Acoustic ecology of South African Neuroptera

   School of Biological Sciences

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  Prof M Holderied, Dr Charlene Janion-Scheepers  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

There exists a 65-million-year-old acoustic battle between bats and flying insects that resumes every night across the globe. Bats, armed with ultrasonic sonar, target and pursue a myriad of night flying insects. The insects meanwhile have evolved numerous counter adaptations to avoid becoming a bat’s next meal. The interaction between bats and insects is one of the most sophisticated predator-prey interactions, each subsequent study revealing another fascinating aspect to this age-old arms-race.

The bats’ use of echolocation to hunt nocturnal arthropods lead to the convergent evolution of ultrasound sensitive ears at least 18 times in modern insects, giving a range of different prey species lifesaving information. For example, it has long been known that moths that react to bat calls have at least a 40% better survival rate compared with moths that do not react.

Being able to determine the direction and distance of a sound source is vital if you are trying to avoid being that sound source’s dinner. The small size of insect auditory organs presents a serious challenge for ultrasound localisation, and numerous elegant biophysical solutions have evolved in insect ears.

In 2018 we published our discovery that (a) antlions respond behaviourally to the sound frequencies used by the relevant local bat fauna, (b) they respond to similar sound pressure levels than other eared insects thereby gaining similar protection from bats, and (c) that none of the known insect ears is present in antlions. In a subsequent study we confirmed a conspicuous cuticular modification of a thoracal spiracle and an hitherto undocumented wing structure in at least seven other neuropteran families. Subsequent testing of four of these families (including Nemopteridae found in Southern Africa) indeed revealed biosonar avoidance behaviour.

In summary, a new form of ultrasound hearing has been discovered in a large taxonomic group (~6000 extant species), but the actual ear has yet to be confirmed and characterised and adequate behavioural and physiological characterisation is lacking. The main objective of this project is to firmly establish this new auditory system – the first new invertebrate ear to be discovered in decades.

The successful student will conduct comparative morphological and cytological analyses across the Neuroptera, conduct field experiments in South Africa to quantify behavioural auditory threshold curves, and study their sensory physiology. Through collaborations across the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Bristol, and the University of Cape Town, this cross-disciplinary work will provide comprehensive training in classic behavioural, structural and sensory biology specifically bioacoustic arms-races. This studentship will generate valuable new insights into the acoustic ecology of a globally distributed and very speciose invertebrate group.

Our aim at the University of Bristol is to support students from a range of backgrounds and circumstances. Where needed, we will work with you to take into consideration reasonable project adaptations (for example to support caring responsibilities, disabilities, other significant personal circumstances) as well as flexible working and part-time study requests, to enable greater access to a PhD. All our supervisors support us with this aim, so please feel comfortable in discussing further with the listed PhD project supervisor to see what is feasible.

The University of Bristol (UK) and the University of Cape Town (South Africa) represent a distinctive group of bioscience research staff and students, with established international, national and regional networks, and widely recognised research excellence. As research leaders, we have a strong track record in advancing knowledge through high-quality research and teaching, in partnership with industry and the government.

 How to apply:

To apply, please contact the project supervisor to express your interest in their project.

You will then be asked to apply via the University of Bristol application portal: Start your application | Study at Bristol | University of Bristol selecting the relevant 4-year PhD programme, e.g. “Biological Sciences (PhD) start date September 2024”. The application deadline is 11:59 pm on 20/12/2023.

Entry requirements:

An upper second-class honours degree (or equivalent) in biological sciences or related discipline. 

Please find below a link to our Admissions statement for important information on entry requirements, the application process and supporting documents required:

PhD Biological Sciences Admissions Statement (

See international equivalent qualifications on the International Office website.

English language requirements:

If English is not your first language, you will need to reach the requirements outlined in our profile level E.

Biological Sciences (4) Physics (29)

Funding Notes

This studentship is for a 4 year PhD, funded by the School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol. It consists of tuition fees, bench fees (2k per annum) as well as a Doctoral Stipend matching UK Research Council National Minimum (£18,622 p.a. for 2023/24, updated each year).

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