PhD Studentship: Impact of Climate Change on Complex Interactions Within a Multi-host Multipathogen System

University of Exeter - College of Life and Environmental Sciences

Main Supervisor:  Dr Camille Bonneaud
Co-Supervisor: Dr Frank Hailer, Cardiff University
Co-Supervisor:  Dr Alexis Chaine, National Centre for Scientific Research, France

Outbreaks and virulence of infectious diseases are predicted to be impacted by climate change, for instance through the modification or expansion of pathogen geographic ranges. However, precisely how networks of interacting hosts and pathogens will respond to climate change remains to be determined. Field studies of the impact of climate change are typically plagued with the difficulty that they either require the long-term monitoring of natural populations during which the climate changes, or the comparison of populations at different latitudes, such that effects of climate are confounded with other environmental factors. This project will examine how climate change is affecting the interactions between malaria parasites (genera Plasmodium, Haemoproteus and Leucocytozoon)1 and their avian great tit (Parus major) and blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) hosts2, 3 in the French Pyrenees, where altitude (and hence climate), but not habitat or day length, varies significantly over short geographic distances.

To what extent does climate change (altitudinal differences) give rise to local adaptations of host-pathogen and pathogen-pathogen interactions? The project will characterise the interactions between two host species and their pathogens, as well as between pathogens within the host environment. The PhD candidate will take advantage of closely monitored nest-box populations of great tits (Parus major) and blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus), located over short geographical distances (4-16km) at various altitudes (400-1600m) of the Pyrenees Mountains. Birds will be captured, ringed and monitored over 4 study sites year- round. Measures of body condition, breeding investment, ecological characteristics (tree species composition, phenology and food availability) and blood samples will be collected to determine seasonal differences in life history, ecology, prevalence and transmission of infection4, 5. Host movements and genetic structuring will be assessed using population genetics, and host switching of the parasite will be assessed using phylogenetics6-8. The findings of this study will shed light on the ability of hosts to respond to modifications of pathogen communities and pathogen transmission seasonality resulting from climate change. This project will provide a highly motivated student the opportunity to use molecular approaches to address an important question in climate change research and disease ecology.

Candidate: It is expected that the student will live on-site in the Pyrenees for a few months each year. It would be advantageous to have experience with working in the field and/or to enjoy working for long-hours in potentially difficult terrain. Some knowledge of French would be helpful but not required.

The project will be conducted in collaboration with Dr Alexis Chaine, from the Station of Theoretical and Experimental Ecology of the French National Centre for Scientific Research, which is situated in the Pyrenees Mountains. The candidate will conduct fieldwork at the Station and benefit from its state-of-the-art molecular and experimental facilities, as well as world-class theoretical and empirical expertise on the impacts of climate change on biodiversity.

Funding Maximum

3.5 year studentship: UK/EU/International tuition fees and an annual maintenance allowance at the Research Council rate of £14,553 per year

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South West England