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The collective behaviour, social structure and physiology of flocking in birds

   School of Biological Sciences

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  Dr S Portugal  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

About the Project

This project is co-supervised by Dr Dora Biro (University of Oxford) and Dr Emily Shepard (University of Swansea)

Some of the most impressive biological phenomena emerge out of interactions among members of animal groups. Bird flocks, fish schools and insect swarms perform highly coordinated collective movements that can encompass thousands of individuals, producing complex group-level patterns that are difficult to predict from the behaviour of only isolated individuals. Functions of moving in groups can be energetic savings and improved navigation during collective locomotion. These energetic savings can be accrued through, for example, positive aero- or hydro-dynamic interactions: crustaceans, fish, marine mammals, and V-formation in birds have been shown to benefit energetically from moving together with conspecifics. However, it has been demonstrated that in clusters-flocking pigeons, some birds are at an energetic disadvantage if flying at the back of the flock.

This project aims to look at the implications of social structure, positioning within flock, morphology, and metabolism during group flights, using Homing Pigeons as a model system. Using a combination of tri-axial accelerometry, GPS loggers and techniques for measuring energy expenditure, this project aims to investigate work rate during flights (via flap frequency, flight speeds and wing amplitude), position within flock (GPS) post-flight recovery (respirometry), personality and social structure (behavioural trials), during homing flights in pigeons.

This project will involve working closely with birds, including animal husbandry, and a driving license will be required for experiments.

Key words: Energetics, Navigation, Personality

Funding Notes

The studentship will cover tuition fees at Home/EU level and provide an annual tax-free maintenance allowance for 3 years at Research Councils UK rates (£16,057 in 2015/16). We welcome applications from candidates eligible for Home/EU fees, which includes European nationals.


Portugal, S. J., Hubel, T. Y., Hailes, S., Heese, S., Trobe, D., Voekl, B., Fritz, J., Wilson, A. & Usherwood, J. (2014) Position and flap phasing between ibises in formation flight: evidence for upwash exploitation and downwash avoidance? Nature. 505: 399-402.

Voelkl, B., Portugal, S.J., Unsold, M., Usherwood, J.R., Wilson, A.M., & Fritz, J. (2015) Matching times of leading and following suggest cooperation through direct reciprocity during V-formation flight of Northern bald ibis. PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States). 112: 2115-2120.
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