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Postal codeYO10 5DD
CountryUnited Kingdom
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  • Biology
    University of York
    Wentworth Way
    YO10 5DD

Phone: (01904) 325338

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Dr. Elva Joan Hilda Robinson

Senior Lecturer

PhD opportunities

Wood ants on the move: geoengineering impacts of wood ants as they move into new territory

Competitively-funded: NERC ACCE DTP Studentship

Supervisors: Dr Elva Robinson, Dr Kelly Redeker (University of York) and Dr Kate Parr (University of Liverpool)

We are looking for an enthusiastic and ambitious student to develop an exciting project that will combine biogeochemical field data and ecological modelling to quantify and predict how wood ants affect regional forest soil function. The ideal candidate will enjoy interacting with academics and stakeholders from a range of backgrounds and want to apply their scientific training to an important applied question.

Forestry, mainly plantations, occupies 13% of British land area. The fragmentation of British woodlands adds further challenges, particularly for locally dispersing habitat specialists, e.g. wood ants (Formica rufa group). These species, threatened across Europe, are key components of woodland ecosystems. Recent work indicates wood ant populations in the North York Moors are expanding from ancient woodland into plantations. This ongoing expansion allows us to explore the impact of ant behavior on forest function within forests with long-term, recent and no ant nest presence.

Ant mapping data, including 3 years’ expansion at population margins, will be used to identify sampling sites in which ant behavior and a range of soil functional data will be collected (e.g.- soil pH, trace gas fluxes, bulk density and nutrient loading). These data will be used to quantify the impact of ant presence on soil qualities and function and this may be used to predict invasive impacts. There is a significant field work component that will be combined with substantial laboratory analyses.

To predict the impact on soil function of the spread into new habitat of a woodland specialist.
Specifically to quantify:
The impact on soil chemical/physical properties over short and longer-term time scales
The impact on soil microbial community over short and longer time scales To provide advice for forest managers regarding ecological and climate impact of management activities

Applications and benefits

The student will receive thorough postgraduate training supported by a multidisciplinary team of supervisors with strong research backgrounds and experience in postgraduate supervision. The student will gain ecological research skills including: empirical field techniques; cutting-edge laboratory equipment techniques; spatial analysis methods. This study will provide novel data on dispersal impacts in woodland species: it will benefit the academic ecology/evolution communities, policy-makers and forest managers.

More information and how to apply

MSc by Research opportunities

Polydomy, foraging and dominance in the invasive garden ant

Funding: Self-funded

Invasive species can have dramatic effects, fundamentally altering ecosystems. Most data on mechanisms of invasion come from a few well-known damaging species; however, practical application of invasion ecology relies on detailed knowledge of a wide range of species. The proposed work will increase the data available with a new case study, the 'invasive garden ant' Lasius neglectus, a recent invader in Europe. This species can radically change the arthropod assemblage and has potential to be highly harmful. This species arrived in the UK in 2010, and I have a NERC Industrial CASE PhD student investigating the impact of this species in the field. The proposed project will complement ongoing field work, by investigating under controlled laboratory conditions the mechanisms by which Lasius neglectus achieves ecological dominance and high density foraging.

1 To identify the mechanistic processes underlying spread into new territory by Lasius neglectus.
2 To assess the role of polydomy (dispersed nesting) in ecological dominance and high density foraging in Lasius neglectus

This will be a laboratory-based empirical project. Laboratory colonies of L. neglectus and the native species Lasius niger will be used for experiments on mechanisms of spread into new territory, dominance and foraging. Laboratory techniques will include, when appropriate, video-recording of behaviour and radio-tagging technology.

We have produced a provisional national Risk Assessment for the potential ecological and economic risks posed by Lasius neglectus in the UK. The data from this project on mechanisms of invasion will feed into this Risk Assessment, and will be valuable both academically and to the applied conservation community.

Project Partners
Dr Elva Robinson and PhD student Phillip Buckham-Bonnett are working closely with pest controllers, conservation charities and the Non-native Species Secretariat to ensure work on Lasius neglectus has maximum impact.

More information
To discuss suitability for the project, contact Elva Robinson; details on the Biology Department’s MSc by Research programme and how to apply can be found here

Collective behaviour in social insect colonies

Funding: Self-funded

Social insect colonies are accomplished collective decision-makers: the actions of individuals combine to make effective decisions at the group level that are far beyond the perception of any one individual in the group. The key to understanding such ‘self-organized’ collective behavior lies in identifying the behavioural algorithms used by individuals. One well-studied example of collective behaviour is nest-site choice, where a social insect colony must choose a new site and relocate to it. In some social insects, such as the ant Temnothorax albipennis, scouting ants appear to use a simple threshold rule whereby a scout assesses a nest against an internal quality threshold and either accepts the nest and starts recruiting, or rejects it and continues searching. At the colony level what would then dictate whether a nest site is chosen or not, is the distribution of quality thresholds within the colony.

1 To investigate the role that shape and development of a colony’s threshold distribution has on the collective performance
2 To predict which individuals within a colony will have the most influence on collective processes under a range of ecological scenarios

This research project will build on an existing simple model where each scouting ant is represented as an independent instantiation of a Markov process and each individual is assigned a nest quality threshold through Monte Carlo simulation. The model will be expanded to explore a wider range of threshold distribution shapes and choice contexts. The model will be parameterized from published data on house-hunting Temnothorax albipennis.

This model will not only give us a better understanding into mechanisms of colony decision making in T. albipennis but also in collectives in general. Collective behaviour is widespread in natures, and understanding it is essential to understanding the function and dynamics of animal groups. There is increasing interest currently in animal ‘personalities’ and this field extends to the emergent ‘personalities’ of collectives; understanding the relationship between individual decision behaviour and collective outcomes will help move this field forwards.

Project Partners
This project will be a collaboration between the MSc student, Dr Elva Robinson and Dr Carolina Doran, Max Plank Institute.

More information
To discuss suitability for the project, contact Elva Robinson; details on the Biology Department’s MSc by Research programme and how to apply can be found here

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