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Cambridge NERC Doctoral Training Partnerships

Graduate Research Opportunities
Oil palm fruit bunches

Lead supervisor: Edgar Turner, Zoology

Co-supervisor: David Aldridge, Zoology

This is a CASE project with Wild Asia.

Brief summary: 
This project will work with a network of oil palm farmers in Peninsular Malaysia to quantify the impacts of alternative oil palm understory management practices (including traditional blanket spraying with herbicides, circular spraying around palms, and livestock grazing) on temporal fluctuations in invertebrate communities and associated ecosystem processes in oil palm.
Importance of the area of research concerned: 
Oil palm is a globally important crop, and its product, palm oil, is the major source of vegetable oil worldwide. Expansion of oil palm has come at a major cost to biodiversity, but once established oil palm plantations produce several times more oil per hectare than other major vegetable oil crops. Due to this high productivity and global coverage, identifying management options that reduce the negative environmental effects of established oil palm could have important global impacts. Malaysia is the world’s second largest producer. About 40% of national production is provided by smallholders, which often manage their farms differently from large-scale corporations, e.g., by grazing livestock in the oil palm understory. This study will focus on the impacts of alternative understory management options (intensive herbicide-spraying versus less-intensive understory management options) on the stability of communities and associated ecosystem processes in oil palm. This could represent an important aspect of oil palm management, as processes supported by biodiversity, including pollination, pest control and nutrient cycling, can impact palm oil yield.
Project summary : 
Oil palm covers ~19 million hectares worldwide, and its product, palm oil, is the most widely-used vegetable oil. Although much less biodiverse than natural habitats, oil palm can house a complex community of species, many of which support ecosystem processes. This study will work with Wild Asia (a Malaysian NGO), and Universiti Putra Malaysia, to quantify the stability of invertebrate communities and ecosystem processes over time in response to management in plantations, grown using either traditional intensive spraying practices, or alternative less-intensive practices. Results will have implications for informing the development of alternative management practices to support more stable and potentially climate-resilient agricultural systems.
What will the student do?: 
The student will assess the impacts of alternative oil palm understory management practices (blanket herbicide spraying, spot spraying, and livestock grazing) on fluctuations in invertebrate communities and associated ecosystem processes. Invertebrate surveys will focus on pest control agents, such as ants, spiders and assassin bugs; pollinators of oil palm, including the weevil Elaeidobius kamerunicus; and major pests, such as nettle caterpillars. Ecosystem processes measured will include predation, herbivory and fruit set. Oil palm management and yield will also be quantified through questionnaires and analysis of farm records. An interesting avenue for the project could be to establish small-scale management experiments. The student will work with collaborating oil palm farmers at all stages of the project to develop the methods and support more biofriendly management practices. The project will give students experience of a wide variety of ecological surveys and questionnaire-based approaches. Lab work will include identifying insect samples, adding to an existing morphospecies database of ants, as well as developing skills in analysing ecological data.
References - references should provide further reading about the project: 
Reiss-Woolever VJ, Advento AD, Aryawan AAK, Caliman J-P, Foster WA, Naim M, Pujianto, Purnomo D, Snaddon JL, Soeprapto, Suhardi, Tarigan RS, Wahyuningsih R, Rambe TDS, Sudharto Ps, Widodo RS, Luke SH, Turner EC (2023) Understory vegetation supports more abundant and diverse butterfly communities in oil palm plantations. Frontiers in Forests and Global Change, doi: 10.3389/ffgc.2023.1205744
Pashkevich, MD, Spear DM, Advento AD, Caliman J-P, Foster WA, Luke SH, Naim M, Sudharto Ps, Snaddon JL & Turner EC (2022) Spiders in canopy and ground microhabitats are robust to changes in understory vegetation management practices in mature oil palm plantations (Riau, Indonesia). Basic and Applied Ecology 64, 120-133
Ashraf M, Zulkifli R, Sanusi R, Tohiran KA, Terhem R, Moslim R, Norhisham AR, Ashton-Butt A & Azhar B (2018). Alley-cropping system can boost arthropod biodiversity and ecosystem functions in oil palm plantations. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 260, 19-26.
You can find out about applying for this project on the Department of Zoology page.