PhD Opportunity! Studying Climate Change and Predator-Prey Populations at Aberdeen University


This PhD project will investigate ‘where’ and most importantly, ‘why’, marine mammals and seabirds are more likely to overlap with their prey species under future climate conditions. The practical outcomes of the research will allow future-proofing of the locations of our Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and improve marine spatial planning for decisions such as where offshore renewable developments should be placed. Using spatial population modelling tools, at-sea tagging data and oceanographic model outputs this PhD will examine how climate change conditions will enhance or hinder seasonal predator-prey overlap and thereby influence colony specific population dynamics of seabird and marine mammals.

The supervisory team is made up of marine ecologists, oceanographers, mammal and seabird experts from the Universities of Aberdeen and St Andrews, as well as scientists from UK and Scottish Government; Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), Marine Scotland Science (MSS) and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). The successful student will have the potential to gain practical experience within any/all of these institutions and agencies during the PhD.


It is well known that climate change will affect the phenology (miss-match) of events that can affect predator-prey interactions. In the marine environment, temporal and spatial processes are even more tightly coupled (Steele 1974) such that with climate change the miss-matches will occur in both time and space. This is especially true for mobile predator-prey systems such as seabirds, mammals and their prey fish and planktonic species. Critical marine habitats (CMH) are spots in space, which hold particularly high importance for biotic systems, and tend to be characterised by specific physical features, such as frontal regions (Cox et al. 2018), locations of internal wave production (Sharples, Scott, Inall 2013). Future-proofing MPAs and current marine spatial planning requires 1) a much better understanding of which marine areas give rise to CMH and 2) the critical seasonal timing of important events, such as predictable increases in prey availability due to physical forcing, migration and spawning events.

This PhD will explore contrasting sites around the UK, where CMH variables are set to change drastically with climate change and where large-scale renewable energy developments can be sited (De Dominicis et al. 2018). Those sites where seabirds and mammals are showing rapid declines or increases, and with availability of good historical data from colony and tracking data, will be prioritized. The predicted seasonal and temporal changes within these sites will be investigated as to how changes in prey availably (zooplankton, representative pelagic and juvenile fish species) will affect breeding success and survival of contrasting seabird and mammal species. This will be done using a spatial Bayesian modelling approach with habitat as proxies of prey availability (Matthiopoulos et al. 2015).


This is an exceptional training opportunity for a student wishing to learn to develop spatial population dynamic models for use in marine management. The project will provide the PhD student with training in empirical approaches to marine ecology with a strong emphasis on gaining skills in innovative Bayesian modelling approaches and the use of at-sea survey, tagging and colony based data on seabirds, mammals, fish and zooplankton as well as output from fine scale oceanographic. models. There will also be the opportunity to participate in at-sea data collection.

The student will be part a growing network of high calibre environmental scientists through the SUPER doctoral training partnership. SUPER provides students with inter-institutional support and shared training opportunities. All students will participate in two main cohort-building events per year; the Annual Science Meeting and the Annual Retreat. Students are also registered for the SUPER Post Graduate Certificate in Researcher Professional Development.


Applicants should have a degree in ecology, biology or oceanography or other related fields. A highly quantitative background is desirable.

Application Deadline: 10 January 2020

For more information and how to apply, visit the Aberdeen University website.

Story by Aberdeen University

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