This page lists a series of proposed terrestrial and marine PhD thesis topics which we are particularly keen to instigate at our research sites. They relate to field sites and taxa which we believe have particular potential for producing novel, high quality research outputs.

Operation Wallacea is keen to talk with potential candidates and prospective supervisors for these proposed projects, with the goal of starting these PhDs in the very near future.

Operation Wallacea will be providing field logistics, on-site living costs, in-field medical support and local field guides for each of these PhD projects. In exchange the PhD student would be expected to involve small groups of students in their field work and explain to them why the surveys are being completed and how the monitoring techniques work. Funding from the tuition fees paid by the students is what supports this programme. If you are a potential supervisor for one of these co-funded PhD studentships and have available grants or want to use the co-funding opportunity to apply for grants, then please email research@opwall.com with your proposals.



Soundscape monitoring of the hyper-diverse bird community of Iwokrama Forest, Guyana

Iwokrama Forest, Guyana

Birds are a frequently chosen group for monitoring in tropical forests as they are relatively straight-forward and cost-effective to sample and can act as powerful ecological indicators for other, more cryptic, taxa in these ecosystems. Historically the standard methodology used to monitor bird communities in the tropics has been manned point counts. This involves observers walking a fixed transect each morning, stopping at regularly placed point count stations, and counting all birds seen and heard within a fixed radius and time limit. This methodology has been shown to work well in some tropical forests, although becomes severely limited in forests with very high species richness as observer bias becomes a major limiting factor. Even the most experienced ornithologists will not be able to accurately record every call from every species on every occasion in these hyper-rich ecosystems, and as such the quality of data from manned point counts within them can become unreliable. Scientists are thus beginning to develop alternative, automated methods for monitoring birds in these forests, soundscaping methodologies being foremost amongst them.

Soundscaping involves the use of electronic sound recording devices connected to powerful omi-directional microphones to collect and store bird calls (and potentially calls from other wildlife) which can then be extracted and analysed under laboratory conditions. This may circumvent the issue of observer bias and improve the utility of bird demographic data for providing useful monitoring information. However soundscape methodological testing remains in its infancy in tropical forest ecosystems and further experimentation and analyses of quantitative datasets are required to standardise survey protocols and prove their scientific value.

This PhD will be undertaken in the Iwokrama forest of Guyana – a hyper rich lowland forest ecosystem with over 500 bird species recorded to date. Research will involve developing a full methodological survey protocol using soundscaping devices (e.g Wildlife Acoustic SM3 recorders), including field placement, data extracting and analysis (potentially using programmes such as Ravensoftware), and comparing results with data from other survey methods to set their value in context. The goal will be to produce a rigorous survey strategy, the design of which is supported by empirical evidence, which can act as a template for soundscape survey methodologies throughout the tropics.

Diversity and distribution of bat communities in the Guiana shield; perspectives from two different methodological approaches

Iwokrama Forest, Guyana

Tropical forests represent both the most diverse and also one of the most threatened terrestrial ecosystems on the planet. Despite the global importance of their biodiversity, and the urgency of the threats they face, these tropical forest ecosystems also remain comparatively poorly studied compared to temperate regions. This is largely due to the lack of available economic resources and appropriate scientific expertise inherent in most tropical countries, which in turn limits the extent of field survey work completed within them.

One means of mitigating this issue is the development of remote survey techniques which can collect biological data across large spatial and temporal scales without requiring large investment of person survey hours. These methods also allow data to be analysed under laboratory conditions which can greatly improve its quality compared to data collected in the field.

Effective remote survey methodologies have been developed in recent years for terrestrial mammals in the form of camera trapping, and for birds and amphibians in the form of remote acoustical sampling. However, insufficient work has been completed examining how effective remote sampling techniques can be for sampling bat communities – an important research gap given bats represent an important ‘keystone taxa’ in most tropical ecosystems.

This PhD will attempt to address this research gap. It will be completed in the Iwokrama forest of Guyana – a vast expanse of lowland neotropical forest supporting a diverse bat community – over 80 species are known to occur here. The project will seek to design an effective survey protocol using remote survey devices (principally SM3 recording devices with built-in omni-directional microphones) and acoustical sampling software (principally sonobat). The researcher will test the effectiveness of this survey protocol by completing traditional live trapping at the same sites as the remote sampling recordings, and compare species detection rates alongside assessments of financial and survey effort costs. Survey sites will also be distributed between undisturbed and logged forest areas, allowing for an assessment of how well remote survey techniques can gauge responses of bat communities to anthropogenic disturbance, and use these results to provide priority conservation recommendations for the Iwokrama forest.

The influence of disturbance and altitudinal gradients on bat community composition in a Mesoamerican cloud forest

Cusuco National Park, Honduras

Bats represent a vitally important ‘keystone’ taxon in tropical forest ecosystems, fulfilling roles as prominent seed dispersers and predators. They also act as effective ecological indicators. This is firstly because they are relatively straight-forward and inexpensive to sample, and secondly because their central trophic positions within food webs mean changes in their community compositions often reflective changes in other, more cryptic taxonomical groups.

Despite their ecological and utilitarian importance, bat communities remain poorly studied throughout the tropics, especially in comparison to other vertebrate groups such as birds and large non-volant mammals. This is especially true in Mesoamerican cloud forest; an endemic-rich ecosystem that supports highly diverse bat communities. Basic ecological interactions of bat communities in these forests, such as relationships between anthropogenic disturbance and community structure and richness, remain virtually unexplored; a critically important research gap given these cloud forests are being rapidly destroyed and degraded by human activity. An improved understanding of the responses of bat communities to this disturbance, along with defining relationships of inter-related factors such as altitudinal gradients, would allow for more effective conservation strategies to preserve cloud forest bat communities.

