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

  Physiology and carbon cycling of North Atlantic coral ecosystems in a changing ocean

   School of Geosciences

This project is no longer listed on and may not be available.

Click here to search for PhD studentship opportunities
  Prof M Roberts, Dr S Hennige  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

About the Project

The goal of the PhD project is to assess the physiology and carbon cycling of key North Atlantic coral and sponge species under variable environmental conditions. This will be conducted through experimentation on live organisms in aquaria in Edinburgh, the Azores and Norway. Results will help inform how carbon cycling of these key habitat forming organisms changes under variable present day conditions and projected future conditions, to understand how carbon cycling in the North Atlantic may change.

Healthy oceans and seas are central to the well-being of nations that border the Atlantic. The deep North Atlantic harbours ecosystems that support a biologically rich variety of life and which are crucial to the cycling of primary production, carbon and nutrients from the ocean surface to the deep seafloor (e.g. Roberts et al. 2009). Many of these ecosystems also provide important fish habitat. In addition to provisioning services like fisheries, these ecosystems provide regulatory and cultural services that underpin conservation measures to help secure the well‐being and economic security of Atlantic nations and their citizens.

One of the key habitats are cold-water coral reefs. These are under threat from projected climate change such as ocean acidification (CBD 2014; Hennige et al. 2015), and a key question is how will the functioning and carbon cycling of these ecosystems change? This is a major goal of the EU Horizon 2020 Project “ATLAS” (, which will provide funding for this project and a vibrant wider research and policy environment for the scholar to work within. ATLAS will develop robust new adaptive decision-making tools for policy makers in an era marked by rapid climate change and evolving resource exploitation scenarios. This PhD project is designed to work with ATLAS partners in the Azores, the Netherlands and Norway.

To address how the functioning and carbon cycling of key organisms change, we need a better understanding of how some of the key species within these habitats; corals and sponges, assimilate organic matter under a variety of conditions.

The scholar will investigate how key North Atlantic species such as Lophelia pertusa and Geodia in Norway, and Dentomuricea meteor and Antipathella wollastoni in the Azores, can assimilate organic matter (food) in a range of environmental conditions both singly and in competition. This will involve labelling food sources for corals and sponges with stable isotopes (van Oevelen et al. 2016), and within flume systems changing the flow speeds, food concentrations (and type) in present and predicted future conditions. The scholar will also measure physiological parameters such as respiration and growth, manipulate experimental chemical conditions and analyse the food selectivity and processing of these key organisms (van Oevelen et al. 2016) in isolation and in competition.

The project will have a large fieldwork abroad component (up to a year), with research being conducted in research stations in the Azores and Norway, with further research opportunities on cruises within the ATLAS program. The scholar will be expected to be self-sufficient working in field stations abroad, and have previous relevant technical experience ideally including experience of marine aquaria and of experimenting on marine organisms.

Funding Notes

The project is a fully-funded studentship forming part of the ATLAS project. This project is open to applicants from the UK and European Union.


1. Hennige S.J., Wicks L.C., Kamenos N.A., Perna, G., Findlay H.S., Roberts J.M. (2015) Hidden impacts of ocean acidification to live and dead coral framework. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 282: 20150990.
2. Roberts, J. M., Wheeler, A., Freiwald, A. & Cairns, S. D. Cold-water corals: The biology and geology of deep-sea coral habitats. (Cambridge University Press, 2009).
3. Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (2014). An Updated Synthesis of the Impacts of Ocean Acidification on Marine Biodiversity (Eds: S. Hennige, J.M. Roberts & P. Williamson). Montreal, Technical Series No. 75, 99 pages
4. van Oevelen, D., Mueller, C. E., Lundälv, T., and Middelburg, J. J.: Food selectivity and processing by the cold-water coral Lophelia pertusa, Biogeosciences, 13, 5789-5798, doi:10.5194/bg-13-5789-2016, 2016.

Where will I study?