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Cambridge NERC Doctoral Training Partnerships

Graduate Research Opportunities

Lead Supervisor: Jen Jackson, British Antarctic Survey

Co-Supervisors: Tamsin O'Connell, Department of Archaeology; Gabriele Stowasser, British Antarctic Survey; Emma Carroll, University of Auckland & Simon Jarman, University of Western Australia

Brief summary: 
Investigating the genetic population identity, dynamics and foraging ecology of humpback whales feeding at South Georgia, Antarctica
Importance of the area of research concerned: 
Humpback whales have long-term migratory fidelity to particular winter breeding and summer feeding sites, and are structured into multiple sub-populations using different wintering grounds around the Southern Hemisphere. Historically, South Georgia (sub-Antarctic Atlantic waters) was a summer feeding ground famously abundant with humpbacks, but was heavily exploited, with over 26,000 whales killed between 1904-1926. Despite strong population recovery elsewhere in the southwest Atlantic, humpbacks have only become regular summer visitors to South Georgia in the past decade. South Georgia is designated as an Important Marine Mammal Area and also supports a winter krill fishery. This new humpback recolonization poses a number of questions of conservation and management relevance: are the newcomers associated with the expanding Brazilian wintering ground, or with more distant African wintering grounds? What is the demography of the new colonisers- are they young animals, or more representative of a recovering population? Are they foraging exclusively on krill, and have there been any shifts in foraging preference over a century of exploitation?
Project summary : 
This project will investigate the population identity, connectedness, demography and habitat use preferences of humpbacks on a recently recolonised feeding ground and compare these with early 20th century patterns from whalebone collections. Population origins will be investigated, using multiple genetic markers to assess the association of South Georgia with low-latitude wintering grounds across the South Atlantic. Population demography will be measured by estimating whale ages using epigenetic methods, establishing if patterns mirror those from the whaling period, or if the colonisers are predominantly juveniles. Over a century of oceanic environmental change, humpback whale feeding preferences may also have shifted; using stable isotopes, this project will compare modern samples with local prey, and with historical humpback bones, to identify and compare trophic patterns over time.
What will the student do?: 
The student will conduct genetic, epigenetic and stable isotope analysis using a collection of 30+ humpback whale samples collected by BAS from South Georgia since 2010, as well as historical bone samples deposited at South Georgia in the early 20th century. DNA extraction, PCR amplification of nuclear and mitochondrial loci, preparation of samples for genomic sequencing, and methylation measurements for epigenetic analysis will be carried out in the BAS ANGEL lab (and clean lab facilities for historical samples). Isotope analyses of carbon and nitrogen will be carried out either at the Godwin Lab at the University of Cambridge or via NERC LSMSF. If possible, the student will also spend two months at the Jarman lab in the University of Western Australia to gain familiarity with epigenetic assays and analysis. The student will conduct analyses using Bayesian genetic models (including population assignment tests, mixed stock analyses, connectivity and gene flow measurements), and will analyse stable isotope and epigenetic data using a variety of statistical tools including GLMs, multivariate regression and principal component analysis.
References - references should provide further reading about the project: 
Kershaw, F. Carvalho, I. Loo, J. Pomilla, C. Best, P. B. Findlay, K. Cerchio, S. Collins, T. Engel, M. H. Minton, G. et al. 2017. Multiple processes drive genetic structure of humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) populations across spatial scales. Molecular Ecology, vol. 26, pp 977-994. DOI: 10.1111/mec.13943
Polanowski, A. M. Robbins, J. Chandler, D. & Jarman, S. N. 2014. Epigenetic estimation of age in humpback whales. Molecular Ecology Resources, vol 14, pp 976-987. DOI:10.1111/1755-0998.12247
Jackson, J. A. Kennedy, A. S. Moore, M. Andriolo, A. Bamford, C. Calderan, S. et al. In press. Whales return to a historical hotspot of industrial whaling? The pattern of southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) recovery at South Georgia. Endangered Species Research.
You can find out about applying for this project on the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) page.
Gabriele Stowasser
Dr Jen Jackson
Dr Tamsin O'Connell
British Antarctic Survey Graduate Administrator