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Cambridge NERC Doctoral Training Partnerships

Graduate Research Opportunities

Lead Supervisor: Lynn Dicks, Zoology

Co-Supervisor: Andrew Bladon, Zoology

Brief summary: 
This project will use existing long-term insect assemblage and time series datasets to develop and test hypotheses about relationships between insect (or arthropod) abundance and diversity, and the stability and value of the ecological functions and ecosystem services they are responsible for.
Importance of the area of research concerned: 
Insect decline is a pressing conservation issue of the 21st century, and there is much debate in the literature about its extent, and its implications for biodiversity and human well-being. Insects dominate the animal kingdom in numbers of species and play a central role in the functioning of terrestrial ecosystems, performing key roles in ‘Nature’s contributions to people’ (ecosystem services). Their persistence, especially in human-dominated systems, is an important indicator of the condition of natural capital stock. The most comprehensive economic evaluation of services provided by wild insects estimated an annual value of $57 billion dollars/year just for the USA (Losey & Vaughan 2006). Declines of insect abundance, biomass, and range are reported from many places around the world, across insect orders, and from a spectrum of ecological guilds (Montgomery et al. 2019), but they are not universal. Certain taxonomic groups, guilds or communities are clearly not declining. Key research questions are: what taxa are we losing, why is this happening, does it matter to the long-term stability of ecosystems, how will it impact human well-being and what can be done about it?
Project summary : 
This project will work with existing long-term insect assemblage and time series datasets, to develop and explore hypotheses about relationships between insect (or arthropod) abundance, diversity, and the stability of ecological functions. This work will bridge the gap from theoretical ecology to applied conservation science. There will be opportunities to undertake modelling of ecological networks, such as plant-pollinator networks, to determine how declines in insect species affect the delivery of key ecosystem functions. The project will also develop methods to value ecosystem services provided by insects, at large or even global scales. This will involve sourcing and analysing a wide range of large-scale datasets relevant to the economic costs and benefits of services provided by insects, from human and livestock health to urban food systems and waste management.
What will the student do?: 
The student will join a global community of evidence synthesis and insect conservation researchers, working to identify and analyse insect time series and assemblage datasets from all over the world. The work will be mostly desk-based, identifying and analysing large datasets. Example hypotheses that could be tested with datasets already identified include: 1) As insect communities become less diverse, they have lower invariability in abundance or biomass (the inverse of variability) over time or space, leading to lower stability of function. 2) Ecological theory predicts that invariability increases with area in a non-linear fashion (known as the Invariability Area Relationship IAR (Wang et al. 2017)). Homogenisation of insect communities at large scales might be expected to lower the slope of the IAR. The student will also develop methods to upscale the valuation of insect-derived ecosystem services. Following Losey & Vaughan (2006), this will probably focus on pollination, pest regulation, dung removal by Scarabidae and recreational values of certain groups of vertebrates that rely on insects for food (including hunting, fishing and birdwatching).
References - references should provide further reading about the project: 
Montgomery, G.A., Dunn, R.R., Fox, R., Jongejans, E., Leather, S.R., Saunders, M.E., Shortall, C.R., Tingley, M.W. & Wagner, D.L. 2019. Is the insect apocalypse upon us? How to find out. Biological Conservation, 108327.
Wang, S.P., Loreau, M., Arnoldi, J.F., Fang, J.Y., Abd Rahman, K., Tao, S.L. & de Mazancourt, C. 2017 An invariability-area relationship sheds new light on the spatial scaling of ecological stability. Nature Communications, 8.
Losey, J.E. & Vaughan, M. 2006. The Economic Value of Ecological Services Provided by Insects. BioScience, 56, 311-323.
You can find out about applying for this project on the Department of Zoology page.
Dr Lynn Dicks
Department of Zoology Graduate Administrator