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Quantitative Ecology of Antarctic Benthic Communities

Project Description

The ecological structure of modern Antarctic benthic marine communities is unique and differs from the rest of the world. It is dominated by epifaunal suspension feeders (including brachiopods, sponges and stalked crinoids) in shelf areas, with a paucity of shell crushing predators (sharks, rays, durophagous decapods). However, generally there is limited data on the Southern Hemisphere benthic ecosystems compared to other areas globally. This project aims to determine the spatial structure of Antarctic communities on fine and large scales using newly developed methodologies for the analysis of community ecology. This will enable us to establish key species that underpin benthic community ecology, and the environmental factors that affect Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems (VMEs). This will help quantify the potential future adverse effects of bottom fisheries and anthropogenic climate change on modern Antarctic benthic marine communities. Such information is essential to inform policy makers and develop future sustainable management plans for the region.

This project will investigate how different habitats influence community composition and structure to understand the effects that damage may have on benthic systems. The extensive data set for this project has already been collected, and consists of both fully reconstructed and identified communities, as well as unprocessed data. The ecological networks of Antarctic benthic communities will be reconstructed, determining the interactions between benthic species and their local habitat, and how these interactions change over spatial scales. These ecological networks will be used to investigate how changing community composition, and removing species, influences ecosystem dynamics, with a view to better understand how to protect VMEs. Overall, these methodologies will contribute to trying to assess the potential impacts of anthropogenic change on Antarctic benthic ecosystems.

The student will use substantial existing Antarctic seafloor photographic and video data from BAS and AWI (OFOBS/OFOS), from a range of depths and geographic locations, to reconstruct benthic communities as 2D and 3D models. Organism position and size, habitat features and local environmental information will be marked up. The community ecology will be investigated using spatial point process analyses to determine fine-scale habitat associations and competitive and facilitative interactions between species. Bayesian network inference and multivariate regression analyses will enable large-scale ecological drivers to be determined. Ecological networks will be determined, so that the influence on community composition and dynamics can be modelled to investigate the impact of anthropogenic factors, such as fishing, have on these communities. These analyses will then be used to make inferences about how communities may develop under different environmental change or species exploitation scenarios.

Funding Notes

UK and EU students who meet the UK residency requirements will be eligible for a full NERC studentship. Students from EU countries who do not meet the residency requirements may still be eligible for a fees-only award. More information can be found in the UKRI Training Grant Terms and Conditions
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Mitchell, E.G. & Butterfield, N.J. 2018. Spatial analyses of Ediacaran communities at Mistaken Point. Paleobiology, vol. 44, pp.40-57.
Whittle, R.J., Witts, J. D., Bowman, V. C., Crame, J. A., Francis, J. E. & Ineson, J. 2019. Nature and timing of biotic recovery in Antarctic benthic marine ecosystems following the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) mass extinction. Palaeontology,
Gutt, J., Griffiths, H.J. & Jones, C.D. 2013. Circumpolar overview and spatial heterogeneity of Antarctic macrobenthic communities. Marine Biodiversity,

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