Project Description

A full project description can be found on Find a PhD. Please see below for additional information about this project:
This PhD will investigate how intra-specific competition and environmental variation influence individual specialisation in foraging behaviours by studying the Falkland Island shag (Leucocarbo atriceps albiventer). This species is part of a Southern Ocean complex of poorly known species/subspecies, many of which, including the Falkland Island shag, have not been studied in detail. However, as a widely-distributed resident seabird, it offers a model system to not only follow individuals from colonies of varying size and with access to different oceanographic environments; but to examine these contrasts year-round. Such characteristics make this species an excellent model to run a ‘natural experiment’ across gradients of competition (colony size) and environmental conditions (inshore and offshore colonies and seasonal variation in productivity and daylength) through which to examine drivers of individual variation in foraging/behavioural specialization.
Individual variation is increasingly recognised as being central to our understanding of ecological and evolutionary processes, and has important implications for species conservation. In particular, the relevance and extent of consistent behavioural differences (‘personality’), and the degree of plasticity or specialisation shown by individuals, has important consequences for a range of key traits including survival and reproductive success. These translate into population level impacts because they influence the susceptibility of individuals to anthropogenic threats. While behavioural variation among individuals is often clear, what is less well understood empirically is what drives individuals to generalise or specialise across contexts. Classical niche theory suggests that increased intra-specific competition (i.e. top-down effects) drives increasing levels of individual specialisation. However, environmental opportunity and resource availability (i.e. bottom-up effects), also vary temporally and spatially, for example as a result of anthropogenic impacts and seasonality, and represent an independent gradient with important consequences for niche divergence.
Essential skills
  • Capacity to conduct fieldwork independently in remote locations across all seasons; being in the field for substantial parts of the year
  • Full manual driving license

Desirable skills

  • Wildlife handling skills
  • Some familiarity with statistical or spatial analyses and coding (e.g. R software)
We encourage applications from all backgrounds and communities, and are committed to having a diverse, inclusive team. Unsure about applying? Drop us an email.
Photo by coI Al Baylis.


Thomas Bodey

Primary Supervisor:

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

Jaimie TA Dick

Secondary Supervisor:

Profile: Jaimie TA Dick
Institution: Queen's University, Belfast
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Ana Payo-Payo

Additional Supervisor:

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

Additional Supervisor:

Dr Alastair Baylis

South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute / Macquarie University


Bodey et al 2018 MEPS
Reid et al 2020 Proc B
Bernard et al 2021 Cons Letts DOI: 10.1111/conl.12804

Research Methods

This multidisciplinary project will collect novel information from multiple colonies around the Falkland Islands on 1)at-sea behaviour via biologging devices (e.g. GPS, accelerometry and dive-depth tags) 2)foraging preferences using stable isotope, DNA metabarcoding and regurgitate analysis, and 3)will combine it through state of the art statistical modelling. Ultimately, this project will allow us to make important scientific and applied contributions through:
• Empirical testing of ecological niche theory.
• Informing proposed Falkland Islands Marine Managed Areas and improving environmental impact assessments for current, and future, extractive industries through building baseline data on an important but poorly known nearshore predator.

Expected Training Provision

You will be based at the University of Aberdeen, but the project is expected to involve extensive fieldwork in the Falkland Islands. Here you will be supported by the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI), and the Falkland Islands Government Environment Unit. You will learn a range of transferable skills that will make you highly competitive for a career in research, applied conservation and consultancy, including: experimental design; remote monitoring technologies; animal handling; fieldwork logistics; analysis and synthesis of large datasets; GIS and advanced statistical techniques; communication skills through traditional and emerging media to a wide variety of audiences.


This multidisciplinary study will provide novel insights into the importance of intra-specific competition and environmental variation in driving individual differentiation. This will have implications for ecological and evolutionary theory concerning the importance of individual-level variation and plasticity; with such differences increasingly recognised as central to improving our understanding of ecological, evolutionary and conservation questions and outcomes.

Seabirds are threatened by numerous stressors, many of which have worsened as a result of anthropogenic impacts e.g. climate change and fisheries. Thus, simultaneously, this project will provide data (foraging locations and habitat usage) directly applicable to improving management approaches to preserve and enhance biodiversity. Specifically, project outcomes will make an important contribution towards supporting the designation of Falkland Islands Marine Management Areas through providing baseline data for management, with dissemination of results to the Falklands Island Government (FIG) through established communication channels via local project partners. The focal species for this project forms part of a poorly known Southern Ocean species complex, and so results will be translatable to measures to protect more inaccessible populations, as well as providing broadly applicable outcomes for local and global marine management.

