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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.

The closing date for applications is: 23 January 2015.

Title:  Sensory systems in deep-sea invertebrates
 Dr Julia Sigwart

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.  What features do they share and what did their common ancestor look like?  This PhD project will take a fresh look at broad characteristics of the phylum, including anatomy and physiology.  What features unite different molluscs—nervous systems, special sensory adaptations, tolerances for extreme environments?  How are these expressed in unusual creatures like bivalved opisthobranchs, or the primitive chitons and their metal jaws?  And will groups that have survived past mass extinction events be more likely to weather the effects of global climate change?

Research Aims
In this project you will aim to characterize the homologous features of select species across the whole phylum Mollusca, especially deep-sea and putatively primitive species.  Second, you will use these new data 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:  Investigating the impact of food fraud on the consumer and enhancing consumer trust in food products and producers
 Dr Moira Dean and Dr M. Spence

New and challenging risks have emerged as food supply chains have become increasingly global and complex.  While food fraud often has been considered to be foremost an economic issue, recent cases have highlighted significant food safety concerns.  From the consumer perspective, it is not always possible to tell if a food product has been subject to fraud as it may indeed taste and look similar.  Thus, consumers have to rely on the trust they have towards producers, retailers and regulators, to ensure that potential health and other impacts have been removed from the supply chain.  Consumers' trust in the institution or individual they purchase from must, in the main, be unconditional as consumers are fully reliant on a provider's reputation and a regulator's competence (Lobb, 2007).

Underpinned by risk perception and trust theories (e.g. Kasperson, 1992, Renn & Levine, 1991 or Slovic, 1993; Peters, Covello, & McCallum, 1997; Lewin & Johnson 1997) and utilising a comprehensive programme of mixed methods (large scale survey, interviews and focus groups) the research will explore the constituents of consumer trust and investigate how best to communicate fraud prevention/detection strategies to the consumer identified stakeholder interviews and in the Elliot report (Elliott, 2013).

Research Aims

  1. To conduct secondary analysis on the Elliott report stakeholder interviews to uncover stakeholder perceptions relating to consumer trust
  2. To explore consumer attitudes towards the various stakeholders in the food chain as well as their expectations and trust in relation to industry
  3. To investigate factors predicting consumer trust in the food chain and in products
  4. To test the efficacy and feasibility of some fraud prevention strategies for its impact on enhancing trust

Title:  How do insect migrants find their way?  Orientation and navigation in butterflies and moths
 Dr Richard Holland and Dr Alison Cameron

Migration in insects is one of the most significant directed movement behaviours in the animal kingdom, exceeding similar movements in other migratory taxa in terms of the numbers biomass involved in the long-range seasonal movements, and the distances travelled scaled to body size.  Understanding the mechanisms and drivers of insect migration is one of the most challenging subjects to study in ecology and as a consequence many aspects remain poorly understood.  Recent research has indicated that high-flying migrant butterflies and moths are able to select favorable high-altitude tailwinds and take up seasonally appropriate flight headings, even when flying hundreds of meters above the ground and at night, but the environmental cues and mechanisms that allow them to make these decisions are not yet known.  The ability to influence their migration directions by tailwind selectivity and taking up beneficial flight headings has considerable effects on the migration routes (Science 327: 682-685) and population dynamics (PNAS 109: 14924-14929) of the species involved.  Understanding the behavioural mechanisms of migration in insects will have significant impacts, as many of these species provide important ecosystem services, and in other cases are invasive pest species that reduce agricultural productivity.

Research Aims
This project will study the environmental cues and mechanisms by which migratory Lepidoptera are able to take up and maintain beneficial flight headings.  This will involve research at Rothamsted using a variety of research methods and species, including flight simulators in conjunction with manipulations of the earth's magnetic field and shifting of patterns of polarized light, alongside radar tracking studies of migration and field visits throughout Europe supported by a European-wide radar research project.

Title:  Testing the limits of allometric scaling in conservation biology:  the use of body size relationships in conservation planning for endemic vertebrates in Madagascar
 Dr Alison Cameron, Dr Neil Reid and Professor Miguel Vences, Technical University of Braunschweig, Mendelssohnstr, Germany.

Madagascar is a global biodiversity hotspot.  ~80% of its plant and animal species being found nowhere else on Earth.  Due to its unique biogeography Madagascar is widely regarded as a convenient model system and important testing ground for evolutionary hypotheses (Brown et al., 2014).  New species are still being discovered and described at very high rates, however the islands forests are being cleared at an alarming rate, and forest fragmentation is leaving species isolated and unable to travel between habitats.  It is therefore essential to develop novel methods for species vulnerability assessment, to feed into previously developed national conservation planning strategies (Kremen et al., 2008).

