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EASTBIO: Understanding flows of biodiversity and ecosystem services between agriculture and natural forest.

  • Full or part time
    Prof D Burslem
    Dr T Freitag
    Dr C Gubry-Rangin
    Prof J Travis
  • Application Deadline
    Sunday, January 05, 2020
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description


Professor David Burslem (University of Aberdeen)

Dr Thomas Freitag (The James Hutton Institute, Aberdeen)

Dr Cecile Gubry-Rangin (University of Aberdeen)

Professor Justin Travis (University of Aberdeen)

It is increasingly recognised that the productivity of agricultural land can depend upon on the wider landscape within which it is embedded. For example, there are a growing number of examples of pollination and pest control services being provided by insects that ‘spillover’ into agricultural landscape from nearby natural habitat1. Thus, the presence of healthy natural habitat within a landscape can play a vital role in delivering resilient agricultural yields. More recently, there has been interest in how flows of biodiversity in the opposite direction (from agricultural to natural) may have major impacts on the richness and diversity of organisms in natural systems2. It is thus becoming clear that developing multi-purpose landscapes that can both deliver strong and resilient agricultural yields and maintain the biodiversity vital for delivering a range of ecosystem services, requires much greater understanding of the flows of biodiversity and ecosystem services between managed and natural habitats.

The vast majority of work on spillover between habitats has focussed on insects and on how the flow of insects from natural to agricultural habitat impacts pollination and pest control. In this project we seek to fill a major knowledge gap by characterising spillover of microbes (bacteria, archaea and fungi) between agricultural and natural habitat and asking how it can influence biodiversity and ecosystem services in both habitats. We will assess impacts of spillover on the diversity of bacterial, archaeal, fungal and plant species and will assess how this spillover impacts nitrification, a key ecosystem service that provisions nitrogen to crops.

Finally, we will bring the results together in order to construct a spatial model that will enable the joint optimisation of a landscape according to criteria related to crop yield, biodiversity and ecosystem service provision. Artificial Intelligence is emerging as a new approach for solving these complex spatial problems in ecology3. In recent work at Aberdeen we have been developing artificially intelligent (AI) approaches to solving complex ecological management problems using a type of AI called deep reinforcement learning. In this project, we will utilise this AI approach in the context of landscape design.

Within the project, the student will work on both Scottish and Indonesian systems. In Scotland we will utilise an established network of natural forest patches, many of which abut agricultural systems. In Indonesia, we will take advantage of a large, existing project run from Aberdeen to access palm oil plantations and adjoining natural forest. Notably, in the Indonesian system we have palm oil plantations of a variety of ages such that the student will have the opportunity to design field work to elucidate how the spillover effects and their impacts change following conversion of natural forest to palm oil plantation.

The project will provide the student with excellent training in field skills and state-of-the-art spatial modelling as well as AI approaches. For the interested student, there will also be the opportunity to engage with stakeholders in designing plausible landscape management plans, using the optimisation tool developed.

Application Procedure:

Please send your completed EASTBIO application form, along with academic transcripts and CV to Alison McLeod at . Two references should be provided by the deadline using the EASTBIO reference form. Please advise your referees to return the reference form to .

Funding Notes

This 4 year PhD project is part of a competition funded by EASTBIO BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership. This opportunity is only open to UK nationals (or EU students who have been resident in the UK for 3+ years immediately prior to the programme start date) due to restrictions imposed by the funding body. Queries on eligibility? Email Alison McLeod ().

Candidates should have (or expect to achieve) a minimum of a First Class Honours degree in a relevant subject. Applicants with a minimum of a 2:1 Honours degree may be considered provided they have a Distinction at Masters level.


1 Rand TA et al. (2006) Spillover edge effects: The dispersal of agriculturally subsidized insect natural enemies into adjacent natural habitats. Ecology Letters, 2006. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1461-0248.2006.00911.x

2 Bell T & Tylianakis JM (2016) Microbes in the Anthropocene: spillover of anthropogenically selected bacteria and their impact on natural ecosystems. PRSB, 2016. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2016.0896

3 Nicol S et al. (2017) Finding the best management policy to eradicate invasive species from spatial ecological networks with simultaneous actions. Journal of Applied Ecology, 2017. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.12884

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