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Cambridge NERC Doctoral Training Partnerships

Graduate Research Opportunities
Burying beetle Nicrophorus vespilloides. A common UK beetle with distinctive black and orange markings on its wingcases

Lead Supervisor: Rebecca Kilner, Zoology

Co-Supervisor: James Herbert-Read, Zoology

Brief summary: 
This project will determine whether selection acts on the family as a unit, as well as on the individuals within it, and investigate the evolutionary causes and consequences of multi-level selection on animal families
Importance of the area of research concerned: 
The evolution of family life is currently explained by considering how selection acts on the selfish interests of individual family members (and the genes within them). Thus, selection is recognised to favour: parents that cooperate to raise offspring whilst avoiding manipulation by a lazy partner, siblings that cooperate to obtain more food yet compete effectively for more than their fair share, and offspring that reliably declare their needs to provisioning parents whilst seeking more food than is optimal for their parents to supply. Far less is known about whether selection can act on pairs, or on the family as a unit. Yet there is evidence from diverse taxa that group level activities are adaptive: in the construction of nests or burrows; in the collective defence of key resources; or the collective capacity to exploit resources that are otherwise unobtainable, for example. We have obtained preliminary evidence that selection acts in a similar way on the joint behaviour of pairs and the collective behaviour of the family as a whole.
Project summary : 
You will investigate whether selection works on pairs and on families as a whole, by focusing on the following questions: What kinds of activities might be coordinated at these higher levels (and which are not), and how? Does the extent of coordination differ between populations? What are the evolutionary consequences of such precision coordination among individuals? You will study the burying beetle Nicrophorus vespilloides. Burying beetles use small vertebrate carrion for reproduction, which they convert into an edible nest for their young. Parents stay with the nest and larvae, to feed them and defend them. Carrion is scarce, and N. vespilloides can face intense competition for this vital resource. You will test whether competition from rivals imposes selection on pairs to work effectively to conceal the carrion nest, and on families to deplete the carrion resource rapidly.
What will the student do?: 
You will combine fieldwork, using 7 wild populations we have been studying for the past three years, with experiments in the lab. You will census the Nicrophorus populations at each of our 7 ancient woodland study sites and estimate the small vertebrate carrion load in each wood by using trapping and transect data. This will enable you to estimate the extent of competition for carrion in each wood. You will then relate these measures of competition to pair and family level traits, measured in the lab separately for each population. You will run experiments to determine how rapidly and effectively pairs convert carrion into a nest, and whether they are less effective at this task when paired with a partner from a different population. With further lab experiments you will determine how quickly larvae hatch, how rapidly they can locate their carrion nest after hatching – and the cues they use to achieve this, and how swiftly the family can deplete the carrion. By mixing up families, through cross-fostering for example, you will determine whether families from different populations are co-adapted in different ways.
References - references should provide further reading about the project: 
Scott, M. P. 1998 The ecology and evolution of burying beetles. Annual Review of Entomology vol. 43 pp 595-618 doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.ento.43.1.595
Duarte, A. et al 2021. Evolutionary change in the construction of the nursery environment when parents are prevented from caring for their young. Proceedings of the National Academy Sciences USA 118: e2102450118. doi/10.1073/pnas.2102450118
Jarrett, B. J. M. et al. 2022 Multilevel selection leads to divergent coadaptation of care-giving parents during pre-hatching parental care. BioRxiv 2022.05.23.493134
You can find out about applying for this project on the Department of Zoology page.
Professor Rebecca Kilner