Comparative Thanatology: evolutionary drivers and proximate mechanisms


   Department of Psychology

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  Dr L Proops, Dr Teresa Romero, Dr Kate Lewis  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Applications are invited for a fully-funded three year PhD to commence in October 2024.

The PhD will be based in the Department of Psychology’s Centre of Comparative and Evolutionary Psychology, within the Faculty of Science and Health, and will be supervised by Dr Leanne Proops, Dr Teresa Romero and Dr Kate Lewis.

Candidates applying for this project may be eligible to compete for one of a small number of bursaries available. Successful applicants will receive a bursary to cover tuition fees for three years and a stipend in line with the UKRI rate (£18,622 for 2023/24).Bursary recipients will also receive a contribution of £1,500 per year towards consumables, conference, project or training costs.

Costs for student visa and immigration health surcharge are not covered by this bursary. For further guidance and advice visit our international and EU students ‘Visa FAQs’ page

The work on this project could involve:

  • Testing hypotheses regarding the evolutionary drivers of thanatological behaviours across species.
  • Elucidating the proximate mechanisms underlying thanatological behaviours in long-lived social mammals.
  • Conducting overseas fieldwork to document the natural thanatological behaviours of free-ranging populations.

Project description

The extent to which awareness of death is uniquely human has deep philosophical relevance and clear implications for the study of animal consciousness and the ethical treatment of animals. Accounts of animals’ responses to death, remain largely anecdotal, making it unclear whether observed behaviours, such as vigils and interest in the body, are common occurrences across species. 

It has been proposed that death awareness consists of three levels increasing in cognitive complexity, reflecting both human developmental stages and phylogenetic variation across species. Full mentalistic understanding of the concept of death, requires an understanding of the key properties of death: irreversibility, cessation, universality and causation. Conversely, others have argued that intellectual and emotional anthropocentrism has led to the assumption that the concept of death is complex, when in reality, death detection is a relatively simple mechanism requiring little cognitive complexity. There are certain socio-ecological conditions in which we may predict that the evolution of death awareness strategies would be adaptive, for example, in species where close colonial living may lead to disease outbreaks if dead conspecifics are not removed (e.g. eusocial insects) or in species that expend considerable energy engaged in parental care (e.g. chimpanzees). 

The overall aim of this project is to provide the most systematic, large-scale, cross-species assessment of the nature of death awareness to date, exploring both ultimate evolutionary drovers across taxa and proximate mechanisms in a case study of long-lived, highly social mammals: domestic equids. The project also has significant applied relevance with potential to inform animal welfare guidelines relating to end of life decisions for companion, working and production animals.

General admissions criteria

You'll need a good first degree from an internationally recognised university (minimum upper second class or equivalent, depending on your chosen course) or a Master’s degree in an appropriate subject. In exceptional cases, we may consider equivalent professional experience and/or qualifications. English language proficiency at a minimum of IELTS band 6.5 with no component score below 6.0.

Specific candidate requirements

  • Interest in animal cognition, welfare and ethics.
  • Willingness to conduct fieldwork and observational studies of animal responses to death and separation.
  • Good communication skills and ability to work independently.
  • Good statistical knowledge and experimental skills.

We encourage interested applicants with degrees in psychology, biology (animal behaviour), philosophy, ethics and related fields to get in touch.

How to Apply

If you have any project-specific questions please contact Dr Leanne Proops ([Email Address Removed]), quoting the project code.

When you are ready to apply, please use our online application form. Make sure you submit a personal statement, proof of your degrees and grades, details of two referees, proof of your English language proficiency and an up-to-date CV. Our ‘How to Apply’ page offers further guidance on the PhD application process.

If you want to be considered for this funded PhD opportunity you must quote project code PSYC8540124 when applying. Please note that email applications are not accepted.


Biological Sciences (4) Philosophy (28) Psychology (31) Veterinary Sciences (35)

Funding Notes

Candidates applying for this project may be eligible to compete for one of a small number of bursaries available. Successful applicants will receive a bursary to cover tuition fees for three years and a stipend in line with the UKRI rate (£18,622 for 2023/24).Bursary recipients will also receive a contribution of £1,500 per year towards consumables, conference, project or training costs.
Costs for student visa and immigration health surcharge are not covered by this bursary. For further guidance and advice visit our international and EU students ‘Visa FAQs’ page.

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