Developmental modularity and integration in evolution of avian cranial diversity

This project will study the evolutionary and developmental mechanisms of avian cranial diversity in species undergoing adaptive radiation.

The studentship starts October 2019 and is funded by NERC. 

How to apply

Read the eligibility criteria and application guidance below, then send your application to the lead supervisor, Dr Arkhat Abzhanov.

Application deadline: 8 January 2019


Comprising 30 orders and over 10,000 species, birds are the most successful land vertebrates and much of their success can be attributed to their cranial adaptations, such as uniquely shaped skull and beak.

The main goal for this PhD project is to survey this remarkable diversity morphometrically and to reveal the role for changes in modularity and integration in evolution of avian cranial diversity by studying species undergoing adaptive radiation.

Adaptive radiation is the rapid evolution of morphologically and ecologically diverse species from a single ancestor. The most famous examples of adaptive radiation in birds are Galapagos (Darwin’s) Finches (Thraupidae), Hawaiian honeycreepers (Drepanidinae) and Madagascar vangas (Vangidae), which all evolved remarkable levels of cranial morphological variation in sets of very closely related species making them ideal to study evolutionary and developmental mechanisms underlying such adaptive morphological radiations.


To gain new insights into the nature of their diversification, the PhD student will join an active effort to analyse a growing database of 3D CT (computer tomography) scans of avian and other skulls in the Abzhanov and Goswami groups. More specifically, this student will perform analyses using morphometric landmarks to compare cranial shapes of all three clades (Darwin’s finches, honeycreepers and vangas) within the same morphospace.

The first aim is to quantitatively and qualitatively measure the degree of modularity and reveal patterns of integration of cranial skeletons in these examples of ecologically well-studied adaptive radiations and their relatives and outgroups. We will learn whether novel patterns of modularity or different levels of integration between cranial skeletal elements could be uncovered.

Such findings will help to better understand the nature of adaptive radiations in general and provide a foundation for future investigations on the molecular mechanisms underlying diversification of these morphologically distinguished groups of birds.

For the second aim, the PhD student will analyse the basic mechanisms controlling integration between different skull modules (e.g. beak, orbits, cranial vault, etc) in the developing avian skull using chicken and zebrafinch embryos. Retroviral vectors and other experimental reagents will be used to reveal the nature of the molecular interactions between cranial bones in the skulls of live embryos.

These data will help to understand on the exact genetic causes of changes in modularity and integration during avian evolution. 


To be eligible for a full award a student must have:

  • British Citizenship or; 
  • Settled status in the UK, meaning they have no restrictions on how long they can stay,
  • Been ‘ordinarily resident’ in the UK for 3 years prior to the start of the studentship - (For non-EU citizens, this must NOT have been in full time education.)
    This means they must have been normally residing in the UK (apart from temporary or occasional absences).  This does not apply to UK nationals. 

For more information, download this PDF.

How to apply

Applications for this PhD are processed through Imperial College.

To apply, please send the following documents to the lead supervisor, Dr Arkhat Abzhanov

  • Curriculum vitae.
  • Covering letter outlining your interest in the PhD position, relevant skills training, experience and qualifications for the research, and a statement of how this PhD project fits your career development plans.
  • Names of two academic referees.

The deadline for applications is 8 January 2019.

Any questions?

If you have any questions about the project please contact

Main supervisor: Dr Arkhat Abzhanov

Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet (SSCP) doctoral training partnership

This is a joint project between The Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet (SSCP) Doctoral Training Partnership at Imperial College London and The Natural History Museum.

Funded by 

Submit your application