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FindA University Ltd Featured PhD Programmes

Mathematical ecology of ocean food webs

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Applications accepted all year round
  • Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Marine sonar records have long documented the existence of a layer of acoustic scattering at around 400m depth throughout the world’s oceans, which can undertake diel (night-time) vertical migrations to the near-surface waters. For many years the origins this phenomenon were uncertain, but now we know that it is due to concentrations of small fish and invertebrates which make up what we call the “mesopelagic community” of marine life. We also know that this community plays key role in the ocean food web, providing food for top predators such as tuna, seabirds and whales. Mesopelagic organisms also affect the vertical flux of carbon into the interior of the ocean as a result of eating at the surface and respiring at depth, and so are involved in global climate regulation [1,2].

The fish component of the mesopelagic community (e.g. lantern fishes) is attracting particular attention. Recent global assessments suggest that these fishes represent a huge unexploited resource that could be used to meet human feed demands [1]. However the technological and economic challenges of harvesting, and the biodiversity and climate change consequences, raise doubts about the viability of such a venture. These issues will be addressed in a newly funded EU Horizon2020 project “Sustainable management of mesopelagic resources (SUMMER)” due to start in September 2019 [3]. This studentship will form part of the UK contribution to SUMMER.

The studentship will be part of a Work-package on “Food-web structure and resilience”, specifically on the development and application of mathematical models of ocean food webs incorporating mesopelagic fish and invertebrates, and top predators, to investigate the consequences of mesopelagic exploitation. The student will be based in the Marine Population Modelling group, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Strathclyde [4] and focus on extending an existing food web model of shelf seas to represent ocean food webs [5,6]. The work will involve close collaboration with other modelling teams in Denmark, Portugal and Turkey, and also with sea-going researchers who will be gathering new data to support the models. In the first instance the model developments will focus on legacy field data archives from the Irminger Sea region east of Greenland, and extend to the Mediterranean and equatorial regions of the Atlantic later in the project.

The project will require the student to become an expert in ocean ecology and the application of mathematics and computer programming skills to ecological problems. Realistically, the applicant should have, or expect to obtain, a good honours degree (1, 2.1, or equivalent) in applied mathematics, statistics, earth science, ecology, or a highly quantitative science, and be able to demonstrate experience of programming in C and/or R. It is anticipated that you will receive trainings on mathematical and statistical modelling including but not limited to numerical implementation and solving of differential equations and optimisation methods. Your mathematical, statistical, and programming skills are expected to be substantially enhanced during the PhD training. These skills will be very useful for securing some of the most popular jobs in this Big Data era.

To apply, send 1) a complete CV, 2) a 1 page personal statement explaining your interests and skills for this project, and 3) names and contact information of three references to the lead supervisor, Prof. Michael Heath, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow at

There is no specific closing date for this project – we will appoint when we find the most appropriate candidate, but the earliest starting date is 30 September 2019.

We value diversity and welcome applications from all sections of the community. The University currently holds a Bronze Athena SWAN award, recognising our commitment to advancing women’s careers in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) employment in academia.

Funding Notes

This studentship is funded by the EU Horizon 2020 Programme and is open to all nationalities. However, it is expected that non-EU/UK students should bring their own funding to match up with the extra international fee. The participation of the University of Strathclyde in the H2020 SUMMER project is not expected to be dependent on the outcome of Brexit.


[1] Irigoien, X., et al. (2014). Large mesopelagic fishes biomass and trophic efficiency in the open ocean. Nat. Communicat. 5, 3271. doi: 10.1038/ncomms4271

[2] St John et al. (2016). A Dark Hole in Our Understanding of Marine Ecosystems and Their Services: Perspectives from the Mesopelagic Community. Front. Mar. Sci. 17 March 2016 |

[3] EU CORDIS website – Horizon 2020 Sustainable management of mesopelagic resources. project.

[4] Strathclyde Marine Population Modelling Group:

[5] Heath, M.R. ( 2012). Ecosystem limits to food web fluxes and fisheries yields in the North Sea simulated with an end‐to‐end food web model. Prog. Oceanogr. 102, 42– 66.

[6] Heath M.R. et al. (2014). Understanding patterns and processes in models of trophic cascades. Ecology Letters 17, 101-114.

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