MSc internship available to examine the neophobia responses of little auks (Alle alle), a common Arctic seabird species, and whether neophobia is affected by exposure to mercury pollution. Neophobia behavior involves adverse responses to novelty, and can be important to determining how individuals cope with changes in their environment. Past studies have shown that neophobia is often a personality trait, which is defined as a behavioral trait that consistently differs between individuals within a population. Furthermore, past research suggests that neophobia can be affected by exposure to anthropogenic contaminants, which exert neurotoxic effects that can alter risk sensitivity. This position will specifically involve processing data to assess whether neophobia constitutes a personality trait in little auks (i.e. whether individuals differ consistently in their responses to novelty), and whether neophobia behavior is correlated with exposure to mercury (Hg), a potent toxicant. Mercury bioaccumulates in Arctic marine food chains, can have a range of effects on neurology and behavior, and has recently been increasing in the copepod prey of little auks. Thus, increasing potential exits for behavior in little auks to be affected by Hg exposure. In addition, there is the possibility of assessing how neophobia behavior affects parental coordination within little auk pairs and fitness-related variables.
An experiment to assess the neophobia behavior of little auks was performed by placing a novel object (a rock wrapped in colored plastic) in front of burrows and video-recording behavior for ~8-10 hr to record behavioral responses. Prior to novel object presentations, recordings of burrows were also made with no novel object present, to determine behavioral patterns of adults under undisturbed conditions. At least one adult per breeding burrow was uniquely marked, to allow individual identification.
This position will involve extracting and analyzing data from video recordings to determine if/how the presence of the novel object affects behavioral patterns. Behavioral variables considered will include time to enter the burrow after arrival at the colony, number of aborted feeding visits (i.e. parent arrives with food without feeding), coordination between the visits of partners, interactions with the novel object, etc. At all burrows, the novel object presentation was performed multiple times (2-3) using different colors of plastic in the trials. Thus, it will be possible to determine whether responses to novelty are individually repeatable, such that neophobia constitutes a personality trait. In addition, mercury measurements are available for most birds included in the experiment. The experiment was performed at two little auk colonies, one in East Greenland and one in Svalbard, such that neophobia responses can also be compared between the two colonies.
3) General Information
Location: La Rochelle University, Institute Littoral Environnement et Sociétés (LIENSs)
Supervision: Dr. Andrea Grunst & Dr. Jérôme Fort
Key responsibilities: Extracting, managing and analyzing behavioral data from video-recordings in combination with mercury data (which is already measured), writing up results
4) Skills required
-An interest in behavioral ecology
-Good data management and data analysis skills
-Proficiency in spoken and written English
-An enthusiasm for observing birds (the position will require viewing many hours of video recordings).