We are seeking a PhD student to work on projects related to a recently funded, highly collaborative, NSF-funded project exploring the formation of associations between parasites and novel hosts at the University of Nevada, Reno. This research investigates the interaction between a virus that infects butterflies on both their native food plant and a recently adopted exotic food plant. This newly discovered virus-herbivore interaction has unknown consequences for populations of butterflies. However, prior research suggests that the chemistry of the food plants may have therapeutic effects. How does the outcome of viral infection on individuals and populations of Baltimore checkerspot butterflies depend on the choice of a native or exotic host plant? The research also will study parasitic wasps that attack the caterpillars. Parasitic wasps may alter the entire set of interactions between the butterflies, food plants and the virus.
We are looking for students broadly interested in evolutionary biology and ecology, with specific interests in the evolution of diet breadth and disease ecology. We are an interdisciplinary group of ecologists and evolutionary biologists; more information about representative research activities can be found at webpages for the various faculty participants (Smilanich, Dyer, Forister, Hurtado, Teglas; http://www.unr.edu/eecb/people).
UNR has a strong interdisciplinary PhD program in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology (http://environment.unr.edu/eecb/). Graduate students accepted into the EECB program are guaranteed financial support through Teaching Assistantships (TAs) which includes health insurance and an out-of-state tuition waiver. In addition, funds associated with this project are available for summer support, two years of Research Assistantships (RAs), and for field work and data collection associated with specific doctoral dissertation projects.
University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) is a Tier I research university located in a spectacular environment at the intersection of the Great Basin and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The faculty and graduate students at UNR are highly interactive and include an internationally known group of evolutionary biologists and ecologists. We are also located in an ideal setting for field-based science in the Great Basin and Sierra Nevada regions, allowing enviable access to spectacular montane and desert ecosystems. Reno is 45 minutes from Lake Tahoe, offers a high quality of living, an excellent climate, and is a large enough city to offer diverse activities and amenities. World class rock climbing, skiing, and mountain biking opportunities are in extremely close proximity.
Those interested should contact us via email (firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org) with a description of your interests, qualifications and preliminary application materials (CV, GRE scores, names and contact information for three references). Start date is for Spring semester of 2020 (January 27, 2020), but Summer and Fall 2020 applicants will be considered.
Project abstract: Collaborative Research: Novel trophic interactions determined by phytochemistry, pathogen infection, and parasitoids
In a rapidly changing environment, the value of understanding the complexity of species interactions cannot be overstated. This includes the formation of associations between parasites and novel hosts. This research investigates the interaction between a virus that infects butterflies on both their native food plant and a recently adopted exotic food plant. This newly discovered virus has unknown consequences for populations of butterflies. However, prior research suggests that the chemistry of the food plants may have therapeutic effects. How does the outcome of viral infection on individuals and populations of Baltimore checkerspot butterflies depend on the choice of a native or exotic host plant? The research also will study parasitic wasps that attack the caterpillars. Parasitic wasps may alter the entire set of interactions between the butterflies, food plants and the virus. By understanding disease dynamics within human-altered environments, detrimental impacts on species can be mitigated. This project includes a museum exhibit on the diversity of viruses, a symposium on insect-virus ecology, and the inclusion of undergraduate and graduate student research.
All consumers use a subset of the organic resources in their environment. Understanding which resources are used by a particular consumer, and the limitations of those resources, are issues that are both foundational to the ecological sciences and important for understanding rapid global environmental change. Herbivorous insects are central to general theory to understand dietary niche breadth. The relevant resources (food, or hostplants) are discrete and experimentally tractable, and herbivorous insects are key to terrestrial ecosystem function. A relatively understudied element of dietary breadth is the process of host expansion, when new hostplants are adopted into the diet of an insect herbivore. This project takes advantage of a recently formed interaction between the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas phaeton, Nymphalidae) and the exotic narrow-leaved plantain (Plantago lanceolata, Plantaginaceae) to develop mathematical models for macro-parasite population dynamics on a novel plant species. Predictions will be tested using laboratory and mesocosm experiments that include infection with butterfly “enemies”, a naturally-occurring entomopathogenic virus and parasitoid wasp, both of which attack caterpillars of the butterfly. The overarching question of this project is: Can we predict persistence of the butterfly populations from the interactions with enemies on native and exotic host plants? While addressing this larger question, the study will improve our empirical understanding of virus and parasite ecology by investigating dose dependent effects of the pathogen, virus transmission, and caterpillar survival mediated by hostplant chemistry.