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The role of camouflage in the survival and conservation of ground-nesting birds

   College of Life and Environmental Sciences

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  Dr J Troscianko  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

About the Project

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme please see

Location: University of Exeter, Penryn Campus, Penryn, Cornwall TR10 9FE.

Supervisory team:
Dr Jolyon Troscianko Deapartment of Biosciences, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter.
Prof Innes Cuthill School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol.
Professor Martin Stevens Deapartment of Biosciences, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter.
Dr Andrew Hoodless, Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust

Project details
Human activity influences the visual appearance and physical structure of almost all habitats in the UK. The behaviour, movement and survival of many animals depends critically on their camouflage and ability to go unnoticed by visually guided predators. Changes in land-use practice could therefore interfere with an animal’s defensive camouflage and anti-predator behaviour; making them more easily found by predators, or less likely to remain in a location that doesn’t offer adequate camouflage. For many ground nesting birds camouflage is their only line of defence, making them highly vulnerable to land-use change. The UK’s Northern lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) population has declined by 80% since 1960, and increased predation by visually guided predators is thought to be a contributing factor to their survival. Research into animal camouflage has grown considerably in recent years thanks to advances in our understanding of the mechanisms underpinning different camouflage strategies, and novel in imaging techniques. This project will make use of these advances to investigate the importance of camouflage in the behaviour and survival of lapwings and other ground-nesting birds using a range of field studies and controlled experiments. The project’s findings will contribute to the development of land-use strategies which aid the survival of locally endangered species, and more generally will contribute to our understanding of how human activity affects the evolved anti-predation adaptations of animals.

Project Aims and Methods
This project aims to:

Determine how different land-use techniques affect the camouflage of ground nesting birds.

Test which aspects of camouflage best predict nest survival in the wild.

Determine how camouflage affects the perceived predation risk and behaviour of adult birds and chicks (e.g. selection of nesting location, and anti-predator behaviour).

Establish a causal link between specific aspects of land-use strategies and camouflage efficacy using controlled predation experiments.

Identify and develop new land-use strategies which attract ground nesting birds, compliment their camouflage, and improve their survival chances.

Funding Notes

NERC GW4+ funded studentship available for September 2019 entry. For eligible students, the studentship will provide funding of fees and a stipend which is currently £14,777 per annum for 2018-19.


Students from EU countries who do not meet the residency requirements may still be eligible for a fees-only award but no stipend. Applicants who are classed as International for tuition fee purposes are not eligible for funding.


References / Background reading list

Please email for PDFs if required (

Cuthill, I. C. et al. Optimizing countershading camouflage. PNAS 113, 13093–13097 (2016).

Merilaita, S., Scott-Samuel, N. E. & Cuthill, I. C. How camouflage works. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 372, 20160341 (2017).

Stevens, M., Troscianko, J., Wilson-Aggarwal, J. K. & Spottiswoode, C. N. Improvement of individual camouflage through background choice in ground-nesting birds. Nature Ecology & Evolution 1, 1325 (2017).

Troscianko, J., Wilson-Aggarwal, J., Stevens, M. & Spottiswoode, C. N. Camouflage predicts survival in ground-nesting birds. Scientific Reports 6, 19966 (2016).
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