Social Networks Across the Tree of Life (Distance Learning Project)

University of Aberdeen

School of Biological Sciences

Project Description

We are looking for a bright, motivated, and ambitious student to carry out a project looking at the variation in social structure across animal taxa and the drivers of this variation. This project will initially be conducted as Distance Learning, meaning the student will undertake at least the first 3-9 months of the project away from the University of Aberdeen. Students will be in regular contact with their supervisory team by Virtual Conference throughout this time and encouraged to come to Aberdeen and be based on campus when/if feasible. Conducting the entire PhD project as distance learning is also welcomed.

Many animals live and interact in groups. Group-living is typically assumed to be adaptive by providing better protection from predators or easier access to resources. The exact social structure that these groups take however varies enormously, from multi-male, multi-female groups moving and foraging together, to monogamous pairs defending a home territory, and all manner of variations between. Comparing the incredibly diverse social structures we can see across different taxa might seem very challenging given how animals differ in group size, type and mode of interaction, and time and spatial scale the interactions occur on. Yet is essential that we do compare social structures across taxa if we are to understand the causes and consequences of this kind of biodiversity. To tackle this task, animal behaviour researchers have been using social network analysis for the last 20 years to analyse all kinds of social interaction data in one quantitative framework. What is more, these data are being placed online in open access repositories, making these data available to all.

The student will take advantage of these available data to address a series of questions concerning differences in social network structure across taxa in a phylogenetic framework and detecting the potential causes of this variation (e.g. how social network structure relates to the natural history and ecology of the organisms). Example questions include “Do related species have similar social network traits?”, “Do aspects of ecology such as foraging mode, daily activity pattern, and trophic level influence social network structure?”, and “Does relative brain size relate to measures of social network complexity?”. We are also interested in predicting the social networks of extinct species if we have a good representation of social networks from a single taxonomic group, such as primates. We have a series of questions that could be addressed within this project, but we are looking for a student that will bring their own ideas and questions and take the project in their own direction. The field of social networks is exciting and currently very fast-moving, and so we expect the students work in this area will attract considerable interest.

Funding Information

This PhD project is only open to sponsored students and those who have their own funding. Supervisors will not be able to respond to requests to source funding.

Application Process

To submit an application please visit our Website
-Apply for ‘Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Zoology’
-State the name of the lead supervisor on your application
-State the name of the project

Please note that we will not proceed with applications that have not stated their intended funding source. Applicants will be expected to have suitable computing equipment to enable them to work from home at a distance to undertake this project.

Supplementary Information

The student will learn extensive skills in data manipulation and analysis, including but not limited to accessing data from online repositories, data visualisation, social network analyses, multivariate linear mixed-effects modelling, and phylogenetic analyses. All of these are highly useful skills in both academic and industrial settings and will help the student gain transferable skills in coding that can be used in almost any line of work. Familiarity and even expertise in using Linux and R is desired. Note that additional research costs may be required to purchase a capable computer, or to purchase running time on the University of Aberdeen’s high-performance computing service.


A repository of social network data:
A multi-species repository of social networks
Pratha Sah, José David Méndez, Shweta Bansal, Scientific Data, 2019

An example of the kind of analysis the project might involve:
The emergence of cetaceans: phylogenetic analysis of male social behaviour supports the Cetartiodactyla clade
David Lusseau, Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 2003

For examples of studying animal social systems across taxa:
The influence of phylogeny on the social behaviour of Macaques (Primates: Cercopithecidae, genus Macaca)
Bernard Thierry, Andrew N. Iwaniuk, Sergio M. Pellis, Ethology, 2001

A guide to constructing social networks:
Constructing, conducting and interpreting animal social network analysis
Damien R. Farine, Hal Whitehead, Journal of Animal Ecology, 2015

Some of the lead supervisor’s work on social networks
Wild cricket social networks show stability across generations
David N. Fisher, Rolando Rodríguez-Muñoz & Tom Tregenza, BMC Evolutionary Biology, 2016

Social traits, social networks and evolutionary biology
David N. Fisher, Andrew G. McAdam, Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 2017

To apply for this PhD, please use the following application link: