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The impacts of microplastic pollution on UK intertidal food webs

Project Description

Since the onset of mass production of plastics in the 1950’s the flux of plastics to the marine environment has been a growing problem (Cole at al., 2011), such that microplastic contamination of the oceans is now one of the world’s most pressing environmental concerns (Hurley et al., 2018). Recent work highlights how such materials have been found in the full range of ocean environments from the depths of the deepest ocean trenches (Woodall et al., 2014; Fischer et al., 2015; Frid and Caswell 2017)) to coastal seas around the ice-capped poles (Waller et al., 2017; Lusher et al., 2015, Obbard et al., 2014).

Microplastic pollution is known to be interacting with organisms and entering primary levels of the marine food chain (Cole et al., 2013) causing a range of unidentified and unquantified ecological outcomes. Critically, we have little understanding of the complex biological, bio-physical and bio-chemical interactions associated with the ingestion of microplastics and how this influences their fate and the fate of marine ecosystems. Significant research is therefore needed to address some of the critical gaps in our knowledge of microplastics in the marine environment. This will be achieved by a cluster of 6 PhDs investigating the physical processes and dynamics of plastic particles from fluvial source zones, through estuarine stores to marine sinks, the ecological impacts on remote and local environments and the ecophysiological and ecotoxicological effects on individual species and ecosystems.

The cluster objectives are:
[1] To quantify ecological and biological effects of microplastics on marine ecosystems and marine invertebrate physiology (1-2; 5-6).
[2] Determine the flux, types and concentrations of micro-plastic debris exiting major riverine and estuarine systems, into the coastal and wider ocean (projects 3-4).

Summary of PhD Project

The impacts of microplastic pollution on UK intertidal food webs.
Supervised by Dr Bryony Caswell and Dr Catherine Waller (University of Hull)

As most microplastics enter the sea near the coast they are abundant in intertidal sediments, but there has been limited research on the spatial patterns of accumulation or the impacts on marine food webs. This studentship will investigate microplastic bioavailability to higher predators in intertidal food webs, and assess which are at greatest risk from ingestion. Intertidal sediment, water samples and macroinvertebrates will be collected from the Humber estuary and used to determine microplastic concentrations. We will assess which prey species accumulate microplastics, and why (e.g. due to their particular biological traits). Using this information the bioavailability of microplastics to higher predators will be estimated and the taxa at greatest risk from ingestion will be identified. This information will help to inform future management targets for the monitoring and conservation of ecologically and/or commercially important fish and birds.

This project will provide training in: cutting edge techniques for the extraction, identification and quantification of microplastics (using FTIR); field and laboratory techniques for sampling benthic macrofauna and the physicochemical properties of the environment; the taxonomic identification of marine invertebrates; experimental design and statistical techniques. This training is in addition to university research skills training.

Applicants should have a 1st class undergraduate degree or Masters level research qualification in a relevant discipline. A 2:1 may be considered, if combined with relevant experience. It is anticipated that the successful applicant will have a 1st class undergraduate degree or Masters level qualification. Additionally, experience of working in the field and knowledge of marine ecosystems would be beneficial.

To apply for these Scholarships please click on the link below:

PhD students at the University of Hull follow modules for research and transferable skills development and gain a Masters level Certificate, or Diploma, in Research Training, in addition to their research degree.

Successful applicants will be informed of the award as soon as possible and by 15th March 2019 at the latest.

Funding Notes

Full-time UK/EU and International PhD Scholarships will include fees at the ‘home/EU' student rate and maintenance (£14,777 in 2018/19) for three years, depending on satisfactory progress.

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