Projects and supervisors
Choose from the projects listed below.
Evolutionary ecology of host-parasite Interactions
50 per cent of all animal species are parasites, and how they interact with their hosts impacts ecology and evolution from individuals – e.g. host reproductive fitness – to ecosystems – e.g. parasites determine ecosystem structure and stability. We work on the interactions between parasites and social insects (mostly bumblebees, but also ants) using a range of approaches, including fieldwork, infection experiments, functional immunology, and molecular ecology. Projects available in this area include: (i) the impact and epidemiology of natural and emergent diseases,(ii) parasites in invasive species, (iii) how hosts defend themselves against parasites, and (iv) parasite phylogeography. Please contact me for further information.
Conservation: the behaviour and ecology of bumble bees
Bumblebees are a major, and attractive component of UK (and global) ecosystems, providing the essential service of pollination to wildflowers and crops. Our interests include understanding the ecological needs of bumble bees, understanding patterns of decline, and impacts of anthropogenic stressors. Available projects include: (i) the behaviour and ecology of bumblebee queens, (ii) the impact of agrochemicals and pathogens on bumblebee health, (iii) the ecology and behaviour of male bumblebees, and (iv) the decline of the world’s largest bumblebee in South America. Please contact me for further information.
Biology of social insects
Social insects are the ecologically dominant terrestrial animals, playing roles as major herbivores and predators, as well as providing the services of pest control, soil production and maintenance, and pollination. We are broadly interested in the biology of social insects, and are happy to support MSc projects in this area. Please look at my webpage and publications to see examples of previous work, and contact me for further information.
Interactions between symbiotic fungi and insects
“Plants are not discrete entities, but instead are mergers of fungal cells with plant tissues” (Wilson, 1993). This statement implies that every living plant has fungi living within the roots and shoots. What are the consequences of such infection for insects that also feed upon these plants? Can certain fungi protect plants against insect herbivore attack and so be used to help control pest insects? Meanwhile, if other fungi decrease the resistance of plants to herbivore attack, could these be used to improve biological weed control practises? Do the effects of the fungi extend to other trophic levels, such as predators and parasitoids? Our laboratory is trying to answer these questions and more, so as to understand the role that symbiotic fungi play in structuring communities of plants and animals.
Two projects are available, one involving arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi and one with foliar endophyte fungi. Each would involve laboratory and field experiments in which we infect plants with combinations of fungi and examine the effects on higher tropic levels. The two areas are not exclusive, and we could easily run projects involving both mycorrhizas and endophytes together.
Gange, A.C., Eschen, R., Wearn, J.A., Thawer, A. & Sutton, B.C. (2012). Differential effects of foliar endophytic fungi on insect herbivores attacking a herbaceous plant. Oecologia 168,1023-1031.
Hartley, S.E. & Gange, A.C. (2009). The impacts of symbiotic fungi on insect herbivores: mutualism in a multitrophic context. Annual Review of Entomology 54, 323-342.
Gange, A.C., Brown, V.K. & Aplin, D.M. (2005). Ecological specificity of arbuscular mycorrhizae: evidence from foliar- and seed-feeding insects. Ecology, 86, 603-611.
Gange. A.C., Brown, V.K. & Aplin, D.M. (2003). Multitrophic links between arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi and insect parasitoids. Ecology Letters, 6, 1051-1055.
Gange, A.C., Stagg, P.G. & Ward, L.K. (2002). Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi affect phytophagous insect specialism. Ecology Letters 5, 11-15.
Wilson, D. (1993). Fungal endophytes – out of sight, but should not be out of mind. Oikos 68, 379-84.
Behavioural ecology of group living spiders
Spiders are normally solitary hunters, but some species live in social groups. This project will investigate costs and benefits of group living in communal spiders in Southern Spain and/or Israel, with particular focus on dispersal behaviour. What brings individuals together in groups? How do groups form? Do males disperse more than females? The project would include behavioural observations of spiders in the field, and have the option of including molecular analyses as well.
