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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:
C5.11, Sir Martin Evans Building, Museum Avenue, Cardiff, CF10 3AX
Available for postgraduate supervision

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

  • The Storm Petrels –the smallest of the seabirds, spending most of their lives on the open ocean
  • The Northern Wheatear –an upland species with 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
  • The Pied Flycatcher -a rapidly-declining songbird of the Welsh oak woodlands
  • The Barn Swallow -familiar herald of summer in a rapidly changing climate
  • The European Nightjar -specialist predator of nocturnal moths

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
  • Diet choice and foraging ecology

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 and game-bird shooting
  • Birds of prey in human-modified landscapes

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.  I was appointed to a lectureship here in 2006 and am now a Senior Lecturer.

Positions & responsibilities 

  • Council Member of the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB, 2009-2016). 
  • Education Secretary of the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (2011-2016). 
  • Member of the Ethics Committee of the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (2006-2013, acting Secretary 2007, 2009). 

2019

2018

2017

2016

2015

2014

2013

2012

2011

2010

2007

2006

2004

2003

2002

2000

PhD

  • PhD student supervision (see "supervision" tab)
  • PhD assessor / examiner
  • Data analysis training (see below)

MSc

  • Data Science (module leader)
  • Survey methods: Ornithology
  • Personal tutor

MRes

  • Project supervisor
  • Research methods: Ornithology

MBiol

  • Project supervisor

Final year

  • Conservation Biology
  • Global Change Biology
  • Final-year project supervision

Professional Training Year (PTY)

I provide a substantial contribution to Cardiff School of Biosciences work-placement programme for undergraduates, normally 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 Diversity & Evolution
  • Brain & Behaviour (assessment leader)

Field course

  • Ecological Survey Methods (Kenfig and Parc Slip Nature Reserves, South Wales)

First year

  • Animal Behaviour
  • Sexual selection

Data analysis and statistics

I run regular courses in Data Analysis through the year. for staff and students, including courses for PhD students (NERC GW4+ DTP), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), and the Student Conference for Conservation Science (SCCS).

Zoology degree scheme coordinator

  • A weekly "Zoology Hour"
  • Various activities relevant to the Zoology degree scheme, including supporting the Cardiff University Ornithological Scociety ("Bird Club"), and the Wildlife and Conservation Society ("Wildsoc")
  • Personal tutor

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's 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, Hannah Hereward 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.

Effects of climate changes on migrant birds

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, Jez Smith, Mike Shewring 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, flycatcher, swallows and nightjars, 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 and activity of aquatic organisms as case-studies.

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 investigate 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.

Current PhD students:

  • Hannah Hereward: Conservation biology of two sibling-species of storm petrels breeding on the Azores. 
  • Zoe Deakin: Monitoring the breeding biology and foraging ecology of storm petrels in the North Atlantic. 
  • Alex McCubbin: Mate choice among storm petrels.
  • Annalea Beard: Conservation Biology of the St Helena Storm Petrel. 
  • Paul Robinson: Habitat selection and conservation of birds in West Africa.
  • Elisa Panjang: Conservation of Pangolins in Borneo.
  • Richard Facey: Impacts of local weather conditions on the seasonal fecundity of Barn Swallows.
  • Mike Shewring: Impacts of climate change on upland bird communities.
  • Amy Schwartz: The ecology of roadkill.
  • Sophie-lee Williams: Golden and White-tailed Eagles in Wales; past, present and future

Current & recent Masters students:

  • Sarah Morgan (MPhil): Parasite communities of seabird communities. Sarah is also the Education Officer for Eco-explore Community Interest Company.
  • Ed Drewitt (MSc): Post-fledging dispersion of urban peregrine falcons.
  • Jack Devlin (MRes): Impacts of Pheasants on invertebrate communities in upland Wales.
  • Zoe Jones (MRes): Birds of prey in the modern Welsh landscape.
  • Sam Langdon (MBiol): Birds of prey in the modern Welsh landscape.
  • Jess Hey (MBiol): Diet and foraging ecology of storm petrels in the Faeroe Islands.

Past projects

Completed PhD students:

Dr. Alex Pollard: Eye design in birds and visual constraints on behaviour. Alex is now Senior Ecologist at Wildwood Ecology, and is Managing Director of Eco-explore Community Interest Company.

Dr. Jenny Clapham: Biodiversity value of biomass crops. Jenny now works in healthcare services in the USA and UK.

Dr. Joe Woodgate: Developmental stress and mate choice behaviour in birds. Joe is now a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex.

Dr. Loys Richards: Dietary wariness in fish. Loys now works in healthcare services at the University Hospital of Wales.

Dr. Renata Medeiros: Diet and foraging ecology of Storm Petrels. Renata is now a Lecturer in statistics at Cardiff Dental School, and is actively involved in supervision of seabird research students at Cardiff School of Biosciences.

Dr. Leila Duarte: Impacts of capture and handling on wild birds. Leila now works in conservation in Portugal.

Dr. Adam Seward: Impacts of climate change on the northern wheatear. Adam is now a professional photographer and conservation biologist, based in Scotland.

Dr. Jim Vafidis: Impacts of climate change on wetland songbirds. Jim is now Senior Lecturer in Natural History at the University of the West of England, and is co-Director of Eco-explore Community Interest Company.

Dr. Rhian Newman: Impacts of artificial light at night on freshwater organisms. Rhian is now a Lecturer in Biology at the University of South Wales.

Dr. Jen Stockdale: Diet, foraging ecology and breeding productivity of famland songbirds. Jen is now a Lecturer in Biology at Nottingham University.

Dr. Farina Othman: Behaviour and conservation of Bornean forest elephants. Farina has established an NGO working to address human-elephant conflicts in Borneo.

Dr. Jeremy Smith: Impacts of climate change on a rapidly declining woodland songbird -the pied flycatcher. Jez is now a Lecturer in Natural History at the University of South Wales, and is a co-Director of Eco-explore Community Interest Company.

  • Co-director 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 and crowd-funding for community-based education and practical conservation work
    • Crowd-funding of land purchases for research, conservation and education.
    • Publication of a guidebook to Data Analysis with R Statistical Software
    • Data analysis training courses.
    • Guided tours of wildlife sites in South Wales
    • Overseas research experience expeditions.  

  • 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 ]
  • Contributor to BBC Radio 4 programmes (e.g. Nature, Material World, Planet Earth Under Threat) and many Radio Wales programmes.