QUADRAT DTP: Trait-based and cultural dimensions of the global vertebrate pet trade

   School of Biological Sciences

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  Dr Catherine Sheard, Dr I Capellini  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

This fully funded, 42-month PhD project is part of the QUADRAT Doctoral Training Partnership.

The vertebrate wildlife trade is worth billions of pounds per year, and the volume and diversity of traded species has increased substantially over the past few decades. This global-scale trade industry contributes to the decline of biodiversity by removing individuals from the wild (e.g., Hyacinth Macaw, Bali Myna), increasing opportunities for escaped pets to establish harmful populations outside of their native ranges (e.g., hippos in Colombia, Burmese pythons in Florida), and promoting the spread of disease (e.g., squirrel pox). However, despite the global importance of the vertebrate pet trade to both the economy and ecosystem health, little is known about the factors driving spatial and temporal variation in this trade. Therefore, the scientific capacity to manage the consequences of the pet trade on biodiversity remains in an early stage.

Globally, vertebrate species that are preferred for trade tend to share key characteristics, such as bright colours, life histories amenable to survival in captivity, and rarity (Hughes et al. 2022). These characteristics, however, are not valued equally around the world. Cultural taboos against the keeping of dogs and other mammals, for example, may lead to the proliferation of the bird trade, or while the availability of local species and/or local conservation laws may determine the ratio of domestic versus imported species available for either legal or illegal trade.

 Beginning with pre-existing global databases of the vertebrate pet trade and of species-level biological traits (e.g., morphology, behaviour, life history), the student will use state-of-the-art computational methods to map and analyse spatial variation in these trade patterns. They will then collect data on human characteristics (such as national laws and cultural traditions) and combine methods from cultural evolution and phylogenetic comparative analysis to link the ecological and anthropological forces driving this variation. Finally, the student will apply this newfound understanding of the vertebrate pet trade to predict how future conservation decisions might shape the relationship between the pet trade and biodiversity.

This interdisciplinary project combines traditional trait-based approaches to identifying species likely to be traded (e.g., Senior et al. 2022, Street et al., 2023) with a cultural evolution approach simultaneously considering the variation in human regard for those traits. The student will be joining a team of supervisors and labs with strong expertise in the use of phylogenetic comparative methods to study both biological and cultural variation, ecological and evolutionary theory, and invasion biology, with taxonomic expertise in birds (Sheard), reptiles and amphibians (Pincheira-Donoso), and across vertebrates (Capellini). The project team will provide support and training in project design, data collection, and spatial and statistical modelling, and the student will benefit from the range of career-building training sessions and cohort-building activities offered within the School of Biological Sciences (Aberdeen) and across the QUADRAT DTP programme.

Candidate Background:

Given the interdisciplinary nature of this project, the supervisory team is open to a diverse range of potential candidate backgrounds and would encourage interested students to consider what they could contribute to this project even if their background does not perfectly match the description below.


  • Strong mathematical and/or statistical background
  • Previous programming experience
  • Taxonomic knowledge of at least one major vertebrate group and/or a background in cultural evolution
  • Genuine interest in, and ability to engage with, interdisciplinary studies


  • Previous experience with phylogenetic comparative methods

Candidates should have, or expect to achieve, a minimum of a 2.1 Honours degree (or equivalent) in a relevant subject. Applicants with a minimum of a 2.2 Honours degree may be considered providing they have a Distinction at Masters level.

We encourage applications from all backgrounds and communities, and are committed to having a diverse, inclusive team.

Informal enquiries are encouraged, please contact Dr Catherine Sheard ([Email Address Removed]) for further information.



  • Please visit this page for full application information: How To Apply – QUADRAT
  • Please send your completed application form, along with academic transcripts to [Email Address Removed]
  • Please ensure that two written references from your referees are submitted. It is your responsibility to ensure these are provided, as we will not request references on your behalf.
  • Unfortunately, due to workload constraints, we cannot consider incomplete applications.
  • CV's submitted directly through a FindAPhD enquiry WILL NOT be considered.
  • If you require any additional assistance in submitting your application or have any queries about the application process, please don't hesitate to contact us at [Email Address Removed]
Biological Sciences (4)

Funding Notes

This opportunity is open to UK and International students (The proportion of international students appointed through the QUADRAT DTP is capped at 30% by UKRI NERC).
Funding covers:
• A monthly stipend for accommodation and living costs, based on UKRI rates (£18,622 for the 23/24 academic year. Stipend rates for the 24/25 academic year have not been set yet)
• Tuition Fees
• Research and training costs
QUADRAT DTP does not provide funding to cover visa and associated healthcare surcharges for international students.


• Hughes, Liam J., Oscar Morton, Brett R. Scheffers, and David P. Edwards. "The ecological drivers and consequences of wildlife trade." Biological Reviews 98, 3 (2023): 775-791.
• Senior, Rebecca A., Brunno F. Oliveira, James Dale, and Brett R. Scheffers. “Wildlife trade targets colorful birds and threatens the aesthetic value of nature.” Current Biology 32, 19 (2022): 4299-4305.
• Street, Sally E., Jorge S. Gutiérrez, William L. Allen, and Isabella Capellini. "Human activities favour prolific life histories in both traded and introduced vertebrates." Nature Communications 14, 1 (2023): 262.

Where will I study?

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