NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship: Of Mice and Microbes "how do burying beetles respond to competition in a changing world?"

University of Exeter - College of Life and Environmental Science

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP).  At least 4 fully-funded studentships that encompass the breadth of earth and environmental sciences are being offered to start in September 2017 at Exeter.  The studentships will provide funding for a stipend which is currently £14,296 per annum for 2016-2017, research costs and UK/EU tuition fees at Research Council UK rates for 42 months (3.5 years) for full-time students, pro rata for part-time students.

Main supervisor: Dr Nick Royle (Biosciences, University of Exeter)

Species interactions (inter-specific competition) often influence responses of organisms to changes in climate, and competition within species for limited resources (intra-specific competition) is the cornerstone of evolution by natural selection. Competition of either form can restrict opportunities for adaptation, but we still know little about how different forms of competition interact to shape how organisms respond to changes in their wider environment, such as changes in temperature or other climatic variables.    
Phenotypic plasticity “the environmentally-sensitive production of alternative phenotypes by a single genotype “ is a common but relatively poorly understood feature of organisms that allows organisms to respond and adapt to environmental change. Most studies have only considered responses of organisms to changes in environmental variables such as temperature or other climatic conditions (i.e., first order environmental change). However, a change in climate will affect the availability of, and hence competition for, resources too (i.e., second order environmental change). We now know there is enormous variation within and between populations in both the amount of competition experienced, and the ways in which individuals respond to this. However, despite their potential importance the effects of competition in mediating organismal responses to changes in climate have not been explored in studies of phenotypic plasticity.
This project will address this gap to test the prediction that competition acts as a constraint on the ability of organisms to adapt to changes in the wider environment. Nicrophorus vespilloides burying beetles are an ideal study organism to test this hypothesis as their reproduction is dependent upon winning access to a small vertebrate carcass to breed on. This means resource availability is readily amenable to experimental manipulation in the lab and field. These breeding resources are defendable, ephemeral resources in the wild so there is considerable variation in the amount of competition both from other burying beetles (intra-specific competition) and other species (such as microbes) for access to these vital resources. The project will use experimental manipulation of intra-specific and inter-specific (microbial) competition and temperature in N. vespilloides burying beetles in the lab and the field, and microbiology to quantify the plasticity of key behavioural (e.g., parental care) and physiological (e.g., beetle antimicrobial secretions) traits, and then develop and test competition models of indirect genetic effects in order to model the evolutionary outcomes. This will increase our understanding of the consequences of competition for the evolution of phenotypic plasticity and organismal adaptation and evolution in general.

See for full details and how to apply.

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