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PhD Studentships

For additional information on any of these studentships, please contact the supervisor concerned.
To apply, please use the postgraduate Direct Applications Portal.

There is a possibility that these projects may be DEL funded (Department for Employment and Learning Studentships).  For further information on eligibility for funding, please visit the DEL website.

Closing date for applications was: 14 January 2013.

Title:  The effect of noise pollution on bird song
Supervisor:
 Dr Hansjoerg Kunc.

Background
Many species are currently experiencing anthropogenically driven environmental change.  However, we lack insight both into how the behaviour of animals is affected by environmental change, and the consequences of behavioural adjustment.  Behavioural plasticity may be vital to the ability of species to cope with environmental change.  In this project, we investigate how noise pollution, a relatively novel form of environmental change, affects the singing behaviour of birds. Bird song functions in sexual selection through female choice and male-male competition.  Sexually selected traits are shaped by an interaction between sexual selection and other natural selection pressures in the environment.  Thus, an understanding of how environmental change affects the plastic expression of sexually selected traits requires elucidation of the interplay between sexual selection and natural selection.  The aim of this project is to analyse differences in and consequences of song adjustment to noise pollution between different species of songbird.  The outlined project will require field work, followed by detailed acoustic and statistical analysis.  Therefore, we are looking for a highly motivated researcher with fieldwork experience and knowledge in analyzing data using cutting-edge statistical approaches.  For informal inquires please contact Dr Hansjoerg Kunc.

Research aims
To quantify how sexually selected traits are affected by environmental change.  We will (1) experimentally assess the differences in song adjustment between species; (2) compare species differences in song with species ability to cope successfully with noise; (3) analyse the consequences of song adjustment for the expression of sexually selected traits by experimentally assessing the effects on male-male interactions.  Thus, this research will increase our understanding how environmental change affects sexual selection.

Title:  A functional approach to spatio-temporal biodiversity change
Supervisors:
 Dr Jack Lennon and Dr Alison Cameron.

Background
Understanding how biodiversity is created and maintained, particularly by environmental conditions, has been a central goal of ecology for more than a century.  It is expected that anthropogenically-driven environmental change will considerably alter current taxonomic biodiversity patterns.  The central question here is the extent to which this could result in radically new communities, constructed from species with novel mixtures of functional traits.

Classic taxonomic measures have taken centre stage in biodiversity research but this project will focus on potentially more illuminating approaches, using the characteristics of species rather than simply their identity as separate species.  In particular, this project will involve the development and application of functional biodiversity measures to the spatial and temporal domain using data ranging from global distributions to field plot scale.  Of particular interest will be the development of analogs of species-area and species spatial (and temporal) turnover (beta diversity) that substitute functional trait richness for species richness, and the analysis of these using appropriate hypotheses and environmental data.  This studentship will give the successful candidate a thorough training in a range of transferrable skills and will best suit a highly motivated, intellectually inquisitive and imaginative individual.

Research Aims
The first aim is to develop ways of describing spatial and temporal multispecies data in terms of patterns of functional diversity.  That this is not a trivial issue is seen by the large literature on beta diversity measures.  The second is to test if environmental factors can explain patterns in functional traits and their scaling better than they do simple taxonomic diversity.  Predicting functional diversity rather than species richness is likely to be of much greater utility for understanding changes in ecosystem services.

Title:  Reconstructing the ancestral mollusc
Supervisors:
 Dr Julia Sigwart,  Professor Christine Maggs and Dr Mark Sutton (Imperial College, London).

Background
The Molluscan family tree has long been a subject of heated debate.  Molluscs include a dizzying range of body plans: squids, limpets and worms all descended from a common ancestor.  A consensus on this topology is required, but remains beyond our grasp.  Molecular phylogenies, anatomy, embryology, and the fossil record appear to support conflicting hypotheses. Two recent Nature papers on molluscan molecular phylogeny (Smith et al. 2011, Sutton et al 2012) called for a comprehensive modern morphocladistic analysis to complement molecular data; such an analysis would also be able to incorporate palaeontological information, and pave the way for a total-evidence approach.  This PhD project will take a fresh look to finally solve this problem.

Research Aims
In this project you will aim to characterize the anatomy of select species across the whole phylum Mollusca, especially deep-sea and putatively primitive species. Second, you will use these new data to perform a numerical cladistic analysis to determine support for relationships linking the different molluscan classes.  This will be achieved through a variety of techniques, including anatomical reconstruction using modern visualisation techniques such as three-dimensional models of organ systems, and fine scale CT scanning.

Title:  Species traits and the maintenance of biodiversity
Supervisor:
 Professor Mark Emmerson and Dr Jack Lennon.

Background
Biodiversity varies enormously and dramatically, from global-scale gradients across continents and latitudes to very fine-scale changes in species richness over a few meters or less.  It also varies in time, particularly in response to processes such as disturbance, succession and systematic environmental change.  Yet, we know that species interspecific interactions are vitally important for determining the dynamics of ecological networks and species distributions in space and time.  Current approaches that predict species distributions do not account for species interactions.  This project will integrate the study of predator-prey interactions and the spatial distribution of plant and animal species.

