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Habitat use of the Critically Endangered flapper skate in relation to a Marine Protected Area. A state of the art modelling approach.

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  • Full or part time
    Dr SC Smout
    Dr J Illian
    Dr M A James
    Dr P Wright
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

An exciting opportunity has arisen for a PhD student to join a multidisciplinary team working on the flapper skate, (Dipturus intermedius), one of the world’s largest skate species. The student will gain expertise in using cutting edge state-space statistical models to undertake novel research into the ecology of this Critically Endangered marine elasmobranch. This work is part of a larger project coordinated by Dr. James Thorburn, with whom the student will be expected to work closely with, investigating skate ecology in Scottish waters. This studentship will feed directly into this wider project, informing the management and conservation of this species. The student will join a team of researchers from the University of St Andrews (Centre for Research into Ecological and Environmental Modelling (CREEM) ( and the Scottish Oceans Institute (SOI) (, Marine Scotland Science ( and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH - The student will be joining the Marine Alliance for Science and Technology for Scotland (MASTS) ( Graduate School and as such will be encouraged to attend the MASTS retreat annually and participate in the MASTS Annual Science Meeting. The primary sponsor for this project is SNH as the results of the project may have a bearing on the conservation of flapper skate in Scottish waters. Given the policy, management and practical implications of this studentship, there will be the opportunity to interact with SNH and Marine Scotland throughout the project, one of which it is envisaged the student will undertake an internship or brief period of work with during their study. There will be opportunities to work in the field to observe skate capture and tagging which will involve travel and short stays on the West Coast of Scotland together with some days spent on small vessels.

Recent pressures including overfishing, climate change, and habitat destruction have caused the global extinction of several marine species including elasmobranchs (sharks, skates, and rays). The extinction risk for this group of animals is substantially higher than for most vertebrates due to their typical ‘K strategist’ life history characteristics; slow growth, late age of sexual maturity, low fecundity, and well-developed offspring immediately vulnerable to fishing gear. Improved management of elasmobranch populations is urgently needed to ensure their future stability and recovery. To manage elasmobranch population’s effectively, it is important to understand their spatial ecology. The Loch Sunart to the Sound of Jura Nature Conservation Marine Protected Area was designated in 2014 to conserve the flapper skate. As part of the monitoring of this species within the MPA, acoustic and archival telemetry data has been generated allowing the behaviour of tagged skate to be investigated. In conjunction with tag, there is a large amount of oceanographic and environmental data available. These resources will be available to develop state of the art spatio-temporal statistical models, designed to offer novel insights into the spatial ecology of flapper skate with a view to informing management. This will enhance our understanding of the relationship between movement, distribution and habitat as autocorrelation of movement at different spatial scales may indicate how animals are behaving, e.g. moving directionally and/or foraging. The statistical robustness and predictive ability of spatio-temporal models make them the most promising avenue towards understanding the spatial ecology of skate, fusing behavioural insights with biogeography and population dynamics.

Essential Criteria: The candidate must:

• Have a highly numerate biology/ecology oriented first degree OR A statistics degree with strong interest in ecological applications.
• Have an understanding of mathematical and statistical descriptions of biological systems and statistical modelling.
• Have a keen interest in marine ecology and/or spatial ecology and/or movement modelling.
• Have experience of data manipulation and statistical analysis.
• Be effective at communication to engage and communicate with a wide range of stake holders with different skill sets.
• Be well organised.
• Be able to adapt, take the initiative and have a collaborative outlook to enable work with a wide range of stake holders with different skill sets.

It is also desirable that the candidate has:

• An MSc qualification in related subject.
• Proficient with MatLab, R, Python or Java.
• Experience in the analysis of telemetry data.
• Experience/knowledge of spatial planning, management and policy.
• Good writing skills e.g. has obtained a high grade for a dissertation or has written reports or papers.
• Presentation skills for project meetings and international conferences.
• Experience of preparing of manuscripts suitable for peer review.

Funding Notes

Eligibility requirements: Upper second-class degree in Biology or a related area.
Funding source: 50% Scottish Natural Heritage / 50% CREEM (University of St. Andrews)
Duration: 3.5 years


Neat, F., Pinto, C., Burrett, I., Cowie, L., Travis, J., Thorburn, J., Gibb. F. and Wright, P.J. (2014). Site fidelity, survival and conservation options for the threatened flapper skate (Dipturus cf. intermedia). Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems. 25 (1). pp 6-20

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

FTE Category A staff submitted: 50.45

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

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