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Ecosystem engineers in a Changing Ocean

Project Description

Cold-water corals (CWC) and sponges are key habitat-forming organisms found throughout the world’s oceans. The three-dimensional frameworks made by these vulnerable marine ecosystems support high biodiversity and commercially important species. Given the importance of these habitats, it is vital to understand how they will fare in a Changing Ocean, both in respect to environmental change, and also sediment increases from human activities. The PhD scholar would seek to analyse the current distribution of the key organisms in the Atlantic, and perform multiple stressor experiments on these key habitat forming species to determine whether they will experience net growth or loss to assess what this may mean for future Atlantic distribution. Cold-water corals are at particular risk from ocean acidification and low oxygen due to their depth range and proximity to the aragonite (calcium carbonate) saturation horizon (ASH) and low oxygen zones. Considering that 95% of reefs are currently above the ASH, and live above low oxygen zones, we need to understand how this may change in the future as the ASH rises above the majority of CWC reefs, and low oxygen zones expand. A key question is whether sponges could proliferate in habitats as they become less suitable for coral, and whether this dynamic is further impacted by the introduction of sediment from trawling into the system. A major outcome for this project will be to quantify how projected changes in ocean chemistry will affect the occurrences of Sponge and CWC grounds in the UK and wider Atlantic. These data would lead to a greater understanding of the future potential of CWC rand sponge reefs for biodiversity support and ecosystem services, for policy makers and environmental managers.

Research questions
1. What are the environmental limits of CWC and sponges and where are they found?

2. How do projected stressors impact organism physiology and growth?

3. What is the future of CWC and sponge grounds in the UK and Atlantic?

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Funding Notes

RCUK eligibility rules apply (RCUK Terms and Conditions of Training Grants)
a. Eligible for a full funding: UK/EU citizens or settled overseas students only, who have worked and/or studied in the UK for at least three years before the programme starts (this applies to all, including British citizens).
b. Eligible for fees-only: UK/EU citizens who do not comply with the 3-year UK residency criteria. The award includes fees and research costs but not stipend. Students have to find match funding to cover their living costs for 3 years minimum.


(1) Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (2016). Voluntary workplan and background document on “Biodiversity and acidification in cold-water areas” (J.M. Roberts, S. Hennige, M. Vierros) (2) Hennige, S. J. et al.Hidden impacts of ocean acidification to live and dead coral framework. Proc. Royal Soc. B: Biol. Sci. 282 (2015). (3)De Clippele, L.H., Gafeira, J., Robert, K. et al. Coral Reefs (2017) 36: 255. (4) Chapter 5: Changing Ocean, Marine Ecosystems, and Dependent Communities, in: IPCC Special report of the oceans and cryosphere

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