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Neural correlates of social hierarchies

   Faculty of Science

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  Dr William Swaney, Dr A Reddon, Dr Chrysanthi Fergani  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Sociality is widespread across the animal kingdom, ranging from simple aggregations to long-lived groups with complex relationships and social behaviours. The proximate mechanisms of sociality are an ongoing topic of research interest, and understanding the neurobiology of social behaviour is helping to shed light on its evolution in animals. We are investigating social behaviour in the daffodil cichlid (Neolamprologus pulcher), an east African freshwater fish that forms cooperatively-breeding social groups around a dominant breeder pair, both in the wild and in captivity. Groups of daffodil cichlids exhibit complex social behaviour, with clear dominance hierarchies, division of labour between individuals, and dynamic aggressive and submissive signalling, making them a highly tractable model for studying sociality in the laboratory.

In this project, the student will study how individuals' rank and role within hierarchical social groups is associated with variation in the social brain. The student will examine functional differences in social brain networks between individuals of different social status, and measure the neurobiological changes seen in individuals who are exposed to dominant and submissive signals, and who change rank and role within social groups.

The project will involve integrative research including behavioural assays, neuroscience and genetics, working with laboratory populations of daffodil cichlids in our custom fish facilities at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU). The aim of the project is to understand the neurobiological basis of social hierarchies in this emerging model organism for social behaviour research. The student will receive broad training in transferable scientific skills including experimental design, behavioural measurement, histology and neuroanatomy, gene expression assays, data handling, and statistical analysis.

Prospective students should have a keen interest in and desire to develop their knowledge of animal behaviour, neurobiology, and evolution, with good bachelor's and master's degrees in relevant disciplines. The student will work in the School of Biological and Environmental Sciences at LJMU, supervised by Dr. Will Swaney, Dr. Adam Reddon and Dr. Chrysanthi Fergani.

Funding Notes

The selected student will be entered for intramural funding via the 2023/24 LJMU VC PhD Studentship competition. If successful, the student will receive three years funding covering tuition fees, UKRI-standard student stipend and research support. If successful in the funding competition, the student will start in February 2024.
The competition is open to UK home students and international students, and applications from candidates from under-represented ethnic minority backgrounds are encouraged. Please see for full details of the funding competition and for eligibility.


Applicants should email a CV including contact details of two referees, and a cover letter detailing their suitability for the project, their experience and motivation, to Dr. Will Swaney:
Shortlisted applicants will be contacted for interview in early July.
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