Communication and collective action in spotted hyenas

Supervisor: Dr. Strandburg-Peshkin

We are seeking a doctoral student to join an exciting new project on hyena vocal communication and collective behavior at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz, Germany. The student will focus on analyzing an unprecedented dataset consisting of high-resolution movement, acoustic, and accelerometer data from the majority of individuals within the same hyena clan, collected using tracking collars. The student will collaborate with an international team of researchers to develop their own research project that can be carried out with this dataset, and may also conduct some fieldwork with spotted hyenas depending on interest and feasibility. The position is fully funded for 4 years, and open to students of any nationality. 
 

Background. Communication and collective behavior are fundamentally linked, with many animals using vocal signals to coordinate a variety of collective behaviors ranging from group movement to collective action. Spotted hyenas live in stable social groups that show a high degree of fission-fusion dynamics, with animals ranging alone or in small subgroups that split and merge over time. While competition for resources drives group members apart, they can come together rapidly to face external threats such as conflicts with lions or neighboring hyena clans. To do so, they recruit their clan-mates using long-distance calls that can travel over several kilometers. A hyena clan has the potential to function as a distributed sensory network, with group members maintaining acoustic contact over long distances to enable rapid convergence when a threat arises. Yet this network is also composed of distinct individuals whose needs, and likely decisions, are not always homogenous. To understand how this network functions – both to distribute information and to facilitate cooperative behavior — our team is currently working to outfit all members of a single hyena clan with tracking collars that record the movements, vocalizations, and behaviors of this highly dispersed social group. Data collection is underway in collaboration with the MSU-Mara Hyena Project in the Masai Mara, Kenya, and we expect this exciting new dataset to be available by the time the incoming doctoral student arrives.

 

Project Details. The student will focus on understanding the interplay between vocal communication, social structure, and collective behavior in spotted hyenas. Research will involve designing and implementing quantitative analyses to answer questions about hyena social behavior, making use of combined GPS, audio, and accelerometer data from our tracking collars as well as long-term data on group members. The student will be expected to develop their own research questions using the existing data, with support and guidance from an international team of collaborators. While the main focus will be on analysis of collar data, some field work may also be possible depending on interest, feasibility, and the direction of the project. Start date is flexible and should ideally be between July and October of 2023.

 

Supervision and Research Community. The student will join the Communication and Collective Movement (CoCoMo) research group (www.cocomo.group) led by Dr. Ariana Strandburg-Peshkin and integrated within the Department for the Ecology of Animal Societies. They will work closely with an international team of collaborators including Kay Holekamp (Michigan State University), Frants Jensen (Aarhus University), Andrew Gersick (San Diego State University), and Eli Strauss (Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior). The student will also participate in the broader “Communication and Coordination Across Scales” project (www.movecall.group), an international collaboration in which we are investigating how communication and collective behavior interact across three different species of social mammals (meerkats, coatis, and hyenas). The University of Konstanz and the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior together form a thriving research community representing a global hotspot for collective behavior and animal movement research, including the recently-awarded Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour. The student will join the International Max Planck Research School for Quantitative Behaviour, Ecology and Evolution (IMPRS-QBEE), a joint doctoral program between the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior and the University of Konstanz.

 

Qualifications. The ideal candidate should be enthusiastic about addressing biological questions using quantitative approaches. The project will involve analyzing a large, complex dataset, thus prior experience with programming (e.g. in R, Python, MATLAB, etc.) would be very beneficial and an enthusiasm for tackling challenging computational problems is essential. The student will be expected to proactively develop and implement research ideas to move the project forward, thus a high degree of independence is desirable. Given the collaborative nature of the project, it is also critical that the student have strong interpersonal skills and be enthusiastic about working as part of an international and interdisciplinary team. Applicants should ideally have a Masters degree in any scientific discipline including biology, physics, mathematics, or engineering, though students with only a Bachelors degree can also be considered. The working language of the group is English, and German language skills are not a requirement.

 

Location. Konstanz is a vibrant small city located on the border between Germany and Switzerland, on the shores of the Bodensee (Lake Constance). It is easy to get out into the beautiful German and Swiss countryside and the Alps, as well as to neighboring Zurich and Munich.

 

Application Process. Applicants should apply via the IMPRS application system (due 16 December 2022), and are also required to include a research statement (see below for details).

 

Research Statement Instructions. Applicants should include a 2-3 page research statement that addresses the following points:


 

  1. Describe your main research interests, how they developed, and how they relate to the proposed research project. (1 page)
  2. Describe 1-2 biological questions you would like to ask or hypotheses you would like to test using the described dataset, and explain the analytical approach(es) you would use to address them. Please include a mock figure (can be hand drawn) of what your results might look like. (1-2 pages)

The University of Konstanz and the Max Planck Society are equal opportunity employers that are committed to providing employment opportunities to all qualified applicants without regard to race, color, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, or disability. They seek to increase the number of women in those areas where they are underrepresented and therefore explicitly encourage women to apply  (Equal opportunity). Persons with disabilities are explicitly encouraged to apply. They will be given preference if appropriately qualified (contact +49 7531 88 4016).

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