How does connection to nature affect science attainment in school pupils
This Masters is part of the Royal Holloway Schools’ Biodiversity Project and will investigate how working with children in their school grounds affects their connection to nature and science attainment, particuarly in biology but also more generally. You will visit children weekly and work with them on projects to monitor species or create habitats in their grounds. The ability to work with children and to handle a wide range of species is essential. You will learn social science surveying and analysis techniques as well as identification, surveying and data collection techniques suited to citizen science projects centred around children.
Models for social interaction in microbes
Microbes interact in various ways, for instance they can release antibiotics to stave off competitors, or they can release substances which help other microbes take up iron from the environment. In this way basic ecological interactions, such as competition or mutualisms can be realised in very simple organisms. This project aims to develop simple models for the interaction of microbes. Once such a model is formulated and analysed, it can then be used to study the evolution of microbes in a theoretical fashion. This project will concentrate on the production of siderophores, which allow microbes to interact through the production of a public good. This is a theoretical project that will require some experience and interest in mathematical modelling.
Models for social interaction between fungi and plants
Fungi interact with plants in various ways, for instance as pathogen, but they can also engage in a mutualistic interaction through the formation of mycorrhizas. They can release antibiotics to stave off competitors, or they can release substances which help other microbes take up iron from the environment. In this way basic ecological interactions, such as antagonisms or mutualisms can be realised. This project aims to develop simple models for the plant-fungal interaction of microbe. Once such a model is formulated and analysed, it can then be used to study the evolution of microbes in a theoretical fashion. This is a theoretical project that will require some experience and interest in mathematical modelling
Behaviourally mediated trophic cascades
Predators can affect herbivores not only directly, through predation, but also by altering their behaviour and habitat use. For instance, a common tactic for ungulates in the presence of predator risk is to increase vigilance levels while foraging, which might change their feeding behaviour and resulting browsing pressure on plants. Behaviourally mediated trophic cascades (BMTCs) occur when the fear of predation among herbivores enhances plant productivity. This dry project will summarize evidence of effects of predation risk on herbivore behaviour and habitat use as well as resulting effects on plant damage. Results of published studies on BMTCs will be combined by means of meta-analysis, which is a set of statistical methods designed to combine the results from independent studies on the same topic. Training in meta-analysis will be provided.
Buchanan A.L., Hermann S.L., Lund M., Szendrei Z. 2017. A meta-analysis of non-consumptive predator effects in arthropods: the influence of organismal and environmental characteristics. Oikos 126: 1233-1240.
Kauffman et al. 2010. Are wolves saving Yellowstone’s aspen? A landscape-level test of a behaviorally mediated trophic cascade. Ecology 91: 2742-2755.
Preisser E.L., Bolnick D.I., Bernard M.F. 2005. Scared to death? The effects of intimidation and consumption in predator-prey interactions. Ecology 86: 501-509.
Schmitz O. et al. 1997. Behaviorally mediated trophic cascades: effects of predation risk on food web interactions. Ecology 78: 1388-1399.
Effects of plant diversity on plant defences against herbivores
Diverse plant communities composed of several plant species or genotypes are known to be more resistant to herbivores as compared to species or genetic monocultures. Several mechanisms such as host plant dilution effects and physical and olfactorial masking can explain these effects. More recently evidence started to accumulate that plant defensive traits may also vary depending on whether the plant is surrounded by conspecific or heterospecific (or genetically different) neighbours. This dry project will summarize evidence of effects of plant diversity on plant anti-herbivore defences (such as chemical, physical and biotic defences) by means of meta-analysis of published studies. Meta-analysis is a set of statistical methods designed to combine the results from independent studies on the same topic; training in meta-analysis will be provided.
Kostenko O., Muder P.P.J., Courbois M., Bezemer T.M. 2017. Effects of plant diversity on the concentration of secondary plant metabolites and the density of arthropods on focal plants in the field. Journal of Ecology 105: 647-660.
