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Using molecular approaches to investigate the control of the feeding-fasting cycle of baleen whales

   School of Biological Sciences

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  Dr Davina Derous, Dr Joanna Kershaw, Dr Andrew Brownlow, Dr Filipa Samarra  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

Baleen whales are typically migratory species and rely on their fat stores during highly energetically costly breeding and migratory periods. Thus, when animals arrive on their feeding grounds in the spring, they are in a fasted state, and then build up their fat reserves throughout an intensive summer feeding season. The Mingan Island Cetacean Study (MICS) in the Gulf of St Lawrence (Canada) showed a decline in abundance and apparent survival rates of fin whales over the last 35 years (Balaenoptera physalus) [1], a reduction in the reproductive success of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) [2], and changes in the migratory timing of both species [3]. One of the likely drivers for these changes is reduced prey availability caused by environmental shifts as a result of declining winter sea ice extent in the Gulf of St Lawrence. Climate change can impact reproductive success indirectly by reducing food availability and thus worsening body condition [4]. Similar to terrestrial mammals, low fat reserves in cetaceans is also linked to a low number of pregnancies [5]. Given the trade-off between survival and reproduction when fat stores are low, climate change driven variability in prey abundance can lead to fewer offspring being born and thus could result in overall population declines. This may be especially relevant in species that migrate to their breeding grounds as migration is energetically costly and can lead to reproductive failure. It is therefore increasingly important to assess the fat stores of individuals in order to better predict the potential for their reproductive ability to be compromised, and thus identify populations at risk of decline.

This project will investigate potential markers of overall fat stores in free-ranging animals, and the student will have access to an archive of blubber biopsy samples collected from baleen whales on their feeding grounds in partnership with the MICS. The student will have the unique opportunity analyse blubber from baleen whales as they moved from a fasted state to a fed state over the summer feeding season. The student will also assess the impact of over a decade of environmental changes on their metabolism. We have repeated blubber biopsy samples available from the same individuals and information related to their reproductive history. This provides “a natural experiment” to assess the impact of environmental stressors on the functioning of blubber metabolism and potential species resilience or vulnerability to ecosystem change.

The student will become familiar with cutting-edge molecular, statistical and bioinformatic approaches, pathway visualisation programs and any wet laboratory techniques to help understand the role of blubber metabolism in the annual cycles of baleen whales. This project is data-intensive and will lead to development of new tools and methods which will be valuable to other scientists in the fields of cetacean physiology and conservation.



  • Formal applications can be completed online: https://www.abdn.ac.uk/pgap/login.php
  • You should apply for Biological Sciences (PhD) to ensure your application is passed to the correct team.
  • Please clearly note the name of the supervisor and project title on the application form. If you do not mention the project title and the supervisor on your application it will not be considered for the studentship.
  • Please include a cover letter / Personal Statement specific to the project you are applying for, an up-to-date copy of your academic CV, and relevant educational certificates and transcripts.
  • Please note: you DO NOT need to provide a research proposal with this application
  • General application enquiries can be made to [Email Address Removed]

Funding Notes

Funding for this 48 Month project is provided by the Leverhulme Trust. Funding includes tuition fees at the home/UK rate, research costs, and a stipend at the UKRI rate (£16,062 for the 22/23 academic year).
This opportunity is open to home/UK candidates only (including EU nationals that hold settled or pre-settled status within the UK).
Candidates should have (or expect to achieve) a minimum of a 2:1 UK Honours degree in a relevant subject (Biological Sciences), or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in a relevant subject.
The expected start date is October 2022.


1. Schleimer A, Ramp C, Delarue J, Carpentier A, Bérubé M, Palsbøll PJ, Sears R, Hammond PS. Decline in abundance and apparent survival rates of fin whales ( Balaenoptera physalus ) in the northern Gulf of St. Lawrence. Ecol Evol [Internet]. 2019; 9: 4231–44. Available from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ece3.5055
2. Kershaw JL, Ramp CA, Sears R, Plourde S, Brosset P, Miller PJO, Hall AJ. Declining reproductive success in the Gulf of St. Lawrence’s humpback whales ( Megaptera novaeangliae ) reflects ecosystem shifts on their feeding grounds. Glob Chang Biol. 2021; 27: 1027–41.
3. Ramp C, Delarue J, Palsbøll PJ, Sears R, Hammond PS. Adapting to a Warmer Ocean—Seasonal Shift of Baleen Whale Movements over Three Decades. Hazen EL, editor. PLoS One. 2015; 10: e0121374.
4. Kebke A, Samarra F, Derous D. The impact of climate change on food availability, metabolism, and the health of cetaceans. Philos Trans R Soc B. 2021; in print.
5. Williams R, Vikingsson GA, Gislason A, Lockyer C, New L, Thomas L, Hammond PS. Evidence for density-dependent changes in body condition and pregnancy rate of North Atlantic fin whales over four decades of varying environmental conditions. ICES J Mar Sci. 2013; 70: 1273–80.

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