Dr Robert Thomas

Dr Robert Thomas

Senior Lecturer

School of Biosciences

Email:
thomasrj@cardiff.ac.uk
Telephone:
+44 (0)29 2087 6653
Fax:
+44 (0)29 2087 4116
Location:
Sir Martin Evans Building, Museum Avenue, Cardiff, CF10 3AX

Research overview

My research group studies animal behaviour in changing environments. The environmental changes that we study range from long-term climate changes, through seasonal and daily changes, to the sudden appearance of a potential predator or an unfamiliar type of food. This work falls under four main headings, though there is plenty of overlap between these topics.

Climate change biology

Focusing on 3 major study systems that use migratory birds as sensitive bio-indicators of climate-driven changes in trophic relationships.

  • The European Storm Petrel –the smallest Atlantic seabird
  • The Northern Wheatear –which has the most extreme trans-oceanic migration of any songbird
  • Reed-bed warblers (Reed Warblers and Sedge Warblers) –a pair of congeneric migrants with contrasting migration strategies

Sensory constraints on behaviour

  • Eye design in birds and visual constraints on behaviour
  • Impacts of light and noise pollution on wildlife

Dietary wariness and foraging ecology

  • Novel-food wariness in birds and fish, and its evolutionary consequences
  • Strategic regulation of energy reserves in wild birds

Impacts of human activities on wild animals

  • Impacts of capture and handling on birds and other animals
  • Practical conservation of populations, habitats and biodiversity hotspots in a changing world
  • Ecological impacts of eco-tourism

Current opportunities

Please email me at ThomasRJ@Cardiff.ac.uk for further information.

I am currently advertising two NERC PhD studentships:

  • Impacts of climate change on wetland birds; from individual behaviour to population change (based at Cardiff University, co-supervised by me, Ian Vaughan, Hefin Jones and Sean Rands)
  • Environmentally-determined social foraging behaviour in an agricultural pest species, the wood pigeon (based at the University of Bristol, co-supervised by Sean Rands, Christos Ioannou and myself)

I also have opportunities for gap-year and university students, as well as interested members of the public, to join research expeditions to Senegal (January 2014) and Portugal (May and June 2014)

I did my first degree (MA, BA) in Zoology and Ecology at Cambridge University (graduating in 1993), and my D.Phil. at the University of Sussex (graduating in 1997). After a short period as assistant warden at A Rocha Bird Observatory in Southern Portugal, I moved to the Centre for Behavioural Biology at Bristol University in 1998 to take up a NERC-funded post-doctoral position. In 2002 I was awarded a NERC Post-doctoral Research Fellowship, which I brought to Cardiff School of Biosciences and I was appointed to a lectureship here in 2006.

Positions, responsibilities and other activities

  • Council Member of the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB, 2009-present). Organiser of the 2009 ASAB Easter Conference at Cardiff University.
  • Education Secretary of the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (2011-present). ASAB promotes the teaching of animal behaviour in schools, colleges and universities; some of our most popular teaching resources are available here.[http://www.nationalstemcentre.org.uk/elibrary/collection/1783/association-for-the-study-of-animal-behaviour-asab ]
  • Member of the Ethics Committee of the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (2006-2013, acting Secretary 2007, 2009). I was involved in the revision (2012) of the ASAB Guidelines for the Use of Animals in Behavioural research and Teaching, which can be downloaded here [ http://cdn.elsevier.com/promis_misc/ASAB2006.pdf ]
  • Member of the grant assessment panel EVO-3, of the Research Council of Norway (2013-present).
  • Invited speaker at leading universities, including Cambridge, Oxford, Bristol, Exeter, Liverpool, Glasgow, Bath, Birmingham, York, Institute of Zoology (London) & Trinity College Dublin …as well as Cardiff University.
  • Talks at international conferences including ISBE, ASAB & ESEB. Guest speaker at Earthwatch Institute/Royal Geographical Society (2006).
  • Contributor to BBC Radio 4 programmes (e.g. Nature, Material World, Planet Earth Under Threat) and many Radio Wales programmes.
  • Regular contributor to Cardiff University's outreach activities in National Science Week, hosting school work-experience placements and regularly providing biology/ecology lessons in local schools.
  • Co-organiser of the annual "Storm Petrels in Portugal" expedition, at A Rocha Bird Observatory, Portugal. This long-running research project investigates the impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems, using the smallest Atlantic seabird, the European Storm Petrel as a sensitive bio-indicator of environmental change. [ http://stormies-online.blogspot.co.uk ]
  • Co-director with Dr Alex Pollard, of Eco-explore [ http://www.eco-explore.co.uk ], a research-led scientific education, engagement and publishing enterprise; a spin out from Cardiff School of Biosciences. Since its formation in 2009, Eco-explore has been involved in a wide range of activities, including:
    • Development of ecological education materials for use in schools
    • Grant-winning for community-based practical conservation work, including a major boardwalk development at Nelson Wern, north of Cardiff
    • Publication of a guidebook to Data Analysis with R Statistical Software
    • Provision of data analysis training courses, including a new course supported by a NERC Postgraduate and Professional Skills Development Award.
    • Guided tours of wildlife sites in South Wales
    • Our latest enterprise is the provision of overseas research experience expeditions for gap year and university students. These expeditions are linked to ongoing research programmes at Cardiff University; the first of these is an expedition to Djoudj National Park, Senegal, in January 2013.

