I have several PhD projects available for students who are interested in doing a PhD in the field of evolutionary ecology. My research encompasses several research fields broadly linked by my interests in explaining the evolution of diversity. They cover three main fields: i) the evolution of chemical diversity in insects and plants, ii) the evolution of morphological and macroecological diversity in birds, iii) insect evolutionary and behavioural ecology. The projects would suit students with interests in behaviour, evolution, communication and chemical ecology and who had backgrounds in zoology, botany, evolutionary biology and ecology.

Specific projects on offer:

The evolution of insect pheromone diversity

Pheromones are chemical signals whose composition varies enormously between species. Despite being a nearly ubiquitous form of communication, particularly among insects, we still know relatively little about how this diversity has arisen. Previous studies have related differences in pheromone composition among species to their phylogeny and found that behavioural function in part determines the mode of evolution, with species recognition signals typically exhibiting large changes in composition at speciation events. However, the overall picture remains remarkably poorly understood. Does environment help select for differences in chemical signals? Does overlap with other closely-related sympatric species drive divergence in signals? To answer these we need more studies identifying chemical profiles of clades of closely related species, which need to be then related to their phylogenies. The opportunity exists for the student to test these questions with a number of insect taxa and pheromone types, for example trail pheromone in ants, sex pheromones in moths, and recognition pheromones in social insects.

Related references:

Symonds & Elgar (2008) Trends in Ecology and Evolution 23: 220-228

Van Wilgenburg, Symonds & Elgar (2011) Journal of Evolutionary Biology 24: 1188-1198

Symonds, Moussalli & Elgar (2009) Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 97: 594-603

The evolution of harem polygyny in insects

With Dr Greg Holwell (University of Auckland)

Harem polygyny is a mating system where individual males monopolise access to groups of females either by defending a resource that the females require, or by directly preventing other males from mating with those females. Whilst well studied examples of harem polygyny are found in vertebrates including elephant seals, gorillas and zebras, this mating system also occurs among a diverse range of insects including some bees, beetles, bugs, crickets, flies, thrips and dragonflies. As a mating system, harem polygyny poses a number of interesting questions as to how and why it has evolved across so many diverse insects. Are there specific ecologies that favour the evolution of this mating system? What are the consequences for sexual selection on males and females? Why do females join harems? What determines harem size? We shall address these questions, and others, using a comparative analysis across insects and experimentally by focussing on two very different harem polygynous insect species found in Australia and New Zealand: the bark beetle Ips grandicollis, and the weta, Hemideina thoracica.

Related references:

Latty, Magrath & Symonds (2009) Ecological Entomology 34: 562-568

Symonds, Magrath & Latty (2012) Journal of Insect Behavior 25: 401-407

Climate, Allen’s rule and the evolution of bird beaks – a global perspective

Climate influences many aspects of animal biology and diversity, including their body shape. Theory suggests that appendages such as legs, tails, ears etc., will be smaller in animals living in colder environments in order to reduce heat loss (a pattern known as Allen’s rule). In birds, beaks and legs play an underappreciated, but vital, role in regulating body temperature, and there is evidence that the size of both varies with climatic gradients. This project will conduct a global examination of the geographic patterns of inter- and intra- specific variation in the size and shape of bird beaks and bird legs in order to answer the question “Are there global patterns in bird appendage size and are they related climate?” Using comparative morphological, ecological and phylogenetic data, the project will assess whether certain bird lineages exhibit stronger climatic effects on appendage size, and if so, determine what are the ecological attributes (e.g. resource use, habitat, life history) of these lineages that make them more susceptible to these effects.

Related reference:

Symonds & Tattersall (2010) American Naturalist 176: 188-197

Prospective students will need to apply for an Australian Postgraduate Award scholarships through Deakin University. The deadline for domestic (Australian and New Zealand) students is 31st October and for international students it is 31st  July. Applicants for the PhD program must have a first class honours or master’s degree and a good academic record. Other evidence of research experience and output is advantageous. If you are interested in joining my lab, please send me an email expression of interest, explaining your background research interests and including a CV complete with academic transcripts and the names of two referees.

Dr. Matthew Symonds matthew.symonds@deakin.edu.au

Webpage: http://www.deakin.edu.au/sebe/les/staff/symondsm/

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