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Flying sentinels: using a long-distance migratory bird to assess exposure to POPs over two continents and their health consequences

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Thursday, January 31, 2019
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Human activities have for side effects the introduction in natural environments of persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Unfortunately, POPs can bioaccumulate over time and biomagnify within ecosystems, and thus have for consequences to alter the health, reproduction and survival of top predators within those ecosystems. Nowadays, our knowledge of POPs is primarily based on studies testing the toxic effects of POPs in laboratory animals and on the legal obligation from member countries of the Stockholm convention on POPs to provide an annual toxics release inventory. Although it provides invaluable information on risk exposure, much remains to be done to understand realized exposure and consequences of POPs in free living animals.

High trophic bird species are expected to be the most exposed to POPs, and therefore they are often used as sentinels. Birds can however travel over very long-distances and, since the release of POPs greatly differ over space and medium (i.e. soil, water, air), a first challenge when aiming to understand realized exposure to POPs is to be able not only to track down individuals but also to model the fate of POPs in environmental systems. Furthermore, because POPs bioaccumulate over time and top predators are also gaining breeding experience over the same time period, a second challenge when aiming to uncover the negative of POPs in the wild is to be able to control for concealing effects of age and experience.

This PhD project aims to undertake those two challenges using a long-lived and long-distance migratory bird species, the Alpine swift, where you will have access to detailed information at the individual level on (i) year-round movements thought the use of tracking devices, (ii) contamination by POPs through gas chromatography–mass spectrometry measures of tissue samples, and (iii) chronological age and fitness since the populations under study have been monitored for more than two decades. You will be applying fugacity models to understand transfer of POPs in environmental systems and to get original insights on where and when birds become exposed to POPs, and you will be using mixed-model and path analyses to shed new light on the importance of pollution and ageing in shaping reproduction and survival in the wild.

This inter-disciplinary PhD project across environmental geosciences and conservation biology will offer a unique opportunity for the student to learn a variety of important methods in environmental modelling, movement ecology, animal physiology and conservation biology, and to participate in the field work. This student will be joining the QUADRAT Doctoral Training Partnership that brings together research and teaching centres of excellence in biological science and geoscience from the University of Aberdeen (UoA) and Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), and that has for vision to equip students with the skills, outlook, purpose and holistic understanding to lead, communicate and translate innovative cross-disciplinary research to meet tomorrow’s challenges in effective management of the natural environment. The project will be based at UoA (70%) and QUB (30%) where the student will benefit from interaction with a thriving community of postgraduate students, postdocs, and faculty in animal ecology and conservation and environmental sciences.

Funding Notes

This studentship is available to UK and other EU nationals and provides funding for tuition fees and stipend, subject to eligibility.
Candidates should have (or expect to achieve) a minimum of a 2.1 Honours degree in a relevant subject.


• Apply for Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Biological Sciences
• State name of the lead supervisor as the Name of Proposed Supervisor
• State ‘QUADRAT DTP’ as Intended Source of Funding
• State the exact project title on the application form


Bize P, et al. (2009). Telomere dynamics rather than age predict life expectancy in the wild. Proceedings of The Royal Society B-Biological Sciences 276: 1679-1683

Meier CM, et al. (2018). What makes Alpine swift ascend at twilight? Novel geolocators reveal year-round flight behaviour. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 72: 45.

O’Driscoll K, Robinson J, Chiang W-S, Chen Y-Y, Kao R-C & Doherty R. 2016. The environmental fate of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in western Taiwan and coastal waters: evaluation with a fugacity-based model. Environmental Science and Pollution Research 23: 13222-13234.

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