[MARMAM] Potential PhD Studentship Opportunity: Grey seal behaviour.

TWISS, SEAN D. s.d.twiss at durham.ac.uk
Thu Nov 10 11:37:44 PST 2016

Project Title: Patterns of individual variation in post-weaning behaviour in wild grey seals
The application deadline is 20th January 2017

Supervisory team:

Dr. Sean D. Twiss<https://www.dur.ac.uk/biosciences/about/schoolstaff/academicstaff/?id=1132>, Durham University

Dr. Patrick Pomeroy<http://biology.st-andrews.ac.uk/contact/staffProfile.aspx?sunID=pp6>, University of St. Andrews

Dr Richard<http://www.ncl.ac.uk/biology/staff/profile/richardbevan.html#background> Bevan, Newcastle University

Dr Kimberley<http://www.abertay.ac.uk/staff/k_bennett_f642c.html> Bennett, Abertay University
Dr Amanda Bishop<http://www.alaskasealife.org/meet_our_scientists/134>, Alaska SeaLife Center

Project description: Juvenile survival is a major driver of population dynamics in many mammals, including seals1. While factors determining breeding site selection and use in adult pinnipeds are well studied2-4, neonate utilisation of these habitats is less well understood, despite the importance of understanding the ontogeny of early behaviour. There is ongoing debate and research into physiological mechanisms that may determine the post weaning fast (PWF) duration in grey seals (Halichoerus grypus)5,6. However, there remains a dearth of behavioural data on weaned pups; how they spend their time on their natal colony, how much they explore and move around the colony and variation in departure time relative to weaning and weaning conditions. Recent studies show consistent individual differences (‘personalities’) in grey seal mothers7, but it remains unknown whether these behavioural profiles are expressed in weaned pups. It is possible that different behavioural types may show different tendencies for post weaning behaviour and fast duration.
In addition, a key parameter for the current grey seal population model based on pup production is ‘time to leave’ (TTL); the time a pup is ashore from birth to its departure from the breeding colony8. TTL comprises lactation duration (LD) and PWF. Factors influencing LD are largely maternal, and these likely also influence PWF, but additional site specific factors may also influence PWF. Estimates of PWF from the UK are few and dated from the 1980’s and 1990’s9-11. Population models suggest PWF is highly variable within and between UK regions and the TTL used in pup production models may be an underestimate8. Local habitat and weather conditions, along with individual behavioural type and activity may contribute to PWF variation, yet detailed analysis of drivers of weaned pup behaviour is limited. This project aims to contribute to this gap in knowledge by investigating intrinsic and extrinsic factors that determine individual differences in on colony behaviour and PWF duration.

Significance: This study will provide insights into the basic patterns of on-colony behaviour, the ontogeny of behaviour in naïve juvenile grey seals, and the diversity of behavioural profiles and their adaptability to changing conditions. Specifically, variation in PWF and the drivers for departure from the colony are fundamental parameters in grey seal population models. Information from this study will directly inform these models which are fundamental to SMRU’s work and input to governmental advice via SCOS8.

Methodology: Fieldwork will encompass 3 successive autumnal breeding seasons at the Isle of May (Scotland) colony. This study will focus on individual variation in post weaning behaviour, fast duration and mass loss. Detailed observations of weaned pups will be achieved through a combination of standard behavioural observations, and use of telemetry devices (e.g. accelerometery & GPS), to examine variation in activity and movement patterns on colony and assess the role of extrinsic factors on dispersal/movement and departure (e.g. topography, weather, adult aggression) whilst controlling for intrinsic drivers (weaning mass and rates of post weaning mass loss, behavioural type). The study will be integrated with ongoing studies of adult female behaviour and energetics on the breeding colony, to provide background data on the maternal/nursing environment of the weaned pups and maternal behavioural type. A subset of weaned pups will be exposed to simple behavioural tests to examine variation in behavioural types (exploratoriness, inquisitiveness, boldness etc.). The longitudinal study design will allow the student to examine inter-cohort differences (e.g. driven by annual weather differences) and intra-cohort variation in weaner behaviour.

