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*EASTBIO* Sex and sperm wars: the behavioural component of infertility

School of Biology

, Wednesday, January 06, 2021 Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

From both evolutionary and mechanistic perspectives, infertility remains a puzzle. The defining act of all sexual organisms is to reproduce, and so we would expect reproductive anatomy and physiology to be fine-tuned towards successfully bringing gametes together and for those gametes to produce a viable zygote. Natural selection should likewise rapidly select against infertile individuals, and there should be at most a very low level of male and/or female infertility in populations. And yet, infertility is remarkably pervasive in natural populations. The concern over human infertility is well-known, but it is perhaps less well-known that infertility – either through gamete incompatibility or behavioural/anatomical interactions – is actually quite common, across both vertebrates and invertebrates. Many matings fail to produce offspring, and this mating failure has important consequences, not only for human and animal health, but also for endeavours such as pest control and conservation, where we need to understand what does or doesn’t make for a successful breeding population.

One of the major breakthroughs in reproductive biology came with the realisation that males and females are not necessarily cooperative partners when it comes to sex and reproduction. Whilst both sexes must come together to successfully manage the transfer of gametes, it is now clear that sexual conflicts of interest between males and females shape reproductive behaviour, morphology, and ultimately the success – i.e. the fertility – of individual pairings. In both vertebrates and invertebrates, strategies that may maximise individual fitness need not maximise population fitness nor the fitness of the mating partner. We now know that these conflicts play out at molecular through to behavioural levels.

In this project, we will explore the behavioural causes and consequences of mating failure and the resulting patterns of infertility both theoretically and empirically.

In terms of theory, our understanding of how males and females invest in individual matings is still incomplete, especially in terms of how pre- and post-copulatory choosiness in both males and females interacts to shape mating success. For instance, the assumptions of cheap and plentiful male sperm are coming under renewed empirical scrutiny. The applicant will help extend existing mating systems and sperm competition theory to better understand how and when males and females choose not to engage in gamete transfer.

Empirically, the applicant will test theoretical predictions in insect model systems where mating failure is known to be common (including bugs, beetles, and flies) to give us a more complete understanding of the behavioural component of infertility.

The project offers the opportunity to develop both theoretical and empirical skills, alongside EASTBIO courses addressing a range of technical and transferable skills. The Shuker Lab also has a strong track-record in PhD students progressing into academic and academic-related careers.

Informal enquiries are encouraged, so please contact Dr David Shuker (). Please also visit our websites for further information on what we get up to ( and

Application procedure
In order to apply for this position, please follow the application instructions under to obtain the EASTBIO Application form.

Then, submit the EASTBIO application form and your academic transcripts as part of a formal online application-

In the online application form, you will be asked to provide contact details for two academic references. Please ask your referees to use the EASTBIO reference form provided under the link above when preparing their support letter, and to ensure references are provided by the deadline on 6 January 2021.

Funding Notes

This 4 year PhD project is part of a competition funded by EASTBIO BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership View Website.

This opportunity is open to UK and International students and provides funding to cover stipend and UK level tuition. For international candidates, the University of St Andrews will cover the Home-International fee difference. Please refer to UKRI website and Annex B of the UKRI Training Grant Terms and Conditions for full eligibility criteria.


Balfour, V.L., Black, D. & Shuker, D.M. (2020) Mating failure shapes the patterns of sperm precedence in an insect. Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology, 74: 25.

Bocedi, G. & Reid, J.M. (2017) Feed-backs among inbreeding, inbreeding depression in sperm traits and sperm competition can drive evolution of costly polyandry. Evolution, 71: 2786-2802.

Greenway, E.V., Dougherty, L.R. & Shuker, D.M. (2015) Mating failure. Current Biology, 25: R534-R536.

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