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(BBSRC DTP) The Eco-mechanics of Mammalian Combat

   Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences

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  Prof William Sellers, Dr J Codd  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s evocative phrase ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’ has often been associated with the evolutionary process (Dawkins 1976) and intra-specific conflict is a key aspect for understanding the mechanisms of natural and sexual selection (Smith and Price 1973). A major component of conflict is fighting and whilst this has been well studied in behavioural, genetic and theoretical contexts it is much less well understood in the context of functional morphology (Emlen 2008). Considerable work has been done on the shape, size and mechanical strength of animal weapons with a particular focus on horns and antlers in mammals because of the enormous variations seen there and their roles in sexual selection (e.g. (McCullough and Emlen 2013)). However, almost all of these studies are static analyses and very little work has been done on the dynamics of the fighting act itself. There are plenty of studies of the pugilistic arts among humans including some that are couched in terms of evolutionary biology but work on other species has generally reduced the complexity of the antagonistic act down to the speed at impact and the rate of deceleration (Kitchener 1988). This reduction, of course, hides many of the evolutionary factors that have driven the complete process of fighting such as: rapid acceleration, choice of strike area, shock absorption and damage reduction strategies. The purpose of this project is therefore, for the first time, to generate a mechanically and behaviourally complete picture of fighting in two contrasting model systems in order to understand how these features have evolved. The project involves field work at two sites: the Gran Paradiso National Park in the Italian Alps looking at Alpine ibex in collaboration with the University of Chester; and working with the Sámi people near Tromsø in North Norway on wild reindeer herds in collaboration with the University of Tromsø. The subsequent data analysis and modelling will take place at the University of Manchester. The team has considerable expertise in field-based data collection and provides opportunities to learn modern techniques for integrating behavioural data with an understanding of the evolutionary process and the physiology/anatomy of the musculoskeletal system. The ideal candidate will have a passion for studying animals in field conditions and enjoy hiking and outdoor working.

Entry Requirements

Applicants must have obtained or be about to obtain a First or Upper Second class UK honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in an appropriate area of science, engineering or technology.

Applicants interested in this project should make direct contact with the Primary Supervisor to arrange to discuss the project further as soon as possible.

How To Apply

To be considered for this project you MUST submit a formal online application form - full details on how to apply can be found on the BBSRC DTP website    

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

Equality, diversity and inclusion is fundamental to the success of The University of Manchester, and is at the heart of all of our activities. The full Equality, diversity and inclusion statement can be found on the website

Funding Notes

Funding will cover tuition fees and stipend only. This scheme is open to both UK and international applicants. However, we are only able to offer a limited number of studentships to applicants outside the UK. Therefore, full studentships will only be awarded to exceptional quality candidates, due to the competitive nature of this scheme.


Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Emlen, D. J. (2008). "The evolution of animal weapons." Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 39: 387-413.
Kitchener, A. (1988). "An analysis of the forces of fighting of the blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra) and the bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) and the mechanical design of the horn of bovids." Journal of Zoology 214(1): 1–20.
McCullough, E. L. and D. J. Emlen (2013). "Evaluating the costs of a sexually selected weapon: big horns at a small price." Animal Behaviour 86(5): 977-985.
Smith, J. M. and G. R. Price (1973). "The logic of animal conflict." Nature 246(5427): 15-18.

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