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Cooperation, conflict and the coordination of care in a social bird

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  • Full or part time
    Prof B J Hatchwell
    Dr S Patrick
    Dr A Beckerman
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Parents often cooperate to care for offspring, but sexual conflict over the amount of care that each provides is inevitable because the selfish interests of parents differ. The resulting ‘investment game’ between males and females has been explored extensively in species with biparental care, but this game becomes far more complex in cooperative breeding systems where parents are assisted by helpers in caring for young. Investment games in such systems have a highly variable outcome in terms of the relative amounts of care provided by parents and helpers (Green et al. 2016). Most importantly, the mechanism through which carers negotiate the optimal investment of each player has received little attention in either biparental or cooperative breeding systems. This project will investigate how parents and helpers in a cooperatively breeding bird, the long-tailed tit Aegithalos caudatus, coordinate their care for offspring to resolve conflicts and maximize individual fitness.

The studentship will use data on parental care and fitness from a 25-year study of long-tailed tits, coupled with field observations and experiments, and statistical modelling of investment patterns to achieve the following objectives:

1. To determine whether parents and helpers negotiate care through the coordination of visits to nests

2. To determine the effect of variability in the coordination of care on offspring condition and survival

3. To conduct field observations and experiments to determine the proximate factors affecting coordination of care by parents and helpers

This project will examine patterns of care among parents and helpers, testing multiple hypotheses derived from recent theoretical studies on the causes and consequences of variation in coordination. The student will work on an individually marked population of long-tailed tits near Sheffield for which a detailed database on provisioning behaviour already exists. The student will also conduct novel field experiments and develop statistical models to test hypotheses. This project leads on from recent studies of investment games (Adams et al. 2015) and biparental coordination of care (Bebbington & Hatchwell 2016) in long-tailed tits and will complement ongoing studies of this species at the study site.
The studentship will suit a highly motivated student interested in behavioural ecology, with good quantitative skills, wanting to work on a project with a substantial fieldwork component; previous experience of field research will be advantageous. The student will join the research group of the lead supervisor (BJH) and will benefit greatly from the input of co-supervisors (SCP and APB) whose expertise in parental care strategies and statistical modelling will be invaluable in ensuring the success of the project. The student will receive training in specific skills for field research on birds, as well as in a broad range of generic skills including quantitative analysis and communication skills.
Interested students are encouraged to direct informal enquiries to Ben Hatchwell ([Email Address Removed]).

Funding Notes

Fully funded studentships cover: (i) a stipend at the UKRI rate (at least £14,777 per annum for 2019-2020), (ii) research costs, and (iii) tuition fees. Studentship(s) are available to UK and EU students who meet the UK residency requirements.
This PhD project is part of the NERC funded Doctoral Training Partnership “ACCE” (Adapting to the Challenges of a Changing Environment ACCE is a partnership between the Universities of Sheffield, Liverpool, York, CEH, and NHM.
Shortlisted applicants will be invited for an interview to take place at the University of Sheffield the w/c 11th February 2019.


Adams MJ, Robinson MR, Mannarelli ME & Hatchwell BJ (2015). Social Genetic and social environment effects on parental and helper care in a cooperatively breeding bird. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B 282: 20150689.

Bebbington K & Hatchwell BJ (2016) Coordination of parental provisioning behavior is associated with enhanced food delivery rate and increased reproductive success in a passerine bird. Behavioral Ecology 27: 652-659.

Green J, Freckleton RP & Hatchwell BJ (2016). Variation in helper investment among cooperatively breeding bird species is consistent with Hamilton’s rule. Nature Communications 10.1038/ncomms12663.

Khwaja N, Preston SAJ, Hatchwell BJ, Briskie JV, Winney IS & Savage JL (2017). Flexibility but no coordination of visits in provisioning riflemen (Acanthisitta chloris). Animal Behaviour 125, 25-31.

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