NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship: Dispersal and the evolution of cooperative behaviour in a wild social bird

University of Exeter - College of Life and Environmental Science

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). 

At least 4 fully-funded studentships that encompass the breadth of earth and environmental sciences are being offered to start in September 2017 at Exeter. 

The studentships will provide funding for a stipend which is currently £14,296 per annum for 2016-2017, research costs and UK/EU tuition fees at Research Council UK rates for 42 months (3.5 years) for full-time students, pro rata for part-time students.

The evolution of cooperative behaviour, such as non-breeders helping to rear the offspring of breeders in cooperatively breeding societies, is a major focus of research in evolutionary ecology. It is commonly argued that helping in family groups is favoured by kin selection because helpers assist with the rearing of relatives. However, the fitness benefits that helpers gain from rearing relatives will depend critically upon the dispersal strategies that individuals use to secure breeding vacancies of their own. If dispersal is local, for example, these additional relatives could compete for rare vacancies with the helper and each other, reducing the payoff from helping. Despite their importance, the dispersal strategies of cooperative breeders are poorly understood and so their impact on selection for helping remains largely unexplored. This project will address both challenges with a combination of experimental studies of dispersal strategies in wild white-browed sparrow weaver societies in the Kalahari desert and population modelling of their impact on selection for cooperation using our existing long-term field data.

The project will address two key questions:

  1. What dispersal strategies do helpers use to detect breeding vacancies?

Two novel field studies of dispersal will shed light on the nature and spatial scale of competition for breeding vacancies. First, helpers conduct extra-territorial forays to assess dispersal opportunities, but little is known about these as they are difficult to track. We will exploit automated tracking technology to investigate sex differences in their incidence and spatial scale, and their impact on cooperation. Second, as dominant males sing dawn song, we will experimentally test the hypothesis that helper males detect distant dominance vacancies via changes in the soundscape.

  1. How does competition for breeding vacancies impact the payoffs from cooperation?

First we will use our existing long-term life-history data to investigate the determinants of success in competition for breeding vacancies, as these will influence how competition for vacancies impacts the payoffs from helping. We will then use integrated population models, combining helper effects on offspring production and insights from the above work about competition for breeding vacancies, to study how such competition impacts selection for cooperation.

The project would be ideally suited to a candidate with a keen interest in studying the evolution of social behaviour in wild populations using a combination of field research and cutting edge analytical methods. The successful candidate will join Andrew Young’s Animal Societies research group (see at the University of Exeter’s Cornwall Campus, and will conduct fieldwork at our established study site in the Kalahari desert.

The closing date for applications is midnight on 6 January 2017.

Please see for full details on how to apply.

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