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Investigation of direct and indirect effects of exposure to
radioactive contaminants in free-living birds by analysis of
feather corticosterone concentrations
Project reference IAP/13/02. Please quote this reference when applying.
NERC-CEH Lancaster (Contaminants Group)
In partnership with University of Stirling (Biological and Environmental
Sciences, School of Natural Sciences) Supervisory Team
Dr. Nick Beresford (NERC-CEH)
Dr. Tom Pottinger (NERC-CEH)
Dr. David Copplestone (Univ. Of Stirling)
Dr. Christelle Adam-Guillermin (IRSN, Cadarache, France)
Radioactivity, stress, birds, Fukushima, Chernobyl
biomarker approaches to accessing data for stress and
exposure among affected animal populations.
Establishing systems to ensure that wildlife is
The neuroendocrine stress axis represents one
protected from releases of radioactivity into the
possible mediator of radiation induced effects, both
environment has been a focus of many radioecological
direct and indirect. The corticosteroid stress
studies and international/regulatory bodies over the
response is a fundamentally beneficial adaptive
mechanism that is activated in response to
considerable controversy regarding the effects of
destabilising or threatening challenges. Under certain
radiation in the environment around the Chernobyl
circumstances activation of the stress axis may result
2 (accident in 1986) and more recently areas of
Japan contaminated by the 2011 Fukushima accident .
Consequently, there is considerable interest in
assessing the status and activity of the stress axis in animals in an ecological context, as both an index, and
predictor, of fitness and performance. The student
will investigate the involvement of the neuroendocrine
stress axis in translating exposure to effect using bird populations in contaminated areas of Japan and the
Ukraine. The project will utilise a non-invasive approach to the quantification of the primary stress-induced
corticosteroid, corticosterone, as a marker of stress
axis activity together with testosterone and 17β-
There is a need to better understand the effects of
estradiol as markers of endocrine reproductive
radiation on wildlife and also to develop non-lethal
activity. Steroid hormones are sequestered in feathers
in proportion to the levels circulating within the blood
The student will benefit from wider interaction within
the research groups at CEH Lancaster and Stirling. At the University of Stirling personal development
modules are offered by the Stirling Graduate School. Appropriate CEH training courses will be available to the student. Courses we envisage the student
attending are: Effective Research, Scientific Writing,
Statistics for Environmental Evaluation (and use of R),
A while tailed eagle in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
Presentation Skills, and Environmental Protection. The
(Photo: Sergey Gashchak, Chornobyl Center, Ukraine).
student will be expected to attend the annual UK
Explorative studies at CEH Lancaster have established
COGER meetings which have an emphasis on
a technique to determine hormone levels in small
encouraging students to present their work.
sample sizes of feathers (e.g. from tit and sparrow
The student will also have the opportunity to interact
species). Initial analyses of samples from areas of Japan
with wider student networks through the EURATOM
contaminated by the Fukushima accident suggest that
funded STAR/COMET and NERC TREE projects both
the approach is worthy of further consideration.
of which have dedicated training programmes for
students studying radioecological sciences.
The project will exploit established links with the
French Institute of Radiation Protection who have an
References & Further Reading
on-going programme of work in Japan (FREEBIRD)4,
and with the recently funded EURATOM (COMET)5
and NERC RATE TREE projects both of which have
1Copplestone, D., Beresford, N.A., Howard, B.J. 2010.
field studies within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
EDITORIAL: Protection of the Environment from
Ionising Radiation: developing criteria and evaluating
Measurement of feather steroid concentrations will be
approaches for use in regulation. J. Radiol. Prot
employed in conjunction with individual data on
radionuclide exposure (determined by live-monitoring and/or modelling), growth, condition and reproductive
2Beresford, N.A., Copplestone, D. 2011. Effects of
status to seek evidence for potentially causal links
Ionizing Radiation on Wildlife: What Knowledge Have
between exposure (dose), response (corticosteroid
We Gained Between the Chernobyl and Fukushima
and/or gonadal steroid concentrations) and outcomes
Accidents? Integer. Environ. Assess. Manag
., 7, 371–37.
3Koren, L., Nakagawa, S., Burke, T., Soma, K. K.,
Wynne-Edwards, K. E., Geffen, E. 2012. Non-breeding
corticosterone and cortisol are associated with
Year 1: Conduct a literature review. Acquire and
subsequent survival in wild house sparrows. Proc. R.
refine analytical methodology using existing samples
obtained from the FREEBIRD project. Design a
targeted sampling strategy in collaboration with
Years 2 and 3: Implement the sampling programme
and conduct steroid analyses. Initiate statistical
analyses of the data. Make site visits. Year 4: Thesis preparation and paper writing (these
Smith, J., Beresford, N.A. 2005. Chernobyl
activities will be ongoing throughout the PhD.).
Catastrophe and Consequences. Chichester: Praxis
Training & Skills
The key technique required for this study,
measurement of steroid hormones within feathers, is
already established at CEH Lancaster and the student
will be given full training in its operation. The student
will also become familiar with avian ecology, sampling
strategy design, data analysis, scientific writing, and will
be encouraged to develop their presentational skills.
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