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The social lives of rabbits: understanding the structure and consequences of sociality, NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship for 2023 Entry, PhD in Psychology.

   College of Life and Environmental Sciences

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  Dr Sam Ellis  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

About the Partnership

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science.

Project Background

Recent research has found connections between social structure and fitness in several species, including humans. However, the pathways by which social structure effects fitness remain largely unknown. Several have been proposed: for example well-connected individuals could be in a better position to learn beneficial social information, or have more reliable cooperative partners- but well-connected individuals may also be more likely to contract socially transmitted diseases. Disentangling the pathways by which social structure effects fitness is a major outstanding question in social evolution. 

Attempts to answer this question have, to date, focussed on long-lived slow-reproducing species such as primates and cetaceans. But sociality is widespread in nature and remains unclear how the social environment can affect fitness in other taxa with different life histories. Enter rabbits. European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) are obligately social, but the structure of their social environment, and how it affects them, remains largely unknown. They also have a fast life-history with short lifespans are rapid reproduction, making them the ideal system to investigate the links between social structure and fitness. In this project a student will use the European rabbit population inhabiting the University of Exeter Campus to understand the mechanisms by which sociality can affect survival in a fast-living obligatory social mammal.

Project Aims and Methods

The project will involve fieldwork on the University of Exeter Streatham campus. Rabbits will be individually marked using ear tags and PIT tags. By observing the behaviour of marked rabbits in the wild we build up a picture of the space use and social interactions of individual rabbits. There is also the potential to explore the use of technology such as proximity tags to get more detailed social data. Over the course of the study the student will monitor all births and deaths in the population which we can then link to social structure, ecology of the individual rabbits to understand the mechanisms linked social structure and fitness in a novel field system. Although the project has several aims because the project will involve setting up a new field system there is considerable scope for the student to explore other questions and directions as they arise. 

Specific Objectives

1. Investigate the social structure and particularly the social network structure of European rabbits 

2. Quantify how the social environment of rabbits is linked to the spatial structure of the ecological environment, particularly the presence of warrens and the distribution of predators. 

3. Establish how the social structure and social decisions of European rabbits influence their fitness (e.g. survival and reproductive success). 

Candidate requirements

We are looking for someone who is strongly motivated to do scientific research, works well independently and in a team, and has a keen interest in animal behaviour and evolution. Prior experience of working with animals and/or statistical analysis in R would be an asset, but are not required.

Project partners 

The candidate will be supervised by a cross-institutional team from two leading research universities, with strengths in animal behaviour and social evolution. The proximity of the institutions will mean that the candidate will be benefit by interacting with researchers and take advantage of opportunities in both locations.


The student will receive expert training from the supervisory team in studying social behaviour, performing fieldwork and advanced statistical techniques. They will be embedded in Exeter’s Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour (CRAB), a vibrant research environment with regular seminars, workshops and opportunities for collaboration. The student will be encouraged to present their findings at scientific conferences and participate in public outreach activities in UK.


NERC GW4+ DTP studentships are open to UK and Irish nationals who, if successful in their applications, will receive a full studentship including payment of university tuition fees at the home fees rate.

A limited number of full studentships are also available to international students which are defined as EU (excluding Irish nationals), EEA, Swiss and all other non-UK nationals. For further details please see the NERC GW4+ website.

Those not meeting the nationality and residency requirements to be treated as a ‘home’ student may apply for a limited number of full studentships for international students. Although international students are usually charged a higher tuition fee rate than ‘home’ students, those international students offered a NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership full studentship starting in 2023 will only be charged the ‘home’ tuition fee rate (which will be covered by the studentship). 

International applicants need to be aware that you will have to cover the cost of your student visa, healthcare surcharge and other costs of moving to the UK to do a PhD. More information on this is available from the universities you are applying to (contact details are provided in the project description that you are interested in.

How to apply

The closing date for applications is 2359 hours GMT Monday 9 January 2023. Interviews will be held between 22 February and 8 March 2023. For more information about the NERC GW4+ DPT please visit

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email [Email Address Removed]. Project-specific queries should be directed to the lead supervisor.

For further information including entry requirements and criteria, and to submit an application please visit -

Funding Notes

For eligible successful applicants, the studentships comprises:
An stipend for 3.5 years (currently £17,668 p.a. for 2022-23) 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


Cowan DP (1987) Aspects of the Social Organisation of the European Wild Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). Ethology 75:197–210.
Cowan DP (1987) Group Living in the European Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus): Mutual Benefit or Resource Localization? Journal of Animal Ecology 56:779–795.
Ellis S, Snyder-Mackler N, Ruiz-Lambides A, et al (2019) Deconstructing sociality: the types of social connections that predict longevity in a group-living primate. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 286:1–10
Snyder-Mackler N, Burger JR, Gaydosh L, et al (2020) Social determinants of health and survival in humans and other animals. Science 368:eaax9553
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