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Can seabirds adapt behaviour to buffer the impacts of offshore renewable energy installations and climate change?

Project Description

A critical challenge facing the development of offshore renewable energy installations (OREIs) is their effects on populations of protected species such as seabirds. It is widely accepted that sub-lethal effects of OREIs caused by changes to seabird behaviour are likely to accumulate and adversely affect both the fitness of individuals and population abundance. However, very little is known about the extent to which affected individuals are capable of adjusting their behaviour to buffer against impacts of OREIs, and how this behavioural plasticity may be constrained under adverse environmental conditions. Yet both of these effects are predicted to become more acute in future as the number of developments increases and climate change continues. Critically, it is this ability of individuals to adjust their behaviour to exploit and buffer against changing conditions that will determine their resilience to environmental and anthropogenic change.

This project will use long-term datasets of key behavioural traits such as foraging range and time activity budgets for a suite of seabird species including kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills and shags to explore how changes in environmental conditions may be buffered by plasticity in foraging behaviour at different spatial and temporal scales and in different seasons (breeding and non-breeding) to maintain individual fitness and populations. This will allow the student to identify key aspects of animal behaviour that drive population change, and provide resilience against detrimental effects on the marine environment. The student will then investigate how these relationships are likely to be affected by individual and cumulative impacts of OREIs, using scenario modelling of individuals and populations to investigate how sub-lethal impacts from ORDs are likely to combine with background environmental variation to affect population dynamics. This will provide insight to identify the key behavioural traits that could be used within a monitoring framework to assess impacts of OREIs on seabirds. More specifically, the student will address the following key questions:

1. How does plasticity in behaviour enable seabirds to buffer variable environmental conditions?
2. What are the most appropriate temporal and spatial scales to understand this buffering?
3. What are the key behavioural traits that allow seabirds to buffer environmental conditions and how do these traits differ seasonally?
4. Can thresholds in behaviour be identified that indicate adverse fitness consequences expressed at the individual and population level?
5. How does an understanding of behavioural plasticity contribute to predictions of responses to OREIs?
6. What behavioural traits can be adapted into monitoring frameworks for OREIs?

The student will be based at CEH Edinburgh, supervised by Kate Searle and Francis Daunt, and will be co-supervised by Jonathan Green at the University of Liverpool and Jesper Kyed Larsen at the CASE partner, Vattenfall. The student will have the opportunity to take part in fieldwork, but the majority of the project will be spent on analysis of existing behavioural, physiological and demographic data. Accordingly, the project will provide training in fieldwork, statistical analysis and population modelling, ensuring a broad academic skills base. The student will receive further training in transferable skills from all three partner institutions which will give them access to a broad range of opportunities in project management, media, commercialisation and outreach. They will also have an opportunity to apply for a funded external placement during their PhD.

Applicants for a studentship must have obtained, or be about to obtain, a 2.1 degree or higher. If you have a 2.2 degree, but have also obtained a masters qualification, you are also eligible. Substantial relevant post-graduate experience may also be sufficient, please contact the supervisors for more information.

To apply please send your CV and a covering letter stating your suitability for the project to the project supervisor.

Funding Notes

This project is one of a number of proposed topics that are in competition for funding from the NERC ACCE2 Doctoral Training Partnership View Website.

Full studentships (fees and stipend) are only available to UK nationals and other EU nationals that have resided in the UK for three years prior to commencing the studentship. If you are a citizen of an EU member state you will eligible for a fees-only award, and must be able to show at interview that you can support yourself for the duration of the studentship at the UKRI level.

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