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The global ecology of livestock domestication


Project Description

The domestication of livestock and crops ~10,000 years ago transformed human subsistence and rank among the most important evolutionary events in our history. Today, the biomass of livestock on Earth has grown to fifteen-times that of wild mammals, even though domesticated animals represent only a tiny fraction of global mammal diversity. Why are so few animals domesticated? One potential explanation is that a number of traits are necessary and most species lack one or more of these.

Preliminary work in Sheffield has supported this idea, showing that the wild progenitors of domesticated livestock are generally large-bodied, gregarious and non-territorial animals in comparison with the wild species that were never domesticated. A number of other wild species do have the same combination of traits, but their geographical ranges fall outside all of the centres of crop domestication. This implies that livestock were only domesticated in agricultural settings, and that both biology and geography caused the selectivity of domestication.

We are looking for a student with interests in the functional ecology, biogeography and history of mammals to test four hypotheses:

1. Ecology: Particular traits are necessary for domestication, while other traits preclude many species. The student will develop the preliminary work to consider a broader array of behavioural traits (e.g. using sexual dimorphism as a proxy for aggression) and using phylogenetic comparative methods to test the hypothesis.

2. Geography: Wild mammals with suitable trait combinations were never domesticated if their geographical ranges did not overlap the centres of crop domestication. The student will use GIS to investigate publicly available range maps for modern mammals, using fossil data to evaluate how these ranges differed during the Pleistocene.

3. History: The distribution of extant species with traits suitable for domestication is geographically biased towards Eurasia. Species with suitable traits may have once occurred in the Americas, but they perished during the end-Pleistocene megafaunal extinction event. The student will use fossil data to estimate trait values for extinct species and evaluate their suitability for domestication.

4. Evolution: The traits that made animals suitable for domestication were those acquired as adaptations to grasslands, meaning that the wild progenitors of livestock species were ecologically restricted. The student will use habitat data to construct environmental niche models and use phylogenetically analyses to compare ecological niche breadth with a sample of closely related species.

The student will develop advanced, transferrable skills in data handling and analysis, and scientific expertise in functional ecology, biogeography, palaeoecology and macroevolution. The project would suit a candidate with a background in biology, ecology or zoology, with interests in data handling and analysis.

Milla, R., Bastida, J.M., Turcotte, M.M., Jones, G., Violle, C., Osborne, C.P. et al. (2018). Phylogenetic patterns and phenotypic profiles of the species of plants and mammals farmed for food. Nature Ecology and Evolution, 2, 1808-1817.

Funding Notes

Fully funded studentships cover: (i) a stipend at the UKRI rate (£15,009 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 in the w/c 10th February 2020.

How good is research at University of Sheffield in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 44.90

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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