Project Description


Ecosystem services have an estimated economic value of more than £25 trillion per year. Insects are particularly important ecosystem-service providers in terrestrial ecosystems, but they are also especially vulnerable to climate change, which might affect their capacity to provide ecosystem services, such as nutrient cycling[1].Understanding how the effects of climate change on ecosystem processes are mediated by these organisms presents a key challenge for biologists.

Study system

To address this timely issue, this PhD project will integrate animal behaviour and ecosystem ecology, combining laboratory work and field experiments. It will focus on Nicrophorus burying beetles, which are obligate scavengers and are known as nature’s undertakers. They are valuable ecosystem-service providers in woodlands and forests, because they breed on animal carrion, which is the most nutrient-rich form of organic matter[2].As a part of their elaborate parental care, burying beetles deposit antimicrobial substances on the carcass to prevent bacterial and fungal growth, which influences the rate of decomposition[3]. Previous work has shown that the presence of burying beetles in terrestrial ecosystems plays an important role in promoting nutrient cycling and improving soil fertility [2]. In the absence of scavengers such as burying beetles, decomposition is mainly driven by fungi and bacteria, causing the release of large amounts of gases and the leaching of exudates into the soil[3]. This can have long-lasting effects on soil biochemistry as well as the functionality of the microbial community [3].

Project aims

The general aim of this PhD project is to link temperature-induced behavioural changes at the individual level to ecosystem-level processes in a global change context. More specifically, we will use a combination of lab and field experiments to examine how climate change may affect nutrient cycling and other ecosystem services provided by scavengers through its effects on parental care behaviour. For example, we will examine the effects of burying beetles on soil biota, as well as any associated physical and chemical changes in the soil. We will also investigate possible avenues for mitigating such effects of climate change on ecosystem processes.

Specific aims
More specifically, some potential topics the student could focus on are as follows: 1) Nicrophorus habitat specificity, abundance and distribution in forest habitats. This would constitute the first step in determining where burying beetles are most common and thus which types of habitats they might have the greatest impact on. 2) Effect of Nicrophorus activity on soil biota Burying beetle breeding constitutes apulse of nutrients, and soil biota is distributed in clusters based on resource availability. We will also characterise potential soil physical and chemical changes.3) Modular effects of mesofauna on microbes. We can also examine microbial activity to quantify nutrient cycling under different environmental conditions

Essential & desirable candidate skills

Essential: Good Bachelor’s degree (2.1. and higher) in a relevant subject area (e.g. Zoology, Biology, Ecology, Animal Behaviour).

Desirable: Master’s degree in a relevant subject area. Experience of laboratory work with invertebrates.


Natalie Pilakouta

Primary Supervisor:

Profile: Natalie Pilakouta
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Isabella Capellini

Secondary Supervisor:

Profile: Isabella Capellini
Institution: Queen's University, Belfast
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Ashish Malik

Additional Supervisor:

Profile: Ashish Malik
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Additional Supervisor:

Dr Sheena Cotter, University of Lincoln



Ainoa Pravia, Forest Research (CASE Partner)




[1] Seibold S, et al. (2019) Arthropod decline in grasslands and forests is associated with landscape-level drivers. Nature574:671-674.

[2] von Hoermann C, et al. (2018)Effects of abiotic environmental factors and land use on the diversity of carrion-visiting silphid beetles (Coleoptera: Silphidae): alargescale carrion study. PLoS One13:e0196839.

[3] Ilardi MO, et al. (2021) Scavenging beetles control the temporal response of soil communities to carrion decomposition. Functional Ecology35:2033-2044.

Expected Training Provision

The PhD student will employ a wide range of techniques both in the laboratory and the field. They will gain skills in soil biochemistry and microbiology, behavioural observations, animal husbandry, and statistical modelling. There will also be a strong focus on transferrable skills, such as project management, written communication, and oral communication.


The general aim of this PhD project is to link temperature-induced behavioural changes at the individual level to ecosystem-level processes in a global change context. Ultimately, this project will help us understand how the capacity of invertebrates to perform ecosystem services will be influenced by climate change and how we might be able to mitigate these effects.

Proposed Supervision

The student will be based primarily at the University of Aberdeen under the supervision of Dr Natalie Pilakouta, who is an evolutionary biologist and behavioural ecologist. The student will also be co-supervised byDr Isabella Capellini at Queen’s University Belfast,Dr Ashish Malik at University of Aberdeen, Dr Sheena Cotter at University of Lincoln, and Dr Ainoa Pravia at Forest Research.

Proposed Timetable

Year 1:Research training, design and plan experiments, start experimental work(lab), data analysis for completed labwork

Year 2:Complete experimental work (lab), start field-based experiments, continue data analysis, start writing dissertation

Year 3:Complete field-based experiments, continue data analysis,continue writingdissertation

Year 4:Complete data analysis and dissertation writing


  • biodiversity
  • earth-systems
  • environmental-management


This PhD project is a CASE studentship in collaboration with Forest Research, the research agency of the Forestry Commission and the UK’s principal organisation for forestry and tree-related research.

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