MSc Graduate in Focus: Matt Carter

This year we are launching a new MSc in Marine Vertebrate Ecology and Conservation and applications are open now for 2020 start. We are looking back on some of our MSc graduates who have excelled in marine vertebrate ecology and conservation around the world since studying with us.

Today we meet Matt Carter, MSc Conservation and Biodiversity graduate (2014) and now a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of St. Andrews!

Hi Matt! First off, why don’t you tell us a bit about what you are up to now?

I am a postdoctoral research fellow at the Sea Mammal Research Unit, University of St Andrews. My research entails tracking seals at-sea using animal-borne devices to study their behaviour and habitat requirements.

After my MSc I applied for a PhD studentship at the University of Plymouth to study how grey seal pups develop foraging behaviour. The unique skillset that I had developed at Exeter made me a strong candidate for the role and I was offered the position. I had always wanted to be a professional researcher but had a serious lack of self-confidence. My MSc supervisor was instrumental in giving me the confidence and ambition to undertake this journey. During my PhD I collaborated with the Sea Mammal Research Unit at the University of St Andrews. After completing my PhD I was offered a postdoctoral position by my supervisor at SMRU to continue studying seal ecology.

So, what did you enjoy most about studying your MSc?

Exeter has a great reputation for ecology and conservation, but the thing that really separates it from other top universities is the staff. I chose Exeter because I wanted to learn from exciting people who are leading their field and doing interesting research, making a difference in the world.

A strength of MSc courses is that students typically come from many different backgrounds. There is a strong focus on developing a peer group where you can share ideas and work with each other and get feedback in a friendly collegiate manner. I was nervous at the start of the course that I would not fit in with other students with a more relevant academic background, but I found that the course leaders were great at helping me to recognise my strengths and gain the confidence to be an active part of group discussions.

The academic climate at the Penryn campus is progressive, relaxed and inclusive, and you are encouraged to engage in seminars and research group meetings alongside professional academics. The setting in one of the most beautiful parts of the country means that this is the perfect place for people who are passionate about the environment and the outdoors. The Penryn Campus feels more like a vibrant community than an institution. Having grown up in Falmouth I can say that the campus has breathed new life into the town.


How did the MSc help prepare you for your career in research?

During the course I developed a number of analytical skills, such as using GIS and R, that have proved to be valuable assets in job applications. Also, being around so many good academic role models made me want to continue a career in scientific research.

The lecturers are an enthusiastic, passionate and creative group of people who will treat you as an equal. The facilities at the Penryn Campus are cutting edge, whether you are interested in laboratory or field techniques. The staff also have a wide network of connections to NGOs and local stakeholder groups that will help you to meet inspiring people and engage with different possible future career paths.

I think when employers see an application from a UofE Penryn Campus alumnus, they know to expect someone who has had world class training from experts in their field. Studying an MSc at Exeter’s Penryn Campus gave me a unique mix of skills from data analysis, to delivering poster and oral presentations, and even grant writing.

Any advice for students who might want to pursue a similar career?

When you choose your student project, think carefully about what you want out of it. Don’t just study something that is familiar to you. Pick a project that will give you a new skillset and take you out of your comfort zone. Often we choose to study certain species because we feel a particular connection to them. It’s good to be passionate, but think beyond the species, think about what transferable skills you can develop that make you a well-rounded scientist. Also, get used to discussing your work and ideas with your peers and be generous with your time if you can offer help to others. Peer review is an important principle in academia and it starts here. Having a strong support network as a student will help you through the tough times, and the people you study with on your MSc may well be colleagues in the future.

Life in academia is not for everyone. Don’t be ashamed if you decide it’s not for you, there are many other options. But, if you do think it’s for you, find a PhD that you really care about. You will be completely invested in this project for years so be sure that it is something that will hold your interest and allow you to grow as a scientist. Take every opportunity to learn from other people’s experiences and make use of the contacts you develop during your MSc. Maintain an open channel of communication with your supervisor and be honest about your ambitions and limitations.

Finally, Do you have any advice for anyone thinking of applying to any of our programmes at the University of Exeter?

If you want world-class education from inspiring researchers in one of the most beautiful corners of the country then you are in the right place…

Thanks Matt!

You can follow Matt  @MattIDCarter  and the Sea Mammal Research Unit @_SMRU_ on Twitter!

If you want to find out more about any of our suite of #ExeterMarine Masters and Undergraduate courses use the links below!

Scientists at Sea Podcast – Atlantic Bluefin Tuna in the UK, with Tom Horton

Show notes

In this episode we speak to Tom Horton, a current PhD student at the University of Exeter and Project Officer for ThunnusUK. Tom and Ethan discuss all things ThunnusUK and Atlantic bluefin tuna.

ThunnusUK (named after the Atlantic bluefin tuna’s latin name, Thunnus thynnus), is a collaborative study between the Univeristy of Exeter and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas). The aim is to provide a baseline understanding of ecology and global distribution of Atlantic bluefin tuna that can be found in the waters around southwest England.

You can find out more about ThunnusUK here.


