Award details

Unravelling the details of the longest migration on earth. Biosciences NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship Ref: 3149

About the award


This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP).  The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus six Research Organisation partners:  British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Met Office, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory.  The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme please see

The Studentship will be awarded on the basis of merit and will commence in September 2018.  For eligible students the award will provide funding for a stipend which is currently £14,553 per annum (2017/2018), research costs and UK/EU tuition fees at Research Council UK rates for 42 months (3.5 years) for full-time students, pro rata for part-time students.

Location: Streatham Campus, University of Exeter , Exeter, Devon EX4 4QJ

Main supervisor: Dr Lucy Hawkes (College of Life & Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter)
Co-Supervisor: Dr Matthew Witt (Environment and Sustainability Institute, University of Exeter)
Co-Supervisor: Dr William Thurston (Met Office)

Project description:
Animal-borne tracking technologies have revealed astonishing migratory movements of animals such as birds, whales and butterflies. The arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea) is thought to be the world’s longest distance migrant, covering in excess of 80,000 km per year [1]. Their population is also thought to be in decline [2], so this PhD will contribute to their conservation by (i) identifying key stop-over and refueling sites, which can then be prioritized for protection and (ii) quantifying the importance of wind conditions aloft and how they might affect terns during their seasonal migration. This will be achieved by deploying state of the art GPS and accelerometry tracking loggers on nesting terns in Iceland (including fieldwork in May and June 2019) and working with the Met Office (UK) to model wind conditions during the flight.

1] Egevang C et al. (2010) PNAS 107, 2078-2081.
[2] Frederiksen M (2010) TemaNord, 587, 47–122.

Project Aims and Methods: 
Project aims:
(i) Identify key stop-over and refuelling sites for arctic terns that can be prioritised for conservation protection;
(ii) Quantify the conservation landscape through which arctic terns travel – what proportion of key sites are currently protected? What threats are they exposed to? How does protection differ between sites?
(iii) What is the role of prevailing winds in arctic tern migratory flights? How often do they experience head and tail winds and do they select specific flight heights?
(iv) How might this migratory flyway be affected in the future as a result of climate change?
The project will deploy 100 high-resolution three-dimensional tracking tags on nesting arctic terns in Iceland (including fieldwork with the student in May and June 2019), and will integrate this unprecedentedly detailed data with operational global numerical weather prediction models in collaboration with the Met Office, Exeter. Data analysis will take place in ArcGIS/QGIS and R/Python/MatLab to address an overarching project goal to inform conservation of this species and to gain insight into the challenging conditions they face en route.


Figure 1 (left) Figure 2 (right)
An arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea) flying over Iceland, where 250,000 or more breeding pairs nest.
Photo: F Vigfusdottir.
A common tern fitted with a miniature GPS logger. Photo: S Maxwell.


The project would suit a well-organized and motivated ecologist or conservation biologist. The ideal candidate would possess demonstrated skills in mapping and spatial analyses in software such as ArcGIS or QGIS, data handling and programming (e.g. R, Python or MatLab) and good analytical, statistical and writing ability.

In addition to the NERC GW4+ DTP training events and UoE Doctoral College Training and Development courses, the student will carry out fieldwork in Iceland and learn to handle birds. The supervisors will meet with the student weekly and provide training opportunities to set the student up for a successful career in research including: handling large datasets, working with a range of telemetry data, teaching spatial analysis, reviewing manuscripts and grants, attending international conferences (e.g. ‘Biologging’) and specialist group meetings. The student will also be allocated a pastoral mentor by the University and trained to practice a good work-life balance.