Developing models from fundamental principles, such as allometric scaling, can allow us to interpolate, to generate vulnerability estimates for species which have substantial data gaps, and extrapolation can allow us to explore the potential consequences of climate change.

Smaller animals have higher metabolic rates than larger animals and may be affected in different ways by environmental change such land use change and climate change.  Other major differences in body shapes and functional adaptations between clades might also influence the vulnerability of these organisms.  Therefore morphological traits (e.g. volume, weight, body length, tail length, wing length), life history traits (e.g. breeding strategy, generation time), behaviour (e.g. activity times, sociality) and taxonomic factors (e.g. pylogenetic distance), will all be incorporated into an allometric analysis of all the major vertebrate clades within Madagascar.

Research Aims

  • Determine range size/body size relationships across each major group of vertebrates found in Madagascar
  • Implement phylogenetic corrections within the above analyses, and use an all-species phylogenetic tree (currently being developed by a consortia of collaborators) to facilitate a combined analysis across all vertebrate taxa
  • Calculate niche breadth for all species, compare these among vertebrate groups, and determine relationships with body size and range size
  • Assemble high-resolution bioclimatic maps for Madagascar for the Miocene and Pliocene to determine the role of past climate change in the divergence of sister species

Title:  How does carnivore behaviour affect success?
 Dr Michael Scantlebury and Dr Nikki Marks

To date, the study of animal movement has been limited to the relatively coarse scale, typically with animal trajectories being described by GPS fixes once every 15 mins or less.  However, animal movement and animal behaviour is relevant at much finer scales with, for example, herbivores advancing step by step and deviating from a straight line course according to the distribution of foodstuff.  Even though highly resolved movement will undoubtedly indicate behaviour, and do so with respect to environmental space, it has not been on scientific agendas because there has not been an appropriate methodology until now.  This thesis will explore the potential that dead-reckoning tags (tags that allow animal trajectory to be determined at sub-second intervals using vectors) have for elucidating animal behaviour and energy expenditure.  The work will involve both the deployment of tags on selected carnivores (potential candidates include badgers, lions, pumas, hyaenas and cheetahs) and analysis of previously collected data. Since this methodology is truly cutting edge, the work is expected to create new paradigms in the way we understand carnivore movement, ecology and energy expenditure.

  1. To use finely resolved movement patterns based on GPS-enabled dead-reckoning to identify behaviour in select carnivores
  2. To examine how this behaviour is related to space and time
  3. To quantify the energetic costs of this behaviour using accelerometry-based measures
  4. To examine how the costs and benefits of carnivore behaviours affect strategies for their success or failure

Title:  Assessing the importance of migration among populations of Irish bat species
 Professor Ian Montgomery, Dr Richard Holland and Professor Emma Teeling (University College Dublin

Recent studies have shown that migration is an essential part of the ecology of many temperate bat species, prompting their inclusion in the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals and the formation of the EUROBATS Advisory Committee.  In Europe four species are considered long distance migrants, while a further 16 are thought to migrate regionally.  Bats migrate in response to a seasonal lack of food and local climatic conditions, many moving long distances between summer and winter months.  Understanding a species needs across seasons and throughout migration is crucial for effective conservation of migratory populations.  In Ireland, while there is good data on the distribution of species during summer; where populations of various species are throughout winter is still largely unknown.  In addition, knowledge as to whether bat populations in Ireland are resident year-round, migrate regionally or form part of a European network of migrants is unknown.  Understanding the extent and nature of migration for populations on these western European isles has relevance for conservation of both species and habitats; the spread of disease, such as rabies; and will be of importance in understanding the impact climate change on this native mammal guild.

Research Aims

  1. Examine bat activity during the pre-hibernal and hibernal period, looking for evidence of migration or residency
  2. Use stable isotopes analysis to examine temporal diet for evidence of recent migration for Pipistrellus nathusii and Nyctalus leisleri, species known to undertake large longitudinal migrations in continental Europe
  3. Use radar to explore bat migration around the British Isles in collaboration with the ENRAM
  4. Examine genetic relationships among Irish bat populations and those at potential migratory destinations

Title:  Biological control of the emerging UK mosquito problem
 Professor Jaimie Dick, Dr Tancredi Caruso and Dr Jack Lennon

