PhD Studentship: Enabling wildtype behavioural ecology in captive parrot species

United Kingdom
Nov 16, 2017
Jan 22, 2018
Organization Type
University and College
Full Time

Parrots, of the order Psittaciformes, are key species in tropical ecosystems around the world. They are important determinants of plant species richness (through seed dispersal and predation), and may play a role in pollination of trees. However, many species are critically endangered because of anthropogenic impacts such as habitat loss or degradation through logging, agriculture, or mining activities, or because individuals are captured illegally for the pet trade. Zoos and other captive collections therefore play a vital role as ‘arks’, preserving the species (both its genome and the unique adaptations that are fundamental to its success in the wild), and complementing in situ conservation efforts.

However, parrots are challenging to keep in captivity. In the wild, they forage over large areas, exploiting ephemeral and extremely diverse food sources. Their dietary breadth means that in the wild they must learn to identify and handle many food types, searching for food items in complex canopy environments. They are generally long-lived species, reproducing slowly, and pair bonding depends on individuals finding a compatible mate. The challenges and opportunities provided by natural environments are thus difficult to replicate in captivity. Parrots need both clear flight space (to replicate travel between feeding patches) and complex climbing supports (to replicate foraging in the canopy), and these contradictory needs are difficult to fulfil in constrained captive enclosures. Breeding success (vital if zoos are to preserve the species) is often low, and with a small pool of potential mates, some individuals never pair bond.

In a previous project, we have created an Enclosure Design Tool (EDT) to elicit wild-type behaviours in captive apes by replicating the physical and mental challenges of tropical forest within captive enclosures in zoos and sanctuaries. This studentship will allow us to extend these principles to parrots by providing a research base on the extent to which wild-type behaviours are missing or constrained in captive parrots. This will enable zoos and other captive collections to preserve both the genome and the unique behavioural adaptations of the species they care for.

Literature review of the behavioural ecology of the chosen parrot species, including aspects of cognition, locomotion, and social behaviour.

Where specific data is missing from the wild, it may be possible to undertake field studies, or captive studies on free-flying populations, or those in very large enclosures (e.g. at the Parrot Zoo).

Field work in zoos to quantify how the behaviour of captive parrots differs from that of their wild counterparts, in both frequency and diversity. This will use observational protocols to build a dataset that can be compared to the behavioural ecology of wild parrots.

Use the data generated in points 1-3 to develop enclosure modifications and enhanced foraging opportunities to elicit missing or reduced wild-type behaviours.

Compare behavior pre- and post-enclosure modification to evaluate success in eliciting a behavioural profile closer to that of wild parrots.


Funding Notes

In addition to completing an online application form, you will also need to complete and submit the CENTA studentship application form available from

CENTA studentships are for 3.5 years and are funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). In addition to the full payment of their tuition fees, successful candidates will received the following financial support.

Annual stipend, set as £14,553 for 2017/18

Research training support grant (RTSG) of £8,000

CENTA students are required to undertake 45 days training throughout their PhD including a 10 day placement.



  • Chappell, J., Demery, Z. P., Arriola-Rios, V., & Sloman, A. (2012). How to build an information gathering and processing system: Lessons from naturally and artificially intelligent systems. Behavioural Processes, 89(2), 179–186.
  • Chappell, J., Phillips, A. C., van Noordwijk, M. A., Mitra Setia, T., & Thorpe, S. K. S. (2015). The Ontogeny of Gap Crossing Behaviour in Bornean Orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus wurmbii). PloS One, 10(7), e0130291–15.
  • Demery, Z. P., Chappell, J., & Martin, G. R. (2011). Vision, touch and object manipulation in Senegal parrots Poicephalus senegalus. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 278, 3687–3693.
  • Tecwyn, E. C., Thorpe, S. K., & Chappell, J. (2013). A novel test of planning ability: Great apes can plan step-by-step but not in advance of action. Behav Processes, 100, 174–184.
  • Troscianko, J., Bayern, von, A. M., Chappell, J., Rutz, C., & Martin, G. R. (2012). Extreme binocular vision and a straight bill facilitate tool use in New Caledonian crows. Nat Commun, 3, 1110.


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