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Adaptive tracking of the phenological nesting niche in a migratory passerine

   School of Biological Sciences

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  Dr Ally Phillimore, Dr James Pearce-Higgins, Dr John Calladine, Dr Mark Eddowes  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

Edinburgh United Kingdom Ecology Environmental Biology Evolution Zoology

About the Project

The timing of many of the events that determine woodland food webs are highly sensitive to spring temperatures. Species vary in the degree to which their phenology advances in response to warmer spring conditions and there is mounting concern that consumers fail to keep up with the timing of their resources. We can see this with woodland passerine birds like blue tits, great tits and pied flycatchers; although they breed earlier when spring is warmer, the caterpillars on which their nestlings are fed advance more, meaning that the birds appear to be lagging behind (Burgess et al. 2018). Species that undergo long-distance migrations face an additional challenge in that conditions on their wintering ground are uninformative regarding conditions on the breeding ground, such that in especially warm springs individuals may arrive late on their breeding grounds. 

There has been much interest in the ability of birds to adaptively advance their breeding times via plasticity or evolution. However, there exists a second adaptive mechanism whereby long distance migrants could adaptively track the phenology of the environment that has been largely overlooked and that is in their choices of where to settle. For instance in a warm year it may be adaptive to breed at a higher latitude or elevation - This PhD will seek to test the contributions that these two mechanisms make to the ability of redstarts (long-distance passerines) to maintain synchrony with their resources.

The successful candidate will have access to the exceptional BTO nest record data for redstarts and other species. There will be an opportunity to collect additional field data to augment a number of long-term nestbox studies. The candidate will also be encouraged to conduct targeted fieldwork on nestbox populations.

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How to Apply:

The “Institution Website” button will take you to our Online Application checklist. Complete each step and download the checklist which will provide a list of funding options and guide you through the application process. Application Deadline 31 May but applicants are advised to apply as soon as possible.

Funding Notes

This is a fully funded PhD available to UK applicants and EU applicants with pre-settled/settled status only.
We are looking for applicants with a strong interest in avian ecology, established ecological field experience and data analysis skills. Applicants must also hold a minimum of a UK Honours degree at 2:1 level or equivalent in a relevant discipline and a valid driving licence. Each student will be supported by the tax free stipend of £15,000 per annum for 3.5 years. The award will cover relevant tuition fees and additional financial support for equipment, conference attendance and networking.


Burgess, M.D., Smith, K.W., Evans, K.L., Leech, D., Pearce-Higgins, J.W., Branston, C.J., Briggs, K., Clark, J.R., du Feu, C.R., Lewthwaite, K. and Nager, R.G., 2018. Tritrophic phenological match–mismatch in space and time. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 2(6), pp.970-975.
Samplonius, J.M., Atkinson, A., Hassall, C., Keogan, K., Thackeray, S.J., Assmann, J.J., Burgess, M.D., Johansson, J., Macphie, K.H., Pearce-Higgins, J.W. and Simmonds, E.G., 2020. Strengthening the evidence base for temperature-mediated phenological asynchrony and its impacts. Nature Ecology & Evolution, pp.1-10.
Socolar, J.B., Epanchin, P.N., Beissinger, S.R. and Tingley, M.W., 2017. Phenological shifts conserve thermal niches in North American birds and reshape expectations for climate-driven range shifts. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(49), pp.12976-12981.