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Ecology, Evolution & Behaviour projects & supervisors

Ecology, Evolution & Behaviour projects & supervisors

Projects and supervisors

Choose from the projects listed below.

Professor Mark Brown

Research pages - Professor Brown

Dr Deborah Harvey
How does connection to nature affect science attainment in school pupils

This Masters is part of the Royal Holloway Schools’ Biodiversity Project and will investigate how working with children in their school grounds affects their connection to nature and science attainment, particuarly in biology but also more generally. You will visit children weekly and work with them on projects to monitor species or create habitats in their grounds. The ability to work with children and to handle a wide range of species is essential. You will learn social science surveying and analysis techniques as well as identification, surveying and data collection techniques suited to citizen science projects centred around children.

Research pages - Deborah Harvey

Professor Vincent Jansen
Models for social interaction in microbes

Microbes interact in various ways, for instance they can release antibiotics to stave off competitors, or they can release substances which help other microbes take up iron from the environment. In this way basic ecological interactions, such as competition or mutualisms can be realised in very simple organisms. This project aims to develop simple models for the interaction of microbes. Once such a model is formulated and analysed, it can then be used to study the evolution of microbes in a theoretical fashion. This project will concentrate on the production of siderophores, which allow microbes to interact through the production of a public good. This is a theoretical project that will require some experience and interest in mathematical modelling.

Research Pages - Vincent Jansen

Models for social interaction between fungi and plants

Fungi interact with plants in various ways, for instance as pathogen, but they can also engage in a mutualistic interaction through the formation of mycorrhizas. They can release antibiotics to stave off competitors, or they can release substances which help other microbes take up iron from the environment. In this way basic ecological interactions, such as antagonisms or mutualisms can be realised. This project aims to develop simple models for the plant-fungal interaction of microbe. Once such a model is formulated and analysed, it can then be used to study the evolution of microbes in a theoretical fashion. This is a theoretical project that will require some experience and interest in mathematical modelling

Research pages - Professor Jansen

Professor Julia Koricheva
Behaviourally mediated trophic cascades

Predators can affect herbivores not only directly, through predation, but also by altering their behaviour and habitat use. For instance, a common tactic for ungulates in the presence of predator risk is to increase vigilance levels while foraging, which might change their feeding behaviour and resulting browsing pressure on plants. Behaviourally mediated trophic cascades (BMTCs) occur when the fear of predation among herbivores enhances plant productivity. This dry project will summarize evidence of effects of predation risk on herbivore behaviour and habitat use as well as resulting effects on plant damage. Results of published studies on BMTCs will be combined by means of meta-analysis, which is a set of statistical methods designed to combine the results from independent studies on the same topic. Training in meta-analysis will be provided.


Buchanan A.L., Hermann S.L., Lund M., Szendrei Z. 2017. A meta-analysis of non-consumptive predator effects in arthropods: the influence of organismal and environmental characteristics. Oikos 126: 1233-1240.

Kauffman et al. 2010. Are wolves saving Yellowstone’s aspen? A landscape-level test of a behaviorally mediated trophic cascade. Ecology 91: 2742-2755.

Preisser E.L., Bolnick D.I., Bernard M.F. 2005. Scared to death? The effects of intimidation and consumption in predator-prey interactions. Ecology 86: 501-509.

Schmitz O. et al. 1997. Behaviorally mediated trophic cascades: effects of predation risk on food web interactions. Ecology 78: 1388-1399.

Effects of plant diversity on plant defences against herbivores

Diverse plant communities composed of several plant species or genotypes are known to be more resistant to herbivores as compared to species or genetic monocultures. Several mechanisms such as host plant dilution effects and physical and olfactorial masking can explain these effects. More recently evidence started to accumulate that plant defensive traits may also vary depending on whether the plant is surrounded by conspecific or heterospecific (or genetically different) neighbours. This dry project will summarize evidence of effects of plant diversity on plant anti-herbivore defences (such as chemical, physical and biotic defences) by means of meta-analysis of published studies. Meta-analysis is a set of statistical methods designed to combine the results from independent studies on the same topic; training in meta-analysis will be provided.


