Communication and collective threat response in meerkats

Supervisor: Ariana Strandburg-Peshkin, Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz

The doctoral student will collect data on the movements, vocalizations, and behaviors of entire meerkat groups using a combination of tracking collars, behavioral observations, and field experiments. They will then analyze these large datasets to address questions about how meerkats use vocal communication to coordinate group behaviors, with an emphasis on collective responses to predation threats. There will be opportunity to collaborate with an international team of researchers to develop their own research project that can be carried out in this setting. 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 behaviors ranging from group travel to collective responses to threats. Meerkats live in cohesive social groups that travel together throughout the day and rely heavily on vocal communication. One important context in which vocal communication plays a key role is the response to predation threats. Meerkats have a sophisticated alarm calling system; their calls encode information on both predator type and urgency and are also graded. Responses to alarm calls vary from briefly vigilant behavior to rapid escapes into nearby bolt holes. While a great deal is known about the information encoded in meerkat alarm calls, the dynamics of the resulting collective responses remain poorly understood. The ability to monitor the vocalizations and behaviors of entire social groups simultaneously opens up new possibilities for answering a variety of questions, from which individuals initiate alarm calling to the factors governing how individuals – and ultimately entire groups – respond.


Project Details. The student will focus on understanding the interplay between communication and collective movement in wild meerkat groups, with a particular emphasis on group responses to threat. Research will involve collecting and analyzing combined GPS and acoustic data from entire groups of meerkats, as well as designing and conducting field experiments. The student will both contribute to our longer-term data collection efforts where we are collaring entire groups of meerkats and develop their own specific questions within the scope of this broader project. Field work will take place at the Kalahari Meerkat Project, a long-term field study that has been maintaining and collecting behavioral and demographic data on a habituated meerkat population in the Kalahari Desert, South Africa, for over 30 years, led by Dr. Marta Manser and Dr. Tim Clutton-Brock.


Supervision and Research Community. The student will join the Communication and Collective Movement (CoCoMo) research group led by Dr. Ariana Strandburg-Peshkin and integrated within the Department for the Ecology of Animal Societies. They will work closely with a team of collaborators including Dr. Marta Manser (University of Zurich), Dr. Vlad Demartsev (MPIAB), and others. The student will also participate in the broader “Communication and Coordination Across Scales” project, 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. The student will join the International Max Planck Research School for Quantitative Behaviour, Ecology & Evolution, a cooperative doctoral program between the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior and the University of Konstanz.


Qualifications. The project will involve extensive behavioral ecology field work as well as quantitative data analysis using programming. The ideal candidate should have experience in at least one of these areas as well as a positive attitude and enthusiasm for developing their skills in the other. The student will be expected to proactively develop and implement research ideas to move the project forward, thus a high degree of independence is important. Given the collaborative nature of the project, it is also crucial that the student have strong interpersonal skills and be enthusiastic about working as part of an international and interdisciplinary team. Applicants should have a Master’s degree in any scientific discipline including biology, physics, mathematics, computer science or engineering, though students with only a Bachelor’s degree may be considered in very very especial circumstances. The working language of the group is English, and German language skills are not a requirement.


Location. Konstanz is a beautiful 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 German and Swiss countryside and the Alps, as well as to neighboring Zurich and Munich.


Application process. Applicants should apply via the IMPRS-QBEE application system. In addition to the documents specified there, applicants are required to include a research statement addressing the following prompts:


  1. Describe your main scientific interests, how they developed, and how they relate to the proposed research project. Explain what types of scientific questions most motivate you and why. (1 page)
  2. Describe 1-2 specific biological questions you would like to ask or hypotheses you would like to test within the described project. You should assume that you will have access to existing data from meerkat groups (see below for a description of the available data) as well as the opportunity to collect new data. Explain what data you would collect (and/or use) and the analytical approach(es) you would employ to address your questions. Please include a mock figure of what your results might look like, and explain how you would interpret them. (1-2 pages, excluding any references)


Data description. Over the past 6 years, we have been recording data from entire meerkat groups using multi-sensor tracking collars, with the goal of understanding how vocal communication mediates group coordination in multiple contexts. Thus far, we have collected data from approx. 10 groups with varying levels of coverage (ranging from ~half of individuals tracked to all individuals tracked). Each group was tracked for 3 hours per day during a time when the group normally forages together while moving throughout their territory. The number of days tracked varies by group, ranging from about 4 – 15 days. During tracking, collars record GPS data at 1 location per second, continuous audio data, and accelerometer data from all individuals. The long-term study also collects demographic, behavioral, and weight data from all groups on an ongoing basis. The image above shows a visualization of movement and audio data from a group of seven individuals over 20 minutes. Lines show trajectories of each meerkat (individuals denoted by different shades of gray). Colored points on lines indicate positions, with color showing time elapsed. Inset shows the time series of vocalizations from all individuals corresponding to the same 20 minutes. Each column represents the calls from a single meerkat. Horizontal colored lines indicate calls of three different types, with examples shown as spectrograms in insets (red: cohesion call, blue: move call, green: short note call). Alarm calls (not shown in this sequence) are also fairly frequent, usually occurring multiple times per day.

The Universität 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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