PhD studentship opportunities

We're proud to help train the next generation of conservation scientists.

We currently have two funded PhD studentship opportunities available, see details below.

Environmental change and the conservation of mega-herbivores in sub-Saharan Africa protected areas

Supervisory team

Dr. Susanne Shultz, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences. Dr. Shultz’s research focuses on understanding how species respond to environmental change.

Professor David Polya, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences. Prof. Polya’s research focuses on environmental geochemistry, particularlyanalytical chemistry of waters and soils and modelling exposure and health impacts.

Dr Angela Harris, School of Environment, Education and Development.Dr. Harris’ researchinvolves using remote sensing to understand environmental change.

Primary contact: Dr Susanne Shultz;

External Supervisor: Dr Sue Walker, Head of Applied Science, Chester Zoo


Humans have directly or indirectly changed all, or nearly all, ecosystems on the planet. Resource extraction, encroachment, competition with livestock and illegal hunting all impact on the resilience of natural populations and ecosystems both within and outside protected areas. Indirect effects such as climate change, biases in protected area distributions and changes to the water budget also impact on ecosystem resilience. 

Sub-Saharan Africa is a region particularly vulnerable to environmental change, with much of this region already suffering from water scarcity. Human activity has a substantial impact on water dynamics through extraction, canalisation, and climate change. Changes in water budgets have consequences for ecosystem functioning and health with arid and semi-arid regions the most likely to be affected. This is especially true in Sub-Saharan Africa where access to food and water is essential to address pressing issues of poverty, public health and desertification. Rainfall across the region is expected to become more unpredictable and drought more common (Dore 2005). Moreover, there are feedbacks between wildlife abundance and soil and water acidification, microbiological contamination of water sources, and soil mineral content in sub-Saharan African ecosystems (Strauch 2013). 

Mega-herbivores are likely to be disproportionately affected by changes in resources and water budgets. Globally, 60% of mega-herbivores currently face extinction and 58% are experiencing population declines (Ripple et al 2015). African savannahs are home to the planet’s highest diversity of mega-herbivores. Their removal will lead to cascading effects on ecological processes and ecosystem services (Foster et al 2014). The primary threats to mega-herbivores are range collapse, poaching and competition with livestock. However, there is compelling evidence that the amount, quality and distribution of surface water is also of key importance (Ogutu et al 2014; Lea et al in review). Documenting the impacts of environmental change is essential for predicting future impacts of climate change, the optimal management of species and populations and providing recommendations for resource and protected area management.

Project Summary

To evaluate spatial and temporal patterns of environmental change in protected areas, this project will have two main objectives. First, the student will develop spatial and temporal models of surface water, soil moisture and above ground biomass change using remote Landsat images over the past thirty years. Second, the student will sample soil and water across protected areas to evaluate spatial and temporal patterns of acidification, as well as trace element, organic matter and microbiology composition. 

Research questions

  1. Are there long-term trends in soil moisture and surface water availability in East and South African protected areas? Has seasonality or unpredictability of these measures increased over time?
  2. How is soil chemistry and water dynamics associated with mega-herbivore abundance and population performance across protected areas? 

The student will be involved with a larger team working on conservation projects understanding variation in population performance in mega-herbivores (zebra, black rhinos, elephants and bongos) across Southern and Eastern Africa. 

The student will investigate the potential relationships between water quality and availability as well as soil moisture and chemistry with mega-herbivore population characteristics.


Dore, M. H. (2005). Climate change and changes in global precipitation patterns: what do we know?. Environment international, 31(8), 1167-1181. 

Foster, C. N., Barton, P. S., & Lindenmayer, D. B. (2014). Effects of large native herbivores on other animals. Journal of Applied Ecology, 51(4), 929-938. 

Ogutu, J. O., Reid, R. S., Piepho, H. P., Hobbs, N. T., Rainy, M. E., Kruska, R. L., ... & Nyabenge, M. (2014). Large herbivore responses to surface water and land use in an East African savanna: implications for conservation and human-wildlife conflicts. Biodiversity and conservation, 23(3), 573-596. 

