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You are what you eat: diet, cooperation and fitness in a tropical island bird

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  • Full or part time
    Prof T A Burke
    Dr M J P Simons
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

In our study of a complete population of the Seychelles warbler, a cooperatively breeding insectivorous bird, we have measured the helping behaviour and fitness parameters of every individual. The quality of the territory is hypothesised to determine if helping behaviour is evolutionarily beneficial to determine if helping behaviour is evolutionarily beneficial. Insect counts in each territory provide supporting evidence for this hypothesis. However, it is not known if total insect abundance is a good proxy for the prey that warblers actually eat. The student will collect faecal samples and use DNA metabarcoding, now well established in our laboratory, to determine which taxa are being consumed. The study will address a series of novel questions:

1. Which prey species are associated with the greatest reproductive success?
2. Does insect abundance reflect the presence of preferred prey?
3. Are more biodiverse diets more predictive of higher fitness – or do they indicate the absence of preferred prey?
4. Does diet predict helping behaviour, e.g. does prey availability predict when dominants will tolerate co-breeding by subordinates?
5. What are the characteristics of preferred prey, such as carotenoid content and size?
6. How does diet vary within and among breeding seasons and across the other island populations (that were deliberately translocated for conservation rescue)?
7. Can demographic parameters (such as effective population size and structure) be determined for key prey taxa by novel genetic analyses of faecal DNA?

Dataset available
Faecal samples, along with extensive data on reproductive behaviour and fitness, have already been collected for four breeding seasons before you start your project. Territory quality varies dramatically in different parts of the population in alternate seasons, under the influence of oscillating trade winds. The student will undertake fieldwork, next-generation sequencing, and bioinformatics and statistical analysis. This will, to our knowledge, be the first study to use DNA analysis to relate fitness to individual variation in diet.

Practical work
You will undertake fieldwork on Seychelles and use a range of molecular and statistical tools (next-generation sequencing, bioinformatics analysis of your results in combination with mixed models). There are ample, high-quality training opportunities for the tools you will need in your studies within the ACCE programme and within our laboratory.

Scientific environment
You will work within the Molecular Ecology group at the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences. We are a leading department using the latest tools to understand evolutionary processes in behavioural ecology. The Seychelles Warbler project is international and multi-institutional (Universities of Sheffield, East Anglia, Leeds and Groningen). We work together to understand this species’ unique behaviour and evolutionary ecology and apply this knowledge to enhance the conservation of this formerly endangered species. Biannual scientific meetings of the Seychelles Warbler Group ensure that the student is embedded within a vibrant community of PhD students, other researchers and internationally recognised supervisors.

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 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.

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