Project Description

This novel behavioural ecology project will comprise a combination of field work on social spiders in Ecuador and laboratory research on cockroaches in Aberdeen to study social competence and its role in evolution.

Organisms engage in frequent fitness relevant social interactions including mating, fighting, cooperation, and foraging together in groups. Social interactions are therefore ubiquitous in the natural world, and incredibly important for the survival and reproduction of many species, including humans. Furthermore, social interactions enable individuals to influence each other’s characteristics, with either positive or negative outcomes (Flack et al., 2006). For instance, organisms can outcompete others for access to food or help each other to survive over winter. Social interactions therefore represent a rich and fascinating form of biodiversity that can fundamentally alter how natural selection acts on animal populations.

Individual organisms of the same species and even living in the same population can vary greatly in their social interactions. They can prefer large or small groups, associate with particular others, or actively avoid certain individuals (we’ve all been there). This active choice of social interaction partners is known as ‘social niche construction’ and gives organisms the ability to shape the social environment they experience, potentially minimising negative social interactions and maximising positive ones. The ability to actively mould and manipulate the social environment makes it profoundly different to how many animals experience the physical environment (e.g. the amount of sun and rain, which animals have no control over), and hence makes the role the social environment plays in the lives of organisms especially fascinating (Bailey et al., 2018).

However, the extent animals conduct social niche construction, how they go about it, whether some are good at it and some are bad at it (their ‘social competence’), and the consequences the active shaping of social environments has for the reproduction of individuals and the evolution of populations is relatively unknown. We need to better understand these kinds of behaviours as they may allow organisms to buffer against rapid and acute environmental change.

Further, some animals live in highly social groups, such as the colonies of ants, wasps, and bees. We might expect groups and societies that contain socially competent individuals to be more productive and to survive longer than groups with socially incompetent members, but whether this is true and the consequences this has for the diversity of animal groups we see in the natural world is unexplored (Taborsky & Oliveira, 2012).

In this project the student will explore social competence as a trait in animals and how it brings benefits to both individuals and to groups. This will be using two model systems: a population of remarkable social spiders on the outskirts of the Amazon in Ecuador, and a population of gregarious cockroaches, individually marked and monitored by video cameras in the laboratory in Aberdeen. The project will therefore combine both the design and execution of manipulative experiments and video analysis of social interactions with field work in a remote and tropical location.

Using the cockroaches (Diploptera punctata), the student will be able to uniquely mark individuals and film their social interactions and aggregations. With these data we can explore whether the cockroaches assess potential aggregation partners, and what traits they chose, enabling us to assess if they engage in social niche construction (Saltz et al., 2016; Stanley et al., 2018). We can then monitor the lifespan and reproductive output of individuals to determine the fitness 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. 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.

The second arm of the project will use a remarkable species of social spider, Anelosimus eximius. While most spiders are solitary, a handful of species in tropical regions around the world live in groups, cooperatively capturing prey and raising each other’s young. As these spiders age and grow they change tasks, from predominately spinning web, to capturing prey, and then finally producing eggs and nurturing offspring. Groups of these spiders live throughout South America, including at a range of altitudes on the edge of the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador. Here we can assess how spiders balance cooperation and conflict within their groups as a measure of their social competence, and if the groups that show more cooperation produce more offspring and survive for longer than groups with more internal conflict (Ward & Enders, 1985; Wenseleers et al., 2013; Quero et al., 2020). There is also the possibility of marking individual spiders to see how they each navigate the opportunities and threats in their unique social environments. If the student is interested, we can also construct theoretical models using the game-theory framework to understand how a spider should allocate its time and energy on different tasks as it ages.

The student can expect to learn skills in advanced data collection, management, and analysis, including social network analysis, as well as all the skills required to design complex laboratory experiments and conduct fieldwork in challenging conditions. The student will also develop their understanding of evolutionary biology, ethology, and sociobiology, with the aim of advancing our fundamental knowledge of how behavioural variation alters evolutionary change.

Essential skills:

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

Desirable skills:

  • Experience of statistical analysis with R
  • Experience of laboratory work with invertebrates
  • Experience of field work with invertebrates
  • Background knowledge of evolutionary biology and its intersection with sociobiology
  • Ability to speak Spanish

Funding and eligibility information available here.


