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Faculty of Health and Life Sciences

Dr Kirsten Thompson

Dr Kirsten Thompson

Senior Lecturer in Ecology

 +44 (0)7841 695569

 Hatherly C5


Hatherly Building, University of Exeter, Prince of Wales Road, Exeter, EX4 4PS, UK


I am a population biologist, researching population structure, demography and connectivity of wild mammal species to inform conservation policy, particularly in the face of rapid environmental change. I use complementary methods such as genomics (sometimes working with historical and degraded samples), behaviour, photo-identification, acoustics, eDNA monitoring to better understand wild populations.

During my career I have developed expertise in marine mammal science, population genomics, behavioural genomics and ecology, field survey techniques, climate change ecology and international marine policy. I have spent extensive periods in the field ­– at sea and on land – as well as in the laboratory. I work in primary research and provide science writing and advice to governments (for example, New Zealand Department of Conservation) and inter-government institutions (for example, South Pacific Regional Environment Programme) and non-governmental organisations (for example, Greenpeace, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Centre for International Environmental Law).

Broad research specialisms:

Population genomics, conservation genomics, morphometrics, mammal ecology, cetacean ecology and behavior, marine ecology and conservation, eDNA monitoring, international marine policy.


2022 Fellow of the Higher Education Academy

2017 PhD, Biological Sciences, University of Exeter
2013 MSc. (Hons.) 1st Class, Biological Sciences, University of Auckland
1993 BSc. (Hons.), Zoology, University of Glasgow


  • 2023 – present Senior Lecturer in Ecology, University of Exeter.
  • 2014 - present Consultant Marine Scientist
  • 2019 – 2023 Lecturer in Ecology, University of Exeter.
  • 2008 – 2014 Curator NZ Cetacean Tissue Archive & Research Scientist MMEG, University of Auckland, New Zealand.
  • 2007 – 2013 Tutor, University of Auckland, New Zealand.
  • 2009 – 2012 Ecologist, Peers Brown Miller Arboriculturists Ltd, NZ.
  • 2002 – 2007 Parental leave.
  • 2001 – 2002 Research Scientist, Bryde’s Whale Project, University of Auckland.
  • 1993 – 1998 Field Scientist, Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, University of Oxford, Proyecto Alnitak, Spain, University of St Andrews and the International Fund for Animal Welfare.


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Research interests

Most of my work focuses on understanding the population ecology of marine species, particularly in our current era of rapid environmental change and industrialization of human activities in the oceans. I use cross-disciplinary techniques, such as population and conservation genomics, behavioural observations, photoidentification, acoutsics and morphological analyses to investigate marine mammal populations. Much of my most recent research has focused on beaked whales – a poorly understood mammalian group that are rarely observed and very difficult to study.

I work in primary research and provide science writing and advice for governments (for example, New Zealand Department of Conservation), inter-government institutions (for example, South Pacific Regional Environment Programme) and non-governmental organisations (for example, Greenpeace, International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Centre for International Environmental Law).

Research projects

Genetic connectivity in Southern Hemisphere beaked whales

The oceans of the Southern Hemisphere have a high diversity of beaked whales. These waters are targets for seabed mining, oil exploration and fishing. We know from strandings that beaked whales inhabit these productive oceans, but we know almost nothing of their ecology or how they might be affected by human activities. Long-term sampling in New Zealand has helped elucidate aspects of beaked whale ecology. Australia, South America and South Africa are also beaked whale hotspots, but few comprehensive assessments have been undertaken. In this research, we are building on previous work in New Zealand and Australia to investigate connectivity in beaked whale populations around the Southern Hemisphere.


  • Lerner Grey Fund for Marine Research
  • OMV New Zealand Ltd Scholarship.
  • George Mason Charitable Trust Scholarship

