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Why do individual Seychelles warblers age differently?

   Faculty of Biological Sciences

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  Dr Hannah Dugdale, Dr A Sparks, Prof D S Richardson  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

About the Project

One of the most profound challenges we all face is our deterioration with age - a process known as senescence. Individuals clearly senesce differently, in both the age they start to deteriorate and the rate of their decline. However, the underlying causes of these differences in senescence patterns remain poorly understood. In particular, little is known about whether individual characteristics (e.g. morphological, physiological, immunological or reproductive traits) senesce at the same age or rate, and how genetics and environmental effects interact to impact on senescence patterns in natural populations. To devise better medical and veterinary treatments it is crucial to improve our understanding of the internal (cellular, genetic) and external (environmental) basis of individual differences in senescence. This will help clarify why some individuals are less able to buffer against senescence, perhaps, for example, due to their genetic makeup or because of long-term impacts of a poor early-life environment.

This PhD will investigate the relative impact of environmental and genetic factors on senescence using the model Seychelles warbler system. Seychelles warblers live in a highly variable environment and there is considerable variable in senescence patterns between individuals. You will have access to the exceptional Seychelles warbler dataset, which contains complete life-histories of all individuals in the Cousin island study population over 11 generations and >20 years. With its uncompromised fitness estimates, detailed environmental data and well understood kin selection effects this dataset provides a unique and powerful resource for investigating individual variation in senescence. You will also gain skills in fieldwork, genomics, quantitative genetics and statistics. For example, path analysis will be used to determine the relationships between environmental and genetic effects on the senescence of multiple traits, while genomic data will be used to infer inbreeding and determine consequences for senescence. Molecular, statistical and field skills are an advantage, but training will be provided - you just need a passion for ecology and evolutionary biology research! You will benefit from working with all members of the Seychelles Warbler Project (http://seychelles-warbler-project.group.shef.ac.uk) and a vibrant academic environment at the University of Leeds, including training programs through LeedsOmics (http://www.leedsomics.org).

The successful student will work with leading researchers at the Universities of Leeds, East Anglia, Sheffield and Groningen to investigate individual variation in senescence. You will address the following fundamental questions in evolutionary biology:
1. Within individuals is the senescence of morphological, immunological, physiological and reproductive traits synchronized, and is there individual variation in these patterns?
2. Do individuals raised in good early-life conditions senesce later or slower than those born in poor conditions?
3. Does inbreeding affect the senescence of individuals?
4. What is the relative impact of genetic and environmental effects on senescence?

This will improve our understanding of how and why some individuals live longer, healthier lives, and provide important insights into ways of mitigating senescence.

Applicants must hold at least a 2.1 Honours or Masters degree in a relevant subject, and have a keen interest in molecular ecology and life-history evolution. Previous experience of bird ringing, behavioural observations, fieldwork in harsh environments, molecular techniques, Access databases and statistics would be beneficial; however, excellent training will be provided (e.g. www.fbs.leeds.ac.uk/postgraduate/professionaldev.php). You will be required to conduct fieldwork for a minimum of three seasons (3 months per season).

You will be supervised by Dr Hannah Dugdale and Dr Alex Sparks (Leeds) and Prof David S Richardson (East Anglia) and collaborate with Profs Terry Burke (Sheffield) and Jan Komdeur (Groningen).

Funding Notes

The Faculty of Biological Sciences is pleased to announce a number of fully-funded PhD studentships to start in Oct 2019, covering academic fees at UK/EU level and providing a stipend at research council rate (£15,009 for 2019-20) for 4 years. Candidates should have, or be expecting, a 2.1 or above at undergraduate level in a relevant subject. A range of projects, spanning the research areas of the faculty, are eligible for funding. Please apply online, clearly stating which project/supervisor you are interested in and including a CV and transcripts.


Hammers M, Kingma SA, Spurgin LG, Bebbington, K, Dugdale HL, Burke T, Komdeur J & Richardson DS. 2019, Breeders that receive help age more slowly in a cooperatively breeding bird. Nature Communications, 10, 1301

Bebbington K, Spurgin LG, Fairfield EA, Dugdale HL, Komdeur J, Burke T & Richardson DS. 2016. Telomere length reveals cumulative individual and transgenerational inbreeding effects in a passerine bird. Molecular Ecology, 25, 2949-2960

Edwards HA, Burke T, Dugdale HL (2017) Repeatable and heritable behavioural variation in a wild cooperative breeder. Behavioral Ecology, 28, 668–676

Hammers M, Kingma SA, Bebbington K, van de Crommenacker J, Spurgin LG, Richardson DS, Burke T, Dugdale HL, Komdeur J (2015) Senescence in the wild: Insight from a long-term study on Seychelles warblers. Experimental Gerontology, 71, 69–79 www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0531556515300425

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