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Quantifying animal personality to explain the coexistence and environmental responses of ants

   Cardiff School of Biosciences

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  Dr Tom Bishop  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Organisms vary. Some are large, some are small. Some bite, some photosynthesize, and some soar above our heads. What does this variation in organismal form and function mean? A central narrative is that the variation in these traits, and the relationships among them, define “dimensions of ecological strategy”. Compiling different dimensions into ecological strategy schemes holds great potential to both organise our knowledge, and to plot a path toward generality in ecology – in a similar way that the periodic table has for chemistry. However, most strategy schemes focus only on the morphological and physiological phenotypes of organisms. This approach ignores the vast variation in behavioural traits and syndromes that different species display. Behavioural variation can explain spatial and temporal coexistence patterns, and drive the responses of different species to environmental change. If ecological strategy schemes are to help us understand and predict ecosystems it is urgent that we begin quantifying behavioural phenotypes across species.  

This project will take a novel, technology-driven approach to quantify the behavioural variation of ants. There are more than 15,000 described species of ants on our planet and they are critical components of nearly all terrestrial ecosystems. Ants are fiercely competitive with each other and display large behavioural variation (Fig. 1). Some species will aggressively defend their colonies and resources to the death, some will forage in the gaps left untouched by dominant species, and some will play dead in an attempt to avoid confrontation. Ant ecologists have had an intuitive sense of these species-specific behavioural differences for decades. Until now, however, quantifying these behaviours across many species simultaneously has not been attempted

Project Aims and Methods: The aim of the studentship is to develop and deploy a novel program of rapid behavioural phenotyping across the 90 ant species living at the primary field site in the Maloti-Drakensberg mountains of southern Africa (Fig. 2). Tom Bishop, the lead supervisor, has been studying the ant fauna at this site for over 10 years. Further, co-supervisor Mark Robertson has been sampling the ants of this region since 2006 – providing a biannually sampled, 16 year time series of ant abundance and co-occurrence data.  

First, the studentship will focus on developing a set of behavioural assays on the ants of South Wales. The assays will combine video cameras and automated tracking technologies with modified versions of previously published behavioural experiments. Tom Bishop and his lab group have expertise in deploying tracking technologies to extract animal trait data. Second, the studentship will deploy these assays within the Maloti-Drakensberg during two major 6 week field campaigns. Live ants will be sampled along an elevational gradient ranging up to 3000 m a.s.l. using baiting and active searching techniques before being returned to the field lab for the behavioural assays. Additional, shorter trips to the field site are anticipated throughout the project. Finally, the studentship will use the behavioural data generated from the field, combined with the existing 16 year time series, to answer a suite of evolutionary and community ecology questions. Prospective candidates will be encouraged to take an active role in determining the focus of the questions asked. Examples include:  

  • Are ants that routinely coexist behaviourally differentiated? Does this vary with elevation?  
  • Do closely related species display evolutionary conservatism in their behavioural phenotypes?  
  • How plastic are ant behavioural phenotypes? Do behaviours vary significantly within species and within colonies, or not? 
  • Are there predictable links between behavioural and morphological phenotypes? Can morphology be used to predict behavioural syndromes?  

Co-Supervisor: Dr Hannah Griffiths, University of Bristol, School of Biological Sciences; Co-Supervisor: Dr Paul Eggleton, Natural History Museum, Life Sciences; Co-Supervisor: Prof Mark Robertson, University of Pretoria, Department of Zoology and Entomology 

Candidate requirements: The ideal candidate will have: (1) a BSc in biological or environmental science (MSc is desirable); (2) experience in field biology and the ability to undertake remote overseas field work; (3) data analysis skills and experience in R, Python or MATLAB; (4) a passion for the diversity of life on Earth. 

Project partners: The studentship will be embedded with Tom Bishop’s lab which focuses on using new technologies and approaches to quantify and analyse trait data from diverse organisms, typically the ants. The studentship will benefit from collaboration with Hannah Griffiths (University of Bristol) and Paul Eggleton (NHM). Hannah Griffiths is a leading invertebrate and ecosystem ecologist with experience in working with trait data collected from across the globe. Paul Eggleton is a social insect researcher with broad expertise within insect evolution and behavioural ecology. He will arrange for access to the collections at the NHM where further morphological data will be collected on ants from southern Africa and further afield. Finally, Mark Robertson at the University of Pretoria will aid in arranging field logistics and support the analysis of the trait data and the timeseries data. He has expertise on the spatiotemporal patterns of the ant communities of the Maloti-Drakensberg, the invertebrates of southern Africa, and in designing field sampling schemes.  

Training: The student will receive training on standard ant sampling techniques and video tracking analysis from Tom Bishop. They will also have the opportunity to attend the world-renowned Ant Course in 2024 to improve their ant-specific knowledge (https://www.calacademy.org/scientists/ant-course). The student will receive first aid and wilderness medical training to prepare for field work, as well as training in statistical modelling techniques via Cardiff University and the supervisory team. There will be opportunity to attend external training courses on a range of topics as the student sees fit. For example: public speaking, programming, further statistical modelling, and 4-wheel driving.  

How to apply: https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/study/postgraduate/research/programmes/programme/biosciences-phd-mphil-md.

The application deadline is Monday 9 January 2023 at 2359 GMT. Interviews will take place from 22nd February to 8 March 2023. For more information about the NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership please visit https://www.nercgw4plus.ac.uk. 

Funding Notes

Students will receive a stipend for 3.5 years of approximately £17,668 p.a., payment of their university tuition fees, a Research and Training and Support Grant (RTSG) of £11,000 and an individual training budget of £3,250. The training budget of £3,250 are for each student to undertake specialist training relating to their specialist area of research and career development and to pay for travel and accommodation.


Chapman et al (2011, Animal Behaviour, vol 82); Blight et al (2017, Biological Invasions, vol 19); Stuble et al (2017, Myrmecological News, vol 24), Gibb et al (2022, Functional Ecology, online); Lanan (2014, Myrmecological News, vol 20); Bengston et al (2014, Proc Roy Soc B, vol 281)

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