The successful candidate will focus on the role of species traits (e.g. body size and dispersal ability) in mediating species interactions and coexistence contributing to an understanding of spatial and temporal patterns in biodiversity.  The successful candidate’s work will involve experimental manipulation of marine communities, analyses of marine species distributions and environmental data, and statistical modeling, but there is considerable scope for a motivated student to take this research in the direction best suited to their particular strengths.  This studentship will suit a committed, numerate and intellectually inquisitive individual who will join a successful department with a strong postgraduate school and world class reputation for research in this field.

Research Aims
Focusing on species functional traits, the main aim is to develop an appropriate and novel analytical (e.g. Bayesian Networks) and experimental approach to testing hypotheses explaining community or assemblage composition at multiple trophic levels, across a range of spatial scales and against a background of environmental change.  Of particular interest is testing the success of scaling up experimental or fine-scale observational data based analysis – from samples and mesocosms to landscape or regional scales.

Title:  Disease and energy expenditure in badgers
Supervisors:
 Dr Mike Scantlebury,  Dr Richard Delahay and Dr Nikki Marks.

Background
The intensification of livestock production to meet global demand has highlighted the losses suffered by the agricultural industry through diseases such as bovine tuberculosis (bTB).  The Eurasian badger has been identified as a principal wildlife reservoir of Mycobacterium bovis, the causative agent of bTB in the UK and Ireland.  Amongst the potential tools for controlling infection in badgers are culling and vaccination.  Culling has however met with mixed success and vaccination is still largely in the developmental stage.  One important area of research which has received relatively little attention and yet could help underpin the development of effective and sustainable management strategies is the inter-relationship between badger behaviour, physiology and disease.  Although there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that infection status is correlated with behaviour, the mechanisms which may drive this relationship remain poorly understood.  Similarly little is known about the potential drivers of apparent sex-related heterogeneity in host responses to infection.

One of the key physiological features of living organisms is energy metabolism. All physiological mechanisms and behaviours undertaken require the utilisation of energy. The current project is part of a long-term study examining the complexity of badger and bovine interactions and the spread of bTB.  We are interested in examining how various ecological, behavioural and physiological features such as season, group size, age, sex, parasite load, body condition and bTB infection status vary with energy expenditure.  By gaining a better understanding of the interplay between infection, physiological status and behaviour, we may be able to make more informed decisions/recommendations on disease management.

Research Aims
The overall aims are to determine the putative link between metabolic rate, disease and behaviour in badgers.  The study will combine field and laboratory studies to examine metabolic rates using methods such as indirect calorimetry and the doubly labelled water technique.  Energetic measurements will be related to the ecological and behavioural aspects mentioned above.  The Woodchester Park field study provides a unique resource (i.e. routinely trapped animals in a well described population) to carry out this innovative research.

Title:  Behavioural syndromes, sensory systems and spatial memory in fish
Supervisors:
 Dr Richard Holland and Professor Robert Elwood.

Background
Animal learning and memory is a subject with a long history of study in birds and mammals, but has received far less attention in other animal classes.  Many animals learn about and map their surroundings using visual landmarks, but a small number of animals can also use other non visual systems to learn about space.  Fish represent an excellent model in this case as they can use other senses such as the lateral line, which detects pressure changes and weakly electric fish can use small, self generated electric currents to probe their surroundings.  These sensory systems have different constraints than vision, but how this affects the animal’s ability to map its environment is poorly understood.  Understanding the interaction between different sensory systems has significance for neurobiology and comparative animal cognition.  Recent data also shows consistent behavioural variation in traits such as boldness and exploration in animals, which are of importance in gathering information to learn about the environment, but the adaptive significance of such behavioural variation is not yet clear.  Understanding how behavioural traits influence the way animals use information for learning tasks has significant impact for animal welfare.

Research Aims
This project will compare visual and non visual sensory modalities and how they are used to remember locations in space, using learning paradigms such as 2 alternative forced choice and t-maze, to test the relative constraints of the sensory system in learning about the environment.  We will contrast learning between fish with different behavioural traits to investigate the effect of boldness on learning ability and mechanisms.

Title:  Mother knows best: immune priming in insects
Supervisors:
 Dr Sheena Cotter,  Dr Nikki Marks and Dr Archie Murchie.

Background
Parasites and pathogens are ubiquitous, and the ability to fight off infection is key to an organism’s fitness.  However, in addition to this personal immunity, some immune responses are produced for the benefit of others (social immunity).  One example of social immunity is the ability of a parent to transfer immunity to its offspring.  This has long been known in mammals (e.g. antibodies in milk), but has recently been found also to occur in insects, which provide a much more tractable system for answering questions regarding the evolution of this trait.  Burying beetles show elaborate parental care, which includes protecting the breeding resource for their offspring with antibacterial secretions – a form of social immunity.  It is known that these secretions are costly (Cotter et al 2010) and that they trade-off with the personal immune response (Cotter et al, In Press), but whether these two types of immunity (personal and social) can be transferred to offspring, and under which environmental conditions this is likely to occur have yet to be investigated.

Research Aims
The aim of this PhD studentship is to understand under which circumstances either personal or social immune responses can be transmitted to offspring, and whether this occurs pre- or post-hatching.  The student will combine field studies, to ascertain the parasites and pathogens affecting burying beetles in the wild, with lab manipulations of parasitism in parents, to determine the effects on offspring.