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GW4 FRESH CDT studentship: Long-term environmental influences on the ecology and conservation of river birds

Project Description

Covering less than 1% of Earth’s surface, freshwater ecosystems host around 10% of the Earth’s species and a third of all vertebrates. This includes almost 2000 bird species – roughly 20% of the global total – that depend on inland waters or their margins for all or part of their life cycle. Simultaneously, however, many of these species are exposed to multiple, global environmental stressors on freshwaters that are now responsible for rates of extinction and impairment faster than in any other ecosystem. There is a need to understand the processes, assess the consequences for ecosystems and ecosystem-services, and for management strategies to halt or reverse adverse effects. In the UK, Dippers Cinclus cinclus and Grey Wagtails Motacilla cinerea are associated closely with streams and rivers, but now have respectively ‘amber’ and ‘red’ conservation status following population decline since the 1970s. Research over 35 years has shown that 1) these species are connected integrally to the quality/quantity of invertebrate production in freshwaters (Ormerod & Tyler 1991) 2) their distribution, abundance and life histories are affected by freshwater ecosystem stressors such as pollution, persistent contaminants, plastics, climatic variation and physical habitat character (Vaughan et al. 2007; Windsor et. 2019). As a result, these species are recognised globally as indicators of the quality of rivers and their surrounding catchments. This project will use this detailed knowledge to assess factors responsible for variations in the distribution, abundance and demography of Dippers and Grey Wagtails areas of their upland range – specifically Mid/South Wales Focusing mostly on rural rivers, we will pay attention to growing concerns about the influence of intensifying agriculture on the ecology of rivers and river birds to ask: How do the distribution, abundance and demography of river birds relate to land use in space/time, and through what freshwater ecological processes? Specifically:
i) How does land use affect the breeding performance, demography and fitness of river birds?
ii) How does land use alter freshwater prey availability and prey use for river birds?
iii) How do land use effects on water quality and physical habitat affect river birds?
iv) How does land use affect pollutant exposure in river birds?
v) Is there any evidence that mitigation strategies in catchments or riparian zone can offset any adverse effects revealed by i) to iv)?
The student will lead the specific design of the project, aided by extensive, historical data held by the partners. The student will gain direct experience of field experimental design, ornithological fieldwork, river ecology, water quality assessment, contaminants, molecular and conventional assessment of prey use, food webs, GIS, data analysis and writing for publication. As well as being in the FRESH community, the host institutions have early-career communities with which the student will interact. Stakeholder partners offer opportunities for short internships to develop real-world problem solving skills. The project is supervised by the Universities of Cardiff and Exeter and by Dr Stephanie Tyler, who has collected data on river birds for almost 50 years. We will also collaborate with key local and national stakeholders.
Studentships will last for 3.5 years full-time or the equivalent period part-time.

The application deadline is 9am on 16th December 2019.


Applicants must apply directly to the CDT and not via Cardiff University’s online application system. Please use the below link which will take you to the relevant page to place an application to the CDT directly:

For more details on how to apply, please visit the GW4 Fresh website:

Funding Notes

Full UKRI stipend and fees to be funded for the duration of the studentship (3.5 years), plus RTSG of £11,000.

NERC-funded studentships are subject to UKRI eligibility requirements i.e. you should be a citizen of the UK or other EU country and have been residing in the UK for the last 3 years.

This project is in competition with others available across GW4 FRESH CDT; the projects which receive the best applicants will be awarded the funding. This year we are advertising 25 projects for 14 studentships.

Please note there are mandatory training activities during the first six months.

How good is research at Cardiff University in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 54.70

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

Click here to see the results for all UK universities

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