Kostenko O., Muder P.P.J., Courbois M., Bezemer T.M. 2017. Effects of plant diversity on the concentration of secondary plant metabolites and the density of arthropods on focal plants in the field. Journal of Ecology 105: 647-660.

Moreira X., Abdala-Roberts L., Parra-Tabla V., Mooney K. 2014. Positive effects of plant genotypic and species diversity on anti-herbivore defences in a tropical tree species. Plos One 9(8): e105438.

Research pages - Professor Koricheva 

Professor Elli Leadbeater
How do we balance carbon offsetting and biodiversity offsetting?

Planting trees is a means to improve carbon sequestration and offset carbon production that cannot be otherwise reduced. Likewise, improving biodiversity at existing and new sites is a means to compensate for developments where impacts on biodiversity remain even after all other prevention or mitigation means have been considered. In this project, we will consider how the two approaches- currently typically approached in isolation- can be combined. How do we optimize plantation strategies in order to maximise both carbon sequestration and positive biodiversity impacts? We will work in partnership with NGO The Orchard Project (, who plant/maintain over 500 urban orchards in the UK, to assess how biodiversity impacts and carbon sequestration vary with tree species mix, orchard age, plantation size and surrounding land-use. We aim to provide real-world recommendations that will inform future planting projects.

The vast majority of the project will involve fieldwork in orchards in London, but travel to other parts of the UK is also a possibility. The project will be co-supervised by Elli Leadbeater (lead supervisor, Biology, biodiversity aspects) and Mark Lee (co-supervisor, Health Sciences, carbon sequestration). The project can take place on a full or part time basis. Interested applicants should contact Elli Leadbeater prior to application.

Research page - Professor Leadbeater

Professor Dave Morritt
Accumulation of microplastic in the gastric mill of invasive River Thames Chinese mitten crabs

Current PhD research recently led to the publication of a paper on the high prevalence of plastic ingestion by two species of crabs, Eriocheir sinensis and Carcinus maenas in the Thames Estuary. This proposed Masters project will expand on this research and examine the gastric mill of juvenile mitten crabs migrating back upstream to complete the majority of their lifecycle in freshwater. These crabs will be collected on the Thames foreshore and then taken to the RHUL lab for microplastic examination. Polymer composition of the ingested microplastic will then be determined using the Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy instrument at the Natural History Museum, London. In addition, or as the main focus for a separate project, collected Thames mitten crabs will be maintained in the RHUL aquarium. These crabs with be fed food spiked with fluorescent nylon fibres and these will be tracked and traced through the digestive tract. Furthermore, some crabs will be held until they moult with a view to clarifying if ecdysis, including replacement of the gastric mill, plays a role in removal of accumulated plastic microfibres.


McGoran, A.R., Clark, P.F., Smith, B.D & Morritt, D. (2020) High prevalence of plastic ingestion by Eriocheir sinensis and Carcinus maenas (Crustacea: Decapoda: Brachyura) in the Thames Estuary. Environmental Pollution 265: Part A, 114972.

The impacts of Thames plastic pollution on native biota

Previous Masters Projects have focused on plastic pollution in the River Thames and these results have been recently published. Rowley et al., (2020) looked at the volume of microplastics (excluding fibres) in the Thames water column at Putney and Greenwich. McCoy et al., (2020) restricted her studies to the wet wipe reefs on the south back at Hammersmith and their effects on the invasive invasive Asian clam, Corbicula fluminea (Mollusca: Bivalvia). The proposed focus of this project will build on this work and will study the impacts of Thames plastic pollution on native Thames biota. This may include collecting 3 species of bivalves, gastropod snails and the crustacean, amphipod, Gammarus zaddachi. Laboratory work will comprise preparing this material for microplastic extraction and then identifying the polymer composition of these tiny fragments using the Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy instrument at the Natural History Museum, London. Additional laboratory work could look at the effects of microplastics on behaviour and / or the tracking of microplastics through the digestive system to determine gut residence time in a selected model species.


