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Using isotopic forensics to recreate a historic profile of animal health

College of Science and Engineering

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Dr J Newton No more applications being accepted Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

About the Project

Studentship team:
Dr. Jason Newton, Dr. Rona McGill and Prof. Tom Preston, SUERC
Dr. Grant Hopcraft, Prof. Neil Evans, MVLS


Elucidating the history of an illness of an animal is a difficult task. Activity loggers often do not provide sufficient detail relating to the diet, health and gross movement patterns over long timescales, which compromises the interpretation of studies relating to animal physiology, welfare, and epidemiology.
This project aims to ascertain the nutritional history and generate information about migratory patterns by characterising of the isotopic signature of sequential samples along the length of an animal’s hair. Since hair keratin grows continuously, a detailed sequential isotopic analysis of the organic components of keratin can provide a time profile of a mammal’s life.
The study will firstly test that hydrogen and oxygen isotopes correlate with gross movement patterns in tail hair from GPS tagged migratory wildebeest from the Serengeti. Wildebeest have a roughly circular annual migration in the Serengeti, constantly seeking fresh grazing, and the area has a large climatic gradient that ought to be characterisable by “water” isotopes in hair.
Secondly, specific amino acids in hair keratin will be characterised to determine when endogenous versus exogenous sources of carbon are being utilised by an animal as its nutritional status (monitored by bulk nitrogen isotopes) fluctuates. This will be tested using tail hair from dairy cows, in which nutritional/metabolic changes associated with reproductive history are well characterised.
The third experiment will utilise hair from autopsied wildebeest that naturally cycle between seasonal periods of feast and famine, and whose cause of death is known, and will elucidate the nutritional history preceding death.

About you: We are seeking dynamic candidates with strong ecology/zoology backgrounds, able to function across disciplines, and an enthusiasm to learn the skills and intricacies of stable isotope forensics. Potential applicants must have a minimum of an Upper Second Class degree in an appropriate subject. This is funded for 3.5 years, half by SUERC and half by a standard RCUK PhD training award, so please check the eligibility criteria here:

Skill development
Initial labwork will comprise some isotope analysis technique development. SUERC, and particularly the LSMSF, has a strong pedigree in providing innovative stable isotope techniques and training to the ecology community. The student will be largely based at SUERC, however will also have the opportunity to interact with a vibrant intellectual environment provided by the labs based in IBAHCM and the Glasgow Vet School.

Please submit a CV and the contact details of two referees to Rona McGill ([Email Address Removed]) by December 1st.

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