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Journal articles

Crane R, Scourse J, Roberts C, Littler K, Vogt D, Thompson K, Moore K, Laing C (In Press). Deep sea mining poses an unjustifiable environmental risk. Nature Sustainability
Elwen S, Fearey J, Ross-Marsh E, Thompson K, Maack T, Webber T, Gridley T (2023). Cetacean diversity of the eastern South Atlantic Ocean and Vema Seamount detected during a visual and passive acoustic survey, 2019. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 103 Abstract.
Webber T, Lewis T, Talma S, Sandooyea S, Meller L, Dulau-Drouot V, Thompson KF (2023). Cetaceans of the Saya de Malha bank region, Indian Ocean: a candidate Important Marine Mammal Area. Regional Studies in Marine Science, 66, 103164-103164.
Foskolos I, Alexiadou P, Koutouzi N, Frey S, Thompson KF, Boisseau O, Frantzis A (2023). Insights into the distribution and ingestion of prey-like plastic fishing lures in Mediterranean rough-toothed dolphins. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 188 Abstract.
Omeyer LCM, Duncan EM, Abreo NAS, Acebes JMV, AngSinco-Jimenez LA, Anuar ST, Aragones LV, Araujo G, Carrasco LR, Chua MAH, et al (2023). Interactions between marine megafauna and plastic pollution in Southeast Asia. Science of the Total Environment, 874, 162502-162502.
Abreo NAS, Blatchley DD, Thompson KF (2023). Short Communication: Marine litter ingestion by a Bryde’s whale (Balaenoptera edeni) in Mindanao, Philippines, and the need for consistent long-term recording of single-individual strandings. J. Cetacean Res. Manage., 24(1), 169-174. Abstract.
Thompson KF, Webber T, Karantzas L, Gordon J, Frantzis A (2023). Summer and winter surveys of deep waters of the Hellenic Trench, Greece, provide insights into the spatial and temporal distribution of odontocetes. Endangered Species Research, 52, 163-176. Abstract.
Mathon L, Marques V, Manel S, Albouy C, Andrello M, Boulanger E, Deter J, Hocdé R, Leprieur F, Letessier TB, et al (2023). The distribution of coastal fish <scp>eDNA</scp> sequences in the Anthropocene. Global Ecology and Biogeography, 32(8), 1336-1352. Abstract.
Thompson KF, Miller KA, Wacker J, Derville S, Laing C, Santillo D, Johnston P (2023). Urgent assessment needed to evaluate potential impacts on cetaceans from deep seabed mining. Frontiers in Marine Science, 10 Abstract.
Abreo NAS, Aurelio RM, Kobayashi VB, Thompson KF (2023). ‘Eye in the sky’: Off-the-shelf unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) highlights exposure of marine turtles to floating litter (FML) in nearshore waters of Mayo Bay, Philippines. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 186 Abstract.
Ross-Marsh EC, Elwen SH, Fearey J, Thompson KF, Maack T, Gridley T (2022). Detection of humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) non-song vocalizations around the Vema Seamount, southeast Atlantic Ocean. JASA Express Letters, 2(4).
Webber T, Gillespie D, Lewis T, Gordon J, Ruchirabha T, Thompson KF (2022). Streamlining analysis methods for large acoustic surveys using automatic detectors with operator validation. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 13(8), 1765-1777. Abstract.
Miller KA, Brigden K, Santillo D, Currie D, Johnston P, Thompson KF (2021). Challenging the Need for Deep Seabed Mining from the Perspective of Metal Demand, Biodiversity, Ecosystems Services, and Benefit Sharing. Frontiers in Marine Science, 8 Abstract.
Coram A, Abreo NAS, Ellis RP, Thompson KF (2021). Contribution of social media to cetacean research in Southeast Asia: illuminating populations vulnerable to litter. Biodiversity and Conservation, 30(8-9), 2341-2359. Abstract.
Westbury MV, Thompson KF, Louis M, Cabrera AA, Skovrind M, Castruita JAS, Constantine R, Stevens JR, Lorenzen ED (2021). Ocean-wide genomic variation in Gray's beaked whales. <i>Mesoplodon grayi</i>. Royal Society Open Science, 8(3). Mesoplodon grayi' data-abstract='
. The deep oceans of the Southern Hemisphere are home to several elusive and poorly studied marine megafauna. In the absence of robust observational data for these species, genetic data can aid inferences on population connectivity, demography and ecology. A previous investigation of genetic diversity and population structure in Gray's beaked whale (
. Mesoplodon grayi
. ) from Western Australia and New Zealand found high levels of mtDNA diversity, no geographic structure and stable demographic history. To further investigate phylogeographic and demographic patterns across their range, we generated complete mitochondrial and partial nuclear genomes of 16 of the individuals previously analysed and included additional samples from South Africa (
. n
. = 2) and South Australia (
. n
