Understanding the interplay between the gut microbiome, behaviour and urbanisation in wild birds


Understanding the interplay between the gut microbiome, behaviour and urbanisation in wild birds


Project Description


Dr Gabrielle L Davidson (University of East Anglia, School of Biological Sciences) – Contact me

Professor David S Richardson, University of East Anglia, Biological Sciences

Professor Jenny Gill, University of East Anglia,  Biological Science


Project background

Behaviour facilitates rapid, flexible responses to environmental change. Despite accumulating evidence that intestinal microbiota communities and their genes (the gut microbiome) have beneficial effects on host behaviour, our understanding of these mechanisms operating in wild animals is sorely lacking. What are the consequences of gut microbiome variation for behavioural responses to anthropogenic activities? And how does urbanisation shape wild animal gut microbiomes?

The UK’s largest new town developments (Northstowe, New Waterbeach) are in East Anglia, and you will address the urgent and timely hypothesis that rural bird gut microbiomes may limit or facilitate behavioural responses to urbanisation.

Research methodology

You will combine research with wild great tit (Parus major) populations, and citizen science-based bird monitoring. You will collect faecal samples from birds in the wild, fit birds with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags and measure their behaviour using RFID feeders. You will pioneer a novel and practical monitoring program to collect wildlife faecal samples through citizen science with access to the British Trust for Ornithology’s (BTO) exceptional Garden BirdWatch scheme. You will perform 16S rRNA sequencing paired with metabolic functional analyses to unpick microbiome-host behaviour relationships.

The following objectives will be prioritised and developed according to your interests:

1)         Quantify gut microbiome variation between urban and rural populations.

2)         Assess whether the gut microbiome predicts behaviours associated with urban success (e.g. behavioural flexibility and boldness).

3)         Determine the gut microbiome’s role in facilitating or limiting individual acclimation to newly developed urban environments.


You will join a dynamic, supportive research environment at UEA and collaborate with members of the BTO. You will develop conceptual understanding and critical thinking in cognitive ecology, molecular ecology and conservation. You will gain a range of interdisciplinary research skills including fieldwork, molecular biology, bioinformatics (DADA2, PICRUSt) and statistical analyses (e.g. modelling in R software), writing and oral presentation. You will engage closely with citizen participants, thus enhancing communication skills with the public and stakeholders. Training to increase transferable skills and enhance employability will also be provided.

Person specification

Degree in Biology/Zoology/related field with fieldwork, molecular and/or analytical experience and a UK driving licence desirable.


  • Davidson, GL, Raulo, A, Knowles, SCL (2020) Identifying microbiome-mediated behaviour in wild vertebrates. Trends in Ecology and Evolution. 35:11, 972-980
  • Davidson, GL, Wiley, N, Cooke, AC, Johnson, CN, Fouhy, F, Reichert, MS, de la Hera, I, Crane, JMS, Kulahci, IG, Ross PR, Stanton, C, Quinn, JL (2020) Diet induces parallel changes to the gut microbiota and problem solving performance in a wild bird. Scientific Reports. 10, 20783
  • Davidson, GL, Somers, SE, Wiley, N, Johnson, CN, Reichert, MS, Ross, RP, Stanton, C, Quinn JL. (2021) A time-lagged association between the gut microbiome, nestling growth and nestling survival in wild great tits. Journal of Animal Ecology. 90:989–1003
  • Worsley, S.F., Davies, C.S., Mannarelli, ME., Hutchings, MI, Komdeur, J., Burke, T, Dugdale, HL, Richardson, DS. (2020) Gut microbiome composition, not alpha diversity, is associated with survival in a natural vertebrate population. Animal Microbiome. 3, 84.
  • Maraci, Ö., Corsini, M., Antonatou-Papaioannou, A. et al. (2022) Changes to the gut microbiota of a wild juvenile passerine in a multidimensional urban mosaic. Sci Rep 12, 6872

Key Information

  • This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC DTP and will start on 1st October 2023. The closing date for applications is 23:59 on 11th January 2023.
  • Successful candidates who meet UKRI’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship, which covers fees, stipend (£17,668 p.a. for 2022/23) and research funding. International applicants are eligible for fully-funded ARIES studentships including fees. Please note however that ARIES funding does not cover additional costs associated with relocation to, and living in, the UK.
  • ARIES students benefit from bespoke graduate training and ARIES provides £2,500 to every student for access to external training, travel and conferences, on top of all Research Costs associated with the project. Excellent applicants from quantitative disciplines with limited experience in environmental sciences may be considered for an additional 3-month stipend to take advanced-level courses.
  • ARIES is committed to equality, diversity, widening participation and inclusion in all areas of its operation. We encourage enquiries and applications from all sections of the community regardless of gender, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation and transgender status. Academic qualifications are considered alongside non-academic experience, and our recruitment process considers potential with the same weighting as past experience.
  • All ARIES studentships may be undertaken on a part-time or full-time basis, visa requirements notwithstanding
  • For further information, please contact the supervisor. To apply for this Studentship follow the instructions at the bottom of the page or click the 'apply now' link.
  • ARIES is required by our funders to collect Equality and Diversity Information from all of our applicants. The information you provide will be used solely for monitoring and statistical purposes; it will remain confidential, and will be stored on the UEA sharepoint server. Data will not be shared with those involved in making decisions on the award of Studentships, and will have no influence on the success of your application. It will only be shared outside of this group in an anonymised and aggregated form. You will be ask to complete the form by the University to which you apply.

Applications are open

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