Atlantic bluefin tuna have historically weighed up to 900kg and measured nearly 4m.


About our guest: Tom Horton

Tom has built up an impressive career portfolio, after graduating from a Marine Biology (MSci) at the University of Southampton he became a research assistant at the Marine Megafauna Foundation. Following this he moved to Cornwall to become the Volunteer Seaquest Southwest Co-ordinator for the Cornwall Wildlife Trust and then progressed on to work for Marine Discovery Penzance as a researcher and guide. He is now undertaking a PhD with the University of Exeter, Cefas, and Stanford University focusing the spatial ecology of marine vertebrates that are of conservation concern, Atlantic bluefin tuna being a prime example.


Tom (right), pictured out on fieldwork.



Topics discussed

A selection of the tags used in the research
  • What is Thunnus UK?
  • How long has Thunnus UK been around?
  • Atlantic bluefin tuna in UK waters, why do they come here?
  • How do you tag and track a bluefin tuna?
  • How do tuna tags work?
  • Tagging animals safely and responsibly
  • How have fishers responded to the project?
  • Where do Atlantic bluefin tuna travel to when they leave UK waters?





Thunnus UK website

Have you spotted a Bluefin Tuna? You Can report your sighting here 

Tom Horton on Twitter

Thunnus on Twitter



Episode and show notes produced by Ben Toulson and Katie Finnimore.

Check out other episodes of the podcast here.

You can subscribe on most podcast apps, if you’re feeling kind please leave us a review!

As mentioned in the podcast, if you would like to hear what our series 1 presenters (Ethan Wrigglesworth and Molly Meadows) have been up to, check out Trail and Errors.

#ExeterMarine is an interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields. If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, contact Michael Hanley or visit our website!


MSc Graduate in Focus: Tommy Clay

This year we are launching a new MSc in Marine Vertebrate Ecology and Conservation and applications are open now for 2020 start. We are looking back on some of our MSc graduates who have excelled in marine vertebrate ecology and conservation around the world since studying with us.

Today we meet Tommy Clay, MSc Conservation and Biodiversity graduate (2012) and now working as a post doc investigating the environmental drivers of sea bird movements at the University of Liverpool!

Hi Tommy! First off, why don’t you tell us what attracted you to study your MSc at the University of Exeter, Penryn Campus?

I was attracted specifically to the course and the location, but the University has really risen up the league tables in the last decade, in part due to the recognition that high student satisfaction is important for a University to flourish. The CEC has really become an international hub for behavior, ecology and conservation science, and has attracted a dynamic group of staff and students. The courses are lively and varied with a mixture of lectures, practicals, field courses, presentations and group discussions, which facilitates learning.

The dynamic interactions between staff and students at the University, local industry and NGOs make it a global center for marine research. This is demonstrated by the fact that ExeterMarine has been a great success.

Penryn is well set-up to host students and has great facilities and decent transport links. Falmouth, where most of the students live, is a pretty fishing town turned student village, so has a good array of bars and pubs (and when I was there, one club!).

So, what did you enjoy most about studying your MSc?

I have many fond memories from my year at the University of Exeter Penryn Campus. Cornwall is one of my favorite places and a fantastic place to live, especially if you enjoy being near the sea and surrounded by nature. Plus, I was lucky to have a fun cohort of course mates.

For me, there were two standout highlights. The field course to Kenya was great fun – to be able to learn about conservation issues while going on safari every day was really special. For my research project, I spent three months in Peru as a research assistant for the marine conservation NGO ProDelphinus, who work with local communities to promote sustainability of Peruvian small-scale fisheries. The hosts were extremely hospitable and I got to see how a conservation NGO is run, both from the office and in the field. It was an invaluable experience, and one which cemented my passion for marine ecology and conservation.

How did the MSc help prepare you for your career in research?

The course gave me a good overview of topics in conservation, potential career paths, and skills for a career in research or management of wildlife. In particular, skills in programming and statistics are increasingly important for ecological research and the course provides a great opportunity for students to develop these skills.

Carrying out literature reviews and presentations helped develop skills in processing large amounts of information and presenting it to audiences in a clear manner, something which is useful for a wide range of jobs. More specifically, developing proficiencies both in GIS and statistics in R (a programming software) are incredibly useful for a career in environmental management, whether directly involved in research or not.

To pursue a career in research or academia, I think the most important thing is to have an inquisitive nature. A PhD is hard work and requires a lot of perseverance, so it’s important to choose a topic you’re really passionate about and can get regular enjoyment out of.

Don’t be afraid of rejection and try and put yourself out there. If you want to work with someone, send them an email detailing your skills and interests, as they may have opportunities going that are not advertised. It’s a competitive field and a lot of success is based on luck. However, if you can create opportunities for yourself you’re more likely to get that lucky break.

Finally, Do you have any advice for anyone thinking of applying to any of our programmes at the University of Exeter?

Go for it!

Thanks Tommy


If you want to find out more about any of our suite of #ExeterMarine Masters and Undergraduate courses use the links below!

