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Cambridge NERC Doctoral Training Partnerships

Graduate Research Opportunities

Supervisors: Ulf Büntgen (Geography) and Paul Krusic (Geography

Importance of the area of research:

The Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos L.) is among the most famous raptor species in the European Alps. Long lasting habitats in the eastern Swiss Alps and the species' habit of re-using historical eyries have resulted in a sizable number of big wooden constructions composed of possibly very old wood. The maximum ages of eyries, which usually consist of various construction phases, remain in most cases unknown. Since many of the eyries are located near the upper treeline, larch (Larix decidua) and pine (Pinus cembra) branches used for construction may contain up to 100 annual growth rings. These rings will be cross-dated and measured by careful wood anatomical thin sectioning and double staining. Dendrochronological dating of the eyries can potentially provide evidence on long-term variations in eagle population density, which may be further analysed in the light of environmental factors, including climate change.

Project summary:

This project will combine dendroecological and wood anatomical techniques to develop branch chronologies from living conifers and old material from eagle eyries in Switzerland. Annual dating of different construction phases of several eyries will ideally help providing a long-term context of past changes in the predator's population density. Due to their setting near the upper treeline, both the new branch data but also the birds' behaviour are expected to be temperature sensitive. The project will thus improve knowledge on how long-term climate variability may have influenced the size and dynamic of Golden Eagle populations in the Swiss Alps.

What the student will do:

You will perform fieldwork in the eastern Swiss Alps. The sampling of branch material at different construction layers of several (up to two meter-high) Golden Eagle eyries will be supported by professional climbers and wildlife biologists. You will also collect material from living trees at numerous high-elevation sites in the same region. You will combine dendroecological and wood anatomical techniques to develop the first network of branch chronologies for large parts of the Swiss Alps. You will use the precise dating of past construction phases of the eyries to gain insight into long-term changes in the species' population density. Knowledge of construction and utilization ages of eagle eyries will ultimately be compared against high-resolution climate reconstructions to explore the effects of colder and warmer periods on the population dynamics of one of the most fascinating predators of the Alpine arc.

Please contact the lead supervisor directly for further information relating to what the successful applicant will be expected to do, training to be provided, and any specific educational background requirements.


Büntgen, U., Jenny, H., Liebhold, A., Mysterud, A., Egli, S., Nievergelt, D., Stenseth, N.C. & Bollmann, K. 2014. European springtime temperature synchronizes ibex horn growth across the eastern Swiss Alps. Ecology Letters 17: 303-313

Büntgen, U., Psomas, A. & Schweingruber, F.H. 2014. Introducing wood anatomical and dendrochronological aspects of herbaceous plants: applications of the Xylem Database to vegetation science. Journal of Vegetation Science 25: 967-977

Gärtner, H., Cherubini, P., Fonti, P., von Arx, G., Schneider, L., Nievergelt, D., Verstege, A., Bast, A., Schweingruber, F.H. & Büntgen, U. 2015. Technical challenges in tree-ring research including wood anatomy and dendroecology. Journal of Visualized Experiments doi: 10.3791/52337 (e52337)

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Other projects available from the Lead Supervisor can be viewed here.

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