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  Presence and drivers of geographic variation in delphinid vocal signals


   School of Biology

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  Prof V M Janik, Dr Julie Oswald, Prof B Wilson  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

Understanding the variation present in animal signals can provide insight into drivers behind it, such as the social structure, ecology, distribution and genetic diversity present in populations. Geographic variation specifically has been observed in the vocalisations of several taxa and in some, particularly birds, has been likened to the presence of vocal dialects. Dialects in marine mammals have been reported for northern elephant seal, killer whales, and sperm whales. Though previous studies have been conducted to investigate geographic variation in delphinid vocalisations, little is known about such variation in UK waters. Methodological issues in previous studies have also led to unclear results since variation between groups might not represent geographic variation when sample sizes are low for animals that show large inter-individual and group diversity within geographic regions. Additionally, the vast majority of delphinid communication research focusses on their whistles alone when the animals also produce a variety of click sounds. Several odontocete species do not produce whistles, suggesting that there are communicative aspects in these other non-whistle vocalisations. Finally, the drivers of variation in delphinid vocalisations remain largely unknown. In Northern and Southern Resident killer whale ecotypes off British Columbia, dialects show a strong correlation with relatedness, with different clans utilising distinct vocal repertoires from one another. However, it could also be the case that differences in behaviour (e.g. proportion of time spent foraging) elicit vocal differences as certain populations utilise behaviourally specific calls more often than others. Preliminary study indicates that bottlenose dolphins on the East and West coasts of Scotland acoustically differ from one another substantially, providing some evidence for the presence of dialects given their geographical proximity and mixing potential. Other UK species such as Risso’s dolphins and white-beaked dolphins can be found around the UK and their population structure has not been studied here before. The proposed study will perform acoustic analyses on the vocal repertoires (whistles and clicks) of wild delphinid species in the waters of the Northeast Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, evaluating potential similarities or discrepancies between the vocalisations of individuals, groups and geographic locations. Additionally, the role of potential drivers of any variation, such as behavioural context or learning, environmental variables and relatedness, will be investigated via behavioural observations, photo identification, and available environmental and genetic data. 

Detailed information on the acoustic parameters of delphinid signals in the Northeast Atlantic region can also inform ongoing research into the development of acoustic species classifiers for delphinids in these waters. A greater understanding of the vocal variation within a species can improve the likelihood of correct species classification, in turn generating more reliable data on species distributions and habitat use of these animals. These data can inform policy on conservation and industrial development and are thus vital for the protection of these species. Information on the nature and drivers of this variation will also provide further information on the social structure and distribution of dolphin groups. Vocal similarities between regions could imply a transfer of individuals between locations or a greater degree of social mixing between groups, which we can evaluate in comparison to photo or genetic based relatedness measures and immediate behavioural context. The level of this mixing could, in turn, affect the recruitment potential of these populations and thus their resilience to disturbance, bycatch and strandings. The results of this study will inform marine policy makers and offshore development, as more isolated populations could potentially be at greater risk to habitat disturbance and population decline.

The following objectives will be addressed in this project:

-         Describe geographic variation in vocalizations of bottlenose dolphins, white-beaked dolphins and Risso’s dolphins around the UK

-         Investigate the role of behaviour, repeated encounters and sample sizes in dolphin recordings when investigating geographic variation in vocalizations

-         Investigate the effects of geographic variation on the performance of acoustic classifiers used by industry and regulators for monitoring delphinids in the wild 

-         Identify dialect boundaries that could indicate separate evolutionarily significant units within populations

-         Explore how environmental factors relate to the occurrence of evolutionarily significant units and, for bottlenose dolphins, how they relate to genetic variation.

How to apply

Candidates must submit an online application by 31 March 2024 at the following link: https://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/study/apply/postgraduate/research/. You shouldapply to the School of Biology. The application should include:

-    CV

-    Transcripts (undergraduate and/or master’s degrees)

-    Names and contact details of two referees

-    English language qualifications, if applicable (this does not need to be completed at the time of application)

-    Statement of Purpose (max 800 words)

In the statement of purpose, applicants must:

1) explain what aspects within the research topic they would concentrate on and why; and 2) outline their skills and experience that make them suited to undertake the research outlined.

Shortlisted applicants will be interviewed in April and decisions made in early May.

For project enquiries, please contact Prof Vincent Janik ([Email Address Removed])

For application enquiries, please contact Rachel Horn ([Email Address Removed])


Biological Sciences (4) Computer Science (8)

Funding Notes

Please note that this opportunity is open to Home/UK applicants only.
The 3.5 year (42 month) studentship includes:
• Home (UK) rate tuition fees each year;
• A yearly stipend based on RCUK rates (£18,622 for the 2023/24 academic year); and
• Separate funding for research training and professional development

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