My PhD research project is a NERC-funded collaboration between the University of St Andrews and the British Trust for Ornithology.
My research aims to understand the mechanisms underlying gulls' adaptations to urban environments and will focus on the influence of early-life experiences on offspring physiology and behaviour.
Although there are six species of gull that can be seen regularly across the UK, Herring and Lesser black-backed gulls are two species that have become heavily associated with urban areas. Both species are increasingly utilizing anthropogenic sites for nesting and foraging and this has led to growing reports of wildlife conflict in UK towns and cities.
Repeated interactions with environmental stressors during development can cause changes within biological systems and lead to alterations in physiology and behaviour. One major environmental stressor during development is low food availability.
In resource-poor conditions parents may struggle to provide sufficient nutrients to chicks and this can have implications for offspring growth and survival. In addition to the amount of food provisioned, the type of food provided is likely to play a big role in chick development. Research has found that offspring fed on a low-quality, low protein diet did worse in terms of breeding success and survival.
However, the influence of an anthropogenic diet on chick physiology and behaviour in gulls has not been studied to date. This is particularly interesting at a time when urban gull populations are increasing and more individuals are exploiting high fat, high sugar food resources.
Understanding the mechanisms driving physiological and behavioural changes in urban-dwelling species could be key in determining population dynamics. Exploring the factors contributing to altered behaviour in urban species may also provide further insight into the resolution of conflicts between urban wildlife and humans.
The main focus of the research this year is to investigate variation in foraging behaviour and gull diet in Herring and Lesser black-backed gulls in order to assess the influence of this on the physiological and behavioural development of chicks.
I will be employing various techniques to assess variation in foraging behaviour and diet in Herring and Lesser black-backed gulls, as well as explore the influence of this on the physiological and behavioural development of gull chicks.
2018 fieldwork will involve trapping adult gulls during the breeding season in order to fit colour rings and deploy specially modified GPS tags. These tags will provide information on foraging patterns and allow inferences to be made as to where birds breeding in different habitats are foraging during incubation. Additionally, to explore the dietary intake of chicks, a variety of samples will be collected from the field including pellets, regurgitates and fecal samples. This will allow us to assess the type of food provisioned to chicks by parents. Physiological and behavioural assays will also be undertaken to investigate variation in offspring physiology and behaviour both between and within populations.
I will be undertaking research in multiple field locations, spanning both rural and urban breeding sites over the course of my PhD.
In my first year, research will focus on Herring & Lesser black-backed gulls breeding on the Isle of May as well as across various urban sites in East Scotland. The Isle of May is a National Nature Reserve owned and managed by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) in the Firth of Forth. The island is one of the east coast's largest seabird colonies, home to 40,000 pairs of Puffins along with significant numbers of Guillemots, Razorbills, Fulmars, Shags and Arctic terns. Crucially the island boasts 4 species of breeding gull including large populations of my two study species!