. = 4), greatly expanding the spatial range of genomic data for the species. Gray's beaked whales are highly elusive and rarely observed, and our data represents a unique and geographically broad dataset. We find relatively high levels of diversity in the mitochondrial genome, despite an absence of population structure at the mitochondrial and nuclear level. Demographic analyses suggest these whales existed at stable levels over at least the past 1.1 million years, with an approximately twofold increase in female effective population size approximately 250 thousand years ago, coinciding with a period of increased Southern Ocean productivity, sea surface temperature and a potential expansion of suitable habitat. Our results suggest that Gray's beaked whales are likely to be resilient to near-future ecosystem changes, facilitating their conservation. Our study demonstrates the utility of low-effort shotgun sequencing in providing ecological information on highly elusive species.
. ' onclick='modalCall(this);return false;'>Abstract
Azoulay D, Villa P, Arellano Y, Gordon M, Moon D, Miller K, Thompson K (2019). Plastic is a global health crisis hiding in plain sight. Renewable Resources Journal, 33(3), 10-13.
Abreo NAS, Thompson KF, Arabejo GFP, Superio MDA (2019). Social media as a novel source of data on the impact of marine litter on megafauna: the Philippines as a case study. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 140, 51-59. Abstract.
Miller KA, Thompson KF, Johnston P, Santillo D (2018). An overview of seabed mining including the current state of development, environmental impacts, and knowledge gaps. Frontiers in Marine Science, 4(JAN). Abstract.
Thompson KF, Miller KA, Currie D, Johnston P, Santillo D (2018). Seabed mining and approaches to governance of the deep seabed. Frontiers in Marine Science, 5(DEC). Abstract.
Patel S, Thompson KF, Santure AW, Constantine R, Millar CD (2017). Genetic kinship analyses reveal that gray's beaked whales strand in unrelated groups. Journal of Heredity, 108(4), 456-461. Abstract.
Thompson KF, Patel S, Baker CS, Constantine R, Millar CD (2016). Bucking the trend: Genetic analysis reveals high diversity, large population size and low differentiation in a deep ocean cetacean. Heredity, 116(3), 277-285. Abstract.
Thompson KF, Patel S, Williams L, Tsai P, Constantine R, Baker CS, Millar CD (2016). High coverage of the complete mitochondrial genome of the rare Grays beaked whale (Mesoplodon grayi) using Illumina next generation sequencing. Mitochondrial DNA, 27(1), 128-129. Abstract.
Thompson KF, Ruggiero K, Millar CD, Constantine R, van Helden AL (2014). Large-scale multivariate analysis reveals sexual dimorphism and geographic differences in the Gray's beaked whale. Journal of Zoology, 294(1), 13-21. Abstract.
Patel S, Thompson K, Williams L, Tsai P, Constantine R, Millar C (2014). Mining microsatellites for Gray's beaked whale from second-generation sequencing data. Conservation Genetics Resources, 6(3), 657-659. Abstract.
Constantine R, Steel D, Allen J, Anderson M, Andrews O, Baker CS, Beeman P, Burns D, Charrassin JB, Childerhouse S, et al (2014). Remote Antarctic feeding ground important for east Australian humpback whales. Marine Biology, 161(5), 1087-1093. Abstract.
Dalebout ML, Scott Baker C, Steel D, Thompson K, Robertson KM, Chivers SJ, Perrin WF, Goonatilake M, Charles Anderson R, Mead JG, et al (2014). Resurrection of Mesoplodon hotaula Deraniyagala 1963: a new species of beaked whale in the tropical Indo-Pacific. Marine Mammal Science, 30(3), 1081-1108. Abstract.
Thompson KF, Millar CD, Scott Baker C, Dalebout M, Steel D, van Helden AL, Constantine R (2013). A novel conservation approach provides insights into the management of rare cetaceans. Biological Conservation, 157, 331-340. Abstract.
Baker CS, Hutt A, Thompson K, Dalebout ML, Robins J, Brownell RL, Stone GS (2013). Species identity and human consumption of beaked whales in the Gilbert Islands, Republic of Kiribati. Animal Conservation, 16(6), 641-647. Abstract.
Constantine R, Jackson JA, Steel D, Baker CS, Brooks L, Burns D, Clapham P, Hauser N, Madon B, Mattila D, et al (2012). Abundance of humpback whales in Oceania using photo-identification and microsatellite genotyping. MARINE ECOLOGY PROGRESS SERIES, 453  Author URL.
Constantine R, Jackson JA, Steel D, Scott Baker C, Brooks L, Burns D, Clapham P, Hauser N, Madon B, Mattila D, et al (2012). Abundance of humpback whales in Oceania using photo-identification and microsatellite genotyping. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 453, 249-261. Abstract.
Thompson K, Baker CS, Van Helden A, Patel S, Millar C, Constantine R (2012). Erratum: the world's rarest whale (Current Biology (2012) 22 (R905-R906)). Current Biology, 22(23).
Thompson K, Baker CS, Van Helden A, Patel S, Millar C, Constantine R (2012). The world's rarest whale. Current Biology, 22(21). Abstract.

