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Award details

Personality traits and cognitive abilities in captive-bred North African houbara bustard. Psychology – PhD (Funded) Ref: 4410

About the award


Lead Supervisor:

Dr Joah Madden, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisor:

Dr Enrico Sorato, Reneco International Wildlife Consultants, Abu Dhabi (


Department of Psychology, Streatham Campus, Exeter

The University of Exeter’s College of Life and Environmental Sciences, in partnership with Reneco International Wildlife Consultants, is inviting applications for a PhD studentship to commence in the Autumn of 2022.  The studentship is to investigate personality traits and cognitive abilities in a captive-bred population of North African houbara bustards (Chlamydotis undulata undulata).  The student will be based in the College of Life and Environmental Sciences at the Streatham Campus in Exeter.  However, fieldwork will take place in Eastern Morocco (ECWP, Missour).  Besides Morocco, the student will also be expected to spend time at the Reneco HQ in Abu Dhabi, UAE, to conduct data analysis under the supervision of Enrico Sorato.

Project Description:

The endangered North African houbara bustard (Chlamydotis undulata undulata) has been declining drastically throughout its range due to overhunting and habitat degradation. Since the late 90s the species has been the subject of a large-scale captive breeding programme at the Emirates Center for Wildlife Propagation, Missour, with more than 15 000 birds produced annually for release in the wild. The intention of this rearing and release is to restore wild populations and supplement hunting grounds for regulated falconry ( Houbaras are bred using an artificial insemination process following a strict genetic management (pedigree-based), designed to increase genetic diversity and avoid inbreeding depression (Rabier et al. 2020, 2021). However, past research (Charge et al. 2013, 2014) and ongoing analyses (E Sorato) have provided evidence for among-individual differences in sexual behaviour and life history traits partly associated with origin (captive-bred vs wild-origin individuals), which may arise through genetic adaptation to captivity and parental effects.. However, the relative extent to which genetic changes and environmental effects may affect personality, cognitive traits, and ultimately fitness in the wild, remains to be explored.

The successful applicant will investigate the effects of captive-breeding on personality traits, by conducting behavioural tests on captive houbaras throughout ontogeny. Interplays between personality and individual cognitive abilities (discriminative and reversal learning) will also be explored. By testing individuals with varying known histories of captive breeding, and by using quantitative genetics statistical methods, we will assess the extent of adaptation to captivity and disentangle the relative impact of additive genetic, parental and environmental effects on the main personality axes, and on interplays between personality and cognitive traits. This study will contribute to unravel the selection forces shaping variation in personality and cognitive traits and will ultimately aid improve conservation breeding of endangered species / houbara bustard.

Working environment

The project is part of a collaboration between Dr Enrico Sorato (Reneco International Wildlife Consultants; ECWP) and Dr Joah Madden (Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour, University of Exeter) investigating the behavioural, life history and fitness consequences of captive breeding in the houbara bustard. 

The student will be based in UK at Exeter, supervised by Dr Joah Madden. Fieldwork will take place at the Emirates Center for Wildlife Propagation in Missour, Eastern Morocco, starting in the Autumn of 2022. Besides Morocco, the student will also be expected to spend time at the Reneco HQ in Abu Dhabi, UAE, to conduct data analysis under the supervision of E Sorato.

This award provides annual funding to cover Home or International tuition fees for three years. It is the understanding of the University of Exeter that the research costs, associated travel and any on-site accommodation plus an annual stipend to a total value of ~22,000 Euros/year will be provided directly to the successful student by Reneco who will inform in writing, the successful candidate once appointed.

International applicants need to be aware that you will have to cover the cost of your student visa, healthcare surcharge and other costs of moving to the UK to do a PhD. 


Chargé, R., Teplitsky, C., Hingrat, Y., Saint Jalme, M., Lacroix, F., & Sorci, G. (2013). Quantitative genetics of sexual display, ejaculate quality and size in a lekking species. Journal of Animal Ecology, 82(2), 399–407.

Chargé, R., Sorci, G., Saint Jalme, M., Lesobre, L., Hingrat, Y., Lacroix, F., & Teplitsky, C. (2014). Does recognized genetic management in supportive breeding prevent genetic changes in life-history traits? Evolutionary Applications, 7(5), 521–532. 

Rabier, R., Robert, A., Lacroix, F. & Lesobre, L.  (2020). Genetic assessment of a conservation breeding program of the houbara bustard (Chlamydotis undulata undulata) in Morocco, based on pedigree and molecular analyses. Zoo Biol. 39, 365–447. 

Rabier, R., Lesobre, L. & Robert, A. (2021). Reproductive performance in houbara bustard is affected by the combined effects of age, inbreeding and number of generations in captivity. Sci Rep 11, 7813 (2021).

Entry requirements

Applicants for this studentship must 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 Behavioural Ecology, Animal Behaviour or other relevant subjects. They should have proven experience of avian fieldwork and meticulous experimental skills. A proficiency in French would also be desirable to interact with local staff at the ECWP.

If English is not your first language you will need to meet the required level (Profile B) as per our guidance at

The applicant should hold a passport that permits them to enter Morocco and the UAE.

How to apply

In the application process you will be asked to upload several documents.  

  • CV
  • Letter of application (outlining your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to undertake the project).
  • Transcript(s) giving full details of subjects studied and grades/marks obtained (this should be an interim transcript if you are still studying)
  • Names of two referees familiar with your academic work. You are not required to obtain references yourself. We will request references directly from your referees if you are shortlisted.
  • If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your proficiency in English.

The closing date for applications is midnight on Friday 1st July 2022.  Interviews will be held (potentially virtually) the week commencing 11th July 2022

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email or phone 0300 555 60 60 (UK callers) +44 (0) 1392 723044 (EU/International callers) 

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


Application deadline:1st July 2022
Value:Annual funding to cover Home or International tuition fees for three years plus an annual stipend of 22,000 euros.
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Admissions Team