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Developing a biomonitoring tool to identify and quantify the impacts of sediments and particulate matter on freshwater ecosystems.

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  • Full or part time
    Dr G Bilotta
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

We are inviting applications for an exciting fully-funded NERC CASE PhD Studentship (co-funded by the Environment Agency) starting in September 2013.


The transport of particulate matter, from nano-scale colloids to sand-sized sediments, by rivers to the oceans represents (1) an important process of the global denudation system, (2) an important component of global biogeochemical cycles, and (3) an essential constituent of freshwater ecosystems, critical to habitat heterogeneity and ecological functioning. However, when anthropogenic activities cause a significant deviation in the dynamics of particulate matter (PM) from ‘natural’ or ‘reference condition’ dynamics, this can cause ecological degradation (Bilotta and Brazier, 2008; Bilotta et al., 2012). Ultimately, this can lead to a significant decline in the associated freshwater ecosystem services, estimated to have a global value in excess of $1.7 trillion per annum (Costanza, 1997). It is therefore essential that PM, which is one of the most commonly attributed causes of water quality impairment globally is managed in order to minimise these impacts.

Increasingly, freshwater managers and policy-makers are seeking conservation measures that will protect and improve biodiversity whilst minimising the costs and social impacts on users and inhabitants of catchments (Turak and Linke, 2011). This includes minimising the costs associated with conventional monitoring of water quality parameters such as PM. Conventional monitoring of physico-chemical water quality parameters can be relatively expensive and time-consuming; there are tens of parameters that could be analysed, and sampling must be frequent enough to ensure that the values obtained are representative of the long-term exposures. Recently, there has been a shift away from these conventional monitoring approaches, towards approaches that focus on low-frequency (lower-cost) biomonitoring techniques, defined broadly as “the use of biota to gauge and track changes in the environment” (Friberg et al., 2011). This type of approach relies on being able to predict the expected fauna and/or flora for a site if it were in reference condition, i.e. minimal anthropogenic disturbance. Where the biological community composition deviates significantly from that expected if the site was in reference condition, then the presence and abundance of certain species or assemblages of species, can provide information on the likely causes of the deviation from the reference condition community composition, allowing for conventional monitoring and management resources to be targeted.

This studentship will develop a biomonitoring tool that can be used to identify and quantify the magnitude of PM pollution (with uncertainty estimation) in a range of environments, based on measurement of the abundance of certain invertebrate species - building on a technique proposed by Extence et al., (2011). This will be extremely valuable to those involved in the implementation of international water quality legislation such as the EU Water Framework Directive, saving millions of pounds in monitoring costs in comparison with traditional high-resolution monitoring/sampling approaches and improving the efficiency and effectiveness of compliance with environmental legislation.

The student will spend approximately 80 % of their time based at the Aquatic Research Centre (www.brighton.ac.uk/aquaticresearch/) at the University of Brighton (UoB) where their national and international field research will be complemented by state-of-the-art, multi-million pound laboratory facilities. The selected student will spend approximately 20 % of their time integrated within the Environment Agency, where they will receive specialist skills training in: (1) Biological sampling and environmental data collection, (2) Species identification and taxonomy, and (3) Empirical/statistical model/metrics that are used by the Environment Agency to help deliver their environmental regulation duties. The student will also be supervised by Prof Brazier at the University of Exeter (UoE), and will be able to utilise the world-class sediment research facility in the Department of Geography when appropriate.

You must have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in a relevant subject.

Existing invertebrate taxonomy skills would be advantageous, although training will be provided. Owing to the fieldwork requirements of this research, it is essential that applicants possess a full UK driving license.

Interviews are scheduled for the 1st May 2013.

Funding Notes

The studentship will cover a stipend at the standard Research Council rate enhanced with a £1000 top-up funded by the Environment Agency (equivalent to a total of approximately £14,726 per annum for 2013-2014), in addition to research costs and tuition fees at the UK/EU rate for students who meet the residency requirements outlined by NERC (see http://www.nerc.ac.uk/funding/available/postgrad/eligibility.asp ). Students from EU countries who do not meet the residency requirements may still be eligible for a fees-only award.

Further application details are available from Sarah Longstaff in the Doctoral College on +0044(0)1273 641105 or [Email Address Removed].


Bilotta, G.S., Brazier, R.E., 2008. Understanding the influence of suspended solids on water quality and aquatic biota. Water Research 42 (12), 2849-2861.
Bilotta, G.S., Burnside, N., Cheek, L., Dunbar, M., Grove, M.K., Harrison, C., Joyce, C.B., Peacock, C. and Davy-Bowker, J., 2012. Developing environment-specific water quality guidelines for suspended particulate matter. Water Research 46 (7) 2324-2332.
Costanza, R., d’Arge, R., de Groot, R., Farber, S., Grasso, M., Hannon, B., Limburg, K., Naeem, S., O’Neill, R.V., Paruelo, J., Raskin, R.G., Sutton, P., van den Belt, M., 1997. The value of the World’s ecosystem services and natural capital. Nature 387, 253-260.
Extence, C.A., Chadd, R.P. England, J., Dunbar, M.J., Wood, P.J., Taylor, E.D., 2011. The assessment of fine sediment accumulation in rivers using macro-invertebrate community response. River Research and Applications, 29 (1) 17-55.
Friberg, N., Bonada, N., Bradley, D.C., Dunbar, M.J., Edwards, F.K., Grey, J., Hayes, R.B., Hildrew, A., Lamouroux, N., Trimmer, M., Woodward, G., 2011. Biomonitoring of human impacts in freshwater ecosystems: The good, the bad and the ugly. Advances in Ecological Research 44: 1-68.
Turak, E. and Linke, S., 2011. Freshwater conservation planning: an introduction. Freshwater Biology 56 (1) 1-5.

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