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The Complexity and Structure of Food Web Networks

Project Description

The complexity and structure of food web networks underpin our understanding of biodiversity and the stability, persistence and functioning of ecological communities. Theory of what gives rise to the structure and complexity of real communities focuses on foraging behaviour and body size. However, this theory poorly predicts the links between herbivores and plants and between parasites and hosts. Second, it is still unclear whether foraging behaviour that predicts links can make communities more resistant or not to extinction. This project will develop new tools to model the herbivore-plant and parasite-host components of food webs and investigate the role of adaptive foraging in the robustness of food webs to extinctions.
Specifically, the PhD student will (1) develop models to better predict food web complexity and structure using herbivore and parasite foraging biology; (2) conduct computer-based experiments testing whether optimal foraging maintains key structural characteristics of food webs among habitats and in the face of extinction; and (3) conduct computer-based experiments to determine how aspects of climate change influence complexity and structure in large communities.
The post would suit a motivated student interested in food web ecology, species interactions and climate change with experience with and/or enthusiasm for mathematical modelling and computer-based work.

This project connects with a highly cited theory on the role of foraging biology in the complexity and structure of communities and a pressing need to develop predictive tools that help mitigate the impacts of climate change on large terrestrial, marine and freshwater communities.

Funding Notes

Fully funded studentships cover: (i) a stipend at the UKRI rate (at least £14,777 per annum for 2019-2020), (ii) research costs, and (iii) tuition fees. Studentship(s) are available to UK and EU students who meet the UK residency requirements.
This PhD project is part of the NERC funded Doctoral Training Partnership “ACCE” (Adapting to the Challenges of a Changing Environment View Website. ACCE is a partnership between the Universities of Sheffield, Liverpool, York, CEH, and NHM.
Shortlisted applicants will be invited for an interview to take place at the University of Sheffield the w/c 11th February 2019.


Beckerman, A. P., et al. (2006). "Foraging biology predicts food web complexity." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103: 13745-13749.
Petchey, O. L., et al. (2008). "Size, foraging, and food web structure." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105: 4191-4196.

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