My ExeterMarine PhD: Carbon dioxide – an unexpected ally for fish faced with low oxygen?

Many of us know how climate change is causing an increase in ocean acidification, warming sea water temperatures and coral bleaching, but did you also know it causes an increase in the number and severity of ‘hypoxic’ or low oxygen events? Understanding how this decrease in oxygen (and its reciprocal increase in carbon dioxide) impacts species dependent on oxygen is important if we are to effectively predict and manage the impacts of future climate change on marine life.

University of Exeter PhD student Dan Montgomery tells us about his new paper, working to understand the tolerance of European Sea Bass to hypoxic events.

Words by Dan Montgomery, PhD Student, University of Exeter

Key message: During periods of low oxygen in the oceans fish are also faced with high CO2 levels. Previous research investigating responses to hypoxia by fish hasn’t considered this change in CO2. We found that including realistic changes in CO2 during hypoxia tolerance tests increase hypoxia tolerance of European seabass by 20 %. This has important implications for assessing impacts of hypoxia on fish species and predicting potential effects of climate change.

Oxygen is key to most animals found on earth and a lack of oxygen has large consequences, potentially including death. For animals that live on land or in the air low amounts of oxygen (otherwise known as hypoxia) are relatively rare, however for animals that live in water (like fish) hypoxia is much more common 1. In order to determine the impacts of low oxygen on these animals we need to know how tolerant they are to these low oxygen conditions. Scientists have been conducting research to discover the tolerance of fish species to hypoxia for over 50 years but crucially these experiments are carried out in laboratories and aquariums where oxygen is reduced in water by bubbling them with nitrogen (or a mix of nitrogen and air). Whilst this reduces the oxygen levels in the water it does not account for changes in another key gas, carbon dioxide!

European Sea bass in Exeter University’s aquarium

Low oxygen levels in the world’s oceans are usually caused by respiration of bacteria. As a by-product of this respiration carbon dioxide is produced. This means that whenever oxygen levels are reduced carbon dioxide levels increase. The reciprocal relationship between carbon dioxide and oxygen is well known and has been recorded many times in oceanographic surveys 2,3. Our research, using European sea bass, aimed to understand if this increase in CO2 during a hypoxic event changed the hypoxia tolerance of fish when compared to normal experimental techniques which induce hypoxia without changing CO2.

Working in the lab to measure blood chemistry of sea bass

We found that sea bass which experienced environmentally realistic increases in CO2 during a hypoxia challenge were 20 % more tolerant to hypoxia than fish exposed to a hypoxia challenge with no CO2 change. We believe this increase in tolerance is related to changes in the chemistry of the sea bass’s blood which increase the affinity of haemoglobin for oxygen in their red blood cells. This means that as O2 levels drop in water the bass can maintain transport of oxygen in their blood for longer! This result may mean that previous research investigating hypoxia has miscalculated the true tolerance of fish in the wild.

Juvenile seabass in the holding tanks in the Aquatic Resources Centre at the University of Exeter

Improving our understanding of how hypoxia impacts fish species is crucial as climate change is causing an increase in both the prevalence and severity of hypoxic events. If calculations of hypoxia tolerance are incorrect this could affect our ability to predict impacts of climate change on fish. Our aim is to now investigate whether this response is common in marine fish or if individual species have differing responses.

The study, published by Scientific Reports, is freely available at here.

You can follow Dan on Twitter @DanWMont


  1. Breitburg, D. et al. Declining oxygen in the global ocean and coastal waters. Science (80-. ). 359, (2018).
  2. Melzner, F. et al. Future ocean acidification will be amplified by hypoxia in coastal habitats. Mar. Biol. 160, 1875–1888 (2013).
  3. Sunda, W. G. & Cai, W.-J. Eutrophication Induced CO2-Acidification of Subsurface Coastal Waters: Interactive Effects of Temperature, Salinity, and Atmospheric PCO2. Environ. Sci. Technol. 46, 10651–10659 (2012).

#ExeterMarine is an interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, biological,  medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields.

Find us on: Facebook : Twitter : Instagram : LinkedIn  

If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, contact Michael Hanley or visit our website!

MSc Graduate in Focus: Kelly Atkins

This year we are launching a new MSc in Marine Vertebrate Ecology and Conservation and applications are open now for 2020 start. We are looking back on some of our MSc graduates who have excelled in marine vertebrate ecology and conservation around the world since studying with us.

Today we meet Kelly Atkins, MSc Conservation and Biodiversity graduate (2014) and now completing his PhD at the University of Exeter!

Hi Kelly! First off, why don’t you tell us what you are up to now and how you got there?

I am currently back at University of Exeter pursuing a Bioscience PhD funded by a Global Excellence Studentship. My research examines how food subsidies (discards from commercial fisheries) influence the foraging behaviour and spatial ecology of northern gannets (Morus bassanus), across age classes, during the breeding and non-breeding seasons.

