University of Leeds Featured PhD Programmes
University of Kent Featured PhD Programmes
University of Liverpool Featured PhD Programmes
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council Featured PhD Programmes
University of Bristol Featured PhD Programmes

Investigating how spatial memory ability influences foraging and caching behaviour in a wild bird

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Applications accepted all year round
  • Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
    Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

Project Description

I am seeking a highly motivated PhD student to be part of programme exploring the function and evolution of cognitive traits in a wild bird population. The 3-year PhD studentship will be supervised by Dr Rachael Shaw in the School of Biological Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

How does intelligence evolve? Although this question has long fascinated researchers, the evolution of cognitive traits remains poorly understood. For the vast majority of wild animals, investigating the behavioural and reproductive correlates of cognitive ability is not feasible [1–3]. However, our group’s research has established the North Island robin (Petroica longipes; hereafter toutouwai) population at Zealandia sanctuary in Wellington, New Zealand as a highly tractable system for studying the evolutionary ecology of cognitive traits [4–7]

Our recent research reveals that cognitive performance in a spatial task influences male toutouwai reproductive success and provisioning behaviour [5]. However, the links between spatial memory, natural prey search efficiency and cache retrieval have yet to be examined in this species. The successful PhD candidate will create new approaches to robustly measure cognitive performance in the spatial domain in free living toutouwai (building on our existing methodologies [5–7]). They will also explore the cues used by toutouwai during foraging and cache retrieval. Ultimately, this research will reveal how spatial memory ability influences the foraging, caching and provisioning behaviour of wild toutouwai.

PhD project aims:
1. Develop methods to robustly quantify individual variation in cognitive ability in the spatial domain for wild toutouwai.
2. Investigate the spatial cues used by toutouwai during foraging and cache retrieval.
3. Examine how spatial memory performance influences caching, foraging and provisioning behaviour in wild toutouwai.

The successful candidate will be a highly motivated researcher, with a strong background and interest in animal cognition and/or behavioural ecology. Experience working with wild birds and/or animal cognition research will be preferred. This position will be based in Wellington, New Zealand.

Applicants should send a CV, GPA summary, a statement of their research interests and a cover letter to Dr. Rachael Shaw (). Candidates will be considered until the position is filled. The ideal starting date is 1 Aug 2019. International students with strong credentials are welcome and encouraged to apply. For more information about studying at VUW and the entry requirements for the PhD program please see For more information about our lab group, please visit

Funding Notes

This project is supported by the Rutherford Discovery Fellowship (RDF) grant ‘Wild intelligence: Exploring the evolution, function and conservation applications of cognitive traits’.

The successful applicant will receive a stipend of NZD $27,500 per year for three years, have their PhD fees covered, and their research costs supported by the RDF scheme (View Website)


1. Rowe, C., and Healy, S.D. (2014). Measuring variation in cognition. Behav. Ecol. 25, 1287–1292.
2. Morand-Ferron, J., Cole, E.F., and Quinn, J.L. (2016). Studying the evolutionary ecology of cognition in the wild: a review of practical and conceptual challenges. Biol. Rev. 91, 367–389.
3. Thornton, A., Isden, J., and Madden, J.R. (2014). Toward wild psychometrics: linking individual cognitive differences to fitness. Behav. Ecol. 25, 1299–1301.
4. Shaw, R.C. (2017). Testing cognition in the wild: factors affecting performance and individual consistency in two measures of avian cognition. Behav. Processes 134, 31–36.
5. Shaw, R.C., MacKinlay, R.D., Clayton, N.S., and Burns, K.C. (In press) Memory performance influences male reproductive success in the wild. Curr. Biol.
6. MacKinlay, R.D., and Shaw, R.C. (2018). Male New Zealand robin (Petroica longipes) song repertoire size does not correlate with cognitive performance in the wild. Intelligence.
7. Shaw, R.C., Boogert, N.J., Clayton, N.S., and Burns, K.C. (2015). Wild psychometrics: evidence for ‘general’ cognitive performance in wild New Zealand robins, Petroica longipes. Anim. Behav. 109, 101–111.

Email Now

Insert previous message below for editing? 
You haven’t included a message. Providing a specific message means universities will take your enquiry more seriously and helps them provide the information you need.
Why not add a message here
* required field
Send a copy to me for my own records.

Your enquiry has been emailed successfully

FindAPhD. Copyright 2005-2019
All rights reserved.