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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. PhD in Biosciences (NERC GW4 + DTP)

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  • Full or part time
    Dr E Postma
  • 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

Lead Supervisor
Dr Erik Postma, Department of Biosciences, Centre for Ecology and Conservation, College for Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisors
Dr Jon Bridle, School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol
Dr Jinliang Wang, Zoological Society of London,
Prof Marcel Visser & Prof Arie van Noordwijk, Netherlands Institute of Ecology

Location: University of Exeter, Penryn Campus, Penryn, Cornwall TR10 9FE

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). The GW4+ DTP consists of the GW4 Alliance of research-intensive universities: the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five unique and prestigious Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The partnership aims to provide a broad training in the Earth, Environmental and Life sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in scientific research, business, technology and policy-making. For further details about the programme please see

For eligible successful applicants, the studentships comprises:

- An stipend for 3.5 years (currently £15,009 p.a. for 2019/20) in line with UK Research and Innovation rates
- Payment of university tuition fees;
- A research budget of £11,000 for an international conference, lab, field and research expenses;
- A training budget of £3,250 for specialist training courses and expenses.
- Travel and accommodation is covered for compulsory cohort events.
- No course fees for courses run by the DTP

We are currently advertising projects for a total of 10 studentships at the University of Exeter

Project Background

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, and the evolutionary process in general.

Project Aims and Methods

In this project 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 further develop the project according to your interests.

Funding Notes

NERC GW4+ funded studentship available for September 2020 entry. For eligible students, the studentship will provide funding of fees and a stipend which is currently £15,009 per annum for 2019-20.


References / Background reading list

Bonnet, T., Wandeler, P., Camenisch, G. & Postma, E. 2017. Bigger is fitter? Quantitative genetic decomposition of selection reveals an adaptive evolutionary decline of body mass in a wild rodent population. PLoS Biology 15: e1002592.

Bonnet, T. & Postma, E. 2018. Fluctuating selection and its (elusive) evolutionary consequences in a wild rodent population. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 31: 572-586

Van Benthem, K.J., Bruijning, M., Bonnet, T., Jongejans, E., Postma, E. & Ozgul, A. 2017. Disentangling evolutionary, plastic and demographic processes underlying trait dynamics: A review of four frameworks. Methods in Ecology and Evolution 8: 75–85

Postma E, Visser J. & Van Noordwijk, AJ. 2007. Strong artificial selection in the wild results in predicted small evolutionary change. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 20: 1823-1832

Postma, E. & Van Noordwijk, A.J., 2005. Gene flow maintains a large genetic difference in clutch size at a small spatial scale. Nature 433: 65-68

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