBIO120)
  • Marine Biology Field Course (MBIO123)
  • Evolution & Behaviour (MBIO161) 
  • Experimental Marine Biology Field Course (MBIO226) 
  • Ecology of Shallow Water Marine Habitats (MBIO217) 
  • Methods in Marine Biology (MBIO223) 
  • Behavioural Ecology (MBIO317) 

Staff serving as external examiners

2022 - present: BSc Animal Behaviour, Liverpool John Moore University
2016 - 2019: MSc Animal Behaviour & Welfare, Queen's University Belfast
2011 - 2015: MSc Conservation & Behaviour, Manchester Metropolitan University


Research interests

My research covers the following interlinked areas: 
(1) Animal contests: What information do animals use to initiate and terminate fights? And which traits contribute to an individual's chance of winning fights? Recent work has looked at how fighting ability varies with behavioural type and how a the experience of winning or losing a fight can change subsequent behaviour both in terms of fighting and general risk-taking. We have also developed the concept of fighting skill and how this can be measured and distinguished from technique. 
(2) Animal personality: Within populations, to what extent and why do we see consistent among-individual differences in average behaviour, variances around those averages (i.e. IIV, (un) predictability) and differences in responses to certain conditions (situations)? In current work we are looking at covariation among repeatable behavioural traits and between individual differences in learning. 
(3) Human impacts on behaviour: In the Anthropocene humans are having significant impacts on natural environments and we are interested in the behavioural consequences of these changes. Animal behaviour may be impacted through resultant constraints on performance capacities and by infodisruption, both potentially deriving from a vast array or human impacts on the environment. Due to their intensely studied behavioural associations with empty gastropod shells, hermit crabs provide a model for investigating behavioural change in the Anthropocene. 
(4) Animal sentience: All of the above topics ultimately focus on information gathering and decision-making. I have recently become interested in the question of animal sentience, and whether we need to invoke feelings and higher levels of awareness to explain decision-making in animals. I am also interested in how we can define sentience, how we draw conclusions about it and how the study of sentience articulates with the inductive and deductive phases of the scientific cycle. 
Most of my research across these four areas is based on studying the behaviour of hermit crabs and sea anemones.  

Grants & contracts

2024-2027 BBSRC Interactions between learning and non-learning plasticity in the beadlet sea anemone Actinia equina: A multidimensional reaction norm approach. (PI) 
2022-2026 BBSRC Promoting contest skill to reduce the welfare costs of animal agonistic interactions. (CI) With Simon Turner SRUC and Gareth Arnott QUB
2019-2021 BBSRC BB/S004742/1 The role of skill in animal contests (PI)
MARES full time PhD studentship. (PI)
2015-2018 BBSRC BB/M019772/1 The role of additive and non-additive genetic effects during animal contests in the beadlet sea anemone Actinia equina. (PI)
2013-2017 CAPES /CNPq (Brazillian Government) Science Without Borders PhD Studentship (PI)
2008-2011 BBSRC F014147 Aggression in social animals: Effects of group size, resource holding potential and costs of fighting on the outcome of battles (PI) 
2010  Royal Society International Travel Grant
2007-2010 Marine Institute full time PhD studentship. (PI)
2005-2007 Nuffield Foundation New Lecturer Award. Use of repeated signals by animals. (PI)
2005-2008 Faculty of Science full time PhD studentship. (PI)
2002-2005 BBSRC S16861 Motivation and the underlying causation of aggressive behaviour. (RI)
1999-2002 BBSRC S11459 The functions of repeated aggressive signals. (RI) 


Irschick, DJ, Briffa, M, & Podos, J. 2015. Animal Signalling and Function: An Integrative Approach. Wiley-Blackwell.
Hardy, ICW & Briffa, M. 2013. Animal Contests. Cambridge University Press.

Briffa M. 2020. Animal Personality and Investment in Reproduction: Hermit Crabs and Other Crustaceans as Model Organisms. In Cothran R & Theil M (Eds) The Natural History of the Crustacea, Volume 6: Reproductive Biology. OUP. Briffa M & Lane SM. 2019. Signals in Conflict Resolution: Conventional Signals, Aggression and Territoriality. In Jae Chun Choe (EIC) Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior (Second Edition). Elsevier.

Briffa M 2015. Agonistic signals: Integrating analysis of functions and mechanisms. In Irschick DJ, Podos J & Briffa M (Eds.) Animal Signalling and function: An integrative approach. Wiley-Backwell.

Briffa M, Hardy ICW & Mowles SL 2013. Prospects for animal contests. In Hardy ICW & Briffa M (Eds) Animal Contests. Cambridge University Press.

Field SA & Briffa M 2013. Human contests: evolutionary theory and the analysis of interstate war. In Hardy ICW & Briffa M (Eds) Animal Contests. Cambridge University Press.

Briffa M 2013. Contests in crustaceans: assessments, decisions and their underlying mechanisms. In Hardy ICW & Briffa M (Eds) Animal Contests. Cambridge University Press.

Briffa M, Hardy ICW, Gammell MP, Jennings DJ, Clarke DD & Goubault M 2013. Analysis of contest data. In Hardy ICW & Briffa M (Eds) Animal Contests. Cambridge University Press.

Briffa M & Hardy ICW 2013. Introduction to animal contests. In Hardy ICW & Briffa M (Eds) Animal Contests. Cambridge University Press.

Briffa M & Hardy ICW 2013. Preface. In Hardy ICW & Briffa M (Eds) Animal Contests. Cambridge University Press.

Briffa, M & Sneddon, LU. 2010. Contest Behavior. In D.F.Westneat & C.W.Fox (Eds) Evolutionary Behavioral Ecology. Oxford University Press.

Conference Papers


Additional information

  • Editor: Behavioral Ecology (current)
  • Academic Editor: acta ethologia (current)
  • Handling Editor: Biology Letters (current)
  • Editor: Animal Behaviour 2010 - 2013 
  • Academic Editor: PLoS one from 2009 
  • Consulting Editor, Animal Behaviour 2007-2010 
  • 'Top Reviewer' awards: Animal Behaviour 2007, Biology Letters 2008, 2009, 2011.