Suggestions for Master's Projects

Animal Behaviour

Automated observation of behaviour

Quantitative measures of the behaviour of many individual organisms over long durations can be very labour intensive, often prohibitively so. Yet such measurements can be the foundation of understanding how organisms interact with their environment, with each other, and how they respond to changing environmental conditions. The project will involve development and testing of a system for automating the process of observing and quantifying the behavioural characteristics of many individuals of different species simultaneously. Small aquatic organisms will be the model system used for development. The project will be of most interest to students with a strong interest in technical development, computational analyses, and organismal biology.
Contact: Prof. Dr. Owen Petchey    
Last update: 26.10.2017


Ecology and Environment

Aerial insect abundance across Switzerland – insect monitoring by radar

From spring to autumn, every day and every night a huge amount of insects fly hundreds of meters above ground, yet we know very little on it. At the same time, a recent study suggests that insect abundances have declined drastically over the last 30 years. Automated radar systems have been established for a continuous detection of animal densities and movements. Since recently, they are able to differentiate between records of birds and insects up to 600 meters above ground.
The aim of this master thesis is to quantify for the first time seasonal and spatial abundances of aerial insects in Switzerland, and to relate the found pattern to different biotic and abiotic factors. Furthermore, the aim is to link the results to patterns of insect abundances from ground based methods, like traps. Already collected radar and field data will be complemented with new data and analysed.
The results will advance our understanding of the occurrence, dispersal and migration of insects high up in the air, and provide important information for the development of monitoring schemes of insects. The thesis is aimed to be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. The candidate should have a pronounced interest in insect ecology and good computer skills, including programming in R.

Contact: For application or additional information, please contact PD Dr. Eva Knop, Agroscope Reckenholz / University of Zürich or Dr. Felix Liechti, Schweizerische Vogelwarte, Sempach.

Ideal starting date in 2020, earlier beginning possible.
Last update: 13.08.2019


Scavenger communities at carcasses

The golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) is among the most charismatic birds of the Alps. Golden eagle populations in Switzerland have been increasing in the last decades; however the species remains vulnerable to environmental changes and anthropogenic threats.
We tag juvenile golden eagles with the newest generation of GPS and tri-axial accelerometer (ACC) tags, in order to investigate space use, movement patterns and individual behaviours, with a particular focus on dispersal. The comparison of movement and ACC data with ground-truthed behavioural observations and environmental data allows us to identify specific behaviours from their characteristic patterns in ACC data.
Consequently, we will be able to infer what golden eagles are doing during different life-history stages and in the used landscape.

Research aims
The present MSc project will focus on diet of tagged juvenile golden eagles, the importance of feeding of eagles at carcasses including some in-depth investigations of the scavenger communities (bearded vulture, ravens, mammals etc.) at the carcasses. Among others, the project will tackle questions such as what carcasses are used by the juvenile golden eagles, how different scavengers compete or complement each-other, how fast carcasses are removed (an ecosystem service) and how this depends on the characteristics (species, size, age) of the carcass.

Identification of potential feeding places based on GPS and ACC data of tagged golden eagles. Checking suspected feeding places for carcasses. Mounting, checking and evaluating wildlife cameras at carcasses. Evaluating pictures recorded at the carcasses and characterizing scavenger communities, behaviour and interactions (including pre-existing pictures). The fieldwork will take place in the canton of Grisons, Switzerland.

Enthusiastic to work with golden eagles. No aversion towards animal carcasses. Willingness to perform long and tough fieldwork in a rough alpine environment. Good physical condition and basic mountaineering skills are a pre-condition. Good data management skills. German language skills advantageous. Driving licence.

Flexible: Start as soon as possible desired – but no later than September 2019.

Contact: Dr. Martin Grüebler, Schweizerische Vogelwarte, 6204 Sempach, telephone +41 41 462 9722.

Last update: 09.07.2019


Feeding dynamics of juvenile golden eagles

The golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) is among the most charismatic birds of the Alps. Golden eagle populations in Switzerland have been increasing in the last decades; however the species remains vulnerable to environmental changes and anthropogenic threats. We tag juvenile golden eagles with the newest generation of GPS and tri-axial accelerometer (ACC) tags, in order to investigate space use, movement patterns and individual behaviours, with a particular focus on dispersal. The comparison of movement and ACC data with ground-truthed behavioural observations and environmental data allows us to identify specific behaviours from their characteristic patterns in ACC data. Consequently, we will be able to infer what golden eagles are doing during different life-history stages and in the landscape they use.

Research aims
The present MSc project will focus on the nestling and post-fledging phase of juvenile golden eagles. The project aims to investigate the feeding patterns of juvenile golden eagles in the nest and in the paternal territories after fledging. Comparison of feeding observations with ACC and GPS-data should allow identifying characteristic patterns for different behaviours of the juveniles and quantifying changes in their frequency with age.

Observations of the juvenile eagles and potential food sources at the nest and in the parental home-range. Possibly mounting, checking and evaluating wildlife cameras. Evaluating GPS and ACC data and relating them to observed behaviours with state of the art statistical/modelling methods. The fieldwork will take place in the canton of Grisons, Switzerland.

Enthusiastic to work with golden eagles. Interest in movement ecology. Willingness to perform long and tough fieldwork in a rough alpine environment. Good physical condition and basic mountaineering skills are a pre-condition. Good data management and R skills. German language skills advantageous. Driving licence.

