[MARMAM] PhD opportunity - seal behaviour

TWISS S.D. s.d.twiss at durham.ac.uk
Thu Feb 10 11:32:40 PST 2011

PhD Studentship opportunity

Project Title: Behavioural mechanisms of inter-male conflict and conflict reduction in a polygynous pinniped.

Supervisor:  Dr. Sean Twiss, Durham University (s.d.twiss at durham.ac.uk)

Location: School of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Durham University, Co. Durham, UK.

www:  http://www.dur.ac.uk/biological.sciences/postgraduate/currentopps/ 

Application deadline: 4th March 2011

NOTE: This project is in competition for funding with other proposed projects at the School of Biological and Biomedical Sciences at Durham University. Funding is potentially available through two competitive routes: (1) NERC (UK's Natural Environment Research Council) though eligibility is restricted to UK citizens or EU citizens who have spent the last 3 years or more in UK education. (2) Durham Doctoral Studentships - open to all nationalities (http://www.dur.ac.uk/science.faculty/funding/ <http://www.dur.ac.uk/science.faculty/funding/> ). Only applications received before the 28th February can be considered for the Durham Doctoral Studentships 

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 Dr. Twiss, with a CV and covering letter, detailing your reasons for applying for the project.


Project description:

Background: Grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) mating patterns are closely linked to resource distribution, in that female grey seals on breeding colonies such as North Rona (Scotland) distribute according to the availability of pools of water on the colony. This leads to aggregations of females, and males compete to maintain priority of access to groups of females.  However, grey seals breed on a wide range of substrates, making them an ideal study system for examining variation in the form of mating pattern in relation to the variation in the social and ecological environment. An expanding breeding colony of grey seals, established on the North Lincolnshire coast at Donna Nook, is now one of the largest grey seal breeding colonies in England. However, little is known about the details of the mating pattern at this expansive beach site, where both topography and sex ratios are markedly different from the more 'typical' offshore breeding colonies. Females are more uniformly distributed, and male densities appear to be higher than at other colonies. However, levels of male-male aggression at Donna Nook appear to be comparatively low. This raises intriguing questions about how male-male conflict is mediated and moderated in this system.


Aims: This study will explore behavioural mechanisms of conflict and conflict reduction in polygynous pinniped systems. The student will define the structure and function of the mating pattern in this colony as a backdrop to individual male behaviour. The primary focus of the research will be to quantify patterns of aggressive behaviour for individually identified males and relate these to the local social and ecological environment including the availability of potential mates, inter-annual patterns of site-fidelity and neighbour identity, in order to elucidate the mechanisms underlying inter-male conflict at this site. The studentship will also involve a comparative study of male-male interactions using archived data from a long term study of a second pinniped species, the Northern fur seal (Callorhinus ursinus) which exhibits even more extreme polygyny. 


Methods: This studentship will combine in-field behavioural observations with fine scale mapping of individuals to quantify local socio-ecological context and examine comparative indices of male size and condition. The student will: (1) Maintain photo-ID catalogues to allow within and between year data collection on known individuals. (2) Establish detailed behavioural profiles of individual males over to quantify individual mating strategies and success, and examine the degree of behavioural consistency/plasticity that individuals exhibit over successive years. (3) Quantify basic breeding season parameters (e.g. sex ratios, densities, inter-annual site-fidelity). (4) Develop techniques to accurately map individual locations on a sub-daily basis to provide spatial data for GIS based analyses of male space use in relation to mate availability and competing males. (5) Develop ground based photogrammetric techniques for remote estimation of male size, and mass as a proxy of relative male energetic expenditure. (6) Conduct comparative studies using existing parallel data from offshore breeding grey seal colonies and Northern fur seal data. (8) Fit collected behavioural and state data to game-theoretic models of conflict resolution.


Timetable of Activities: Starting dates will need to relative to the late autumn (Nov/Dec) breeding season of grey seals at the main study site, therefore the studentship will need to commence in September/October 2011 to provide adequate time for field preparation and initial field work and observational training.  Alternatively, work could commence in early 2012, with a longer period of analysis of exiting data prior to the first field season which in such a case would be autumn 2012. 


Research Training: The student will gain extensive training in field behavioural observation, photo-ID techniques, spatial data manipulation and analyses within a GIS, statistical analyses of multi-dimensional behavioural data, and organisation of fieldwork logistics and safety. The student will present work at national and international conferences.


Candidate requirements: Candidates must show a deep understanding of behavioural and evolutionary ecology and ideally have the equivalent of a first class degree. Candidates must also have prior experience in quantitative behavioural observation (preferably field behavioural observation), and a clear aptitude for identifying individual animals in the wild. Candidates should be able to provide evidence of their ability to conduct prolonged observational fieldwork in harsh (cold and wet) environments, and a capability for field logistics. For the analytical/desk based aspects of the project, candidates should also be able to demonstrate capabilities in statistical analysis of complex multi-variate data. Candidates should also demonstrate an interest in the cross over of empirical field based studies and modelling approaches, such as game theoretical models.

Additional, desirable, but not essential skills: experience in photo-id techniques, experience in using R, experience in manipulation and analysis of spatial data using GIS.




 Dr. Sean Twiss,
 Lecturer in Behavioural Ecology,
 Zoology Degree Route Coordinator,
 School of Biological and Biomedical Sciences,
 South Road,
 The University of Durham,
 Durham, DH1 3LE,

 E-mail: s.d.twiss at durham.ac.uk
 Web-site: http://www.dur.ac.uk/s.d.twiss/ <http://www.dur.ac.uk/s.d.twiss/> 

 Tel: +44 (0)191 334 1350 (office)
 Tel: +44 (0)191 334 1247 (lab)
 Fax: +44 (0)191 334 1201

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