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Ants as ecosystem engineers: the interaction between niche construction and land management


Project Description

We are looking for an enthusiastic and ambitious student to develop an exciting
project that will use applied field experiments to quantify the relationship
between meadow ants and management regimes, and how these together
affect biodiversity and soil function. The ideal candidate will enjoy interacting
with academics and stakeholders from a range of backgrounds and want to
apply their scientific training to an important applied question.

Ants act as effective geoengineers, increasing habitat heterogeneity and
constructing niches. Yellow meadow ants, Lasius flavus, were historically
common on pastures. These ants promote biodiversity, for example they
increase floral species richness because the ant mound soil differs from
surrounding areas. Many modern farming practices reduce or eliminate their
populations.

Belton House, a National Trust property including 650 hectares of historic
(Grade 1 Registered) wood pasture parkland, which is a UK priority habitat, has
areas hosting an unusually high density of meadow ants, but also other areas
where they are entirely absent. Previous management of the site has resulted in
some areas suffering from over-grazing and soil compaction. The study site is
undergoing a period of management change, to a more biodiversity-friendly
approach of mixed and lighter grazing. Despite the known importance of ants
within the soil ecosystems, very little is known about how the ecosystem
impacts of meadow ants are mediated, and how these impacts interact with
past and present pasture management practices. The collaboration with CASE
partner The National Trust provides the opportunity to carry out controlled
experiments, altering management to assess impact on ant populations, and
altering ant populations to assess impact on ecosystem composition and
function.

Objectives
- To assess the impact of management regimes on ant populations, using
controlled manipulations of activities such as grazing and mowing
- To assess the role of soil-dwelling ants as agents of rehabilitation of compacted
soil using experimental transplantation of ant colonies
- To identify the ecological processes mediating the unusually high ant
population densities at certain sites, using behavioural studies and genetic data

Applications and benefits
The student will receive thorough postgraduate training supported by a
multidisciplinary team of supervisors with strong research backgrounds and
experience in postgraduate supervision. The student will gain ecological
research skills including: empirical field techniques; cutting-edge laboratory
equipment techniques; spatial analysis methods. This study will provide novel
data on the impact of ants on soil rehabilitation and ecosystem function, and on
how grassland management impacts these processes: it will benefit the
academic ecology/evolution communities, policy-makers and land managers.

Funding Notes

This NERC ACCE DTP studentship is fully funded for 3.5 years in the first instance, and students must complete their PhD in four years. The studentship covers: (i) a tax-free annual stipend at the standard Research Council rate (£15,009 for 2019-2020, but typically increases annually in line with inflation), (ii) research costs, and (iii) tuition fees at the UK/EU rate. You can extend your funding period for up to 6 months by applying to a 3-month placement and 3-month writing up period for a publication.

References

ENTRY REQUIREMENTS: Students with, or expecting to gain, at least an Upper Second Class Honours degree, or equivalent, are invited to apply. The interdisciplinary nature of this programme means that we welcome applications from students with backgrounds in any relevant subject that provides the necessary skills, knowledge and experience for the DTP, including environmental, biological, chemical, mathematical, physical and social sciences.

How good is research at University of York in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 44.37

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

Click here to see the results for all UK universities

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