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NERC Panorama DTP - Cranial biomechanics in squirrels: adaptation to feeding

   Energy and Environment Institute

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  Dr P Watson, Dr Andrew Kitchener, Dr Phil Cox  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

In the last century, the population of red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) in the United Kingdom has reduced significantly due to the introduction of grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis)[1]. The increasing threat of extinction of red squirrels has been attributed to many factors, such as disease and starvation[2], with dietary competition between red and grey squirrels being important in some habitats[3,4]. Consequently, it is of interest to determine the extent to which red and grey squirrels can coexist in the same habitat, and how forest management can assist in red squirrel conservation[5].

Biomechanical analysis of the cranio-cervical system has the potential to assist in the conservation of red squirrel populations. For example, grey squirrels are known to have larger skulls (and thus larger masticatory muscles), so may be able to process foods with a higher mechanical advantage when compared to red squirrels. The computational methods of multibody dynamics and finite element analysis (FEA) are currently being employed to investigate the extent to which cranial morphology impacts feeding biomechanics in squirrels, therefore evaluating the role that diet plays in determining if red squirrels can persist in the presence of invasive grey squirrels.

Comparison between the feeding biomechanics of red and grey squirrels also raises an interest into whether the hard and soft material properties in the skull vary between the two species. Bone stiffness is often measured in skulls, and is known to vary throughout the structure[6]. This variation has been linked to numerous factors although mechanical loading, particularly that generated during feeding (i.e. joint, muscle and bite forces), is likely to be very important. Therefore, this PhD project aims to investigate the intra- and inter-specific variation in hard (bone) and soft (sutures) tissue stiffness between red and grey squirrels. In addition, this project will also examine how these material properties influence the ability of the skull to withstand the mechanical forces generated during feeding; for example, does a heterogeneous bone stiffness lower or produce a more even mechanical strain distribution across the skull? This will provide valuable information as to the whether the red and grey squirrel skull are adapted to similar mechanical forces.

The outcome of this PhD project will provide quantitative data demonstrating the extent to which red and grey squirrel skulls are adapted to the mechanical forces generated during feeding, and if one species is more favourable in terms of structural optimisation. This will provide a valuable insight into the ability of both species to process a range of foods and thus help to inform conversation management of red squirrels. In addition, successful application of the computational modelling in this manner has use in palaeobiology to study fossil organisms, where the variation in material properties is unknown, therefore the development of FEA models is obviously extremely challenging.

You should normally have, or expect to obtain, at least 2:1 Honours degree (or international equivalent) in a related subject.

Eligibility and How to Apply

See our How to Apply page.

The NERC Panorama DTP are hosting ‘Demystifying the PhD application process’ webinars on the 9th and 12th December – sign up now!

The minimum English language entry requirement for postgraduate research study is an IELTS of 6.0 overall with at least 5.5 in each component (reading, writing, listening and speaking) or equivalent. The test must be dated within two years of the start date of the course in order to be valid. Some schools and faculties have a higher requirement.

Webinar recording

For more information on specific projects, why not watch a recording of the webinar we held on 29 November? You will be able to hear presentations on each of the projects, as well as on overview of the Panorama DTP and the question and answer session that followed the presentations.

Equal Opportunities:

Within the NERC Panorama DTP, we are dedicated to diversifying our community. As part of our ongoing work to improve Equality, Diversity and Inclusion within our PhD funding programme, we particularly encourage applications from the following identified underrepresented groups: UK Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, those from a disadvantaged socio-economic background, and disabled people. To support candidates from these groups, we are ringfencing interviews, providing 1-2-1 support from our EDI Officer (contact Dr. Katya Moncrieff) and hosting a bespoke webinar to demystify the application process. Candidates will always be selected based on merit and ability within an inclusive and fair recruitment process.

Funding Notes

This project is available as part of the NERC Panorama DTP, and is a fully funded studentship covering the full cost of University fees plus Maintenance of £17,668 (2022/23 rate) per year for 3.5 years, and a generous research training and support grant (RTSG). Applications are open to both home and international applicants. Please note the number of fully funded awards open for international applicants is limited by UKRI to 30% (7 studentships).


1. Gurnell J, Pepper H (1993) Mammal Rev 25 : 125-136 ; 2. LaRose JP et al. (2010) Vet Rec 167 : 297-302 ; 3. Wauters LA et al. (2002) Behv Evol Sociobiol 52 : 332-341 ; 4. Kenward RE, Holm JL (1993) Proc R Soc B 251 : 187-194. 5. Bryce J et al. (2002) J Appl Ecol 39 : 875-887 ; 6. Cox PG et al. (2011) J Anat 219 : 696-709.
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