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University of Leeds Featured PhD Programmes
University of Leeds Featured PhD Programmes

Drivers of disease occurrence in a threatened UK native species, the red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)

College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine

About the Project

The red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) is a species of notable conservation concern in the UK, having suffered a marked range contraction over the last century due to habitat loss, and competition and pathogen transmission from the introduced grey squirrel (S. carolinensis). Conservation management actions remain intensive and challenging given the grey squirrel’s widespread and expanding distribution. There is a pressing need for applied research to further inform the conservation management of red squirrels1.
Squirrelpox viral disease (SQPx) currently remains the most significant infectious population-level threat to red squirrels. Outbreaks are associated with the presence of grey squirrels with seropositivity to squirrelpox virus1. Other notable infectious conditions of red squirrels include leprosy, only recently identified in red squirrels and caused by Mycobacterium leprae or M. lepromatosis2, and enteric adenoviral disease.

Disease occurrence varies between exposed subpopulations of red squirrels. Initial studies indicate that red squirrel populations in the UK have low genetic diversity relative to continental Europe, including at the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) which plays a key role in immune function3. This project will explore risk factors for disease occurrence in red squirrels, building on current work investigating their genetic diversity, and model additional risk factors associated with the wider ecological context. The findings will have applicability to population and/or translocation management.

This project will utilise archived samples from an established surveillance scheme and previous research projects. The student will benefit from working in a multi-disciplinary team, gaining experience of molecular genetics, epidemiology and infectious disease ecology, in addition to modelling, data analysis and scientific communication. The project would suit a Masters graduate with an interest in ’wildlife’, ’health’ and ’conservation’ and a background in veterinary medicine or the biological sciences.

Funding Notes

3.5 year PhD

This opportunity is open to UK and international students and provides funding to cover stipend, tuition fees and consumable/travel costs. Applications including a statement of interest and full CV with names and addresses (including email addresses) of two academic referees, should be emailed to .

When applying for the studentship please state clearly the project title/s and the supervisor/s in your covering letter.

Other projects available:
We would encourage applicants to list up to three projects of interest (ranked 1st, 2nd and 3rd choice) from those listed with a closing date of 10th January 2021 at View Website


1 Sainsbury AW, Chantrey J, Ewen JG, Gurnell J, Hudson P, Karesh WB, Kock RA, Lurz PWW, Meredith A, Tompkins DM (2020) Implications of squirrelpox virus for successful red squirrel translocations within mainland UK. Conservation Science and Practice 2020;2:e200. https://doi.org/10.1111/csp2.200

2 Avanzi C, del-Pozo J, Benjak A, Stevenson K, Simpson VR, Busso P, McLuckie J, Loiseau C, Lawton C, Schoening J, Shaw DJ, Piton J, Vera-Cabrera L, Velarde-Felix JS, McDermott F, Gordon SV, Cole ST, Meredith AL (2016) Red squirrels in the British Isles are infected with leprosy bacilli. Science 35 (6313) 744-747

3Ballingall K, McIntyre A, Lin Z, Timmerman M, Matthysen E, Lurz P, Melville L, Wallace A, Meredith A, Romeo C, Wauters LA, Sainsbury AW, McInnes CJ (2016) Limited diversity associated with duplicated class II MHC-DRB genes in the red squirrel population in the United Kingdom compared with continental Europe. Conservation Genetics, 17: 1171-1182. DOI 10.1007/s10592-016-0852-3     

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