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Corvid connections: how do social bonds influence stress, health, nutrition and cultural knowledge?

University of Exeter - College of Life and Environmental Sciences.

Qualification Type: PhD
Location: Penryn
Funding for: UK Students, EU Students
Funding amount: BBSRC SWBio DTP funded CASE studentship available for September 2022 entry. The studentship will provide funding of fees and a stipend which is currently £15,609 per annum for 2022-23, on a full time basis.
Hours: Full Time
Placed On: 22nd October 2021
Closes: 6th December 2021
Reference: 4282

Like humans, many animals form stable social relationships between specific individuals. These relationships can be extremely beneficial: in humans and other primates individuals with strong relationships tend to be healthier and less anxious. 

However, there has been little research on other animals and it is not clear how the benefits of social relationships trade off against costs. For instance, spending time with social partners could improve immune function but also increase exposure to infections. Similarly, if you spend most of your time with particular partners you risk missing out on opportunities to learn valuable information from others. To understand these trade-offs and shed light on how and why social relationships evolve, this interdisciplinary project will study jackdaws living in their natural environments where they are subject to competition, predation and disease. Using a combination of state-of the art field experiments, non-invasive stress assays and physiological measures you will examine how variation in the strength of social relationships influences individual stress levels, health and the acquisition of food and knowledge.   

Jackdaws are members of the large-brained corvid family that form enduring pair bonds embedded within dynamic social networks. Our fieldsites contain thousands of colour-ringed, RFID-tagged jackdaws, providing unique opportunities to quantify the strength of social bonds.   

Bringing together the supervisory team’s expertise in animal cognition and field experiments (Thornton), social relationships and networks (King), behavioural endocrinology (Fürtbauer) and disease ecology (Bonneaud) the project will determine how social relationships influence:   
1. Stress: You will use non-invasive thermal imaging and hormonal assays to understand whether variability in short-term social interactions (e.g. co-feeding with partners) and long-term sociality measures mediate stress levels.   
2. Health: Parasite levels and immune function: Using state-of-the art biomolecular lab techniques you will quantify individual variation in the presence and intensity of various parasitic infections and immunocompetence.   
3. Food: using automated feeders that record the identity of all visiting birds, you will test how the presence and identity of social partners alters the probability of displacement and changes food intake.   
4. Knowledge: you will seed novel foraging innovations by training individual “demonstrators” to access automated feeders.

You will then quantify the cultural transmission of the new behaviour and associated changes in social network structure to determine whether jackdaws can adjust their social associations to learn from knowledgeable individuals.   

Together, this work will provide important insights into social evolution, cultural transmission and health. 

Eligibility

To be eligible for a fully-funded studentship, you must meet both the academic and residence criteria.

A fully-funded four year SWBio DTP studentship will cover

  • a stipend* at the standard Research Council UK rate; currently £15,609 per annum for 2022-23
    •    research and training costs
    •    tuition fees (at the standard Research Councils UK rate)
    •    additional funds to support fieldwork, conferences and a 3-month internship

Please refer to the regulations or Annex 1 of the Research Council Training Grant Guide to confirm that you meet the residence criteria for a fully-funded studentship.  Any further queries in relation to residency must be directed to the institution that you are applying to.

* An enhanced stipend is available for students with a recognised veterinary degree qualification (£24,090 per annum for 2022-2023). There may also be enhanced stipends associated with projects that have a CASE partner (CASE projects are highlighted as *CASE in the project lists).

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