Corvid Cultural Transmission: Learning to Learn From Others - Biosciences, PhD (BBSRC SWBio DTP Funded) Ref: 2774

About the award

The South West Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership (SWBio DTP) is a BBSRC-funded PhD training programme in the biosciences, delivered by a consortium comprising the Universities of Bristol (lead), Bath, Cardiff, Exeter, and Rothamsted Research. Together, these institutions present a distinctive cadre of bioscience research staff and students with established international, national and regional networks and widely recognised research excellence. The partnership has a strong track record in advancing knowledge through high quality research and teaching in partnership with industry and government.

The aim of the SWBio DTP is to produce highly motivated and excellently trained postgraduates in the BBSRC priority areas of Agriculture & Food Security (AFS) and World-Class Underpinning Bioscience (WCUB). These are growth areas of the biosciences and for which there will be considerable future demand.

The award:

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the South West Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership (SWBio DTP).  Up to 6 fully-funded studentships are being offered to start in September 2018 at the University of Exeter.

For UK/EU nationals who meet the residency requirements outlined by the BBSRC, the studentship will cover funding for 4 years (48 months) as follows.  These awards might be available to part-time students, but only in exceptional circumstances, in which case the funding will be paid on a pro-rata basis.

•    a stipend at the standard Research Council UK rate; currently £14,553 per annum for 2017-2018

•    research and training costs

•    tuition fees (at the standard Research Councils UK rate)

•    additional funds to support fieldwork, conferences and a 3-month internship

Further information about eligibility can be found in the BBSRC Guide to Studentship Eligibility.

Academic Supervisors:

Main supervisor: Dr Alex Thornton
Co-supervisor: Dr Dick James
Co-supervisor: Dr Neeltje Boogert
Co-supervisor: Prof Darren Croft
Collaborator: Dr Alex Mesoudi


University of Exeter, Penryn Campus, Cornwall


Project description:

The ability to learn from others (social learning) allows individuals to develop important skills and can generate cultural traditions within groups. However, social learning also has costs: by learning from others, rather than through their own interactions with the environment, animals risk picking up out-dated or irrelevant information. Animals from bees to birds and humans are known to solve this problem by switching between individual and social learning selectively, using rules to specify when, how and from whom to learn. These rules, known as social learning strategies, are generally assumed to have been shaped by natural selection and be under genetic control. The possibility that social learning strategies are themselves learned has not been investigated in natural populations. Learning to learn from others could be highly beneficial, allowing individuals to change their social learning strategies as conditions change. For instance, as knowledge accumulates with age, many animals follow a “copy older individuals” strategy, but it could be useful to switch from this strategy if, for example, a group of young individuals discovers a new source of food.

This project will examine whether wild jackdaws, birds of the largebrained corvid family, can learn social learning strategies, and explore how such learning influences group structure and dynamics. Our field sites contain thousands of colourringed and RFID-tagged jackdaws. Using programmable RFID-detecting feeders and social network analyses, the project will test

(1) how early life experiences affect individuals’ positions in social networks and

(2) whether jackdaws learn to learn:

a) When to learn socially: using programmable feeders to control individuals’ access to food we will test whether birds can learn when to follow or 4 / 15 avoid others and examine how this learning affects patterns of social interaction in other contexts.

b) Who to learn from: by controlling which individuals are able to access food, we can alter their value as models for others to learn from. This allows us to test whether birds can learn to pay attention to specific individuals or classes of individuals (female/male; young/old) and to change their strategies if conditions change.

c) To coordinate with social partners: in cooperative contexts, such as parents raising young together, coordinating actions may maximise their joint rewards.

We will test whether the strength of existing relationships between individuals affects their ability to learn to coordinate to solve cooperative puzzles. Together, this work will provide important insights into animal social learning and the evolution of culture.


Entry requirements:

Applicants should have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in an appropriate area of science or technology.  Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have Masters degree or have significant relevant non-academic experience.

In addition, due to the strong mathematical component of the taught course in the first year and the quantitative emphasis in our projects, a minimum of a grade B in A-level Maths or an equivalent qualification or experience is required. 

If English is not your first language you will need to have achieved at least 6.5 in IELTS and no less than 6.5 in any section by the start of the project.  Alternative tests may be acceptable, please see

Students from EU countries who do not meet the residency requirements may still be eligible for a fees-only award but no stipend.  Applicants who are classed as International for tuition fee purposes are not eligible for funding.  Further information about eligibility can be found in the following document:

The four universities have a very limited number of fully-funded 4 year studentships that EU nationals who do not meet the residency requirements would be eligible for.  Please contact the relevant university for more information.

Selection process:

Please note, the studentship selection process will take place in two stages:

1.     The project supervisors will consider your application and may invite you to visit for an informal interview. You can apply for more than one BBSRC SWBio DTP project, although supervisors may take into account your interest and commitment to their particular project.  If you apply for multiple projects, please indicate your preferred project choice in your letter of application.  Each application for an individual project will be considered separately by the project supervisors.

2.     After closure of applications, each supervisory team will then nominate their preferred applicant.  A shortlist will be selected from these nominations and shortlisted applicants will be invited for interview on a selection day at the University of Exeter.  Please note that nomination by a project supervisor therefore does not guarantee the award of a studentship.


Application deadline:4th December 2017
Value:Tuition fees and an annual stipend allowance at Research Council rates, currently £14,553 per year for 2017-18
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Recruitment

How to apply

Please be aware you will be asked to upload the following documents:

•         CV

•         Letter of application outlining your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for
          wishing to undertake the project.  Please indicate your preferred project choice if applying for multiple
          BBSRC SWBio DTP projects.

•         Transcript(s) giving full details of subjects studied and grades/marks obtained.  This should be an interim
           transcript if you are still studying.

•         If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your
          proficiency in English (see entry requirements above)

You will be asked to name 2 referees as part of the application process however we will not contact these people until the shortlisting stage. Your referees should not be from the prospective supervisory team.

The closing date for applications is midnight on Monday, 4 December 2017. Interviews will be held at the University of Exeter from the 29th of January to the 10th of February 2018.

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email or phone +44 (0)1392 722210. Project-specific queries should be directed to the primary supervisor.