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Using molecular approaches to investigate the metabolic regulation of cetacean blubber tissue under different physiological challenges.

   School of Biological Sciences

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  Dr Davina Derous, Dr Joanna Kershaw, Dr Andrew Brownlow, Dr Filipa Samarra  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

Threats to cetacean populations as a result of habitat degradation driven by human activities are of increasing conservation concern. However, we can only protect and establish effective regulations if we understand the link between habitat perturbations and the physiological consequences for the individuals. A first step towards making this link is understanding how changes in cetacean metabolism are linked to health. For example, stress in mammals triggers the fight or flight response, and metabolises fuel from energy stores to maintain the exercising muscles and the brain to optimise survival [1,2,3]. This has the potential to affect the energy metabolism of cetaceans to such an extent that chronic stress responses could have detrimental population-level effects. For example, if energy stores are metabolised such that not enough energy is then available to invest in reproduction. Measuring such processes in cetaceans, however, is inherently very difficult due to the challenges associated with sampling these diving, free-ranging animals. There is therefore a paucity of information on energy metabolism in response to different challenges in free-ranging cetaceans. For this reason, stranded animals are globally recognised as an invaluable tool to understand the threats and pressures of human caused disturbances. By using samples from stranded animals, we can gain detailed insight into individual physiological responses as they are often exposed to varying challenges (e.g., acute trauma, infectious diseases, starvation).

This project is unique as working with the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme (SMASS) provides the opportunity to collect full-depth blubber samples from stranded animals together with comprehensive information about the cause of death of the individuals. We can therefore gather detailed insight into the stress physiology of these animals. This project therefore has the advantage of combining biological information from the different blubber layers with different functions, and link this to overall cetacean health. To complement the samples collected by SMASS, the student will also analyse full depth blubber samples collected from 2 mass stranding events of pilot whales (Globicephala melas) in the Northeast (2019) and Northwest (2021) of Iceland.

Recent advances in metabolomics (i.e., the study of small molecules that are the result of intermediates or end products of metabolism) offer new opportunities to understand tissue function and identify novel health markers with a level of resolution previously unavailable. Thus, in this project, the student will become familiar with cutting-edge molecular, statistical and bioinformatic approaches, pathway visualisation programs and wet laboratory techniques to investigate the roles of blubber metabolism under different physiological stressors. This project is data-intensive and will lead to the development of new tools and methods which will be valuable to other scientists in the fields of cetacean physiology and conservation.



  • Formal applications can be completed online: https://www.abdn.ac.uk/pgap/login.php
  • You should apply for Biological Sciences (PhD) to ensure your application is passed to the correct team.
  • Please clearly note the name of the supervisor and project title on the application form. If you do not mention the project title and the supervisor on your application it will not be considered for the studentship.
  • Please include a cover letter / Personal Statement specific to the project you are applying for, an up-to-date copy of your academic CV, and relevant educational certificates and transcripts.
  • Please note: you DO NOT need to provide a research proposal with this application
  • General application enquiries can be made to [Email Address Removed]

Funding Notes

Funding for this 48 Month project is provided by the Leverhulme Trust. Funding includes tuition fees at the home/UK rate, research costs, and a stipend at the UKRI rate (£16,062 for the 22/23 academic year).
This opportunity is open to home/UK candidates only (including EU nationals that hold settled or pre-settled status within the UK).
Candidates should have (or expect to achieve) a minimum of a 2:1 UK Honours degree in a relevant subject (Biological Sciences), or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in a relevant subject.
The expected start date is October 2022.


1. Sherwin RS, Sacca L. Effect of epinephrine on glucose metabolism in humans: Contribution of the liver. Am J Physiol - Endocrinol Metab. 1984; 10.
2. Khani S, Tayek JA. Cortisol increases gluconeogenesis in humans: Its role in the metabolic syndrome. Clin Sci. 2001; 101: 739–47.
3. Reeder, A. M., Kramer, K, M. Stress in free-ranging mammals: integrating physiolgoy, ecology and natural history. Journal of Mammalogy. 2005; 86: 225-235
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