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Cambridge NERC Doctoral Training Partnerships

Graduate Research Opportunities
Image of cicada

Lead Supervisor: James Herbert-Read, Zoology

Co-Supervisor:  Chris Reid, Macquarie University, Australia

Brief summary: 
This project will use a combination of empirical and modelling approaches to understand the mechanisms and functions of synchronised calling in cicada swarms.
Importance of the area of research concerned: 
Synchronised signals are produced in a range of animal aggregations and provide some of the most spectacular examples of biological organisation. Interactions between flashing fireflies or chorusing insects producing rhythmical advertisements can lead to the emergence of vast collectively synchronised displays. True synchronisation emerges through the local interactions between group members, with synchronisation often occurring when there are competitive interactions between individuals. Indeed, many displays of synchronisation occur in groups of seemingly low-relatedness where individuals compete to attract mates. Why individuals should synchronise their behaviour in these groups still remains unclear. By understanding the form and function of synchronised calling in cicada swarms, this project will answer the evolutionary puzzle as to why synchronised signalling exists in groups of unrelated individuals.
Project summary : 
This project will use a combination of empirical and modelling approaches to understand the mechanisms and functions of synchronised calling in cicada swarms. Using arrays of remote recording stations spread out over hundreds of square meters in the Australian bush, the spatial and temporal components of cicadas’ synchronised calling in the wild will be captured. Playback experiments will be used to test how males respond to the calls of their neighbours, testing the mechanisms that result in collective call synchronisation. Female preference for different calls will also be recorded to understand the selective pressures on male signalling behaviour. Theoretical models will also be developed to understand why males synchronise their calls, testing the conditions where synchronisation is an evolutionary stable strategy.
What will the student do?: 
The student will investigate the form and function of synchronised calling in the Australian cicada, the Razor-Grinder (Henicopsaltria eydouxii). This species occurs along the east coast of Australia, and emerges between the end of November - late February. The project will involve fieldwork in Australia and data analysis in Cambridge. The student will perform field experiments in Australia to characterise the properties of synchronised calls in cicada swarms. The student will also perform manipulative playback experiments to understand how males respond to each other’s calls, and whether females have a preference for different calls. The student will further build theoretical models to explore the function of synchronised calling, testing why males may use particular strategies to respond to each other’s calls. Therefore, students with a proficiency in both the experimental and theoretical components of behavioural ecology research are sought.
References - references should provide further reading about the project: 
Sarfati, R., Hayes, J. C., & Peleg, O. (2021). Self-organization in natural swarms of Photinus carolinus synchronous fireflies. Science Advances, 7, eabg9259. Buck, J. (1988). Synchronous rhythmic flashing of fireflies. II. The Quarterly review of biology, 63, 265-289.
You can find out about applying for this project on the Department of Zoology page.
Dr James Herbert-Read