Project Description

This PhD will investigate how environmental variability influences the foraging behaviour and demographics of the Southern Rockhopper Penguin (Eudyptes chrysocome) at multiple colonies within the Falkland Islands. This species has declined rapidly in recent times, with mass mortality events believed to be connected to changes in sea temperatures and food availability. Given environmental stochasticity is predicted to increase into the future under anthropogenic climate change, and the Falkland Islands represent a major stronghold for this species, this provides an opportunity to investigate how environmental variability influences behaviour and demography in this iconic predator.  

Human-induced rapid environmental change presents multiple major threats to many organisms; and improving our understanding of organisms’ (in)ability to adapt to these changes is an increasingly central component of ecological and evolutionary research. For example, warming ocean conditions, overfishing, and increases in extreme weather events, together with their knock-on impacts on prey distributions and availability, represent major threats to seabird populations. As apex predators, these species are regularly deployed as indicators of the health of our marine environments, yet the relative importance of different environmental mechanisms as drivers of behavioural and population changes can be highly variable among systems. Such bottom-up and top-down processes can also vary temporally and spatially, adding further complexity. However, improving our understanding of the relative importance and potential interactions between different environmental variables is essential for understanding species’ responses at the individual- and population-level. In turn this can inform broader marine spatial planning and achieve ecosystem-based management goals. 

This multidisciplinary project will utilise new and archival data stretching back 10 years from multiple colonies around the Falkland Islands to determine: 1) at-sea behaviour via biologging devices (e.g. GPS and time-depth tags) 2) foraging preferences using stable isotope, DNA metabarcoding and regurgitate analyses 3) demographic parameters (e.g. breeding success, population size) and timings, and will 4) combine these data through state of the art statistical modelling. Ultimately, this project will allow us to make important scientific and applied contributions through:  

  • Developing an understanding of the key anthropogenic influences driving demographic and behavioural changes in the marine environment.  
  • Informing Falkland Islands Marine Managed Areas and improving environmental impact assessments for current, and future, extractive industries through enhancing our understanding of past and current impacts on a charismatic predator. 

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). You will learn a range of transferable skills that will make you highly competitive for a career in research, applied conservation or consultancy, including: analysis and synthesis of large datasets; remote monitoring technologies; animal handling; experimental design and fieldwork logistics; GIS and advanced statistical techniques; communication skills through traditional and emerging media to a wide variety of audiences.  

We encourage applications from all backgrounds and communities, and are committed to having a diverse, inclusive team. Unsure about applying? Drop us an email. 

Essential and desirable candidate skills:

Essential: Capacity to conduct fieldwork independently in remote locations and to be in the field for substantial periods. Full manual driving license (or ability to achieve this within an appropriate timeframe). 

Desirable: Wildlife handling skills. Some familiarity with statistical or spatial analyses and coding (e.g. R software) 


Thomas Bodey

Primary Supervisor:

Profile: Thomas Bodey
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

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 (SAERI)  


Baylis et al 2021 Ecol Appl Overlap between marine predators and proposed Marine Managed Areas on the Patagonian Shelf 

Bernard et al 2021 Cons Letts Toward a global strategy for seabird tracking 10.1111/conl.12804  

Orgeret et al 2021 Ecol Letts Climate change impacts on seabirds and marine mammals: The importance of study duration, thermal tolerance and generation time 10.1111/ele.13920 

Expected Training Provision

You will learn a range of transferable skills that will make you highly competitive for a career in research, applied conservation or consultancy, including: analysis and synthesis of large datasets; remote monitoring technologies; animal handling; experimental design and fieldwork logistics; 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 impacts of rapid anthropogenic environmental change on predator populations. This will have implications for ecological theory concerning the key short and longer-term drivers of population change in such species in the marine environment. It will also address central questions in conservation biology concerning the effectiveness of management options for long-lived species in a fast-changing world.  

Seabirds are threatened by numerous stressors, many of which have worsened as a result of anthropogenic impacts e.g. climate change and fisheries. This project will provide data (foraging locations, habitat usage, demographic changes) 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 required baseline data, with dissemination of results to the Falklands Island Government (FIG) through established communication channels via local project partners. The focal species for this project is a fast-declining species with a population stronghold in the Southern Atlantic. Results will therefore be translatable to measures to protect more inaccessible populations of this and other penguin species, as well as providing broadly applicable outcomes for local and global marine management of seabird populations experiencing multiple significant anthropogenic stressors.  

In addition, our project also supports FIG meeting core environmental targets. These include the Convention on Biological Diversity post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, with its focus on ensuring no net loss to species or ecosystems by improving biological knowledge. Results will also address the Falklands Biodiversity Framework (2016-2030) by identifying priority 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 demography as well as extensive training experience. This team comprises Dr Thomas Bodey (movement & foraging ecology, anthropogenic impacts) & Dr Ana Payo-Payo (demographic processes, environmental drivers) at the University of Aberdeen, Dr Paul Caplat (species’ dynamics under anthropogenic change, population and habitat modelling) at Queens University Belfast, and Dr Alastair Baylis (movement ecology, marine ecology) at SAERI.

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 field support, including 4WD vehicles that would be made available for fieldwork. The student will also spend time in Belfast, benefiting from invaluable and irreplaceable direct interactions with Dr Caplat’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 impacts of climatic changes on foraging behaviour and/or demography 
  • Theoretical and technical training in experimental design, field ecological skills and statistical analyses 
  • Writing and procurement of appropriate licences  
  • Start to compile and analyse existing biologging data.  

Year 2: 

  • Summer fieldwork at core study colonies – biologger & remote sensing deployment, diet and demographic rate data collection 
  • Ongoing analyses of existing and new movement data 
  • Analysis of historic and newly collected regurgitates, preparation of dietary samples for stable isotope/metabarcoding analysis 
  • Dissemination of initial results to local audiences 

Year 3: 

  • Second fieldwork season building on key outcomes from previous year 
  • Ongoing dietary and biologging data analyses 
  • Demographic and population modelling 
  • Dissemination activities – conference participation, publications, relevant contacts for other stakeholders e.g. social media, local presentations etc 

Year 4: 

  • Synthesis of environmental, movement and demographic data 
  • Thesis finalisation   
  • Preparation and publications of results e.g. impact of changing climate and oceanography on rockhopper population demographics, comparative change in diets across time and space among colonies 
  • Further dissemination activities e.g. conferences, industry board presentations  

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 as well as others that arise. This includes 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 Partnership with South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (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 

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