The links between wildlife infection and animal migration in a changing environment

Supervisors: Emma Cunningham, Jane Reid

Project description:

A full understanding of the dynamics of animal disease is central to achieving the goal of limiting the potential for disease to act as an environmental hazard. Wildlife populations experience a wide range of infections that can affect their own success, and cross species boundaries to pose risks to animal and human health. Such infection dynamics are inextricably linked to a species’ spatial ecology, as movements of animals around their environment (including seasonal migrations) are a major factor in determining how infections are transmitted and persist.

Recent theoretical models have highlighted multiple different mechanisms that may link animal migration to disease prevalence, and shown that these mechanisms could lead to very different outcomes for parasite persistence in the environment. However, these mechanisms have been challenging to test empirically as we still have little understanding of how levels of parasitism may covary with individual migration strategy; whether migration disproportionately impacts survival of infected individuals; or hence whether migration increases or decreases host numbers and parasite prevalence in a population.

The proposed project will investigate how infection with both macro- and micro-parasites relates to migration strategy in individuals as they experience different environmental conditions, and how these factors link to individual tolerance to infection, breeding success and survival. The ultimate aim will be to use this information to test how individual differences in migratory strategy could scale up to affect population-level effects on host and parasite prevalence.

We will utilise a partially migratory population of European shags (Phalacrocorax aristotelis) that has been extensively studied as part of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology’s long term environmental monitoring. Individual shags suffer both chronic and acute infections by a range of pathogens, and exhibit partial migration where some individuals remain resident at their breeding grounds over winter while other individuals migrate several hundred miles to different winter locations. This system provides an ideal opportunity to test hypotheses linking parasitism and migration strategy within a single population. We already have an unprecedented dataset with repeat measures of key demographic and parasitological measures for individuals, and the scope to manipulate these experimentally in the field. The project is interdisciplinary and is part of on an ongoing collaborative project between researchers at Universities of Edinburgh and Aberdeen and CEH(see,,,,

The student will receive training and experience in a diverse range of key skills in field ecology, parasitology, immunology and statistical modelling. They will be based mainly in Edinburgh, but undertake fieldwork on the Isle of May and spend time with all partners to capitalise on our combined expertise. Our Institutes offer a vibrant and supportive environment for postgraduate students in all fields of study. Please contact us informally with any questions prior to application  (

Starter references:

  1. Altizer, S., Han, B and Bartel, R. 2011. Animal migrations and infectious disease risk. Science. 331: 296-302.
  2. Granroth-Wilding, HMV, Burthe, S, Lewis, S, Reed, TE, Herborn, KA, Newell, M, Takahashi, E, Daunt, F, Cunningham, EJA (2014) Parasitism in early life: environmental conditions shape intra-brood variation in responses to infection. Ecology and Evolution 4, (DOI: 10.1002/ece3.1192).
  3. Grist, H., Daunt, F., Wanless, S., Burthe, S.J., Newell, M.A., Harris, M.P., Reid, J.M. (2017) Reproductive performance of resident and migrant males, females and pairs in a partially migratory bird. Journal of Animal Ecology (doi: 10.1111/1365-2656.12691).