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Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) song ontogeny, evolution and vocal learning

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  • Full or part time
    Dr E Garland
    Dr LE Rendell
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

Project Description

Male humpback whales sing a long and elaborate vocal display. Thousands of males can rapidly and synchronously change their population-specific song to a new version in as little as two months, a feat which is unparalleled in any other animal except humans. Despite our advances in understanding the cultural aspects of song, we have little understanding of song development at an individual level and how factors such as age may affect the cultural transmission of the song. Recent advances have enabled the age of humpback whales to be determined from skin samples that have been collected for genetic analyses (the Humpback Epigenetic Age Assay). Using acoustic and epigenetic data, this PhD project seeks to study how the age of males may govern changes in the song.

The student will be based at the University of St Andrews under the supervision of Dr Ellen Garland, and co-supervised by Dr Luke Rendell (St Andrews), in collaboration with Dr Claire Garrigue (IRD UMR ENTROPIE), Dr Emma Carroll (St Andrews & University of Auckland) and Dr Simon Jarmon (Curtin University/CSIRO). Candidates should have a strong background in behavioural ecology or evolutionary biology. Knowledge or experience in bioacoustics or laboratory genetic analysis is essential, and experience of both desirable. Candidates with a genetic background are encouraged to apply but should note the strong focus on acoustics, which will require substantial acoustic analysis to be undertaken. However, training in molecular or acoustic techniques will be tailored to the candidate’s experience. The student will be expected to participate in annual fieldwork lasting two to three months in semi-remote locations, along with visits to the epigenetic ageing facility. Previous field experience involving small boats, marine mammals, and remote locations would be advantageous. The candidate should have strong communication (oral and written) and interpersonal skills given the collaborative nature of the project and extended fieldwork. The ability to speak French would also be desirable (but not essential).

Please send any enquiries to Dr Ellen Garland at [Email Address Removed] with the subject line: PhD studentship - ageing. Applications will need to be submitted online through the St Andrews system. Please include a cover letter, CV, 1-page project proposal, academic transcripts, writing sample and English language test (if required).

Funding Notes

General requirements include a background in evolutionary and behavioural biology, and a BSc (Hons) or MSc degree (first class) in a relevant discipline. Students must attain a 2:1 or higher in order to be eligible for the studentship as this project is funded by the Royal Society. The funding includes a four-year studentship (fees and stipend) funded at Home (UK/EU) fee level. International students may apply but will be responsible for the difference in fees; a fee waiver scholarship may be available for outstanding candidates.


Payne & McVay, Science 173:585. Noad et al., Nature 408:537. Garland et al., Curr Biol 21:687. Garland et al., PNAS 114:7822. Polanowski et al., Mol Ecol Resour 14:976.

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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