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NERC GW4+ DTP CASE studentship: Diet and Foraging Ecology of Atlantic Storm Petrels: Geographical, temporal, taxonomic and human-mediated variation

Project Description

Seabirds are highly sensitive to changes within marine ecosystems. However, most research to date has primarily focused on larger species, typically apex predators. In contrast, Storm Petrels (“Petrels”) are small surface-feeders, and are widely distributed, taxonomically diverse, and variable in breeding phenology. Their relatively poorly understood diet and foraging ecology means we currently have only a limited understanding of how they may respond to ecosystem changes.

Conservation planning requires in depth knowledge of a species’ dietary flexibility, preferred prey types, foraging ranges, and their consequent resilience to anthropogenic and environmental changes. For example, areas identified as important foraging grounds for seabirds can be protected as a Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Given the conservation challenges facing Procellariformes, including Storm Petrels (Rodrigues et al. 2019), this project will aim to fill vital knowledge gaps.

Project Aims: This project aims to investigate the geographical, temporal, taxonomic and human-mediated variation in diet, foraging ecology and fishery interactions among Storm Petrel species, for example, how changes to fishery management practices affect the diet of Storm Petrels and their predators. The student will:
• Take advantage of a range of dietary analysis methods, including new developments in molecular studies (i.e. Next Generation Sequencing, “NGS”) pioneered within our research team (e.g. Pompanon et al. 2012, Waap et al. 2017), to substantially improve the understanding of Petrel diet, foraging ecology and conservation challenges.
• Investigate space use of breeding Storm Petrels, including the use of GPS tracking to identify important foraging sites, chick provisioning behaviour, and fishery interactions.
• Identify key trophic mechanisms by which Petrels may be impacted by – and respond to- changes in marine ecosystems.

Research questions: We will examine the geographical, temporal, taxonomic and human-mediated variation in diet, foraging ecology and fishery interactions among 6 Storm Petrel species and 10 study locations across the North East Atlantic (Figure 1). We will address a series of research questions, building on work already underway within the supervisory team.
1. Importance of fishery discards to Petrels
2. Role of commercial fishery discarding behavior as a driver of trophic pathways
3. Differences in network connectivity between Petrel species
4. Interactions with potential predators within a trophic network
Methods: The student will be involved in all aspects of the project, from planning and carrying out fieldwork at various breeding locations, to molecular analysis of diet, bioinformatics, data analysis and modelling of predator-prey interactions, in order to understand how multiple Storm Petrel species use foraging areas, how their spatial behaviour relates to chick provisioning and breeding success, and how they may respond to environmental changes including changes to fisheries policy.

Candidate Requirements: The successful candidate will have a strong combination of lab and field experiences, including molecular and hard-part analysis of avian diet, bird-ringing experience, proven ability to work in a small team in remote locations, and a good understanding of fisheries policy and practice.

CASE or Collaborative Partner: The CASE partner Eco-explore will provide data analysis training, field skills training, fieldwork support, science communication and public engagement training and practical experience, as well as collaborative links to Eco-explore’s beneficiary organisation -Wildlife Trusts of South & West Wales (WTSWW).

Training: The project is international in scope, providing the student with field experience in seabird colonies across the NE Atlantic. Training will be provided in field skills, bird ringing, molecular analysis of diet, bioinformatics, data analysis, science communication (including scientific publication) and engagement with conservation managers and policymakers.

How to apply:

You should apply to the Doctor of Philosophy in Biosciences with a start date of October 2020, including:

an upload of your CV
a personal statement/covering letter
two references (applicants are recommended to have a third academic referee, if the two academic referees are within the same department/school)
current academic transcripts.

In the research proposal section of your application, please specify the project title and supervisors of this project and copy the project description in the text box provided. In the funding section, please select ’I will be applying for a scholarship/grant’ and specify that you are applying for advertised funding from NERC GW4+ DTP.

If you wish to apply for more than one project please email us.

The deadline for applications is 16:00 on 6 January 2020.

Shortlisting for interview will be conducted by 31 January 2020.

Shortlisted candidates will then be invited to an institutional interview. Interviews will be held in Cardiff University between 10 February and 21 February 2020.

Funding Notes

Studentships starting in 2020 will provide the student with a stipend for 3.5 years in line with UK Research and Innovation (Research Council) rates (approximately £15,000 p.a.), payment of university tuition fees, a Research and Training and Support Grant (RTSG) of £11,000 and an individual training budget of £3,250.

Open to UK and EU students. All EU applicants must have been ordinarily resident in the EU for at least 3 years prior to the start of study.. Applicants from EU countries who don't meet the residency requirements may be eligible for a fees-only award.


Pompanon F, Deagle BE, Symondson WOC, Brown DS, Jarman SN, Taberlet P. 2012. Who is eating what: diet assessment using next generation sequencing. Mol Ecol. 2012;21(8):1931-1950. doi:10.1111/j.1365-294X.2011.05403.x.

Rodríguez A, Arcos JM, Bretagnolle V, et al. Future Directions in Conservation Research on Petrels and Shearwaters. Front Mar Sci. 2019;6(March):1-27. doi:10.3389/fmars.2019.00094.

Waap, S. et al. 2017. The diet of a nocturnal pelagic predator, the Bulwer's petrel, across the lunar cycle. Scientific Reports 7(1), article number: 1384. (10.1038/s41598-017-01312-3)

Useful link: CASE partner website

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