PhD Opportunity: How does deforestation impact orangutan diet and health?: A metagenomic approach
Supervisors: Dr Jason Hodgson ([email protected]) and Dr Robert Ewers (Life Sciences)
Department: Life Sciences
The Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) is currently critically endangered (IUCN Red List) and their primary threat is loss of habitat due to deforestation and land conversion for oil palm cultivation. Preservation of this iconic ape is a conservation priority because: 1) they are one-of-a-kind arboreal, large-bodied, highly intelligent, solitary apes, 2) they are closely related to humans, and understanding their biology gives insight into our own evolution, 3) they provide important ecosystem services as long distance seed dispersers for many trees, and 4) they are a highly charismatic species that garners international media attention and fosters motivation for preserving the entirety of their ecosystem. The forested area of Borneo has declined by more than 30% since 1973, with timber extraction and oil palm conversion being the primary drivers. The result is a range of habitat types including primary, unlogged old growth forest, logged forest, secondary forest, and oil palm plantation, with varying amounts of fragmentation between types. Understanding how orangutans alter their diets and ranging behaviour in response to these ecological disturbances will be paramount to informing effective conservation strategies as well as predicting the habitat types that can sustain viable populations. Also, deforestation and habitat change may have important health implications for orangutans and the local humans by bringing the two populations into closer association. Because of the close evolutionary relationship between orangutans and humans, they are able to share and transmit many of the same parasites, including malaria and gut worms.
This PhD project will quantify habitat-related differences in orangutan diet and health using the SAFE Project forest fragmentation experiment in Malaysian Borneo, and a metagenomic approach to dietary and parasite load quantification. The SAFE Projecting is one of the world’s largest ecological experiments, incorporating spatially controlled deforestation and fragmentation. The student will develop a systematic approach to locating orangutans at SAFE, and follow them throughout the day, recording their daily paths, and collecting faeces. Diet and parasite presence will be quantified using a metabarcoding DNA sequencing approach from DNA extracted from orangutan faeces.
The project will address the following five objectives:
Objective 1: Quantify the daily and seasonal ranging behaviour of orangutans, and determine how they vary with respect to forest disturbance.
Objective 2: Quantify orangutan abundance and determine how it varies with respect to forest disturbance.
Objective 3: Quantify orangutan dietary breadth and composition and determine how it varies with respect to forest disturbance.
Objective 4: Quantify orangutan parasite load and determine how it varies with respect to forest disturbance.
Objective 5: Model the effects of deforestation on orangutan ecology in order to predict ‘orangutan friendly’ deforestation patterns.
To apply for this PhD opportunity, please send a CV and cover letter to the project supervisor, Dr Jason Hodgson ([email protected]). The deadline for applications is 16 January 2017.