Project Description

Frugivorous birds provide a vital ecosystem service by dispersing seeds while other birds species, including hummingbirds, provide equally important pollination services. This project will use newly available approaches to characterise movement dynamics of avian pollinators and seed dispersers at multiple scales. It is only by understanding seasonal migration, dispersal and spatial foraging patterns that it will be possible to effectively predict how bird species are likely to respond to different environmental changes that include climate change and habitat loss or restoration. Equally it is only by gaining this understanding of how these bird species respond to environmental change that it will be possible to predict how the many plant species that they pollinate and disperse will respond to the same environmental changes.  Opportunities within this project exist for (1) Using e-bird data, to describe seasonal patterns of larger-scale movement (i.e. migration). (2) Using genetic data to characterise dispersal. (3) Using automated radio-telemetry to track local movement behaviour of birds as they forage.  The student will join a project where these approaches are being used for hummingbirds in the Colombian Andes.

The project will involve field work in S America and a key objective is to gain information on the local-scale movement behaviours of the frugivores. This will involve deploying Cellular Tracking Technology (CTT) tags on the birds in order to track their movements through the CTT grid. Statistical and Machine Learning approaches can then be used to characterise and gain understanding of the movement behaviours. An important aspect will be determining how movement patterns change through the seasons across a set of frugivore species. Training in working with birds will be provided.

Depending upon the student’s interests and on the skillsets that they want to develop, the project can then be designed to tackle a range of questions. As illustrations, two examples are provided here. Note however, that are also very keen to hear of potential student’s ideas and the project can be modified to accommodate those. Idea 1: using the information gained from the e-bird analyses, we could conduct phylogenetic analyses to ask whether bird diversification rates differ as a function of the migratory behaviour of species within a lineage. It might also be possible to ask how the evolutionary histories of the key plant groups that are avian pollinated and dispersed are shaped by bird migratory behaviours. Within our group we have World-leading expertise in developing and applying software tools that enable this type of analysis (see Herrera-Alsina et al. ). Idea 2: With the novel data on both pollinator and dispersal movement behaviour, we can build a novel model to predict plant gene flow (due to both pollination and dispersal processes) across heterogenous landscapes – including those that have are anthropogenically modified. With such a model we could ask, for example, how rapidly ecological and genetic patterns and processes are likely to recover following habitat restoration. Within the group we have substantial expertise in developing such process-based models (see Bocedi et al. 2022).

Essential & desirable candidate skills

Essential: Question-driven. Comfortable with quantitative methods. 

Desirable: Field work experience in the tropics.  


Justin Travis

Primary Supervisor:

Profile: Justin Travis
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Isabella Capellini

Secondary Supervisor:

Profile: Isabella Capellini
Institution: Queen's University, Belfast
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Lesley Lancaster

Additional Supervisor:

Profile: Lesley Lancaster
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences


The project will provide completely novel fundamental understanding of the local scale movement behaviours of smaller tropical frugivores. While GPS tagging has been possible for large species (e.g. toucans) most seed dispersal is conducted by much smaller species and by using CTT technology we can characterise these movement, for the very first time, in a tropical system. This has major implications for our understanding of dispersal of tropical plant species, which itself is vitally important in making predictions for how tropical ecosystems will respond to anthropogenic impacts including habitat loss, and also for understanding how patterns and processes are likely to recover following restoration activity.

We would envisage this work having the potential to yield at least very one high impact (potential for 4* REF) paper and also for providing data that could be integrated with other work to yield further very high quality papers.

Proposed Timetable

Year 1: Focus on field training, field work and data collection (based primarily in S America).

Year 2: Focus on training in movement analyses and characterising movement paths in order to understanding behaviours.

Year 3: Flexibility for student to take the project in the direction of their choosing. Necessary training will be provided in-house or outsourced (if necessary).

Final 6 months: write-up.

As with all PhD projects in my group, the proposed work and timetable is merely indicative. The exact nature of the project and the appropriate timetable will be determined following discussions between student and supervisor.  


  • biodiversity
  • environmental-management


A potential partnership with Chingaza National Park, Colombia is currently under discussion. An update will be provided in due course. 

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