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School of Geographical and Earth Sciences - Understanding ecohydrological dynamics in intact tropical peatlands: a biogeochemical approach

Project Description

The Biomarkers for Environmental and Climate Science (BECS) research group at the University of Glasgow is looking to recruit an excellent PhD student to assess carbon storage and ecosystem dynamics through biomarker approaches in recently discovered tropical peatlands of northern Peru.

The Pastaza-Marañón Foreland Basin of northern Peru is the largest peatland area in Amazonia and an important carbon store. Unlike peatlands throughout much of the tropics that are threatened by land use-change, (e.g., palm oil plantations), this peatland network is one of few intact tropical peatlands, where we can study carbon dynamics and biogeochemical interactions in undisturbed peats. Vegetation and microbes in peat are inherently linked to the hydrological and environmental changes and understanding these dynamics in the present will help us to track ecosystem and carbon flux changes in the past, and understand how they are changing today. Pollen and organic molecules preserved in peatlands can act as proxy indicators for past vegetation and environmental conditions. Pollen analysis of peat cores obtained in Peruvian Amazonia by Co-supervisor, K. Roucoux, and her students have demonstrated their potential to record the developmental history of these ecosystems over the last three thousand years in considerable temporal detail. Preliminary analyses by Supervisor J. Toney’s research group suggest that microbial and vegetation biomarkers complement these findings and add discreet information about the function of microbes in these changing ecosystems, especially with respect to CH4 production, consumption and efflux. The overall aim of this PhD project is to develop biomarker tools for use in intact, lowland tropical peatlands to improve our understanding of the controls on peat formation and carbon storage, and their sensitivity to climatic and hydrological changes. Our interpretations are currently limited by lack of direct evidence of how modern carbon cycle dynamics and vegetation functional types influence the signal that is recorded by the microbial and vegetation biomarkers. Thus, the first aim of this project is to quantify the microbial and vegetation biomarker relationships for these ecosystems through statistical analysis of plot-based ecological census and surface covariance data.

Studies of biomarkers in boreal peatlands have shown that they can provide information on a number of additional variables of peatland function, such as the origin of the carbon stored or water-table. Recent pilot work by Toney suggests that methane efflux, another variable critical to understanding carbon cycling in peatlands, can also be estimated using biomarkers. However, very few studies have so far investigated biomarkers in lowland tropical peatlands [Tareq et al. 2003], and none in Amazonia where peats are non-sphagnum-based. Thus, the second aim of this project is to develop biomarker proxies for hydroperiod characteristics, methane efflux and peat composition using samples and data (e.g. new water table monitoring, and existing methane efflux measurements) collected from our census plots. The development of these novel biogeochemical indicators in combination with the existing past ecological conditions will enhance our understanding of tropical peatland function by enabling detailed quantification of their long-term dynamics and sensitivity.

For more specific details on this project, including training and placement opportunities, please see the full advertisement at: or contact Professor Jaime L. Toney at the University of Glasgow

Eligibility & Requirements: All applicants need to meet NERC’s eligibility criteria to be considered for an IAPETUS studentship and these are detailed in NERC’s current studentship handbook.

IAPETUS is only able to consider applications from Home/European Union candidates. International candidates are not eligible to be considered and where an candidate from another EU country has not been resident in the UK for 3 years or more prior to the commencement of their studies with IAPETUS, they will only be eligible for a fees-only studentship.

IAPETUS is looking for candidates with the following qualities and backgrounds:
- A first or 2:1 undergraduate degree, or have relevant comparable experience;
- In addition, candidates may also hold or be completing a Masters degree in their area of proposed study or a related discipline; &
- An outstanding academic pedigree and research potential, such as evidenced through the publication of articles, participation in academic conferences and other similar activities.

Funding Notes

IAPETUS’ postgraduate studentships are tenable for between 3-4 years, depending on the doctoral research project the student is studying and provides the following package of financial support:

- A tax-free maintenance grant set at the UK Research Council’s national rate, which in 2019/20 is £14,999 (pending confirmation).
- Full payment of their tuition fees at the Home/EU rate; &
- Access to extensive research support funding.

Part-time award-holders are funded for between six (6) and eight (8) years and receive a maintenance grant at 50% of the full-time rate.
All studentships will commence in September/October 2019, except in exceptional circumstances.

How good is research at University of Glasgow in Geography, Environmental Studies and Archaeology?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 13.00

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

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