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Understanding reintroduction biases in mammals & birds

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  • Full or part time
    Dr S Street
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

The reintroduction of threatened species is an increasingly vital conservation tool in a time of rapid anthropogenic environmental change (1). However, reintroductions have highly variable outcomes and often fail despite substantial financial investment (2, 3). This project aims to understand why, by 1) investigating species characteristics and anthropogenic factors that predict reintroduction success in diverse species around the globe and 2) investigating the psychological biases that may underpin disproportionate investment in reintroductions of ‘charismatic’ species, using birds and mammals as model groups.

Decisions on how much money, time and effort to invest in reintroductions are multifaceted, influenced by societal attitudes as well as ecological factors. This is evident in taxonomic biases which disproportionately favour reintroductions of large and ‘charismatic’ species (e.g. big cats, birds of prey (4)). Such biases may be underpinned by perceptions of species’ ‘value’: experimental research suggests that positive attitudes towards conservation increase with empathy for non-human species (e.g. (5)). Though reintroduction biology typically neglects social factors (6), these may have a substantial effect on ‘introduction effort’ – how many individuals are released across how many releases – the strongest predictor of the survival of small populations (2, 3, 7). Understanding reintroduction biases is therefore
crucial for overcoming barriers to investment in reintroductions of ecologically important species with low societal ‘value’.

Using a powerful combination of phylogenetic comparative approaches and psychological experiments, the student will investigate two
fundamental questions: a) Why is more effort invested in reintroductions of some species over others? b) What are the effects of such biases on reintroduction success? Global-scale phylogenetic comparative analyses will be used to test predictions about general biological, ecological and anthropogenic drivers of reintroduction success. Human experiments will complement these analyses by directly investigating the psychological basis of reintroduction biases. We will focus on mammals and birds due to the availability of detailed reintroduction records and the significant reintroduction biases within these groups.

Methodology

Phylogenetic comparative analyses: The student will compile novel global-scale comparative datasets of mammal and bird reintroductions, based on existing literature (e.g. (8)). You will use phylogenetic comparative analyses to investigate drivers of success across all reintroduction stages (release, establishment and persistence (9)), particularly life history traits (e.g. litter size, longevity)
and potential measures of behavioural flexibility (e.g. relative brain size, sociality, diet breadth). Life history traits are likely of fundamental importance for postrelease success due to their influence on population growth (2), but may also affect reintroduction effort prior to release, favouring species that breed most readily in captivity (10). Likewise, behavioural flexibility may influence how well species are able to succeed in novel environments post-release (11), but may also affect pre-release biases, due to human preferences for reintroducing ‘charismatic’ species (5). Other situational factors that affect reintroduction success, such as wild vs. captive origin, food
provisioning and pre-release training (2, 9, 6), can also be accounted for where data are available. This project takes advantage of recently developed phylogenetic comparative methods that can account for multiple event- and species-level predictors (12).

Experiments: The student will also use psychological experiments to investigate which species-characteristics influence human perceptions of species’ ‘value’ and worthiness of costly reintroduction efforts. Drawing upon insights from conservation psychology (13), you will use experiments to a) investigate how species characteristics (e.g. body size, aesthetic factors, behavioural flexibility) affect species’ ‘value’, and b) to what extent such perceptions influence attitudes towards financial investment in reintroduction programmes. Further experimental manipulations can be used to investigate how these biases can be counteracted, such that investment in reintroductions of ‘non-charismatic’ species is seen as worthwhile.

Collaborations: This project involves a collaboration with Dr Isabella Capellini (School of Environmental Sciences, University of Hull) who provides particular expertise in the drivers of small (introduced) populations, as well as more broadly in phylogenetic comparative
approaches, life history evolution, brain evolution, macroecology and macroevolution.

Funding Notes

This project is in competition with others for funding. Success will depend on the quality of applications received relative to those for competing projects. If you are interested in applying, in the first instance contact Dr Street with a CV and a covering letter. IAPETUS is only able to consider applications from UK/EU candidates. International candidates are not eligible to be considered. Where a candidate from another EU country has not been resident in the UK for 3 years or more prior to the commencement of their studies they will only be eligible for a fees-only studentship.

References

[1] WWF (2016) Living Planet Report 2016. Risk and resilience in a new era. (Gland, Switzerland).
[2] Griffith et al. (1989) Translocation as a species conservation tool: status and strategy. Science 245:477–480.
[3] Wolf et al. (1998) Predictors of avian and mammalian translocation success: Reanalysis with phylogenetically independent contrasts. Biol Conserv 86: 243–255.
[4] Seddon et al. (2005) Taxonomic bias in reintroduction projects. Anim Conserv 8: 51–58.
[5] Berenguer (2007) The Effect of Empathy in Proenvironmental Attitudes and Behaviors. Environ Behav 39:269–283.
[6] Seddon et al. (2007) Developing the science of reintroduction biology. Conserv Biol 21: 303–312.
[7] Blackburn et al. (2015) The influence of numbers on invasion success. Mol Ecol 24:1942–1953.
[8] Soorae (2016) Global Re-introduction Perspectives: 2016. Case-studies from around the globe. (Gland, Switzerland).
[9] Armstrong & Seddon (2008) Directions in reintroduction biology. Trends Ecol Evol 23: 20–25.
[10] Capellini et al. (2015) The role of life history traits in mammalian invasion success. Ecol Lett 18:1099–1107.
[11] Sol et al. (2012) Unraveling the Life History of Successful Invaders. Science, 337: 580–583.
[12] Hadfield (2010) MCMC methods for multiresponse generalized linear mixed models: The MCMCglmm R package. J Stat Softw 33:1–22.
[13] Saunders (2003) The Emerging Field of Conservation Psychology. Hum Ecol Rev 10:137–149.

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