Termites: does the diversity anomaly shape global ecological processes?

This project will investigate whether the differences in the functional abililites of termites in two biogeographical areas lead to large differences in their respective ecosystems.

The studentship is part of the ACCE doctoral training partnership, funded by NERC and starts October 2019.

Apply for this course

Read the eligibility criteria and application guidance below, then send your application to postgradoffice@nhm.ac.uk.

Application deadline: 9 January 2019


Termites are the most important decomposer animals: they have no metazoan rivals in their ability, in partnership with their microbial mutualists, to break down dead plant material in dead wood, leaf litter, grass, and soil. However, they are unusual among major ecological agents in that they have hard biogeographical limits.

This is most obviously true of latitudinal limits: termites have strong negative latitudinal gradients and are depauperate in areas with significant frosts. However, beyond that there are major biodiversity anomalies between the continents: most strikingly Africa has two major functional groups of termites that are not found in Australia: fungus-growers and true soil-feeders. In turn, Australia has a greater diversity of grass-feeding termites that are found in Africa. This is even though both areas are a mosaic of rain forest, wet and dry savannas and deserts.

This PhD will examine the ecological impact of differences in termite diversity in two contrasting biogeographical areas, the Afrotropics and the Australasian regions.

The overarching hypothesis is that:

Continental-level (historical) differences in the distribution of termite function lead to large ecosystem effects; particularly in decomposition, environmental heterogeneity and soil movement. Does biogeography constrain global ecology?


The project will concentrate on ten plots, five from Africa and five from Australia. Each set of plots will be along a rainfall and habitat gradient, encompassing semi-desert, dry and wet savannas, and dry forest and rain forest. Each of the plots will be extensively studied for termite diversity (e.g. species density, species composition functional, and phylogenetic diversity) and for ecological process. These processes will focus on those known to be mediated highly significantly by termites (i.e dead plant material decomposition, environmental heterogeneity, soil translocation, tree mortality).

Each of these processes will be studied for at least 18 months. Statistical models will then be examined to investigate how much of the revealed variation is due to local explanatory factors (e.g. rainfall, habitat) and how much is due to global-scale (biogeographical) factors.

Standard methods will be used for termite sampling and the measurement of ecological processes.

Decomposition will be measured using common, exotic, benchmark substrates (grass, dead leaves, dead wood), as well as local palatable species. Soil heterogeneity will be measured on and off mounds, with an emphasis on total heterogeneity in soils, as there are many more soil-inhabiting termites in Africa than Australia . Bioturbation will be estimated using the protocol being developed by the SOFIA consortium, involving the placement of test wood into quadrats.

These plots will dovetail with those used in the “Wood Termite Fungi” (WTF project , NSF-NERC funded, based in Queensland, Australia) and the “Soil Fauna in Africa” (SOFIA project, RS/DfID funded, based in Ghana, Gabon and South Africa). Both projects are collecting relevant process data. This means that the PhD project can use the data being collected in the two sister projects, but to answer geographically broader ecological question.


The student will be based at the Natural History Museum in London and at the University of Liverpool. The lead supervisor will be Dr Paul Eggleton at the NHM. The University of Liverpool supervisor will be Prof Kate Parr.


ACCE studentships are available to UK and EU applicants only.

Residency rules apply. UK and EU students with qualifying residence in the UK are eligible for full-cost awards. Non-UK students from the EU who do not have qualifying residence are eligible for fees-only awards, which covers the tuition fees and Research Training Support Grant (RTSG), but not stipend. 

All applicants need to comply with the registered university's English-language requirements.

Applicants should have obtained or be about to obtain a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK. Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have a master's degree. Applicants with a minimum Upper Second Class degree and significant relevant non-academic experience are encouraged to apply.

How to apply

Applications for the PhD are processed through the Natural History Museum.

To apply please send the following documents to the Postgraduate Office at postgradoffice@nhm.ac.uk:

  • Curriculum vitae.
  • Covering letter outlining your interest in the PhD position, relevant skills training, experience and qualifications for the research, and a statement of how this PhD project fits your career development plans.
  • Names of two academic referees.

The deadline for applications is 9 January 2019.

Interviews will be held in Liverpool in or after the week commencing 11 February 2019.


Any questions?

If you have any questions about the project please contact

Main supervisor: Dr Paul Eggleton


The Natural History Museum

Main supervisor: Dr Paul Eggleton

University of Liverpool

Co-supervisor: Prof Kate Parr


ACCE Doctoral Training Partnership

Joint PhD training partnerships between the Natural History Museum and the Universities of Sheffield, Liverpool and York, and the NERC’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH).

Funded by 

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