July 2019

Contact: Dr. Martin Grüebler, Schweizerische Vogelwarte, 6204 Sempach, telephone +41 41 462 9722.
Last update: 09.07.2019


Flowering time variation and adaptation in the grass Brachypodium distachyon

A Master project is available at the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, University of Zurich, under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Anne Roulin.
In plants, flowering time is believed to be adapted to local environmental conditions, as a failure in producing seeds at the appropriate time would lead to the extinction of the individual’s genotype. In this project, you will use genome-wide association (GWAs) and genome-environment association (GEAs) studies to explore how plant populations adapt locally to survive seasonal environmental deterioration. Namely, we will use the plant species Brachypodium distachyon as a system, since natural populations of this Mediterranean grass are known to display a broad range of flowering behaviors.

Your task will consist in:

  • measuring flowering time in a large number of natural accessions originating from France, Spain, Tunisia, Italy, Turkey and Iraq in controlled conditions,
  • assess whether flowering time is correlated with any environmental variables (precipitation, temperature etc…) and adapted to local conditions (GEAs),
  • perform a GWAs to identify potential candidate genes associated to variation in flowering time.

The M.Sc. project can start any time. For more information or to visit the lab, don’t hesitate to contact us at

Contact: Prof. Dr. Anne Roulin, Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, University of Zurich.
Last update: 04.12.2018


Linking environmental stress and adaptation to transposable (mobile) element activity

A Master project is available at the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, University of Zurich, under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Anne Roulin.
Transposable elements are mobile DNA sequences that constitute the main component of most eukaryotic genomes. TEs are also functionally important as they can lead to the creation of alternative or new promoters, the rewiring of regulatory networks and the alteration of epigenetic landscapes. External stresses can lead to their mobilization and induce stable transgenerational genetic changes. TEs may thus be especially prone to produce the raw diversity necessary for individuals to respond and adapt quickly to new or changing environmental conditions. Hence, the stress-induced mobilization of TEs is increasingly seen as one of the major drivers of phenotypic diversity and plant evolution.
Using an approach we have previously developed in Arabidopsis and rice, we want to study the adaptive potential and mobility of TEs in the model plant Brachypodium distachyon. By tracking transposable elements in various accessions from different habitats, the project will aim at observing and understanding TE-mediated evolution in real-time.

You are interested in plant genetics/physiology/ecology/evolution and willing to develop skills in molecular biology and/or Bio-informatics

The M.Sc. project can start any time. For more information or to visit the lab, don’t hesitate to contact or

Contact: Prof. Dr. Anne Roulin or Dr. Michael Thieme, Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, University of Zurich.
Last update: 04.12.2018


Transport and decay of environmental DNA in rivers

We are looking for an enthusiastic MSc student who will experimentally test hypotheses related to the decay and transport of environmental DNA in rivers and what that means for predicting species distributions (based at Eawag, Dübendorf).

Rationale: Recent work has shown that environmental DNA (eDNA) can be used to detect target species and entire communities present in aquatic habitats. However, the transport and decay of eDNA with water flow across river networks complicates the prediction of species distributions from these data. We have developed a model that accounts for this decay, but direct empirical tests of these predictions are lacking.

Project work: In this M.Sc. project you will develop laboratory and field experiments to directly release and capture artificial eDNA molecules and compare their detection and quantification to model predictions. In particular, you will evaluate the feasibility of using high density gypsum blocks with embedded synthetic DNA for slowly releasing artificial eDNA into a river. In a first phase, the design of gypsum blocks will be tested on laboratory settings (e.g. flumes, ponds); subsequently, these eDNA releasing blocks will be put to the proof in a river. qPCR methods will be used to detect the artificial DNA in eDNA samples downstream from the release sites.

Requirements: Interest in ecology and biodiversity, ability to design pilot experiments for method feasibility, some familiarity with statistical computing, and valid driver licence (requires field work with a car) would be essential requirements. Experience in working in a molecular lab would be an additional asset. The M.Sc. project can start any time

The M.Sc. project can start any time. More info:

Contact: Prof. Dr. Florian Altermatt, IEU, University of Zurich
Dr. Hanna Hartikainen, Dr. Luca Carraro, Eawag, Department of Aquatic Ecology, Überlandstrasse 133, 8600 Dübendorf
We are looking forward to meeting you!
Last update: 14.11.2018


Resilience of meta-ecosystems: how openness and diversity buffer for ecosystem functioning under perturbation

We are looking for an enthusiastic M.Sc. student who will be working on community dynamics and ecosystem functioning. The project involves laboratory work using microcosm experiments and is part of a larger research program (based at Eawag, Dübendorf).
Ecosystems are connected by an exchange of both organisms and resource flows (i.e. degree of openness). Metacommunity studies have showed that intermediate dispersal rates of organisms from a regional species pool can buffer against changes in ecosystem function and diversity after environmental change (spatial insurance hypothesis). However, these studies ignore the fact that ecosystems differ not only in their openness to species dispersal, but also in resource flows. The recently developed meta-ecosystem theory integrates this, and postulates that resource flows between ecosystems matter for ecosystem functioning and its response to anthropogenic pressure.
In this M.Sc. project, you would develop a meta-ecosystem microcosm experiment to obtain a mechanistic understanding if and how organism dispersal versus resource flow affect ecosystem diversity and functioning under environmental stress. This is important, as the degree of openness of ecosystems is currently changing: systems become either more closed through habitat fragmentation or more open through human-induced transportation. We expect that organism dispersal as resource flow can have similar effects to ecosystem functioning, but may strongly depend on the severity of the environmental stress and the diversity present in the meta-ecosystem.


