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Sea-level change and conservation, past, present and future - QUADRAT

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  • Full or part time
    Dr J Neilson
    Dr J Sigwart
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland is a unique marine water body, a large deep inland sea connected to the open ocean by a narrow channel that creates tidal currents of speeds up to 9 knots. This extraordinary setting creates a unique living laboratory with rich biodiversity and the area is a UK and EU Special Area of Conservation. Among its designated protected features are environmentally and economically important but endangered reefs constructed by bivalves including Modiolus (‘horse mussels’). Protection of these mussel reefs has already prompted extensive previous work on the biodiversity of the Lough, restoration efforts, and regulation of activities inside the Lough. This project will look to the past, in order to protect this fragile ecosystem in the future.

The possibility that there was a sediment-related contributing factor in past declines of Modiolus populations was suggested by previous work, but, so far most studies have viewed this restoration challenge from a modern ecological perspective, considering living molluscs on the sea floor, and not so much from a sedimentological or palaeontological perspective. This project will add a new dimension by considering the archive of ancient populations buried beneath the sea floor. Interestingly, the shape and connectivity of Strangford Lough was different in the deep past, and changed with shifts in sea level during past glaciations. It is not clear what impact past sea level change may have had on the present Strangford Lough ecosystem, or what changes future sea level rise may bring. This project will involve a coordinated, multidisciplinary program and the student will develop skills including both field work and laboratory work, using sediment cores, shell microscopy, and geochemistry, to fill in gaps in understanding this ecosystem and its history. We will examine changes in sedimentation (e.g. grain size and composition changes) around the Lough margins and in deeper waters, and in mollusc populations, over the last several thousand years. Because individual Modiolus molluscs can live for 100 years there is also significant potential to exploit shell characteristics in Recent and subfossil material (e.g. thickness, muscle scars, growth rates) and shell stable oxygen isotope geochemistry as archives of changing Lough habitability (e.g. temperatures, salinities, and oxygenation).

This research will help to guide future restoration of marine ecosystems impacted by changes in sea level and water temperature. It will provide information on the context of ecologically and environmentally important Modiolus reefs, by assessing trends in historical populations and exploring sedimentary factors that could have caused their decline in Strangford Lough. This is a global issue because bivalves are universally important as reef-builders in cool waters at high latitudes. The PhD project will also position the geological context, and palaeoecology, of an important protected site, as crucial data for present and future conservation management. The student will have opportunity to interact with industry and government partners in microscopy, geoscience, and conservation, to publish findings in high impact journals, and make presentations and national and international conferences.

Candidates should have (or expect to achieve) a minimum of a 2.1 Honours degree in a relevant subject.


• Apply for Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Geology
• State name of the lead supervisor as the Name of Proposed Supervisor
• State ‘QUADRAT DTP’ as Intended Source of Funding
• State the exact project title on the application form

Application closing date is 12:00pm (GMT) on 31 January 2019. Applications received after this time will NOT be considered. Additionally, incomplete applications will NOT be considered. When applying please ensure all required documents are attached:
• All degree certificates and transcripts (Undergraduate AND Postgraduate MSc-officially translated into English where necessary)
• CV
• 2 References (Academic, where possible)

Informal inquiries can be made to Dr J Neilson ([Email Address Removed]) with a copy of your curriculum vitae and cover letter. All general enquiries should be directed to the Postgraduate Research School ([Email Address Removed])

The start date of the project is 1 October 2019.

Funding Notes

To be eligible to apply for a fully-funded DTP studentship, you must:

1. be a UK or EU citizen or a non-EU citizen with permanent settled status in the UK (known as ‘indefinite leave to remain’)


2. have been ordinarily resident in the UK for at least 3 years prior to the start of the studentship (this applies to all citizen categories)

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