University of Bristol: Bristol Scientists awarded over $2 million for cutting edge research

Recipients Dr Stephanie King and Dr Stephen Montgomery were successful a rigorous year-long selection process in a global competition that started with 716 submitted letters of intent involving scientists with their laboratories in more than 50 different countries.

Dr King, who is renowned for her work on dolphin social cognition, will use the funds for her project on the ‘The Social Origins of Rhythm’ with her international collaborators, Andrea Ravignani of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Netherlands, Peter Madsen of Aarhus University, Denmark and Peter Cook of New College Florida, USA. Together, they will use data from more 30 than marine mammal species and integrate approaches from field biology, comparative neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and speech sciences to test competing hypotheses on the evolutionary roots of the social use of vocal rhythm.

The enjoyment of music is ubiquitous across human societies and cultures. Among the (bio)cognitive underpinnings to process and enjoy music, rhythm plays a key role. In humans, musical beat processing intimately links perception and action when they entrain rhythmic movements to musical beats. Dr King said: “In social settings, this leads to rhythmic actions within groups of people, such as dancing or marching in unison, but what selective pressures led to rhythmic behaviour to begin with, and why did the social use of rhythm evolve? This is what our project sets out to answer.”

“We are all very excited about this unique opportunity to work together on a project that will provide fundamental insight into the evolutionary scenarios under which social rhythm evolved, both in marine mammals and our own species.”

Dr Montgomery will continue his exciting work with Heliconiini butterflies to understand how brains evolve. These butterflies have been studied for 150 years, but only recently has the extent of variation in brain morphology been revealed, with some brain regions varying in size by over 25 times. Together with his international colleagues, Drs Caroline Bacquet of IKIAM, Ecuador, Basil el Jundi of NTNU Trondheim, Norway and Arnaud Martin of George Washington University, USA, this project will help the team develop tools and protocols to visualise, manipulate and understand neural variation, its developmental origins and behavioral consequence.

He said: “We are used to thinking about animal diversity in terms of traits we can see, morphology, colour, size, and even behaviour. Often behavioural adaptations are the most striking features of nature documentaries and a thrill to see in person. But this behavioural diversity is underpinned by nervous systems that have evolved to facilitate a huge range and complexity of adaptive responses to the environment.

“Our research is working towards understanding how this hidden diversity evolves, and how it produces the huge array of animal behaviours that fascinate us all.

“I feel incredibly privileged, lucky, excited and intimidated in equal measure – some of our aims are quite risky, but it’s exciting to get the chance to experiment.”

The International Human Frontier Science Program Organization has announced $37 million to support the top 4% of the HFSP research grant applicants over the coming three years.

HFSP’s collaborative research grants are given for a broad range of projects under the umbrella theme “Complex mechanisms of living organisms”. The program supports cutting-edge, risky projects and it is the only program that enables true global collaboration among international teams of scientists with laboratories in different countries.

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