Dos oportunidades de doctorado estudiando comportamiento de mamíferos marinos en Australia ~

11 de septiembre de 2020

Dos oportunidades de doctorado estudiando comportamiento de mamíferos marinos en Australia

Two PhD projects available on social learning in marine mammals

The Cetacean Ecology and Acoustics Laboratories (CEAL) group at the University of Queensland (UQ), Australia, is seeking applicants for two PhD positions relating to acoustic communication and social learning in marine mammals.

Applicants should have a background in animal communication and/or behaviour and, for the agent based modelling project, a strong background in coding, either in Python or Matlab. Successful applications will be put forward for a scholarship to the University which will fully cover tuition and pay a living stipend. Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, domestic (Australian and New Zealand) students will be preferred but high quality international applicants should also apply particularly if they are currently in Australia. Please see below for full details.

The CEAL group has a primarily focus on cetacean acoustic behaviour and communication, the effects of anthropogenic noise on marine mammals, cetacean physiology, and cetacean population dynamics. We value a team-based approach, where supervisors and researchers work effectively together on various projects. We also value gender equity and cultural diversity within the lab. As part of the lab PhD programme, we offer experience in field data collection, grant and report writing, and statistical data analysis. We are also able to offer students industry placements, where we encourage and support students to gain real-world experience. Our lab would provide a challenging but impactful PhD experience and, as such, we are seeking enthusiastic and capable students with strong interests in social learning and modelling.


Social learning is the ability to learn behaviours from conspecifics and can lead to the rapid uptake of new behaviours. If behaviours are socially learnt they may spread relatively rapidly throughout a population, or even a group within a population. If socially leant behaviours differ among groups or populations, either due to isolation or environmental factors that may or may not support the behaviour, then social learning may lead to cultures within a species. For this reason, the study of social learning in animals is important for understanding the evolution of human social learning and the extraordinary cumulative culture that it has produced.

While social learning associated with predation and foraging is usually adaptive and stable within a group or population, some socially learnt behaviours can be unstable and rapidly changing. These are of particular interest with regards to studying the evolution of culture, as they represent extreme forms of social learning. They demonstrate the cognitive boundaries of social learning in animals with regards to the amount of information that can be learnt, the role of memory, changes and development of behavioural complexity, and the role of embellishment and innovation.

Humpback whales are one of the best examples of unstable, rapid social learning. Male humpback whale produce one of the most complex vocal displays of any animal in the form of songs. The songs are hierarchical and complex in arrangement (they have ‘rules’), but they are also known to be learned socially and are constantly changing within populations. Although singing is a display associated with breeding, its function and role within the mating system of humpback whales is not clear. Additionally, it is not known why the songs continually change within populations, or how and why songs are transferred among populations. While the songs themselves can be seen as the end products of complex and labile social learning, the process itself is opaque and difficult to observe.

The two PhD projects will further explore two main areas of humpback song structure and social learning. Together, these studies will help us understand some of the cognitive abilities and processes involved in social learning in one of the most outstanding examples of social learning in a non-human animal.

One will focus on the song transfers between western and eastern Australian populations. This will measure the rate at which song information can flow between populations and be learnt by individuals. It will address cognitive capacity limitations in social learning and complexity of learnt signals. It will also measure the rates at which innovation occurs within songs, and test the hypothesis that song change within populations is based on an innate template, facilitating transfer of songs between neighbouring populations. The result of this PhD will include a model of social learning and cultural evolution of a complex acoustic signal in humpback whales.

The second PhD will directly model social learning in humpback whales by continuing previous work on building an agent-based model (ABM) of song change and exchange between populations started at the University of St Andrews and Plymouth University (Mclouglin et al., 2018, Music and Science). It will explore how songs evolve within populations and move between populations. The model will particularly explore the roles of memory and innovation in effecting song change, as well as asymmetrical song learning in individuals, all of which are likely to be necessary to effect song evolution.

The Cetacean Ecology and Acoustics Laboratories (CEAL) Group at UQ has been studying humpback whale vocal communication since 2003 and has one of the largest and longest continuous collections of humpback whale song from any one population of humpback whales in the world. It is one of the leading groups in the world with regards to studying the constant evolution and cultural transmission of humpback whales songs, and UQ is routinely listed in the top 50 or so universities in the world. CEAL is situated at the Moreton Bay Research Station at Dunwich on North Stradbroke Is (Minjerribah) near Brisbane. MBRS is in an excellent position to take advantage of access to the waters off the coast for work on humpback whales. The University is building a new whale interpretive centre on the island in partnership with the Quandamooka People, the Traditional Owners of the island. This world-class facility will allow the continued collection of humpback songs from passing migrating whales from June – October each year ( It is expected that successful applicants will contribute to data collection at this facility.

MBRS is a 30 min ferry trip from the mainland (Cleveland, where several of our PhD students live) and about 90 min from the centre of Brisbane, the main St Lucia campus of the University, and the Brisbane international and domestic airports. North Stradbroke Island itself is a beautiful island with good surf, beaches, national parks, diving and camping.

Applying for the positions

Applicants should have an honours degree or masters degree (or equivalent). For the PhD on song transmission between populations, the applicant’s background would probably be in biology or ecology with quantitative training and experience preferred. The background for the agent based modelling applicant, however, may be broader, and could include psychology, information technology or engineering as well as quantitative biology or ecology. The emphasis here will be on coding and building a complex model where many factors are driven by probability rather than certainty. An appreciation of biological variability is essential. In either case, applicant should have a strong interest in social learning.

To apply for either PhD position, the applicant should send a cover letter to Michael Noad which includes why they would like to undertake this project, a summary of their relevant qualifications and experience, information on their status as either a domestic or international applicant, and where they are currently residing. They should also include a CV and a copy of their academic transcript. Emails should have the subject “PhD expression of interest” followed by the applicants surname.

If a strong domestic applicant for either position applies prior to 18 September 2020, then they may be put forward to the University for a start in early 2021. All other applications will be considered for a start in mid-2021. No applications will be considered after the end of January 2021. It should be noted that ‘strong’ candidate usually have at least first-authored publication in a peer-reviewed journal. While this is not essential for a domestic student to be competitive for a scholarship, it is considered mandatory for international students due to high demand for these scholarships.

Dr Michael Noad

BVSc(Hons) Qld PhD Sydney

Associate Professor

Cetacean Ecology and Acoustic Laboratories (CEAL) Group

Academic Director, Moreton Bay Research Station

School of Veterinary Science

The University of Queensland – Gatton campus

Gatton Qld 4343 Australia

Moreton Bay Research Station

37 Fraser St

North Stradbroke Is. Qld 4183 Australia

M +61 416 270 567




Find your job here