Moreira X., Abdala-Roberts L., Parra-Tabla V., Mooney K. 2014. Positive effects of plant genotypic and species diversity on anti-herbivore defences in a tropical tree species. Plos One 9(8): e105438.
Next-generation pesticides: evaluating the impacts of post-neonicotinoid insecticides on bumblebee colonies
An enormous body of evidence documenting negative impacts of neonicotinoid pesticides on wild and managed bees has led to a Europe-wide ban on the use of these substances in outdoor agricultural settings. Potential replacement agrochemicals have already entered the market, and we have recently shown that Sulfoxaflor- a next-generation pesticide now registered in 81 countries, including within the EU- may have comparably negative effects on bumblebee reproductive success. There may be means to mitigate these effects, for example through exposure timings, but the extensive data required to identify these measures does not yet exist. The aim of this project is to start building this critical, and potentially high-impact, evidence base. The student will work with live bumblebee colonies in the field (our parkland campus), carrying out intensive fieldwork over the spring and early summer period, to evaluate identify high- and low-risk exposure periods and routes for bumblebee colonies. This project has the potential to provide an important and timely contribution to pollinator conservation, and students who have a strong interest in current conservation issues and fieldwork are particularly encouraged to apply.
Useful reading: Siviter H et al (2018) Sulfoxaflor exposure reduces bumblebee colony reproductive success. Nature 561:109-112
Biology of Chinese mitten crabs in the River Thames
The project, which will involve collaboration with the Natural History Museum, London, could investigate various aspects of the reproductive biology and population migrations of the invasive alien Chinese mitten crab, Eriocheir sinensis. This crab is one of only two brachyuran crabs listed in the 100 worse invasive species and has a number of adverse impacts on native biota, river banks and fishing activities. Recent evidence suggests that small crabs may have successfully recruited into sites on the Thames following a period when they were less widely recorded (possibly due to extreme flood events in recent winters). The project could explore the extent of this apparent proliferation in numbers as well as consider other aspects of the biology of the species. There will also be an opportunity to interact with collaborators at other institutions working on different aspects of mitten crab biology.
Morritt, D., Mills, H., Hind, K., Clifton-Dey, D. & Clark, P.F. (2013) Monitoring downstream migrations of Eriocheir sinensis H. Mine Edwards, 1853 (Crustacea: Brachyura: Grapsoidea: Varunidae) in the River Thames using capture data from a water abstraction intake. Management of Biological Invasions 4: 139-147
Webster, J.M., Clark, P.F. & Morritt, D. (2015) Laboratory based feeding behaviour of the Chinese mitten crab, Eriocheir sinensis, (Crustacea: Decapoda, Brachyura, Varunidae): fish egg consumption. Aquatic Invasions 10: 313-326
Mills, C.D, Clark, P.F. & Morritt, D. (2016) Flexible prey handling, preference and a novel capture technique in invasive, sub-adult Chinese mitten crabs. Hydrobiologia 733: 135-147
The impacts of plastic pollution on River Thames biota
During fyke net trials in the River Thames it became apparent that large quantities of litter, especially plastics, are moving along the river bed. These data (see Morritt et al., 2014), and well-established monitoring by organisations such as Thames 21 and Port of London Authority, highlight a serious environment issue. Preliminary studies have now demonstrated how Thames organisms may be exposed to plastics in the environment (McGoran et al. 2017). The aim of this project is to further describe and quantify the presence of plastics in the guts of Thames organisms, e.g. crustaceans and bottom-feeding fish, in order to provide a comparison with data for marine species. Work to establish the role trophic links in plastic ingestion could form an important part of the study. The project will involve collaboration with colleagues at the Natural History Museum, London and in the Thames Estuary Partnership. Projects investigating other aspects of plastic pollution in the River Thames, whether focussed on macroplastics or microplastics, are also possible.
