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Plenary speakers

Thomas Alerstam

Portrait of Thomas Alerstam. Photo.

Professor emeritus, Lund University, Sweden

I have been active in bird migration research since more than 50 years, defending my PhD thesis about “Bird migration in relation to wind and topography” in 1976. I am based at Lund University, and in my research project about bird migration we conducted field and radar observations and also satellite tracking and geolocator studies. We carried out tracking radar studies at many places in Sweden, from Scania in the south to Lapland in the north, and also brought our radar equipment on board ice-breakers to study seabird flight at Antarctica and flight and migration of High Arctic birds throughout the circumpolar range of tundra shores of the Arctic Ocean.  I was particularly interested in developing bird migration theory and the field of optimal bird migration. I have written a book about Bird Migration (1990, Cambridge University Press), and been main supervisor for more than twenty PhD students.

Revolutions in bird migration research

New methods and techniques have repeatedly brought about revolutionary improvements in understanding and knowledge about bird migration. Such major and rapid advances in knowledge were associated with e.g. the introduction of the method of bird ringing/banding, with the start of systematic field observations of visible migration, with experimental studies of caged migratory birds and with studies using radar, etc. During recent decades the research field has been dominated by the revolutionary advances associated with tracking studies of individual birds made possible by the new electronic techniques (satellite-based radio telemetry, light-based geolocators, and use of GPS and miniature electronic sensors). As a consequence, the knowledge about the lives of migratory birds and the structure of their migratory flight plans throughout the annual cycle is exploding. In addition, the new molecular genetic methods promise to provide a deepened understanding of the regulation and evolution of migratory behaviour.  I will try to sketch a brief historical perspective on the development of the bird migration research field leading up to the ongoing revolution based on electronic techniques, giving examples of old and new research questions, solved and unsolved.

Ben Sheldon

Portrait of Ben Sheldon. Photo.

Professor, University of Oxford, UK

Ben Sheldon is a biologist who works at the interface of behaviour, ecology and evolution, using birds as the model system. He uses long-term population studies to understand the causes and consequences of individual variation, mechanisms underlying responses to climate change, and the role of social interactions in population processes. Since 2002 he has directed the long-term population study of Great Tits in Wytham Woods, just outside Oxford, where his work increasingly focuses on interactions between trophic levels, their spatial scaling, and their interaction with climate change.

He obtained his PhD at the University of Sheffield, held a succession of postdoctoral fellowships at Uppsala University and Edinburgh University, before moving to Oxford as a Royal Society University Research Fellow. He was elected as the inaugural holder of the Luc Hoffmann Chair in Field Ornithology in 2004, and is Director of the Edward Grey Institute in the Department of Biology. He has been awarded the Scientific Medal of the Zoological Society, the Distinguished Naturalist award of the American Society of Naturalists and the Linnean Medal.

Social Behaviour and Social Networks of Birds: From Individuals to Population Processes – abstract

Almost any aspect of bird life histories involves a social interaction of some form, from mating, parenting, migrating to foraging, and dealing with the risks of predators. Social arrangement of birds ranges from long-term stable social groups, often consisting of close kin, to large, ephemeral groups, with composition turning over rapidly. Much of the focus on social behaviour has been on species in long-term stable social groups, but many important social processes occur in other species.

In this lecture I will describe work that aimed to characterise the social structure of wild tits in Wytham Woods, near Oxford, using large-scale automated observation methods. I will explain how using a social network approach enabled us to test a range of ideas about the importance of social structure in these birds, ranging from mate selection and food discovery, to the spread of novel behaviour and the emergence of stable cultural differences within different parts of the population.

Katarzyna Wojczulanis-Jakubas

Portrait of Katarzyna Wojczulanis-Jakubas.

Doctor, University of Gdansk, Poland

I am a behavioural ecologist, interested in various aspects of animal behaviour: primarily parental care and mate choice but also foraging ecology and avian response to environmental changes. The current project I am very much focused on is to establish how much collaboration (sensu coordinated behaviour) is in parental cooperation. For most of the research I have performed so far I utilized realm of seabirds. This is because I find seabirds not only a great system for a given study question but also very pleasant to work with.

