From genes to environmental change - the spatial ecology of a tropical seabird

Lead Research Organisation: University of Reading
Department Name: Sch of Agriculture Policy and Dev


Although it is now widely accepted that human-induced global environmental change has important implications for biodiversity and associated ecosystems, our understanding of the ecological mechanisms involved remains rather poor. Within populations, the impact of environmental change depends on how individual fitness is re-shaped by change, which in turn determines vital rates and population growth. A key aspect of this process is the way individuals are exposed to environmental change in space and time, and the implications of this exposure for individual fitness. Here we propose to explore this important issue by working on the spatial ecology of a tropical seabird, the Round Island petrel. This is an interesting model system because the population breeding on Round Island in the Western Indian Ocean is actually a species complex, consisting of one Atlantic species, two species from the South Pacific, and inter-specific hybrids. This means the population consists of individuals with a range of genetic and hence geographic origins dictated by its evolutionary history. Whilst breeding, all individuals are exposed to changing environmental conditions in the Western Indian Ocean. These changes are potentially significant because breeding coincides with a seasonal drop in sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the region, and there is evidence that SSTs are increasing. During the non-breeding period, we presume individuals are exposed to changes associated with their genetic (geographical) origin, but we lack data on large-scale distribution patterns in relation to origin that would allow us to link environmental change with an individual's fitness. Our proposed project is designed to provide a detailed understanding of the impacts of environmental change by describing how an individual's origin (and hence its evolutionary history) affects distribution patterns, exposure to environmental change, and its consequences at the individual and population-levels. To do this, we will bring together an existing long-term, individual dataset on demography, with new data on individual genotypes, phenotypes and distribution patterns. Our proposed work is novel because it will allow us to understand how gross differences in an individual's genome might affect its exposure to environmental change and its consequences, and in this way brings together evolutionary biology and applied ecology.


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Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
NE/H003282/1 01/06/2009 31/07/2014 £505,595
NE/H003282/2 Transfer NE/H003282/1 01/08/2014 31/05/2015 £24,102
Description Our project involved tracking seabirds across large areas of the Indian Ocean to identify important areas at sea. We then used this information to understand the causes and ecological consequences of these distribution patterns.

We developed a novel way of analysing animal tracking data so we could compare the distributions of different individuals. This revealed substantial individual differences in distribution patterns linked in part to environmental conditions and possibly also the geographic origin of birds.

We combined the distribution data with data on the survival of birds to look at the potential impacts of tropical storms. We found that birds were exposed to storms across the Indian Ocean at different stages of their lives. Interestingly, we found that storms reduced the survival of young birds in and around their breeding colony, but had a positive effect on survival once the birds were at sea. This raises the intriguing possibility that climate change could have both positive and negative effects within the same population.
Exploitation Route Our data have already been used by Birdlife International in the marine e-atlas project ( We are now working with them to improve the way populations are mapped to take into account differences in migration patterns between individuals. This will significant alter the way marine protected areas are defined.
Sectors Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description Details are given in the report for NE/H003282/2
First Year Of Impact 2010
Sector Environment
Impact Types Societal

Description Bertarelli Programme of Marine Science
Amount £650,000 (GBP)
Organisation Bertarelli Foundation 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country Switzerland
Start 10/2017 
End 08/2021
Description PhD studentship
Amount £100,000 (GBP)
Organisation British Ornithologists' Union 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2018 
End 09/2022
Title Research database 
Description • We have developed and implemented a database for the storage of historic and ongoing data collected on the Round Island petrel, including: ringing and recovery; breeding ecology; population genetics; and movement ecology. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact None at present 
Description Birldlife International 
Organisation BirdLife International
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution We provided tracking data from seabirds in the Indian Ocean
Collaborator Contribution Birdlife International used our data as part of a much large dataset to map biological important areas in the Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean
Impact Birdlife International's marine e-atlas project (
Start Year 2010
Description British Antarctic Survey 
Organisation British Antarctic Survey
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution This is a research partnership. We worked with BAS to track a large number of seabirds. We undertook the fieldwork and analysis of tracking data.
Collaborator Contribution BAS provided advice and input into animal tags and the analysis of tagging data.
Impact BAS staff have co-authored publications from this project - see publications
Start Year 2009
Description Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (DWCT) 
Organisation Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust
Country Jersey 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution We design and run the science that feeds into DWCT's conservation programmes in Mauritius; we manage long-term datasets; and we help design conservation actions on the gorund
Collaborator Contribution DWCT has worked for over 30 years on threatened species and ecosystem restoration programmes in Mauritius. We use long-term datasets collected by DWCT and other partners (MWF and NPCS) in our research, which includes NERC grants and studentships
Impact Regular reports and co-authored papers
Description Indian Ocean megafauna project 
Organisation University of Reunion Island
Country Réunion 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We have provided tracking data to a project being led by University of Reunion to map megafauna in the Indian Ocean.
Collaborator Contribution Our partners are using our data as part of a larger dataset to map important areas for megafauna (birds, sharks, whales, turtles) in the Indian Ocean. These maps are being combined with maps of human activities to assess threats to marine biodiversity.
Impact Draft papers for publication are currently being produced.
Start Year 2013
Description Partnership with Mauritius Wildlife Foundation (MWF) 
Organisation Mauritius Wildlife Foundation
Country Mauritius 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution The work funded by our NERC grant fed into conservation programmes being run by MWF on endangered species management and ecosystem restoration. This is part of a long-term partnership between MWF and University of Reading.
Collaborator Contribution MWF organise long-term data collection on various conservation programmes with our help (i.e. we manage databases on their behalf). These data have formed the basis for various NERC grants. MWF then uses science outputs in their threatened species and ecosystem restoration programmes.
Impact Regular reports on science. Co-authored publications.
Description Partnership with the National Parks and Conservation Services (NPCS), Government of Mauritius 
Organisation Government of Mauritius
Department National Parks and Conservation Service
Country Mauritius 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution The science generated by our NERC grants has fed directly into threatened species and ecosystem restoration work in Mauritius
Collaborator Contribution NPCS are the Government Department responsible for conservation action in Mauritius
Impact Regular update reports on various conservation projects
Start Year 2006
Description Queensland Government 
Organisation Queensland Government
Country Australia 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution We are helping them identify and track an unknown petrel species on Raine Island
Collaborator Contribution They are trapping, sampling and tracking individual seabirds and providing us with the data
Impact None yet
Start Year 2017
Description University of Reunion 
Organisation University of La Réunion
Country Réunion 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The partnership involves sharing data on the tracking of apex marine predators across the Indian Ocean
Collaborator Contribution Ditto
Impact There is a draft publication being prepared
Start Year 2016
Description University of Western Australia 
Organisation University of Western Australia
Country Australia 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We are providing our seabird tracking data to explore risks associated with fishing vessels and vessel traffic
Collaborator Contribution An interest in the impacts of fishing and vessel traffic on marine biodiversity
Impact None at present
Start Year 2017
Description Marine protected areas 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Contribution of seabird tracking data to and participation in a workshop hosted by BirdLife International in Tanzania to evaluate Important Bird Areas in the Western Indian Ocean and evaluate priority sites for seabird conservation.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017