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Understanding the interplay between the gut microbiome, behaviour and urbanisation in wild birds (DAVIDSONG_UBIO23ARIES)

   School of Biological Sciences

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  Dr Gabrielle Davidson, Prof D S Richardson, Prof J Gill  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Scientific background 

Behaviour facilitates rapid, flexible responses to environmental change. Despite accumulating evidence that intestinal microbiota communities and their genes (the gut microbiome) have beneficial effects on host behaviour, our understanding of these mechanisms operating in wild animals is sorely lacking. What are the consequences of gut microbiome variation for behavioural responses to anthropogenic activities? And how does urbanisation shape wild animal gut microbiomes? 

The UK’s largest new town developments (Northstowe, New Waterbeach) are in East Anglia, and you will address the urgent and timely hypothesis that rural bird gut microbiomes may limit or facilitate behavioural responses to urbanisation. 


You will combine research with wild great tit (Parus major) populations, and citizen science-based bird monitoring. You will collect faecal samples from birds in the wild, fit birds with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags and measure their behaviour using RFID feeders. You will pioneer a novel and practical monitoring program to collect wildlife faecal samples through citizen science with access to the British Trust for Ornithology’s (BTO) exceptional Garden BirdWatch scheme. You will perform 16S rRNA sequencing paired with metabolic functional analyses to unpick microbiome-host behaviour relationships.  

The following objectives will be prioritised and developed according to your interests:  

  • Quantify gut microbiome variation between urban and rural populations. 
  • Assess whether the gut microbiome predicts behaviours associated with urban success (e.g. behavioural flexibility and boldness). 
  • Determine the gut microbiome’s role in facilitating or limiting individual acclimation to newly developed urban environments.  


You will join a dynamic, supportive research environment at UEA and collaborate with members of the BTO. You will develop conceptual understanding and critical thinking in cognitive ecology, molecular ecology and conservation. You will gain a range of interdisciplinary research skills including fieldwork, molecular biology, bioinformatics (DADA2, PICRUSt) and statistical analyses (e.g. modelling in R software), writing and oral presentations. You will engage closely with citizen participants, thus enhancing communication skills with the public and stakeholders. Training to increase transferable skills and enhance employability will also be provided. 

Person specification 

Degree in Biology/Zoology/related field with fieldwork, molecular and/or analytical experience and a UK driving licence desirable. 

For more information on the supervisor for this project, please visit the UEA website

The start date is October 2023.

Funding Notes

This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC DTP. Successful candidates will be awarded a NERC studentship, which covers fees, stipend (£17,668 for 2022/23) and funding to support the doctoral research. Excellent applicants from quantitative disciplines may be considered for an additional three months’ studentship funding.

Unfortunately, no additional funding is available to assist with relocation or visa costs.

ARIES encourages applications from all, regardless of gender, ethnicity, disability, age, or sexual orientation. Academic qualifications are considered alongside relevant non-academic experience.

For further information, please visit


1 Davidson, GL, Raulo, A, Knowles, SCL (2020) Identifying microbiome-mediated behaviour in wild vertebrates. Trends in Ecology and Evolution. 35:11, 972-980
2 Davidson, GL, Wiley, N, Cooke, AC, Johnson, CN, Fouhy, F, Reichert, MS, de la Hera, I, Crane, JMS, Kulahci, IG, Ross PR, Stanton, C, Quinn, JL (2020) Diet induces parallel changes to the gut microbiota and problem solving performance in a wild bird. Scientific Reports. 10, 20783
3 Davidson, GL, Somers, SE, Wiley, N, Johnson, CN, Reichert, MS, Ross, RP, Stanton, C, Quinn JL. (2021) A time-lagged association between the gut microbiome, nestling growth and nestling survival in wild great tits. Journal of Animal Ecology. 90:989–1003
4 Worsley, S.F., Davies, C.S., Mannarelli, ME., Hutchings, MI, Komdeur, J., Burke, T, Dugdale, HL, Richardson, DS. (2020) Gut microbiome composition, not alpha diversity, is associated with survival in a natural vertebrate population. Animal Microbiome. 3, 84.
5 Maraci, Ö., Corsini, M., Antonatou-Papaioannou, A. et al. (2022) Changes to the gut microbiota of a wild juvenile passerine in a multidimensional urban mosaic. Sci Rep 12, 6872
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