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


  • Bailey, N.W., Marie-Orleach, L., Moore, A.J. & Simmons, L. 2018. Indirect genetic effects in behavioral ecology: does behavior play a special role in evolution? Behav. Ecol. 29: 1–11. Oxford University Press.
  • Flack, J.C., Girvan, M., de Waal, F.B.M. & Krakauer, D.C. 2006. Policing stabilizes construction of social niches in primates. Nature 439: 426–9.
  • Quero, A., Zuanon, L.A., Vieira, C. & Gonzaga, M.O. 2020. Cooperation and conflicts during prey capture in colonies of the colonial spider Parawixia bistriata (Araneae: Araneidae). Acta Ethol. 23: 79–87. Springer.
  • Saltz, J.B., Geiger, A.P., Anderson, R., Johnson, B. & Marren, R. 2016. What, if anything, is a social niche? Evol. Ecol. 30: 349–364. Springer International Publishing.
  • Stanley, C.R., Liddiard Williams, H. & Preziosi, R.F. 2018. Female clustering in cockroach aggregations-A case of social niche construction? Ethology 124: 706–718. Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
  • Taborsky, B. & Oliveira, R.F. 2012. Social competence: An evolutionary approach. Trends Ecol. Evol. 27: 679–688.
  • Ward, P.I. & Enders, M.M. 1985. Conflict and Cooperation in the Group Feeding of the Social Spider Stegodyphus Mimosarum. Behaviour 94: 167–182. Brill.
  • Wenseleers, T., Bacon, J.P., Alves, D.A., Couvillon, M.J., Kärcher, M., Nascimento, F.S., et al. 2013. Bourgeois behavior and freeloading in the colonial orb web spider Parawixia bistriata (Araneae, Araneidae). Am. Nat. 182: 120–129.

Research Methods

The project will use a range of different research methods to both collect and analyse data. The laboratory component of the project will involve designing a range of behavioural experiments in artificial arenas, where individually marked cockroaches will be monitored by video cameras to record their social interactions and other behaviours. Some of the extraction of data from the video recordings can be automated, while more complex behavioural data will be extracted by watching recordings of the video. The field component of the project will require the identification and marking of wild Anelosimus eximius colonies, the design and implementation of assays of collective behaviour in natural conditions, and the analysis of fecundity and survival of the colonies through counting the number of egg sacs produced and whether the colony survives after a 9-12 month period.

For data analysis we will use dynamic social network analysis techniques such as stochastic actor-oriented models to see how individuals chose their social associates over time. Other social network methods such as exponential random graph models will help us assess the social structures individuals form in different experimental conditions. The project will also use linear models and their various extensions (multivariate, mixed, random regression, spatially autocorrelated) to determine the consequences social competence has for individual fitness and the success and survival of groups. All statistical analysis will take place using the R software.

Finally, the project may explore game-theory models to assess what individuals ‘should’ do in given social contexts. This will require constructing mathematical models and/or individual-based simulations, depending on the questions and the interests of the student.

Expected Training Provision

The student will be guided in their project by two experts in the field of animal contests and social interactions. Both regularly publish in international peer-reviewed journals, present at international conferences, and collaborate with other scientists around the world. As such the student will be trained in the highest standards of experimental design, data collection and analysis, and scientific writing. In particular, the supervisors are field-leading in the development of methods for the analysis of animal interaction data, and therefore the student can expect to receive world-class training in this particular aspect of study design, data collection, and analysis.

The supervisory team also act as reviewers and editors for several academic journals, and so will offer training in the reviewing and publishing process central to the dissemination of scientific knowledge. This will include guided peer review of manuscripts. All supervisors are also actively submitting research grants to national and international funding bodies, and so can involve the student in the grant identification, writing, and submission process.

Beyond these supervisor-specific training opportunities, the student will be embedded within the QUADRAT DTP. This offers a series of training opportunities designed to provide a wide range of skills to help the student thrive both during and following their PhD.

Further, complementing their involvement in academia, the student can expect to exploit adjacent opportunities in areas that rely on scientific knowledge and skills. For instance, policy placements are available (subject to a competitive application process) where a student can work with those who supply key scientific information to politicians. This and other opportunities offer the chance to apply the skills the student will learn during their project into diverse fields, which is key to appreciating the enormous range of job options an individual with a PhD possess.

The University of Aberdeen and Queen’s University Belfast are both home to collections of internationally recognised research groups. Depending on the student’s interests and the direction of the research project, there will be various opportunities to collaborate with these different groups, to learn appropriate methods and use the latest technologies. Within the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Aberdeen there will also be opportunities to conduct demonstrating and teaching work for undergraduates.


