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Evolutionary quantitative genetics in the wild: behaviour, growth and fitness in Soay sheep

  • Full or part time
    Dr M Morrissey
  • Application Deadline
    Sunday, December 01, 2019
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

Project Description

Contemporary natural selection frequently appears to favour the evolution of increased body size. However, corresponding evolutionary responses of body size, of magnitudes predicted by evolutionary quantitative genetic theory, are frequently not observed. The nature of evolutionary constraints in the evolution of many traits, particularly body size, thus present an important problem at the confluence of current evolutionary theory and data from wild populations. This PhD project will use cutting edge technology to collect types of behavioural data that are not generally available in evolutionary quantitative genetic studies, to test hypotheses that could resolve the paradox of evolutionary stasis in body size.
The Soay sheep of St Kilda, in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland, provide an excellent system for evolutionary quantitative genetic studies of wild populations. The population has been subject to an intensive individual-based study for approximately 35 years, during which time extensive phenotype, fitness, and pedigree data have been collected. These basic data have supported an extremely productive research program in the evolutionary quantitative genetics of wild populations. The current PhD project will use accelerometery data loggers to collect detailed behavioural data. This will allow for tests for trade-offs among different behaviours (e.g., feeding, resting, moving, agonistic interactions) that could underly variation in body size and constrain its evolution.
The PhD will offer experience in field work in a remote location, the use of novel technologies for data logging, experience with modern statistics, and a chance to engage with current formal evolutionary theory. The School of Biology at the University of St Andrews is home to a large group of graduate students engaged in a wide variety of research projects. The school provides a highly supportive environment, and structured support throughout the course of PhD study.
Informal inquiry is encouraged; please contact Michael Morrissey,

Funding Notes

Eligibility requirements: Upper second-class degree in Biology or a related area.
Funding: Fees and stipend is provided for 4 years.


Falconer, D.S., and T.F.C. Mackay. 1996. Introduction to Quantitative Genetics, 4th ed. Longmans Green, UK.
Hansen, T.F., and D. Houle. 2004. Evolvability, stabilising selection, and the problem of stasis. Chapter 5 in: M. Pigliucci and K. Preston, eds. Phenotypic integration: studying the ecology and evolution of complex phenotypes. Oxford University Press.
Unpaywalled pre-print here:
Hunter, D.C., J.M. Pemberton, J.G. Pilkington, and M.B. Morrissey. 2018. Quantification and decomposition of environment-selection relationships. Evolution 72: 851-866.
Kingsolver, J.G. and D.W. Pfennig. 2004. Individual-level selection as a cause of Cope’s rule of phyletic size increase. Evolution 58: 1608-1612.

Related Subjects

How good is research at University of St Andrews in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 50.45

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

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