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The form and function of dynamic courtship displays in bowerbirds. PhD in Biosciences (NERC GW4 + DTP)

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Monday, January 06, 2020
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Lead Supervisor
Dr Laura Kelley, Department of Biosciences, Centre for Ecology & Conservation, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisor
Dr Martin How, School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol

Location: University of Exeter, Penryn Campus, Penryn, Cornwall TR10 9FE

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). The GW4+ DTP consists of the GW4 Alliance of research-intensive universities: the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five unique and prestigious Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The partnership aims to provide a broad training in the Earth, Environmental and Life sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in scientific research, business, technology and policy-making. For further details about the programme please see

For eligible successful applicants, the studentships comprises:

- An stipend for 3.5 years (currently £15,009 p.a. for 2019/20) in line with UK Research and Innovation rates
- Payment of university tuition fees;
- A research budget of £11,000 for an international conference, lab, field and research expenses;
- A training budget of £3,250 for specialist training courses and expenses.
- Travel and accomodation is covered for all compulsory DTP cohort events.
- No course fees for courses run by the DTP

We are currently advertising projects for a total of 10 studentships at the University of Exeter

Project Background

Male bowerbirds are famous for their complex courtship displays that incorporate a bower decorated with coloured objects, vocalisations, and vigorous display movements. Male great bowerbirds (Ptilonorhynchus nuchalis) also use their bowers to create visual tricks that affect the viewing female’s perception of the colour and size of decorations that he presents during display. Despite the huge variety of signals that males produce when courting females, little is known about how the male’s physical display movements interact with his bower display, whether males modulate their displays in response to social and environmental changes, and how their attractiveness to females is affected. This project will quantify the female perspective of male displays to address these novel questions about interactions among display components, perception, and female choice.

Project Aims and Methods

This project will increase our understanding of movement-based courtship displays and their interaction with an extended phenotype by addressing the following questions:

1. How do females see male displays? When displaying to a female, a male will pick up, shake and toss a variety of coloured objects of two distinct shapes, interspersed with shaking their pink crest. By videoing the male’s display from the female’s point of view from within the bower, this component of the project will quantify how the motion of both the male and the objects he displays are perceived by the female, how males vary in their displays, and whether females prefer males that produce more vigorous displays.

2. How do display movements interact with other components of display? These experiments will address how the male’s display movements interact with the visual background and light environment by manipulating them and assessing changes in male displays. We will also use data from bower measurements and male displays to determine whether there are trade-offs or positive associations in the quality of different display components.

3. Do males improve their displays over time? Immature males spend up to seven years learning how to build bowers, and changes in display quality over time are poorly understood in this species. By quantifying the changes in courtship displays of individually identifiable males over multiple years, we will gain insights into the development of courtship behaviour, and will quantify the effects that social and environmental factors have on display quality.

The questions addressed in this project can be adjusted where possible to take into account the successful candidate’s specific research interests.

Funding Notes

NERC GW4+ funded studentship available for September 2020 entry. For eligible students, the studentship will provide funding of fees and a stipend which is currently £15,009 per annum for 2019-20.


References / Background reading list

Kelley, LA & Endler, JA (2012) Illusions promote mating success in great bowerbirds. Science, 335, 335-338.

Endler, JA, Gaburro, J, Kelley, LA (2014) Visual effects in great bowerbird sexual displays and their implications for signal design. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 281, 20140235.

Byers, J, Hebets, E, & Podos, J (2010) Female mate choice based upon male motor performance. Animal Behaviour, 79, 771-778.

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