References & Further Reading: 1. Hall et al. 2001. J. Anim. Ecol. 70: 138-149.2. Pomeroy et al. 1994. J Zool Lond 233: 429-447. 3. Twiss et al. 2000. Anim Behav. 59: 327-338. 4. Twiss et al. 2001. Ecography, 24: 257-266. 5. Bennett et al. 2013.J. Exp. Biol. 216: 984-991. 6. Noren et al. 2008. Phys. & Biochem. Zool. 81: 269–277. 7. Twiss et al. 2012. PLoS ONE 7(11): e49598.  8. Russell et al.  2015. SCOS Briefing Paper SCOS BP-15/03. 9. Wyile 1988. PhD Thesis, Univ. Cambridge. 10. Pomeroy et al. 1999. J. Anim. Ecol. 68: 235–253. 11. Bennett et al 2010 Physiol Biochem Zool 83: 911-923.

Training & Skills:  The student will gain extensive inter-disciplinary training in field behavioural observation, application of biotelemetry devices, organisation of fieldwork logistics and safety. The student will gain training in analytical techniques including behavioural analysis and integration of movement data within a GIS. Beyond these, the student will develop critical thinking, writing, and teamwork skills as part of dynamic, interdisciplinary, and supportive research groups. Through developing collaborations with co-supervisors, there may be further opportunity to develop  understanding of conservation and population management strategies of marine mammals through exposure to SMRU’s work.

Funding and how to apply

This project is in competition with others for funding. Potential funding is from the IAPETUS scheme, which is the North East of England’s and Scotland’s multidisciplinary Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) for the environmental sciences, which is funded and accredited by NERC (The UK’s Natural Environment Research Council). Success will therefore depend on the quality of applications received, relative to those for competing projects.

Notes on candidate eligibility: For a student to be eligible to be considered and receive an IAPETUS studentship they must meet NERC’s student eligibility criteria, which are detailed at;


These criteria require all students to be UK or EU domiciled, and only allows for EU students to receive a full maintenance grant if they have been resident in the UK for the last 3 years prior to the commencement of their studentship.

Candidate requirements: Potential candidates are advised that to be considered for the IAPETUS studentship, the minimum requirements include an excellent undergraduate degree with either postgraduate or work experience in a relevant discipline. In addition evidence of existing, or pending, scientific publication(s) in peer reviewed journals is beneficial. Potential candidates should be able to demonstrate the ability to conduct prolonged and isolated fieldwork in harsh conditions, while remaining dedicated and enthusiastic. Ability to work independently and as part of a team is essential. In addition, candidates will require strong analytical skills, including experience of modern ecological and statistical modelling techniques. Experience with R and analysis of telemetry data is advantageous, but not essential. A UK driving licence (or equivalent) is also desirable, but not essential. Candidates must have fulfilled the University’s requirements regarding English language ability and must not require a pre-sessional course as a condition of their place.

See: https://www.dur.ac.uk/learningandteaching.handbook/1/3/3/

The application deadline is 20th January 2017. Students are encouraged to contact Dr. Twiss (s.d.twiss at durham.ac.uk<mailto:s.d.twiss at durham.ac.uk>) in advance for consideration, with a CV and covering letter, detailing your reasons for applying for the project. Only the best applicants will be asked to submit a full application to the University.



Dr. Sean Twiss,
Senior Lecturer in Behavioural Ecology and Animal Behaviour,
Department of Biosciences,
South Road,
Durham University,
Durham, DH1 3LE,

E-mail: s.d.twiss at durham.ac.uk
Web-site: https://www.dur.ac.uk/biosciences/about/schoolstaff/academicstaff/?id=1132
Blog: http://sealbehaviour.wordpress.com/
Behaviour, Ecology and Evolution Research (BEER) Centre: www.dur.ac.uk/beer-centre<http://www.dur.ac.uk/beer-centre>

Tel: +44 (0)191 334 1350 (office)
Tel: +44 (0)191 334 1247 (lab)
Fax: +44 (0)191 334 1201
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