  • Interest in ecology and ecosystem functioning,
  • willingness to perform laboratory microcosm experiments with protist species using well-equipped facilities to perform video analysis,

The M.Sc. project can start any time. More info:

Contact: Prof. Dr. Florian Altermatt, IEU, University of Zurich and
Dr. Lynn Govaert, Eawag, Department of Aquatic Ecology, Überlandstrasse 133, 8600 Dübendorf
We are looking forward to meeting you!
Last update: 20.09.2018


Hidden in the dark: Ecology and faunistics of groundwater amphipods in Switzerland using a citizen science approach

We are looking for an enthusiastic M.Sc. student who will be working on the ecology and faunistics of groundwater amphipods. The project involves extensive fieldwork, laboratory work and is part of a larger research program (based at Eawag, Dübendorf).
Amphipods are a diverse and ecologically highly relevant group of freshwater invertebrates. In a large study program, we have already recorded about 40 different species of Amphipods in Switzerland over the last few years. Thereby, we also discovered a high richness of endemic species, especially among subterranean amphipods of the genus Niphargus. However, their ecology and faunistics are still understudied due to the difficulty in accessing them in caves, groundwater or interstitial habitats.
In this M.Sc. project, you would develop and use a citizen science approach to get amphipod samples from groundwater and spring habitats. You will contact municipal drinking water suppliers in Switzerland, provide them with sampling kits and instructions but also sample the amphipods yourself in their water supply systems. We expect the discovery of several species new to Switzerland, potentially even new to science. You will identify the amphipods using morphological and molecular tools and link their occurrence to environmental/biogeographic variables. The date will be eventually integrated into public databases (CSCF). In the project you will have the opportunity to interact with stakeholders, such as BAFU or cantonal environmental agencies. For more details see:


  • Interest in ecology and faunistics of aquatic invertebrates,
  • German/French and English language skills,
  • interest to work on a stakeholder relevant project (BAFU funded),
  • valid driver’s license and driving practice.

The M.Sc. project can start any time. More info:

Contact: Prof. Dr. Florian Altermatt, IEU, University of Zurich and
Dr. Roman Alther, Eawag, Department of Aquatic Ecology, Überlandstrasse 133, 8600 Dübendorf
Last update: 22.08.2018


"Are you stressed?" Eco-evolutionary physiology of amphibians

We are looking for an enthusiastic MSc student interested to work on eco-evolutionary physiology in Rana arvalis (Moor frog). In times of environmental change, species are facing more and more anthropogenic and natural occuring stressors. Through that, many species are experiencing strong “fast-time scale selection”. We are studying how selection through pH, predators and parasites act on the moorfrog’s phenotype and what role stress hormones play in adaptation to multiple stressors. The student will be based at Dept. of Aquatic Ecology, Eawag in Dübendorf, but spend substantial amount of time doing field and lab work in Sweden. The exact topic depends in part on the student’s interest, but includes research on physiology of moor frog tadpoles’, with focus on:

  • Corticosterone stress hormones
  • Interactions of immunsystem reactions and hormonal levels
  • Effects of predators and parasites on hormonal stress responses

The MSc project starts December 2017/January 2018 (with field work starting in March) and involves laboratory rearing experiments on populations inhabiting an acidification gradient in Sweden. The work is supervised by Dr. Katja Räsänen (Eawag; and PhD student Jelena Mausbach (Eawag/IBZ-ETH) and is done in collaboration with Prof. Anssi Laurila (Uppsala University, Sweden).

If you are interested, please contact: Jelena Mausbach, Eawag, Dept. of Aquatic Ecology

Review of applications is starting immediately and will continue until a candidate has been found.

We are looking froward to meeting you!

Contact: Jelena Mausbach
Eawag, Department of Aquatic Ecology, Überlandstrasse 133, 8600 Dübendorf
Last update: 09.01.2018


Sustainable Food Production with Biologicals – Testing the effects of plant growth promoting mycorrhizal fungi and other microbial consortia on crop yield

Modern conventional agriculture relies heavily on high fertilizer inputs and pesticides to reach high yields. However, easily available phosphate fertilizer sources will be depleted in about 50-100 years and there are concerns that we will face a phosphate crisis endangering agricultural production. Moreover, the production of nitrogen fertilizer is energetically expensive and high levels of nitrate in the ground- and drinking water can pose a significant health risk and have a negative impact on downstream ecosystems. There is, therefore, an increased interest and pressure from society and governments to develop more sustainable agricultural practices and search for alternatives for fertilizer and pesticide use.
There is increased interest to use soil microbes that naturally associate with plants for enhancing plant growth and fitness. One group of microbes with huge potential are the arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi. AM fungi form symbiotic associations with two-thirds of all land plants and have been repeatedly shown to positively influence plant nutrition and health, as well as enhancing pest resistance. Up to 80% of plant P and up to 25% of plant N can be provided by these plant root symbionts. AM fungi form associations with major crops including wheat, maize, and soybean, as well as with a number of cash crops (crops with high revenues) including tomato, cucumber, apples, and grapes. In this project, you will test the impact of various mycorrhizal fungi and plant growth promoting microbes (e.g. Trichoderma and nitrogen fixing bacteria) on plant yield and plant nutrition under greenhouse and field conditions. The results of this work will help to develop sustainable production systems with reduced fertilizer input.
Contact: Prof. Dr. Marcel van der Heijden (IEU, University of Zurich; Agroscope)

Agroscope, Reckenholzstrasse 191, 8046 Zürich
Last update: 27.10.2017


Digging Deeper: Effects of Agro-ecosystem diversification and crop rotation on soil life and ecosystem services

