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Suggestions for Master thesis in Ethology

Thesis suggestions with Per Jensen, Dominic Wright, Hanne Løvlie

When you select a project in ethology, you will become a member of the AVIAN research group during the year of your thesis work. You will participate in group meetings, perform your experiments in the facilities of the group (hatchery, chicken lab, chicken house, dog breeding unit, etc), attend seminars and perhaps conferences with the group. You will be supervised in your daily work by PhD-students and post-docs, and Per Jensen, Dominic Wright or Hanne Løvlie will act as the main supervisor. After finishing, you will be well equipped for a career as PhD-student of your own, either in the AVIAN group, or in other groups around the world. In all projects, we expect that the results will lead up to a scientific publication.

The project suggestions should be viewed as fields of interest – within each field, there are a number of possible projects, so the details should be resolved later during discussion with the supervisor.

1. Early experience and perinatal stress in chickens – effect on behaviour

Environmental challenges early in life have been shown to affect the individual in both short and long term. It has also been shown that this effect may not only be limited to the individuals exposed to it, but also may affect their offspring. We have shown that chicken parents living under stressful conditions can prepare their offspring (before they are even hatched!) for living under the same stress, by changing their behaviour. In an ongoing experiment, we investigate effects in different time perspectives from ethological and animal welfare, as well as evolutionary and genetic perspectives. We will integrate this with physiological measurements of various steroid hormones, both in plasma and eggs. This is a project that is highly flexible to the student’s preference. Whether you are interested in how animals cope with different environments and how this affects their behaviour, how prenatal stress might play a part in evolution and domestication, or just want to go into molecular details regarding genetic mechanism underlying our findings, this could be a project for you. Remember, the first does not exclude the other. After years of experience in both the behavioural as well as the genetic field, our research group can provide you with the help you need even though it is your first time in the lab or if you never have touched a feather before.

2. Domestication in the chicken house

Domestication causes rapid evolutionary changes in behaviour, physiology and morphology. In an ongoing experiment, the wild ancestor of all domesticated chickens, the red junglefowl, is selected for tameness over at least five generations. During this time we will record correlated responses in other, non-selected behaviour, in gene expression, and in any other biological traits that may be of relevance. In this project, you will investigate early responses (4th generation) to the selection, and the thesis will consist of measuring different aspects of behaviour in parents and offspring. You have the chance of witnessing with your own eyes and senses how animals may once have started to change when they associated with humans for the first time thousands of years ago!

3. In search of domestication genes

Behaviour is a product of interactions between genes and environment, but which are the crucial genes? We have identified a number of highly interesting loci and genes, which may have been the target of early selection during domestication. Mostly, the exact phenotypes caused by the genes are unknown, in particular in relation to behaviour. In this project, you will be involved in large scale phenotyping of chickens for specific behaviours. The primary target of interest at present is the TSHR-gene, where almost all domesticated birds are homozygous for a mutation which is rare in the wild red junglefowl. Another important gene of the same kind is ADRA2c, coding for an adrenoreceptor thought to be involved in stress regulation. An RNA expression analysis could also be involved if desired. This project therefore gives the opportunity to work with all aspects of a genetic analysis, from breeding of animals, via behaviour phenotyping to statistical analysis. There is an extremely strong chance for rapid publications arising from this project, which the candidate will also be involved in.

4. QTL-analysis

The hunt for genes associated with different behaviours start with mapping genetic loci associated with different traits. This has been part of the research in our group for over a decade now, and we have accumulated masses of data and tissues from chickens for further analysis. Basically, we want to find out more about the genetic architecture of domestication, and the method is to study crosses between modern laying chickens and their ancestors, the red junglefowl. In this project, you will get all the guidance needed to quantify phenotypes of different kinds and analyse the genetic associations. You will be exploring the molecular details of domestication!

5. Animal personality

Animals typically differ in behavioural responses that are consistent over time and across contexts (so called ‘personality types’). From an evolutionary perspective, this generates the puzzle of what limits behavioural plasticity and also how this variation is maintained over time. For example, personality types can be alternative strategies where individuals are born with genetically predisposed profiles of reaction patterns, or shaped through stability of traits limiting plasticity. Further, the consequences of correlated sets of behaviour patterns are unclear, but affect the animal in its attempts to cope with stress, to interact with other individuals or to explore its environment. Chickens are in the forefront of our research on personalities, and we are curious to find out, for example, under which evolutionary conditions certain types of personality give reproductive advantages, and which genes that may be involved in shaping personality differences. Similar research is ongoing on dogs, where we are particularly interested in finding out how dog personalities are affected by early experiences. The basic methods used are extensive behavioural recordings in different situations, coupled with statistical analysis of the patterns emerging from the reactions of the animals. This project will allow you to take part in a novel field of research and join up with a team of scientists with background in different parts of biology.

