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B328: How does social behaviour change evolution? (Lead Supervisor: Rebecca Kilner, Zoology)

Supervisors: Rebecca Kilner (Zoology) and Sonia Pascoal (Zoology)

Importance of the area of research:

A key challenge for evolutionary biologists is to be able to predict the rate at which organisms can adapt in a rapidly changing world, and to understand how past evolutionary events might enable some populations to persist in a new environment, but doom others to a more uncertain future. Experimental evolution offers a way of tackling these two problems. It allows us to see how evolution unfolds in real time, giving us insight into processes that might otherwise go undetected. It also enables us to causally connect a population’s evolutionary history to its capacity to cope in a new environment. This project will use experimental evolution to analyse how social behaviour changes the course of evolution and enables populations to survive in a changed environment.

Project summary:

Burying beetles are unusual among insects in exhibiting biparental care, where parents provision their larvae. You will analyse experimentally evolving populations of burying beetles that have been exposed to two different types of social environments in the laboratory for 20 generations: one with parental care and one with no-post hatching care. The aim is to identify new adaptations and co-adaptations in parents and larvae as they evolve (this is already happening, and new traits are constantly evolving!). You will also determine whether past selection by these different social environments differently influences their ability to withstand future genetic stresses.

What the student will do:

You will maintain the evolving populations of the beetles in the lab, and analyse them at regular intervals to identify new adaptations as they evolve. For example, you might experimentally analyse whether parents are now less effective at provisioning their offspring in the no care lines and their larvae are less effective at demanding care. You might also cross-foster broods between lines to measure the extent to which parent and larval traits are co-adapting. To determine how the population’s social evolutionary history buffers it against genetic stresses, you will measure the extent to which members of these different populations can withstand generations of inbreeding. Does a history of evolution without parental care make individuals better or worse at coping with genetic stress imposed in this way?

Please contact the lead supervisor directly for further information relating to what the successful applicant will be expected to do, training to be provided, and any specific educational background requirements.


Schrader, M., Jarrett, B. J. M & Kilner, R. M. 2015. Using experimental evolution to study adaptations for life within the family. American Naturalist, vol. 185, pp.610-619, DOI 10.1086/680500

Lumley, A. J. et al. 2015 Sexual selection protects against extinction. Nature, vol. 522, pp.470 -473, DOI 10.1038/nature14419

Follow this link to find out about applying for this project

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