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Behavioural and physiological responses to changing environments in wild grey seals (Halichoerus grypus)

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Friday, January 10, 2020
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

Project Description

Organisms have evolved mechanisms to cope with natural stressors, but rapid environmental change is subjecting species to new threats or more unpredictable and extreme natural stressors. Conventional studies focus on species or ecosystem level responses to change, such as range or phenological shifts, but these are products of variation in individual responses. Within populations, individuals can show differing coping-styles; proactive individuals express little flexibility and are less responsive to environmental stimuli, whereas reactive individuals are more flexible and responsive. Understanding how individuals differ in their ability to cope with stressors, and the consequences if they fail to do so, is critical for quantifying species’ resilience to current and future threats of climate change and anthropogenic disturbance.

This project aims to investigate variation in behavioural and physiological stress reactivity within and between individuals, and across populations, using extensive archived data on known individual adult female grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) during the breeding season, a time of intense energetic demands and limitations. Our previous studies have highlighted the considerable additional stress placed on breeding grey seals by extreme weather patterns, and this study will examine changing behavioural patterns in concert with indicators of physiological changes in breeding and non-breeding wild grey seals. The study will assess whether behavioural indicators of environmental stress map onto physiological indicators, and establish levels of inter-individual variation, and within individual consistency in such responses.

The study will utilise an extensive existing catalogue of data on known individual breeding grey seals from a range of contrasting breeding colonies. The successful candidate will extract new data from archived video footage of these same seals to provide key behavioural and physiological metrics. These metrics will be analysed with respect to prevailing environmental factors, including social context (e.g. conspecific density) and weather conditions. Data analysis will involve mixed effects modelling procedures using ‘R’. There may also be scope for some additional field-based data collection, but this will depend upon opportunity.

Potential candidates should be able to demonstrate the ability to conduct prolonged periods of behavioural observations, while remaining focused, dedicated and enthusiastic. Ability to work independently and as part of a team is essential. In addition, candidates will require strong analytical skills, including experience of modern ecological and statistical modelling techniques. Experience with R and analysis of behavioural data is advantageous, but not essential. There is the possibility of additional data collection through field campaign(s), but candidates will need to show a willingness and ability to travel and conduct prolong field observations alone. A UK driving licence (or equivalent) would be essential for field campaigns.

Funding Notes

“This project is in competition with others for funding. Success will depend on the quality of applications received, relative to those for competing projects. If you are interested in applying, in the first instance contact the supervisor, with a CV and covering letter, detailing your reasons for applying for the project.


Twiss SD, Cairns C, Culloch RM, Richards SA & Pomeroy PP (2012). Behavioural Variation in Female Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus) Reproductive Performance Correlates to Proactive-Reactive Behavioural Types. PLoS ONE 7(11): e49598. Doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0049598

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