Evolution of eggshell surface structure and physiology

   School of Biological Sciences

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  Dr S Portugal, Dr Ryan Felice, Dr James Bowen  Applications accepted all year round  Competition Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

Avian eggshells exhibit some of the most diverse and fascinating arrays of complex biological variability within the animal kingdom. The variation seen in eggshell colour and maculation (pigment spots), for example, can be found between species, within species, and even between eggs in a clutch from the same female. Eggshell maculation has fascinated scientists for decades, and many functional explanations for this maculation have been posited including crypsis, thermoregulation, microbial defence and sexual-signalling. While the variation and function of eggshell maculation has received much attention, the actual structure of the eggshell itself has received comparatively little focus. The relatively few studies that have investigated eggshell structure, particularly that of the egg surface, have found large variation in surface-structures and shell thickness. However, little is known about how these structures function, or rather, what their true function is. This project aims to characterise eggshell surface structure along the avian phylogenetic tree, and determine – through novel mechanical and structural engineering approaches – how different eggshell surface structures function. Bird eggs offer a fascinating model system, as birds breed on all seven continents on Earth; at altitudes greater than 4000 m above sea level, in temperatures ranges between -40°C and 50°C, and in environments varying from water-saturated to extremely xeric. Egg size can range from 1.4 kg to 0.4 g (for Common Ostriches and Vervain Hummingbirds, respectively), while clutch size can vary from a single egg to broods of over fourteen.

This project brings together modern engineering techniques, mathematical modelling, advanced evolutionary statistics and biomechanics to study the evolutionary ecology and physiology of avian eggshells. The work sits at the interface of Ecology, Biology, Engineering and Applied Mathematics, coupled with cutting-edge phylogenetic statistical approaches and macro-ecology. The student would garner extensive laboratory experience in materials engineering, biomechanics and animal physiology, while developing world-class macroecological and phylogenetic statistical skills and coding abilities. The interdisciplinary application of engineering and mathematical techniques to evolutionary ecology is still relatively rare, thus making this project highly novel. Along with these techniques, the student will also learn the skills of working within museum collections.

To apply follow link and instructions at https://www.royalholloway.ac.uk/research-and-teaching/departments-and-schools/geography/news/london-nerc-dtp-competition-funded-studentship/

Biological Sciences (4) Engineering (12)

Funding Notes

Funding is via the London NERC DTP


Attard, M.R.G., Bowen, J., Corado, R., Hall, L.S., Dorey, R.A. & Portugal, S.J. (2021). Ecological drivers of eggshell wettability in birds. Journal of the Royal Society Interface.18: 20210488.
McClelland, S.C., Cassey, P., Maurer, G., Hauber, M.E. & Portugal, S.J. (2021). How much calcium to shell out? Eggshell calcium carbonate content is greater in birds with thinner shells, larger clutches, and longer lifespans. Journal of the Royal Society Interface. 18: 20210502.
Attard, M.R.G. & Portugal, S.J. (2021). Climate variability and parent nesting strategies influence gas exchange across avian eggshells. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 288: 20210823.
McClelland, S.C., Attard, M.R.G., Bowen, J., Horrocks, N.P.C., Jamie, G.A., Dixit, T., Spottiswoode, C.N. and Portugal, S.J. (2023). Eggshell composition and surface properties of avian brood-parasitic species compared to non-parasitic species. Royal Society Open Science. In Press.

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