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EASTBIO A healthy harbour porpoise: when are they fat enough?

School of Biological Sciences

Dr D Derous , Dr J Kershaw , Dr Andrew Brownlow Wednesday, January 06, 2021 Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project


Dr Davina Derous (University of Aberdeen)

Dr Joanna Kershaw (University of Plymouth)

Dr Andrew Brownlow (Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme, SRUC Northern Faculty)

Human activities, notably marine construction projects and fishing have been demonstrated to significantly impact cetacean populations. Such activities can displace animals from feeding grounds, impair foraging or directly reduce the amount of food available. This forces the animal to use stored energy reserves, which directly impacts the animal’s metabolism, reducing the energy that an animal can invest in maintaining health and supporting reproduction. Our ability to protect these species is limited by the fact that we do not fully understand the mechanisms that regulate their energy metabolism and resilience, and thus predict and measure the physiological costs of human activities.
One significant barrier to achieve this understanding, is that the physiological mechanisms involved in regulating energy metabolism are thought to differ considerably from what we know from the “classic” model systems. The evolution of cetaceans from a terrestrial to aquatic species led to fundamental adaptation of their physiology (e.g. thickened blubber) and metabolism1,2. The thick blubber layer in cetaceans serves as an insulator, energy store and provides buoyancy and, is significantly more metabolically active than visceral fats in terrestrial model organisms. Blubber tissue actively expresses proteins involved in metabolism, immune response and inflammation and lipid metabolism3 and may have evolved to adapt characteristics of visceral fat to maintain the signalling role of adipose tissue in whole body metabolism. However, many of the characteristics of blubber tissue are poorly understood, and the influence metabolic processes in this tissue have on individual health characteristics remain unclear.

This project will therefore disentangle the role of different fats (subcutaneous and visceral fat) in health and energy storage in harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena). It is impossible to gather this kind of information from free ranging porpoises. Therefore, the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme (SMASS) provides the unique opportunity to collect tissues from stranded animals. In addition, stranded animals are exposed to varying challenges (e.g. acute trauma, infectious diseases, starvation) and we can gather a more detailed insight into their health and energy status. SMASS performs a forensic necropsy and provides information on their “ecological health” such as age, sex, morphometric indices of body condition, pollutant accumulation, disease burden, reproductive patterns, diet, cause of death and pathology. Tissue samples (including subcutaneous blubber and visceral fat) from harbour porpoises with different energy status (e.g. starved vs non-starved) will be collected, and the project will identify the ‘metabolic fingerprint’ in these samples by looking at cellular expression of proteins (proteomics). This project will then take a systems physiology approach where it will integrate the metabolic fingerprint with the “ecological health” measures.

The student will become familiar with modern molecular, statistical and bioinformatic approaches to help understand the different roles of the fats and how they are related to overall health. This project is data-intensive and will lead to development of new tools and methods which will be valuable to other scientists in the field. In addition, this project is highly interdisciplinary, linking pathologists, ecotoxicologists, animal physiologists and ecologists. This project will integrate the fields of bioinformatics, cell biology, systems physiology and conservation ecology. The successful student will receive training in statistics, mathematical modelling, pathway visualisation programs and any required wet lab techniques.

Application Procedure:

Please send your completed EASTBIO application form, along with academic transcripts to Alison McLeod at . Two references should be provided by the deadline using the EASTBIO reference form. Please advise your referees to return the reference form to .

Funding Notes

This 4 year PhD project is part of a competition funded by EASTBIO BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership View Website. This opportunity is open to UK and International students and provides funding to cover stipend and UK level tuition (limited funding is available to provide international tuition fees). Please refer to UKRI website and Annex B of the UKRI Training Grant Terms and Conditions for full eligibility criteria.

Candidates should have (or expect to achieve) a minimum of a 2:1 UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in a relevant subject.


1. Ball, H. C. et al. Beyond thermoregulation: metabolic function of cetacean blubber in migrating bowhead and beluga whales. J. Comp. Physiol. B 187, 235–252 (2017).
2. Wang, Z. et al. ‘Obesity’ is healthy for cetaceans? Evidence from pervasive positive selection in genes related to triacylglycerol metabolism. Sci. Rep. 5, 14187 (2015).
3. Kershaw, J. L., Botting, C. H., Brownlow, A. & Hall, A. J. Not just fat: investigating the proteome of cetacean blubber tissue. Conserv. Physiol. 6, coy003 (2018).

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