Biological diversity is of pivotal importance for ecosystems. Most studies on the importance of diversity for ecosystem functioning have targeted aboveground communities. However, a large part of biodiversity is literally hidden below ground. The consequences of soil biodiversity losses for ecosystem functioning are still poorly understood. This is particularly true in agro-ecosystems, where soil biodiversity declines upon land use intensification are commonly reported. We have previously shown that belowground diversity is key for maintaining multiple ecosystem functions (i.e. multifunctionality) in model ecosystems, and that particular functional groups of soil biota affect ecosystem sustainability by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, immobilizing nutrients and influencing nutrient losses. Here, we build upon those studies and test, for the first time, whether agro-ecosystem diversification can promote soil biodiversity and the delivery of beneficial ecosystem services across Europe. Our central hypothesis is that increased plant diversity will promote belowground biodiversity and related ecosystem services. Digging deeper aims to enhance our understanding of belowground biodiversity and management for ecosystem functioning and service delivery in European agroecosystems through four key objectives:

  • Quantify the impact of land use/agricultural practices, in particular those increasing plant diversity, on soil communities, ecosystem functions and services.
  • Determine the role of soil diversity and biological interactions for multifunctionality of European agroecosystems.
  • Assess the impacts of climate change on the provision of ecosystem services by agroecosystems from different climatic zones, management practices and soil biodiversity levels.
  • Identify innovative land management practices that maximize the delivery of multiple ecosystem services delivered by soil biota.

To address these objectives, we have established a pan-European network (from Sweden to Spain) of 250 agricultural fields that vary in aboveground diversity. This network includes sites from low to high above ground diversity, as well as field experiments where the diversity of agro-ecosystems is manipulated in time or space (e.g. through crop rotation, cover crops, or intercropping). We assess below-ground diversity using high throughput sequencing and we will measure a number of ecosystem functions (plant yield, nutrient cycling, soil aggregation and soil C sequestration, soil N2O sink) acting as surrogates of essential services in agroecosystems. Subsequently, we will use advanced statistical tools to assess the impact of above- and belowground diversity and management on both multifunctionality and individual ecosystem services. This is a multidisciplinary European project and several specific Master projects (with specific themes) are present within the above mentioned framework.
Contact: Prof. Dr. Marcel van der Heijden (IEU, University of Zurich; Agroscope)

Agroscope, Reckenholzstrasse 191, 8046 Zürich
Last update: 27.10.2017


Wild bee diversity buffering impacts of climate change on the delivery of crop pollination services?

Wild bees are an important component of agro-ecosystems’ biodiversity and provide vital pollination services to wild plants. Together with honeybees and other managed bees, they also play an important role as pollinators of many crops. Many wild bee species are not only considered to be more efficient pollinators of some crops, moreover crop pollination may also benefit from the broader climatic niches of wild bees, visiting crop flowers also under weather conditions not suitable for honeybees, for example. Overall, more diverse pollinator communities are expected to cover a broader climatic niche and thereby may provide critical insurance functions under projected climate change scenarios. However, there is scarce empirical evidence for this hypothesis.
Detailed information (PDF, 172 KB)
Contact: Dr. Matthias Albrecht  Dr. Louis Sutter

Agroscope, Reckenholzstrasse 191, 8046 Zürich
Last update: 18.10.2017


Conservation of ground-nesting wild bees in agro-ecosystems

Wild bees are an important component of agro-ecosystems’ biodiversity and provide vital pollination services to wild plants and many crops. In addition to suitable floral food resources wild bees require suitable nesting habitats. Most wild bee species are ground-nester, building their nest in the soil. However, few is known about nesting requirements of most ground-nesting bees. To preserve diverse bee communities and rare bee species, and to promote important crop pollinators in agro-ecosystems, e.g. through agri-environmental measures, we need to better understand the nesting ecology of ground-nesting bees. BSc or MSc projects could, for example, explore the potential of different types of sown flower strips as nesting habitat of ground- nesting bees, or evaluate the effectiveness of creating sand heaps or bare soil patches, or other environmental measures to promote bees and pollination services.
Detailed information (PDF, 193 KB)
Contact: Dr. Matthias Albrecht  Dr. Louis Sutter

Agroscope, Reckenholzstrasse 191, 8046 Zürich
Last update: 18.10.2017


Enough bees for crop pollination? Estimating potential pollination deficits in Switzerland

Honey bees and wild bees provide vital pollination services to many crops. They are able to increase amount and quality of yield of fruit crops (e.g. apple, cherry, strawberry), arable crops (e.g. oilseed rape, field bean) and vegetables (e.g. pumpkin, cucumber). While the area grown with pollinator dependent crops is increasing, honey bees and many wild bee species are increasingly at risk due to land use change, parasites and pathogen and possibly pesticide exposure. There are concerns that this results in a mismatch of demand and supply of crop pollination services and consequently to yield deficits. Areas of potential pollination deficits in Switzerland have been identified by spatial modelling approaches based on the scarce data available, but these models require validation in the field. Potential projects could measure the level of pollination services delivered by wild and managed bees for one or several selected model crops in a focal region.
Detailed information (PDF, 72 KB)
Contact: Dr. Matthias Albrecht  Dr. Louis Sutter

Agroscope, Reckenholzstrasse 191, 8046 Zürich
Last update: 18.10.2017


Global population genetics and marker-assisted performance assessments in the Black Soldier Fly, Hermetia illucens

The Black Soldier Fly (BSF) is a promising candidate for sustainable production of alternative protein in aquaculture and livestock feeding. The study aims at applying newly developed genetic markers (microsatellites) on a large set of worldwide samples, including indigenous populations from the Americas, wild populations established in the (sub-) tropics on other continents, and commercial colonies from all over the world. Population genetic characterisations will be complemented by mitochondrial haplotype sequencing. In addition, suitability of the new markers for future population monitoring and management will be initiatively evaluated based on marker-assisted assessments of important life history traits in different BSF inbred lineages and their reciprocal crosses under standardised conditions, and complemented by GxE experiments on different feeding substrates (organic residues).