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External Engagement and Impact

Media Coverage

My research has attracted considerable public interest and has been the subject of more than 200 news articles including Science, Scientific American, BBC, Guardian, Time,Telegraph, CNN, ABC and Fox News. My work as a science advisor to Greenpeace has involved interacting with campaigners, policymakers, leading scientists and acting as observer on intergovernmental conventions. I have produced numerous reviews that have involved distilling current peer reviewed literature on emerging global environmental issues into a format that is accessible to public stakeholders and scientists. I have also received media training through this role.

2021 Our Grays’ beaked whale paper was reported in the newly developed online news outlet Academic Times HERE entitled 'Elusive beaked whale species found to be ‘resilient’ to climate change’.

2021 Our expedition to the Saya de Malha Bank, along the Mascarene Plateau, Indian Ocean, onboard the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise was reported in Reuters with other associated stories in national press outlets, whale story HERE and seagrass story HERE. The primary aim of the expedition was to provide novel data on marine megafauna using visual surveys, passive acoustic and eDNA monitoring. We also were able to document the seagrass and coral ecosystem in one shallow area of the Ritchie Bank.

2020 A recent article written for TIME magazine details the recovery of some humpback populations, illustrating the power of widespread global protection of species and habitats #oceanoptimism

2018 Following our publication on deep seabed mining, I was asked to provid comments for CNN International on the environmental impact of marine mining off the coast of Namibia.

2014–pres. At Greenpeace Research Laboratories, I have delivered presentations to the European Commission, high-profile publications, press releases, television and radio interviews.

2014 Our papers describing and naming Deriniyagala’s whale (Mesoplodon hotaula) were covered by Australian media.

2013 Our paper entitled “A novel conservation approach provides insights into the management of rare cetaceans” was covered by the New Zealand national newspaper The Dominion Post and I was interviewed for the story.

2012 Our research article 'The World's Rarest Whale' was the cover story in the November issue of Current Biology – Altmetric 265 (top 5% of all research outputs). This article attracted a large amount of media interest and was featured news programs including Science Shot, BBC, Guardian, Telegraph UK, CNN, Fox News, NBC news, ONE news and many other international newspapers (20+ radio interviews and >1000 websites).

2002 My work on the population dynamics of Bryde’s whales in the Hauraki Gulf, Auckland was covered by the New Zealand national newspaper The New Zealand Herald.

1996 Our work studying sperm whales in the Islands of Dominica and Grenada in the Caribbean featured in the national press and we were received by Keith Mitchell, the then Prime Minister of Grenada.

Significant Impact

Outreach and making the science accessible to the public:

2020 I work closely with the Greenpeace Research Laboratories and have worked as lead scientist on the Protect the Oceans campaign. This role has involved working very closely with journalists and campaigner to provide robust science advice on marine species conservation.

2018 Exeter Soapbox Science Event, ‘Secrets of the Dead: Using DNA to study beaked whales’.

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I am currently involved in teaching the following modules:

  • BIO1336 Ecology
  • BIO2076 Ecology and Environment (module convenor)
  • BIO2096 Practical Skills in Field Ecology (module convenor)
  • BIO3037 Ecology and Environmental Change



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Office Hours:

I work part-time but feel free to email me and I will endeavor to respond as soon as I can

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