Ecosystem services have an estimated economic value of more than £25 trillion per year. Arthropods are particularly important ecosystem-service providers, but they are also especially vulnerable to anthropogenic environmental change, which might affect their capacity to provide these services . Understanding how the effects of environmental change on ecosystem processes are mediated by these organisms presents a key challenge for biologists. One area that is especially unexplored is how environmentally induced changes in behaviour at the individual level might influence ecosystem-level processes.
To address this timely issue, this PhD project will integrate animal behaviour and ecosystem ecology, combining laboratory and field experiments. It will focus on three species of obligate scavengers in the genus Nicrophorus (N. vespilloides, N. investigator, and N. humator). These burying beetles, also known as nature’s undertakers, are valuable ecosystem-service providers, because they breed on animal carrion, which is the most nutrient-rich form of organic matter . 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 . 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 . 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 . This can have long-lasting effects on soil biochemistry as well as the functionality of the microbial community .
The general aim of this PhD project is to link environmentally-induced behavioural changes on the individual level to ecosystem-level processes in a global change context. The project will focus on two key questions:
(i) Are differences in parental care between burying beetle species associated with differences in carcass decomposition and therefore the ecosystem services provided?
(ii) How do changes in environmental factors (e.g. temperature) influence burying beetle behaviour and, in turn, nutrient cycling in the soil?
This project will help us understand how the capacity of invertebrates to perform ecosystem services is influenced by environmental change and how we might be able to mitigate these effects.
The PhD student will employ a wide range of techniques both in the laboratory and the field. He or she will gain skills in soil biochemistry and microbiology, behavioural observations, animal husbandry, and statistical modelling. There will also be a focus on transferrable skills, such as project management, written communication, and oral communication.
More project details are available here:
How to apply: