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Cambridge NERC Doctoral Training Partnerships

Graduate Research Opportunities

Lead Supervisor: Rebecca Kilner, Zoology

Brief summary: 
This project will investigate how beetles allocate limited resources to different body structures during development, to improve their function and maximise the animal's fitness
Importance of the area of research concerned: 
New imaging techniques and methods in biomechanics are offering fresh insights into the link between body form and body function. At the same time, it is clear that body form is sensitive to conditions experienced during development and that these conditions are becoming increasingly variable as environments become more unpredictable. The aim of this project is to investigate and elucidate the details of the steps in this change: How do environmental conditions influence animal development? How do nutritional conditions during development influence body form? And how does this in turn feed into the animal's actions, and its capacity to behave adaptively in its current social and physical environment?
Project summary : 
The project will address these questions with work on the burying beetle Nicrophorus vespilloides. It will focus particularly on the exoskeleton, and the size and shape of the mandibles, head and legs. It will determine how the ultrastructure of the exoskeleton is influenced by developmental conditions and how that in turn determines its strength. It will also investigate the form and function of the mandibles in each sex, in relation to head size and musculature, and link this morphological variation to variation in fighting and nest building behaviour. This experimental work will be used to understand the variation in all these traits that can be seen within and among natural populations.
What will the student do?: 
The student will be based mainly in the lab but will also carry out some fieldwork at sites near to Cambridge. They may also use Museum specimens to document natural variation over time and over a broader geographical area. Work will involve breeding beetles in the lab under environmental conditions that are manipulated in ways that mimic likely sources of natural variation in developmental conditions. Detailed measurements of the exoskeleton, musculature and forces involved in different actions will be assessed in collaboration with David Labonte at Imperial College. These will be linked, using tried and tested approaches, to variation in behaviour and measures of the fitness benefits associated with those actions.
References - references should provide further reading about the project: 
Miller, C. W., Joseph, P. N., and Kilner, R. M., Emberts, Z. 2019 A weapons-testes trade-off in males is amplified in female traits Proceedings of the Royal Society B 286:20190906
Sun, S. J., Horrocks, N. P. C, and Kilner R. M. 2019 Conflict within species determines the value of a mutualism between species. Evolution Letters 3:185-197
Sun, S. J. and Kilner, R. M. 2020 Temperature stress induces mites to help their carrion beetle hosts by eliminating rival blowflies. eLife 2020;9:e55649
You can find out about applying for this project on the Department of Zoology page.
Professor Rebecca Kilner
Department of Zoology Graduate Administrator