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School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences

James Gilbert


PhD student



Project title: Using comparative genomics to investigate the evolution of sociality in African mole-rats

Summary: The diversity of mammalian social systems is demonstrated in the African mole-rate family, where populations range from solitary to "eusocial", including two of the most social species of all mammals (naked and Damaraland mole-rats). How these systems are maintained represents a series of important questions for evolutionary biologists. One possible pathway in the evolution of sociality involves a protein hormone called prolactin. Previous research has demonstrated associations between prolactin and the suppression of reproduction, stress, and variation in prosocial and agonistic behaviours.

This PhD will further explore the role of prolactin and other factors in the evolution of sociality, using comparative genomics together with behavioural and hormonal assaying. The findings will provide novel information relating to the evolution of mammalian social systems and the molecular pathways underlying sociality. The ancient evolutionary origins of prolactin mean that the outcomes from this study will be of broad interest to vertebrate biologists and have relevance to human behaviour. Finally, the social adaptations seen in mole-rats to harsh, arid, unpredictable environments will be relevant to conservation scientists as it may help to inform them of factors that mitigate or exacerbate the extinction risks caused by an ever-changing climate.