Contact: Dr. Christoph Sandrock
Departement of Livestock Sciences, FiBL, Ackerstrasse 113, 5070 Frick
Last update: 18.10.2017


Amphibian conservation biology

Various projects are possible in amphibian conservation biology. They range from pure data analysis to experiments and field studies and cover a variety of topics from analysing declines to understanding and measuring the effects of conservation action.
Contact: Dr. Benedikt R. Schmidt    For more information, please see:
Last update: 25.10.2017


Physiological mechanisms underlying the growth/predation risk tradeoff

Prey animals defend themselves against predators, and usually pay a cost of that defense. Where does the cost come from? The traditional view assumes that prey reduce their foraging activity when they detect predators, therefore consuming less food and growing more slowly. But recent results call this view into question, and suggest instead that physiological changes in prey may be involved. This project will experimentally study the physiological responses of tadpoles (metabolic, digestive, hormonal) to predation risk over different time scales. The results will provide novel insight into mechanisms underlying the tradeoff between growing fast and avoiding predators.
Contact: PD Dr. Josh Van Buskirk    
Last update: 26.10.2017


Feedback between herbivores and their prey

In 1960, Nelson Hairston and colleagues published a paper that famously asked the question "Why is the world green?" Many possible answers have been provided over the decades since, but in fact we really don't know why herbivorous animals don't eat up all their prey. Plants do what they can to defend themselves from herbivores, but perhaps herbivores actually have positive indirect effects on their victims. This project will perform experiments with tadpoles and algae in artificial ponds to estimate several different kinds of effects of herbivores on plants, including direct consumption, nutrient recycling, and physical wounding and reduction of self-shading. If successful, this will be the first estimation of these effects within the same system, and will therefore represent a big step toward answering Hairston's question.
Contact: PD Dr. Josh Van Buskirk    
Last update: 26.10.2017


The Promise of Rewilding

The project focuses on finding better ways to restore damaged natural systems. Those who rehabilitate degraded lands or reintroduce endangered species must offer a rationale for choosing the target conditions they intend to bring back. But the increasing novelty of ecosystems (because of climate change and invasive species) means that restorationists cannot often use archival and paleoecological data to elucidate target states. They may therefore rely on non-historical rationales for justifying restoration's target conditions. "Rewilding" is an increasingly popular pursuit that requires us to identify optimal wild conditions, as through public surveys or locating reference states. A relevant field site and current restoration project will be studied, within Switzerland or beyond. Key questions include:

  • How can knowledge about the history of a site or species improve its restoration?
  • How can the appreciation of the past (historical sensitivity) improve the practice of restoration?
  • Has wilderness become a modern sacred site?
  • How do linguistic interpretations of "wilderness" in non-English languages affect the practice of rewilding?
  • See our Wilderness Babel

Contact: PD Dr. Marc Hall    
Last update: 26.10.2017


Linking ecosystems and human health in the environmental humanities

Ecohealth experts and disease ecologists call attention to the ways that polluted and transformed ecosystems can adversely affect human health. This project explores the relationships between healthy ecosystems and healthy bodies by focusing on the methods of combating malaria, the world's second most deadly killer. Draining wetlands and spraying pesticides kill malaria's mosquito vector, but such activities also alter food webs, modify biodiversity, and threaten human physiology. This project focuses on the Swiss experience with battling malaria during the early 20th century, focusing on the Magadino Delta, Ticino. Sources of information include health experts and ecologists, local archives and libraries, the Swiss Tropical Institute, Basel, and WHO, Geneva. Questions might include:

  • What effects did early malaria control in Ticiono have on the local ecosystems?
  • How did Swiss malariologists utilize ecological principles in their projects?
  • How did antimalarial medications disrupt human health?
  • Can physicians and conservationists today agree that DDT and other powerful pesticides are effective for eradicating global malaria?

Contact: PD Dr. Marc Hall    
Last update: 26.10.2017


Invasive alien species: past experience for future management

Plants and animals from afar are transforming ecosystems while changing human societies, for worse and perhaps for better. Recent imports (such as Solidago) exacerbate human allergies or facilitate the spread of disease (as in the case of Aedes albopictus), but many of our most valuable agricultural crops are also alien and sometimes invasive. There is therefore an enormous need to evaluate the invasives, understand their impacts and learn how to manage them. While ecologists study biological relationships of these organisms, there remain surprisingly few studies that address political, social, and historical effects of these creatures. This project thus focuses on these human issues as by consulting experts or interest groups, by searching through natural and human archives, and doing field work. Collaboration with other researchers is encouraged. The following are a sampling of relevant invasive species questions:

  • How have botanical gardens contributed to the spread of alien invasives, and what measures can be used to control them?
  • In which instances have alien invasives been used to contribute to biodiversity protection?
  • What have been the bureaucratic and political challenges to importing analogue (alien) species, such as tortoises in Mauritius, where such organisms are replacing their extinct forerunners?
  • Biocontrols are species imported to control other noxious species. How have cautions over the use of biocontrols changed in the last few decades?

