Past Projects

PhD thesis – The role of Oxytocin in the Maternal Behaviour of Grey Seals

Grey seal mother and pup
Grey seal mother and pup, North Rona

Between 2010 and 2014 I conducted my PhD at the University of St Andrews on the behavioural endocrinology of grey seal mothers. I chose to focus on the hormone oxytocin as a way to investigate the huge, and often unexplained, variation in maternal quality we see on seal breeding colonies. At the time, oxytocin had only been studied in one species of wild animal (meerkats) but studies on domestic animals and humans had showed it was a potential biomarker for bond strength and significantly influenced the expression of maternal behaviour.

I collected many hours of behavioural observations from grey seal mother-pup pairs to analyse alongside samples collected from them for oxytocin detection using ELISAs, and found that it correlated positively to mothers exhibiting good quality maternal behaviour towards their pups. Mothers with low oxytocin concentrations showed poor maternal care behaviours, such as abandoning their pups.

Me with my hide on North Rona, looking over the grey seal breeding colony I studied for four years
Me with my hide on North Rona, looking over the grey seal breeding colony I studied for four years

To conclusively prove that oxytocin was responsible for driving certain aspects of  behaviour in seals, I also developed a manipulation protocol which would enable us to elevate the oxytocin in pairs of individual for a short time, allowing us to detect any changes the hormone causes in pro-social or affiliative behaviours. We developed and successfully used novel method of testing recognition abilities in seals in order to conduct these manipulation experiments with as much certainty as possible as to what this species’ typical social behaviours are, and were the first to prove that wild seals are capable of recognising non-kin.

Two weaned gery seals interacting, Isle of May
Two weaned gery seals interacting, Isle of May

All five of my current publications are based on work done during my PhD and you can read more about them on the publications page. If you would like to read the whole thesis, it can be found on the University of St Andrews website here (link)

The Donna Nook Photo ID Project, UK

Male grey seals fighting on the Donna Nook breeding colony.
Male grey seals fighting on the Donna Nook breeding colony.

Before I began my PhD the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) tasked me with starting the first photo ID catalogue of the grey seals at Donna Nook in Lincolnshire. Long term ID catalogues of breeding grey seals have been made and maintained by SMRU for several scottish colonies as grey seals have stable patterns of spots on their fur which can be used to identify them throughout their lives. Donna Nook was a new, growing colony and there was much interest in where all the seals breeding there had come from. In 2008 and 2009 I collected thousands of images of the breeding grey seals on the colony so that a massive photo ID project could begin to see if any of these seals had come from colonies further north in Scotland, or if these were new seals to the UK from Europe. This huge task is still ongoing at SMRU, and there are now many more photo ID catalogues for colonies through out the UK to link to.

Whale Center of New England Internship, USA

Trying to concentrate on recording behavioural data with two especially playful humpbacks very close by!
Trying to concentrate on recording behavioural data with two especially playful humpbacks very close by!

In 2009 I was lucky enough to get to live north of Boston for four months studying the marine mammals that live along the Massachusetts coast with the Whale Center of New England (WCNE), focusing on the whales that feed on the nearby Stellwagen Bank offshore. During the internship we would go out on whale watching boats to act as naturalists, to photograph the whales we saw for individual identification and to record their behaviour and assoications in detail. The WCNE has maintained a long term database of the individual humpback whales that feed on the bank for decades, as humpbacks can be individually identified from their fluke markings, dorsal fins and unfortunately from the boat strike or entanglement scars they bear.

Etch-a-sketch's fluke, the pattern on the underside of a humpback's fluke never changes and can be used to ID them. Etch-a-sketch is the grand-daughter of Salt, one of the first humpbacks ever named and studied.
Etch-a-sketch’s fluke, the pattern on the underside of a humpback’s fluke never changes and can be used to ID them. Etch-a-sketch is the grand-daughter of Salt, one of the first humpbacks ever named and studied.

Alongside studying the humpbacks, we also documented all the species of marine mammal we encountered in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Park. We would frequetly encounter fin whales, minke whales and atlantic white sided dolphins along with the humpback whales. On top of this, all interns were trained to help with marine mammal strandings and I gained a lot of experience evaluating seals found by the public along the coastline for injuries or health problems, or retriving them for necropsy if they were already dead.

I greatly enjoyed my time at the WCNE, and I would really recommend it to aspiring marine mammalogists but unfortunately they stopped their internship programme several years ago.

Harp seal yearling
Harp seal yearling hauled out near Boston, USA

The Humpback Whale Acoustic Research Collaboration (HARC), Australia

Humpback whale diving off the Queensland coastline
Humpback whale diving off the Queensland coastline

The first field experience I gained after graduating from my undergraduate degree was with the University of Queensland on their ‘Humpback Acoustic Research Collaboration’ (HARC) in Australia. As one of a large team of field assistants, I mostly collected location and behavioural data on humpback whales migrating past a land station at Peregian beach using a theodolite. We did get some boat time too though, out with the small vessels attempting to D-tag humpbacks for acoustic research. HARC has now become a much larger project called ‘Behavioural Response of Australian Humpback Whales to Seismic Surveys’ (BRAHSS). I believe they still need research assistants every year to help collect all the data they need, if you are looking for a great place and amazing group of people to gain experience with large whale research I can’t recommend them enough!

Honours Thesis – Harbour Porpoise Skull Variation in the UK and the Evolution of the Cetacean Brain.

Harbour porpoise skull from my study, this is a calf skull.
Harbour porpoise skull from my study, this is a calf skull.

During my final undergraduate year, I wrote two theses as part of my honours project. Both were focused on cetacean crainial anatomy, one on brains and one on skulls. The skull project used archived skulls from hundreds of harbour porpoises that have stranded in the UK to determine if different porpoise populations around the UK were isolated from each other. Skull measurements have been successfully used in other regions of the world to detect reproductively isolated populations of small cetaceans, including harbour porpoises, however I did not find any indication this was present in the UK population. The thesis on cetacean brains detailed how the neuroanatomy of cetaceans has evolved from the deer-like ancestors of whales and dolphins.

DEFRA Animal Welfare Team Projects, UK

Domestic cattle
Domestic cattle

In the third year of my undergraduate degree I was awarded a placement on of DEFRA’s environmental research teams based in York. This ‘year in industry’ gave me invaluable field and research experience while at university and I would strongly advise anyone doing a biology degree to do one if the option is available to them. I worked on the ‘animal welfare’ team, tasked with investigating the welfare of farm and wild animals in the UK and ensuring that human activities were not compromising it. I got to work with lots of different species during this year in both the field and the laboratory, but spent the most time collecting saliva samples from sheep and cattle to evaluate potential stress from transportation and collecting fecal samples from feral wild boar to measure stress and reproductive hormones.