David Sims (biologist)

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Prof. David Sims
David Sims at the Marine Biological Association in October 2008
Born Worthing, West Sussex, UK
Residence Plymouth
Nationality British
Fields Fish behavioural ecology
Notable awards FSBI Medal

David Sims (born 1969) is a British marine biologist who is Senior Research Fellow and Deputy Director at the Laboratory of the Marine Biological Association (MBA) in Plymouth, and a Professor of Marine Ecology in the National Oceanography Centre Southampton at the University of Southampton, U.K.

He works in the field of animal ecology researching movement, behaviour and dispersal processes, particularly of sharks. Research has identified common patterns of behaviour across phyla and informed conservation of threatened species. He is known for using satellite tracking of sharks to aid their conservation and for discovering scaling laws in the search behaviour of diverse marine predators.


He gained a Ph.D in animal behaviour in 1994 under the supervision of Dr Quentin Bone FRS of the Marine Biological Association whilst in receipt of a personal studentship from the Natural Environment Research Council.[1] He was a lecturer in the Zoology Department at the University of Aberdeen before taking up a NERC-funded Fellowship at the Marine Biological Association Laboratory in Plymouth in 2000.[1]


Awards for research include a ‘Scientist of the New Century’ Lecture Award from the Royal Institution of Great Britain (2001), Life Membership of the Royal Institution of Great Britain (2001), the FSBI Medal from the Fisheries Society of the British Isles (2007), and the Stanley Gray Silver Medal [1] from the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology, IMarEST (2008).

In 2016 he was elected a Member of Academia Europaea, the Academy of Europe.


David Sims is known for research on the behaviour, ecology and conservation of sharks studied using remote tracking technology (telemetry) and for making advances in the field of animal movement ecology.[2]

His research has identified common scaling laws that describe movement paths and behaviour patterns of highly diverse aquatic and aerial predators such as jellyfish, cephalopods, reptiles, sharks, bony fish, penguins, and albatrosses.[3][4][5][6][7]

It is argued that Sims’ work has provided the strongest empirical evidence [8][9][10] for the existence of movement patterns that are well approximated by biological Lévy flights and Lévy walks, a special class of random walk that theoretically optimise random searches for sparsely distributed resources.[11] It is said that Sims’ work has shifted the debate on biological Lévy walks from whether they exist, to how and why they arise.[9][10] He has also conducted the first empirical tests of the Lévy flight foraging hypothesis, which states that since Lévy walks can optimise random searches,[12] search patterns must have naturally evolved in organisms to exploit Lévy walks. This hypothesis does not account for the random nature of thermals. The hypothesis has been supported in several of Sims' studies,[13] presenting the possibility that optimal searching movements approximated by Lévy patterns have evolved in organisms.

In the book Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do, the physicist and best-selling author Albert-László Barabási writes: “Yet if a Lévy flight offers the best search strategy, why didn’t natural selection force animals to exploit it? In February 2008 David Sims showed that it did, in fact.”

Sims' 2008 Nature paper announcing the discovery of Scaling laws of marine predator search behaviour is a Web of Science Highly Cited Paper. Since then robust evidence for biological Lévy walks has accumulated across a wide range of taxa including microbes and humans [14] and in fossil trails of extinct invertebrates,[15] suggesting an ancient origin of the search strategy. The research challenges the decades-old model of Brownian motion (normal diffusion) for animal movement and dispersal.[16] His work contributes to the emerging understanding in animal movement ecology that normal diffusion is insufficient for describing natural movements such as searching behaviour but that anomalous diffusion is required.[17]

In related work he has provided the first measurements of how predatory fish actually respond to variations in prey density gradients in the ocean,[18] empirical data that has informed search algorithms,[19] and the biological significance of ocean fronts to predators,[20] which have potential as candidates for high seas marine protected areas (MPAs).[21]

In 2016 Sims led an international team tracking the ocean-wide movements of sharks and found pelagic sharks like the shortfin mako actively select and aggregate in space-use “hotspots” characterized by fronts and high plankton biomass.[22] However, data showed longline fishing vessels also targeted the habitats and efficiently tracked shark movements seasonally, leading to an 80% spatial overlap. The work suggests current hotspots are at risk from overfishing and argued for introduction of international catch limits. The results were reported widely in the media including in The Times newspaper [23] and the journal Science.[24]

Sims and colleagues also demonstrated how timings of migrations of commercially important fish and squid vary in response to rapid climate-driven changes in sea temperature that have occurred over the past few decades [25][26] They found phenological changes in migration shifted by up to two months in years with the greatest temperature changes, variations which have consequences for fisheries and their management.

Sims is also known for his long-term study of the behavioural ecology of the plankton-feeding basking shark, the world’s second largest fish.[21] He showed from natural experiments and theoretical calculations, and tested the predictions directly using satellite tracking, that basking sharks do not hibernate in winter,[27][28][29] overturning an understanding which had stood for nearly 50 years.[30] Sims’ satellite tracking of basking sharks were some of the first long-term trackings of any shark species and contributed to the conservation proposals listing basking sharks on Appendix II of the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (Feb 2003) and the Convention for the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) (Nov 2005).

