One good ‘tern’ deserves another: social and genetic networks in a huge seabird colony
I am an Ecologist, having undertaken degrees in Ecology and Applied Ecology and Conservation, and my main interests lie within avian ecology, behaviour and conservation. My PhD is NERC CENTA funded (commencing in 2014) and focuses on a large colony of seabirds on Ascension Island, a remote island in the South Atlantic. My supervisor is Jim Reynolds and co-supervisors are Julia Myatt, Jon Sadler and John Colbourne.
Ascension Island is a British Oversees territory located around 1,600km from mainland Africa, and is one of the most important seabird breeding stations in the world. My study species, the sooty tern (Onychoprion fuscatus), is a pelagic seabird that breeds in large colonies, with Ascension Island being host to upwards of 400,000 birds who visit the island to breed. I have been fortunate enough to be granted sole access to a large dataset spanning 23 years, collected by the Army Ornithological Society (AOS). The AOS have been visiting the island to monitor the sea bird colonies during their nesting periods, marking individuals with id rings and re-capturing ringed birds. Over 25,000 Sooty Terns have been ringed and 4,000 individuals re-trapped.
My primary research interests are centred on understanding group social structure and its importance at the individual and population level. We know relatively little about how seabird colonies function in terms of their social dynamics and until recently our understanding of group structure has been considered at the population or individual scale. Advances in technologies mean that it is now possible to investigate how relationships between individuals can influence group structure, and vice versa, so how social interactions between individuals can be influenced by the behaviour of the group or population. My work will use social network analysis as well as genetic analysis to reveal information on the interactions between birds and the relatedness of birds.
More specifically, my research will utilise the existing dataset which I will also supplement with more targeted field work to look at known individuals between breeding seasons. I will investigate social structure using spatial movements; social relationships; and genetic relationships by comparing ‘neighbours’ in past, current and future breeding populations.