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Developing and testing behavioural theory for mutualistic networks. PhD in Psychology (NERC GW4+ DTP)

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Monday, January 06, 2020
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Lead Supervisor
Dr. Andrew Higginson, Department of Psychology, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisors
Prof. Jane Memmott, School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol

Location: University of Exeter, Streatham Campus, Exeter, EX4 4QJ

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). The GW4+ DTP consists of the GW4 Alliance of research-intensive universities: the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five unique and prestigious Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The partnership aims to provide a broad training in the Earth, Environmental and Life sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in scientific research, business, technology and policy-making. For further details about the programme please see

For eligible successful applicants, the studentships comprises:

- A stipend for 3.5 years (currently £15,009 p.a. for 2019/20) in line with UK Research and Innovation rates
- Payment of university tuition fees;
- A research budget of £11,000 for an international conference, lab, field and research expenses;
- A training budget of £3,250 for specialist training courses and expenses.
- Travel and accommodation is covered for all compulsory DTP cohort events
- No course fees for courses run by the DTP

We are currently advertising projects for a total of 10 studentships at the University of Exeter

Project Background

Ecological networks (e.g. food webs) are used by biologists to understand how species interact with each other. They are based on field observations such as predators eating prey, herbivores eating plants and pollinators gathering nectar from flowers. The architecture of the interactions between species (e.g. whether they are linked to a few or many species and how strongly they are linked) can provide very useful information when predicting what happens when species are lost to communities. This potential is currently limited though as ecological theory does not incorporate realistic behaviour into its models, nor does it allow for the variation that we know exists among individual animals. A robust theory of the structure and dynamics of ecological networks is of particular importance when trying to understand the changes in ecosystems caused by rapid anthropogenic damage.

Project Aims and Methods

The aim of this project is to incorporate animal behaviour into network ecology. Given current rates of species loss, being able to predict the effect of species loss in the field and at the community level is becoming increasingly urgent. This is particularly the case for pollinators which are declining worldwide and key to a large proportion of both native plant reproduction and crop production.

We will develop models of networks that include realistic aspects such as: 1) behavioural responses to competition for food; 2) variation among individuals of species; 3) constraints on the ability of foragers to choose the best resources; 4) responses to the risk of predation. These behaviours are all widespread but rarely incorporated in network theory, but are very likely to have a large effect on ecological networks as they affect the choices that animals make when foraging for food. There are many possibilities for developing all four of these options, both in terms of project design and in research direction.

Whatever the focus of the modelling, we will test predictions using plant-pollinator mescosms: replicate networks of five pollinator species and four plant species maintained in small polytunnels. In these we can monitor individual bees by tagging them and measure effects on plants such as seed production. We can alter the variation in bee size by swopping bees of different sizes between different polytunnels. By removing and adding pollinator species and simulating the presence of predators (by grabbing the pollinators in foam covered tongs), we can test the key effects species have on each other.

Funding Notes

NERC GW4+ funded studentship available for September 2020 entry. For eligible students, the studentship will provide funding of fees and a stipend which is currently £15,009 per annum for 2019-20.


References / Background reading list

Higginson AD (2017) Conflict over previously abundant resources may explain between-species differences in declines: The anthropogenic competition hypothesis. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 71: 99.

Higginson AD, Houston AI (2015) The Influence of the food–predation trade-off on the foraging behaviour of central-place foragers. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 69: 551–561.

Higginson AD, Ruxton GD, Skelhorn J (2010) The impact of flower-dwelling predators on host plant reproductive success. Oecologia 164: 411–21.

Ito K, McNamara JM, Yamauchi A, Higginson AD (2017) The evolution of cooperation by negotiation in noisy world. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 30: 603–615.

Kaiser-Bunbury CN, Muff S, Memmott J, Müller CB, Caflisch A (2010) The robustness of pollination networks to the loss of species and interactions: a quantitative approach incorporating pollinator behaviour. Ecology Letters 13: 442–52.

Pocock, MJO, Evans DM, Memmott J (2012) The robustness and restoration of a network of ecological networks. Science 335: 973–77.

Reader T, Higginson AD, Barnard CJ, Gilbert FS (2006) The effects of predation risk from crab spiders on bee foraging behavior. Behavioral Ecology 17: 933–939.

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