Sims’ research group has also investigated geographical sexual segregation of sharks, demonstrating that socially aggressive interactions between males and females can account for many of the observed patterns.[31] Females appear to select suboptimal habitats to avoid males and unsolicited courtships. They also identified that sexual segregation can interact with spatially focussed longlining fisheries to increase the risk of population decline in these vulnerable species.[32]

They have also been involved with several technological advances, such as the first use of GPS tags to track large fish in the ocean.[33][34]

Science and media[edit]

His research on basking shark behaviour was the subject of an award-winning documentary, "Email from a shark", by the Cornish film company Shark Bay Films, that aired on Sky in December 2004. The film won the British Council Youth and Science Award at the Helsingborg Film Festival, Sweden, in 2004. Sims' research has received media attention, including articles in New Scientist, Science, Science News, Physics World, and in documentaries programmes for BBC Television, such as BBC1 "Animal Camera" with Steve Leonard (10 March 2004), BBC Radio 4 Natural History Programme, and Channel 5 "Nick Baker's Weird Creatures" episode 5 – the basking shark (16 February 2007).


  1. ^ a b MBA (18 Feb 2015). "Prof David Sims". Retrieved 18 Feb 2015. 
  2. ^ Hays, G.C., L.C. Ferreira, A.M.M. Sequeira, M.G. Meekan, C.M. Duarte, H. Bailey, F. Bailleul, W.D. Bowen, M.J. Caley, D.P. Costa, V.M. Eguíluz, S. Fossette, A.S. Friedlaender, N. Gales, A.C. Gleiss, J. Gunn, R. Harcourt, E.L. Hazen, M.R. Heithaus, M. Heupel, K. Holland, M. Horning, I. Jonsen, G.L. Kooyman, C.G. Lowe, P.T. Madsen, H. Marsh, R.A. Phillips, D. Righton, Y. Ropert-Coudert, K. Sato, S. Shaffer, C.A. Simpfendorfer, D.W. Sims, G. Skomal, A. Takahashi, P.N. Trathan, M. Wikelski, J.N. Womble, M. Thums. (2016) "Key questions in marine megafauna movement ecology" Trends in Ecology and Evolution 31, 463-475
  3. ^ Sims, David W.; Southall, Emily J., Humphries, Nicolas E., Hays, Graeme C., Bradshaw, Corey J. A., Pitchford, Jonathan W., James, Alex, Ahmed, Mohammed Z., Brierley, Andrew S., Hindell, Mark A., Morritt, David, Musyl, Michael K., Righton, David, Shepard, Emily L. C., Wearmouth, Victoria J., Wilson, Rory P., Witt, Matthew J., Metcalfe, Julian D. (2008). "Scaling laws of marine predator search behaviour" Nature 451, 1098-1102.
  4. ^ Humphries, Nicolas E.; Queiroz, Nuno, Dyer, Jennifer R. M., Pade, Nicolas G., Musyl, Michael K., Schaefer, Kurt M., Fuller, Daniel W., Brunnschweiler, Juerg M., Doyle, Thomas K., Houghton, Jonathan D. R., Hays, Graeme C., Jones, Catherine S., Noble, Leslie R., Wearmouth, Victoria J., Southall, Emily J., Sims, David W. (2010). "Environmental context explains Lévy and Brownian movement patterns of marine predators" Nature 465, 1066-1069.
  5. ^ Humphries, Nicolas E.; Weimerskirch, H.; Queiroz, N.; Southall, Emily J.; Sims, David W. (2012). "Foraging success of biological Lévy flights recorded in situ". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109, 7169–7174. doi:10.1073/pnas.1121201109.
  6. ^ Hays, G.C., Bastian, T., Doyle, T.K., Fossette, S., Gleiss, A.C., Gravenor, M.B., Hobson, V.J., Humphries, N.E., Lilley, M.K.S., Pade, N.G., Sims, D.W. (2012). “High activity and Lévy searches: Jellyfish can search the water column like fish.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B 279, 465-473.
  7. ^ Wearmouth, V.J., McHugh, M.J., Humphries, N.E., Naegelen, A., Ahmed, M.Z., Southall, E.J., Reynolds, A.M., Sims, D.W. (2014). "Scaling laws of ambush predator waiting behaviour are tuned to a common ecology". Proceedings of the Royal Society B 281, 20132997.
  8. ^ Barabási,Albert-László (2010). “Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do”. New York: Dutton.
  9. ^ a b Mark Buchanan(2008). “Ecological modelling: The mathematical mirror to animal nature”. Nature 453, 714-716.
  10. ^ a b Viswanathan, Gandhi M.; da Luz, Marcos G.E.; Raposo, Ernesto; Stanley, H. Eugene (2011). “The Physics of Foraging: An Introduction to Random Searches and Biological Encounters”. Cambridge University Press.
  11. ^ Viswanathan, G. M.; Buldyrev, Sergey V.; Havlin, Shlomo; da Luz, M. G. E.; Raposo, E. P.; Stanley, H. Eugene (28 October 1999). "Optimizing the success of random searches". Nature 401, 911–914. doi:10.1038/44831.
