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Coral niche construction

  • Full or part time

    Prof K N Laland
  • Application Deadline
    Sunday, December 01, 2019
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

Project Description

Coral reefs are one of the ecosystems with the highest concentration of biological diversity on the planet. In 1% of the sea they harbor over 25% of marine species. This extraordinary example of evolutionary diversification exists only in the presence of the organisms that name it: scleractinian corals. By generating physical structures that thousands of other species inhabit, reef-building corals provide a potential prime example of niche construction. Quantifying the effects of these structures on coral fitness will allow us to determine the evolutionary effects of coral niche construction.
The structures that corals build differ substantially in their morphology, and consequently in the effect they have on the environment. Physical and chemical conditions are expected to be distinctly different in reefs that are dominated by different coral morphological types. These structures are inherited by the ecosystem, even after the corals themselves have died. In this project, we propose to quantify the environmental conditions created by different types of corals. These differences in environmental conditions provide varied niches, affecting selection on the corals themselves. We propose to quantify differences in fitness associated to the different coral-built structures.
The project will use corals as a model system with which to evaluate the evolutionary consequences of niche construction and non-genetic inheritance. Evolutionary models suggest that adaptation can arise not just through natural selection but also if parents act to improve the quality of the environment provided these improvements are passed on to descendants. We will test the hypothesis that as corals grow they effectively improve the quality of their own local environment for their offspring, by creating more benign conditions in which larval recruitment is enhanced, with the constructed environment a form of non-genetic (ecological) inheritance. By quantifying the extent to which corals increment their own fitness and generate adaptation through niche construction the project will contribute to ongoing debates within evolutionary biology concerning whether there is a need for an extended evolutionary synthesis (e.g. Laland et al 2014).

1. To quantify patterns of environmental variation caused by coral-built structures
2. To test whether coral-built structures affect coral recruitment, growth and mortality rates
3. To investigate evolutionary consequences of coral-built structures by quantifying the effect that niche construction by parents increments offspring fitness by modifying offspring environments

This study will test theoretical predictions about the process of coral niche construction. Specifically, we will use a mixture of field observations using 3D models of reefs and coral colonies, and experimental manipulations to quantify how reef corals change physical and chemical conditions on the reef, and how these in turn affect coral demographic rates. The project will include annual fieldtrips to Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef. The methods include surveying permanent quadrats of reef along a gradient of coral cover to establish natural variation in traits, growth, recruitment and environmental conditions as well as performing transplantation experiments to test for evidence of niche construction. Skills gained include theoretical evolution, quantitative ecology, field logistics, photogrammetry, and coral id.

The successful student will be supervised by Dr Maria Dornelas, a macroecologist with a special interest in coral life histories, and Professor Kevin Laland an evolutionary biologist with an interest in niche construction. The project will also benefit from collaborations with Dr. Pim Edelaar, an evolutionary biologist and theoretician working on the effects that non-genetic inheritance can have on evolutionary change and Dr Joshua Madin, a coral reef ecologist working on biomechanics and coral traits.

Funding Notes

Eligibility requirements: Upper second-class degree in Biology or a related area.
Funding: Fees and stipend is provided for 3.5 years.


Dornelas M, Connolly SR, Hughes TP (2006) Coral reef diversity refutes the neutral theory of biodiversity. Nature 440:80-82.
Edelaar, P, Bolnick (2019) Appreciating the multiple processes increasing individual or population fitness. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 34: 435-446
Laland KN, Uller T, Feldman MW, Sterelny K, Müller GB, Moczek A, Jablonka E & Odling-Smee FJ 2014. Does evolutionary theory need a rethink? Nature. 514: 161-4
Madin, Joshua S., Mia O. Hoogenboom, Sean R. Connolly, Emily S. Darling, Daniel S. Falster, Danwei Huang, Sally A. Keith et al. A trait-based approach to advance coral reef science. Trends in ecology & evolution 31, no. 6 (2016): 419-428.

How good is research at University of St Andrews in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 50.45

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