University of Sheffield
We have studied the genetically isolated population of house sparrows on Lundy Island for >25 years. We have documented the complete life histories of every individual on the island during this time and have routinely cross-fostered offspring between nests to enable us to separate genetic and environmental effects. This work has produced many new insights. For example, we have quantified the frequent occurrence of extra-pair parentage in the population and shown that, while this behaviour enables males to increase their genetic contribution to future generations, it offers no advantages to extra-pair offspring – i.e. there is no support for the popular “good genes” hypothesis. We discovered that the offspring of older parents have poorer reproductive success and are less successful, despite being provisioned as well as the offspring of younger parents. We showed that parents are most successful in middle age but show pronounced senescence in subsequent years.
We have genetic data from every individual and the potential to obtain complete genomes. We are therefore now able to try to ask what determines how the genome and the environment, including the social environment, interact to determine the success of each individual. The PhD project will be tailored to match the background and interests of the appointee, but could potentially tackle questions including:
- Can the phenotype of an individual be predicted from its genotype? Predicting life-history variables such as longevity and lifetime reproductive success in a wild population in this way would demonstrate the deterministic role of genetic variation in determining complex behavioural responses to the environment.
- Do inversion polymorphisms have a role in the maintenance of genetic variation? It has recently become feasible to identify genomic rearrangements using long-read DNA sequencing and this will now allow us to test the hypothesis that genomic rearrangements provide the mechanism to enable antagonistic traits to persist as genetic polymorphisms.
- What is the contribution of a nestling’s diet to its subsequent success? This will be achieved using DNA metabarcoding (eDNA) of faecal samples. Sparrow nestlings are insectivores, insect abundance fluctuates, and chick survival is similarly variable. This analysis will enable us to understand how food availability, insect diversity and quality together determine reproductive outcomes.
- What are the determinants of individual “quality” in wild birds (i.e. the respective roles of genes and the developmental environment – “silver spoon” effects)? In a recent meta-analysis we found no evidence that individual birds trade off reproduction with survival, although this is a popular hypothesis. Instead, we hypothesise that high-quality individuals both reproduce more and survive longer. We therefore need to understand how variation in quality arises and how it is maintained.
Applicants should have a good Honours or Masters degree in a relevant biological discipline (such as biology, genetics or ecology). Experience in any of: laboratory work, fieldwork or data analysis would be helpful.
The appointee will receive training in field methods, genomics, bioinformatics and data analysis, as required by their project.
Funding and starting date
The studentship is fully funded and available for an immediate start. Note that candidates must have graduated and be available to start by 31 July 2023.
You should send a CV and cover letter describing which topic interests you and why you want to do a PhD in this area to [email protected] by 16.00h on Friday 30 June 2023. Late applications will be considered if the position remains unfilled.
Fully funded project not in competition with others.
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