McCoy, K.A., Hodgson, D.J., Clark, P.F. & Morritt, D. (2020). The effects of wet wipe pollution on the invasive Asian clam, Corbicula fluminea (Mollusca: Bivalvia) in the River Thames, London. Environmental Pollution 264:

Rowley, K., Cucknell, A-C., Smith, B.D., Clark, P.F. & Morritt, D. (2020) London’s river of plastic: high levels of microplastics in the Thames water column. Science of the Total Environment 740:

Research project web page

Research pages - Professor Morritt 

Dr Sarah Papworth
The shifting baseline syndrome and its impact on perceptions of environmental change 

Shifting baseline syndrome describes how a lack of information about past ecological conditions can change the decisions made in conservation and environmental management. This information may be lacking as ecological information (for example from surveys) was never collected. Where this information is not available, managers may forget past ecological conditions or be too young to have experienced them, leading them to set inappropriate targets for conservation. Recent evidence however suggests that shifting baseline syndrome may have little effect on target setting by conservation managers, but could still be a big problem for public understanding of environmental change. This project will investigate the success of methods for communicating information about past environmental change. Please contact me for further information. 

Useful reading: Jones et al. (2021) ‘Is there evidence of shifting baseline syndrome in environmental managers? An assessment using perceptions of bird population targets in UK nature reserves.’ Journal of Environmental Management 297: 113308. 

How do we choose what to conserve? Understanding preferences for species to encourage conservation support 

Why are conservation programs for fungi rare, yet conservation efforts continue for the Hainan gibbon, even though the 25 remaining individuals are unlikely to form a viable population? There are various suggestions of factors which influence people’s preferences for what to conserve, including both animal appearance and information people have about the animals, as well as individual preferences and cultural associations. This is a long-term project which aims to understand preferences for different species to promote conservation support. Current research on this topic is partnering with conservation organisations so specific questions and opportunities are always changing; please contact me for further information. 

Useful reading: Curtin and Papworth (2020) ‘Colouring and size influence preferences for imaginary animals, and can predict actual donations to species-specific conservation charities’. Conservation Letters 13: e12723 

Research pages - Dr Sarah Papworth

Dr Steve Portugal
Evolution of Eggshell Surface Structure and Physiology

Avian eggshells exhibit some of the most diverse and fascinating arrays of complex biological variability within the animal kingdom. The variation seen in eggshell colour and maculation (pigment spots), for example, can be found between species, within species, and even between eggs in a clutch from the same female. Eggshell maculation has fascinated scientists for decades, and many functional explanations for this maculation have been posited including crypsis, thermoregulation, microbial defence and sexual-signalling. While the variation and function of eggshell maculation has received much attention, the actual structure of the eggshell itself has received comparatively little focus. The relatively few studies that have investigated eggshell structure, particularly that of the egg surface, have found large variation in surface-structures and shell thickness. However, little is known about how these structures function, or rather, what their true function is. This project aims to characterise eggshell surface structure along the avian phylogenetic tree, and determine – through novel mechanical and structural engineering approaches – how different eggshell surface structures function. Bird eggs offer a fascinating model system, as birds breed on all seven continents on Earth; at altitudes greater than 4000 m above sea level, in temperatures ranges between -40°C and 50°C, and in environments varying from water-saturated to extremely xeric. Egg size can range from 1.4 kg to 0.4 g (for Common Ostriches Struthio camelus and Vervain Hummingbirds Mellisuga minima, respectively), while clutch size can vary from a single egg to broods of over fourteen.

Research pages - Dr Portugal 

Dr Francisco Ubeda
Mathematical Models of Parent-of-Origin Expression

Genomic imprinting refers to the silencing of genes according to their parental origin (either paternally silenced and maternally expressed or vice versa). In this research I am interested in elaborating mathematical models that explore why would natural selection favour losing the advantages of diploidy to produce a functionally haploid locus

Mathematical Models of Gene Transmission

Meiotic drive refers to the preferential transmission of an allele (driving allele) during meiosis in diploid individuals. In this research I am interested in elaborating mathematical models that explore why is fair (Mendelian) segregation the rule and not the exception

Research pages - Dr Ubeda 

Dr Rudiger Riesch
Examining the processes that generate, maintain, and threaten biological diversity

