This project combines field work with wild birds, some aviary work with the consequences of spring warming. You will learn to handle small animals, conduct quantitative data analyses and (to a limited extend) analyse laboratory data.
Variation in the gut microbiome is associated with multiple traits in mammals, ranging
from behavioural and neurotypical traits to immunity, disease resistance and
metabolism. There is also growing evidence that at least some mechanisms are
causal, with poor health conditions caused by variation, or changes in the variation, of
the gut microbiome. Gut microbiome variation is largely shaped by environmental
factors, in particular social environment, and diet. Variation in food source, nutrient
composition and nutrient quality, particularly in early life are likely to play a larger role
in birds, where chicks hatching from eggs are not primed with the microbiome of their
mother. Thus, we can predict variation in the gut microbiome of avian offspring born
during periods of temporal fluctuation in prey availability.
Recently, changes in seasonal food availability have become more pronounced for
organisms that experience a mismatch between own and prey phenology. Climate
change can lead to advancing phenologies, in particular in temperate regions.
However, not all organisms manage to adapt to an earlier spring phenology. For
instance, seasonal insects, such as certain caterpillars, rely and feed on leaves only
during the budburst period in early spring, before they pupate. Birds that forage on
these caterpillars to feed them to their offspring typically time their breeding to overlap
with the peak occurrence of the preferred prey items. However, with a shift to earlier
budburst period the caterpillar occurrence advances to earlier dates. Those birds that
struggle to match their breeding time will provide their offspring with different,
potentially more diverse food items, and thus develop different gut microbiomes. As
the early life gut microbiome of a bird determines its adult gut microbiome, a mismatch
in the timing of breeding can have lasting consequences through variation in the gut
However, not much is known about the role of the gut microbiome in birds. While we
have shown that the early life environment plays an important role contrasting a
relatively small role of genetic relatedness, studies on wild population remain rare.
In this project we will test the hypotheses that (a) differences in early life diet affect
early life, and adult avian microbiome, that (b) the avian gut microbiome will vary with
timing of breeding, and that (c) this can lead to long-lasting fitness consequences.
We will test this using an experimental approach in a wild blue tit population and in
aviary birds. The project is based in Silwood Park Campus of Imperial College London.
To apply, please email your university transcripts and your degree final outcome, your CV, a letter of motivation, and the email addresses of two potential references to [email protected]