After completing my MSc I returned to the United States where I worked for the National Park Service as a Bear Management Ranger in Yellowstone National Park for three years. In this role I was involved in the research and management of Yellowstone’s population of threatened grizzly bears. Following that, I worked in Olympic National Park where I assisted in the management and removal/translocation of non-native mountain goats. My professional interests have always been focused around the influence of human activities on wildlife behavior and the ecological consequences of human/wildlife interactions on land and at sea. When I decided it was time to further develop my skills through a PhD, I turned back to University of Exeter and CEC because of the small but vibrant research community, world-leading academics, and of course, the lovely location in Cornwall!

It’s lovely to have you back with us! What did you enjoy most about studying your MSc with us at the University of Exeter Cornwall Campus?

I liked living in Cornwall and studying at the Penryn Campus enough to come back and do it again for my PhD! The countryside and beaches are really lovely when you need to unwind and the campus is full of friendly and engaging people.

I liked the design and content of the MSc Conservation and Biodiversity Programme. It offered the focus I was looking for in taking the next step in my professional development. The fact that the Penryn campus is relatively small was also appealing; it’s hard to beat the access and quality of interactions one can have with academics in a small campus setting like this.

I think the Penryn Campus of UoE, specifically, is rather unique. Being a small campus in a relatively rural setting that houses world-leading researchers and has the resources of a large University seem to me to be a unique and winning combination.

How did the MSc help you in your career, and do you have any advice for students looking to pursue a similar career?

I had quite a bit of work experience by the time I came to study for my MSc and my wandering career path had left me with a broad set of research skills. The MSc helped me refocus and update those skills in a way that better prepared me to take the next step and pursue a PhD.

I first got into working in wildlife biology through an internship during my undergraduate years. Volunteer experiences and internships are a good way to build a professional network, try things out, and bolster your CV. I think it is important to be open to, and pursue, as many opportunities as you can. Doing so will broaden your way of thinking and give you a sense of what you enjoy most, while building a diverse and transferrable skillset. I’ve dabbled in everything from microbial oceanography to ungulate biology and that diversity of knowledge has opened a lot of doors.

Finally, Do you have any advice for anyone thinking of applying to any of our programmes at the University of Exeter?

Apply! Apply early and often for anything that interests you and worry about deciding what the best fit is once you have real options on the table.

Thanks Kelly!

If you want to find out more about any of our suite of #ExeterMarine Masters and Undergraduate courses use the links below!

MSc Graduate in Focus: Matt Nicholson

This year we are launching a new MSc in Marine Vertebrate Ecology and Conservation and applications are open now for 2020 start. We are looking back on some of our MSc graduates who have excelled in marine vertebrate ecology and conservation around the world since studying with us.

Today we meet Matt Nicholson, MSc Conservation and Biodiversity graduate (2014) and now completing his PhD at Arkansas State University!

Hi Matt! First off, why don’t you give us a bit of background about what made you choose to study your MSc with us at the University of Exeter Cornwall Campus?

I was having a really tough time finding a program to continue my academic adventure. I had never considered going overseas until I saw a post from Brendan [Godley] on the Coral-List where they were advertising their program. I emailed him and told him my situation and aspirations, he replied saying that I was exactly the kind of student they were looking for. The rest, as they say, is history. It was one of the best and most important decisions I have ever made in my life.

Once I opened myself to the option of studying overseas and realized that the University of Exeter was an option, the decision really made itself. The reputation of the program and the faculty make it a target destination. I consider myself extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to study there.

Coming from Florida, I was unsure how I would adapt to England. You always hear about the overcast days and rainy weather (which I came to refer to as a “constant mist”), but I absolutely loved life there. Cornwall is such a comfortable coastal area, with plenty to offer in the way of coastal walks, coffee shops and restaurants, and pubs. The campus also has a variety of locations to work or socialize. So, wherever you are, there is a place for you that will be exactly what you’re looking for.


It must have been quite a change coming from Florida to Cornwall! How did the MSc help prepare you for your next steps to undertake a PhD?

In the time since I graduated, I have always said I grew more as a person and scientist during my time at the University of Exeter than any other time in my life. It was my first time really feeling like a “researcher”. I was able to greatly develop my scientific writing in addition to learning how to build a schedule around research (incorporating things like data analysis and writing alongside other work responsibilities).

It may sound odd but the feeling of “being a researcher”, as in believing that I am actually something of a “scientist” or “researcher”, is something that was so important for my confidence in academia. That happened for me during my time at Exeter, being around my coursemates (who were all brilliant) and around professors who truly treat you like professionals let me feel like I was more than a student.


What are your highlights from studying at the University of Exeter?

The vibe all around the campus is so special. There was such a sense of community, which was really vital for me as an international student. I was always comfortable and happy on campus (and in Cornwall in general) which definitely made me more productive.

The lecturers from the CEC go beyond simply being stellar academics, they’re just good people. Everyone was very accessible, down to earth, and a delight to be around. You can’t ask for more than being surrounded by individuals like that.

