The evolution of large brains and complex cognition across animal taxa


The evolution of advanced cognitive abilities in animals has been heavily studied in some vertebrates, notably mammals and birds. This traditional focus on large brained vertebrates has generated several influential hypotheses that describe how ecology, sociality, life history and other factors may have driven the evolution of large brains and complex cognitive abilities. By comparison, many taxa are understudied and this provides an opportunity to test how generalisable such hypotheses may be when seeking to understand the evolution of intelligence across animals.

This project aims to investigate the evolution of large brains and complex cognition in traditionally understudied taxa, such as invertebrates, reptiles and fish. In doing so, the candidate will have the opportunity to direct research questions according to their interests and make contributions to the field of comparative cognition.

The project will make use of phylogenetically controlled comparative methods, drawing on large amounts of interspecific data to test evolutionary hypotheses. Training in these methods will be provided. Familiarity with the programming language R is desirable but not necessary.

The project is suited to a student with at least a good BSc Upper Second in Biological or Life Sciences (particularly animal behaviour and evolutionary biology).

Applications will be reviewed until a suitable candidate is appointed.


Open to students worldwide

Funding information

Self-funded project

The project is open to both European/UK and International students. It is UNFUNDED and applicants are encouraged to contact the Principal Supervisor directly to discuss their application and the project.

Assistance will be given to those who are applying to international funding schemes.

The successful applicant will be expected to provide the funding for tuition fees and living expenses.

New self-funded applicants may be eligible for a tuition fees bursary.

Details of costs can be found on the University website:



  1. Kverková, K., Marhounová, L., Polonyiová, A., Kocourek, M., Zhang, Y., Olkowicz, S., Straková, B., Pavelková, Z., Vodička, R., Frynta, D. and Němec, P. (2022) 'The evolution of brain neuron numbers in amniotes', Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 119(11).
  2. Hardie, J. L. and Cooney, C. R. (2023) 'Sociality, ecology and developmental constraints predict variation in brain size across birds', Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 36(1), pp. 144-155.
  3. Stark, G. and Pincheira-Donoso, D. (2022) 'The Evolution of Brain Size in Ectothermic Tetrapods: Large Brain Mass Trades-Off with Lifespan in Reptiles', Evolutionary Biology, 49(2), pp. 180-188.