PhD Studentship: Variability and Uncertainty in the Reproductive Games of Cooperative Breeders

University of Exeter - College of Life and Environmental Science

Main Supervisor: Dr Andrew Higginson, NERC Fellow, Psychology, Exeter
Co-Supervisor: Prof. Andy Radford, Biological Sciences, Bristol

Our aim is to understand the reproductive behavior of animals of species in which offspring stay and help their parents raise siblings. Many species of mammals and birds do this, along with many insects, especially bees, ants and wasps. There is much variation in behaviour between and within species that is currently poorly understood. Life-history theory predicts how individual variation and environmental differences affect reproductive decisions such as age at maturity, fecundity and longevity. However, this theory does not apply to cooperative breeders because it ignores conflict over reproduction within groups. This gap is highly problematic because cooperative breeders and eusocial species often play critical roles in ecosystems (e.g. pollination, seed dispersal, crop herbivory, pest predation). This is impeding our ability to predict how organisms respond to changing environments, and their interactions with other species. This knowledge is imperative for securing the future of our natural resources.

We will combine computational models with comparative analyses using existing data on many species. We will focus on three types of variation that have been neglected: differences between individuals in relatedness, size, etc.; variation over time and space of food and nest site availability; varying competition among groups.

In three theoretical studies, we will assess the influence of variation on within-group conflict to (1) consider how the possibility of becoming the dominant affects what subordinates might do; (2) ask why a reproductive would join with another or attempt to take-over a nest when the availability of nest sites varies over space or time; (3) predict what happens when dominant individuals can allow other individuals to reproduce in exchange for help, under competition from other groups.

We will test our predictions across species using meta-analysis that control for evolutionary history. We will exploit the vast amount of data on reproductive strategies and the characteristics of societies and ecology in cooperative breeders, from ants to meerkats.

We will predict how cooperatively breeding species might be affected by environmental changes, including nest-site availability and alterations to climate. By simulating different species, we can identify which species are most likely to need conserving.


The most suitable candidate would be a maths/physics/computer science graduate wanting to work in biology. This fits RCUK’s push to increase quantitative skills in the life sciences. The necessary skills could be learnt by a numerate biological graduate, with guidance from the supervisors. 

Funding Maximum

3.5 year studentship: UK/EU/International tuition fees and an annual maintenance allowance at the Research Council rate of £14,553 per year

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