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EASTBIO Pre-natal soundscapes: understanding the functional significance of embryonic responses to external sounds

Project Description

Pre-natal soundscapes: understanding the functional significance of embryonic responses to external sounds.
The avian egg represents a feat of evolutionary engineering, providing all the components required for embryonic growth in a self-contained package. However, producing a package that develops external to the mother also means that the embryo is regularly exposed to external factors such as environmental sound. Recent work has shown that avian embryos can not only hear these sounds but are able to potentially discriminate between sounds and utilise these as cues in post-natal life. Work in the Mechanisms of Behaviour group at St Andrews has further suggested that natural sounds, such as conspecific calls, have very different effects on post-natal physiology and behaviour compared to more anthropogenically generated sounds. Embryos hearing a maternal call during incubation exhibited a more risk-prone phenotype compared to embryos reared in silence and those exposed to anthropogenic noise became risk-prone upon hatching.

Our data suggest that pre-natal soundscapes can alter the development of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis (HPA) – the physiological system that underpins the response to stress in vertebrates. Altered HPA axis functioning has been linked to changes in wellbeing in a wide range of species and we already know that elevated stress during pre-natal development can have negative health outcomes in later life. It therefore seems that soundscapes may play a role in shaping later health outcomes, but we currently do not know how long-lasting these effects may be. We also have little information on how different sound types affect embryonic or post-natal development. If we can understand which sounds may act to facilitate reduced stress in later life we may also be able to create a cost-effective tool for optimising welfare in avian species.

This PhD project aims to address these important issues using poultry and laboratory bird models. There may also be the possibility to extend the work into avian rehabilitation centres focussing on the effects of incubation soundscapes on juvenile development and rehabilitation success. The project will integrate information across different levels of complexity, from organismal to molecular to truly understand how pre-natal acoustic stimuli can shape avian phenotypes. This is an exciting opportunity for the student to learn a wide range of skills including behavioural assays, bioacoustics, physiological assays, neuroendocrine measurement and cutting-edge molecular techniques. Work on captive/rehabilitation species may also lead to the development of tools to maximise avian chick welfare, which would allow the student to gain experience of applied research.

Funding Notes

This 4 year PhD project is part of a competition funded by EASTBIO BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership View Website. This opportunity is only open to UK nationals (or EU students who have been resident in the UK for 3+ years immediately prior to the programme start date) due to restrictions imposed by the funding body.

Apply by 5.00 pm on 5 January 2020 following the instructions on how to apply at: View Website

Informal inquiries to the primary supervisor are very strongly encouraged.


• Spencer KA & Minderman J (2018). Developmental programming via activation of the Hypothalamic–Pituitary–Adrenal axis: a new role for acoustic stimuli in shaping behavior?. Advances in the Study of Behavior. Advances in the Study of Behavior, 50; 87-126.
• Rivera, M., Louder, M.I.M., Kleindorfer, S. et al. (2018). Avian prenatal auditory stimulation: progress and perspectives. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 72: 112.

How good is research at University of St Andrews in Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 30.20

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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