[MARMAM] PhD opportunity available in humpback whale hearing and cognition

Rebecca Dunlop r.dunlop at uq.edu.au
Sun Nov 8 15:11:21 PST 2020

The Cetacean Ecology and Acoustics Laboratories (CEAL) group at the University of Queensland (UQ), Australia, is seeking applicants for one PhD position. UQ is routinely listed in the top 50 or so universities in the world and has one of the largest marine science programs in Australia. CEAL has been studying humpback whale vocal communication since 2002. CEAL is situated at the Moreton Bay Research Station at Dunwich on North Stradbroke Is (Minjerribah) near Brisbane. MBRS is a 30 min ferry trip from the mainland (Cleveland, where several of our PhD students live) and about 90 min from the centre of Brisbane, the main St Lucia campus of the University, and the Brisbane international and domestic airports. North Stradbroke Island itself is a beautiful island with good surf beaches, national parks, diving, and camping.

The CEAL group has a primarily focus on cetacean acoustic behaviour and communication, the effects of anthropogenic noise on marine mammals, cetacean physiology, and cetacean population dynamics. We value a team-based approach, where supervisors and researchers work effectively together on various projects. We also value gender equity and cultural diversity within the lab. As part of the lab PhD programme, we offer experience in field data collection, grant and report writing, and statistical data analysis. We are also able to offer students industry placements, where we encourage and support students to gain real-world experience. Our lab would provide a challenging but impactful PhD experience and, as such, we are seeking an enthusiastic and capable student with strong interests in animal acoustic communication and cognition.

This PhD will be part of a larger study on the hearing of humpback whales funded by the Living Marine Resources program, U.S. Navy. Applicants should therefore have a background and general interest in animal communication, behaviour and cognition and should hold an honours degree or masters degree (or equivalent). Successful applications will be put forward for a scholarship to the University which will fully cover tuition and pay a living stipend. Due to current COVID-19 travel restrictions, domestic (Australian and New Zealand) students will be preferred but high quality international applicants should also apply, particularly if they are currently in Australia. Please see below for more details.

Humpback whales are renowned for their complex communication repertoire. However, much less is known about how these animals hear, and perceive, different sound sources. A previous study (project BRAHSS; https://www.brahss.org.au), led by CEAL, Curtin University, and the University of Sydney, found that humpback whales changed their migratory behaviour in response to the noise from seismic air guns. However, these behavioural changes were found to be relatively 'subtle'. One hypothesis that may explain these subtle behavioural changes is that the air gun 'bang' is a similar to the sound of a humpback 'breach'. Therefore, humpback whales perceive these sounds as being 'familiar' and do not respond dramatically to them. This hypothesis will be the focus of the PhD project.

CEAL is leading a new study to the hearing range, and hearing sensitivity, of humpback whales. To do this, 'tones' of various frequencies will be played back to humpback whales following on from a previous experiment that found a clear and measurable avoidance response to a 2 kHz tone (Dunlop et al. 2013). Part of this new study will include a 'positive control'; sounds from killer whales. We expect these sounds to elicit a 'fear' response in whales meaning we would expect a clear avoidance respond as soon as they hear them giving us a basis with which to measure the behavioural response to tones. The fact that humpback whales clearly avoided a 2 kHz tone, and this response seemed to be of greater magnitude than was found to the seismic air gun array, may be due to the fact that the 2 kHz tones sounded similar to killer whale sounds. In other words, 'tones' and 'killer whale sounds' do not sound like conspecific sounds, and may elicit a more 'fearful' response.

The PhD project will compare the behavioural response of humpbacks to tones, killer whale sounds, air guns, and sounds made by conspecifics to test if sound context, familiarity, and 'meaning' could explain differences in observed behavioural responses. You will use data already collected on humpback whale responses to conspecific sounds and air gun sounds (project BRAHSS). In addition, uou will be part of the HHARC (Hearing in Humpbacks Acoustic Research Collaboration) project field effort (2021 - 2023) to collect further data on humpback responses to 'tones' and 'killer whale sounds' (Peregian Beach field site). For further information on the field site and earlier studies see CEAL publications.

Results will extend our knowledge of animal perception of sound (cognition) as well as how, and why, whales respond to various anthropogenic noise sources. Ultimately, this will help make improvements to ocean policy aimed at mitigating the negative effects of anthropogenic noise on large whales.

Applying for the positions
For this PhD, the applicant's background should be in biology and/or ecology with quantitative training and experience preferred (e.g. in R). You should also have experience in scientific writing (preferably as an author on a peer reviewed publication) and be able to produce a sample of your writing, be able to demonstrate a sound knowledge of hypothesis testing and experimental design, and have some experience in data processing and analysis.

To apply for this PhD position, the applicant should send a cover letter to Rebecca Dunlop r.dunlop at uq.edu.au<mailto:r.dunlop at uq.edu.au> which includes why you would like to undertake this project, a summary of their relevant qualifications and experience (including your response to the criteria outlined above), information on your status as a domestic or international applicant, and where you are currently residing. You should also include a CV and a copy of your academic transcript. Emails should have the subject "PhD expression of interest" followed by the applicant's surname.

Applications are due by 11th January 2021. A successful applicant will then be put forward to the University to compete for a scholarship. If successful, you will start in mid-2021. It should be noted that 'strong' candidate usually have at least one first-authored publication in a peer-reviewed journal. While this is not essential for a domestic student, to be competitive for a domestic scholarship, it is considered mandatory for international students due to high demand for international scholarships.

Rebecca Dunlop BSc PhD

Director of Cetacean Ecology and Acoustics Laboratories
Moreton Bay Research Station, University of Queensland
Corner of Flinders Avenue and Fraser Streets
Dunwich, North Stradbroke Island, QLD 4183

Senior Lecturer in Animal Behaviour and Physiology
School of Veterinary Science
University of Queensland, Gatton Campus
Gatton, QLD 4343, Australia
r.dunlop at uq.edu.au<mailto:r.dunlop at uq.edu.au>

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