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Quantifying and mapping rates of ecologically-driven sediment production on coral reefs, NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship for 2022 Entry, PhD in Geography

   College of Life and Environmental Sciences

  , Dr Ines Lange, Dr Nicola Browne,  Monday, January 10, 2022  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

Exeter United Kingdom Marine Sciences Geography Soil Science

About the Project

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme please see

Project Background

Tropical coral reef ecosystems sustain not only high levels of biodiversity, but also provide numerous ecosystem goods and services that directly benefit society. Some of these goods and services are well documented and can be quantified with increasing reliability (e.g., food resource provisioning, coastal protection). However, far more poorly quantified are rates of carbonate sand production – a process strongly influenced by reef ecology because most reef sediment derives from the fauna and flora living on reefs e.g., as a by-product of parrotfish and urchin feeding, from skeletal organisms such as molluscs and foraminifera, and from carbonate-secreting algae such as Halimeda. Data on the rates at which these producers generate sediment on reefs is generally sparse, and is especially poorly understood in relation to different types of reef settings that differ in their environmental conditions and reef community composition. This is a major knowledge gap because the quantity and grade (size) of sedimentary material produced on reefs impacts upon reef growth and is essential for proximal beach and island building.  

Project Aims and Methods

The aim of this project is to parameterise and then apply methodologies for quantifying sediment generation rates, with a specific focus on remote reef-reef islands systems in Western Australia (WA). The project will build on recent approaches that have piloted methods for quantifying sediment generation based on ecological census approaches (Perry et al. 2015, 2017, 2019), and which have also started to explore the influence of disturbance events on ecologically-driven sand production (Perry et al. 2020). The student will firstly establish a set of empirical datasets to quantify rates of biological sand production for a range of sediment producing reef species (parrotfish, sea urchins, Halimeda, foraminifera) across a range of both clear-water and turbid reefs of WA (the intention being that this will include sites in Exmouth Gulf and on Ningaloo Reef). This phase of the project will include testing of AI-based tools to support auto-analysis of reef sediments for quantifying the abundance of common producers groups such as benthic foraminifera. Resultant datasets will then be used to quantify and map reef-level sand generation rates from census data across these sites. Benthic ecology and environmental conditions (light, turbidity, temperature, wave energy) are known to differ markedly between these reef systems and thus so too, we hypothesise, will rates and sources of reef-derived sediment. This project will thus add significantly to our currently limited understanding of, and capacity to quantify, rates of ecologically-driven reef sediment generation – data that is needed to support enhanced coastal and reef island vulnerability modelling.  

Candidate requirements

This project would ideally suit a candidate with a background and interest in either coral reef geomorphology or reef ecology, and with experience of either lab or field-based research at the interface between these two disciplines, and/or good field survey skills. SCUBA experience (or a willingness to learn) are essential.

Project partners 

In addition to the U. Exeter based supervisors (Prof Chris Perry & Dr Ines Lange) the student will be co-supervised by two external academic partners. Dr Ken Johnson (Natural History Museum, London) has worked extensively in the past with supervisor Chris Perry on the ecology and sedimentology of turbid-zone coral reefs in Borneo and Eastern Australia. In addition to his expertise on turbid reefs he will offer support on the AI-based sediment analysis. The student will also work closely with the team led by overseas supervisor Dr Nikki Browne at Curtin University, whose group have undertaken wide ranging work on the ecology of the study systems and will support the proposed fieldwork in WA.


In addition to generic research development training (project development, field work planning, scientific writing), the student will receive project-specific training in reef-based surveying methodologies, species identification, marine sampling and collection procedures, sediment analysis and skeletal breakdown experimental approaches. The student will also receive guidance on approaches to data analysis, data presentation and scientific dissemination, and may have the opportunity to participate in a wider range of cross-group field research activities to extend their research experience and professional network.  

Useful links

For information relating to the research project please contact the lead Supervisor via this email address:  Staff page:

How to apply

In order to formally apply for the PhD Project you will need to go to the following web page.

The closing date for applications is 1600 hours GMT on Friday 10th January 2022.

Interviews will be held between 28th February and 4th March 2022.

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email or phone: 0300 555 60 60 (UK callers) or +44 (0) 1392 723044 (EU/International callers). Project-specific queries should be directed to the main supervisor.

Funding Notes

NERC GW4+ funded studentship available for September 2022 entry. For eligible students, the studentship will provide funding of fees and a stipend which is currently £15,609 per annum for 2021-22.


Perry CT et al. (2020) Bleaching-driven reef community shifts drive pulses of increased reef sediment generation. Royal Society – Open Science7: 192153.
Perry CT et al. (2019) Census estimates of algal and epiphytic carbonate production highlight tropical seagrass meadows as sediment production hotspots. Frontiers in Marine Science, 6, 120 doi: 10.3389/fmars.2019.00120
Perry CT & Alvarez-Filip L (2019) Changing geo-ecological functionality of coral reefs in the Anthropocene. Functional Ecology, 33, 976-988.
Perry CT et al. (2017) Reef habitat type and extent as interacting controls on platform-scale carbonate budgets. Frontiers in Marine Science 4, 185,
Perry CT et al. (2015) Linking reef ecology to island-building: Parrotfish identified as major producers of island-building sediment in the Maldives. Geology 43: 503-506.

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