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Recognising the role of sponge mucus production in explaining Darwin’s coral reef paradox

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Saturday, October 19, 2019
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

Project Description

Coral reefs are among the most productive ecosystems in the world, providing extensive ecological and economic services. However, Darwin was the first to identify an apparent paradox, how do coral reefs survive in the nutrient-poor waters of the tropics? Explaining how these oases thrive in what are essentially marine deserts has been a major focus of coral reef research for nearly 200 years, with no completely satisfying explanation. Recently, however, the “sponge loop” (SL), which demonstrates the movement of food from the water, through sponges where it is transformed, to support organisms higher up in the food chain was discovered and used to explain this paradox. The SL has been highly topical as it does not appear to occur ubiquitously across coral reefs. Furthermore, the SL may grossly underestimate the contribution of sponges to reef productivity through another important trophic pathway. Sponge mucus has recently been recognised as a major loss of carbon from some sponges. This project will explore a new model incorporating sponge mucus as a major pathway for reef carbon cycling. We will trace the flow of sponge mucus through coral reef food webs and quantify the contribution of mucus to ecosystem functioning to confirm that sponge mucus production provides a sufficient hypothesis to explain Darwin’s Paradox. The role of sponges in transforming and moving food to higher trophic levels is particularly important at present as sponges are increasing in abundance on some reefs as corals are declining in response to human-mediated impacts. We therefore need to determine if reefs with more sponges can still support fisheries and other reef functions for the 1 billion people that rely on reefs globally.

This project will likely include fieldwork in Australia on the Great Barrier Reef and in Indonesia in the Wakatobi Marine National Park, and although the student will be based in Wellington under the primary supervision of Professor James Bell, the project will also be supervised by Dr Nicole Webster at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, offering an amazing PhD opportunity to live in New Zealand and work in Australia and Indonesia.

The consumable and travel costs for this project are supported by grants from a number of places, with the successful student needing to apply for a Victoria University of Wellington Doctoral Scholarship (see below)

For information about the research of the supervisor see:

Key attributes/skills/qualifications that are required: 1) Master’s degree or an equivalent standard (see important note below); 2) a minimum of a PADI Rescue Diver certificate with relevant diving experience (or equivalent – no exceptions); 3) IELTS overall band of 6.5, no sub-score below 6 (or equivalent, see - 4) evidence of the ability to work for extended periods in remote locations; and 5) ability to work as part of a team.

Applications in the first instance should be made directly to Prof Bell by 19th September (or sooner if possible) and must include a cover letter outlining why you want this specific PhD position, full CV, academic transcripts, an example of your scientific writing, and the names/contact details of two people who can act as academic references (there is no need to request any reference letters be sent at this initial stage). Email:

Funding Notes

IMPORTANT NOTE: It will be necessary for the PhD student to secure stipend and fees funding, which can be sought from VUW. It is also important to note that PhD fees are the same for domestic and international students in NZ, so these scholarships are open to students from all countries. While we encourage applications from all interested individuals, the VUW PhD scholarship scheme is only likely to fund students with outstanding academic records and evidence of publications. The next closing date for VUW scholarships is November 1st 2019 and assistance will be given in preparing for this deadline.

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