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Information under anthropogenic change: how do fish respond to increased noise and turbidity?

   School of Biological Sciences

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  Prof Christos Ioannou, Prof Andy Radford  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Many species across a wide range of taxa rely on indirect social information from others in addition to private information they have acquired directly from their environment. Environmental conditions, often changed by human activity, can alter the ability of individuals to gain information, e.g. by altering their attention to stimuli, and hence to make adaptive decisions. While recent research has begun to reveal how anthropogenic effects such as turbidity and noise pollution are affecting individual decision making and social interactions, very little is known about how information use and decision making in a social context are affected, or how this varies between individuals (e.g. related to their personality traits). This project will investigate these issues using the three-spined stickleback, Gasterosteus aculeatus, and/or the guppy, Poecilia reticulata. Both species balance private and social information, have a fission-fusion social structure, and make decisions collectively. Moreover, they live in habitats with variable exposure to turbidity and noise, making these ideal to study the anthropogenic effects on information use in a social context.

The project will investigate how use of information by fish is altered by environmental conditions that are driven by human activity, with a focus on increased turbidity and noise. Does noise and turbidity reduce direct detection of important cues such as those associated with food, increasing reliance on social information and making decisions collectively? Or is the effect of turbidity and noise greater on social cues, so that fish are less social and have to rely more on private information? What are the combined effects of these multiple stressors? What are the ecological consequences in terms of food acquisition of these anthropogenic effects?

These questions will be answered using a combination of field studies and laboratory aquarium experiments to ensure ecological realism and to allow mechanisms to be determined. The balance of field and laboratory work, and between the mechanistic underpinnings versus the ecological consequences, can be guided by the student, and allows flexibility in response to restrictions imposed by Covid-19. There is also considerable scope for the student to determine what behaviours and contexts are investigated, and the extensive literature on the behaviour and ecology of sticklebacks and guppies gives an excellent basis to inform such choices.

The project will suit a candidate interested in the interface between animal behaviour and environmental change. There is flexibility built into the design of the project to shift the balance between laboratory work at the University of Bristol using sticklebacks, fieldwork in the UK using sticklebacks, and fieldwork in Trinidad using guppies. A large component of fieldwork in the tropics will require a student willing to work independently in challenging conditions and to be particularly well organised. We welcome and encourage student applications from under-represented groups. We value a diverse research environment.

The project will give the student training across multiple skills: sampling and using instruments to measure environmental variables in the field, behavioural experimentation in the field and laboratory including playback experiments, computer vision software to record trajectory behaviour from video, and advanced programming and statistical techniques to analyse data. The supervisory team will provide the training required. The student will attend at least one international animal behaviour conference (e.g. ISBE).

Funding Notes

For information on funding and eligibility, please see:


Halfwerk W., Slabbekoorn H. (2015) Pollution going multimodal: the complex impact of the human-altered sensory environment on animal perception and performance. Biology Letters, 11: 20141051, 10.1098/rsbl.2014.1051.

Chamberlain A.C., Ioannou C.C. (2019) Turbidity increases risk perception but constrains collective behaviour during foraging by fish shoals. Animal Behaviour, 156: 129-138, 10.1016/j.anbehav.2019.08.012.

Harding, H. R., T. A. C. Gordon, E. Eastcott, S. D. Simpson, & A. N. Radford, 2019. Causes and consequences of intraspecific variation in animal responses to anthropogenic noise. Behavioral Ecology arz114, 10.1098/rspb.2015.2592.

Ginnaw, G. M., I. K. Davidson, H. R. Harding, S. D. Simpson, N. W. Roberts, A. N. Radford, & C. C. Ioannou, 2020. Effects of multiple stressors on fish shoal collective motion are independent and vary with shoaling metric. Animal Behaviour 168: 7–17, 10.1016/j.anbehav.2020.07.024.

Ioannou, C. C., I. W. Ramnarine, & C. J. Torney, 2017. High-predation habitats affect the social dynamics of collective exploration in a shoaling fish. Science Advances 3: e1602682.

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