Egevang C, Stenhouse IJ, Phillips RA, Petersen A, Fox JW & Silk JRD (2010) Tracking of Arctic Terns Sterna paradisaea reveals longest Animal migration. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107, 2078--‐2081.
Frederiksen M (2010) Appendix 1: Seabirds in the North East Atlantic. A review of status, trends and anthropogenic impact. TemaNord, 587, 47–122.
Hawkes LA, Balachandran S, Batbayar N, Butler PJ, Chua B, Douglas DC, Frappell PB, Hou Y,
Milsom WK, Newman SH, Prosser DJ, Sathiyaselvam P, Scott GR, Takekawa JY, Natsagdorj T,
Wikelski M, Witt MJ, Yan B & Bishop CM (2012) The paradox of extreme high altitude migration in bar-headed geese Anser indicus. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 280, 1750
Hawkes LA, Balachandran S, Butler PJ, Frappell PB, Milsom WK, Tseveenmyadag N, Newman S, Scott GR, Sathiyaselvem P, Takekawa JY, Wikelski M & Bishop CM (2011) The trans-Himalayan flights of bar-headed geese. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, 9516-9519.
Hawkes LA, Batbayar N, Butler PJ, Chua B, Frappell PB, Milsom WK, Natsagdorj T, Newman SH, Scott GR, Takekawa JY, Witt MJ, Wikelski M & Bishop CM (2017) Do bar-headed geese train for high altitude flights? Integrative and Comparative Biology 57, E285-E285.
Shepard, E.L.C. & Lambertucci, S.A. (2013) From daily movements to population distributions: weather affects competitive ability in a guild of soaring birds. Interface, 10, 30130612.
Shepard, E.L.C. & Lambertucci, S.A. (2013) From daily movements to population distributions: weather affects competitive ability in a guild of soaring birds. Interface, 10, 30130612.
Shepard, E.L.C. & Lambertucci, S.A. (2013) From daily movements to population distributions: weather affects competitive ability in a guild of soaring birds. Interface, 10, 30130612.
Shepard ELC & Lambertucci SA (2013) From daily movements to population distributions: weather affects competitive ability in a guild of soaring seabirds. J Roy Soc Interface 10, 30130612.
Standen J, Wilson C, Vosper S & Clark P (2016) Prediction of local wind climatology from Met Office models: Virtual Met Mast techniques. Wind Energy 20, 411-430.
Walker JS, Jones MW, Laramee RS, Holton MD, Shepard ELC, Williams HJ, Scantlebury DM, Marks NJ, Magowan EA, Maguire IE, Bidder OR, Di Virgilio A & Wilson RP (2015) Prying into the intimate secrets of animal lives; software beyond hardware for comprehensive annotation in ‘Daily Diary’ tags. Mov Ecol 3, 29

How to apply

To apply for this funded studentship, please click and follow the 'Apply Now' button on this webpage.

During the application process you will be asked to upload several documents.  Please note our preferred format is PDF, each file named with your surname and the name of the document, eg. “Smith – CV.pdf”, “Smith – Cover Letter.pdf”, “Smith – Transcript.pdf”.

•       CV
•       Letter of application outlining your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to
        undertake the project.
•       Transcript(s) giving full details of subjects studied and grades/marks obtained.  This should be an interim transcript
        if you are still studying.
•       If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your current
        proficiency in English.
You will be asked to name 2 referees as part of the application process however we will not contact these people until the shortlisting stage. Your referees should not be from the prospective supervisory team.

The closing date for applications is midnight on 28th May 2018.  Interviews will be held at the University of Exeter in the week commencing 4th June 2018.

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email Project-specific queries should be directed to the supervisor.

During the application process, the University may need to make certain disclosures of your personal data to third parties to be able to administer your application, carry out interviews and select candidates.  These are not limited to, but may include disclosures to:
• the selection panel and/or management board or equivalent of the relevant programme, which is likely to include staff from one or more other HEIs;
• administrative staff at one or more other HEIs participating in the relevant programme.
Such disclosures will always be kept to the minimum amount of personal data required for the specific purpose. Your sensitive personal data (relating to disability and race/ethnicity) will not be disclosed without your explicit consent.


Application deadline:28th May 2018
Value:£14,553 per annum for 2017-18
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Enquiries