MRes

Research techniques – climate change biology (1 lecture)

Final year

  • Advanced Topics in Animal Behaviour (module leader)
  • Global Change Biology (1 lecture)
  • Final-year project supervision (7 fieldwork projects per year)

Professional Training Year (PTY)

I provide a substantial contribution to Cardiff School of Biosciences work-placement programme for undergraduates, supervising 2-3 PTY students per year as Cardiff University academic supervisor, plus 1-3 placements per year as Eco-explore co-director.

Second year

  • Animal Behaviour; an introduction (module leader)
  • Animal Diversity (3 lectures)
  • Animal Physiological Adaptations (2 lectures)
  • Research techniques tutorials (5 students per year)

Field course

  • Island Ecology (Skokhom Island, Wales)

First year

  • Evolution (1 lecture)

Data analysis and statistics

I provide non-timetabled statistical support for students and staff across the School of Biosciences, including overall responsibility for statistics teaching of 1st and 2nd year undergraduates, provision of informal statistics courses to field course students, final-year undergraduates, staff and postgraduates, and I developed approximately 50% of the material used in the current MRes module in Data Analysis.

Zoology degree scheme coordinator

  • 3 lectures and other duties

Projects

Climate change biology

What are the biological impacts of climate change? My research group is investigating the effects of climate on individuals, populations and ecological processes - particularly how such effects may be mediated by the behaviour of individual animals. Our current work in this field focuses on major study systems that use migratory birds as sensitive bio-indicators of climate-driven changes in trophic relationships.

Effects of climate changes on trophic relationships in marine ecosystems

The body mass regulation behaviour of the smallest Atlantic seabird (the European storm petrel) changes between years in response to climate-driven changes in sea temperatures. Together with Renata Medeiros and collaborators, we coordinate a long-term monitoring project investigating how these changes are mediated by changes in the marine food webs on which storm petrels rely. Read the project blog [ http://stormies-online.blogspot.co.uk ] for all the latest news from the project.

The speciation of the band-rumped storm petrel "super-species" is the first documented example of sympatric speciation in a bird (and indeed in any tetrapod). Renata Medeiros and collaborators are investigating how diet and foraging ecology varies between sibling-species breeding in different seasons and locations and years, with the aim of understanding how foraging traits are linked to speciation events.

Three species of Pterodroma petrels (Trindade, Kermadec and Herald petrels) breed on Round Island, Mauritius, and hybridise with each other. Together with collaborators from Reading University, the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation and the Mauritius National Parks & Conservation Service, Renata Medeiros is beginning to investigate the diet and foraging ecology of this "hybrid swarm", with the goal of understanding how the birds are affected by –and cope with- short and long-term changes in food availability and climatic conditions.

Effects of climate changes on migrant songbirds

Migration is one of the major challenges to survival faced by many animals, and the availability of food and other resources along the migration route is of critical importance to successfully completing the journey. Furthermore, climate may impact individuals in different ways in different parts of the annual cycle (breeding grounds, migration stopover sites and wintering areas). Together with Adam Seward, James Vafidis, Rich Facey and collaborators, we combine observational studies in the field, lab and field mesocosm experiments, experimental manipulations of food availability and analyses of long-term climate and bird ringing databases, to examine the effects of climate changes on breeding behaviour, reproductive success, migration decisions, wintering ecology and annual survival of migrant songbirds. The species studied to date are primarily northern wheatears and various species of reedbed warblers, with a new project on barn swallows now underway. This work is carried out at breeding locations (Wales for warblers and swallows, Shetland and Greenland for wheatears), migration stopovers (Portugal and Shetland) and wintering areas (Senegal).

Sensory constraints on behaviour

How do animals decide when to be active? My research collaboration with Alex Pollard, Rhian Newman and others focuses on the role of eye design and visual constraints in an animal's behavioural decisions, particularly under varying light levels at twilight and at night. Specific projects have examined eye size and the timing of singing (in songbirds) and foraging (in shorebirds), as well as aviary and field studies of the impacts of light pollution, using night-singing in European robins as a case-study.