Contact: PD Dr. Marc Hall    
Last update: 26.10.2017


Food webs, foraging behaviour, and allometric scaling

Food webs, foraging behaviour, and allometric scaling are coming together to create a new and exciting frontier of research in ecology. This frontier aims to help understand the forces that structure ecological communities, and to provide an empirically evidenced theoretical foundation for predicting effects of environmental change on ecological communities. Relevant environmental changes include extinctions, invasions, temperature fluctuations, and habitat loss. The project will involve researching any of several new ideas in this field, and will suit students with a strong interest in coupling empirical data with theoretical models, and students that have the ability to think broadly and imaginatively while still focusing on a specific research question.
Contact: Prof. Dr. Owen Petchey  Interested students could start by reading an article in Functional Ecology   
Last update: 26.10.2017


What determines how fast I eat? Biotic and abiotic influences on feeding rates of aquatic organisms

Understanding how fast organisms eat is key for understanding the dynamics of predator-prey interactions. All sorts of factors can affect feeding rate, and during this project you will conceive, design, perform, and analyse experiments with small predators in lab-based communities. These predators are, despite their small size, quite impressive and voracious consumers! Which factors are investigated, such as prey identity, temperature, and disease, will be decided in collaboration with Owen. Depending on your interests, the project could include modelling of the dynamic consequences of your findings.
Contact: Prof. Dr. Owen Petchey  For an example of the kinds of results and conclusions that a similar study found, take a look at this paper   
Last update: 26.10.2017


Evolutionary Biology

Chemistry in wild strawberry

Wild strawberry can be found across several environments and climatic zones throughout Europe. In this project, you will use metabolomics to investigate differences in plant chemistry among populations of wild strawberry, focusing on plants recently collected in Switzerland, Italy, and Austria. This project is an excellent opportunity for a student interested in learning more about bioinformatics and metabolomics.
Contact: Dr. Matthew Horton  (matthew.horton at  Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, University of Zurich
Last update: 15.11.2017


Root exudate variation among plants

In this project, you will use metabolomics to investigate the compounds secreted from plant roots (root exudates). Because we have high-quality genetic polymorphism data for these samples, you will also be able to investigate the plant genes responsible for root exudates. This project is especially well-suited for students interested in learning more about metabolomics, bioinformatics, and molecular genetics.
Contact: Dr. Matthew Horton  (matthew.horton at  Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, University of Zurich
Last update: 15.11.2017


The benefits of being parasitized: A humanist’s perspective

Traditionally viewed only as purveyors of disease and harm, parasites of plants, animals and microbes are being reassessed for their innocuous and even beneficial effects to their hosts and ecosystems. As examples of such beneficial effects, parasites may help their invading host colonize new territory, or even help their host fend off more virulent and dangerous parasites. With humans as our case study, humanists and historians need to consider the cultural implications of parasite-laden humans. This project will enrich the McNeill-Crosby Thesis that posites parasites as pathogens in world history by updating it to expose the roles that our many benefical co-travelers play in the story. A varity of organisms and settings can be studied depending on student interest and experience.

Contact: PD Dr. Marc Hall    
Last update: 26.10.2017


Studying the outcomes of selection in complex antibiotic environments using experimental evolution

Widespread antibiotic resistance currently poses an eminent public health threat. Excessive use of antibiotics accelerates the spread of resistance. In this project, we plan to study the evolution of antibiotic resistance as a result of prior antibiotic exposure and the role of mutation rate in the same. Specifically, we determined the minimum inhibitory concentrations (MIC) of different antibiotics for a laboratory culture of E. coli. We then selected replicate populations of E. coli in MIC of different antibiotic combinations. The selection was performed for populations with wild type mutation rates as well as populations with elevated mutation rates. 

We now plan to test the resistance status of the selected populations in an array of antibiotics. This will include the MIC estimations for antibiotics that were part of the selection as well as those that were not experienced during the selection. Additionally, we plan to estimate the mutation rates of the evolved replicate populations. 

The specific questions we plan to ask are How does a resistance to antibiotics evolve as a result of selection in complex antibiotic environment? What are the collateral effects of such evolution in context of novel antibiotics? What role does the mutation rate play in this context? There is ample opportunity to expand the enquiry into related questions. 

The project offers an opportunity to learn microbiology techniques as well as essential scientific techniques of literature review, experimental design and statistical analysis.
Contact: Dr. Shraddha Karve Prof. Dr. Andreas Wagner 
Last update: 26.10.2017


Assessing potential enzyme promiscuity in a cold-adapted bacterium

Enzymes sometimes are promiscuous - they are able to catalyze reactions in addition to their main reaction. This sloppiness has an advantage: it can promote adaptation to new challenges by favoring the promiscuous function of the enzyme and evolving a new function. You will study enzyme promiscuity in the laboratory by using a bacterium isolated from the Antarctic sea and grow it in different carbon sources, nitrogen sources, chemicals as well as different temperatures. Our goal is to characterize the adaptive potential of a cold-adapted bacterium. This project is ideal for Master students with an interest in evolution and microbiology. You will learn basic microbiology techniques and you will become familiar with statistical analyses and experimental design.
Contact: Dr. Macarena Toll-Riera Prof. Dr. Andreas Wagner    Detailed information (PDF, 46 KB)
Last update: 26.10.2017


Condition dependence of male courtship

Males developing under nutritional stress have fewer resources to invest as adults, which can affect their mating success and ultimately their fitness. Using well-studied genetic lines of Drosophila melanogaster, we will test how food stress during larval development affects male wing morphology. Since the wings play a critical role in courtship (including song production), we will further examine how condition-dependent wing morphology influences courtship song characteristics and ultimately male mating success.
Contact: Dr. Stefan Lüpold
Last update: 23.07.2019


Sexual selection in a species with extreme sexual dimorphism

This project examines how intra- and intersexual selection may shape the evolution of morphological and behavioural characteristics in Drosophila prolongata, a completely understudied species with extreme sexual dimorphism (including greatly exaggerated forelegs in males), elaborate courtship, and aggressive behaviour among males.
Contact: Dr. Stefan Lüpold
Last update: 23.07.2019


Foraging behaviour in a ground nesting passerine

This project studies foraging behavior of the red-listed wood warbler in the Swiss Jura mountains by means of radio-tracking to understand the key resources preferred during foraging. Field work April-July 2017.
Contact: PD Dr. Gilberto Pasinelli  
Last update: 30.11.2017


Use of stop-over sites by migratory species

The project examines how migratory bird species use stop-over sites, what habitats they use, how long they stay, etc. using a systematic literature review and meta-analysis. The project can be started anytime.
Contact: Dr. Silke Bauer  
Last update: 30.11.2017


Forest tree genetics

Do central silver fir populations harbor more genetic diversity than marginal populations? Contrasting theory with data.