Both the field course in Kenya and gannet sampling on Grassholm Island were incredible field experiences. However, my highlight was attending our post-Kenya get-together in Cornwall and debuting the video I put together about our trip. I went through hours and hours of footage from our trip, making sure that each and every person made it into the video. Seeing everyone react so positively and enjoy the video was a very special feeling for me and was probably my personal highlight.

I don’t know if any single factor is unique to the University of Exeter, rather it’s the combination of factors that really makes it a special place. You could certainly find institutions that have successful researchers, nice individuals, a good location, or wonderful facilities/resources. But, to string them all together in a single place is something that I find unique and special.


 Finally, Do you have any advice for anyone thinking of applying to any of our programmes at the University of Exeter?

Do it, just do it.

Thanks Matt! You can follow Matt and his adventures on his Twitter account @SharkyNichol

If you want to find out more about any of our suite of #ExeterMarine Masters and Undergraduate courses use the links below!

A Field Season of Basking Shark Research in the Sea of Hebrides 2019

This summer, a team from the University of Exeter have been on field work in the Inner Hebrides tracking and filming basking sharks! Read on to find out why…

Words by Owen Exeter, Christopher Kerry and Jessica Rudd.

Basking sharks are the world’s second largest fish and one of the UK’s most iconic marine species. Understanding the lives of these endangered fish is key to their conservation. Since 2012, researchers from the University of Exeter led by Dr Matthew Witt and Dr Lucy Hawkes in collaboration with Scottish Natural Heritage’s Dr Suzanne Henderson have been working in the Sea of Hebrides to understand how and why sharks use these coastal waters. This year the team are applying a variety of technologies to investigate the secret life of basking sharks below the surface.

Left: Dr Suzanne Henderson, Dr Lucy Hawkes and Dr Matthew Witt. Right: Image taken by REMUS.

Previously, most of our knowledge of basking shark spatial ecology and behaviour has relied on surface observations limited by daylight and weather conditions. With the recent advances of tracking technologies, we have gained unprecedented insight into their UK distribution, diving behaviour, long distance migration and inter-annual site fidelity. Satellite telemetry data acquired by the Exeter team have confirmed the waters off the Isles of Coll and Tiree as spatially important to the species (Doherty et al. 2017). These findings have directly informed conservation management with the proposed Sea of the Hebrides MPA currently under consultation.

Recently the team’s research has shifted to exploring whether the region has further significance to the species. Little is known about basking shark reproductive behaviour, fine-scale movement or habitat preference. 2017 saw the successful deployment of multichannel tags recording behaviour at the sub-second level (Rudd et al. in prep) and in 2018, custom made cameras designed by MR ROV started elucidating some of these questions. This year we were joined by a team from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) and their Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) REMUS, with further towed cameras to deploy and a sonar scanner to attempt to shed further light on the rarely seen secret life of basking sharks.

Field site: Isles of Coll and Tiree, Inner Hebrides, Scotland.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute REMUS

REMUS is an AUV, a two-meter-long submersible vehicle that is designed to record underwater footage without manual controls from the surface. This allowed us to conduct long deployments at distances of over 2km from our control boat. Developed by Amy Kukuyla and her team at WHOI, REMUS has previously been deployed to film white sharks, bull sharks and leatherback turtles at depth.

As REMUS relies upon a tracking beacon tag being attached to the sharks half our team set off early from Tobermory harbour to locate and deploy tags aboard vessel Bold Ranger. The control team, including WHOI staff, followed on Etive Explorer. We successfully deployed beacons on multiple sharks across several days. Once tagged, we launched REMUS which followed the sharks at predetermined distances for up to four hours each mission. REMUS has 5 frontal cameras with an optional rear camera allowing near 360 views to be captured and up to 24 hours of footage generated per mission. Members of the team are currently stitching these different camera views together for each mission to allow further processing and analysis of the footage.

Left: REMUS. Right: MR ROV towed camera.

Towed camera deployment

Last summer, the towed cameras revealed new and exciting footage, including the very first shark aggregation observed on the seabed. While basking sharks may aggregate at the surface to feed, it remains unclear why they may do so at depth. Wanting to build upon these initial findings and hope to uncover more novel behaviour, this year we set out to re-deploy three cameras for a longer duration. These tags encase a temperature-depth recorder tracking the shark’s movement throughout the water column while filming it with a rear and front facing camera attached just below the dorsal fin by a 1.5 m tether. A vital component to the tag package is the Programmed Time Release which enables us to set the time at which we wish the camera to pop off the shark after a desired period and an integrated satellite tag, allowing us to track the camera remotely once its antennae breaks the surface by relaying its position every hour.

Footage acquired from 2018 MR ROV towed cameras.

This season the team was again successful in deploying all three camera tags. Upon release we deployed a range of tech to help us successfully hone into the position of the cameras. Once arrived at its last known coordinates, we used a goniometer which gave an idea of the bearing of the camera in relation to the boat. Within a certain range a handheld VHF radio (above the surface) as well as a VEMCO acoustic pinger (underwater) provide extra confidence in the directionality and distance to our prized tags.

