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Available students’ research projects

Dear students

We have a variety of projects available for you to choose from, which can be done as a project research module or developed for a Bachelor's or Master's thesis. Additionally, we welcome your research interests and encourage you to discuss them with us to determine if they align with our research group's interests.

For more information, please contact Prof. Dr. Meike Wittmann. Thank you!

Individuals of many animal species exhibit differences, and they live in heterogeneous environments. To survive and reproduce, each individual uses various cues to select habitats that best suit their physical traits. This process is known as habitat or niche choice. Different species and individuals have different ways of performing niche choices. Additionally, with the continuous change in climate, the environment is continually changing. Therefore, the choice of habitat can significantly affect an individual's survival and reproductive success, which, in turn, can influence the survival of the entire population. Therefore, it is vital to understand how different modes of niche choice impact population persistence in a changing environment. This project aims to explore how various species display habitat preferences (niche choice) by simulating various experiments using your preferred programming language. We will then evaluate how niche choice affects long-term population dynamics.

Project Leader: Dr. Peter Nabutanyi

While individuals in small populations enjoy some benefits such as reduced competition, they can also experience problems such as difficulty to find mating partners or increased predation. This can lead to a so-called demographic Allee effect where the per-capita population growth rate is reduced at small densities. In severe cases, such Allee effects can lead to the extinction of populations that are below a certain population size threshold. Past models of Allee effects have generally assumed that all individuals in the population are the same in terms of their demographic traits. However, we know that there is a lot of individual variation within populations in many of these traits and individual variation, e.g. in mate-finding behavior, could strongly affect Allee effects and extinction thresholds. The goal of this project will be to do a literature survey to investigate what is currently known about the effects of individual trait variation on Allee effects and to develop a simple individual-based model to explore the consequences of individual variation e.g. in mate-finding behavior on extinction thresholds.

Project Leader: Prof. Dr. Meike Wittmann

Isle Royale is a small island and National Park in Lake Superior between Canada and the USA. It is home to a small and almost isolated population of wolves that is continuously at risk of extinction due to inbreeding depression. After the population had been down to just two individuals which were at the same time father and daughter and half-siblings, the authorities decided to introduce 19 wolves from the mainland in 2018 and 2019, which has helped the population recover to over 30 in the meantime. However, due to the small size of the island, it is expected that populations on Isle Royale will always be small and susceptible to inbreeding depression and further introductions might be required. The idea of this project would be to explore what could be a reintroduction scheme that minimizes interference with the population dynamics but is sustainable in the long run.

Project Leader: Prof. Dr. Meike Wittmann

Plants produce a vast diversity of defense chemicals. Many
of these are volatile, that is, they evaporate out of the plant and can
be smelled by herbivores.

In this project, you will investigate how chemodiversity within and
between patches of plants influences plant defense. You will do this by
expanding an existing model of chemodiversity. You will program this
extension of the model in C++, run simulations, and analyze the data you

Project Leader: Frans Thon, PhD Student

One type of polymorphism in plants is the presence or absence of defensive traits against herbivores, be that toxic chemicals, thorns or trichomes. Sometimes defended and undefended plants of the same species coexist on the same patch, and one of possible explanations for such coexistence is selective behavior of herbivores: when undefended plants are abundant, herbivores get selective and avoid defended ones, while when their preferred food source is scarce, herbivores forage unselectively. This induces frequency-dependent evolutionary dynamics in plants.

The idea of the project is to investigate how individual behavioral variation in herbivores (e.g. their individual “choosiness” for their preferred food) influences the population processes for the plant species they forage on. You are expected to search through the literature, select a particular study system and develop a simple individual-based model to simulate the dynamics of plant-herbivore interactions under different behavioral scenarios.

Project Leader: Dr. Olena Orlova

Today bark beetle outbreaks pose one of the major problems for forest management. For European forests, the greatest concern is caused by the European spruce bark beetle, Ips typographus. The risk of outbreaks is exacerbated by ongoing climate change - the disturbance of seasonal temperature patterns, droughts, large-scale blowdowns, etc. These factors increase forests’ vulnerability to bark beetle attacks both through their consequences for the trees and their impact on the beetles’ developmental cycles and behavior.

The goal of this project is to study the literature on the impact of climate change on the behavior and population dynamics of Ips typographus in order to evaluate the main sources of risk of beetle outbreaks in German forests coming from climate change, and then to develop a simple model for quantitative and qualitative analysis of the problem.   

Project Leader: Dr. Olena Orlova

The NetLogo program makes it possible to create individual-based models without prior programming knowledge. Such models are useful to study, for example, predator-prey relationships (wolves and sheep) or the impact of rubber and palm oil prices on the decisions of Indonesian smallholders.

This module offers you the opportunity to learn the basics of individual-based modeling. You will choose a topic and a question yourself (in consultation). You will then create a simple model in NetLogo and present your results in a project report or a presentation.

Project Leader: Mathias Spangenberg, PhD Student

"Species distribution models" (SDMs) learn under which (environmental) conditions a species does or does not occur. One of the tasks of SDMs is to predict the distribution of species for locations that have not yet been investigated. This works very reliably for common species. However, the data for rare species is usually limited. As a result, predictions for rare species are generally less reliable.

To solve this problem, SDMs have been developed to investigate whether there are correlations between rare and more common species. The idea is that information about more common species can also be used to improve predictions for rare species.

You have the opportunity to familiarize yourself with SDMs. They will make predictions using an SDM (SDM1) that takes into account correlations between rare and common species. They will compare these predictions with those of another SDM. The aim is to investigate the practical use of SDM1.

Previous knowledge of R is a great advantage, as is a willingness to read English publications.

Project Leader: Mathias Spangenberg, PhD Student

Do you have an idea of your own for a project you would like to investigate? Great!

We are also happy to accommodate other research ideas suggested by the student.

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