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QUADRAT DTP: Spineless, or socially skillful? Social competence in insects and spiders


About the Project

This novel behavioural ecology project will comprise a combination of field work on social spiders in Ecuador and laboratory research on cockroaches in Aberdeen to study social competence and its role in evolution.

Organisms engage in frequent fitness relevant social interactions including mating, fighting, cooperation and foraging together in groups. Social interactions are therefore ubiquitous in the natural world and incredibly important for many species’ survival and reproduction. Furthermore, individual organisms of the same species and even living in the same population can vary greatly in their social interactions. They can prefer large or small groups, associate with particular others, or actively avoid certain individuals (we’ve all been there). The active choice of social interaction partners therefore allows organisms to shape the social environment they experience, potentially minimising negative social interactions and maximising positive ones (Flack et al. 2006). The ability to actively mould and manipulate the social environment makes this aspect of experience fundamentally different to how many animals experience the physical environment, and hence the role the social environment plays in the lives of organisms is especially fascinating (Bailey et al. 2018).
However, how extensively animals modify their social environment, whether some are good at it and some are bad at it (a.k.a. their ’social competence’), and the consequences the active shaping of social environments (a.k.a. ’social niche construction’) has for the reproduction of individuals and the evolution of populations is relatively unknown (Taborsky & Oliveira 2012). Further, some animals live in highly social groups, such as colonies of ants. In some circumstances, we might expect groups and societies that contain socially competent individuals to be more productive and to survive longer than groups with socially incompetent members, but whether this is true and the consequences this has for the diversity of animal groups we see in the natural world is unexplored.

In this project the student will work with researchers at both the University of Aberdeen and Queen’s University Belfast to explore how social competence benefits both individuals and groups. This will be using two model systems: a population of gregarious cockroaches, which can be individually marked, manipulated in their social opportunities, and monitored by video cameras in the laboratory in Aberdeen, and a population of remarkable social spiders on the outskirts of the Amazon in Ecuador. The student can expect to learn skills in advanced data collection, management, and analysis, including social network analysis, as well as all the skills required to design complex laboratory experiments and conduct fieldwork in challenging conditions. The student will also develop their understanding of evolutionary biology, ethology, and sociobiology, with the aim of advancing our fundamental understanding of how behavioural variation alters evolutionary change.

The ideal candidate will have an open and enquiring mind and a willingness to learn new methods of data analysis. Some grasp of Spanish, or an interest in learning, would also be useful.

More project details are available here:

How to apply:

Funding Notes

QUADRAT studentships are open to UK and international candidates (EU and non-EU). Funding will cover UK tuition fees/stipend/research & training support grant only.

Before applying please check full funding and eligibility information: View Website


Bailey, Nathan W, Marie-Orleach, Lucas, Moore, Allen J, Simmons, Leigh (2018). Indirect genetic effects in behavioral ecology: does behavior play a special role in evolution? Behav. Ecol. 29, 1-11

Flack, Jessica C, Girvan, Michelle, de Waal, Frans B M, Krakauer, David C (2006). Policing stabilizes construction of social niches in primates. Nature 439, 426-429

Taborsky, Barbara, Oliveira, Rui F. (2012). Social competence: An evolutionary approach. TREE, 27, 679-688

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