While two of the sharks remained close to Coll, the third shark swum towards the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, nearly 150km north of it’s initial attachment. After a stroke of luck, a skipper and boat were found to help locate the last tag, known as Mr ROV Green, but required us to leave Mull, cross the mainland and drive across Skye before being picked up by a rib to find the camera. With the final mission successfully completed and all three camera tags found, now comes the exciting part of reviewing footage from both the cameras and REMUS to discover what new behaviours may have been recorded, along with answering biologically important questions such as estimating feeding rates and tail beat frequencies, as well as possible interactions with other basking sharks.

Finally, we would like to say a big thank you to Matt, Lucy and Suz for their knowledge and support during this field season. Interacting with a range of field technologies and seeing our data feed directly into policy and management is an invaluable experience for early career researchers. This work wouldn’t be possible without their hard work and dedication. We would also like to extend our thanks to Sky Ocean Rescue, WWF and Scottish Natural Heritage for their support of the project.

If you would like to updates on the basking shark project and our team’s other research please follow via twitter: Owen @OExeter,  Chris @chriskerry1989  and Jess @jlrudd.

The team. Clockwise from top left: Dr Lucy Hawkes, Dr Matt Witt, Owen Exeter, Chris Kerry and Jessica Rudd

#ExeterMarine is an interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, biological,  medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields.

Find us on: Facebook : Twitter : Instagram : LinkedIn  

If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, contact Michael Hanley or visit our website!

My Exeter PhD: Camouflage helps brightly coloured chameleon prawns to survive in the rock pools

Camouflage is vital to an animals survival, blending in to the background can stop you being spotted by predators or conversely, allow you to sneak up on your prey. But how do animals that live in highly variable environments like rockpools, where the surrounding plant life and available hide-y holes can change from one tide to the next, stay camouflaged? One option to has a variety of colour morphs like the chameleon prawn found in UK rockpools, but what happens if you suddenly find yourself in a pool predominately full of green seaweed when you are bright red?

University of Exeter PhD student Sam Green tells us about his new paper with the Sensory Ecology Evolution Group, working to understand the drivers of variation in the chameleon prawn colour variation.

Words by Sam Green, PhD Student, University of Exeter.

Key findings: Brightly coloured and aptly named chameleon prawns (Hippolyte varians) combine impressive changes in colour with behavioural preferences for particular seaweeds to survive in their rock pool habitats.

Here in Cornwall we are lucky to have easy access to incredibly diverse rock pools around our coastline that are teaming with wildlife. One fascinating species dwelling amongst the seaweeds close to the low tide line is the chameleon prawn (Hippolyte varians). An apt name for a species that is highly variable in appearance and found in forms ranging from vibrant red and green colours to varying degrees of transparency and patterning1,2. But what is driving this remarkable variation?


Chameleon prawns (Hippolyte varians) are found in an incredible diverse range of vibrant colour forms in UK rock pools.

Rock pools are extremely beautiful and colourful environments but they are challenging to live in.  Every day the tides’ ebb and flow, which changes the availability of submerged habitat as well as the varieties of predators that range over the rock pools looking for an easy meal. Could this variation in colour help prawns to avoid the interests of hungry fish? One possibility is that prawn coloration provides camouflage against their seaweed substrates. But how can they maintain this camouflage when the rock pool environment is so variable and always changing?

Natural habitats comprise many potential background colours, posing a challenge for any animal that relies on camouflage – such as this array of seaweeds in a rock pool.

One remarkable camouflage strategy that might be used is for an animal to change body coloration itself. This is surprisingly common in the natural world with the duration of change ranging from a few seconds to weeks and months3. The well-known masters of this strategy include octopus and cuttlefish, where many are capable of swift changes to their coloration enabling them to quickly tailor their camouflage to the surroundings4. Might chameleon prawns also utilise colour change to better match their surroundings?

In our research we have focused on green and red chameleon prawns and their seaweed substrates, the green sea lettuce and red dulse. We brought prawns and seaweed into the lab and housed the prawns on seaweed of opposing coloration. Then, analysing coloration of prawns and seaweed from the perspectives of predatory fish visual systems, we measured changes in colour in relation to camouflage.


Chameleon prawns were kept individually on seaweed of mismatching coloration in the lab to induce colour change.

Prawns have an excellent level of camouflage against their associated substrate types. They are also capable of impressive, if somewhat slow, colour changes that drastically improve camouflage against the previously mismatching seaweed over a number of weeks. So the prawns can change colour, but it’s clearly too slow to maintain camouflage when swimming around the rock pools. The seaweeds that comprise the ‘algal forests’ of the intertidal zone vary with the seasons5. These slower colour changes probably enable prawns to capitalise on seasonal seaweed shifts, whilst still benefiting from the protection of camouflage. If this is the case, how do the prawns maintain camouflage on a day-to-day basis?

Examples of the remarkable changes in colour displayed by green and red prawns over the 30 day experiment.

