Two, Leverhulme Trust funded D.Phil. studentships to work on Oceanic Navigation in shearwaters

Supervised by Prof Tim Guilford & Dr Ollie Padget


Pelagic seabirds are amongst the greatest navigators on earth, capable of homing to remote colonies from hundreds or even thousands of kilometres distant after long trips at sea foraging for their chick.  Whilst much has been learnt about the sensory basis of animal navigation, and avian navigation in particular, from terrestrial models such as the homing pigeon, the scale, apparent featurelessness, and dynamism of the marine environment create special problems for oceanic navigators whose solutions remain little understood, and may not be tackled using traditional, domesticated models.  Facilitiated by recent advances in miniature biotelemetry systems and powerful analytical techniques, this project aims to investigate the nature of oceanic navigation in a wild seabird model, the Manx shearwater (Puffinus puffinus).  Precision GPS tracking of shearwaters during natural foraging trips and experimental displacements at sea by boat will be used to investigate the scope, scale, and accuracy of oceanic navigation, and especially the cognitive mechanisms that underly it.


Two, four year studentships are available on the project starting in October 2021, funded at standard UK fees and UKRI studentship rates by the Leverhulme Trust.  Currently there is a modest shortfall between Leverhulme fees provision and Oxford's fee level for UK students which we are currently seeking funding to cover but is not yet confirmed.

We are seeking applicants with (or expecting) at least a first class or strong upper second class degree in Biology (or other appropriate subject since this is a highly inter-disciplinary project), excellent quantitative and/or computational skills, a keen appreciation of the problems of animal cognition, and an enthusiasm for fieldwork with birds in remote and sometimes difficult environments.  The doctoral research will involve three or possibly four long summer field seasons of continuous energetic work on relatively remote islands around the UK, including working at unsociable hours because shearwaters are nocturnal visitors to their colonies.

Formal applications should be made through the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology online application process by 1200 UTC on January 22nd 2021.  Informal enquiries about the project, or about your own suitability or qualifications, can be addressed by email to  More information about Oxnav’s research can be found on our website, and for a recent relevant publication see Padget et al., 2019, “Shearwaters know the direction and distance home but fail to encode intervening obstacles after free-ranging foraging trips.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(43), pp.21629-21633.

Environmental Research at Oxford NERC DTP, CASE studentship available

Compass rafting in a colonial seabird: the unknown role of social information

Apply directly to the Oxford NERC DTP by 22nd January

Seabird colonies may function as information centres in which information about widely, patchily, and unpredictably distributed foraging resources is exchanged socially.  However, the scale and function of social information in natural, wild biological systems has been hard to test.  Huge advances in miniature biologging technologies have in recent years greatly improved our understanding of individual long distance movement behaviour, and its ecological drivers, helping to inform marine conservation and fisheries policies around the world.  But individual loggers tell only half the story because they have largely failed to sample the role of social information and decision-making in animals.  In the current project we propose to study this knowledge gap by focussing on the hypothesised phenomenon of “compass rafting” in a colonial seabird, the Manx shearwater.  Shearwaters, like many colonial seabirds, form large collections of individuals at sea before and after making landfall, and spectacular though these collections are their function is not well understood.  In one study of rafting in shags (Weimerskirch et al., 2010), individual tracking combined with coastal surveying demonstrated a possible orientation signalling function, with individuals using the “compass rafts” to identify the best foraging routes out from the colony.  We propose to combine individual biotelemetric tracking, visual marking, and innovative drone surveilance to study the use of rafts by outgoing and returning foragers to our Manx shearwater study colony on Skomer island, where we already have very good background understanding of behaviour and a robust study system and infrastucture. The proposed project would be available to a successful NERC DTP applicant and would incorporate CASE funding and technical support from Animal Dynamics, and would be supervised by Professor Tim Guilford within the OxNav research group in Oxford’s Department of Zoology.


Richards C, Padget O, Guilford T, & Bates AE. (2019) “Manx shearwater (Puffinus puffinus) rafting behaviour revealed by GPS tracking and behavioural observations.” PeerJ 7:e7863. 


Weimerskirch H, Bertrand S, Silva J, Marques JC, Goya E. 2010. Use of social information

in seabirds: compass rafts indicate the heading of food patches. PLOS ONE

5:e9928 DOI 10.1371/journal.pone.0009928.


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