Matt Chaumont


PhD Candidate

Thesis title

Cultural evolution in lyrebirds

Research Project

Matt ChaumontCultural evolution has been studied in human populations, primates, cetaceans, and some birds. Yet relatively few studies have taken place in natural systems. The Superb lyrebird is a famous vocal mimic, able to imitate a variety of other species and replicate complex sounds. Lyrebirds occupy spatiotemporally diverse habitat, their dispersal is often limited, and song repertoires, which include a learned component, vary geographically. They are also long-lived ~30 years and have been shown to improve mimicry overtime. This makes the lyrebird a compelling animal model for the study of social-transmission of behavioural phenotypes through space (modes) and time (tempos).

In order to understand the natural patterns of cultural evolution in a complex socially-learnt behaviour, this project will exploit a “natural experiment” to systematically study the various components of the male superb lyrebird’s mating display. Here, the “natural experiment” was created by the translocation of two adjacent populations of superb lyrebirds (c1934), from adjacent populations in Victoria to Tasmania, where lyrebirds are not known to have occurred previously. By collecting audio-visual, ecological, and genetic data from the translocated population, we can make comparisons with the source population and quantify the drivers of cultural evolution in the wild. The project will also collect audio recordings from archives dating back from the 1920s in order to understand the rates of cultural evolution within populations over time.

During my candidature I aim to identify the evolutionary tempo and modes driving spatiotemporal variation in components of the lyrebirds mating displays (different components of song and dance). To do so, I will quantify divergence patterns across various contemporary populations and their combined ancestral populations (correlational analysis). I will also run cultural evolutionary experiments in the wild. By seeding novel songs into various Tasmanian lyrebird groups, using a combination of social and independent learning treatments, I aim to identify the predominant mode of vocal transmission and understand the different contexts, constraints, and biases on learning across the various displays (experimental analysis).

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Dr Justin Welbergen, Dr Anastasia Dalziell, Prof Robert Magrath (ANU)