Dietary wariness and foraging ecology

When a forager encounters an unfamiliar object, it must decide whether to eat it and risk being poisoned (if it is toxic) or avoid it and risk missing out on a valuable food source (if it is palatable). Foragers generally show brief aversions to novel objects (neophobia) but some individuals also show a much more persistent aversion to eating novel foods (dietary conservatism), which can last for weeks or even years. In collaboration with Nicola Marples, Jo Cable, Loys Richards and others, we are currently investigating the function, control and evolutionary consequences of these aspects of dietary wariness, in a range of taxonomic groups –primarily birds and fish. Related to this, I am also interested in the foraging decisions underlying the strategic regulation of energy reserves in foraging birds, over minutes, days, seasons and years.

Impacts of human activities on wild animals

Large numbers of wild animals are captured, handled, often marked for individual identification, and released in the course of scientific research and conservation monitoring programmes. Surprisingly, little is known about the effects of capture and handling on the animals themselves. Together with Leila Duarte and others, I am investigating the impact of capture and handling on the body mass regulation and foraging behaviour of animals throughout the annual cycle, and on breeding behaviour and fitness parameters. This work has implications for the design and implementation of ethical field studies on wild animals. Other studies of human impacts include evaluating and minimising the impacts of eco-tourism, and monitoring habitat use and foraging ecology of birds and other animals, in areas earmarked for –or currently undergoing- development.

Research group

Post-doc

  • Dr Renata Medeiros: Molecular scatology, climate change and avian ecology, statistics teaching

PhD Students

  • Leila Duarte (FCT Portugal, lead supervisor, co-supervised by Ian Vaughan, Nicola Marples and Jaime Ramos): Impacts of capture and handling of wild birds.
  • James Vafidis (KESS, lead supervisor, co-supervised by Ian Vaughan, Hefin Jones and Rob Parry): Impacts of climate change on reedbed ecosystems.
  • Nurzafarina (Farina) Othman(multiple funders, co-supervised with Benoit Goosens et al.): behaviour, ecology and conservation of Bornean forest elephants.
  • Rhian Newman (nee Wilson) (KESS, co-supervised with Sian Griffiths, Steve Ormerod, Alex Pollard and Bill Riley): Impacts of light pollution on salmonid fish.
  • Silke Waap (FCT Portugal, co-supervised with Bill Symondson and Paulo Catry): Molecular investigation of Atlantic seabird diets.
  • Jennifer (Jen) Stockdale (NERC, co-supervised with Bill Symondson and Gavin Siriwardena): Molecular tracking of foraging ecology of songbirds in agricultural landscapes.

MPhil student

  • Richard (Rich) Facey (self-funded, lead supervisor, co-supervised by Ian Vaughan): Breeding productivity of barn swallows Hirundo rustica in relation to local climate conditions. Rich is a part-time MPhil student, who also works for Natural Resources Wales.

MRes student

  • Rhidian Thomas (KESS, co-supervised with Jo Cable, Sian Griffiths, Alex Pollard & Bill Riley): Environmental change in freshwater ecosystems.

Postgraduate research assistant

  • Jeremy (Jez) Smith (International Wildlife Consultants): Behaviour and ecology of long-distance migratory peregrine falcons breeding in the high Arctic. Collaboration with Andrew Dixon and Eco-explore.

Outreach

  • Charlotte Evans(ASAB Education Officer): Development and distribution of ASAB Educational Resources, promotion of teaching of animal behaviour in schools, colleges and universities.
  • Dr Alex Pollard: Managing director of Eco-explore and ecological consultant at Wildwood Ecology. Alex is simultaneously secretary of the Cardiff Bat Group and the Valleys Bat Group.
  • Jeremy (Jez) Smith: Eco-explore expeditions coordinator.

Professional Training Year students (hosted by Eco-explore)

  • Sophie-Lee Williams –habitat selection and foraging ecology of birds of prey
  • Amie-Beth Sabin –ecology and conservation of bats
  • Edward (Ed) Suitters –foraging ecology of rats and songbirds in a farming and shooting landscape
  • Hayley Roberts –impacts of climate change on reedbed warblers

PhD Alumni

  • Dr Adam Seward: Now working at Red Squirrel Conservation
  • Dr Jenny Clapham: Now working as a paramedic around the world!
  • Dr Loys Richards: Now working at University Hospital of Wales
  • Dr Joe Woodgate: Now working at Deakin University, Australia
  • Dr Alex Pollard: Now working at Wildwood Ecology and Eco-explore