Global warming and the 'urban heat island' effect are combining to favour the proliferation of mosquitoes and thus potentially human and animal disease.  Another factor favouring mosquitoes in the UK is the increasing use of water storage vessels due to failing water-supply infrastructure and drought.  Biological control of mosquitoes can be effective, but the use of larvivorous fish, such as the mosquitofish Gambusia affinins, has led to deterimental impacts on non-target species and, perversely, increased mosquito populations due to fish predation of other enemies of mosquitoes.  We propose to optimise mosquito biocontrol using native predatory invertebrates (such as river/pond shrimp, beetles, dragonfies, copepods), by examining their 'functional responses' ('FR's; predation rate as a function of prey density) to harness between and within species variation in their efficienc.  The research will test FRs on mosquitoes by single and mixed species of native predators, to reveal the most efficient combinations for mosquito control in small water bodies and water containers of differing dimensions.  Because natural environments differ in background community composition and abiotic environment, we will estimate location vulnerability and map geographically the potential efficacy of biological control, taking this context into account.  We will also harness variation in predation efficiency within species and create breeding selection lines to enhance intrinsic predatory traits eg high rates of killing through partial prey consumption.  We will also engage with communities through citizen science and education to operationalise our research findings.

Research Aims
We will determine: (a) the most efficient native predator species of mosquito larvae; (b) the combinations of predator species that best control mosquito populations; (c) the utility of artificial selection lines to enhance predatory traits; (d) the effectiveness of our methods in field trials whilst taking into account abiotic and biotic context.  Further, we aim to operationalise the methods developed through community engagement and citizen science.

Title:  Assembly processes in soil communities
 Dr Tancredi Caruso

Our world is facing a biodiversity crisis.  An often overlooked part of global biodiversity lies in our soils, yet our understanding of how soil biodiversity is created and maintained is surprisingly incomplete. How can soil biodiversity be so high in an environment that does not apparently offer much environmental heterogeneity?  This project will investigate community assembly processes in soil microarthropods, especially collembolans and oribatid mites - the most abundant and diverse animal groups after nematodes in soil.  The project will involve analyses of existing data sets and new studies in the field to test model-based hypotheses, offering the opportunity to develop advanced skills in modelling species distributions as a function of environment, intrinsic spatial processes (e.g. dispersal) and biotic interaction among species.  At the same time, the project also offers the unique opportunity of developing great expertise in the ecology, biology and taxonomy of key soil animal groups.  The project will be carried out in the framework of the Marie Curie CIG grant SENSE (Structure and Ecological Niche in the Soil Environment), which will support the successful applicant with state-of-the-art equipment, while also providing the opportunity of networking with research groups in the UK (e.g. Manchester) and Europe (Berlin).

Research Aims
Testing community assembly theories (e.g. neutral vs. niche theories) in soil animal assemblages;  developing multispecies distribution models that take into account the simultaneous effect of environment, population spatial processes (dispersal), and biotic interactions;  Using tools such as stable isotopes to define assemblages of species potentially competing for resources;  Developing trait-based analysis to shed light on factors contributing to species coexistence.

Title:  Assessing vulnerabilities of large mammal populations in remnant Neotropical cloud forests
 Dr Neil Reid, Dr Alison Cameron and Merlin Jocque, Rutgers University, University in New Brunswick, USA

Charismatic megafauna have declined since the Pleistocene due to anthropogenic pressures. Large mammals can be ecosystem engineers and provide ecological services including seed dispersal and nitrogen cycling making them important components in forested biomes.  Neotropical cloud forests are one of the world's most biodiverse, rarest and most critically threatened ecoregions.  The World Wildlife Fund Living Planet Report 2013 ranked the Neotropics as the most threatened biogeographical realm with animal populations declining -83%, and Neotropical mammals declining -66%, since 1970.  High altitude (>1,800m above sea level) Central American cloud forests are particularly vulnerable to human pressures (lowland deforestation increasingly 'islandises' and isolates large mammal populations without dispersal corridors) and climate change (pushes remnant forest fragments upslope).  Human population growth, socioeconomic depravation and food insecurity drives the consumption of illegal bushmeat adding terminal hunting pressure to already endangered species such as Baird's tapir.  Cusuco National Park in northwestern Honduras consists of 23,440ha of cloud forest within the Mesoamerican biodiversity hotspot and is ranked as the 35th most irreplaceable site from 173,000 protected areas globally, for the conservation of threatened (amphibians, birds and) mammals.  To date, 102 mammal species have been recorded in the Park, including 23 large mammals (>2.5kg).

Research Aims

  1. Model deforestation processes in Neotropical cloud forests
  2. Develop the Random Encounter Model (REM) for estimating large mammal densities in cloud forests with uneven terrain
  3. Quantify 'food security' of local peoples and their reliance on bushmeat as a source of protein
  4. Estimate the impact of anthropogenic nuisance disturbance on mammalian activity patterns in Neotropical cloud forests
  5. Assess the vulnerabilities of all remaining Central American cloud forests to a) deforestation, b) climate change and c) hunting pressure