Project Description

A full project description can be found on Find a PhD. Please see below for additional information about this project.

The proposed PhD encompasses QUADRAT remit and strategic priorities specifically with the Biodiversity and Environmental management research areas. This project focuses on improving our ability to capture realism in the quantification and subsequent forecasting of fulmar metapopulation dynamics. This work will advance our understanding of a priority species, and its conservation, through improvements in metapopulation modelling by understanding how different sources of disturbance and perturbations affect metapopulation dynamics. Ultimately, the project aims to advance our understanding of, and methodologies available for, modelling metapopulation dynamics. This will be important for informing policy by providing rigorous evidence to decision makers, nature conservation advisors and industry, and remove barriers to the delivery of Seabird Conservation Strategies. Moreover, such advances would reduce uncertainty when forecasting how potential bycatch mitigation may affect priority species such as fulmars in the context of the post-Brexit UK Bycatch Mitigation Initiative’.

Likewise, the proposed PhD project aligns with the NERC remit and strategic priorities specifically with the following research areas: Ecology biodiversity and systematics and Tools, technology and methods.

Ecology biodiversity and systematics: The proposed PhD aims to better understand large spatio-temporal metapopulation dynamics of Northern fulmars in the UK (Population ecology). The project will also develop an understanding of the strategies used by fulmars to maximise fitness in the face of cumulative effects such as interactions with fisheries, presence of predators or density dependence (Behavioural ecology). Ultimately the research outputs produced here will be used to inform the conservation of fulmars in their natural habitat through its core partnerships with relevant stakeholders such as JNCC and MSS (Conservation ecology). Tools, technology & methods: The PhD project will adapt existing remote monitoring technology (camera traps) with environmental applications (Technology for environmental applications) as well as developing remote environmental monitoring of fulmar populations (and their predators) (Survey and monitoring), with likely applications to other seabirds and similarly logistically intensive species.


Seabirds are long-lived species that have evolved towards long generation times making them especially vulnerable to environmental change. Although they spend most of their lives at sea, all species must come ashore to breed at a minimum, resulting in exposure to a range of cumulative marine and terrestrial pressures. Consequently, seabirds are amongst the most rapidly declining groups of birds worldwide, with pelagic species especially threatened from fisheries bycatch, predation and climate change (Dias, 2019).

The Northern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) is no exception and their UK breeding population has been declining since the late 1990s ( However, there is substantial unexplained spatial-temporal variability in population trends across the UK with some populations decreasing while others remain stable. Previous studies revealed that fulmar metapopulation structure is consistent with isolation by distance (Burg, 2003). Thus, distinct population trends are likely to be related to colony characteristics such as local density dependent processes, predation and/or bycatch.
Understanding the relative importance and the interactions between these multiple threats is essential to disentangle both population and global metapopulation functioning. It is especially interesting to understand consequences of the differential effects of these threats on individuals ― depending on age, sex or experience. Such individual-level heterogeneity can affect the long-term metapopulation dynamics by changing the ability of populations to adapt to current and future environmental change.

Bycatch and predation are a major sources of heterogeneity in the structure and dynamics of natural populations. To date, UK longline fishery bycatch is estimated to be 2200-9100 birds/year and its mitigation could theoretically result in a population increase of 2.1-17.1% (Miles, 2020). However, this estimate does not consider heterogeneity in bycatch mortality nor the effects of additional (and interactive) lethal and non-lethal effects of predation on fulmar metapopulation dynamics.

The PhD project will address these knowledge gaps by using a range of spatially explicit metapopulation modelling approaches. First, the student will collate and integrate exiting high and low resolution demographic data. Next, the student will use remote monitoring devices to collect data and quantify further sources of demographic structure at large spatio-temporal scale. Finally, the student will use this information to explain differences found in demographic rates across colonies, reduce uncertainty in metapopulation models and enhance our predictions of species’ responses to potential conservation and management actions at different spatial and temporal scales.

