PhD Scholarship available: Sensory ecology of a resilient ancient deceiver, the Splachnaceae dung mosses

How do plant-animal interactions survive and adapt in a changing world? The extraordinary Splachnaceae mosses grow on animal carcasses and dung, and use bright colours and rotten odours to lure flies into acting as spore dispersers. Splachnaceae are generally hosted by the remains of native mammals, e.g. in Australia, they grow on dung from wombats, wallabies and Tasmanian Devils. Splachnaceae specimens have also been found with preserved mammal remains, e.g. giant Irish deer and Canadian caribou.

 In New Zealand/Aotearoa, the biota is bird dominated with no native land mammals – the Splachnaceae mosses are now hosted by introduced mammals, e.g. goats. Could Aotearoa Splachnaceae’s original hosts be extinct moa  or other herbivorous birds like takahē or putakitaki? Or seal or seabird colonies? Which insects are fooled into dispersing Aotearoa Splachnaceae? Our pilot data suggests dung beetles may be an extra courier here.

We aim to use behavioural ecology, chemical ecology, spectral modelling, paleoecology and ancient DNA to discover how these mosses mimic the scents and odours of dung to deceive spore-dispersing insects, and how they switch between bird, mammal, native and introduced hosts. The broader picture is to explore how networks can respond to introduced species and megafaunal extinctions. There is scope to develop the project to suit your interests and aspirations as you develop your career.

The successful applicant will benefit from working with established and productive researchers at the world class University of Auckland (New Zealand’s leading university) and Landcare Research/Manaaki Whenua. The student will be based at the Auckland Uni city campus, with strong links to the dynamic Ecology Ngātahi group, hosted by the Joint Graduate School for Biosecurity and Biodiversity, which has many international and NZ PhD, MSc and Hon students, with diverse research taxa and approaches, including terrestrial, marine, behaviour, conservation, entomology, ornithology, invasive species etc.

 If you are looking for a totally unique project that you can lead and make your own, a newly established study system with fantastic pilot data, a chance to work on extinct and modern species across a range of taxa (insects, birds, mammals & moss), a range of technical skills (DNA, spectral modelling, GC-MS), a welcoming and collegial postgrad environment, and great supervisors to launch you on your academic career, this could be your perfect PhD!

 Main supervisor: Dr Anne Gaskett (behavioural and sensory ecologist, specialising in plant-insect interactions, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland, New Zealand).

Cosupervisor: Dr Jamie Wood (paleoecologist and ancient DNA lab manager in the Longterm Ecology Lab, Landcare Research/Manaaki Whenua, Lincoln, New Zealand).

Location: based in Auckland, New Zealand, with fieldwork in Auckland, other parts of New Zealand and optionally Australia.

Funding: PhD scholarship providing $NZD27,000 stipend per annum for 3 to 3.5 years (includes fees). Research costs will be offset by your annual $2700 student-managed research fund, and we will provide opportunities (and support!) to apply for further travel/conference funding.

 Resources: Own desk and computer in a pleasant, collegial work environment at the University of Auckland; use of shared lab facilities (incl. microscopy, GC-MS); field first aid training provided; access to the wonderful outdoors of Aotearoa/New Zealand; living in the beautiful, multicultural harbour city of Auckland; and professional, motivated and supportive supervisors who love research and a good work-life balance.

 Essential requirements: First class Masters or Honours in ecology, evolution or animal behaviour; proven English written and spoken communication skills; experience in managing data and statistical analyses; enthusiasm and motivation; creative problem solving; ability to work independently and as part of a team; experience in leading, organising and conducting field-based research; a driver’s licence (absolutely essential for field work); enjoyment of tackling both big evolutionary questions and small natural history questions; satisfaction in making and sharing discoveries.

 Ideal but not essential requirements: peer-reviewed publications; experience in insect and moss identification, experience with basic DNA techniques (DNA extraction, PCR, sequence analysis) experience in gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and/or spectral modelling, a love of moss – or at least an interest in developing a love of moss!

 Applications: please email a letter addressing the essential and ideal requirements listed above, a 2-page CV including details of 2 referees who can be contacted, and a sample of your writing (ideally the introduction to your Hons or MSc thesis) to Dr Anne Gaskett (a.gaskett@auckland.ac.nz). Applications close Mon 13 August 2017.

Start date: negotiable, but ideally before Dec 2017

Duration: 3 – 3.5 years

All applicants meeting the criteria are encouraged to apply. The University of Auckland is committed to meeting its obligations under Te Tiriti o Waitangi and achieving equity outcomes for staff and students.

More references:

Marino et al. (2009) The ecology and evolution of fly dispersed dung mosses (Family Splachnaceae): Manipulating insect behaviour through odour and visual cues. Symbiosis 47: 61–76.

Wood and Wilmshurst (2017) Changes in New Zealand forest plant communities following the prehistoric extinction of avian megaherbivores. J Veg Sci, 28: 160–171.

Wood (2008). Moa (Aves: Dinornithiformes) nesting material from rockshelters in the semi‐arid interior of South Island, New Zealand. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 38(3), 115-129.

Wood et al. (2013). Resolving lost herbivore community structure using coprolites of four sympatric moa species (Aves: Dinornithiformes). Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 110(42), 16910-16915.

Jofre et al. (2011) First evidence of insect attraction by a Southern Hemisphere Splachnaceae: The case of Tayloria dubyi in the Reserve Biosphere Cape Horn, Chile. Nova Hedwigia. 92(3-4): 317-326.

Koponen A. 1990. Entomophily in the Splachnaceae. Botanical Journal of the Linnaean Society 104: 115–127.