Skip to main content

Funding and scholarships for students

Award details

Corvid connections: how do social bonds influence stress, health, nutrition and cultural knowledge? BBSRC SWBio DTP PhD studentship 2022 Entry. PhD in Biosciences. Ref: 4282

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr Alex Thornton - College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter.

Additional Supervisors

Dr Andrew King - Bioscienes, Swansea University.

Location:  Penryn Campus, University of Exeter, Falmouth, Cornwall.

The BBSRC-funded South West Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership (SWBio DTP) is led by the University of Bristol, together with the Universities of Bath, Cardiff and Exeter, alongside Rothamsted Research. This partnership also includes the following associate partners; Marine Biological Association (MBA), Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML), SETsquared Bristol, Swansea University, UCB Pharma, and University of the West of England (UWE).

These institutions represent a distinctive group of bioscience research staff and students, with established international, national and regional networks, and widely recognised research excellence. As research leaders, we have a strong track record in advancing knowledge through high-quality research and teaching, in partnership with industry and the government.

The aim of this DTP is to produce highly motivated and excellently trained postgraduates in the BBSRC priority areas of Advancing the frontiers of biosciences discovery, Biosciences for sustainable agriculture and food and Biosciences for an integrated understanding of health.  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). 

Project Description:

Like humans, many animals form stable social relationships between specific individuals. These relationships can be extremely beneficial: in humans and other primates individuals with strong relationships tend to be healthier and less anxious.

However, there has been little research on other animals and it is not clear how the benefits of social relationships trade off against costs. For instance, spending time with social partners could improve immune function but also increase exposure to infections. Similarly, if you spend most of your time with particular partners you risk missing out on opportunities to learn valuable information from others. To understand these trade-offs and shed light on how and why social relationships evolve, this interdisciplinary project will study jackdaws living in their natural environments where they are subject to competition, predation and disease. Using a combination of state-of the art field experiments, non-invasive stress assays and physiological measures you will examine how variation in the strength of social relationships influences individual stress levels, health and the acquisition of food and knowledge.   

Jackdaws are members of the large-brained corvid family that form enduring pair bonds embedded within dynamic social networks. Our fieldsites contain thousands of colour-ringed, RFID-tagged jackdaws, providing unique opportunities to quantify the strength of social bonds.   

Bringing together the supervisory team’s expertise in animal cognition and field experiments (Thornton), social relationships and networks (King), behavioural endocrinology (Fürtbauer) and disease ecology (Bonneaud) the project will determine how social relationships influence:   
1. Stress: You will use non-invasive thermal imaging and hormonal assays to understand whether variability in short-term social interactions (e.g. co-feeding with partners) and long-term sociality measures mediate stress levels.   
2. Health: Parasite levels and immune function: Using state-of-the art biomolecular lab techniques you will quantify individual variation in the presence and intensity of various parasitic infections and immunocompetence.   
3. Food: using automated feeders that record the identity of all visiting birds, you will test how the presence and identity of social partners alters the probability of displacement and changes food intake.   
4. Knowledge: you will seed novel foraging innovations by training individual “demonstrators” to access automated feeders.

You will then quantify the cultural transmission of the new behaviour and associated changes in social network structure to determine whether jackdaws can adjust their social associations to learn from knowledgeable individuals.   

Together, this work will provide important insights into social evolution, cultural transmission and health.  


To be eligible for a fully-funded studentship, you must meet both the academic and residence criteria.

A fully-funded four year SWBio DTP studentship will cover

•    a stipend* at the standard Research Council UK rate; currently £15,609 per annum for 2022-23
•    research and training costs
•    tuition fees (at the standard Research Councils UK rate)
•    additional funds to support fieldwork, conferences and a 3-month internship

Please refer to the regulations or Annex 1 of the Research Council Training Grant Guide to confirm that you meet the residence criteria for a fully-funded studentship.  Any further queries in relation to residency must be directed to the institution that you are applying to.

* An enhanced stipend is available for students with a recognised veterinary degree qualification (£24,090 per annum for 2022-2023). There may also be enhanced stipends associated with projects that have a CASE partner (CASE projects are highlighted as *CASE in the project lists).

Residence criteria

UKRI have recently updated their policy for funded studentships which starts from the 2022/2023 academic year.

IMPORTANT: Please refer to the UKRI Full Eligibility Criteria alongside the information provided below.

Home students

Fully-funded studentships are available for Home students.  To be classed as a Home student, candidates must meet the following criteria:
• Be a UK National (meeting residency requirements), or
• Have settled status, or
• Have pre-settled status (meeting residency requirement) or,
• Have indefinite leave to remain or enter

International students

If you do not meet the above criteria, you will be classed as an International student.

A limited number (up to 30%) of UKRI fully-funded studentships are available through the SWBio DTP, that applicants who would be classed as an International student are eligible for.  Please apply through the application route below for funding.

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.

Equivalent qualifications/experience

  • Physics A-level (grade B and above)
  • Undertaking units as part of your degree that have a significant mathematical component*

*Significant mathematical component examples include; maths, statistics, bioinformatics.

Applicants must ensure they highlight their Maths background within their application and to upload any supporting evidence.

Language Requirements

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

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.
  • Two academic referees - see information below about references.
  • 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)

The closing date for applications is midnight on Monday, 6 December 2021.

Interviews will be held at the University of Exeter between Monday 24th January – Friday 4th February 2022.  (Exact dates to be confirmed shortly)

Reference information

You will be asked to submit two references as part of the application process.  If you are not able to upload  your reference documents with your application please ensure you provide details of your referees.  If you provide contact details of referees only, we will not expect receipt of references until after the shortlisting stage. Your referees should not be from the prospective supervisory team.

If you are shortlisted for interview, please ensure that your two academic referees email their references to, 7 days prior to the interview dates.  Please note that we will not be contacting referees to request references, you must arrange for them to be submitted to us by the deadline.

References should be submitted by your referees to us directly in the form of a letter. Referees must email their references to us from their institutional email accounts. We cannot accept references from personal/private email accounts, unless it is a scanned document on institutional headed paper and signed by the referee.

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email

Project-specific queries should be directed to the primary supervisor.

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 Bristol.  Please note that nomination by a project supervisor therefore does not guarantee the award of a studentship.

Data Protection

During the application process, the University may need to make certain disclosures of your personal data to third parties to be able to administer your application, carry out interviews and select candidates.  These are not limited to, but may include disclosures to:

  •     the selection panel and/or management board or equivalent of the relevant programme, which is likely to include
        staff from one or more other HEIs;
  •    administrative staff at one or more other HEIs participating in the relevant programme.

Such disclosures will always be kept to the minimum amount of personal data required for the specific purpose. Your sensitive personal data (relating to disability and race/ethnicity) will not be disclosed without your explicit consent.


Application deadline:6th December 2021
Value:Tuition fees and an annual stipend allowance at Research Council rates, currently £15,609 per year for 2022-23
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Recruitment Office