Project highlights

  • Developing a new set of geochemical and molecular tools for animal dietary reconstruction and conservation biology
  • Interdisciplinary non-invasive research on captive lemurs with an international team of experts including organic geochemists, modern ecologists, and animal welfare scientists
  • Research visit to the Twycross Zoo and (Covid-19 permitting) potential for research visits to the Duke Lemur Center and/or fieldwork in Madagascar

Overview

Lemurs are critically endangered primates endemic to Madagascar, a biodiversity hotspot facing rapid deforestation and climate change. A fuller understanding of lemur diets and dietary flexibility is critical for lemur conservation efforts in Madagascar and for husbandry efforts in zoos worldwide. However the logistical and temporal demands of wildlife monitoring often preclude the collection of dietary data across populations, species, and environments. Faeces are an obvious target to rapidly reconstruct the diets of wild lemurs across myriad habitats and seasons relative to foodstuff availability.

Biomarkers, carbon-based molecular compounds derived from living organisms, are preserved in the sedimentary rock record and used by geologists to explore past climates and reconstruct terrestrial vegetation and ecosystems. The biomarkers used to probe the geologic past survive millions of years in the rock record because they are resistant to degradation. The same resistance to degradation makes these biomarkers ideally suited to survive digestion and be recovered from faeces or coprolites (fossilized faeces) to reconstruct aspects of animal diets and digestion.

In this project you will interrogate organic biomarkers and DNA in the faeces of captive lemurs from the Duke Lemur Center (DLC). At the DLC, lemurs live in multiacre forested enclosures in which they readily forage on local vegetation. By sampling faeces from captive individuals consuming provisioned or naturally foraged diets, you will determine which dietary aspects can be fingerprinted using faecal biomarkers. You will also have the opportunity work alongside Twycross Zoo staff on projects that are aligned with the Zoo’s conservation objectives, shadowing zoo staff and undertaking a complementary zoo-based project on animal behaviour, conservation, education or sustainability. Covid-19 permitting, research visits to (1) the DLC to undertake a dietary manipulation in captive lemurs and to (2) Madagascar to apply this work to wild lemurs are both possible. International work would occur in conjunction with collaborators from Duke University in the USA and the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar.

Conservation biology could benefit from greater integration of geochemical approaches. The toolkit developed in this project could pave the way for new methods to probe the diets of many other vulnerable species.

Host

University of Birmingham

Theme

  • Climate and Environmental Sustainability
  • Organisms and Ecosystems

Supervisors

Project investigator

  • Sarah Greene, University of Birmingham

Co-investigators

  • James Bendle, University of Birmingham
  • Lydia Greene, Duke Lemur Center/Duke University
  • Fiona Gill, University of Leeds
  • Jessica Rendle, Twycross Zoo

How to apply

Methodology

This interdisciplinary project provides wide-ranging training opportunities across multiple fields. You will work alongside a growing group of organic geochemistry PhD students at the University of Birmingham. The primary methodology employed is organic geochemistry lab work, including extraction of samples, column chromatography, gas chromatography, mass spectrometry, and possibly isotope ratio mass spectrometry. Complementary DNA analysis will be used to explore the influence of lemur gut bacteria on biomarker signatures. Depending on how the Covid-19 pandemic unfolds and the interests of the student, you will also have the opportunity to undertake fieldwork and visit/train with modern ecologists at the Duke Lemur Center and/or in Madagascar. Non-invasive field-based techniques would include animal identification, observation and documentation of feeding behaviour, and faecal sample collection, preservation, and processing. From generated geochemical data, you will also use computational and statistical methods (e.g. programming in R) to detect patterns and determine the significance of your results.

Training and skills

This project would suit a student with a background in chemistry, geology, and/or biology, ideally with some lab experience. We will provide full training in all of the requisite geochemical, field, programming, and statistical techniques. You will also gain familiarity with the publishing process, as the resulting data are likely to contribute to several publications. In addition, you will get the opportunity to help develop new proposals to build on and apply this PhD work. Lastly, the supervisory team strongly encourages the students to get involved with science communication, for which we will provide mentorship and guidance (e.g. www.instagram.com/lemurscientist).

Partners and collaboration

The project is based at the University or Birmingham. Partners and collaborations include The Duke Lemur Center, Duke University, the University of Antananarivo, the University of Leeds, and the Twycross Zoo. The Duke Lemur Center houses the world’s largest and most diverse population of lemurs outside of Madagascar. The Twycross Zoo is located in central England and is home to breeding groups of many endangered primate species, including several species of lemurs.

Further details

Please contact PI Sarah Greene (s.e.greene@bham.ac.uk) at the University of Birmingham for further information. Further information about the Duke Lemur Center and the Twycross Zoo can be found on their respective websites – https://lemur.duke.edu/ and https://twycrosszoo.org/.


Applications need to be submitted via the University of Birmingham postgraduate portal, https://sits.bham.ac.uk/lpages/LES068.htm, by midnight 11.01.2021. Please first check whether the primary supervisor is within Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, or in Biosciences, and click on the corresponding PhD program on the application page.

This application should include

  • a brief cover letter, CV, and the contact details for at least two referees
  • a CENTA application form
  • the supervisor and title of the project you are applying for under the Research Information section of the application form.

Referee’s will be invited to submit their references once you submit your application, but we strongly encourage applicants to ensure referees are aware of your submission and expecting a reference request from us. Students are also encouraged to visit and explore the additional information available on the CENTA website.

 

Possible timeline

Year 1

Process pilot faecal samples from collaborator L. Greene covering multiple species across multiple seasons at the Duke Lemur Center (DLC). A research visit to the Twycross Zoo to shadow zoo staff and undertake a project related to the zoo’s mission would likely take place in Year 1.

Year 2

Pending Covid-19 developments, the student might consider either joining collaborator L. Greene on a research trip to Madagascar to collect wild lemur faecal samples and native vegetation to process for biomarkers or undertake a research visit to the DLC to undertake some dietary manipulation studies on captive lemurs. If this is not feasible, we could instead explore further laboratory approaches on the pre-existing pilot samples or have collaborator L. Greene collect and ship a new set of samples stemming from dietary manipulation.

Year 3

Opportunities to follow own interests, but one possibility would be to work with collaborator Gill on lemur coprolites (fossilized faeces) to see how lemur diets in the recent past compare with today.

Further reading

Gill FL, Bull ID (2012) Lipid Analysis of Vertebrate Coprolites. Vertebrate Coprolites, Bulletin 57, pp. 93-98

Greene LK, Williams CV, Junge RE, Mahefarisoa KL, Rajaonarivelo T, Rakotondreinibe H, O’Connel TM, Drea CM (2020) A role for gut microbiota in host niche differentiation. ISME Journal, Vol. 14, pp. 1675-1687.

Schwitzer, C., Mittermeier, R.A., Johnson, S.E., Donati, G., Irwin, M., Peacock, H., Ratsimbazafy, J., Razafindramanana, J., Louis, E.E., Chikhi, L. and Colquhoun, I.C., 2014. Averting lemur extinctions amid Madagascar’s political crisis. Science343(6173), pp.842-843.

COVID-19

A large collection of captive lemur faecal samples is already in the possession of collaborator L. Greene, thus the research visit components of this project are not mission critical. Sufficient samples could be shipped from the US to permit the project to continue relatively unaffected. Lab work is crucial to the project, but socially-distanced lab work on site here in the organic geochemistry lab at Birmingham is now permissible again. Sporadic lab closures are perhaps expected over the next few years, but the samples are dessicated or extracted, meaning they are not time sensitive and can be processed piecemeal as and when lab access is permitted.