Rio Sixaola (Sixaola River), Costa Rica


Some of the most widespread and fascinating phenomena in nature arise from the emergent properties of actions and interactions between individual members of animal groups. For example, birds, mammals, fishes, and invertebrates regularly form complex and coordinated swarms that provide the basis for the study of collective movement and behaviour. While both theoretical and empirical studies have shown that these social phenomena emerge through individual interactions, what is less clear, is how an individual’s role in such interactions and overall group dynamics change (a) through life (ontogeny), (b) with experience and (c) in response to fluctuations in ‘state’ (i.e. condition, parasite load, reproductive status). Social fishes are excellent models for asking how individuals optimize their own traits, while trading-off their individual needs against the benefits of group living, a question that is rarely addressed in any animal. 
The overall aim of this project is to understand how among individual heterogeneity (differences in experience and ‘state’) impact social processes through ontogeny. 
Specifically, the project will examine how behavioural and metabolic phenotypes are impacted by changes in reproductive status, parasite load, experience, age, hunger and body condition, rearing environment, and exposure to stressors, and the implications of these impacts for social networks and collective behaviour in fishes. This project will involve both laboratory and fieldwork studying poecilid and characid species of Trinidad and/or Costa Rica (Fig.1). Long term populations of wild-origin species will be established within the UK, whilst lab work will be corroborated by studies in the wild. Together, these data will provide valuable insight into the role of individual heterogeneity in group-living animals.
Figure 1: Representative photos of sampling locations in Costa Rica (left, bottom right) and potential poecilid (top right) and characid (middle right) study species.

Figure 1: Representative photos of sampling locations in Costa Rica (left, bottom right) and potential poecilid (top right) and characid (middle right) study species.

Student training and experience

We are looking for a candidate with a degree in Biological Sciences (or similar) and an interest in understanding and communicating the behavioural ecology of freshwater fishes. The successful candidate will develop skills in behavioural observation and tracking software, experimental design in both field and laboratory contexts, advanced statistical analyses, and fish husbandry. They will gain experience conducting behavioural experiments at the University of Plymouth, and have the opportunity to collaborate with international colleagues and conduct experiments in the field. Experience in or enthusiasm to learn these diverse sets of skills, as well as an interest in fishes and tropical rainforest environments is therefore important. On completion of the PhD, the candidate will be well placed to pursue further work and an independent research program in Behavioural Ecology.
Should you have any questions regarding the position, please contact Alex Wilson -

Supervisory team