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The macroevolutionary diversification and elaboration of antlers in deer


Project Description

The antlers of members of the deer family have long captivated naturalists around the world. Among evolutionary biologists, antlers have become a textbook example of what is known as positive allometry—a relationship where larger individuals have disproportionately large antlers. On scales of millions of years, this relationship is what led to the evolution of gigantic antlers in the extinct Irish Elk. This relationship also holds within species: larger Red Deer individuals, for instance, possess large antlers, even relative to their large body size. Yet, while this pattern of positive allometry is present within and across species, there has been no comprehensive study investigating the evolution of this relationship in all deer. Moreover, there remain several competing explanations for why large antlers have evolved in the first place.
For this project, the student will reconcile phylogenetic hypotheses from several recent studies to create a time-calibrated phylogeny of deer. Using this phylogeny, in combination with a database of interspecific variation in body and antler size among deer species, the student will test several competing hypotheses about evolutionary dynamics of allometric growth of antlers: the evolutionary constraint hypothesis (antler elaboration is limited by the physical environments in which species live), the social selection hypothesis (antlers have evolved to mediate intraspecific social interactions), and the antipredator mechanism hypothesis (large antlers have evolved as a deterrent to predators).
The student will employ cutting-edge phylogenetic reconstruction techniques to create a time-calibrated phylogeny of the deer family (Cervidae) using genetic and fossil datasets from previously published, but incomplete, phylogenies. The student will compile a database of morphological measurements from which to calculate allometric slopes by searching the literature for existing measurements and visiting U.K. museums to make new measurements. To test the various hypotheses about the evolutionary history of allometric growth relationships, the student will design and implement several phylogenetic models. For instance, to test the antipredator mechanism hypothesis, the student will adapt a set of recently developed, explicit biogeographic models to test whether the presence and diversity of large carnivores has impacted the evolutionary dynamics of the allometric slopes throughout the evolutionary history of the clade.

Funding Notes

(Whitehouse Trust Studentship, 3years if successful)
This project is in competition with others for funding. Success will depend on the quality of applications received, relative to those for competing projects. If you are interested in applying, in the first instance contact the supervisor, with a CV and covering letter (inquiries by 7 December 2018, please), detailing your reasons for applying for the project.

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