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Does behaviour drive evolution? Conflict, behaviour and reproduction in vertebrates


   School of Biological Sciences

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  Dr I Capellini, Dr D Jennings  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

Although behaviour is believed to be an agent of selection, few studies have demonstrated that behaviour can drive evolution. This project will test whether behaviour drives evolution focusing on social conflict in the context of reproduction. Reproductive traits, such as the structure of the mammalian placenta, are highly diverse, evolve rapidly and are supposed to be a major target of selection caused by different forms of social conflict - parent-offspring conflict, sibling competition and sexual conflict. The project will exploit diversity among species and take advantage of state of the art phylogenetic comparative methods to investigate whether behaviour drives rapid evolutionary change in reproductive traits at large comparative scale.

Behaviour is a potential driver of evolutionary change promoting adaptation to new social and environmental conditions and driving speciation (behavioural drive hypothesis). However, few studies have demonstrated that behaviour can drive evolution. Rapid evolutionary changes in species traits are often associated with intense selection associated with arm races, such as between predators and prey or hosts and parasites. The social environment that individuals experience, i.e. families and broader social groups, is also characterised by some level of conflict between individuals. For example, the amount of parental care that each parent is willing to provide is expected to differ from the amount each offspring may want; this leads not only to conflict between parents and offspring, but also between the siblings and between the parents. Thus, we should expect that behaviour reflecting conflict between individuals should be particularly suited to test the behavioural drive hypothesis.

This project will test whether behaviour drives evolution focusing on social conflict in the context of reproduction. Reproductive traits, such as the structure of the mammalian placenta, are highly diverse, evolve rapidly and are considered to be a major target of selection caused by parent-offspring conflict, sibling competition and sexual conflict (e.g. Haig 1993; Capellini et al 2010; Furness & Capellini 2019; Baker et al. 2020). Major changes in reproductive traits may also drive speciation (Crespi & Semeniuk 2004). However, whether behaviour drives rapid evolutionary change in reproductive traits, and in turn promotes speciation, is currently unknown. The project will exploit diversity among species and state-of-the-art phylogenetic comparative methods to investigate this question at large comparative scale. Using this approach, we recently demonstrated that parental care behaviours drive rapid evolutionary change in the egg and clutch size in amphibians (Furness et al 2022). The multidisciplinary nature of this project bridges across evolutionary biology, behavioural ecology and reproductive biology. Consequently, the project offers the opportunity to gain a fundamental understanding of theory, hypothesis development and testing; learn an array of cutting-edge methods and develop several transferable skills.

The successful candidate will assemble large scale datasets of reproductive traits and behaviours reflecting social conflict in mammals, fish and amphibians from the literature and receive training in phylogenetic comparative methods. The student will join Dr Capellini’s research group that has extensive experience in the use and application of cutting-edge phylogenetic methods to address fundamental questions in evolutionary ecology, specifically on the evolution of life history and reproductive traits, and in building accurate, detailed, large datasets of traits for hundreds of species.

Start Date: 1 October 2022

Duration: 3 years

How to apply: Applications must be submitted via https://dap.qub.ac.uk/portal/user/u_login.php

Skills/experience required:

Essential: Applicants hold or are expected to hold a first class Honours degree in biology, animal behaviour, zoology or a related discipline. The ideal applicant has excellent understanding of evolutionary theory, strong quantitative and statistical skills, excellent organisational and data management skills with great attention to details, is self-motivated, able to work independently and in collaboration with others.

Desirable: A Masters degree in a relevant discipline, experience with phylogenetic comparative methods and R, previous research experience in evolutionary biology, evolutionary ecology, reproductive biology or animal behaviour, will be of advantage.

Note: This project is in competition for DfE funding with a number of other projects. A selection process will determine the strongest candidates across the range of projects, who may then be offered funding for their chosen project.


Funding Notes

Candidates must hold a UK 2.1 Bachelor's degree or qualifications considered by the University to be equivalent.
Candidates must also be normally resident in the UK for the three year period prior to 1 October 2022. For non-EU nationals, the main purpose of residence must not have been to receive full-time education. Non-UK or Irish nationals must also have pre-settled or settled status (EU nationals) or settled status (non-EU nationals).
Full eligibility criteria: https://www.economy-ni.gov.uk/sites/default/files/publications/economy/Postgraduate-studentships-terms-and-conditions.pdf

References

Baker J., Humphries S., Ferguson-Gow H., Meade A., Venditti C. 2020. Rapid decrease in relative testes mass among monogamous birds but not in other vertebrates. Ecol. Lett. 23: 283-292.
Capellini I, Venditti C., Barton R.A. 2010. Placentation and maternal investment in mammals. Am. Nat. 177(1): 86-98.
Crespi B., Semeniuk C. 2004. Parent-offspring conflict in the evolution of vertebrate reproductive mode. Am. Nat 163(5): 635-53.
Furness A.I., Capellini I. (2019). The evolution of parental care diversity in amphibians. Nature Comms. 10: 4709.
Furness A.I., Venditti C., Capellini I. 2022. Terrestrial reproduction and parental care drive rapid evolution in the tradeoff between offspring size and number across amphibians. PLoS Biol. 20(1): e3001495.
Haig 1993. Genetic conflicts in human pregnancy. Quarterly Review
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