Parental care in birds: from sexual conflict to cooperation –abstract

Since parental care in birds is considered to be costly and males and females have different reproductive potential, their parenting performance has long been viewed in the context of sexual conflict: if bi-parental care  (prevailing breeding system in birds) is to be provided, the common effort being exhibited is rather the question of a fragile interplay between the two parents, with their contribution being conditional in respect to the partner’s performance. Nevertheless, sexual selection does not explain all the patterns of parental care being observed, especially coordinated performance of partners in their parental activities. In fact, growing number of studies demonstrates that avian parents may adjust their parental activities in a way that may positively affect the breeding outcome of the pair. This, in turn, suggests that cooperation of avian parents may also be an evolutionary force shaping parental care in birds, at least as strong as sexual selection.

In this talk, I will consider a variety of patterns of parental coordination and discuss them in the context of sexual selection and partner cooperation. I also highlight the importance of the environment in shaping the pattern of parental coordination. Doing so, I will particularly focus on seabirds, an ecological group that has been greatly neglected in studies on parental care, while apparently exhibiting cooperative performance of the breeding partners.

Martin Wikelski

Portrait of Martin Wikelski. Photo.

Professor, Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior and University of Konstanz, Germany

Myriads of organisms, first and foremost birds, travel great distances in their search for suitable food, wintering and mating grounds. Our planet resembles one large pulsating organism, in which all of the organisms that are continually moving are breathing life into it. Understanding this pulsating life and its underlying mechanisms allows a better understanding of the ecologically dynamic processes on a global scale.

We strive to understand and predict which decisions animals will make on their journey, how animals will interact with their ever-changing environment, and the consequences their migrations have on ecosystems and humans. Above all, this insight will enable us to predict the impact that we humans have on these processes and allow us to understand the future consequences.

The Internet of wings – abstract

The collective wisdom of the Earth´s animals provides an immense bio-treasure of unprecedented information for humankind. Learning from animals in the ´Internet of Animals´ can help us forecast global zoonotic disease spreads or safeguard food resources while monitoring in situ every corner of the planet. To protect and understand the ecosystem services provided by animals, we need to monitor individual animals seamlessly on a global scale using animal-borne tracking tags.

The ICARUS initiative, including Movebank and the digital Movebank Museum (MoMu), an international bottom-up, science-driven technology development of small, cheap and autonomous sensing devices for animal movement and behaviour is aiming towards this: wearables for wildlife. The resulting big data should largely be available open source (with some important restrictions to safeguard animals) and the data analyses can be democratized by using MoveApps, a non-coding web-based analysis environment linking programmers, modellers and statisticians with ecologists, amateurs, conservation managers and citizen scientists. Together we can work towards better understanding, monitoring, predicting and protecting life on our planet.

Marta Szulkin

Portrait of Marta Szulkin

Professor, University of Warsaw, Poland

Marta Szulkin is an urban evolutionary biologist and Professor of biological sciences at the University of Warsaw, Poland. She holds a PhD in Zoology from the University of Oxford and worked as post-doctoral fellow in Oxford (UK) and Montpellier (France). Marta moved back to her home country, Poland, to start the Wild Urban Evolution & Ecology Lab at the University of Warsaw in 2015. She is the lead editor of the first academic book on Urban Evolutionary Biology (Oxford University Press, 2020), and is fascinated by biological processes in the urban environment, particularly in an Eastern European setting.

Ecology & Evolution in the Urban Realm: What’s Past is Present, what’s Present is Future –abstract

By 2050, 7 out of 10 people will be living in urban areas. Urban space is thus of intrinsic interest to humans worldwide, biologists included. It is also an environment with radically altered ecological dynamics relative to original natural habitat.

In the first part of my talk, I will examine the profound effects of urbanisation on wildlife, specifically – passerine birds. I will report on avian phenotypic trait variation (and its evolutionary implications) when measured across multiple replicated urban-rural contrasts in Europe. I will also discuss the impact of urbanisation and associated solid waste pollution on the extended phenotype of urban passerines. Finally, I will report quantitative estimates of the effect of impervious surfaces such as concrete or asphalt on avian fitness using data collected in an Eastern European capital city.

