Personality traits and cognitive abilities in captive-bred North African houbara bustard

Updated: 4 months ago
Job Type: FullTime
Deadline: 09 Feb 2022

The University of Exeter’s College of Life and Environmental Sciences, in partnership with Reneco International Wildlife Consultants, is inviting applications for a PhD studentship to commence in March 2022 or as soon as possible thereafter.  The studentship is to investigate personality traits and cognitive abilities in a captive-bred population of North African houbara bustards (Chlamydotis undulata undulata).   

Project Description: 

The endangered North African houbara bustard (Chlamydotis undulata undulata) has been declining drastically throughout its range due to overhunting and habitat degradation. Since the late 90s the species has been the subject of a large-scale captive breeding programme at the Emirates Center for Wildlife Propagation, Missour, with more than 15 000 birds produced annually for release in the wild. The intention of this rearing and release is to restore wild populations and supplement hunting grounds for regulated falconry ( ). Houbaras are bred using an artificial insemination process following a strict genetic management (pedigree-based), designed to increase genetic diversity and avoid inbreeding depression (Rabier et al. 2020, 2021). However, past research (Charge et al. 2013, 2014) and ongoing analyses (E Sorato) have provided evidence for among-individual differences in sexual behaviour and life history traits partly associated with origin (captive-bred vs wild-origin individuals), which may arise through genetic adaptation to captivity and parental effects.. However, the relative extent to which genetic changes and environmental effects may affect personality, cognitive traits, and ultimately fitness in the wild, remains to be explored. 

The successful applicant will investigate the effects of captive-breeding on personality traits, by conducting behavioural tests on captive houbaras throughout ontogeny. Interplays between personality and individual cognitive abilities (discriminative and reversal learning) will also be explored. By testing individuals with varying known histories of captive breeding, and by using quantitative genetics statistical methods, we will assess the extent of adaptation to captivity and disentangle the relative impact of additive genetic, parental and environmental effects on the main personality axes, and on interplays between personality and cognitive traits. This study will contribute to unravel the selection forces shaping variation in personality and cognitive traits and will ultimately aid improve conservation breeding of endangered species / houbara bustard. 

Working environment 

The project is part of a collaboration between Dr Enrico Sorato (Reneco International Wildlife Consultants; ECWP) and Dr Joah Madden (Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour, University of Exeter) investigating the behavioural, life history and fitness consequences of captive breeding in the houbara bustard.  

The student will be based in UK at Exeter, supervised by Dr Joah Madden. Fieldwork will take place at the Emirates Center for Wildlife Propagation in Missour, Eastern Morocco, starting in Spring 2022. Besides Morocco, the student will also be expected to spend time at the Reneco HQ in Abu Dhabi, UAE, to conduct data analysis under the supervision of E Sorato. 


This award provides annual funding to cover Home or International tuition fees for three years. It is the understanding of the University of Exeter that the research costs, associated travel and any on-site accommodation plus an annual stipend to a total value of 22,000 Euros/year will be provided directly to the successful student by Reneco.  International applicants need to be aware that you will have to cover the cost of your student visa, healthcare surcharge and other costs of moving to the UK to do a PhD. 

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