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QUADRAT DTP CASE: Understanding the effects of climate change on nature’s undertakers (burying beetles) and the ecosystem services they provide


  , , , Dr Sheena Cotter,  Friday, December 09, 2022  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Background: Ecosystem services have an estimated economic value of more than £25 trillion per year. Insects are particularly important ecosystem-service provider sin terrestrial ecosystems, but they are also especially vulnerable to climate change, which might affect their capacity to provide ecosystem services, such as nutrient cycling[1].Understanding how the effects of climate change on ecosystem processes are mediated by these organisms presents a key challenge for biologists.

Study system: To address this timely issue, this PhD project will integrate animal behaviour and ecosystem ecology, combining laboratory work and field experiments. It will focus on Nicrophorus burying beetles, which are obligate scavengers and are known as nature’s undertakers. They are valuable ecosystem-service providers in woodlands and forests, because they breed on animal carrion, which is the most nutrient-rich form of organic matter[2].As a part of their elaborate parental care, burying beetles deposit antimicrobial substances on the carcass to prevent bacterial and fungal growth, which influences the rate of decomposition[3]. Previous work has shown that the presence of burying beetles in terrestrial ecosystems plays an important role in promoting nutrient cycling and improving soil fertility [2]. In the absence of scavengers such as burying beetles, decomposition is mainly driven by fungi and bacteria, causing the release of large amounts of gases and the leaching of exudates into the soil[3]. This can have long-lasting effects on soil biochemistry as well as the functionality of the microbial community [3].

Project aims: The general aim of this PhD project is to link temperature-induced behavioural changes at the individual level to ecosystem-level processes in a global change context. More specifically, we will use a combination of lab and field experiments to examine how climate change may affect nutrient cycling and other ecosystem services provided by scavengers through its effects on parental care behaviour. For example, we will examine the effects of burying beetles on soil biota, as well as any associated physical and chemical changes in the soil. We will also investigate possible avenues for mitigating such effects of climate change on ecosystem processes.

Training: The PhD student will employ a wide range of techniques both in the laboratory and the field. They will gain skills in soil biochemistry and microbiology, behavioural observations, animal husbandry, and statistical modelling. There will also be a strong focus on transferrable skills, such as project management, written communication, and oral communication.

CASE partnership: This PhD project is a CASE studentship in collaboration with Forest Research, the research agency of the Forestry Commission and the UK’s principal organisation for forestry and tree-related research.

Candidate Background: The successful candidate should have a bachelor degree (2.1 or higher) in a relevant area (e.g Zoology, Biology, Ecology, Animal Behaviour). A masters degree in a relevant subject and experience of laboratory work with invertebrates would be desirable but this is not essential.

More project details are available here:

How to apply: 

Funding Notes

QUADRAT studentships are open to UK and overseas candidates. Funding covers:
• A monthly stipend for accommodation and living costs, based on UKRI rates (currently £17,668 pa for 2022/23, updated annually)
• Fees (home rate tuition fees and/or fee waiver for overseas fees, where applicable)
• Research and training costs
For further information before applying please check full funding and eligibility information: View Website


[1] Seibold S, et al. (2019) Arthropod decline in grasslands and forests is associated with landscape-level drivers. Nature574:671-674.
[2] von Hoermann C, et al. (2018)Effects of abiotic environmental factors and land use on the diversity of carrion-visiting silphid beetles (Coleoptera: Silphidae): alargescale carrion study. PLoS One13:e0196839.
[3] Ilardi MO, et al. (2021) Scavenging beetles control the temporal response of soil communities to carrion decomposition. Functional Ecology35:2033-2044.

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