1. Climate change biology

 

What are the biological impacts of climate change? A major topic of Eco-explore’s research is investigating the effects of climate on individuals, populations and ecological processes – particularly how such effects may be mediated by the behaviour of individual animals. Our current work focuses on migratory birds as sensitive bio-indicators of climate-driven changes in trophic relationships.

 

(i) Effects of climate changes on trophic relationships in marine ecosystems

 

The body mass regulation behaviour of the smallest Atlantic seabird (the European storm petrel) changes between years in response to climate-driven changes in sea temperatures. Together with Renata Medeiros and collaborators, we coordinate a long-term monitoring project investigating how these changes are mediated by changes in the marine food webs on which storm petrels rely. Read the project blog [ http://stormies-online.blogspot.co.uk ] for all the latest news from the project.

The speciation of the band-rumped storm petrel “super-species” is the first documented example of sympatric speciation in a bird (and indeed in any tetrapod). Renata Medeiros and collaborators are investigating how diet and foraging ecology varies between sibling-species breeding in different seasons and locations and years, with the aim of understanding how foraging traits are linked to speciation events.

(ii) Effects of climate changes on migrant songbirds

Migration is one of the major challenges to survival faced by many animals, and the availability of food and other resources along the migration route is of critical importance to successfully completing the journey. Furthermore, climate may impact individuals in different ways in different parts of the annual cycle (breeding grounds, migration stopover sites and wintering areas). We combine observational studies in the field, lab and field mesocosm experiments, experimental manipulations of food availability and analyses of long-term climate and bird ringing databases, to examine the effects of climate changes on breeding behaviour, reproductive success, migration decisions, wintering ecology and annual survival of migrant songbirds. The species studied to date are reed warblers, pied flycatchers, barn swallows and northern wheatears. This work is carried out at breeding locations (Wales for flycatchers, warblers and swallows, Shetland and Greenland for wheatears), migration stopovers (Portugal and Shetland) and wintering areas (Senegal).

2. Sensory constraints on behaviour

How do animals decide when to be active? Our research in this area focuses on the role of eye design and visual constraints in an animal’s behavioural decisions, particularly under varying light levels at twilight and at night. Specific projects have examined eye size and the timing of singing (in songbirds) and foraging (in shorebirds), as well as aviary and field studies of the impacts of light pollution, using night-singing in European robins as a case-study.

3. Dietary wariness and foraging ecology

When a forager encounters an unfamiliar object, it must decide whether to eat it and risk being poisoned (if it is toxic) or avoid it and risk missing out on a valuable food source (if it is palatable). Foragers generally show brief aversions to novel objects (neophobia) but some individuals also show a much more persistent aversion to eating novel foods (dietary conservatism), which can last for weeks or even years. In collaboration with Nicola Marples (Trinity College Dublin) and others, we are investigating the function, control and evolutionary consequences of these aspects of dietary wariness, in a range of taxonomic groups –primarily birds and fish. Related to this, we are also studying the foraging decisions underlying the strategic regulation of energy reserves in foraging birds, over minutes, days, seasons and years.

4. Impacts of human activities on wild animals

Large numbers of wild animals are captured, handled, often marked for individual identification, and released in the course of scientific research and conservation monitoring programmes. Surprisingly, little is known about the effects of capture and handling on the animals themselves. Together with Leila Duarte and others, we are investigating the impact of capture and handling on the body mass regulation and foraging behaviour of animals throughout the annual cycle, and on breeding behaviour and fitness parameters. This work has implications for the design and implementation of ethical field studies on wild animals. Other studies of human impacts include evaluating and minimising the impacts of eco-tourism, light pollution, and monitoring habitat use and foraging ecology of birds and other animals, in areas earmarked for –or currently undergoing- development.

Research Group

Lecturers

Dr Rob Thomas (Cardiff University) : Animal behaviour in changing environments.

Dr James Vafidis (University of the West of England): Behavioural responses of wetland birds to climate change.

Dr Renata Medeiros (Cardiff University): Molecular scatology, climate change and avian ecology, statistics teaching

Dr Rhian Newman (University of South Wales): Impacts of light pollution on fish.

 

PhD Students

Jez Smith: Impacts of climate change on pied flycatchers

Amy Schwartz: Impacts of light pollution on road traffic mortality in wildlife.

Alex McCubbin: Population genetics and mate choice of storm petrels.

 

MPhil students

Richard (Rich) Facey : Breeding productivity of barn swallows in relation to local climate conditions. Rich is a part-time MPhil student, who also works for Natural Resources Wales.

 

Professional Training Year student (hosted by Eco-explore)

Libby Brooks –Impacts of climate change on woodland ecosystems.

 

Associated researchers

Sophie-Lee Williams: habitat selection and foraging ecology of birds of prey

Paul Robinson: conservation of west African forest birds.

Helen Hedworth: Songs, smells and genes in storm petrel populations.

 

Outreach

Dr Alex Pollard: Managing director of Eco-explore and ecological consultant at Wildwood Ecology. Alex is simultaneously secretary of the Cardiff Bat Group and the Valleys Bat Group.

Sarah Morgan: Sarah is currently developing a nature-based educational programme for children on the autistic spectrum.