European silver fir (Abies alba Mill.) grows in many mountain ranges of Europe. Its current distribution range has been shaped by post-glacial re-colonization and recent land-use and climate change. As a result, silver fir has a fragmented distribution in the southern regions while it maintains continuous large populations in the central Alps and the Jura mountains, providing an ideal case study for testing hypotheses about marginal vs. central populations.

Population genetic theory predicts that populations at edges of the species range exhibit lower genetic diversity and greater genetic differentiation due to smaller effective population size and greater geographic isolation in comparison to geographically central populations. However, this prediction remains poorly tested due to many technical constraints and many processes (gene flow, demography, history) may cause differences between central and marginal populations.


  • How to define marginality and centrality of a population?
  • How to simulate expected levels of genetic diversity at neutral loci depending on patch size, demographic history (e.g. distance from glacial refuge) and barriers to gene flow (such as mountains)?
  • Contrast simulated vs. real data to test if marginal populations have lower genetic diversity and greater genetic differentiation than central populations.

Available data: Over 70 silver fir populations across the distribution range, with 20 individuals genotyped at 500 SNP loci in each population.

Required skills: Interest in population genetics and in fundamental research, programming skills in R, experience with GIS tools (e.g. in R and with QGIS).

You will be supervised by Prof. Frédéric Guillaume (UZH) and Dr. Katalin Csilléry (ETH & WSL), and advised by Dr. Felix Gugerli (WSL). You will work in collaboration with two other Master’s students based at the WSL: one of them will develop a more precise distribution and abundance map of silver fir, and the other study adaptive divergence in the Swiss populations.
Contact: Katalin Csillery  Prof. Dr. Frédéric Guillaume
Last update: 30.11.2017


Experimental Projects with Tribolium castaneum

  • Effect of genetic diversity on adaptation to changing environments

You will design an experiment to test the effect of reduced genetic diversity on the survival probability of experimental lines adapting to a new environment, over multiple generations. Following Fisher's Fundamental Theorem of adaptation, populations with reduced genetic diversity have a reduced rate of adaptation to a novel environment than populations with more variation. Because genetic diversity is a function of both population size and the degree of inbreeding of the individuals, the rate of adaptation, together with population extinction, must depend on two parameters: size and inbreeding level. Inbred populations further suffer from decreased fitness due to inbreeding depression, and should thus have higher risks of extinction than outbred populations of the same size. The experiment will tease apart the effects of population size and inbreeding on the time to extinction of replicate lines in two different environments. Preliminary results show that inbreeding has a strong effect on line survival rates. In this project, you will learn about experimental design, data analysis, the biology of T. castaneum, and the analysis of genetic data based on microsatellites to measure genetic diversity.

  • Effects of changing environments on fitness components

This project aims at finding which are the components of fitness most affected by stressful conditions (here, high temperatures and low humidity). Individual fitness is the trait under natural selection and is notoriously difficult to measure. Nevertheless, investigating levels of local adaptation in populations experimentally evolved to new environments necessitates to identify the best fitness proxies. Those proxies are the components of fitness that best predict total fitness. You will design an experiment enabling you to measure fitness components and total fitness (number of reproducing adults per female) by monitoring the developmental trajectories and survival probabilities of single individuals within full-sib families in different environments. By measuring the performances of offspring within families split among environments, you will be able to expose life-history trade-offs between, e.g., reproductive, developmental, and survival traits. You will also be able to indirectly measure the strength of selection acting on the measured traits by monitoring the change in their genetic and phenotypic variation. Additionally, you will have the opportunity to perform similar measurements in experimental lines currently evolving in the same test environments and thus demonstrate whether the measured traits have evolved in the direction of the selection inferred from your experiment. Finally, in this project, you will learn about experimental design, data analysis, and quantitative genetics. The project will allow you to understand the basics of experimental evolution and develop your skills in experimental data analysis and quantitative genetics theory.
Contact: Eva Koch (PhD student, direct supervisor, Y25-G-66c) Prof. Dr. Frédéric Guillaume (Y25-G-78) Evolutionary Genetics and Eco-Evolutionary Modelling Group (Guillaume Lab)   
Last update: 24.08.2015


Habitat segregation between an allopolyploid plant and its parents - integrating manipulative experiment and next generation sequencing

Whole genome duplication between species (allopolyploidisation) occurs commonly in plants, but little is known about the molecular mechanism of adaptive significance of the originated species (allopolyploids). If an allopolyploid and its parent species have adapted to different environmental conditions, their fitness should be reduced outside the range of the current habitat. The allopolyploid may make use of genes inherited from either of the parents, depending on the environment. The project aims to determine whether environmental factors that vary among habitats in field cause difference in fitness in an allopolyploid plant and its parent scpecies, and how it is related to gene expression of the allopolyploid. Your work involves a manipulative experiment in a growth chamber and transcriptomic analyses using next generation sequencing (NGS), the latest genome sequencing technique.
Contact: Prof. Dr. Kentaro Shimizu  Dr. Rie Shimizu-Inatsugi Dr. Reiko Akiyama   
Last update: 02.11.2017