  12. ^ Viswanathan, G.M.;Raposo, E.P.; da Luz, M.G.E. (2008). Lévy flights and superdiffusion in the context of biological encounters and random searches. Physics of Life Reviews 5, 133-150.
  13. ^ Sims, David W.; Humphries, Nicolas E.; Bradford, Russell W.; Bruce, Barry D. "Lévy flight and Brownian search patterns of a free-ranging predator reflect different prey field characteristics". Journal of Animal Ecology 81, 432–442. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2656.2011.01914.x.
  14. ^ Raichlen, David A.; Wood, Brian M.; Gordon, Adam D.; Maballa, Audax Z.P.; Marlowe, Frank W.; Pontzer, H. (2014). "Evidence of Lévy walk foraging patterns in human hunter-gatherers". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 111: 728–733. doi:10.1073/pnas.1318616111.
  15. ^ Sims, David W.; Reynolds, Andrew M.; Humphries, Nicholas E.; Southall, Emily J.; Wearmouth, Victoria J.; Metcalfe, Brett; Twitchett, Richard J. (14 July 2014). "Hierarchical random walks in trace fossils and the origin of optimal search behavior". The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. doi:10.1073/pnas.1405966111. Retrieved 16 July 2014.
  16. ^ de Jager, Monique; et al. (2014). How superdiffusion gets arrested. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 281, 20132605
  17. ^ Bartumeus, Frederic; Campos, Daniel; Ryu, William S.; Lloret-Cabot, Roger; Mendez, Vicenc; Catalan, Jordi (15 September 2016) "Foraging success under uncertainty: search tradeoffs and optimal space use". Ecology Letters 19, 1299-1313
  18. ^ Sims, David W.; Quayle, Victoria A. (1998). "Selective foraging behaviour of basking sharks on zooplankton in a small-scale front". Nature 393, 460-464.
  19. ^ F. Valdez, et al. (2011) An improved evolutionary method with fuzzy logic for combining particle swarm optimization and genetic algorithms. Applied Software Computing 11, 2625-2632,
  20. ^ Sims, David W., et al. (2000). "Annual social behaviour of basking sharks associated with coastal front areas". Proceedings of the Royal Society B 267, 1897-1904.
  21. ^ a b Sims, David W. (2008). "Sieving a living: A review of the biology, ecology and conservation status of the plankton-feeding basking shark Cetorhinus maximus". Advances in Marine Biology 54, 171-220.
  22. ^ Queiroz, Nuno;, Humphries, Nicolas E.; Mucientes, Gonzalo R.; Hammerschlag, Neil; Lima, Fernando; Scales, Kylie; Miller, Peter I.; Sousa, Lara L.; Seabra, Rui; Sims, David W. (2016) "Ocean-wide tracking of pelagic sharks reveals extent of overlap with longline fishing hotspots" Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U.S.A. 113, 1582-1587
  23. ^ “Sharks being wiped out by Sat-Nav” by Ben Webster (The Times, 26 Jan 2016)
  24. ^ “How vulnerable are sharks to commercial fishing?” by Erik Stokstad (Science, 25 Jan 2016)
  25. ^ Sims, David W., et al. (2001). "Timing of squid migration reflects North Atlantic climate variability". Proceedings of the Royal Society B 268, 2607-2611.
  26. ^ Sims, David W., et al. (2004). "Low-temperature-driven early spawning migration in a temperate marine fish". Journal of Animal Ecology 73, 333-341.
  27. ^ Sims, David W. (1999). "Threshold foraging behaviour of basking sharks on [[zooplankton]]: life on an energetic knife edge?"] Proceedings of the Royal Society B 266, 1437-1443.
  28. ^ Weihs, Daniel (1999). "Marine biology: No hibernation for basking sharks". Nature 400, 717-718.
  29. ^ Sims, David W., et al. (2003). "Seasonal movements and behaviour of basking sharks from archival tagging: no evidence of winter [[hibernation]]"]. Marine Ecology Progress Series 248, 187-196.
  30. ^ L. Harrison Matthews (1962). "The shark that hibernates". New Scientist 280, 756-759.
  31. ^ Wearmouth, Victoria J.; Sims, David W. (2008). “Sexual segregation in marine fish, reptiles, birds and mammals: Behaviour patterns, mechanisms, and conservation implications”. Advances in Marine Biology 54, 107-170.
  32. ^ Mucientes, Gonzalo R., et al. (2009). "Sexual segregation in pelagic sharks and the potential threat from fisheries". Biology Letters 5, 156-159.
  33. ^ Sims, David W., et al. (2009). "Long-term GPS tracking of ocean sunfish Mola mola offers a new direction in fish monitoring". PLoS ONE 4, e7351.
  34. ^ "Track Fish Across the Ocean" New Scientist p. 21, 17 October 2009.

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