Ripple, W. J., Newsome, T. M., Wolf, C., Dirzo, R., Everatt, K. T., Galetti, M., ... & Macdonald, D. W. (2015). Collapse of the world’s largest herbivores. Science Advances, 1(4), e1400103.

Strauch, A. M. (2013). Interactions between soil, rainfall, and wildlife drive surface water quality across a savanna ecosystem. Ecohydrology, 6(1), 94-103.

Relevant publications from supervisory team

Elisa, M., Shultz, S, and White, K.. "Impact of surface water extraction on water quality and ecological integrity in Arusha National Park, Tanzania." African Journal of Ecology 54.2 (2016): 174-182.

Lea, J., Kerley, Hrbar, H., G., Shultz, S (in review) Recognition and management of ecological refugees: a case study of the Cape mountain zebra.

Salido, L., Purse, B. V., Marrs, R., Chamberlain, D. E., & Shultz, S. (2012). Flexibility in phenology and habitat use act as buffers to longā€term population declines in UK passerines. Ecography, 35(7), 604-613.

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How do mating traits evolve during ex situ conservation, and should we care?

Human appropriation of land and resources is reducing the habitat available to non-human species. As a result, many species are now being conserved ex situ. In such cases, natural phenotypes and diversity must be maintained in captive populations to allow for potential rewilding in the future. Much attention has been paid to the conservation of genotypes and genetic diversity, but heritable behaviours can also evolve in captivity, and the conservation of behaviours has received relatively little attention. 

Birdsong is one behaviour that can evolve in captivity. For example, the Bengalese finch is a domesticated variant of the white-rumped munia, and during domestication its song has become more complex than that of its wild ancestor. Because of its role in mate recognition, birdsong is of particular importance to conservation practitioners. If the songs of captive and wild populations diverge until the animals cannot recognise each other as mates, it may be impossible to supplement wild populations with releases from captivity.

In addition, if songs diverge among captive populations, it may be difficult to maintain genetic diversity by transferring animals among ex situ conservation facilities.

The Java sparrow is a congener of the Bengalese finch and is a species of conservation concern. A formal ex-situ conservation programme for the species is being developed. Despite its close relationship to the Bengalese finch, nothing is known about how captivity affects the song of the Java sparrow. Thus, population managers do not know whether they should be concerned about song conservation in this species. Moreover, if song conservation is important, practitioners lack evidence-based tools for achieving it.

In this project, we aim to i) understand how and why Bengalese finch song has evolved in captivity, ii) assess whether Java sparrow song is also affected by captivity, and iii) evaluate strategies for maintaining wild-type birdsong in captive populations.

The student will:

  1. Use molecular approaches to reconstruct the population history of the Bengalese finch in captivity. This will help us to understand when and how Benaglese finch song diverged from that of its wild ancestor.
  2. Assess whether song has diverged among Bengalese finch populations in North America, Europe, and Asia. This will help us to understand whether songs have evolved due to drift, or whether similar selective pressures drive song evolution in different captive populations.
  3. Use mate choice trials to determine whether divergence among Bengalese finch populations, and between Bengalese finch and white-rumped munia populations, is sufficient to inhibit mating and influence gene flow.
  4. Assess whether song has diverged among native, captive, and introduced populations of Java sparrows. If divergence has occurred, assess whether this is sufficient to inhibit gene flow between populations.
  5. Design and assess husbandry practices to slow or reverse song divergence in captive populations of estrildid finches.

The student in this project will receive training in modern molecular genetic approaches for analysing population history (e.g., whole mtDNA sequencing or haplotype sharing), statistical approaches for assessing similarity and divergence between birdsongs, mate choice trials and behavioural assays, and birdsong recording in the field and in the lab.

The project will be a CASE partnership with Chester Zoo. The supervisory team will include Tucker Gilman and Susanne Shutlz (University of Manchester), Leah Williams (Chester Zoo), and Jakob Bro-Jorgenson (University of Liverpool). 

For more information, email

Apply on the link below by 18 January 2017.

Apply here

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