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Biologging marine predators in the UK and overseas. PhD in Biosciences (NERC GW4 + DTP)

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Monday, January 06, 2020
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Lead Supervisor
Dr Matthew Witt, Department of Biosciences, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisors
Dr Martin Collins, British Antarctic Survey
Dr Serena Wright, CEFAS
Dr Lucy Hawkes, Department of Biosciences, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter
Dr David Righton, CEFAS

Location: University of Exeter, Streatham Campus, Exeter EX4 4QJ

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). The GW4+ DTP consists of the GW4 Alliance of research-intensive universities: the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five unique and prestigious Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The partnership aims to provide a broad training in the Earth, Environmental and Life sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in scientific research, business, technology and policy-making. For further details about the programme please see

For eligible successful applicants, the studentships comprises:

- An stipend for 3.5 years (currently £15,009 p.a. for 2019/20) in line with UK Research and Innovation rates
- Payment of university tuition fees;
- A research budget of £11,000 for an international conference, lab, field and research expenses;
- A training budget of £3,250 for specialist training courses and expenses.
- Travel and accomodation is covered for all compulsory DTP cohort events.
- No course fees for courses run by the DTP

We are currently advertising projects for a total of 10 studentships at the University of Exeter

Project Background

The connectivity of habitats and the mobility of energy between them, is a critical question in large marine ecosystems. Highly mobile species play a vital role in this system (Hays et al., 2016, 2019), transferring energy both spatially and trophically. To help understand the role and importance of a number of key species within these systems, we are proposing to examine the behaviour of sentinel marine species, linking environmental and physical drivers to seasonal changes and their energetic budgets (metabolic scope).

Project Aims and Methods

This will be achieved by analysing telemetry and specifically, tri-axial acceleration data from large marine predators released in the field as part of ongoing programmes in the UK and overseas. Key species will include yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares), bigeye tuna (Thunnus obesus), bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus), basking sharks (Cetorhinus maximus) and leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea). The work may also include the analysis of legacy datasets held on smaller species of conservation concern.

Tri-axial accelerometers provide a tool for measuring the activity level (energy use), orientation and fast-start behaviour of animals in the field, and with appropriate processing, can be used to infer feeding behaviours (Gleiss et al., 2013). The PhD will firstly (1) analyse data from tuna, sharks and turtles, extracting activity levels and potential feeding behaviour, which will be linked to spatio-temporal location of the animals. This data will then be used to (2) model how activity and feeding behaviour varies between species and areas, and (3) how this links to the mobility of energy within and between areas. For commercially targeted species, implications of the removal of individuals on energy mobility within these systems will be assessed. 

By generating new knowledge on seasonal changes in behaviour of highly mobile species, this PhD will improve understanding of energy transfer and the role played by key species in UK waters and British Oversea Territories (St Helena & Ascension). This is especially important as OTs assess how to protect their diverse and rich marine environments, including informing Marine Protected Area planning.

Funding Notes

NERC GW4+ funded studentship available for September 2020 entry. For eligible students, the studentship will provide funding of fees and a stipend which is currently £15,009 per annum for 2019-20.

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