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Understanding constraints and conflicts in social coordination

Supervisor: Dr James Herbert-Read (

Co-supervisor: Professor Andrea Manica

Project summary:

In order to realise the benefits of group living, social animals need to coordinate their behaviour. Coordination can be difficult to achieve, however, when access to social cues is limited or when conflict exists between group members. This project will combine manipulative behavioural experiments, computer vision approaches to record behaviour, and highly quantitative analyses to investigate the factors that promote and disrupt social coordination in animal groups. Sandeels (Ammodytes sp.), provide a model system to investigate social coordination. They burrow into the sand at night and emerge together in the day to forage in large, cohesive and collectively moving schools [1-3]. This project will take detailed measurements of sandeels’ social interactions and ask how social, ecological, and anthropogenic factors influence whether coordination is achieved. In particular, the project will investigate how sandeels synchronise their emergence and burrowing times, coordinate their movements while foraging, and ask how natural and artificial forms of environmental noise affect social coordination. The project will therefore answer how the constraints, costs, and benefits of coordination combine to affect animals’ social organisation and group functioning.  

What the student will be doing:

The candidate will be tasked with performing behavioural experiments in the laboratory with the potential for field observations. The laboratory experiments will use virtual reality set-ups to immerse animals into simulated ecological scenarios. The experiments will combine highly quantitative methods, including computer-vision based automated tracking, to gather detailed behavioural data in three-dimensions. The candidate will use detailed approaches to visualise, analyse and interpret animal behaviour. They will then disseminate these findings in high-quality publications. 

The candidate would benefit from having previously worked with fishes in a laboratory. A strong ability to code in MATLAB, R, or equivalent, is essential. The candidate would also benefit from having a good understanding of statistical analyses, computer vision, or machine learning. Proficiency in scuba diving or snorkelling would also be beneficial, but not necessary.


[1] Pitcher, T. J., & Wyche, C. J. (1983). Predator-avoidance behaviours of sand-eel schools: why schools seldom split. In Predators and prey in fishes (pp. 193-204). Springer, Dordrecht.
[2] Winslade, P. (1974). Behavioural studies on the lesser sandeel Ammodytes marinus (Raitt) I. The effect of food availability on activity and the role of olfaction in food detection. Journal of Fish Biology6(5), 565-576.
[3] Winslade, P. (1974). Behavioural studies on the lesser sandeel Ammodytes marinus (Raitt) II. The effect of light intensity on activity. Journal of Fish Biology6(5), 577-586.


This project falls under the remit of our Marine Biology studentships.