Research in my group addresses one of the fundamental questions in evolutionary ecology: what are the ecological and evolutionary processes that generate, maintain, and constrain/threaten biological diversity? Using integrative and highly collaborative approaches, we try to answer the questions of (i) how and why organisms diversify phenotypically, (ii) what ecological and evolutionary forces shape reproductive barriers important in facilitating an initial reduction in gene flow between diverging populations, and (iii) what role human-induced environmental change has on biodiversity in general, and the stability of population differentiation among diverging populations in particular. Our main study system, currently, are livebearing fishes of the family Poeciliidae. Here, we work on invasive populations with a focus on trying to identify the mechanisms that facilitate invasion success. We also work on fish diversification along environmental gradients (including temperature, salinity, oxygen availability or resource availability gradients), and this includes work on fish from extreme environments (e.g., gradients of toxicity and pollution). There are always on-going and potential research projects available to MSc students in my lab, so for further information please contact me (


Gomes Silva G, E Cyubahiro, T Wronski, R Riesch, A Apio & M Plath (2020) Water pollution affects fish community structure and alters evolutionary trajectories of invasive guppies (Poecilia reticulata). Science of the Total Environment 730: 138912

Santi F, R Riesch, J Baier, M Grote, S Hornung, H Jüngling, M Plath & J Jourdan (2020) A century later: adaptive plasticity and rapid evolution contribute to geographic variation in invasive mosquitofish. Science of the Total Environment 726: 137908

Riesch R, RA Martin & RB Langerhans (2020) Multivariate character suites across multifarious environments: integrated responses of morphology and life history in Bahamas mosquitofish. Oikos 129(4): 480-492

Gao J, F Santi, L Zhou, X Wang, R Riesch & M Plath (2019) Geographical and temporal variation of multiple paternity in invasive mosquitofish (Gambusia holbrooki, Gambusia affinis). Molecular Ecology 28(24): 5315-5329

Research pages - Dr Riesch

Dr Rebecca Thomas
Rewilding in local conservation efforts – Value, evidence and public perceptions

Rewilding is an ambitious and powerful new zeitgeist in conservation, which has generated much attention from the general public as well as the scientific community. Over the last decade, several flagship Continental rewilding schemes have been implemented and there is now a well-established bank of case studies of the positive impacts rewilding can achieve. However, there is a worrying lack of consensus around exactly what rewilding should entail, and the extent to which it is supported by scientific evidence. Rewilding has emerged as an unavoidably emotional subject, with media-stoked tensions between stakeholders becoming a necessary element of many rewilding projects. Within Surrey, there have been several rewilding opportunities identified and presented to the Trust, but a carefully contemplated approach should include an anticipation of tensions and any conflicts. Research will be conducted to compare both public and private land-owners’ attitudes towards the notion of ‘rewilding’ schemes and associated flagship species re-introductions. This project would be largely desk-based, focused on a sociological approach. Data will be gathered from questionnaires, interviews and focus groups within relevant demographics. There could also be elements of a field-based approach including surveys of rewilded sites. This project is being run in partnership with Surrey Wildlife Trust.

The status of Hazel Dormouse in Surrey

The Hazel Dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius) is a charismatic species which has undergone well documented declines in distribution and abundance across the UK, despite being subject to various legal protections. It is a strongly arboreal rodent traditionally associated with coppiced woodland. It is widely understood that a key component in this decline is changing woodland management practices. Dormice are often assumed to be limited in their dispersal abilities, but there is evidence that they are capable of crossing open land and can persist in landscapes with relatively little woodland. Surrey is reliably assumed to be an important county for the Hazel Dormouse and has a national responsibility for its conservation, and there is good knowledge of the localities of several apparently strong populations. Countywide, the species’ status is still largely assumed however and a standardised random site survey could add considerable confidence to this premise. Correlation with habitat characteristics would also help to inform site management planning, and further the aspiration to manage our Sheepleas nature reserve as an exemplary Dormouse-focused hotspot. A further output of this project would be to inform the current monitoring scheme for Sheepleas, and the integration of all current learning into a new management plan for this site (and ultimately others). This aspect would largely be a desk-based project involving data analysis and GIS work to consolidate an effective baseline and monitoring plan. Both aspects of this project would be partnered by the Surrey Dormouse Group and the Surrey Wildlife Trust.

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