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Biodiversity and ecosystem services: Birds, bats, bees, and cocoa trees

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  • Full or part time
    Dr A Welch
    Dr Darren Evans
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

Project Description

Human populations are increasing rapidly and consumption is intensifying. Land is being cleared at a dramatic pace and biodiversity, which provides critical ecosystem services, is being lost at an unprecedented rate. Realisation of this crisis has created an urgent need to balance agricultural production with biodiversity. These two objectives are not disjoint, and indeed, biodiversity can play an integral role in increasing agricultural yields—sustainably. To achieve balance, we must manage ecosystems for species that provide support for crops (“ecosystem service species”, e.g. species that provide pest control) as well as those that encourage biodiversity (“keystone species”), and especially those that provide both functions (“cross-over species”).

To truly work towards this balance, we must first understand the food web, because species vary greatly in their value for agriculture and biodiversity services. For example, In North America, oaks support > 10x higher richness of butterfly and moth species than most other tree genera. Bird and bat consumption of insects in Indonesian cacao plantations increased crop yield by 31%. The landscape context of agricultural plots was important and affected bird community dynamics and ecosystem services through spill-over of individuals from primary forest. This project will use state-of-the-art genetics methods to deduce the diet of animals to address:

1) Which member species are most influential in encouraging crop yields and/or increasing biodiversity?
2) Do the above insights change depending on the context of the landscape, e.g. at sites near or far from forest?
3) How can we use the above insights to manage ecosystems that are both diverse and high-yielding?

The student will investigate these questions in the food web of plants, birds, bats and arthropods in African cacao plantations, the main ingredient of chocolate. Cacao is grown under a shade tree community, which can harbour high biodiversity, potentially providing pest control services. The student will conduct metabarcoding of bird and bat faeces (i.e. simultaneous sequencing of all diet items using advanced DNA sequencing technology). These sequences will then be compared to a local reference sequence database created by applying traditional sequencing methods to arthropods and plants. The student will then use sophisticated bioinformatics and statistical techniques, in collaboration with our colleagues at Glasgow University, to map the food web, examine species interactions, and link these to data on pest abundance and crop damage.

Through this project the student will develop many transferrable skills. General lab and specialised advanced DNA sequencing skills are applicable to jobs in many fields, including environmental testing, molecular biology, agricultural biotechnology, and medical testing/research. Numeracy, a widely desired trait, will be well developed through implementation of statistics and sophisticated bioinformatics. International collaboration will help expand the student’s network of contacts and along with scientific writing will aid in development of key communication skills. Beyond this, the methods developed to rapidly assess food web dynamics can be applied to a wide range of ecological problems and therefore this project will produce advances of both theoretical and practical importance.

For more info see:

Funding Notes

This project is in competition with others for funding, and success will depend on the quality of applicants, relative to those for competing projects. To express interest in applying, or for further information, you should contact Dr. Andreanna Welch at [Email Address Removed] by 14 January 2019. Include: 1) paragraph detailing your reasons for applying and how your experiences fit with the project, 2) your CV with marks earned for previous degrees and 3) contact information for at least two references. Only the best applicants will be asked to submit a full University application, including two reference letters, by 18th January 2019.

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