PhD Studentship: Understanding the Factors Limiting Climate-Driven Range Shifts in Birds

University of East Anglia - School of Environmental Sciences

Start Date: October 2018

Supervisor: Dr James Gilroy

Project description: To persist in a changing climate, many species will need to colonise new areas outside their current ranges. Such range expansions are already occurring in a wide variety of organisms, though many other species are failing to keep pace with climate change. We understand little about the factors that limit the speed at which species move in response to climate. These factors could include species traits (e.g. dispersal ability), environmental characteristics (e.g. habitat fragmentation/degradation) and/or ecological contexts (e.g. competition, predation).  Understanding the prevalence of these limiting factors across species and regions is essential if we are to develop conservation strategies that maximise climate resilience.

This PhD will explore the determinants of range shift velocity in a suite of North American bird species, using data from citizen science initiatives spanning four decades (1975-2015).  Previous research in this field has typically relied on coarse metrics of change (e.g. range centroids) which often fail to capture key colonization and extinction processes occurring at range edges. Our team has developed a state-of-the art modelling approach to quantify these colonization/extinction dynamics, generating high-resolution maps of distributional change for 366 North American bird species.

This PhD will build on this work, aiming to:

  1. Uncover the environmental and ecological factors associated with success and failure in colonizing new areas of climatic suitability.
  2. Identify species that are most vulnerable to climate-driven range loss, and pinpoint geographic areas where conservation measures are most needed (e.g. habitat creation, assisted dispersal).
  3. Develop and refine methods to measure range-shifts and predict their future trajectory.

The student will join a dynamic NERC-funded research group at UEA examining biodiversity responses to global change, and will be co-supervised by leading ornithologists at the National Audubon Society (San Francisco, USA, see The student will receive training in a wide range of research skills, including species distribution modelling and spatial analysis.

This project has been shortlisted for funding by the EnvEast NERC Doctoral Training Partnership, comprising the Universities of East Anglia, Essex and Kent, with over twenty other research partners. Undertaking a PhD with the EnvEast DTP will involve attendance at mandatory training events throughout the course of the PhD.

Shortlisted applicants will be interviewed on 12/13 February 2018.

For further information, please visit

Person specification: The ideal candidate will have a good Honours degree in Ecology, Biology or other relevant Environmental Science, or Applied Mathematics / Computer Science; and have experience with statistics and code-writing (R language ideally). A keen interest in avian ecology and conservation is also desirable.

EnvEast welcomes applicants from quantitative disciplines who may have limited background in environmental sciences. Excellent candidates will be considered for an award of an additional 3-month stipend to take appropriate advanced-level courses in the subject area.

Funding notes: Successful candidates who meet RCUK’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship - in 2017/18, the stipend is £14,553. In most cases, UK and EU nationals who have been resident in the UK for 3 years are eligible for a stipend. For non-UK EU-resident applicants NERC funding can be used to cover fees, RTSG and training costs, but not any part of the stipend. Individual institutes may, however, elect to provide a stipend from their own resources. 

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