PhD Studentship: The Behavioural Ecology of Pollination Services (BBSRC Funded)

University of Exeter - College of Life and Environmental Sciences

The South West Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership (SWBio DTP) is a BBSRC-funded PhD training programme in the biosciences, delivered by a consortium comprising the Universities of Bristol (lead), Bath, Cardiff, Exeter, and Rothamsted Research. Together, these institutions present a distinctive cadre of bioscience research staff and students with established international, national and regional networks and widely recognised research excellence. The partnership has a strong track record in advancing knowledge through high quality research and teaching in partnership with industry and government.

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the South West Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership (SWBio DTP).  Up to 4 fully-funded studentships are being offered to start in September 2018 at the University of Exeter.

Academic Supervisors:

Main supervisor: Dr Andrew Higginson
Co-supervisor: Dr Sean Rands
Co-supervisor: Dr Tim Fawcett

Project description:

Ecological networks have been a fundamental tool in ecology for 90 years, when the concept of food webs was developed from Darwin’s "web of complex relations". Ecological networks describe the interactions between predators and prey, plants and herbivores, and pollinators and flowers. They have great potential to help understanding of community structure and dynamics, nutrient and carbon cycles, and information flow around ecosystems. However, this potential is currently limited because the theory of networks neglects to consider the individual and the mechanisms that control individual behaviour, which will affect network structure and dynamics. Poor understanding of the behaviour that determines network structure undermines the effectiveness of empirical studies and ecological management.

We will upgrade the theoretical basis of ecological networks by developing models that incorporate behavioural responses to resource availability, competition, and mortality risks that are implemented by realistic learning and decision-making mechanisms. Mathematical modelling and evolutionary simulations, based on established approaches in animal behaviour, will provide a broad, predictive framework of how individual variation affects ecological networks. The theoretical predictions will be tested in the bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) using proven experimental paradigms, to assess the behaviours underlying learning and individual differences that affect food web structures. B. terrestris is a popular laboratory subject for the study of bee behaviour and is amenable to helping us understand how their psychology may affect pollination networks.

This project will change how we understand ecological networks, which are the foundation of community ecology and ecology as a whole. Recent attempts to incorporate behaviour in ecological networks indicate that the time has come for a synthesis of the fields of individual decision-making and food web ecology. Understanding ecological interactions is crucial for managing ecosystems, including the maintenance of pollination services. This is of critical importance as we try to understand and plan for future changes in ecosystems often caused by rapid perturbation by human actions.

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South West England