Spatial cognition in wide-ranging seabirds

University of Liverpool

About the Project

Pelagic seabirds are some of nature’s most impressive navigators, foraging over oceanic scales during the breeding season and often migrating between hemispheres. How they learn and process spatial information to allow them to use space so efficiently is poorly understood. While previous work suggests that shearwaters are able to use large-scale gradients to understand where they are relative to their home colony when homing from long-distance foraging trips there remain several key aspects to their navigational system about which very little is known. For example, how gradient maps are parameterised by birds during early life, and whether and how birds learn more efficient routes than those that can be encoded by gradients (for example when there are intervening obstacles which are not encoded in the gradient map). Improving our understanding of these processes may help predict responses to anthropogenic environmental change, such as the development of offshore wind.


This project aims to deploy remote-download GPS-GSM tracking technology on known-age Manx shearwaters to observe their foraging trips in the years before they begin breeding and their first few breeding attempts to relate improvements in spatial cognition (e.g. homing performance) to their experience. There is scope to design and carry out translocation experiments with shearwaters, and to use long-term geolocator and GPS datasets to look at other questions related to spatial cognition. The project will involve long periods of fieldwork often on remote islands.

The project will be based at the University of Liverpool, but the student will also become a member of the Oxford Navigation Group with Prof Tim Guilford as a second supervisor.

Essential and desirable criteria


A background in either biology, engineering or another relevant discipline, with an interest in quantitative methods.


Some experience with either (i) animal tracking analysis; (ii) bird handling (iii); fieldwork is desirable but training will be provided for all of these in the field.

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