[MARMAM] Potential PhD Studentship Opportunity: Grey seal life history, behaviour and molecular ecology.

TWISS, SEAN D. s.d.twiss at durham.ac.uk
Wed Oct 26 14:24:33 PDT 2016

Project Title: A multi-level approach to quantifying individuality in stress coping ability of wild animals

Application Deadline: Thursday, January 05, 2017

Supervisors: Dr. Sean Twiss (Durham Univ.), Dr. Andreanna Welch (Durham Univ.), Dr. Patrick Pomeroy (SMRU, University of St. Andrews), Dr Amanda Bishop (Alaska SeaLife Center).

Project description: Organisms have evolved mechanisms to cope with natural stressors, but rapid environmental change is subjecting species to new threats or more unpredictable and extreme natural stressors. Conventional studies focus on species or ecosystem level responses to change, such as range or phenological shifts, but these are products of variation in individual responses. Individuals can show differing coping-styles; proactive individuals express little flexibility and are less responsive to environmental stimuli, whereas reactive individuals are more flexible and responsive. Underpinning these behavioural characteristics are physiological differences associated with the autonomic nervous system. Understanding how individuals differ in their ability to cope with stressors, and the consequences if they fail to do so, is critical for quantifying species’ resilience to current and future threats of climate change and anthropogenic disturbance. Such understanding requires integrative studies that uncover links between molecular and physiological mechanisms of stress coping and the individual outcomes in terms of behaviour and fitness. This project aims to investigate stress reactivity across these levels of biological organisation. Within molecular ecology, interest has grown in the effect of environmental stressors on telomere dynamics. Although telomeres generally get shorter each time a cell divides, telomeric DNA is particularly susceptible to oxidative damage and chronic stress exposure accelerates telomere attrition even in adulthood, affecting health and longevity. Thus, telomere attrition rate could indicate general levels of oxidative damage and, therefore, exposure to stress. However, work on wild, non-human populations is still sparse.
            This study will integrate molecular indicators of stress (telomere erosion) with measures of behavioural and physiological stress reactivity in wild, breeding grey seals (Halichoerus grypus). Fieldwork will encompass 3 successive autumnal breeding seasons at the Isle of May (Scotland) colony, where 30-40 adult, known age females with pups are handled routinely as part of a long-term study of life-histories. Each female’s behavioural phenotype will be characterized in situ using established observational and experimental protocols which quantitatively place individuals on a proactive-reactive axis. In addition, focal females will be equipped with heart-rate data-loggers to provide physiological indices of coping-style. This studentship will add another dimension to this investigation of stress reactivity by quantifying individual differences in telomere erosion rates in relation to behavioural and physiological indicators of coping style. Repeat sampling across years will allow quantification of telomere attrition, giving a molecular indicator of the preceding year’s ‘stress’. The longitudinal study design will allow the student to control for maternal age, pup sex, inter-annual differences in maternal investment and environmental conditions (e.g. colony density, weather).

Training: The student will gain extensive inter-disciplinary training in field behavioural observation, application of biotelemetry devices, organisation of fieldwork logistics and safety, along with molecular genetic techniques. Beyond these, the student will develop critical thinking, writing, and teamwork skills as part of dynamic, interdisciplinary, and supportive research groups.

Eligibility:  Applications for this project are welcome from suitably qualified candidates worldwide. Applicants must be applying to start a full-time PhD in the Faculty in October 2017. They must have fulfilled the University’s requirements regarding English language ability and must not require a presessional course as a condition of their place.

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

Funding and how to apply: This project is in competition with others for funding (via the Durham Doctoral Studentship scheme). Success will therefore depend on the quality of applications received, relative to those for competing projects. If you are interested in applying, in the first instance contact Dr Sean Twiss, (s.d.twiss at durham.ac.uk) with a CV and covering letter, detailing your reasons for applying for the project. Only the best applicants will be asked to submit an application.

Candidate requirements: 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 technical and analytical skills, including experience of modern molecular genetic techniques and statistical modelling.  A UK driving licence (or equivalent) is also desirable, but not essential. UK and Non-UK students are advised that to be considered for the Durham Doctoral Studentship, the minimum requirements include an excellent undergraduate degree with either postgraduate or work experience in a relevant discipline and scientific publication(s) in peer reviewed journals.


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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