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Disentangling the drivers of life-history evolution in the wild: Artificial selection meets natural selection in a unique avian island population. Biosciences PhD Studentship (NERC GW4+ DTP funded).

College of Life and Environmental Sciences

About the Project

Despite a large body of theory describing how genetic variation and selection shape adaptive evolution, theoretical predictions often appear to be at odds with what we observe in real-world populations. Although the apparent ubiquity of so-called evolutionary stasis (i.e. selection and heritability but no evolution) has triggered many attempts to refine our predictions by incorporating the complexities that are typical of wild populations, this crucially assumes that evolution is in essence predictable. However, is natural selection strong enough to overcome the effects of random drift and gene flow, especially in small populations? Being able to answer this question is crucial if we are to advance our understanding of the ability of populations to persist in a world changing at unprecedented rates.

Project Aims and Methods:

You will quantify the roles of natural selection, gene flow and drift in shaping the evolutionary dynamics of clutch size, a key life-history trait. You will do this by capitalising on i) over 60 years of individual-based data for an island population of great tits (Parus major) on the Dutch island of Vlieland, and ii) a unique eight-year (1996-2003) experiment that combined strong artificial selection on clutch size with cross-fostering and clutch size manipulations. Integrating life-history, fitness and pedigree data from before, during and after the experiment will provide you with an exceptional opportunity to study life-history evolution in action, and to quantify the importance of natural selection, gene flow and drift. Thereby you will provide an insight into the evolutionary dynamics of wild populations in general, and their capacity to respond to natural and human-induced selective pressures. To this end, you will use state-of-the-art statistical/quantitative genetic approaches to infer the role of genes and the environment in shaping variation in clutch size and fitness, and the relationship between them. These will be complemented by individual-based simulations and molecular marker data to quantify the role of stochastic processes, including drift. This project capitalises on a uniquely rich and powerful dataset that allows for answering a wide range of questions, and you are encouraged to develop the project according to your interests.

Candidate requirements:

This project would be ideally suited to a student with an interest in (quantitative and population) genetics and (evolutionary and population) ecology. The successful student is encouraged to spend time at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology in The Netherlands and assist with the fieldwork on the island of Vlieland.

Collaborative partner:

This project is a collaboration with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), where Dr Jinliang Wang is a world-leading expert in developing quantitative and population genetic methods aimed at gaining a better understanding of the genetics of small populations, and the integration of marker and pedigree data in particular. His involvement allow you to explore new avenues at secondments to the ZSL.


You will be part of a large and vibrant group of researchers working on a diverse range of questions in evolution, ecology and behaviour. You will receive training in, among others, quantitative and population genetics, the statistical analysis of large datasets and computer simulations, as well as nest monitoring and bird handling. This will be provided by the (co-) supervisors and their group members in both the UK (Penryn, Bristol and London) and The Netherlands (Wageningen). Finally, you will attend postgraduate courses and present your results at national and international conferences.


NERC GW4+ DTP studentships are open to UK and Irish nationals who, if successful in their applications, will receive a full studentship including payment of university tuition fees at the home fees rate.

A limited number of full studentships are also available to international students which are defined as EU (excluding Irish nationals), EEA, Swiss and all other non-UK nationals.

Studentships for international students will only cover fees at the UK home fees rate. However, university tuition fees for international students are higher than the UK home fees rate therefore the difference will need to be funded from a separate source which the student or project supervisor may have to find. Unfortunately, the NERC GW4+ DTP cannot fund this difference from out studentship funding Further guidance on how this will work will be issued in November.

The conditions for eligibility of home fees status are complex and you will need to seek advice if you have moved to or from the UK (or Republic of Ireland) within the past 3 years or have applied for settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme.

Funding Notes

NERC GW4+ funded studentship available for September 2021 entry. For eligible students, the studentship will provide funding of fees and a stipend which is currently £15,285 per annum for 2020-21.


Bonnet, T et al 2017. PLoS Biology 15: e1002592;

Bonnet, T. & Postma, E. 2018. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 31: 572-586;

Van Benthem et al 2017. Methods in Ecology and Evolution 8: 75–85;

Postma E et al 2007. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 20: 1823-1832;

Postma, E. & Van Noordwijk, A.J., 2005. Nature 433: 65-68

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