The proposal will use exceptional existing datasets (i.e. seabird census data and long-term capture-mark-recapture monitoring) alongside with data from the UK Bycatch Monitoring Programme. The project combines strong empirical and theoretical modelling components with fieldwork to collect further empirical data on the impact of predation in demographic rates and behaviour through remote monitoring techniques (e.g. camera traps). This project has been co-develop with relevant stakeholders (JNCC and MSS) thus maximising opportunities to develop transferrable skills and networking.

Essential skills

  • Highly numerate or strong appetite for learning quantitative research approaches including theoretical and statistical modelling.
  • Familiarity with a programming language (e.g. R).
  • Experience of travelling and fieldwork in challenging conditions.
  • Driving licence

Desired skills

  • Understanding of seabird ecology.
  • Bird ringing or handling experience.
  • Mammal handling experience.
  • Experience working with remote monitoring (i.e. camera traps).
  • Experience working with different stakeholders.

Photo by Rebecca Hewitt.


Ana Payo-Payo

Primary Supervisor:

Profile: Ana Payo-Payo
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Paul Caplat

Secondary Supervisor:

Profile: Paul Caplat
Institution: Queen's University, Belfast
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Thomas Bodey

Additional Supervisor:

Profile: Thomas Bodey
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Additional Supervisor:

Supervisor from CASE partner institution JNCC- TBC
Supervisor from CASE partner institution MSS- Dr Julie Miller -Senior Ornithologist at Marine Scotland


About Dr. Ana Payo-Payo (Academic Fellow in the School of Biological Sciences).
Ana Payo Payo is seabird population ecology expert with an interest in understanding spatial and temporal variation in vital rates. She is Co-I of 1 NERC-funded project and Co-I in another international seabird research project. She is currently second supervisor for two PhD students and has two PhD Students starting in October 2021. Moreover, has already supervised other 12 UG and MSc projects. /people/profiles/ana.payo-payo

About Dr. Thomas Bodey (Academic Fellow in the School of Biological Sciences).
Thomas Bodey is a behavioural ecologist and conservation biologist who conducts research into how anthropogenic changes impact on the ecology of vertebrates at individual- and population-levels. He has extensive experience examining the impacts of competitive, invasive species and fisheries related impacts on seabirds. He will be supervising one PhD student as PI, and co-supervising a further three as Co-I from October 2021. He has supervised 13 BSc, MSc and MRes students, five of whom have published their project work, and is a committed mentor within all the research teams he has been involved with.


Burg et al. (2003) Unravelling dispersal patterns in an expanding population of a highly mobile seabird, the northern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) PRSBB-
Dias et al. (2019) Threats to seabirds: A global assessment. Bio.Conserv. 237:525-537
Miles et al. (2020). Preliminary assessment of seabird population response to potential bycatch mitigation in the UK registered fishing fleet.

Expected Training Provision

We are committed to fostering an inclusive and dynamic working environment. We will equip you with highly demanded transferable skills including coding, theoretical and statistical modelling. We anticipate the PhD project leading to publications in international journals. Moreover, you will develop skills in science communication through a variety of traditional and emerging media.


Within the UK, some fulmar colonies are declining rapidly (England and Scotland), whereas others appear stable (Wales). Whilst many factors have been proposed as contributors to this decline, the drivers of this spatial variation in population trends is not understood. Metapopulation dynamics are likely to be playing a key role in maintaining some populations but there is a lack of knowledge about the underlying mechanism(s), and this might hinder conservation management actions for this species.

The UK planning process requires assessment of impacts of development on protected populations. To assess how fulmar populations will respond to combinations of indirect (e.g. climate change) and direct (e.g. mortality from bycatch and predation) perturbations, we need to understand the role that each one of this processes plays in determining population size. However, currently there is limited information on sources of demographic structure underlying the dynamics of fulmar populations. Obtaining evidence on these key processes and integrating multiple demographic sources into metapopulation models is essential to ensure evidence-based advice on the most effective conservation management measures for fulmars.
Besides the intrinsic impact derived from the applied nature of the project, the proposed PhD will contribute to significant advances in seabird ecology and metapopulation modelling by integrating complementary sources (i.e. remote and on site monitoring) of information at contrasting spatial and temporal resolutions (i.e. high vs low, regional vs local). This will ultimately result in both methodological and fundamental advances in ecological research in general and in particular in metapopulation modelling.

