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The University of Southampton
Biological Sciences

Research project: How will greening the desert affect bats and the ecosystem services they provide?

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This project will test how anthropogenic greening of the desert has affected the movement patterns and microbiota of desert bats and the ecosystem services they provide.

Understanding how human-mediated land cover changes affect species and the ecosystem services they provide is a major challenge for biodiversity conservation in the Anthropocene. Irrigation and water transportation techniques have enabled the spread of large human settlements and commercial agriculture into arid environments, resulting in the ‘greening’ of the desert. This process has provided alternative foraging habitats, prey and water sources for desert wildlife and increased landscape connectivity. However, it also facilitated colonisation by generalist species not adapted to xeric environments.

Desert Ponds
Desert Ponds

These environmental changes likely left a signature on desert wildlife, affecting both their nutritional ecology and movement behaviour. Responses to anthropogenic changes can be inferred through studying the organism’s gut microbiota due to its rapid adaptive responses to environmental variation. Landscape connectivity affects movement and consequently genetic structure; hence, through studying spatial patterns of genetic variation we can understand how the greening process affected species movement patterns.

Insectivorous bats are major contributors to desert mammalian biodiversity that provide important ecosystems services through the suppression of insect pest populations and transportation of nutrients. This project will test how anthropogenic greening of the desert has affected the movement patterns and microbiota of desert bats and the ecosystem services they provide.

This project combines molecular and ecological approaches to study populations of a desert-obligate bat (Hypsugo bodenheimeri) and a bat of non-desert origin (Pipistrellus kuhlii) over natural ponds and their surrounding vegetation (desert environment) and around human settlements and agricultural fields (‘greened’ environments) in the deserts of southern Israel. The PhD candidate will develop the following objectives:

Desert Landscape
Desert Landscape

Assess how movement patterns differ between desert and ‘greened’ environments. Integrating population genetic techniques with GIS and spatial ecological analysis to study how environmental heterogeneity affects the distribution of genetic variation and identify landscape elements that facilitate movement in populations of desert-obligate versus non-desert species caught in different environments.

Determine how anthropogenic changes have affected the bats’ nutritional ecology and whether bats show adaptive responses through their microbiota. Using environmental genomic approaches to compare the gut microbiota of bats in desert versus ‘greened’ environments based on faecal samples. 

Quantify the ecosystem services provided by bats in desert versus ‘greened’ environments. Study the diets of the two bats, through high-throughput-sequencing of prey remains in bat faecal samples, to identify agricultural and vegetation pests and disease vectors consumed by the bats. Constructing ecological networks to assess differences between the desert and ‘greened’ environments.

Funding: SPITFIRE NERC DTP
Funding duration: October 2017–September 2021

Related research groups

Ecology and Evolution
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