Integrating climate and species modelling to predict movements of migratory and nomadic birds in sub-Saharan Africa

This Project has been filled

Nomadic and migratory bird species are widespread in semi-arid regions of the world. However, we still do not fully understand what drives where and how such species move within and between years, and how they are likely to respond to the changing climate. Being able to do so is particularly important for the red-billed quelea Quelea quelea, a hyper-abundant nomadic and migratory bird which can be a serious pest of grain crops. Massive, highly variable, outbreaks of migratory crop pests, such as the quelea, are a major threat to food security, something that is particularly true in sub-Saharan Africa, where over 120 million people have their livelihoods affected by such pests. The increased appropriation of wild lands for human use is likely to expose more and more people to such pests, especially as the birds themselves will alter their movements and behaviour in response to the changing climate.

Nomadic and migratory species themselves are challenging to model, manage and predict, not least because their movements and population sizes are often determined by climatic and environmental conditions at some distance from where they might breed, roost or otherwise congregate in large numbers. Indeed, despite ongoing research effort, little progress has been made in predicting where and when nomadic species might occur either seasonally, or between years. Without knowing how climate and environmental conditions drive where quelea are found, it is not possible to put in place mitigation measures to minimise crop losses.

The overall aim of the PhD will be to advance our understanding of how nomadic and migratory species respond to climate change between years, and weather patterns within years.  You will do this through developing temporal and spatial models that operate at finer scales than are currently available, which will represent a significant broadly applicable methodological advance.

You will be working with a team of supervisors who have a wide range of skills and interests, including (i) modelling how climate processes and weather affect the location and production of crops; (ii) modelling the seasonally shifting distributions of nomadic birds species in sub-Saharan Africa under climate change; (iii) migratory crop pests (of all types) in sub-Saharan Africa and (iv) the socio-economic impacts of pests on farmer decision making and livelihoods.

You will also have the opportunity to work with the multinational organisation Desert Locust Control Organisation for East Africa (DLCO-EA) who are responsible for monitoring and managing quelea throughout the region, and who hold significant historical data on the species. Indeed, the quelea also has one of the most extensive sets of occurrence and abundance data, both temporally and spatially, of any migratory species making it an ideal model species for understanding how nomadic and migratory species respond to climate and environmental drivers.

Depending your interests there will also be opportunities to spend significant amounts of time in the field, including in locations in Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia.

Although the PhD will focus on how climate change might alter crop production and the distribution of a highly damaging pest species, there is scope, according to your interests, to explore different facets of the red-billed quelea-grain-crop interaction, such as the applicability of the migratory connectivity hypothesis for a hyper-abundant agricultural pest species of economic importance. Given the social and economic importance of the species, there would also be scope to focus on crop damage, and associated financial and livelihood impacts, including modelling where and how pest control could be undertaken so that yield losses are minimised for least cost.