6. Pre- and post-copulatory sexual selection

Both male and female red junglefowl are sexually promiscuous which together with female storage of sperm for several weeks result in intense sexual selection occurring both before copulation (as mate choice and male-male competition) and after copulation as sperm competition and cryptic female choice. Both males and female have shown sophisticated adaptations to this strong selection pressure. For example, males allocate sperm differentially dependent on own status and female quality (signalled by the female comb). Females, on the other hand, have several different cryptic choice mechanisms through which they bias sperm in favour of certain males for example to reduce the risk of inbreeding. Despite the fowl being an important model for research on sexual selection, several key questions are still unanswered like what traits are important in female choice, what determine male social status, how do males allocate sperm, and how do females actually bias their sperm utilisation? Several projects suitable for master projects can be offered, projects purely based on experimental behavioural work, or in combination with physiological assays (e.g. of female sperm use or sperm quality) or physiology (e.g. hormonal analyses).  

Thesis suggestions in other groups with Per Jensen as contact person

1. How much straw slaughter pigs need?

Project offers from Foulum, Denmark

This study focuses on the behavioural need of slaughter pigs for occupational material. The study aims at describing a dose-response relation between the amount of straw provided to slaughter pigs and the occurrence of abnormal explorative behavior directed towards penmates. The experimental period is from January to April 2012 but students might be associated to the project later, and the focus on analysis of video recordings of behavior.

Key words: pig, behavior, exploration, need, tail-biting.

Contact supervisors Lene Juul Pedersen or Mette Herskin (MetteS.Herskin@agrsci.dk) for further information.

2. Behaviour of transgenic Yucatan-pigs carrying a human gene for atherosclerosis

Project offers from Foulum, Denmark

This study focuses on the behavior of the newly created transgenic Yucatan pigs designed to model a serious disease with a high prevalence within the Western world (atherosclerosis, heart infarct). Master projects might focus on welfare evaluation of these animals and their environmental needs and preferences, on behavioural phenotyping or on development of methods to quantify behavioural disease symptoms. The experimental period is 2012 – there are several options.

Key words: pig, animal model, transgenesis, disease, welfare.

Contact supervisor Mette Herskin (MetteS.Herskin@agrsci.dk) for further information.

3. Behaviour of cattle

Project offers from Foulum, Denmark

Several possible projects within ongoing research projects on maternal behaviour, grazing behaviour, etc.

Partly supervised by previous Linköping student Magnus Campler.

4. Impulsivity before and after long-term alcohol consumption

Project offer from Karolinska Institute

Project description:

In Sweden, approximately 7 000 deaths annually might be associated with alcohol use disorder (AUD). Craving is a critical component of AUD, and may influence drinking patterns and relapse. Craving itself may be stratified into an “urge” or “desire” to drink as well as “difficulty to resist” a potential drink offer. The ability to resist craving is related to impulse control. Alcohol dependent patients generally score higher than healthy controls on several questionnaires measuring the trait of impulsivity and display impaired performance on all three classes of neuropsychological tasks of impulsivity compared to healthy controls. Impairment of cognitive impulsivity in alcohol dependent patients persists even 6 years after sobriety and is not correlated with abstinence duration. The impaired impulsivity due to long-term alcohol abuse is instead explained by the decreased dopaminergic baseline as well as a reorganization of brain regions responsible for impulse inhibition.

A potential new treatment for AUD would therefore be to normalize the levels of dopamine as well as reducing impulsivity.

In this project we will investigate the impulsivity in male Lister Hooded rats by use of a model measuring motor impulsivity; five choice serial reaction time task. We will measure impulsivity before and after long-term exposure to alcohol as well as relate the level of impulsivity to behavioral traits and dominance-subordination relationships.

About us:
Our overall aim is to develop more potent and specific pharmacological treatment strategies for substance use dependence. We use a pipeline of well-established experimental and clinical methods to identify and examine potential candidates for treatment of alcohol- and amphetamine addiction. Professor Johan Franck is the principal investigator and responsible for the clinical research. Associate Professor Pia Steensland is responsible for the experimental research and Post Doc Sarah Holst works with behavioral profiling of vulnerability to develop AUD wihin the experimental research.
You will be supervised by a researcher working on animal behavior. You will assist the researcher in behavioral experiments, compile large quantities of computerized data and from films, and analyze them statistically. You will gain theoretical and practical knowledge of behavioral experiments and models and be trained in scientific interpretation of your results. The results will be summarized in a rapport and presented to the supervisor and the group members. You will also participate in journal clubs with other students, PhD-students and Post Docs within the group.

Knowledge in ethology and computer skills is desirable but not necessary. Successful candidates will be asked to perform a working test before final admission.

Webpage1: http://ki.se/ki/jsp/polopoly.jsp?l=en&d=38245

Webpage2: http://www.webbhotell.sll.se/sv/Psykiatriforskning/Forskning/Missbruk-och-beroende/Johan-Franck-/Treatment-of-abuse-and-dependence/

Working language: English or Swedish

Keywords: Impulsivity, Addiction, Alcohol, Dopamine, Dominance Subordination relationship, Personality traits, Psychiatry.

Dept of Clinical Neuroscience, Division of Psychiatry, R5:01
Karolinska University Hospital, Solna, SE-171 76 Stockholm
Tel +46-8-51776273 , +46-70-717 71 01 
Fax +46-8-321796

Responsible for this page: Per Jensen
Last updated: 12/13/11