In the second part of my talk, I will highlight how urban ecology and evolution – a relatively new and exciting field of research - can be constructively used to move forward our understanding of biology in the Anthropocene: specifically, by improving our understanding of socio-economic processes shaping urban eco-evolutionary dynamics, but also by improving the resilience of cities in the wake of climate change. I will close-off by accentuating the need for large-scale research on nestboxes as breeding cavities in the context of extreme weather events further accentuated by the urban heat island effect.

Anna Qvarnström

Portrait of Anna Qvarnström. Photo.

Professor, Uppsala University, Sweden

My research team study a broad range of questions associated with the process of speciation with a particular interest in climate adaptation and ongoing evolutionary responses to climate change. Most of this work is based on long-term studies of collared and pied flycatchers that naturally hybridize where they co-occur. Since we study detailed demographic parameters of individual birds under natural conditions genetic evolution can be observed irl. The gained knowledge can then be extrapolated to less well studied species of birds due to large-scaled sequencing efforts of this charismatic group of organisms.

Climate adaptation and speciation in Ficedula flycatchers – abstract

As climate change accelerates natural populations, and especially those living in habitats affected by altered land use, face risk of extinction. The long-term persistence of such populations depends on their ability to phenotypically adapt either through plastic responses (for example dispersal) or through genetic responses (that is evolutionary rescue). To increase the likelihood of evolutionary rescue we need to better integrate concepts from evolutionary ecology into strategies of conservation or management of wildlife for the future.

In this talk, I argue that studies on birds play a central role in this integration for several different reasons. One important such reason is our ability to measure detailed demographic parameters of individual birds in long-term population studies under natural conditions. This means that we can study genetic evolution irl and extrapolate the gained knowledge to less well studied species of birds due to large-scaled sequencing efforts of this charismatic group of organisms.  In many bird species breeding in the northern hemisphere, the negative effects of climate change include phenological mismatch between the peak in prey availability and the peak in offspring's need of food. Recent studies of Ficedula flycatchers have revealed that pied flycatchers are more robust to this mismatch compared to collared flycatchers despite large similarities in niche use. This difference in robustness is, at least partly, explained by nestling pied flycatchers having a more plastic metabolic rate. I will discuss how these findings can be extrapolated into predictions about other species’ ability to adapt to climate change (or not).

Inés Catry

Portrait of Inés Catry. Photo.

Doctor, Research Centre in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources, Portugal

I am an ecologist interested in understanding how anthropogenic environmental changes can affect bird behaviour, breeding success and population dynamics, and how birds adapt to such changes. My research has focused on predicting the effects of agricultural and climate changes on habitat quality and breeding success of steppe-land birds (particularly lesser kestrels and European rollers) aiming at improving the effectiveness of conservation measures.

Recently, I have engaged in the study of bird migration, investigating the mechanisms that shape migratory decisions (and when such decisions arise during ontogeny) and assessing the extent to which migrants can cope with current rates of human-driven environmental change, both in the short term and across generations.

Preventing ecological traps in conservation: lessons learned from long-term monitoring programs –abstract

The recognition of the rapid ongoing biodiversity loss has been leading to increasing conservation efforts. To maximise conservation success, it is crucial to evaluate when interventions are likely to be effective. Nonetheless, conservation actions are often poorly evaluated and based on short-term evidence, which might preclude the detection of constraints and may create long-term conservation traps with major implications for the conservation of threatened populations.  Artificial nest provisioning is one conservation tool widely used in the management of secondary cavity-nesting species. Conservation actions aiming at increasing nest-site availability have been sometimes mentioned to act as ecological traps, for example, by attracting birds to unsuitable foraging habitats, unsuitable nest microclimates or unsuitable population densities, among others (for example, by increasing predation and competition or by modifying the structure of the community).

In my talk, I will show how the implementation of conservation measures can present some unexpected challenges for the conservation of target species, highlighting the value of long-term monitoring to establish and adapt conservation efforts. Finally, I will discuss how conservation measures can promote the unsustainable need to perpetuate the implementation of conservation measures and the challenges we face to secure funds to sustain the long-term viability of conservation-reliant species.