Project Description

A full project description can be found on Find a PhD. Please see below for additional information about this project.

Using the cockroaches (Blatella germanica), the student will be able to conduct binary choice tests to determine what the phenotypic profile of preferred individuals is. They will then be able to uniquely mark individuals and film their social interactions and aggregations to determine their realised social partners. We can then measure the difference between the preferred and realised social partners, and so determine if individuals are engaging in active social niche construction, and if some individuals are better at it than others.
We can then monitor the lifespan and reproductive output of individuals to determine the consequences of their social competence and social niche construction. The student can manipulate conditions such as the size of arenas and the number of shelters, as well as environmental factors such as temperature, to see how variable these social traits are.
We also aim to see how social competence may evolve under different selection regimes. By applying selection for increased gregariousness (preference for larger groups) to groups of cockroaches we can test the prediction that social competence will increase as group sizes evolve to be larger.
For the analysis of the dairy cow data, we have access to the automated output of several milking robots at a dairy farm in Aberdeenshire. These machines record which cows use the milking machines, and so we can infer which cows are following each other and so may be social associates. The robots also record milk output and composition, and so we can determine if possessing preferred associations influences milk output volume and milk fat and protein composition.
There will be extensive training in experimental design, video analysis, as well as cutting-edge data analysis techniques such social network analysis and mixed effect modelling, giving the student practical skills that can be applied to nearly any quantitative question.

Essential skills

  • Good Bachelor’s degree (2.1. and higher) in relevant subject (Zoology, Biology, Animal Behaviour)
  • Open and enquiring mind
  • Willingness to learn new data analysis techniques

Desirable skills

  • Master’s degree (MSc/MRes or similar) in relevant subject
  • Experience of statistical analysis with R
  • Experience of laboratory work with invertebrates
  • Background knowledge of evolutionary biology and its intersection with sociobiology

Photo by Brett Hondow from Pixabay and diagram by David Fisher


David N. Fisher

Primary Supervisor:

Profile: David N. Fisher
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Gareth Arnott

Secondary Supervisor:

Profile: Gareth Arnott
Institution: Queen's University, Belfast
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Lesley Lancaster

Additional Supervisor:

Profile: Lesley Lancaster
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences


Essentially all organisms engage in social interactions; not just gregarious species but solitary sexual organisms when they mate and non-sexual organisms when they compete for resources. Social interactions add complexity to the traditional view that an organism’s genotype leads to its phenotype, which then gives its fitness, as other organisms can influence the focal organism’s phenotype and fitness. As such social interactions can greatly alter evolutionary processes, and so studying how organisms navigate social environments is necessary to understand the great diversity of social structures and behaviours present in the natural world.
Social competence and social niche construction have recently become topics of key interest in behavioural ecology. After recognising that the social environment is a key component of any organisms’ environment, and that organisms can alter their habitat to construct a more suitable niche for themselves, it is only logical to consider how organisms will alter their social environment to benefit themselves. This line of research is therefore at the forefront of efforts to extend the evolutionary synthesis to account for the dynamic nature of the organisms-environment relationship, how organisms’ phenotypes can extend outside of their own body and impact the lives of others, and how the environment can contain genes.
For the livestock industry ensuring animals in captivity engage in peaceful interactions is key for maintaining high levels of welfare. Both management and breeding practices could be changed to increase levels of social competence in livestock, which may result in more amiable groups and therefore lower stress. This project will use the insights gained from the laboratory work on cockroaches to guide the analysis of data from dairy cows to determine if we can detect social niche construction and its effect on milk yields and milk composition.

Proposed Timetable

First, the student will engage in mandatory induction, training, and health and safety events, and review the literature in the field (September 2022 – January 2023).

Second, following appropriate training, the student will design and test laboratory assays to quantify social niche construction and social competence, and determine how it varies among individuals, using individually marked cockroaches. They will then assess the fitness consequences of variation in social competence. At this point the student, together with the supervisory team, will initiate the artificial selection regimes for increased sociability (December 2022 – May 2023).

Third, the student will continue the artificial selection regime while analysing the data from the dairy cattle herd to determine if social preferences and social niche construction influences milk yields and milk composition (May 2023 – October 2024).

Fourth, the student will test individuals from the selection regimes for social competence. At this point the student will be pursuing questions of their own interest and so there could be further experimental or analytical work (October 2024 – April 2025).

Finally, the student will compile their work into a thesis, and disseminate their work through publications in academic journals and presentations at academic conferences (May 2025 – March 2026).


  • biodiversity

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