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About the Project

In many bird species, young males learn their songs from their fathers. But, learning occurs with error, so songs can change over generations. This culturally transmitted behaviour fascinates the public and has important implications for conservation. Birds use songs to choose mates. If songs diverge among partly isolated populations, this may prevent those populations from exchanging genes and threaten species viability. Data-driven mechanistic models of the evolution of birdsong could help us understand birdsong evolution, but few such models exist.

Birdsong evolution is in some ways analogous to genome evolution. Notes are like nucleotides, and mutations (i.e., errors in copying) can change one note to another. Notes or song segments can be inserted, deleted, or duplicated. Tools from molecular phylogenetics may thus provide a foundation for modelling such changes. However, there are important differences between genomes and birdsongs. For example, individuals have a single genome, but a bird may sing many different songs. Genomes are comprised of only four different nucleotides, but birdsongs may have more than four different notes, and in principle entirely new notes can arise. Furthermore, because changes between related birdsongs are more common than genetic changes, aligning birdsongs for study is difficult, and inferences may need to be drawn from multiple possible alignments. Novel approaches are needed to overcome these challenges.

The student on this PhD will develop new models to predict birdsong evolution. These models will help explain how animal cultures evolve, and will have applications for in situ and ex situ conservation. Students with strong backgrounds in maths, physics, computer science, or mathematical and computational approaches in their own fields are particularly encouraged to apply.

The project will be advised by Tucker Gilman (Earth and Environmental Science), Mark Muldoon (Mathematics) and Pat Strycharczuk (Linguistics) at the University of Manchester and Masayo Soma (Biology) at the University of Hokkaido.
Please contact with questions, or for information on
how to apply.

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