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QUADRAT DTP: Can pollutant transfer through benthic elasmobranch food-chains be related to their feeding ecology?

Project Description

A range of pollutants tend to biomagnify through marine food-chains, causing problems both for the health of top predators, and for humans that consume them. These include toxic elements such as arsenic, cadmium, mercury and lead (Quinn et al. 2016, Olszewska et al. 2016). The source of contaminants entering aquatic ecosystems will be spatially heterogenous, affected by both physical (currents, salinity, ocean floor topography) and biotic (parasites, gut microbiota) environmental components, and pollution (e.g. macro- and micro-plastics). Top predators will utilize different food-sources related to prey preference and abundance, and to the predators’ feeding ranges and habitats. Furthermore, establishment of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), an important conservation and management tool, may provide a different exposure regime, influenced by subtle differences in parasitemia, intestinal parasite load, or pollution associated with conservation management. We want to understand the risks posed by the food-chains of benthic ray and skate species as some are endangered, while others find their way into human diets. The project will utilize state-of-the-art chemical fingerprinting of skate/ray species and their prey items to look at how variation in exposure relates to aspects of their life-histories. This will be integrated with ongoing tagging and population genetic datasets used to determine movement patterns and connectivity in the North East Atlantic. Chemical fingerprinting will include stable isotopes of C, N, H, S, O and Pb (Quinn et al. 2016), chemical speciation of arsenic (Olszewska et al. 2016) and mercury, and multi-elemental profiling. Average concentrations of arsenic were recently shown to be higher in benthic compared to pelagic sharks from Korean fish markets (Kim et al. 2019). Data dimension reduction techniques, such as principal components and factor analysis, will be used to compare differences within and between the food-chains of benthic elasmobranchs. Skill sets in which the student will receive in-depth training during the project include marine ecology, analytical chemistry, parasitology, genetic data handling and ecological statistics.

Start date:

1 October 2020


42 months


Candidates should have (or expect to achieve) a minimum of a 2.1 Honours degree in a relevant subject. Applicants with a minimum of a 2.2 Honours degree may be considered providing they have a Distinction at Master’s level.

Application procedure:

• Apply for Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Biological Sciences at Queen’s University Belfast
• State name of the lead supervisor as ‘Name of Proposed Supervisor’ on application
• State ‘QUADRAT DTP’ as Intended Source of Funding
• Select ‘Visit Website’ to apply now

Funding Notes

This project is funded by the NERC QUADRAT-DTP and is available to UK/EU nationals who meet the UKRI eligibility criteria. Please visit View Website for more information.

The studentship provides funding for tuition fees, stipend and a research training and support grant subject to eligibility.


Kim SW, Han SJ, Kim Y, Jun JW, Giri SS, Chi C, et al. (2019) Heavy metal accumulation in and food safety of shark meat from Jeju island, Republic of Korea. PLoS ONE 14(3): e0212410.

Olszewska JP, Meharg AA, Heal KV, Carey M, Gunn IDM, Searle KR, Winfield IJ, Spears BM (2016) Accumulation of arsenic species in macrophytes from a lake impacted by red mud. Environmental Science Technology 50, 9044-9052.

Quinn LR, Meharg AA, van Franeker JA, Thompson PM (2016) Validating the use of intrinsic markers in body feathers to explore inter-individual differences in non-breeding areas of northern fulmars. Marine Biology 163, 64 10.1007/s00227-016-2822-1.

How good is research at Queen’s University Belfast in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 24.40

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

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