Social contagion of stress responses and consequences for collective action in birds

The Department of Biology and Max Planck Institute for Ornithology seek a Ph.D. candidate to study the short and long-term spread and modulation of individual physiological stress states in the collective.

Background: How do an individual’s physiology and its social environment interact? Differences in early life experience can have surprising effects on individual behaviour. For example, early-life stress can help explain observed variation in social position and cognitive strategies of individuals that live in groups (Boogert et al. 2014, Farine et 2015, Boogert et al. 2018). However, while early-life effects can put individuals on different life-history trajectories, we know little about how an individual’s behavioural and physiological responses to shorter-term stressors affect, and are affected by, other group members. For example, can stress in one individual reverberate through social groups, and/or is the stress response of the individual modulated by the composition of the social environment? Further, we recently discovered that short-term disturbances in social group composition can greatly reduce the efficiency of groups at performing collective actions (Maldonado-Chaparro et al. 2018), but almost nothing is known about whether individual-level stress reactivity can shape group function in similar ways. To test such questions requires tracking the lifelong trajectories of individuals, conducting short-term experimental manipulations of individual stress, and studying the responses by the social system in fine detail.

Position details: The successful candidate will have the opportunity to conduct pioneering studies linking individual stress physiology to collective animal behaviour in birds. The project will make use of novel tracking technologies in a captive zebra finch model system (Alarcon-Nieto et al. 2018) to investigate the effects of stress on pair-bonding, social behaviour, and group function. The tracking technology has already generated some of the largest datasets ever collected on vertebrate social behaviour, and provides both long-term data on social relationships and short-term moment-by-moment data on individual-level and group-level behaviours. The student will benefit from established colonies of birds with experimentally-manipulated early-life experiences and established social groups. They will also have the opportunity to develop a range of experiments combining differences in early-life experiences with short-term experimental manipulations of individuals and laboratory quantification of stress physiology metrics. The research will further benefit from having strong ties to ongoing developments of social network theory, linking individual behaviour to social evolution, that is being developed by the research group and collaborators (e.g. Montiglio et al. 2018).

The project forms part of comparative research on the social contagion of stress physiology spanning humans, mammals and birds, a collaboration between the Departments of Biology and Psychology at the University of Konstanz funded by the Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour (see the broader advertisement here).

Qualification: We are seeking a highly motivated student with an interest in social behaviour, and ideally an interest in understanding the building blocks of animal societies as well as an understanding of stress physiology. Ideally, the candidate should have a Masters degree or equivalent in zoology, ecology, molecular biology, or related subject. However, applicants with a background in other topics and a demonstrable interest in biology will also be considered. The working language of the group is English, and proficiency in English is necessary. No German language skills are required. Quantitative skills are not a prerequisite for consideration, but a passion for science is!

Supervision: The student will be advised by Dr Damien Farine (University of Konstanz and MPI) and co-advised by Dr Neeltje Boogert (University of Exeter), and work as part of a highly collaborative and productive research team involving two postdoctoral researchers, Dr Adriana Maldonado Chaparro (MPI) and Dr Ana Romero Haro (Exeter). Dr Farine’s research group provides a stimulating and supportive research environment in which students are given every opportunity to excel.

Location: The lab is based in the Department of Collective Behaviour, which located within the University of Konstanz. However, we are physically located in Radolfzell where all the aviary facilities are located.

Application Process: Applicants should apply via the IMPRS application system (due 15 January 2019). In their application, they should include a CV, contact details for at least two referees, and a 1-2 page research statement that describes your research interests and background and how these relate to the proposed project. Applicants are invited to contact Dr. Damien Farine to discuss the project ideas and research topic.

Keywords: animal social networks, collective behaviour, group-living, indirect effects, social evolution, social resilience, stress physiology


Alarcón-Nieto, G., Graving, J. M., Klarevas-Irby, J. A., Maldonado-Chaparro, A. A., Mueller, I., & Farine, D. R. (2018). An automated barcode tracking system for behavioural studies in birds. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 9(6), 1536-1547.

Boogert, N. J., Farine, D. R., & Spencer, K. A. (2014). Developmental stress predicts social network position. Biology Letters, 10(10), 20140561.

Boogert, N. J., Lachlan, R. F., Spencer, K. A., Templeton, C. N., & Farine, D. R. (2018). Stress hormones, social associations and song learning in zebra finches. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 20170290.

Farine, D. R., Spencer, K. A., & Boogert, N. J. (2015). Early-Life Stress Triggers Juvenile Zebra Finches to Switch Social Learning Strategies. Current Biology, 25(16), 2184-2188.

Maldonado-Chaparro, A., Alarcón-Nieto, G., Klarevas-Irby, J. A., & Farine, D. R. (2018). Experimental disturbances reveal group-level costs of social instability. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 285, 20181577.

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