Daniel Rubenstein

Class of 1877 Professor of Zoology, EEB; Director, Program in Environmental Studies
Behavioral ecology and conservation
Email Address: 
Office Location: 
210 Eno Hall

My research focuses on decision-making in animals. I study how an individual's foraging, mating and social behavior are influenced by its phenotype, by ecological circumstances, and by the actions of other individuals in the population. I develop simple mathematical models to generate predictions that can be tested using data gathered from structured field observations or experimental manipulations. In this way I search for general principles, or 'rules', that underlie complex patterns of behavior.

Much of my recent research on the adaptive value of behavior has centered on understanding the social dynamics of equids—horses, zebras and asses. My studies have shown that as the distributions of forage and water change, the patterns of female movement and association change. In turn, the ways in which males compete to mate with females also change. Thus ecological features play a large role in shaping equid core social groups.

But some harem dwelling equids, in particular the Plains zebras, exhibit additional layers of social structuring and my latest research shows that the force that matters most in determining whether or not herds form is a social one. The magnitude of the risk associated of a stallion being cuckolded determines whether or not harem males join together to form alliances. How risks are assessed, decisions are made and how conflicts of interest among individuals of differing phenotypes with differing needs are avoided is the focus of my ongoing research into the control of behavior.

Melding both functional and mechanistic approaches to studying animal behavior is an important problem in the emerging area of 'Biocomplexity' and is one that requires interdisciplinary studies that cut across many scales. My latest research focuses on one such problem—the rules governing animal movements and migration—and involves the interaction of 'self-organizing' behavioral movement rules, ecological information, and habitat structure at multiple spatial scales to understand how migratory animal movements respond to human induced land use change and how these changes in movement in turn affect population stability. Conservation implications are actively being explored.

Media Coverage

Wild science: The nature of the Mpala Research Centre Princeton University Website
Bringing people together as scientists to save a zebra species. Frontpage of the Princeton University Webpage
Ravens learn best from their affiliates Universitaet Wien
The Kids Twiga Tally: creating young conservation scientists in Kenya TheGuardian
Kenya's envied species currently facing extinction NTV Kenya via Youtube
It takes all stripes to save rare zebras CNN
Hundreds turn up for Grevy's Zebra rally The Star, Kenya
Kenya zebra census uses stripes as natural barcode AFP news Agency via YouTube
If not for camouflage, why do zebras have stripes? The Christian Science Monitor
Chitchat and small talk could serve an evolutionary need to bond with others News at Princeton
Understanding animal coexistence with a little dung and a lot of DNA News at Princeton
15 Animal Behavior Professors to know. VetTech Colleges
Op-ed: Wild horse contraception not without unintended consequences | The Salt Lake Tribune
KWS Sharing And Storage Tourists zebra and giraffe K24TV
Cropping Africa's wet savannas would bring high environmental costs Princeton News
What Makes A Zebra's Stripes Extraordinary? AccuWeather
Why do zebras have stripes? Temperature counts ScienceDaily
Why do zebras have stripes? UCLA Newsroom
Zebra stripes could serve many purposes, study finds USA Today
Zebra stripes could serve many purposes, study finds link
Interview with Dan Rubenstein on the Colin McEnroe Show on WNPR, Connecticut Public Radio.
Hawk Mountain Research featured in PLoS ONE, 2014. New research shows vultures focus on regions where wildlife are most likely to die
News at Princeton, September 2013. Into the wild: Global Seminar takes budding filmmakers to Kenya's plains
"Realignments: A Zebra Story” examines the differences in appearance and behavior of the two zebra species in Kenya, providing insight into the endangerment of the Grevy's zebras and their uncertain future. Watch here!
"Nature's Nurturers" reveals the work of the Northern Kenya Conservation Clubs, focusing on the primary and secondary schools of Laikipia. Watch here!
National Research Council. 2013. Using science to improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program: A way forward.(PDF)
News at Princeton, February 20, 2012 Wildlife and cows can be partners, not enemies, in search for food
Towerview article, Duke University, February 2012 Wild Horses at Shackleford
NPR, Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me! April 2011 A Limerick about the Zebra barcode Scanner
Wired UK, April 2011 Biologists create barcode scanner for zebras
PBS World Focus, October 2009 - Prolonged drought devastates Kenyan People and Wildlife
PBS World Focus, October 2009 - Interview with Professor Dan Rubinstein
CNN, April 24, 2008:
If you were a zebra, how would you spend your days?
Science News, December 1, 2007: Social networking for zebras.
Princeton Weekly Bulletin, April 2007: Water in Africa Project
Princeton Weekly Bulletin, November 2002: NSF ZebraNet* project.
NSF Special Report "The Secret Lives of Wild Animals" features ZebraNet project.
Report by Linda Reifschneider for the American Zoological Association featuring my presentation at the AAAS 2006 Annual meeting: "Research Collaboration for Conservation: Zoos and Universities Working Together."

Administrative Assistant:  Siobhan Chin

Publications List: 

Click here for Full Publication List

Hauck, S., & Rubenstein, D. I. (2017). Pastoralist societies in flux: A conceptual framework analysis of herding and land use among the Mukugodo Maasai of Kenya. Pastoralism, 7(1), 18. PDF

Gersick, A. S., & Rubenstein, D. I. (2017). Physiology modulates social flexibility and collective behaviour in equids and other large ungulates. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, 372(1727), 20160241 PDF

J. Parham, J. Crall, C. Stewart, T. Berger-Wolf, and D.I. Rubenstein, “Animal Population Censusing at Scale with Citizen Science and Photographic Identification,” presented at the AAAI 2017 Spring Symposium on AI for Social Good, Stanford, CA, 2017 PDF

Nuñez, C. M., Adelman, J. S., Carr, H. A., Alvarez, C. M., & Rubenstein, D. I. (2017). Lingering effects of contraception management on feral mare (Equus caballus) fertility and social behavior. Conservation Physiology5(1), cox018. PDF

Odaddi, W, Fragione, J. and Rubenstein, D.I. (2017) Vegetation, wildlife and livestock responses to planned grazing management in an African pastoral landscape.  Land Degradation & Development. PDF

Full publication list