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Join the team!

Two PhD's Available with September 2019 Starts!

Inquire below *Dec 5th deadline approaching*


Understanding the effects of environmental chemical mixtures on seabird health and fitness (ref-IAP2-18-91)

Supervised by Dr Karen Spencer, St Andrews, Dr Caroline Gauchotte-Lindsay, University of Glasgow and Dr Liz Humphreys, British Trust for Ornithology. 

Enquiry Deadline: January 9th 2019

Seabirds rate as some of the fastest declining species globally, but the reasons underlying these widespread declines are not fully understood. One potential reason lies with increasing levels of pollution. 

We manufacture thousands of different chemicals for use in a range of different products, including pharmaceuticals, personal care products, detergents and pesticides/fertilisers. The majority of these ‘environmental chemicals’ (ECs) persist within the environment, facilitating bioaccumulation and their ubiquitous presence is a real concern for vertebrate health Worldwide. One major concern is that ECs can interact with physiological systems, altering many biological processes, including reproductive ability. There is now a real need to study EC exposure profiles in an ecologically relevant way to determine the importance of ECs in driving seabird health changes across the life cycle and estimate population-level effects.

This innovative and multi-disciplinary project will focus in on the effects of differential EC exposure on reproductive success and health in three declining seabird species that show species differences and individual specialisations in their foraging habitats: Herring Gull, Greater Black-backed Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gull. These species utilise forage in urban, inland and marine habitats during breeding and hence are likely to be exposed to a wide range of EC profiles. This makes them excellent models from which to extrapolate the potential fitness effects of ECs on other seabird species. As such this project represents a potential step-change in our understanding of anthropogenic impacts on wildlife populations.

Opportunities in the MoB Lab


Prenatal Acoustic Programming in Birds

Supervised by Dr Karen Spencer, St Andrews and Prof. Simone Meddle, Roslin Institute, Edinburgh.  

Enquiry Deadline: Dec 1 2018

Even before it is born the conditions an animal experiences can have profound long-term effects on later phenotypes. This phenomenon of developmental programming has led to an increasing focus on how pre-natal conditions can impact on the health and welfare of animals, particularly in avian species. However, the main focus of research in this areas has been into in-ovo factors, such as hormones or yolk nutritional value. Avian embryos are regularly exposed to ‘external’ acoustic stimuli, including natural conspecific calls and anthropogenic noise. Recent work from the Mechanisms of Behaviour group at St Andrews has shown that embryonic exposure to different sound types can program different neuroendocrine and behavioural phenotypes in early post-natal life in Japanese quail. This suggests that external stimuli may also play a role in shaping later health outcomes and they could be a tool for optimising welfare. However several questions still remain unanswered: 1. Are phenotypic responses to pre-natal acoustic stimuli adaptive in that they prepare an individual for the post-natal environment?  2. How persistent are acoustically altered phenotypes into the post-natal period and 3. What are the mechanisms by which acoustic stimuli alter phenotypic traits in the short and long-term?

This PhD project will utilise a range of techniques to answer these three questions using a well-established captive avian model, the Japanese quail. There will also be the possibility to extend the work into free living birds, using the semi-precocial herring gull as a model. The project will integrate information across different levels of complexity, from organismal to molecular to truly understand how pre-natal acoustic stimuli can shape avian phenotypes. The student will gain experience in behavioural assays, bioacoustics, physiological assays, neuroendocrine measurement, immunohistochemistry and cutting edge molecular techniques. One aim of the project will be to use RNA seq analyses to identify candidate mechanisms for the potential programming effects of different acoustic stimuli. Work on captive species may also lead to the development of tools for the poultry industry to maximise avian chick welfare, which would allow the student to gain experience of applied research.

If animal welfare, avian species, physiology, stress, behaviour or early life development or the confluence of all these factors interests you, get in touch

If you have ideas for PhD projects, master's projects or undergraduate internships or projects, please let us know. We're happy to chat and we like collaboration! There are opportunities for funding available for all of these diverse opportunities in Dr Karen Spencer's Mechanisms of Behaviour research lab.

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