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 it’s fitness, as the genes of other organisms can influence the focal organism’s phenotype and the phenotypes of other organisms can influence the focal organism’s fitness. Social interactions can therefore greatly alter evolutionary processes, and so studying how organisms navigate social environments is necessary to understand the diversity of social structures and behaviours in nature.

Social competence and social niche construction have recently received great 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 more suitable niches for themselves, it is logical to consider how organisms 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 organism-environment relationship, how organisms’ phenotypes can extend outside of their own body, 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. While this project does not directly study livestock welfare, the findings and theoretical advances around social competence and social niche construction will allow follow-up projects that apply these ideas in that context. There is potential to change management practices for example to allow animals to choose their pen-mates rather than be assigned them, while breeding programs can be designed to breed animals with a higher degree of social competence, which may result in more amiable groups and therefore lower stress.

Proposed Supervision

The student will be primarily based at the University of Aberdeen, where the lead supervisor (DF) and 3rd supervisor (LL) work. It is here the laboratory work on cockroaches will take place, within a dedicated insect research space. The student will join the new and growing research group of an early career researcher, promising a vibrant environment for them to develop their project. At the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Aberdeen there are numerous research clusters, including those focused on ‘Ecology’ and ‘Evolution’ which directly relate to the project. With the other new and current postgraduate students within these clusters the student will enjoy stimulating interactions such as informal seminars and journal clubs. Further, the department possess a group of researchers especially interested in the study of both terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates. This group provides a wonderful resource for any researcher using insects and spiders to answer fundamental questions in ecology and evolutionary biology.

The supervisors at Aberdeen will be responsible for:

  • Designing specifics of the project with the student
  • Training in laboratory skills e.g. insect husbandry, set up of video cameras and experiments
  • Training in field skills e.g. location and identification of spider colonies, marking and observation of wild arthropods
  • Training in data analysis e.g. video extraction, mixed-effect modelling, social network analysis
  • Data presentation and writing
  • Locating further training opportunities e.g. POST placement, Guarda evolutionary biology field course

The second supervisor (GA) is based at Queen’s University Belfast. The student will visit Belfast regularly (restrictions due to any future pandemics permitting) to meet the supervisor and their established research group and for QUADRAT events taking place in Belfast/Northern Ireland. Thanks to the recent rapid uptake of video meetings the student will also be able to interact weekly with the supervisor and their group in Belfast while in Aberdeen. The School of Biological Sciences at Queens hosts a range staff expert in behavioural ecology and evolutionary biology who will help create an intellectually rich environment for the project to develop. Further, the School has many researchers who are world-leading in animal agriculture, and as such can help with translating any findings of the study relating to the benefits to individuals of social competence to animal welfare and productivity.

The supervisor at Queen’s will be responsible for:

  • Designing specifics of the project with the student
  • Advising on experimental design for both field work and laboratory work
  • Training in statistical analysis and any required game-theory modelling
  • Data presentation and writing
  • Locating further training opportunities

Through the supervisory team the student will collaborate with Justin Yeager at the Universidad de las Americas, Quito (Ecuador). JY is an evolutionary biologist with excellent knowledge of the fauna in South America. Collaborating with JY for the field work in Ecuador will instruct the student on topics such as:

  • The biodiversity of Ecuador
  • Acquiring research permits
  • Communicating science to a diverse audience

There may also be the opportunity to apply for research funding through UdlA to extend the field season.

Proposed Timetable

The studentship is split into four blocks, each containing several linked tasks. Please note that the order and timing of tasks and the content are subject to change based on prevailing conditions and the student’s interests.

First, the student will engage in mandatory induction and training, and conduct a literature review. Second, the student will design and test laboratory assays using individually marked cockroaches, and then collect, analyse and write-up data for questions relating to individual-level consequences of social competence. This stage will begin 2-3 months after the student starts and end around a year and half after their start date. For the third stage, together with the supervisory team the student will plan and execute fieldwork in Ecuador with colonies of social spiders. The field season will take place in the summer of the second year of the studentship. On return the student will analyse and write-up this data to address questions around the group-level consequences of social competence. After this point there is flexibility built into the schedule; the student can either conduct further laboratory experiments, carry out theoretical modelling to explore questions about optimisation within social groups, or they can pursue other lines of inquiry of their choosing. All data collection will be completed around two and a half years after the start date. For the final stage of the project, the student will compile their work into a thesis, and disseminate their work through publications in academic journals and presentations at conferences.

Between the blocks within this timetable the student can participate in workshops and internship opportunities such as the Guarda Evolutionary biology summer school or the Policy Internship Scheme funded by UKRI.


  • biodiversity

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