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Towards integrated adaptive management of an endangered elasmobranch in the North East Atlantic.

Project Description

Increasing use is made of marine protected areas (MPAs) to locally manage and conserve marine biodiversity. Although highly mobile, with complex temporal and spatial movement patterns, many endangered elasmobranchs show site association to critical habitats at important life history stages. Consequently MPAs are considered a key management tool in shark conservation.

Low fecundity, long gestation periods and historical exploitation have precipitated severe declines in spurdog (Squalus acanthias) biomass in the North East Atlantic (NEA). As aggregating species spurdog are identified as both endangered in the NEA (IUCN) and paradoxically as choke species, fouling fishing gear. NEA populations are considered a single stock from tagging data, with wide-ranging regional movements characteristic. Yet recent work suggests some individuals display winter residency within the ’Loch Sunart to Sound of Jura’ MPA (Thorburn et al. 2015), originally designated to protect critically endangered flapper skates. Determining the status (source or sink) of current spurdog population(s) in this MPA, and connectivity via contemporary gene flow with other NEA populations, is paramount for viable population management. Identification and integration of residential behaviour may increase management effectiveness by identifying critical areas where MPAs could conserve migratory species.

Our previous genetic analyses revealed little population structure within the NEA, and identified relatives within aggregations (Thorburn et al. 2018), indicating unsuspected vulnerability through erosion of selectable familial variation, making estimates of effective population size, aggregation composition and provenance key questions in managing for viability. Indirect population genetic approaches function well where there is restricted gene flow and prior knowledge of population boundaries, yet these assumptions are difficult to justify for the highly mobile spurdog. Additionally, demographic interpretation of traditional analyses remains challenging, which integrate processes on evolutionary rather than contemporary timescales. However, information contained in the spatial distribution of close kin can provide direct estimates of population connectivity and have been successfully used for defining dispersal kernels, identifying the drivers of juvenile dispersal patterns, and investigating contemporary recruitment dynamics.

Approach: Juvenile and adult contemporary management relevant connectivity will be inferred from spatial distribution of parent-offspring, full- and half-siblings, identified from genome-wide SNP analysis, from the MPA and adjacent sites, and contrasted with indirect estimates of connectivity obtained from maternally inherited mitogenomes (Feutry et al. 2017). Additionally data on close kin pairs (parents and offspring) will be utilised in a close-kin mark-recapture (CKMR) approach to estimate absolute stock abundance. Provenance of individuals will be confirmed by lead isotope analysis utilising isotopic seascape approaches that we have developed and used for a variety of conservation issues.

This QUADRAT (DTP) project will provide training in core and generic skills, along with cutting edge technologies (population genomics, bioinformatics, stable isotopes and multi-elemental fingerprinting) integrating Biodiversity and Earth systems; translating into improved policy and practice for effective conservation management of endangered marine species.

Key questions: Does the existing MPA encompass recruitment areas? What temporal site associations exist? Is philopatry (return to natal sites) evident? Do adult abundance and productivity estimates suggest viable Scottish populations? What management measures are likely to sustain connectivity and viability?

Funding Notes

This studentship is available to UK and other EU nationals and provides funding for tuition fees and stipend, subject to eligibility.
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 Biological Sciences
• 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


Thorburn J, Neat F Bailey DM, Noble LR & Jones, CS (2015). Winter residency and site association in the critically endangered North East Atlantic spurdog Squalus acanthias. Marine Progress Series, 526, 113-124.

Thorburn J, Jones, R, Neat F, Pinto C, Bendall V, Bailey DM, Noble LR, & Jones, CS (2018). Spatial versus temporal structure: Implications of inter‐haul variation and relatedness in the North‐east Atlantic spurdog Squalus acanthias. Aquatic Conservation, 28, 1167-1180

Feutry P, Berry 0, Kyne PM et al. (2017). Inferring contemporary and historical genetic connectivity from juveniles. Molecular Ecology, 26, 444- 456.

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