Our partners within MSS highlight that “the Scottish Government are developing a Seabird Conservation Strategy, given recent population declines in fulmar, this work, the modelling and evidence it will produce will be very beneficial in helping understanding the drivers of these and population consequences is crucial for informing effective conservation measures and ensuring sustainable management of the marine environment.”

Proposed Timetable

First Year – Training
Bayesian modelling for integrating low and high resolution data. Classic metapopulation modelling. Wild animal handling and personal Home Office license. Networking with stakeholders. Data collation: Selection of a range of sites with contrasting data quality and population trends. A literature review and production of 9-month assessment, introduction chapter/ overview paper. Fieldwork: First period of fieldwork, collection and testing of remote monitoring technology deployments to assess predation.

Second year
Chapter/Paper on understanding spatial and temporal trends in the context of cumulative pressures integrating data sources from different spatial and temporal scales to inform metapopulation dynamics in the context of Scottish and UK colonies (including SPAs). Second session of fieldwork to deploy and retrieve remote monitoring technology. This can include position papers for attention of industry and policy makers and experience working with the collaborative and CASE partners.

Third year
Evolving metapopulation methods to encompass past population trends and contrasting comparisons of colonies for future predictions of metapopulation trends. This will result in a chapter/paper looking into expanding the model to biologically-relevant scales and looking into a more biologically realistic approach to fulmar metapopulation modelling. Can include position papers for attention of industry and policy makers.

Fourth Year
Finalise thesis for submission and working on converting any remaining chapters to papers. Application of findings within JNCC and MSS evidence maps and in conservation management of fulmar populations.


  • biodiversity
  • environmental-management



This is a CASE sponsored project in partnership with Join Nature Conservation Committee and Marine Scotland Science

Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) has strong links with the devolved governments and the country nature conservation bodies through its statutory remit, and plays an important role in nature conservation at a UK scale, by coordinating nature conservation; working in partnerships to provide common approaches, shared solutions and best practice; and providing a cost-effective and robust environmental evidence base.
Their work includes:
  • Development of scientifically robust and cost-effective strategies, standards, methods and tools for use across the UK.
  • Making best use of new techniques and technologies.
  • Using analytical techniques to produce evidence on the status and trends of different elements of the UK’s natural environment, and to evaluate the impacts of pressures, based on a wealth of monitoring data.
  • Working with the UK Government and devolved administrations to agree strategic priorities for international action, co-ordinate UK reporting, and to implement obligations arising from international agreements.
  • Undertaking studies and developing tools that can be used to analyze the potential impacts of different land-use options and underpin land-management decisions.
In addition to that, JNCC coordinates the Seabird Monitoring Programme (SMP), an ongoing annual monitoring programme, established in 1986. This programme is a partnership of 19 organisations and monitors 25 species of seabirds that breed regularly in Britain and Ireland, including fulmars. The SMP aims to ensure that sample data on breeding numbers and breeding success of seabirds are collected, both regionally and nationally, to enable their conservation status to be assessed. Finally, JNCC also leads, in association with other SMP partners, on the development and completion of periodic breeding seabird censuses across Britain and Ireland.
This project has been co-developed by the University of Aberdeen, JNCC and MSS and falls under JNCC research priorities.

The scientific arm of Marine Scotland, MSS provides expert scientific and technical support to the management of activities and resources in and on Scotland’s seas and freshwaters.
Moreover, MSS works alongside policy and Compliance colleagues in Scottish Government and delivers:

  •  a programme of monitoring and strategic projects to provide scientific data and evidence
  • regulatory and enforcement activities
  • scientific advice to Scottish Ministers
  • representation for the Scottish Government at national and international meetings MSS monitors and samples seas, rivers and lochs and the fish and other wildlife that live there (including seabirds).

Marine Scotland Science has Science Programmes which cover:

  • Environment monitoring and assessment
  • Renewables and energy
  • Planning and environmental advice

This project has been co-developed by the University of Aberdeen, JNCC and MSS and falls under MSS research priorities.

Specifically, this project aligns with MSS priorities and it fits within initiatives to support sound scientific decision making and management through filling knowledge gaps and using new research to inform future decision making and policy.

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