In addition, our project also supports FIG meeting core environmental targets. This includes the Convention on Biological Diversity post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, with its focus on ensuring no net loss of species or ecosystems via improvements to biological knowledge, incorporating Aichi2020 targets 11 (protected areas) and 19 (biodiversity knowledge). Results will also address the Falklands Biodiversity Framework (2016-2030) by identifying priority coastal and shelf areas and ecosystems for marine species. Project outcomes will inform progress towards multiple Falklands Environment Charter commitments including 2 (wise use of natural resources), 5 (solutions which benefit the environment and development), 7 (safeguard native species) and 10 (study and celebrate environmental heritage).

Proposed Supervision

Supervision will be provided by an experienced team of researchers with wide-ranging expertise in ecology, conservation biology and energetics as well as extensive training experience. This team comprises Dr Thomas Bodey (behavioural and movement ecology, stable isotope analysis) & Dr Ana Payo-Payo (eco-evolutionary processes, environmental drivers) at the University of Aberdeen, Prof Jaime Dick (aquatic ecosystems, functional and behavioural responses) at Queens University Belfast, and Dr Alastair Baylis (movement ecology, marine ecology) at SAERI.

SAERI is a Research Institute conducting research in the South Atlantic from the tropics down to the Antarctic ice. SAERI’s remit includes the natural and physical sciences. A Falklands grown institute, SAERI conducts world class research, teaches students, and builds capacity within and between the South Atlantic Overseas. For more information see

The studentship will be hosted at the University of Aberdeen (UoA), the institutional base for PI Dr Bodey and CoI Dr Payo-Payo. Fieldwork will be conducted for extended periods of time in the Falkland Islands, principally under the supervision of CoI Dr Baylis and the wider team at SAERI. As part of the studentship, SAERI will assist in finding affordable accommodation, provide desk space and logistical support, and has 4WD vehicles that would be made available for fieldwork. Fieldwork will take place at multiple colonies across multiple islands, requiring flexibility, independence and problem-solving to achieve goals. It is envisaged that the student will also spend time in Belfast, benefiting from invaluable and irreplaceable direct interactions with Prof Dick’s group and the wider research environment at QUB. Communication between the entire research team will be optimized through monthly online meetings. Weekly meetings, for example within the context of academic research groups, will also be held with the scientist-in-charge at the relevant institution to provide a regular check on progress and allow a forum for troubleshooting. Full training will be provided in all aspects of field and laboratory work, and the student will benefit from interactions with dynamic research groups, and the potential to engage in additional opportunities arising through these, and active participation in the wider research communities at UoA, QUB and SAERI. All supervisors will be involved in the drafting of manuscripts and thesis preparation and, assuming this level of contribution, will be co-authors on publications arising from the studentship.

Proposed Timetable

Year 1:
– Literature review/Meta-analysis – manuscript on the causes and consequences of individual specialisation in foraging ecology
– Theoretical and technical training in experimental design, field ecological skills and statistical analyses
– Writing and procurement of appropriate licences
– Finalise study location(s). First winter fieldwork – capture and sampling of birds across multiple colonies. Deployment of biologgers.
Year 2:
– Summer fieldwork at core study sites
– Initial analyses of movement data
– Analysis of regurgitates and preparation of dietary samples for stable isotope and metabarcoding analysis
– Second winter field season building on results from previous year
– Dissemination of initial results to local audiences
Year 3:
– Second summer fieldwork building on key outcomes from previous field seasons
– Ongoing dietary and tag data analyses
– Dissemination activities – participation in conferences, further publications, relevant contacts for other stakeholders eg social media, local presentations etc
Year 4:
– Synthesis of year-round movement data across environmental and competitive gradients
– Thesis finalisation
– Preparation and publications of results e.g. impact of seasonal changes on individual specialisation, sex differences in foraging across a competition gradient
– Further dissemination activities e.g. conferences, industry boards
A key outcome from this project will be providing the student with comprehensive training, not only in the specific skills required for the proposed research, but also in a suite of transferable skills relevant for working in research, applied conservation and more widely. As part of this the student will fully engage with the training opportunities offered by QUADRAT throughout. This includes opportunities such as internships with relevant governmental, research or commercial entities, additional mentoring and other peer-to-peer development, leadership skills and other employability-focussed training.


  • biodiversity
  • environmental-management


CASE partner: South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI)

Non-CASE partner: Falkland Islands Government Environment Unit

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