Current PhD positions

Infection dynamics in the Anthropocene - tracking super spreaders and infection hotspots in the urban jungle

Urban landscapes provide substantial challenges for wildlife. They not only expose animals to a highly dynamic, novel environment, but they may also alter the pace of social life, which then again sets the conditions for the spread of socially transmitted diseases. Yet little is known about how disease transmission is actually affected by the (heterogeneity of) the urban landscape and how that is driven by individual variation in the (behavioural) capacities that animals require to survive in urban environments.

We are looking for an enthusiastic candidate with a Master degree in Biology, Veterinary Sciences, or a related scientific discipline, to perform fundamental research at the crossroads of behavioural and disease ecology in one of the fastest developing environments – cities. We expect that you are interested in the fundamental ecological aspects, while at the same time maintaining an interest in practical application of the acquired knowledge. You should enjoy working both independently and as part of a team consisting of two different, young and dynamic research groups.

If you are interested in joining us, please submit your application through the online portal of the University, and we are happy to answer any question by e-mail.

Project description (voor een projectbeschrijving in het Nederlands zie onderaan)

Human population levels are continuously on the rise, and this is accompanied by unprecedented rates of urbanisation. The resulting levels of environmental change both directly and indirectly affect various ecosystem processes and cause steep biodiversity loss, making it a major concern in conservation biology. Yet given the inexorable rate of urbanisation we urgently have to discern cities as environments, which provide unique sets of opportunities and challenges for wildlife (and humans). Animals species that survive and thrive in cities have to deal with the spatio-temporal variability, novelty and complexity of urban landscapes, as well as with the altered pace of social life, as urban environments often sustain larger populations of the species dwelling in cities than more natural habitats. This likely poses specific social challenges, but also sets the conditions for the spread of (socially transmitted) diseases. Yet little is known about how disease transmission is actually affected by the (heterogeneity of) the urban landscape and how that is driven by individual variation in the capacities that animals require to live in urban environments.

This project will, therefore, investigate which factors drive disease dynamics at the population-level in wild animals thriving in urban environments. More specifically, we will focus on the spatio-temporal clustering of disease transmission using feral pigeons and the parasitic bacterium Chlamydophila psittaci as a model system. To achieve this, we will look at habitat use and habitat connectivity to investigate how different sub-populations of both host and disease, are cross-linked across the urban space, while accounting for the heterogeneity of the urban context. Given that the transmission of the disease contains a significant social component, this will be combined with detailed measures of among individual variation in behaviour, as this may affect how an individual is positioned in its social network. Integrating such spatial, temporal and social factors into an inclusive framework could have large implications for understanding of how the spread of diseases is affected by urbanisation, and more generally, about the nature, functioning, and sustainability of cities.

This will be studied in four interconnected work packages: We will first determine individual movement patterns of feral pigeons with GPS trackers to gain the necessary insights into population structure and population connectivity. This data will then be mapped against urban spatial structures, characteristics and environmental data by combining different data streams to add the necessary context to the movement and activity data. This will be aligned with detailed spatio-temporal data on current and past infections with Chlamydophila psittaci in the second work package. The third work package will focus on the relevance of individual variation for social processes and therewith the transmission of diseases in an urban context. We will apply a highly innovative approach by using naïve young birds, of which the behavioral phenotype is determined in great detail before they are released. We will then follow their first movements in the urban space and track their first encounters with the disease. Finally, we will implement data collected on disease transmission dynamics in individual based models within an SIR (Susceptible, Infectious, Resistant) framework, which will allow us to look at the spread of infections through time and to capture the effect of individual variation and interactions among individuals on disease transmission dynamics. Ultimately we will gain insight into the relative importance of super spreaders, infection hotspots and spatial structuring for disease transmission in urban landscapes.

Do you want to apply?  Consult the following page.

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