Wood ants on the move: impacts of land-use on species range expansion

Supervisor:  Dr Elva Robinson  (Biology)

Co-Supervisors:   Dr Kate Parr (Liverpool) & Dr Kevin Watts (Forest Research) & Professor Justin Travis (Aberdeen)

Project description:  

We are looking for an enthusiastic and ambitious student to develop an exciting project that will combine field data, ecological modelling and stakeholder engagement to improve the management of UK woodlands for key elements of biodiversity. The ideal candidate will enjoy interacting with academics and stakeholders from a range of backgrounds and want to apply their scientific training to an important applied question.

Forestry, mainly plantations, occupies 13% of British land area. Forests offer key habitat for woodland species; however, maintaining biodiversity alongside timber production can be challenging. The fragmentation of British woodlands adds further challenges, particularly for locally dispersing habitat specialists, e.g. wood ants (Formica rufa group). These species, threatened across Europe, are key components of woodland ecosystems. Recent work indicates wood ant populations in the North York Moors are expanding from ancient woodland into plantations. This expansion could potentially defragment populations; however, these ants disperse primarily locally, making spread slow and strongly influenced by local habitat. This project will use the expanding populations to study the dynamics of movement into new habitat.

Detailed forest habitat data will be combined with ant mapping data, including 3 years’ expansion at population margins. These data will be used to create and parameterise an individual based model predicting expansion patterns. New field data on further expansion will be collected and used to test prediction accuracy. The results will be used to identify the best forest management strategies (planting/ harvesting designs) to promote the dispersal of this woodland specialist. The primary focus of this project is theoretical modelling; however, there is a significant field work component.


a) To predict the spread into new habitat of a woodland specialist
¬Specifically to model:
i. The effect of habitat properties on speed of spread
ii. The roles of short- and long-range dispersal and their interaction with habitat structure
b) To provide advice for forest managers regarding ecological impact of management activities

Applications and benefits

The student will receive thorough postgraduate training supported by a multidisciplinary team of supervisors with strong research backgrounds and experience in postgraduate supervision. The student will gain ecological research skills including: spatial analysis methods; individual-based modelling; empirical field techniques. This study will provide novel data on dispersal processes in woodland species: it will benefit the academic ecology/evolution communities, policy-makers and forest managers. The CASE partnership with Forest Research, part of the Forestry Commission (FC) will provide direct routes for dissemination of relevant findings to forestry practitioners.

Funding:  This is a NERC ACCE studentship fully funded for 3.5 years and covers: (i) a tax-free stipend at the standard Research Council rate (£14,296 for 2016-2017, to be confirmed for 2017-2018), (ii) research costs, and (iii) tuition fees at the UK/EU rate.

The studentship is available to UK and EU students who meet the UK residency requirements. 

We strongly encourage you to email the project supervisor prior to submitting an application to discuss your suitability for this project.  Please email: elva.robinson@york.ac.uk

Please read the 'How to apply' tab before submitting your application.

CLOSING DATE FOR APPLICATIONS:  23h59min on Monday 9 January 2017