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NERC GW4+ DTP PhD Studentship: Sexual selection, mating systems and speciation: testing a novel hypothesis using genomic data

  • 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

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 Exeter plus six Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Met Office, 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 .

Supervisory team -

Main Supervisor: Prof. Tamas Szekely, Department of Biology and Biochemistry, University of Bath
Co-Supervisor: Prof. Michael Bruford, School of Biosciences, Cardiff University
Co-Supervisor: Dr. Araxi Urrutia, Department of Biology and Biochemistry, University of Bath
Co-Supervisor: Prof. Guojie Zhang, Beijing Genomics Institute, China

CASE partner: BGI (Beijing Genomics Institute)
BGI is a world-leader in genomics and bioinformatics ( and they produce cutting edge scientific results by carrying out large-scale analyses as part of BIG DATA biology.

Project background -

Sexual selection is usually viewed as an engine of speciation, although recent works by our group show that this textbook example of speciation is not correct. Working in Madagascar, we found that the monogamous Madagascan plovers that return to breed to the same place year after year, so that they exhibit highly structured populations whereas polygynous Kittlitz’s plovers seek out mates in distant breeding locations that lead to mixing the breeding gene pool over large geographic distances. Our more recent work across 6 monogamous and 4 polygamous shorebirds confirmed these patterns since in polygamous species that are under strong sexual selection the adults move between breeding sites to find mates. By moving, they blend the gene pool which reduces the diversification between geographically different breeding populations. In contrast, adults in monogamous species find mates more easily and thus move less resulting in greater isolation between breeding sites and the accumulation of higher genetic differences between the populations over time.

Project aims and methods -

The objective of this NERC DTP Studentship is to test whether sexual selection leads to reduced geographical diversification using Arctic shorebirds as model organisms. Shorebirds (sandpipers, plovers and allies) are highly suitable for this project: they exhibit one of the highest variations in the intensity of sexual selection as represented by monogamous, polygynous and polyandrous matings. By collecting DNA from different species that nest over large geographic areas, we will compare for the first time the genetic structure of populations between monogamous and polygamous shorebirds that may breed 1000s of km apart. To compare these populations, we will apply genome wide sequence analyses and a novel transcriptome-based methodology developed by our group to assess genetic diversity and population structuring. Transcriptome sequencing will allow independent molecular assessment of the extent of sexual selection complementing behavioural and morphological assessments as well as identifying selected molecular functions. Such an integrated and systematic approach has never been attempted before to assess the impacts of sexual selection on wild bird populations.

The student will have substantial freedom setting up his/her own research hypotheses and designing the tests of these hypotheses using a combination of fieldwork, behavioural observations and advanced genomics.

Candidate -

We are seeking candidates with strong interest in evolution, behaviour and conservation genetics/genomics. Excellent quantitative skills are required to perform data analyses and run mathematical simulations, and stamina and curiosity to carry out fieldwork in harsh environments. Innovative thinking and ability to solve problems on the spot will be necessary to draw links between disparate sources of data. The student will join three internationally leading research teams, and will benefit from our extensive network of collaborators, students and conservationists.

Anticipated start date: 30 September 2019

Candidates should apply using University of Bath’s online application form

You may apply for more than one project if you wish but you should submit a separate personal statement relevant to each one.

Further information on the Department of Biology & Biochemistry may be found here

Funding Notes

NERC GW4+ DTP funding is for 3.5 years and is open to UK and EU applicants who have been resident in the UK for 3 years or more.

A studentship will provide UK/EU tuition fees, a stipend in line with the UKRI rate (£14,777 per annum for 2018-19) and a generous budget for research expenses and training. For further information please visit View Website


1. Eberhart-Phillips, L. J et al. 2015. Contrasting genetic diversity and population structure among three sympatric Madagascan shorebirds: parallels with rarity, endemism, and dispersal propensity. Ecology and Evolution 5: 997-1010.
2. D’Urban Jackson, J. et al. 2017. Polygamy slows down population divergence in shorebirds. Evolution 71: 1313-1326.
3. Pan S, et al. 2017. Population transcriptomes reveal synergistic responses of DNA polymorphism and RNA expression to extreme environments on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau in a predatory bird. Molecular Ecology 26, 2993–3010.
4. Kubelka, V. et al. 2018. Global pattern of nest predation is disrupted by climate change in shorebirds. Science (in press).

How good is research at University of Bath in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 24.50

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

Click here to see the results for all UK universities

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