Project Description

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

Energy has been termed the universal ‘currency’ of life (1). The balance between acquisition and energy expenditure (EE) is an essential link between the ability to control physiological processes at the individual level (e.g. reproductive success, mass-balance, immune function) and wider-scale geographic and environmental patterns within populations (trophic linkages, population distributions) (2,3). Consequently, energetic constraints are fundamental determinants of ecology (4,5) as organisms trade off different aspects, such as immune function and reproductive output, which require energy, in response to various environmental challenges such as habitat productivity and food accessibility which determine energy availability (1). When net energy gain of animals decreases, there may be reductions in survival, reproductive success and ultimately population viability (6). Knowledge of energy flow is, therefore, pivotal for understanding how species persist and how their survival might be affected by environmental change, particularly for vulnerable species for which changing conditions may have large impacts on their ability to survive.

In Southern Africa, species persist across many different types of habitat ranging from desert sand dunes, semi-arid thornveld to moist woodland (7). Thus, large differences in water, vegetation and food availability can occur within sub-populations of the same species, which affects home-range size and habitat utilisation (8). Presumably, there are also marked differences in the costs of transport between different habitats – within each ‘energy landscape’ (9). Therefore, there is likely to be large variation in the proportions of energy allocated to different physiological processes and life history characteristics for animals from different locations or habitats, such as open versus forested/wooded areas.

In the Eastern Cape, conservation agencies use live sales of species such as the African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) to supplement running costs. However, offtakes are conducted using limited information and would benefit hugely from being guided by scientifically robust data. Across Africa, buffalo are listed by IUCN as ‘near-threatened’ with hunting and trapping identified as emerging threats, and an identified need to understand harvest level trends as a key priority. We aim to utilise a local study site to enhance the science underpinning the sustainable utilisation of protected areas (PAs). However, we first need an improved understanding of how buffalo ecology and movement are related to energy expenditure within this landscape (dense thicket), which differs from savannah habitats where most buffalo research has been conducted and most knowledge is acquired (6). Findings will have relevance for local conservation agencies and for game utilisation across Africa.

The primary objective is to exploit new technology-driven approaches to enhance game management to both protect the local resource-poor population and to provide economic resilience through improved employment opportunities. To do this, the project will exploit the latest technology in sensor based management of buffalo populations with embedded horizon screening of wildlife diseases to identify emerging pathogens within a local PA in the Eastern Cape. The project will exploit development of applications for cutting-edge sensor technology to transform understanding of and maximise effectiveness and resilience of a PA (Great Fish River Nature Reserve, GFRNR). Reserve staff will use the data gathered to develop and inform a dynamic, future management policy. In enhancing the success of this local reserve, wildlife exploitation will be reduced with the knock-on effect of reducing the risk of zoonotic disease transfer. This project will provide a blueprint for how other PAs can improve resilience and impact.

Essential skills

  • We seek a highly motivated individual who must hold a first or upper second-class undergraduate degree in a biological discipline (e.g. zoology, biological sciences, parasitology),
  • Applicants must be competent in data and statistical analysis.

Desirable skills

  • Experience with fieldwork and laboratory skills are highly desirable.

Photo by redcharlie on Unsplash.



Michael Scantlebury

Primary Supervisor:

Profile: Michael Scantlebury
Institution: Queen's University, Belfast
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Catherine Hambly

Secondary Supervisor:

Profile: Catherine Hambly
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Nikki Marks

Additional Supervisor:

Profile: Nikki Marks
Institution: Queen's University, Belfast
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Additional Supervisor:

Overseas supervisor 
Dr Craig Tambling  is a senior lecturer and current Head of Department at the Zoology and Entomology Department, University of Fort Hare, South Africa. His expertise is large mammal ecology with a specific focus on predator prey interactions. His current focus is on understanding how large mammal prey species respond to the presence of large predators.

Additional Supervisors

Dr Ela Krol is a research fellow at the University of Aberdeen. She is a physiologist focusing on the effects of environmental change on animal reproduction and performance, in both small and large mammals. Her recent work includes biologging to monitor activity and heart rate in wild ungulates.

Prof John Speakman (Biological Sciences, University of Aberdeen and Chinese Academy of Sciences) leads the University’s Energetics Research Group which investigates energy expenditure and energy balance in animals. Since 2011, he has also been working as a ‘1000 talents’ Professor at the Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, in Beijing, China, where he runs the molecular energetics group.


