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How do Arctic seabirds coordinate parental care in a changing climate?

Project Description

Background – The Arctic is experiencing more rapid climate change than any other ecosystem on earth, with potentially devastating consequences for biodiversity in the region. Seabirds are particularly vulnerable because they often forage far from breeding colonies, and because parents must coordinate their care when raising offspring. This project will investigate the ability of seabirds with obligate biparental care to adapt to changes in their foraging environment, and the consequences of this adaptability for their partner and their offspring.

Objectives - The student will work on a population of individually marked kittiwakes Rissa tridactyla in Svalbard, combining behavioural observations at a breeding colony, tracking of foraging trips using biologging techniques and environmental modelling. The principal objectives are to:
1) Quantify the foraging behaviour of parents across the breeding season and determine its impact on offspring fitness.
2) Determine how each parent responds to their partner’s behaviour, and investigate the impact of environmental factors on parental coordination.
3) Model the effects of environmental constraints on foraging behaviour to determine how obligate biparental care may impact on a species ability to adapt to climate change.
Novelty - Behavioural plasticity in foraging has been modelled at the individual level, but its impact on parental coordination and the associated ability to adapt to climate change, is poorly understood. Seabirds are model species in foraging studies, and yet the constraints imposed by obligate biparental care have been largely ignored, despite their significance for understanding individual foraging decisions.

Timeliness - Kittiwakes feed at glacial fronts and as the Arctic is warming at an unprecedented rate, these foraging sites could disappear within a decade. Therefore, this is an ideal model system in which to study these questions, and to understand the likely impact of climate change on seabirds and the Arctic ecosystem.

The studentship will suit a highly motivated student with an interest in behavioural and evolutionary ecology. In addition, an enthusiasm for marine and seabird biology, and a desire to conduct fieldwork, would be advantageous. The student will join the Seabird Ecology Group at the University of Liverpool, made up of 8 PhD students and 3 postdocs and would be based in the research group of the lead supervisor (SCP). Cosupervisers have expertise in parental care strategies (BJH-Sheffield) and statistical modeling (Stephen Cornell-Liverpool) ensuring that the student has a well-rounded supervisory team, providing the support necessary to make the project a success.

Interested students are strongly encouraged to contact the lead supervisor () in advance of the application deadline.

Applications should be made online at the following link. Please apply for: Environmental Sciences (lab based) PhD

Please upload your cover letter when asked for your personal statement; For this application only a research proposal is not required.

Enquiries can be directed to:

Jayne Avies (PGR Administrator) at

Interviews in or after the week commencing : 11th February 2019. Shortlisted applicants will be interviewed for only one project from the ACCE partnership.

Funding Notes

Competitive funding of tuition fee, research costs and stipend (£14,777
tax-free, 2018-19) from the NERC Doctoral Training Partnership “Adapting to the Challenges of a Changing Environment” (ACCE, View Website ). ACCE – a collaboration between the Universities of Sheffield, Liverpool, and York – is the only dedicated ecology/evolution/conservation Doctoral Training Partnership in the UK.


Patrick SC, Pinaud D & Weimerskirch H (2017). Boldness predicts an individual's position along an exploration–exploitation foraging trade‐off. Journal of Animal Ecology 86 (5), 1257-1268.
Patrick SC & Weimerskirch H (2017). Reproductive success is driven by local site fidelity despite stronger specialisation by individuals for large‐scale habitat preference. Journal of Animal Ecology 86 (3), 674-682.
Bebbington K & Hatchwell BJ (2016). Coordination of parental provisioning behavior is associated with enhanced food delivery rate and increased reproductive success in a passerine bird. Behavioral Ecology 27, 652-659.
Khwaja N, *Preston SAJ, Hatchwell BJ, Briskie JV, *Winney IS & Savage JL (2017). Flexibility but no coordination of visits in provisioning riflemen (Acanthisitta chloris). Animal Behaviour 125, 25-31.

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