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Aliens in the twilight zone: using robots to study and manage invasive lionfish on Caribbean mesophotic coral ecosystems


Project Description

Invasive lionfish threaten native Caribbean marine biodiversity. Lionfish predate unchecked on native fish which, unlike in the lionfish’s native Indo-Pacific, have no evolved defence. Current management relies largely on opportunistic culling by recreational SCUBA divers, yet this only provides local short-term respite because it is shallow (<30m), yet lionfish are abundant in mesophotic coral ecosystems (MCEs: 30-150m). Lionfish are larger and more fecund (~2 million eggs annually per fish) in MCEs than shallows. The eggs are buoyant, so deep populations may contribute substantially to shallow-reef recruitment, undermining management efforts via rapid recolonisation after culls. How how much this compromises management efforts requires greater ecological understanding of MCE lionfish.

MCEs are poorly studied because they are too deep for conventional SCUBA but not deep enough to justify expensive research submersibles. Our CASE partner has a new collaboration with US-based charity Robots in Service of the Environment, which has developed a robot capable of accessing MCEs and capturing lionfish. The current prototype is human-operated but full autonomy is the goal.

The project aims to exploit this exciting new capability to (1) determine the role of MCE lionfish in population dynamics, (2) quantify impacts of invasive lionfish on the wider MCE fish community, and (3) use spatially-structured demographic models to develop best management practice for culling lionfish.

With infrastructure, external funding and project partners in place, fieldwork and manuscript preparation will proceed quickly. The successful applicant will have excellent training and placement opportunities, and networking with our impressive set of collaborators, who are enthusiastic about this project. Additional co-authored publications are likely, given the knowledge gap and research team involved.

Applicants must have aptitude for marine fieldwork and data analysis, plus good writing skills. Importantly, they should have enthusiasm for nature, scientific curiosity and willingness to make the most of opportunities on offer.

Applicants should hold a minimum of a UK Honours degree at 2:1 level, or equivalent, in a subject such as Biology, Marine Biology, Geography or Natural Sciences.

We expect the most competitive applicants will have a Master’s qualification or equivalent, and/or substantial practical experience. Some experience of boat work is preferred, and experience of piloting drones/ROVs would be beneficial, but neither is essential. The project may be undertaken on either a full- or part-time basis.

For further details (recommended), please contact Dr Richard Field () and Dr Sally Keith () – we would prefer it if you send your email to both of us, please.

Funding Notes

The studentship is only available to applicants from the UK and EU.

Each student will be supported by the tax-free stipend (£15,009 in 2019/20), typically for 3.5 years. In addition, for eligible students, the award will cover EU/UK fees.

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