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PhD: Identifying Marine Key Biodiversity Areas using tracking data (Inspire4Nature H2020-MSCA-ITN)

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    ISPA – Instituto Universitário
    Biological sciencesBiodiversity
    First Stage Researcher (R1)
    16/04/2018 23:00 - Europe/Brussels
    Portugal › Lisboa
    H2020 / Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions

This project will use tracking data to investigate the effectiveness of the current network of important sites for marine biodiversity (e.g. MPAs, EBSAS) in conserving seabirds. It will be based at ISPA-Instituto Universitário (Lisbon, Portugal), with a secondment to BirdLife International (Cambridge UK; 10.8 months).

This is Project 15 out of 15 PhD positions currently available as part of the Inspire4Nature training programme. Deadline for applications: 16 April 2018 (midnight, Brussels time).

PhD topic

Animal tracking data have proved to be a fundamental tool in marine conservation (Burger & Shaffer 2008). Along with at sea-surveys, tracking studies are the most important source of data to map the at-sea range of many pelagic species such as seabirds and marine mammals, an essential layer of information in Marine Spatial Planning exercises, or when identifying potential Marine Protected Areas (Lascelles et al. 2016; Dias et al. 2017; Wakefield et al. 2017).

However, analysing data collected from individual animals, and scaling that up to the population level, is a challenging exercise (e.g. Gutowsky et al. 2015). For example, seabirds from the same colony can choose distinctive sites to forage (between-individuals flexibility; e.g. Patrick et al. 2013), and even different individuals within a population can vary in the degree of faithfulness to their foraging sites (within-individuals flexibility; Dias et al. 2011, Wakefield et al. 2015). Recent evidence points to an extreme variability among species in this “flexible-consistent” axis of their foraging behaviour (Weimerskirch 2007, Wakefield et al. 2015). To understand this in practical conservation terms, we need to assess the consistency in site use at the population level, in multiple years and during different stages of the breeding cycle (e.g. Robertson et al. 2014), in order to evaluate whether site-based conservation efforts (that traditionally assume sites have static boundaries) are effectively covering the distribution of these species in the long term.

The project will use data from the Seabird Tracking Database, a major repository of data on marine birds currently covering more than 20.000 tracks, from >110 species at 250 breeding colonies. It will investigate the effectiveness of the current network of high priority sites in conserving seabirds given the highly dynamic nature of marine systems, and the will also derive recommendations for improving methods for identifying marine KBAs using tracking data.

The specific objectives of the project are:

  1. Investigating the effectiveness of the current network of important sites for marine biodiversity – Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs), Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and Ecologically or Biologically Significant Areas (EBSAs) – in conserving seabirds given the highly dynamic nature of marine systems.
  2. Testing whether particular indicator (umbrella) species can represent the conservation needs of other (less studied) species.
  3. Providing recommendations for the identification and designation of networks of marine PAs and KBAs that are robust to ecosystem dynamics.

The expected results of this project are 1) a protocol defining data requirements to delineate marine KBA boundaries that are robust to intra- and inter-seasonal dynamics, and 2) identifying which seabirds are most effective umbrella species for MPA designation.

These results will be used to inform conservation action under several conventions and agreements, such as those in the UNEP’s Regional Seas Programme (e.g. OSPAR, Barcelona and Abidjan Conventions), the Agreement for the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels and the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. It will also inform action towards Target 4 of the EU Biodiversity Strategy.

