PhD studentship – further info

Further information about the PhD

Project title: Evolution of parents feeding offspring

Supervisor:  Dr James Gilbert

Co-supervisors: Dr Isabella Capellini, Dr Lesley Morrell

School of Environmental Sciences (Biology), University of Hull

Apply by clicking the link in the FindAPhD advert.

Application deadline: 13 March 2017

Start date: 25 September 2017

This PhD forms part of a research cluster of projects on the evolution of parental care, funded by the University of Hull. The successful student will become an active member of the research cluster, together with the supervisors, a postdoctoral researcher, and another PhD student. For more information on the other projects within the cluster, see here (postdoc – coming soon) and here (PhD). The successful student will also join the wider Ecology and Environment research group within with School of Environmental Sciences, and James Gilbert’s research group, the Wild Ecology & Behaviour group, currently consisting of two PhD students.

The project

When should a parent feed its offspring? As humans, the idea of feeding offspring comes so naturally that we can often forget that most animals do not do it. Given how critical parental care is for our own success, and for the success of species responsible for some of our most important ecosystem services (bees, for example), we know surprisingly little about the ecological and evolutionary factors affecting this crucial relationship. This is partly because the kinds of animals that have been traditional models for parental care research – mainly birds and mammals – show relatively little variation among species in their strategies, and so are relatively uninformative when we ask questions about evolutionary origins.

In contrast, insects are excellent for such questions: parental care is extremely diverse, including species that assiduously feed offspring until adulthood, contrasting with others showing simply egg-guarding or no care1. Furthermore, unlike in most other groups, insect strategies often differ widely among closely related species. However, comparative studies of insect life history are very rare – partly because the lack of (1) a central database of relevant traits and (2) a robust evolutionary tree has been an obstacle to progress until now. We have addressed this critical, near-complete gap in the literature by (1) beginning to compile a large database (currently >2000 spp) of insect life history traits, intended for publication as a public resource, and (2) using cutting-edge statistical techniques to account for the current level of uncertainty in the insect evolutionary tree2,3.

This project will develop, augment and ultimately publish the database on insect parental care and life history that we have begun compiling – the basis of three recent publications2–4. Using this database, the project will use mathematical models and phylogenetic-comparative methods to test the following questions and associated predictions:

(1) What ecological factors favour the evolution and/or maintenance of parental provisioning?

  1. a) Provisioning evolves with harsh or stable environments; scarce, specialized resources, and predation5 – environmental “prime movers” or care evolution that amazingly remain untested forty years after their inception;
  2. b) Loss of offspring self-sufficiency, by any means, is a key precondition for the evolution of parental provisioning6;

(2) What are the evolutionary consequences of a food-provisioning strategy?

  1. a) Optional (or partial) food provisioning behaviour is inherently unstable and leads to obligate provisioning via a “runaway” positive feedback process6;
  2. b) Evolution of parental provisioning places a fundamental constraint on how offspring numbers scale with body size2.

The project will be of considerable general interest and impact. Not only does it broaden and deepen our understanding of the evolution of parental care, it will help us understand our own behaviour and thus ourselves – by providing key comparisons (carers versus non-carers; offspring feeders versus non-feeders) that are not available by studying groups like mammals who uniformly feed offspring.

  1. Choe, J. C. & Crespi, B. J. The evolution of social behaviour in insects and arachnids. (Cambridge University Press, 1997). 2. Gilbert, J. D. J. & Manica, A. Parental care trade-offs and life-history relationships in insects. Am. Nat. 176, 212–226 (2010). 3. Gilbert, J. D. J. & Manica, A. The evolution of parental care in insects: A test of current hypotheses. Evolution 69, 1255–1270 (2015). 4. Gilbert, J. D. J. Insect Dry Weight: Shortcut to a Difficult Quantity using Museum Specimens. Fla. Entomol. 94, 964–970 (2011). 5. Wilson, E. O. Sociobiology: the new synthesis. (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1975). 6. Gardner, A. & Smiseth, P. T. Evolution of parental care driven by mutual reinforcement of parental food provisioning and sibling competition. Proc. Biol. Sci. 278, 196–203 (2011).

 Your skills and experience

You should have at least a 2.1 undergraduate degree in Biology, Ecology or another relevant subject, together with relevant research experience. A 1st class degree or Masters level qualification would be desirable.

You will be doing a lot of database management, phylogenetic analysis, and reading and interpreting literature studies for meta-analysis. Experience with one or more of these is essential; two or more are desirable. Experience with the data analysis software R is desirable, but training can be provided.

How to apply

If you have not already done so, you should contact James Gilbert in advance of application, enclosing a CV and a brief statement of why the project interests you, together with any further questions you might have about the project.

The project is funded by the University of Hull. Full-time UK/EU PhD Scholarships will include fees at the ‘home/EU’ student rate and maintenance (£14,121 in 2016/17) for three years, depending on satisfactory progress.

Apply by clicking the link in the FindAPhD advertthe deadline is 13 March 2017