Project Description

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

The student will benefit from working alongside RSPB scientists providing advice and support both on the ground and in a supervisory support capacity. PhD training alongside RSPB NI as a partner will involve the student in community engagement, conservation management and policy. As indication of the types of investigation possible under the proposed studentship, potential chapters and manuscripts might include:

  1. Numerical responses of non-target mammals to island eradications – Plotting and testing camera trap detection rates before, during & after eradication to establish population trajectories.
  2. Changes in bird soundscapes in response to island predator eradications – Audiomoth devices deployed at the same locations as camera traps would capture bird vocalisation sonograms 24/7. Change in the avian soundscape parameters (total calls, frequency, amplitude, duration etc.), including species-specific vocalisation rates, can be compared before-during-and-after eradication.
  3. Impacts of non-native predator removal on native bird and mammal distribution and space use – Spatial analysis of camera trap / acoustic grid detections (e.g. species-specific Geographic Information Systems (GIS) heatmaps throughout the island) testing spatial change over time.
  4. Behavioural response of native prey to invasive predator eradication – Mouse, shrew, rabbit and hare behaviour can be extracted from camera trap footage e.g. latency to first detection, hesitancy, group size, vigilance, inter-detection intervals, time spent in view, alertness etc. to be compared before-during-and-after predator removal.
  5. Island eradication trophic cascades: indirect top-down effects – Rat removal will impact seed predation and insectivory (competition with mice and shrews) while positive effects of ferret removal on rabbits and hares may increase herbivory impacting priority plants.
  6. Island eradications as potential sources of human-wildlife conflict – unintended or unforeseen consequences of conservation interventions are a relatively common occurrence. A questionnaire survey of
    1. island residents,
    2. island visitors/tourists
    3. mainlanders could be conducted on the perceptions of potential indirect consequences of eradications.

Essential skills 

  • Independence, drive and determination
  • Sociability and capacity to spend significant time living on an island.
  • Computer literacy

Desired skills

  • Training in coding (e.g. using R)
  • Experience of GIS

Photo by Mike Brown.

Supervisors

Neil Reid

Primary Supervisor:

Profile: Neil Reid
Email: neil.reid@qub.ac.uk
Institution: Queen's University, Belfast
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Thomas Bodey

Secondary Supervisor:

Profile: Thomas Bodey
Email: thomas.bodey@abdn.ac.uk
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Jaimie TA Dick

Additional Supervisor:

Profile: Jaimie TA Dick
Email: j.dick@qub.ac.uk
Institution: Queen's University, Belfast
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Additional Supervisor:

Dr Gillian Gilbert,
Principal Conservation Scientist,
RSPB Centre for Conservation Science,

References

1. Camera traps for lagomorph abundance estimation:
https://zslpublications.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/rse2.11
2. Small mammal tunnel camera trapping:
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10344-020-01449-z
3. AI machine Learning algorithms for computer vision and automated species ID from camera trap images:
https://www.pnas.org/content/115/25/E5716
4. AI Machine Learning algorithms for classification of acoustic sonograms:
https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/eap.1954?casa_token=AyQhckSd_YMAAAAA%3AxLTE6WKWC5zAS-jXpuvP3I0wg2ri4IsmL7M2ok8qb-xRcKf8RRNM-F5eGN9zzUzRHu12J4yZjKlhTw
5. Sonogram species ID of UK terrestrial small mammals:
https://batability.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/BWM32_3-Small-Mammal-ID-Spreads.pdf

Impact

The UN global Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #15 ‘Life on Land’ aims to “protect, restore and promote sustainabil[ity]… and halt biodiversity loss”. A new draft Paris-style Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) sets out targets to “halt and reverse the ecological destruction of Earth by [2030]” while “reducing the current rate of extinction by 90% and enhancing ecosystem integrity” by the middle of the century. In Northern Ireland, the Programme for Government (PfG) outcome #2 “protecting the environment’ includes biodiversity indictors while the Biodiversity Strategy for Northern Ireland outlines the importance of tackling invasive alien species in protecting native ecosystems.

Thus, in assessing non-target direct and indirect effects of biological eradications on islands, this project will evaluate the wider ecological ramifications and unintended consequences of active conservation interventions. This information is necessary to holistically assess the impacts of already controversial culling and its efficacy in restoring ecosystem function. Generating data on the impacts of eradications is necessary to demonstrate their value in achieving international and national biodiversity targets. Moreover, this project will inform other ongoing and future island eradications (feral ferret removal from Rathlin will be the first such removal from any island but others are likely e.g. La Palma, the Canary Islands).

Public engagement will be central to the success of the current project, with the student engaging islanders including landowners and farmers where the quality and quantity of interaction will determine the degree of project success. This will also provide an indirect means of informing islanders on non-native species, their impacts and the importance of biosecurity, but also the value of active conservation for their environment and businesses (through ecotourism).

Due to the controversial nature of culling non-native species, there will be opportunities to engage in public and media discourse on the complex trade-offs required in environmental management.

Proposed Timetable

Year 1 (2022/23)
Semester 1 will be spent on Literature Review, establishing links with RSPB project staff and local islanders and familiarisation with the island and logistical planning. Semester 2 will continue the planning for the first field season with baseline data collection to commence late spring/summer: establishing sampling grids, deploying camera traps, Audiomoth recorders etc.

Year 2 (2023/24)
RSPB to commence eradications Sept 2023 with rat eradication completed by March 2024. Data collection from remote monitoring devices to be continuous from Year 1 field season through autumn/winter rodenticide baiting and afterwards during spring/summer 2024, representing initial responses across all trophic levels to the absence of rats the first time in a century.

Year 3 (2024/25)
RSPB continue ferret eradication potentially up to August 2025. The majority of animals will be removed in the early phase but low densities and trap-shy animals may extend the eradication process. Data collection to continue during and after culling, enabling collection of responses to very low/absence of an introduced top predator.

Year 4 (2025/26)
Camera traps can be left in situ with automated data extraction during winter 2025 and, if time and planning allow, spring/summer 2026 with simultaneous write-up.

A predominately remote sensing approach will permit 24/7 ‘Big data’ collection with monthly or quarterly battery and SD card changes. This will maximise time that the student can invest in training and developing analytical skills, focusing on Artificial Intelligence machine learning algorithms using computer vision and neural networks for automated image classification and sonogram data extraction. The goal is the creation of a data pipeline so that high frequency data may be collated continuously throughout 3-4 field seasons, providing unprecedented information on multiple trophic responses to an eradication.

QUADRAT Themes

  • biodiversity
  • environmental-management

Partners

RSPB and National Trust will support the project.

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