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Plastics and the hidden majority – microplastics and the conservation implications for a threatened UK freshwater fish

Project Description

We are looking for a highly motivated individual to carry out this exciting PhD project that will provide interdisciplinary research opportunities across aquatic ecosystem processes, behavioural ecology, ecotoxicology and conservation management.

Accumulation and integration of microplastics (plastic pieces < 5mm) in freshwater environments are relatively less studied in comparison to marine systems. Recent studies have indicated that they are being ingested by many organisms, including some larval fish species. Concern is growing regarding the potential toxicity of leachates from the plastics themselves and from chemicals that can become bound to the surfaces of microplastics (e.g. fire retardants and antimicrobial agents), on organisms that directly or indirectly ingest them.

Temperate freshwater ecosystems rely heavily upon the activity of organisms that process organic detritus, releasing nutrients via their processing, or through them becoming prey for larger organisms. Larval lampreys are primary consumers, and UK species (Lampetra fluviatilis, Lampetra planeri and Petromyzon marinus) spend an average of five years in freshwater environments filter-feeding in patches of deposited river sediment. The action of feeding and burrowing by larvae enables bioturbation, and facilitates nutrient processing. With submicron or even nanometre size microplastics likely to be present in sediments occupied by larvae, their role in facilitating direct release or surface transfer of toxins, and subsequent impacts on the provision of important ecosystem services, requires investigation.

The aim of this studentship is to develop an understanding of the interactions between larval lampreys and microplastics and their effect upon the provision of important aquatic ecosystem processes. Specifically , the key research questions that will be addressed by this project are:
• What is the extent and pattern of microplastic ingestion by larval lampreys?
• Do larval lampreys avoid microplastic particles in contaminated sediments?
• What are the ecotoxicological and behavioural effects of microplastics on larval lampreys?
• What are the implications of microplastic ingestion for provision of aquatic ecosystem services by threatened lampreys in UK rivers.

The studentship will address these key areas by combining fieldwork and controlled laboratory experiments. Field studies will focus on lamprey populations in Scottish Special Areas of Conservation rivers and tank based research will be carried out at the University of Stirling, drawing on the extensive experience and facilities available in the Institute of Aquaculture. Supervisory input from the interdisciplinary team will provide the student with a range of training opportunities to broaden their skills base. Specific training will be provided in field sampling of lamprey and river habitats, dissection, advanced microscopy and ecotoxicology, statistical analysis and experimental behavioural ecology methods including image analysis. Unique laboratory methodologies have been developed for microplastics characterisation at CEH Wallingford, and specialist equipment and training will be made available to the student here.

Lamprey larvae will be sampled using electric fishing and the student will analyse their gut contents to determine the nature of microplastic contaminants, their abundance, and patterns of ingestion with regard to larval age and species. Larval lamprey will be established in tanks in the laboratory where careful control over the environmental conditions, exposure to microplastics, and monitoring of aspects of behaviour can be achieved.

The entry qualification for the PhD studentship is a first class or upper second class honours degree and/ or relevant postgraduate experience in either biological / environmental sciences or ecology. Whilst experience in some of the methods utilised in this project would be useful, it is not essential, and the student will receive full training.

Funding Notes

This is a competitively funded PhD studentship as part of the NERC Doctoral Training Partnership IAPETUS (View Website). For the successful candidate, the studentship will cover tuition fees and provide a stipend for UK students only (but see NERC funding rules for exceptions regarding EU citizens) .

Deadline for applications is Jan 18th 2019 at 16:00. However, serious applicants are strongly advised to get in touch well in advance to discuss their application (send a CV and cover letter to ). By Jan 18th 2019 deadline applicants must have submitted a formal application through the Stirling University online application system: View Website


Boeker, C. and Geist, J., 2016. Lampreys as ecosystem engineers: burrows of Eudontomyzon sp. and their impact on physical, chemical, and microbial properties in freshwater substrates. Hydrobiologia, 777(1), pp.171-181.

Hurley, R., Woodward, J. and Rothwell, J.J., 2018. Microplastic contamination of river beds significantly reduced by catchment-wide flooding. Nature Geoscience, 11(4), p.251.

Nilsen, E.B., Hapke, W.B., McIlraith, B. and Markovchick, D., 2015. Reconnaissance of contaminants in larval Pacific lamprey (Entosphenus tridentatus) tissues and habitats in the Columbia River Basin, Oregon and Washington, USA. Environmental pollution, 201, pp.121-130.

Pinheiro, C., Oliveira, U. and Vieira, M., 2017. Occurrence and impacts of microplastics in freshwater fish. Journal of Aquaculture and Marine Biology, 5(6), p.00138.

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