Related references

  • Burger, A. & Shaffer, S.A. 2008. Application of Tracking and Data-Logging Technology in Research and Conservation of Seabirds. The Auk 125: 253-264.
  • Dias, M.P., Oppel, S., Bond, A.L., Carneiro, A.P.B., Cuthbert, R.J., et al. 2017. Using globally threatened pelagic birds to identify priority sites for marine conservation in the South Atlantic Ocean, Biological Conservation 211: 76-84.
  • Dias, M.P, Granadeiro, J.P., Phillips, R.A., Alonso, H. & Catry, P. 2011. Breaking the routine: individual Cory’s shearwaters shift winter destinations between hemispheres and across ocean basins. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 278: 1786-1793.
  • Gutowsky, S.E., Leonard, M.L., Conners, M.G., Shaffer, S.A. & Jonsen, I.D. 2015. Individual-level variation and higher-level interpretations of space use in wide-ranging species: an albatross case study of sampling effects. Frontiers in Marine Science 2:93.
  • Lascelles, B.G, Taylor, P., Miller, M., Dias, M.P., Oppel, S. et al. 2016. Applying global criteria to tracking data to define important areas for marine conservation. Diversity & Distributions 22: 422-431.
  • Patrick, S.C., Bearhop, S., Grémillet, D., Lescroël, A., Grecian, W.J., et al. 2013. Individual differences in searching behaviour and spatial foraging consistency in a central place marine predator. Oikos 123: 33-40
  • Robertson, G.S., Bolton, M., Grecian, W.J. & Monaghan, P. 2014. Inter‑ and intra‑year variation in foraging areas of breeding kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla). Marine Biology 161:1973–1986.
  • Wakefield, E.D., Cleasby, I.R., Bearhop, S., Bodey, T.W., Davies, R.D.D, et al. 2015. Long-term individual foraging site fidelity—why some gannets don’t change their spots. Ecology 96:3058–3074.
  • Wakefield, E.D., Owen, E., Baer, J., Carroll, M.J., Daunt, F., et al. 2017. Breeding density, fine-scale tracking, and large-scale modelling reveal the regional distribution of four seabird species. Ecological Applications. 27, 2074–2091. doi:10.1002/eap.1591
  • Weimerskirch, H. 2007. Are seabirds foraging for unpredictable resources? Deep-Sea Research II 54: 211–223.

Institutional context and Supervision

The PhD student will be hired by ISPA – Instituto Universitário, one of the oldest private universities in Portugal, and s/he will be integrated in MARE - Marine and Environmental Sciences Centre. MARE is rated as “Excellent” by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology, FCT (with the highest evaluation in the Natural and Environmental Sciences area). The objective of MARE is to seek excellence in the study of aquatic ecosystems and disseminate knowledge to support policies for sustainable development. MARE is focused on international cooperation to advanced education and training in order to drive a new generation of scientists and professionals prepared for the Blue Economy and also on promoting the Ocean Literacy and Policy. The project will be supervised by Paulo Catry, research Fellow at ISPA.

This project is in close collaboration with BirdLife International, the world’s largest nature conservation partnership, whose work focuses on the conservation of birds, their habitats and global biodiversity. The student will interact in strongly with the Science, Policy and Information Management Department, which carries out research to underpin the conservation programmes of the BirdLife Partnership, identifying priorities for policy and action. There, s/he will be supervised by Maria Dias (Senior Marine Scientist), in collaboration with Paul Donald (Senior Marine Scientist) and Stuart Butchart (Chief Scientist). The student will spend 10.8-months at the BirdLife's headquarters in Cambridge, UK, in the David Attenborough Building. This building houses nine conservation organisations and several departments of the University of Cambridge, who together form the Cambridge Conservation Initiative.

This project will further benefit from a collaboration with Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, through the participation of Steffen Oppel (Senior Conservation Scientist).

Ideal candidate

Candidates must meet all the general eligibility conditions applicable to all Inspire4Nature PhD positions, as described under “check if you are eligible” in this page. In particular: candidates cannot have resided or carried out their main activity (work, studies, etc.) in Portugal for more than 12 months within the previous 3 years, and must be early-stage researchers (no PhD yet, within the first 4 years of their research careers). In addition:

  • Masters level in a relevant subject (e.g. Ecology, Conservation Science, Marine Biology, Statistical Ecology).
  • Base knowledge and understanding of biodiversity conservation issues in the context of (marine) spatial planning, and of identification of Key Biodiversity Areas in general.
  • Experience in advanced statistical analysis of spatial data. Good skills and comfort with modelling and with handling large datasets.
  • Fluency in English required, some knowledge of Portuguese or Spanish preferable, but not strictly necessary.

Shortlisted candidates will be invited for an interview planned for the 6-7th June - please keep these dates open.


For any questions regarding application procedures, check this page first. If you cannot find your answer there, contact us. For any questions regarding the scientific content and institutional context of the PhD, contact Beatriz Garcia Fernandez.

Ready to apply?

For the instructions on how to prepare and submit your application, go to this page.

Only applications that are complete, in English, that respect the instructions in this page and that have been submitted before the deadline (16 April 2018) will be considered eligible.

Work location(s)
1 position(s) available at
ISPA-Instituto Universitário
Rua Jardim do Tabaco, 34

EURAXESS offer ID: 281266