Don't miss our weekly PhD newsletter | Sign up now Don't miss our weekly PhD newsletter | Sign up now

  Evaluating the potential consequences of climate heating for Caspian seals and ecosystem services in the Caspian Sea

   Faculty of Biological Sciences

  ,  Applications accepted all year round  Self-Funded PhD Students Only

About the Project

The School of Biology invites applications from prospective postgraduate researchers who wish to commence study for a PhD in the academic year 2024/25.

Marine mammals are keystone species for marine ecosystems. Understanding how they could be impacted by climate heating is important for evaluating future risks to marine biodiversity, ecosystem function and ecosystem services. The Caspian seal (Pusa caspica), is endemic to the Caspian Sea in Central Asia, the largest landlocked water body on the planet. Recent global risk assessments suggest the Caspian seal may have the greatest vulnerability to climate heating of any marine mammal species, due to loss of its sea ice breeding habitat and decline of the Caspian Sea level. However, an in depth assessment of potential threats and impacts of climate heating on Caspian seals based on detailed knowledge of species ecology and biology remains to be conducted. Such an assessment is not only critical for informing conservation strategy for Caspian seals, but will also be relevant to wider understanding of risks to biodiversity, ecosystem services and for human populations of the Caspian Sea region more generally. Understanding the vulnerabilities of Caspian seals will also help inform the potential responses of ice breeding seals in other parts of the world to climate driven changes in marine ecosystems.

In this project we will use an existing satellite telemetry dataset (Dmitrieva et al. 2016) from more than 100 tags deployed between 2009 and 2018 to describe Caspian seal activity budgets (time investment in foraging/diving and resting activity) in relation to environmental drivers. This will include evaluating seasonal influences such as the effects of winter sea ice cover, and how high sea surface temperature could relate to risks for thermal stress in the summer months. We will also evaluate the impact of Caspian sea level decline (predicted to be up to 18m by 2100), on the availability of Caspian seal breeding habitat and how this may influence whether Caspian seals could adapt to terrestrial breeding. Additionally we will develop risk assessments for the habitats of other key Caspian species including fish, benthic fauna and birds. Finally we will use the Marxan package to identify spatial planning solutions for seal marine protected areas under current conditions and human activity, and future sea level decline scenarios. 

Ultimately the project could act as template for climate impact risk assessments for marine mammals more generally, and will provide important policy relevant information on managing Caspian Sea biodiversity during the coming Century.

The student will receive training in marine mammal ecology and conservation, analysis of satellite telemetry datasets, spatial statistical modelling, and spatial conservation planning and prioritisation analyses. The project will be primarily focused on analysing existing datasets, but some participation in fieldwork may be possible.

The project would suit students with an interest in marine mammal conservation and spatial statistical modelling. Evidence of strong quantitative skills is desirable, or of aptitude to develop proficiency in this area.

For informal inquiries about the project contact the lead supervisor, Dr Simon Goodman - .


Applicants to research degree programmes should normally have at least a first class or an upper second class British Bachelors Honours degree (or equivalent) in an appropriate discipline.

Applicants whose first language is not English must provide evidence that their English language is sufficient to meet the specific demands of their study. The Faculty of Biological Sciences minimum requirements in IELTS and TOEFL tests are:

  • British Council IELTS - score of 6.0 overall, with no element less than 5.5
  • TOEFL iBT - overall score of 87 with the listening and reading element no less than 20, writing element no less than 21 and the speaking element no less than 22. 

How to apply

To apply for this project applicants should complete an online application form and attach the following documentation to support their application. 

  • a full academic CV
  • degree certificate and transcripts of marks
  • Evidence that you meet the University's minimum English language requirements (if applicable)
  • Evidence of funding or scholarship application

To help us identify that you are applying for this project please ensure you provide the following information on your application form;

  • Select PhD in Biological Sciences as your programme of study
  • Give the full project title and name the supervisors listed in this advert

For information about the application process please contact the Faculty Admissions Team:

Biological Sciences (4) Computer Science (8) Mathematics (25)

Funding Notes

This project is open to applicants who have the funding to support their own studies or who have a sponsor who will cover these costs.


Albouy, C., Delattre, V., Donati, G. et al. Global vulnerability of marine mammals to global warming. Sci Rep 10, 548 (2020).
Dmitrieva, L., Jüssi, M., Jüssi, I., Kasymbekov, Y., Verevkin, M., Baimukanov, M., Wilson, S., & Goodman, S. J. (2016) Individual variation in seasonal movements and foraging strategies of a land-locked, ice-breeding pinniped. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 554:241-256. doi: 10.3354/meps11804.
Prange, M., Wilke, T. & Wesselingh, F.P. The other side of sea level change. Commun Earth Environ 1, 69 (2020).        
Wilson, S. C., Dolgova, E., Trukhanova, I., Dmitrieva, L., Crawford, I., Baimukanov, M., Goodman, S. J. (2017). Breeding behavior and pup development of the Caspian seal, Pusa caspica. Journal of Mammalogy, 98(1):143–153, doi: 10.1093/jmammal/gyw176.

How good is research at University of Leeds in Biological Sciences?

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

Click here to see the results for all UK universities

Register your interest for this project

Where will I study?