PhD position on the social lives and cooperative abilities of Rüppell’s vultures (1.0 FTE)

PhD position on the social lives and cooperative abilities of Rüppell’s vultures (1.0 FTE)

Published Deadline Location
4 Sep 1 Oct Utrecht

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How does the social organisation of a group of social vultures look like? Who are their enemies and friends and do they cooperate? Intrigued? Join our group!

Job description

Join the Animal Behaviour & Cognition research group as PhD candidate in animal behaviour. You will work in the newly formed lab on vulture social cognition led by Dr. Jorg J. M. Massen. The position is for 4 years (Full-time/1.0 FTE) and involves 90% research time and 10% teaching activities within the group.

Social life has been suggested as one of the main drivers for the evolution of intelligence. Comparative social cognition studies have, however, so far only focused on a select group of species, and little work has been done on vultures, even though they have relatively large brains and are also extremely long-lived. In a small team, we will focus on the social dynamics and social relations of Rüppell’s vultures, with a particular interest in their cooperative and prosocial tendencies, be it at the nest or in their social groups. You will focus primarily on studying 2 groups of Rüppell’s vultures (with a total of ± 27 animals) at Avifauna bird zoo  and Diergaarde Blijdorp/ Rotterdam Zoo, both in the Netherlands There is potential to study other groups at other institutes as well as other, solitary, vulture species in the same and/or different institutes.

Both zoos have a strong interest in animal welfare and are moreover very much involved in the breeding programme of this critically endangered species, both of which can be additional topics of the PhD research.

In the PhD project, the aim will be to characterize the vultures’ social network structures based on observational data, and to employ voluntary behavioural experimental studies on social tolerance and cooperation to test the link between social network properties and fitness-relevant behaviours. Given the focus on social intelligence, the work may be complemented with work on a more solitary vulture species as a relevant comparison.

In this position you will:
  • conduct research with standard ethological observation techniques;
  •  combine observational and behavioural experimental methods involving behavioural and cognitive measures;
  •  integrate knowledge of underlying proximate mechanisms with animal behaviour, cognition and fitness;
  •  conduct advanced statistical and analytic analyses on behavioural data;
  • supervise Bachelor and Master students (10% of your time).


Utrecht University


We are looking for an enthusiastic new colleague who meets the following criteria:
  • a Master’s degree in animal behaviour;
  • experience in conducting behavioural experiments- and structural observations of animal social behaviour (preferably with birds);
  • you are able to apply Tinbergen’s 4 why’s to behaviour;
  • you possess the social skills to motivate people from different backgrounds and facilitate team-work;
  • academic writing experience;
  • you are proficient in English, both in speech and writing. Knowledge of-, or the willingness to learn, Dutch is recommendable;
  • you have a strong background in data analysis using R, and preferably experience with Social Network Analysis.

Conditions of employment

  • a full-time position for 4 years;
  • a full-time gross salary starting at €2,770 in the first year and increasing to €3,539 in the fourth year (scale P Collective Labour Agreement Dutch Universities (cao));
  • 8% holiday bonus and 8.3% end-of-year bonus;
  • a pension scheme, partially paid parental leave, and flexible employment conditions based on the Collective Labour Agreement Dutch Universities.

In addition to the employment conditions from the CAO for Dutch Universities, Utrecht University has a number of its own arrangements. These include agreements on professional development, leave arrangements, sports and cultural schemes and you get discounts on software and other IT products. We also give you the opportunity to expand your terms of employment through the Employment Conditions Selection Model. This is how we encourage you to grow.

For more information, please visit working at Utrecht University.


A better future for everyone. This ambition motivates our scientists in executing their leading research and inspiring teaching. At Utrecht University, the various disciplines collaborate intensively towards major strategic themes. Our focus is on Dynamics of Youth, Institutions for Open Societies, Life Sciences and Pathways to Sustainability. Shaping science, sharing tomorrow.

At the Faculty of Science there are 6 departments to make a fundamental connection with: Biology, Chemistry, Information and Computing Sciences, Mathematics, Pharmaceutical Sciences and Physics. Each of these is made up of distinct institutes that work together to focus on answering some of humanity’s most pressing challenges. More fundamental still are the individual research groups – the building blocks of our ambitious scientific projects.

You will be embedded in the Animal Behaviour and Cognition (AB&C) group where you will find theoretical and practical support for the study topic. This group is part of the Institute of Environmental Biology within the Department of Biology. The AB&C group conducts research on animal social behaviour and cognition, in particular primates and birds. The group has its own teaching line within the biology Bachelor education and its own track Behavioural Ecology in the Master Environmental Biology.

You will be supervised by Dr. Jorg Massen. Professor Liesbeth Sterck will formally act as your promotor. These supervisors are leading scholars with regard to animal sociality, including avian- and comparative cognition, with a focus on cooperative and prosocial behaviours. The AB&C-group has connections with multiple (inter)national institutions that complement their own work with work on other model (avian) species or levels of analyses (e.g. endocrinology and/or genomics). Some of the PI’s in these institutes may function as advisory committee members for the proposed PhD.


  • PhD
  • Natural sciences
  • 38—40 hours per week
  • €2770—€3539 per month
  • University graduate
  • 1214538



Padualaan 8, 3584 CH, Utrecht

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