Morritt, D., Stefanoudis, P.V., Pearce, D., Crimmen, O.A. & Clark, P.F. (2014) Plastic in the Thames: a river runs through it. Marine Pollution Bulletin 78: 196–200
McGoran, A.R., Clark, P.F. & Morritt, D. (2017) Presence of microplastic in the digestive tracts of European flounder, Platichthys flesus, and European smelt, Osmerus eperlanus, from the River Thames. Environmental Pollution 220: 744-751
Conservation: behavioural interactions between humans and other primates
Primates are relatively large bodied mammals with slow reproduction rates, making them vulnerable to population declines. Distributed across the tropics, they face numerous threats, including habitat decline and unsustainable hunting. Our group is interested in primate behavioural responses to direct (e.g. hunting and ecotourism) and indirect (e.g. habitat decline and degradation) human disturbances. Available projects would require field work in the tropics to collect data on primate behaviour. Please contact me for further information.
The shifting baseline syndrome and its impact on conservation management
Shifting baseline syndrome describes how a lack of information about past ecological conditions can change the decisions made in conservation and environmental management. This information may be lacking as ecological information (for example from surveys) was never collected. Where this information is not available, managers may forget past ecological conditions or be too young to have experienced them. Since it was first proposed, research on shifting baselines in conservation has largely focused on either quantifying changing biological conditions over time, or on identifying whether local communities are aware of changes in environmental conditions. Yet as originally proposed, the shifting baseline syndrome was a particular issue if resource managers and conservation professionals could not identify environmental changes due to a lack of past biological information or lack of experience of past conditions, and thus did not address them. This project will use social science methods to examine the evidence for shifting baseline syndrome in conservation managers. Please contact me for further information.
Group Dynamics, Navigation & Behaviour in homing pigeons
Body mass is an important component of the energetic costs involved in bird flight. Fat stores are an essential source of fuel for the body during long flights, but excessive body mass will increase flight costs dramatically. Body mass is also known to play a role in certain animal societies in determining social structure and dominance hierarchies. Birds will have a trade-off, therefore, between optimal body mass for flight, and requirements for body fuel in the form of fat, and social dynamics.
This project aims to investigate flock social structure and group dynamics in homing pigeons. Birds will be flown from release sites equipped with data loggers, and factors such as speed, flap frequency and wing-beat amplitude of all birds within the flock will be investigated. Individuals will then have their body mass artificially manipulated, to measure the outcomes this has on the birds general flight behaviour. These manipulations will be achieved through the addition of small weights to the back of the birds. Furthermore, this project will investigate dominance hierarchies in pigeon flocks, and leader follower dynamics during group navigational flights, again with respect to manipulations of body mass.
The biomechanics and physiology of a low-oxygen subterranean lifestyle: the mole rats
Naked Mole Rats, and others members of the Bathyergidae group, spend the majority of their lives underground, rarely venturing to the surface. They exhibit a number of unusual traits, including a long life-span for their size, characteristics of being cold-blooded, seemingly being immune to cancer, and suffering no muscle wastage with ageing. Another peculiarity of the Bathyergidae group is how they move around their burrows, and how they tolerate their low-oxygen underground environments. This project aims to study the walking biomechanics and exercise physiology of this fascinating group of animals, to understand better the adaptations they have to their unusual life style. Techniques will involve high-speed camera motion capture, force plates, respirometry (for oxygen consumption) and behavioural experiments. Practical work will be conducted at RHUL, Queen Mary’s University of London, and possibly fieldwork in South Africa. This project will be co-supervised by Dr Chris Faulkes (Queen Mary’s University of London) and Dr Monica Daley (Structure and Motion Laboratory, Royal Veterinary College).
Mathematical Models of Parent-of-Origin Expression
Genomic imprinting refers to the silencing of genes according to their parental origin (either paternally silenced and maternally expressed or vice versa). In this research I am interested in elaborating mathematical models that explore why would natural selection favour losing the advantages of diploidy to produce a functionally haploid locus
Mathematical Models of Gene Transmission
Meiotic drive refers to the preferential transmission of an allele (driving allele) during meiosis in diploid individuals. In this research I am interested in elaborating mathematical models that explore why is fair (Mendelian) segregation the rule and not the exception