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Winners and Losers: Understanding the impacts of urbanisation on a well-known garden bird, the Blue Tit

  • Full or part time
    Dr A Welch
  • Application Deadline
    Monday, January 06, 2020
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Urbanisation has transformed habitats across much of the world, leading to altered local environmental conditions, increased pollution, changes in community composition, and altered food availability. Some species are able to exploit these habitats (“winners”), while some are able to cope or adjust to a degree (“adapters”), and others are forced to either disperse away or suffer local population extinction (“avoiders”). Overall, a general pattern of lower species richness in urban areas has emerged. It is becoming increasingly important to understand what factors influence species’ success (or failure) in these ubiquitous environments in order to maintain biodiversity in a rapidly urbanising world.
The widely known garden bird, the blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus), may initially appear to be a winner at successfully exploiting urban environments. Indeed, adult birds may benefit from warmer winter temperatures and supplemental food resources provided by humans. However, during the breeding season, cities may actually become “ecological traps” for blue tits because they have limited availability of fat and protein-rich caterpillars required in the specialist diets of rapidly growing chicks. Several studies have demonstrated that blue tits breeding in cities actually have lower reproductive success than birds breeding in forested sites, yet the causes of this pattern remain unclear.
In this project, the student will work closely with collaborators from Glasgow University at long-term ecological research sites along an urbanisation gradient from the heart of urban Glasgow to an undisturbed oak forested research station. The goals of this study are to examine: 1) How the diets of nestling blue tits change along the urbanisation gradient, 2) How the diets and condition of parents varies along the gradient and throughout the year. Because of the previous difficulty in analysing diets in high resolution (e.g., diet items fed to chicks on video can only be crudely classified as caterpillar vs. non-caterpillar), hypotheses about the impacts of food availability on urban species’ reproductive success have largely been unexplored, and diet may provide a missing link in understanding species’ persistence and extirpation in cities.
This project will provide the student comprehensive experience in both the field and the lab. She/he will participate in fieldwork in Scotland, which will involve mist netting birds, collecting morphometric data, and conducting telemetry to investigate foraging effort. In the lab, the student will conduct diet DNA metabarcoding of both the parents and the chicks. In this approach, DNA from diet items is extracted from faecal samples of the birds, and then sequenced on a next-generation, high throughput platform, to obtain the sequences of hundreds of diet items from up to 200 birds simultaneously. This will provide high-resolution detail of the diets consumed by the birds both during the breeding season and throughout the year. Powerful bioinformatics approaches will identify the taxonomy of the diet items and potentially information about abundance, and then statistical analyses will be carried out to identify significant differences between sites and through time.
Key transferrable skills:
• Project planning
• Skills in ethical handling and use of animals in research
• Current technologies for monitoring animal behaviour and movements
• General lab skills
• High throughput DNA sequencing skills, useful for careers in ecology and evolution, environmental testing, molecular biology, agricultural biotechnology, and medical testing/research, etc.
• Numeracy, including statistics and bioinformatics, and computer programming
• Writing, networking, and communication
• Organisation and time management
Timeline: Year 1 – fieldwork (primarily spring breeding season but also at intervals throughout the year), metabarcoding lab work, preliminary bioinformatics; Year 2 – fieldwork, metabarcoding lab work, bioinformatics and data analysis, manuscript preparation, national scientific meeting or workshop attendance; Year 3 – data analysis, manuscript preparation, international scientific meeting attendance; Year 3.5 – finalize manuscripts and submit/defend thesis.

Funding Notes

This project is in competition with others for funding, and success will depend on the quality of applicants, relative to those for competing projects.
To express interest in applying you should contact Dr. Welch at by 6 January 2020. In your email include: 1) a few sentences detailing your reasons for applying and how your experiences fit with the project, 2) your CV with marks for previous degrees, 3) contact information for 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.

References

Pollack et al. (2017) Integrated behavioural and stable isotope data reveal altered diet linked to low breeding success in urban-dwelling blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus). Sci. Rep., 7, 5014
García-Navas et al. (2013) Prey choice, provisioning behaviour, and effects of early nutrition on nestling phenotype of titmice. Ecoscience, 20(1), 9–18;
Lepczyk et al. (2017) Biodiversity in the city: fundamental questions for understanding the ecology of urban green spaces for biodiversity conservation. BioScience, 67(9), 799-807.

https://sites.google.com/site/andreannajwelch/jointhelab/phd-studentship-opportunities



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