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Time, light and sound: nocturnal predators in landscapes of the anthropocene

Project Description

Urbanisation is one of the most pervasive forms of habitat change. More than half of the world’s human population now resides in urban areas, and urban land cover is projected to triple between 2000 and 2030. This poses major threats to single species, biodiversity and ecosystem services. Nevertheless, some species may be able to establish in urban areas, where they usually display strong physiological and behavioural changes compared to their counterparts living in natural habitats. Ultimately, the future of these urban populations will depend on their ability to adapt to city life.

There is increasing recognition that urbanisation can profoundly modify not only the spatial environment, but also the temporal one. Particularly critical are artificial light at night and locally elevated sound levels, which can affect the natural rhythmic environment, disrupt organismal clocks, interfere with sensory perception, and ultimately lead to associated changes along the food chain. However, such evidence comes mostly from diurnal species, which have been found to expand their activity into the night to extend foraging time and increase mating success, exploiting the presence of light pollution to see and move through the urban night. In contrast, there is a surprising lack of data from nocturnal species. Nocturnal species may also be strongly affected by light at night, especially in the case of prey that want to avoid being seen by predators. Moreover, nocturnal predators often hunt using acoustic cues, which makes them susceptible to anthropogenic noise, too. On one hand, these acoustic hunters may be forced to forage during quieter periods of the night, for instance by avoiding activity at noisy rush hours. On the other hand, they might switch between sensory cues and rely more on visual hunting in noisy areas, perhaps even exploiting areas polluted by anthropogenic light to find their prey. Distinguishing between these competing, although not fully exclusive hypotheses, will provide novel and exciting insights into how species may adapt to anthropogenic temporal environments.

This project will approach this unique challenge by studying Tawny owls (Strix aluco), a nocturnal predator that usually prey by sound. Individual owls will be tracked around-the-clock, using accelerometers to detail behaviour, GPS to detail space use, and soundmeters and lightmeters to detail the sensory environments experienced by the birds. Simultaneously, we will quantify the lightscapes and soundscapes in which these raptors move, by around-the-clock, on-animal recordings using dedicated sensors. We will further collect data from nests about provisioning rates, delivered food items, assimilated diet, and breeding success. Specifically, this project has three fundamental objectives:

Objective 1: Timing of activities in city- and forest-dwelling owls: To quantify the plasticity in timing of Tawny owls.

Objective 2: Moving through urban lightscapes and soundscapes: To examine how sensory pollutants (light and noise) shape foraging behaviour and foraging efficiency.

Objective 3: Links to diet and reproductive success: To identify how the modified use of time and space in urban areas impacts on diet and reproductive success.

We will study Tawny owls in urban and suburban plots in the Glasgow area, and in managed forest plots in the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. In the forest plots, Tawny owls breeding behaviour has been monitored for 10 years and a large dataset is already available through the collaboration with CASE partner Forestry and Land Scotland.

This project will use novel biotelemetry technology consisting of tags fitted with GPS, accelerometer and light logger sensors, produced by project partner Technosmart. Field work will involve monitoring of breeding events, catching and ringing adults and chicks, tagging adults, recording of provisioning behaviour and diet via nest-cameras, collecting feather samples for physiological analyses. Laboratory work will involve analysing feather samples carbon and nitrogen isotope values. Pilot data exist for owl movements and activity, and for lightscapes ( Techniques to analyse provisioning behaviour and diet via stable isotopes have been validated in other bird species.

Funding Notes

Applications: to apply for this PhD please use the url: View Website. More info here: View Website

This project is in competition with others for funding, and success will depend on the quality of applicants. Funding includes tuition fee waiver, a competitive stipend, and research support. To express interest please contact Dr Davide Dominoni () including: 1) a cover letter; 2) your CV with marks earned for previous degrees; and 3) contacts of two references. Only the best applicants will be asked to submit a full application, including two reference letters, by 16:00 on the 10th of January 2020.


1. K. C. Seto, B. Guneralp, L. R. Hutyra, Global forecasts of urban expansion to 2030 and direct impacts on biodiversity and carbon pools. PNAS. 109, 16083–16088 (2012).
2. M. Alberti et al., Global urban signatures of phenotypic change in animal and plant populations. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., 201606034 (2017).
3. M. T. J. Johnson, J. Munshi-South, Evolution of life in urban environments. Science. 358, eaam8327 (2017).
4. B. Helm et al., Two sides of a coin: ecological and chronobiological perspectives of timing in the wild. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. London B.
5. D. Dominoni, J. Borniger, R. Nelson, Light at night, clocks and health: from humans to wild organisms. Biol. Lett. 12, 20160015 (2016).
6. D. M. Dominoni, B. Helm, M. Lehmann, H. B. Dowse, J. Partecke, Clocks for the city: Circadian differences between forest and city songbirds. Proc. R. Soc. B Biol. Sci. 280 (2013), doi:10.1098/rspb.2013.0593.
7. B. Kempenaers, P. Borgström, P. Loës, E. Schlicht, M. Valcu, Artificial night lighting affects dawn song, extra-pair siring success, and lay date in songbirds. Curr. Biol. 20, 1735–1739 (2010).
8. J. T. Mason, C. J. W. McClure, J. R. Barber, Anthropogenic noise impairs owl hunting behavior. Biol. Conserv. 199, 29–32 (2016).
9. C. J. Pollock, P. Capilla-Lasheras, R. A. R. McGill, B. Helm, D. M. Dominoni, Integrated behavioural and stable isotope data reveal altered diet linked to low breeding success in urban-dwelling blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus). Sci. Rep. 7 (2017), doi:10.1038/s41598-017-04575-y.

How good is research at University of Glasgow in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 60.34

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