Evolutionary history of human parasites

The recent Human Microbiome Project is revealing that our bodies play host to hundreds--if not thousands--of different species in our guts and scalps that may be carrying out beneficial (and not just detrimental) functions to ourselves and our ecosystems. While scholars such as Jared Diamond have explored the role that germs have played in human history, there has been little attention to the role of larger parasites in human affairs, from physiology and behaviour to migration and social interaction. This project will endeavor to produce a cultural history of a key parasite (such as lice, Guinea worms, pinworms, eyelash mites). Questions asked include:

  • How have parasites changed human lifestyles?
  • How have the possible benefits of parasites been utilized by the medical profession, as in the treatment of allergies?
  • Are humans and human activities (through the Gaia Hypothesis) integral to endosymbiotic processes like those forwarded by Lynn Margulis?

Contact: PD Dr. Marc Hall    
Last update: 26.10.2017


Natural selection at the center and edge of the distribution

The boundaries of geographic distributions present a puzzle: why do species not simply evolve the ability to extend their ranges? One set of hypotheses involves natural selection becoming either more severe at distribution edges, or more distinct from selection at the center of the range. These hypotheses have not yet been tested.
You will perform a field experiment on the Common Frog (Rana temporaria) to measure selection acting on individual tadpoles across an elevational gradient from the valley floor to the upper edge of the distribution at 2500 m in the Alps. The question is, how does the "adaptive landscape" shift across the gradient? The project involves experiments in mesocosms and natural ponds, measurements of tadpole morphology and behavior, and an emphasis on statistical estimation of selection.
Contact: PD Dr. Josh Van Buskirk    
Last update: 26.10.2017


Size- and nutrient dependent time-budgets and pairing success of yellow dung fly (Scathphoaga stercoraria) males in the field

Animals have to trade off their daily time and their energy reserves between foraging and mating activities. This trade-off likely depends on body size. Yellow dung fly males spend most of their time around dung pats waiting for females to mate with, as this is how they can best maximize their reproductive success. However, individuals have to forage some time for nectar (their energy source) and prey (their source of protein), for which they have to leave the pasture. Small males lose in direct mate competition against larger males, but they could increase their mating success by spending more time at the mating site. The latter is possible if small males need less food and/or if they spend less energy per unit time or body mass. By marking and tracking field males that have been fed different diets, this project assesses the size-dependent time (and energy) budgets of yellow dung flies to find possible physiological advantages of small body size.
Contact: Prof. Dr. Wolf Blanckenhorn  
Last update: 26.10.2017


Temperature sensitivity in latitudinal yellow dung fly populations

The response of animals to thermal extremes may be associated with fitness benefits or costs resulting e.g. from an increase in the expression of stress proteins such as heat shock proteins HSP. We investigate systematic variation in thermal tolerance and fitness-related traits in the yellow dung fly across a latitudinal gradient ranging from Sweden to Spain by measuring temperature- and size-dependent reproductive success of females and males under semi-natural conditions in the laboratory.
Contact: Prof. Dr. Wolf Blanckenhorn  
Last update: 26.10.2017


Comparative reproductive behaviour, life history and morphology of sepsid flies (Diptera: Sepsidae)

Males have a limited amount of resources to invest in reproduction. This suggests a rich evolutionary interplay between traits that enhance mating success and those enhancing fertilization success, the outcome of which is expected to vary strongly with the mating system. By using phylogenetic, population genetic and experimental approaches, we investigate in an integrative manner how mechanisms of pre- and post-copulatory sexual selection interact and contribute to the divergence in sexual size dimorphism, genital and secondary sexual trait morphology, and mating behavior among species and populations of Sepsid flies (Diptera: Sepsidae). Three related projects can be offered.

  1. A first project targets the role of pre- and post-mating sexual selection acting on various genital and body traits in several closely related sepsid species.
  2. A second, common garden project addresses the phenotypic plasticity and heritability and hence the evolvability of the studied traits and their scaling relationships in the same species.
  3. A third project is a population genetic/genomic approach that compares quantitative genetic variation relative to that of neutral genetic markers using multiple populations of two species showing contrasting patterns of sexual size dimorphism.
  4. A fourth project employs quantitative trait locus (QTL) mapping of key behavioural, physiological and morphological traits in possibly hybridising, closely related and sympatrically occurring species to identify key candidate genes affecting natural and sexual selection.
  5. A fifth project involves genome-wide association studies (GWAS) of ecologically relevant behavioural, physiological and morphological traits by comparing latitudinal populations of various widespread sepsid fly species in Europe, Asia and North America.

Contact: Prof. Dr. Wolf Blanckenhorn  Dr. Martin Schäfer
Last update: 26.10.2017


The role of surface pheromones for sexual selection in Sepsid flies

Sepsid flies show a high diversity in body sizes, sexual size dimorphism, mating system and mating behavior. Sexual selection on body size obviously contributes to the evolution of body size and dimorphism, but will highly depend on the mating system. We study sexual and fecundity selection on body size in various sepsid species. However, behavioral traits such as courtship or short-distance and surface pheromones likely play an equally important role for male mating success as body size. We investigate the role of surface proteins (phereomones) in sexual selection in various sepsid species using gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy (in collaboration with Dr. Florian Schiestl, Institute of Systematic Botany).
Contact: Prof. Dr. Wolf Blanckenhorn
Florian Schiestl, Institute of Systematic Botany
Last update: 26.10.2017