(1) Wikelski, M. & Ricklefs, R.E.  2001. TREE 16: 479-481
(2) Buckley, L.E. 2008. Am. Nat. 171: E1-E19
(3) Humphries, M.M. and McCann, K.S. 2014. J. Anim. Ecol. 83:7-19.
(4) Yodzis, P. & Innes, S. 1992. Am. Nat. 139: 1151–1175
(5) McNab, B.K. 2001. The physiological ecology of vertebrates. Cornell.
(6) Humphries, M.M. et al. 2004. Integr. Comp. Biol. 44:152-162
(7) Bauer, H., and S. Van Der Merwe. 2004. Oryx 38: 26-31
(8) Tuqa, J.H. at al. 2014. Global Ecol. Conserv. 2: 1-10.
(9) Shepard, E.L.C. et al. 2013. Am Nat. 182: 298-312


Many species are in rapid decline. This research is important as it seeks to understand how such declines can be reduced. Part of the solution is to create PAs, but, these areas must be financially self-sustaining. One method of generating income from these areas is to develop sustainable offtakes. Therefore, these results are transferrable to other areas where sustainable wildlife utilisation is desired. In order to understand this, we will measure intricate details of animals’ behaviours, movements, energy costs and parasite loads. This will be integrated with knowledge of their habitat in which there may be various stressors, such as limited space, increased ambient temperatures and anthropogenic interference.
Anticipated achievements will consist of datasets produced, which will form the basis of several outputs:
(a) Scientific publications and dissemination at national and international conferences
(b) Policy modifications in wildlife management: Data generated from this work will be visible to people in the field and used for further conservation planning. It is anticipated that results will feed back to wildlife management bodies with potential to drive changes in conservation planning.
(c) Outreach to lay audience: Further work will include public exhibitions and dissemination to lay audiences such as conservation groups and schools both in the UK and abroad.

Proposed Supervision

This supervision team combines researchers with an extensive background in mammalian physiology, animal energetics, large mammal ecology, parasitology, pathogen biology and epidemiology. As well as weekly meetings with supervisors at QUB, there will be regular skype/teams meetings and visits to the different Institutes.

The student will be based in Queen’s University Belfast, under the supervision of Dr Scantlebury and Prof. Marks, and co-supervised by Dr Hambly in Aberdeen and Dr Tambling in South Africa. The student will be embedded within the Biological Sciences PhD programme at Queen’s and undertake the set basic PhD training offered there and be expected to attend required courses for PhD students (e.g. skills in writing, data analysis, communication etc.). The student will also be based within the current cohort of QUADRAT students, where they will be expected to undertake training specific to QUADRAT PhDs (see the training page). The usual PhD process is to have a 3 month initial review where there is a chance for the student to have feedback from an independent PhD review committee. Thereafter, at 6-9 months after starting the studentship, the student will be expected to undergo ‘differentiation’. This is a formal process, in which the student’s progress is assessed and, if satisfactory, the student is then able to continue with the PhD programme. Thereafter, the student will undergo regular ‘annual progress review’ meetings, with the PhD review committee. The purpose of these meetings is to provide continual and independent support to the student. In addition, regular meetings (e.g. monthly) will be held with the supervisory team during which the student’s progress is assessed, and advice/ assistance offered, these meetings are a requirement of the University.

Proposed Timetable

The student will spend an initial period (e.g. 6-8 months) studying the relevant literature and generating research plans. Once a good grasp has been obtained of the background to the study, we would like the student to become acquainted with the necessary analysis and analytical techniques that the project will involve. Therefore, the student will spend time with the South African partner (Dr Tambling). Covid19 and fieldwork logistics permitting, the student will have the opportunity to travel to South Africa to assist with the data collection and interact and learn from Dr Tambling. Notwithstanding, regular meetings will take place with all partners (zoom/ teams etc.). We have historical tracking data that the student can use (including data on large mammals) which can be incorporated into the PhD. Both of the above aspects (literature review and acquisition of data analysis techniques) can be undertaken alongside the necessary QUADRAT training. During years 2-3 we imagine that the student will become more involved with data collection and rigorous analysis of those data. This will involve elements of fieldwork (above) which will include deployment of data loggers onto animals and investigating the fine scale relationship between microclimate and habitat at sites in South Africa and potentially elsewhere (e.g. UK and Ireland). The remainder of the PhD (year 4) will be spent finishing data analysis and writing up. We expect that the PhD will be completed as a series of manuscripts that can be submitted for publication, and therefore we would encourage the student to prepare manuscripts during the course of the PhD (starting from year 1 with a literature review).


  • biodiversity


This is a project in partnership with Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency, South Africa

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