Animals often improve their camouflage through behaviour, such as choosing appropriate backgrounds that maximise their camouflage6.  Again using the same two species of seaweed we tested the behavioural preferences of green and red chameleon prawns. The prawns display strong behavioural preferences for selecting a background that best compliments their own coloration. So, whilst colour change may be of no use if a passing wave were to dislodge a prawn from its chosen camouflaged perch, they are able to quickly rectify the issue by swimming to the nearest patch of suitable seaweed.

The behavioural choice chamber used in our study. Here a red prawn chooses between suitable seaweed backgrounds.

The act of remaining camouflaged is rarely as simple as it first appears. The incredible variation in body coloration displayed by chameleon prawns enables the highest level of camouflage against particular seaweed backgrounds. On top of that the prawns display clear adaptations for remaining obscured in their environment, despite the challenges presented by their rock pool existence. For the chameleon prawns, our research shows that perhaps the best way of maintaining camouflage in the face of variation is to have a suite of strategies to suit the occasion.

Chameleon prawns are extremely well camouflaged against their favoured seaweed backgrounds. As seen here with green prawns and green sea lettuce.

Read the paper here

You can follow Sam on Twitter: @saunteringsam and Instagram: @saunteringsam

You can also keep up to date with the Sensory Ecology and Evolution Lab on Instagram: @See_research_lab and Facebook


  1. Gamble, F. W. & Keeble, F. W. Hippolyte varians: a Study in Colour-change. Q. J. Microse Sci. 43, 589–703 (1900).
  2. Keeble, F. W. & Gamble, F. W. The colour-physiology of Hippolyte varians. Proc. R. Soc. London 65, 461–468 (1899).
  3. Duarte, R. C., Flores, A. A. V, Stevens, M. & Stevens, M. Camouflage through colour change : mechanisms , adaptive value and ecological significance. (2017). doi:10.1098/rstb.2016.0342
  4. Hanlon, R. Cephalopod dynamic camouflage. Curr. Biol. 17, 400–404 (2007).
  5. Dickinson, C. British Seaweeds – The Kew Series. (Eyre & Spottiswood, 1963).
  6. Stevens, M. & Ruxton, G. D. The key role of behaviour in animal camouflage. Biol. Rev. (2018). doi:10.1111/brv.12438

#ExeterMarine is an interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, biological,  medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields.

Find us on: Facebook : Twitter : Instagram : LinkedIn  

If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, contact Michael Hanley or visit our website!


Nocturnal Flamingo Behaviour

Author: Dr. Paul Rose


We know a lot about the behaviour of wild species during the daytime and behaviour studies on animals in human care are often used to help inform us of their welfare state. For lots of species housed in zoological collections, we know little about what they do once their keepers go home. To fully understand their behaviour patterns, and what goes on when we’re not watching, we can use technology to observe their behaviour patterns across a full 24 hour cycle.

It’s commonplace to use data from the wild to help explain what our animals are doing in captivity. For species that might be just as active during the night as well as during the day, our observations on a human time-frame might only be half of the story. As more research is published on the ecology of wild species, this can be used to inform how we keep species in zoological collections- and knowledge of the nocturnal habits of “diurnal” species is one such area of scientific investigation.


The flamingo enclosure at WWT Slimbridge Wetland Centre


This research focused on flamingos, one of the world’s most popular of zoo animals occurring in a huge number of animal collections globally. Wild studies of flamingos have noted that feeding and foraging, chick rearing and movements between feeding and breeding areas can occur overnight. But how active are zoo birds? Will they still follow a similar activity budget to that shown in the field?

Using several remote trail cameras, fitted around the enclosure of a large flock of around 270 greater flamingos housed at WWT Slimbridge Wetland Centre behaviour across both day and night was collected over spring and summer 2016. The bird’s enclosure was split into different habitats areas, based on water depth in their pool and land areas used for different behaviour (such as nesting and rearing young) to see if areas commonly utilised during the daytime were still used overnight.



Shots taken directly from remote cameras stationed around the flamingo enclosure taken during the day (above), and at night (below).


Remote cameras are great for capturing behaviour in the wild and in the zoo. They reduce the chance of a human observer affecting or influencing the behaviour of the animal being watched. And they can be set to record animals at specific times, to focus on what animals might be doing over different seasons or times of day. And they can help collect data to inform animal welfare standards by providing a picture of how animals use their space and what areas of their habitat they prefer to be in.

Results show that these flamingos use their enclosure differently at night to that seen in daytime. Foraging behaviours peaked in the evening, showing that even though the flamingos are provided with a complete diet, natural filtering in their pool is still an important behaviour for these birds to perform.

Widest enclosure use, with the largest number of birds using the maximum number of zones was seen during the later evening, middle of the night and into the early morning. Birds congregated in fewer areas of their habitat during the later morning and middle of the day- preferring to be in one specific place for resting and preening.

Some behaviours were more commonly performed during daylight- courtship display for example peaks in the morning, and is lowest overnight. Showing that for some behaviours with a high visual impact, time of day for its performance is important for the message being presented by the behaviour.