This PhD will be undertaken in Cusuco National Park, north-western Honduras; a cloud forest ecosystem known to support a diverse bat community; a total of 60 species have been recorded here to date. The researcher will develop a multi-methods survey protocol using live trapping and acoustical sampling methods to sample bat community composition at multiple study sites encompassing a range of disturbance categories and altitudinal bands. Trapping methodologies will involve mist netting and possibly harp traps, while acoustical sampling could involve a number of different options, including anabat detectors and/or SM4 recording devices. Acoustical sampling would be sampled using Sonobat software. The goal of the study would be to determine how cloud forest bat communities respond to increasing anthropogenic disturbance (isolating the influence of altitude as a covariate) and use these findings to recommend priority conservation zones within the borders of Cusuco National park.

Biogeography and Conservation of the beetle fauna of Aegean island archipelago

Northeast Aegean islands & Dodecanese islands, Aegean Sea (Greece)

Beetles (Coleoptera) are the largest order of animals. They inhabit almost every terrestrial and freshwater ecosystem. Beetles are an ancient lineage of insects and are widely represented in the fossil records. Studies suggest that the Jurassic was the period of intense diversification of beetles into families and subfamilies however most recent genera are documented in Baltic amber samples from the Eocene era. Due to their high taxonomic and ecological diversity, beetles are one of the best model groups for the evolutionary and biogeographic studies, especially those of islands, defined as ‘natural laboratories’.

The Aegean archipelago is one of the largest continental island groups in the world. It is located in the Northeaster part of the Mediterranean, on the intersection of the Eurasian, Asian and African continental plates. The Aegean islands are home to a unique and diverse terrestrial biota. These islands have a long and varied geological history, the geographical isolation of populations across the archipelago can result in the rapid development of novel traits and ultimately, speciation phenomena.

Data collected on beetles could shed light onto the many unresolved issues of the biogeography and ecology of Aegean island archipelago. There have been a number of previous studies focused on the taxonomy of beetles in this region. Therefore there is a foundation for a more in-depth biogeographic study using just a few beetle species.

This project proposes to study the phylogeography of the beetles of the Dodecanese and North-Eastern Aegean islands, using innovative molecular techniques and morphological phylogenies for selected lineages, with special attention to endemic species. Additionally, to identify species that ought to be the target of conservation efforts, and revise the IUCN red list accordingly (IUCN, 1996). Ultimately, we hope to increase scientific and public awareness about the habitats home to beetle fauna, in so doing we hope to greater conserve these delicate populations.

All the field funding will be kindly provided by Operation Wallacea in collaboration with Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation, which will host the project and provide local expertise and support.

Population distribution and viability of the endangered Golden Jackal

Samos Island, Greece

The Golden Jackal (Canis aureus) is the most endangered canid in Greece. Samos Island contains one of the few remaining populations in the entire country and the only remaining island population in the Mediterranean. Some of the major threats to the Jackal population include habitat loss due to urbanisation, mortality as a result of traffic collisions, hunting and poisoning. In order to conserve the remaining population, data is required about the population size and distribution.

To date, researchers at the Archipelagos Institute have used acoustic surveys to estimate the population size and to assess the impacts of anthropogenic disturbance on the home range and activities of the jackal population. In 2015, Operation Wallacea began work with the Archipelagos Institute, based in Samos, to expand the current work. Surveys will be extended to areas of the island that have previously not been surveyed and radio tracking collars will be used to monitor the activity patterns of individual animals. The aim is to determine the jackal population size, home range patterns, social structure and whether there is a genetically viable population. The data will allow us to identify the ecosystems in which viable populations may persist and help us to identify the anthropogenic activities that are the greatest threat to the population. The work will provide data that can be used to develop appropriate management plans for conservation of the jackal population on Samos Island. Funding for field research will be provided by Operation Wallacea in collaboration with Archipelagos Institute, which will host the project and provide local support.

Mapping the distribution of sea grass beds in the Aegean and quantifying their value as fish nurseries.

Samos Island, Greece

Sea grasses are underwater flowering plants that are distributed across the globe. They often occur in vast meadows and provide nurseries, shelter, and food for a variety of commercially, recreationally, and ecologically important species (e.g., fish, sea turtles, crustaceans). They also protect shorelines from coastal erosion and they may play a key role in reducing the impacts of climate change because they are regarded as a net global sink for carbon.

Due to their shallow coastal habitat they are particularly threatened by numerous anthropogenic impacts. Stressors such as physical disturbance, invasive species, commercial fishing practices and global warming have caused sea grass declines. Currently there are no functioning sea grass restoration or conservation projects in the world.

In the Mediterranean, Posidonia sea grass beds form extensive meadows from the intertidal zone to depths of around 50-60m and have a fundamental role in the health and productivity of the marine ecosystems. The north-east Mediterranean still supports extensive areas of Posidonia meadows, however in the western region sea grass beds have been damaged or destroyed, mostly as a result of urbanisation of coastal areas. In the Greek seas, sea grasses are an important conservation priority, however there are currently no conservation or protection measures in place.

In 2014 a series of monitoring sites were established in the marine environment around Samos and Lipsi Islands to collect preliminary data on the sea grass habitat and associated fish species. Operation Wallacea are now seeking to expand this work via a PhD studentship, with the ultimate aim of mapping the sea grass beds and quantifying their value as fish nurseries and habitat. Surveys will record the size and distribution of sea grass habitats around five islands (Samos, Arki, Lipsi, Foyrni and Ikaria). In addition data will be collected about native and non-native fish diversity, abundance and biomass and the presence of invasive algal species. Funding for the field research will be provided by Operation Wallacea in collaboration with Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation, which will host the project and provide local expertise and support.

More details regarding this project will be added in the near future.