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  How does the weather affect flight costs? Disentangling habitat, behaviour and flight style

   Department of Biosciences

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  Dr E Shepard  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

About the Project

Project supervisors:
Dr Emily LC Shepard, Swansea University
Dr Steve Portugal, Royal Holloway
Dr Luca Borger, Swansea University

Flight is thought to be one of the most energetically costly of bird activities. These costs matter by virtue of their magnitude, as environmental factors that affect the costs of flight, such as wind1, can have a disproportionate impact on the energy expended by birds. Yet, for most birds, the costs of flight are unlikely to vary as a simple function of the regional conditions. Instead they should be related to; (a) the way that the substrate interacts with atmospheric conditions - producing regions where flight costs are enhanced or reduced (i.e. the ‘energy landscape’2), and (b) the behavioural response to this energy landscape3. Behavioural responses may range from birds selecting flight paths that do not vary with flow conditions (instead reflecting a response to other factors), to birds modulating their flight trajectories, speed and flight mode (flapping versus soaring).

This project will quantify the energetic consequences of these responses during daily (rather than migratory) movements by combining movement data from free-flying animals with new estimates of flight metabolic rates. The student will use high-resolution GPS and accelerometer loggers to estimate how flight costs vary in relation to weather conditions and habitat type for species with different flight strategies. Pigeons will be used as example of obligate flapping fliers, and there will be opportunities to collect data from corvids as well as seabirds (including gulls in collaboration with Dr Ruedi Nager, Glasgow University).

The post would suit a student with a strong interest in movement ecology, who wishes to develop expertise in the collection and analysis of high-resolution biotelemetry data. The student will be part of a dynamic research group based at Swansea University (Swansea Laboratory for Animal Movement). This studentship is paired with another PhD position, to begin at the same time, which will focus on modelling airflows at fine-scales. Both positions are part of an ERC grant on flight costs. Previous experience working with birds/ flight is not a pre-requisite, as training will be provided. Coding skills would be an advantage.

Applicant requirements:
Candidates must have a first, upper second class honours or a Masters degree, in a relevant discipline. Informal enquiries before the deadline for formal applications are welcome by emailing [Email Address Removed]

Funding Notes

Full funding (to cover an annual stipend, full UK/EU tuition fees and research costs) is available for 3.5 years to support a motivated student to gain a PhD. The scholarship is funded by an ERC starting grant awarded to E Shepard (subject to contract completion), and is open to UK/EU candidates only.

How to apply:
Please visit our website for details:


1 Furness, R. W. & Bryant, D. M. Effect of wind on field metabolic rates of breeding Northern Fulmars. Ecology 77, 1181-1188 (1996).
2 Shepard, E. L. C. et al. Energy landscapes shape animal movement ecology. Am. Nat. 182, 298-312 (2013).
3 Shepard, E. L. C., Williamson, C. & Windsor, S. P. Fine scale flight strategies of gulls in urban airflows indicate risk and reward in city living. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 317 (2016).

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