[MARMAM] PhD opportunities on marine mammal cognition, communication and social learning in Australia

Michael Noad m.noad at uq.edu.au
Sun Feb 6 21:09:17 PST 2022

We have four PhD projects currently available on marine mammal communication, cognition and social learning in the Cetacean Ecology Group at the University of Queensland, Brisbane.

Humpback whale communicative cognition

The Cetacean Ecology Group 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 previous work using noise from the seismic air gun arrays ((project BRAHSS; https://www.brahss.org.au) may be due to the fact that the2 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, you will be part of the HHARC (Hearing in Humpbacks Acoustic Research Collaboration) project field effort (2021 - 2024) to collect further data on humpback responses to 'tones' and 'killer whale sounds' (Peregian Beach field site).

The effects of noise on humpback whale communication behaviour
Humpback whales are renowned for their complex communication repertoire. A previous study (project BRAHSS; https://www.brahss.org.au), led by UQ, 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, less is known about how they might change their communication behaviour in response to these sounds. The PhD project will measure if, and how, humpback whale groups change their communication behaviour in the presence of air guns, large vessels, killer whale-like sounds, and conspecifics. You will use data already collected on humpback whale responses to conspecific sounds and air gun sounds (project BRAHSS). In addition, you 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 previous publications from the group.

The use and role of variability in humpback whales' songs
While humpback whales in any one population usually conform to a particular song type or pattern, when individual songs are examined in detail, variations can be found. Why do whales vary the structures of their songs? One possibility is that this may, at least partly, be due to social context. Another is that noise may play a role. Variance may also be due to whales improvising, creating small novelties that may be associated with fitness. This PhD will examine individual variance in the songs of east Australian humpback whales and attempt to ascertain the main reasons for variance. This knowledge will create a much better understanding of the origins and importance of variance, and ultimately how this variance may fuel novelties in songs and rapid song evolution. This PhD would suit a student with a background in animal behaviour or ecology.

Models of social learning in humpback whales
Core to humpback whale song is the idea of social learning, where animals learn behaviours from each other. While there are many examples of animal social learning, few are as rapid and complex as the learning of new songs. While we can easily record and listen to the results of this extraordinary feat of social learning, the underlying process itself is hidden due to it being impossible to study individual whales over extended periods. One powerful way to study invisible processes is through agent-based (or individual-based) models.  These have been used in biology for a few decades to study complex systems, especially when the actions of individual animals (agents) can give rise to complex 'emergent' population level behaviours or characteristics. This PhD will involve developing a new agent-based model (ABM) based on the east Australian migratory corridor, and its neighbouring populations (west Australia, Oceania). The model would be used to study social learning rates, impacts of population level on social learning under different migratory scenarios, and, in a link with the 'song variance' PhD on offer, would also be able to explore the development of individual variability and its role in driving song change.

Scholarships will be available for high-quality domestic (Australian and New Zealand) students to start in July 2022 and should be available for high-quality international students to start in early 2023. Interested students should email Rebecca Dunlop r.dunlop at uq.edu.au<mailto:r.dunlop at uq.edu.au> and Michael Noad mnoad at uq.edu.au<mailto:mnoad at uq.edu.au> to indicate their interest. Please include a CV and a brief cover letter summarising your relevant experience and why you would like to work with us. Note that scholarships for international students are particularly competitive, and potential candidate should have at least one peer-reviewed publication as the lead author to be in the running.

Dr Rebecca Dunlop

Associate Professor in Animal Behaviour and Physiology
School of Biological Sciences
The University of Queensland
St Lucia Qld 4072 Australia
r.dunlop at uq.edu.au<mailto:r.dunlop at uq.edu.au>

Prof. Michael Noad

Director, Centre for Marine Science
Professor, School of Veterinary Science
The University of Queensland - Gatton campus
Gatton Qld 4343 Australia
mnoad at uq.edu.au<mailto:mnoad at uq.edu.au>


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