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Family Dynamics in Killer Whales: Consequences for Behaviour and Life History.

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Monday, January 07, 2019
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Location: University of Exeter, Streatham Campus, Exeter EX4 4QJ.

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme please see

Project details

In social species related individuals (kin) often live together in close knit family groups and individuals can influence the survival and reproductive success of their relatives both by their behaviour and reproductive decisions. Such interactions between kin are a strong evolutionary force, with individuals gaining indirect benefits (through the genes they share with relatives) by increasing the survival and reproductive success of their kin. The opportunity for evolution to be shaped by kin selection is dependent on how and when related individuals interact. For many natural populations patterns of interactions among kin (kinship networks) are likely to be variable both over time and among individuals. This variation is likely to have a profound impact on the evolution of both behaviour and life history. Currently however, for many wild animal populations, very little is known about variation in kinship networks (both among individuals and within individuals over time) and their evolutionary consequences.

Project Aims and Methods

This project will examine variation in kinship networks both among individuals and within individuals over time and determine the consequences of this variation for the evolution of both behaviour and life history. The project will focus on killer whales that live in the coastal waters of Washington State and British Columbia. The killer whales in this region have been studied for over four decades by the Center for Whale research who have collected detailed data on hundreds of known individuals documenting their birth, death, and patterns of social behaviour.

This project will use both historical data and new data collected over the duration of the project to construct social networks to quantify variation in kinship networks and determine how an individual’s social environment changes over time. Survival analysis will be used to examine the link between social structure and survival. Depending on the interests and background of the student there may also be the opportunity to examine these questions theoretically using computer simulations. The outputs of this work will establish the consequences of kin structure for patterns of survival and reproduction in killer whales and determine how these effects differ among individuals and change over time.


The combined expertise of the supervisory team will provide the student with a broad, interdisciplinary training. The student will receive training in methods to study marine mammal behaviour and ecology. The project will provide opportunities to visit the study population (in partnership with the Center for Whale Research) in the USA to participate in data collection which will be used during the PhD. The student will get training in advance statistical methods for the analysis of social and life history data including social network analysis and survival analysis.

Funding Notes

“NERC GW4+ funded studentship available for September 2019 entry. For eligible students, the studentship will provide funding of fees and a stipend which is currently £14,777 per annum for 2018-19.


Students from EU countries who do not meet the residency requirements may still be eligible for a fees-only award but no stipend. Applicants who are classed as International for tuition fee purposes are not eligible for funding.”


Brent LJN, Franks DW, Foster EA, Balcomb KC, Cant MA, Croft DP (2015). Ecological knowledge, leadership, and the evolution of menopause in killer whales. Current Biology, 25(6), 746-750.

Croft DP, Johnstone RA, Ellis S, Nattrass S, Franks DW, Brent LJN, Mazzi S, Balcomb KC, Ford JKB and Cant MA, (2017). Reproductive Conflict and the Evolution of Menopause in Killer Whales. Current Biology, 27(2), 298-304.

Foster EA, Franks DW, Mazzi S, Darden SK, Balcomb KC, Ford JKB, Croft DP (2012). Adaptive prolonged postreproductive life span in killer whales. Science, 337(6100).

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