This research has important implications for how we manage zoo populations of flamingos and other species in animal collections. These nocturnal observations show us the times in a day when flamingos naturally spend their time on key behaviours. By providing a habitat that allows a range of activities to be performed at different times, and not restricting the birds space to use these areas means that in a zoological collection, a natural behaviour pattern is performed. This is important for the welfare of these birds as the good features of this enclosure (its large size, the range of habitat areas, and the large number of birds housed within it) can be replicated in other zoological institutions to provide the highest quality of life possible.

We also show the influence of season on overall flock nocturnal activity levels- with birds becoming more active as spring progresses into summer, dipping slightly during the nesting and incubation period and then rising as chicks fledge and leave the nest. These data are helpful for breeding programmes, monitoring the seasonal changes in animals as potential predictors of when reproductive behaviours may occur.

These data are also useful to those studying wild flamingos too, as if we know the times of the day that flamingos like to forage or rest, or where they prefer to gather in larger number, so we can help maintain or create such spaces within their wild habitats, away from disturbances to encourage birds to settle and breed, or to forage at times of the day most suitable for them. With four of the six species of flamingo having a level of conservation concern from the IUCN all information on their behavioural ecology can be useful to the conservation of future populations.


About the Author:

Dr. Paul Rose is a zoologist whose interests lie in behavioural ecology, ornithology and animal welfare. Paul has previously researched the relevance and importance of social networks in captive species, and the associated implications for zoo animal husbandry and welfare. He now researchers enclosure usage and breeding behaviour of captive flamingos to help further evidence base the husbandry techniques used for them.

“I would be interested to hear from anyone working in the zoo industries who is working with flamingos, or giraffes or wildfowl, as well as from those researchers who are also investigating similar questions / areas of zoo animal behaviour and husbandry across taxa. Please do get in touch if you’re interested in a collaboration.”

To find about more about Paul’s project click here

You can find Paul on:




#ExeterMarine is an interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields. If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, contact Michael Hanley or visit our website!

Tracking Seabirds to Inform Conservation Measures At Sea

Author: Dr Nicola Weber


Having studied and worked in biodiversity conservation, with a marine focus, I have had the opportunity to work with a number of marine megafauna species, but it wasn’t until a move to Ascension Island (to work with sea turtles) that I forayed into the world of seabird ecology. Seabirds are known to be sentinels of the sea with a number of studies demonstrating how they can be used as indicators of the “health” of the marine environment. While seabirds nest on land, they largely find all of their food at sea, so any changes in the availability of their food resources can have a significant impact on their health and reproductive success.

As with many marine species, advances in technology have made it possible to study the largely unseen journeys and behaviours of seabirds at sea using increasingly small tracking devices that are normally attached the feathers of the bird. These devices then either need to be retrieved to download the data or can transmit it using satellite technology. During my time working on Ascension Island we attached tracking devices to a number of seabird species including the endemic frigatebird, the masked booby, sooty terns and yellow-billed tropicbirds. These projects involved many people including supervisors at the University of Exeter who conceived ideas and secured funding, experienced colleagues at the RSPB who helped with study design, deployment of devices and interpretation of data, and of course those working on the ground at the Ascension Island Government Conservation & Fisheries Department who know the area and the birds better than anybody else. Expeditions to tag seabirds, in particular on the offshore islet, Boatswainbird Island, that the local boat drivers skilfully got us on to, remain a highlight of my 5 years on Ascension Island.



Over the last 20 years, researchers have equipped over 100 species of seabirds with tracking devices to follow their movements at sea. As such studies become increasingly common, a wealth of information is being collected and many of these data have been contributed to the BirdLife Seabird Tracking Database and can be used for conservation planning or research, for example by identifying areas at sea that are important foraging grounds and hence may benefit from protective measures being put in place. It is only in this collaborative way that we can carry out holistic research projects to gain real insights into marine ecology and conservation at a more global scale.

In a new study published this week in the journal Marine Policy, researchers from RSPB and BirdLife International summarised the tracking data of 52 species from 10 families across the Atlantic Ocean (including those from the Ascension Island birds) to highlight the differences in the spatial scale of their movements during the breeding season. This summary, based on more than 12,000 foraging trips from over 5000 breeding birds, highlights the enormous differences between seabird families: while cormorants and shags often only travel 5-10 km out to sea, albatrosses, petrels, and frigatebirds routinely travel more than 200 km to find food during the breeding season. As there is a variety of options to protect seabirds at sea, it is thus important for policy makers and conservation practitioners to understand which approach is most suitable for which species based on their behavioural ecology. For example, birds that travel very far and exploit vast areas at sea may require conservation measures at a much larger scale than birds that travel only a short distance and remain in a smaller area.



This study highlights one of the aspects of academic research that I find the most interesting and rewarding – the collection of reliable data that can be used to inform management decisions and lead to tangible conservation actions being implemented, through the collaborative efforts of many people and organisations.

Please see the paper for full acknowledgements of people, organisations and funding bodies.


Dr. Nicola Weber 


You can get in touch with Nicola through:






#ExeterMarine is an interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields. If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, contact Michael Hanley or visit our website!