Connectivity between pelagic and benthic habitats as an indicator of biodiversity status


Biodiversity management strategies apply a holistic ecosystem-based approach to achieving good environmental status in marine waters. This approach requires the development and monitoring of ecosystem indicators towards environmental targets. Plankton and intertidal organisms are sensitive to climate change and are now used in the UK and EU as biodiversity policy indicators to show shifts in community dynamics. Although indicators have been developed separately for benthic and pelagic ecosystem components, integration between these parts of the ecosystem is lacking and an indicator of connectivity between the two habitats is needed to implement a holistic and functional approach to ecosystem-based management. Time-series data have revealed long-term climate-driven changes in benthic-pelagic connectivity and can be used to understand the signals from both direct human pressures, such as fishing and nutrients, and climate change. Novel analysis of unique multi-decadal datasets of intertidal invertebrate and plankton time-series will enable development for the first time of such a benthic-pelagic connectivity indicator to support marine biodiversity policy.
Three research questions will be investigated: 1) Is the major increase in meroplankton across the NW European shelf driven by/reflected in changes in the intertidal benthic fauna?; 2) Is changing prevalence/intensity of extreme events reflected in similar ways by benthic intertidal fauna and by meroplankton?; 3) What is a suitable indicator(s) to assess whether the coupled pelagic/benthic system is moving towards or away from good environmental status?


This project will quantify relationships between meroplankton and intertidal organisms using an existing database of 18 plankton time-series as well as intertidal data from the most spatio-temporally extensive time-series for rocky intertidal ecosystems globally. The plankton database hosts all plankton time-series datasets used in UK and northeast European biodiversity assessment, but analysis will initially focus on data from the UK before expanding to the wider NW European shelf.
Datasets will be analysed using Python and R with a combination of statistical models (GAMs, GLMs, time-series analysis, and spatial techniques, building on previous methodological. Climate and human pressure (nutrients, fishing pressure) datasets will be used to identify drivers of change in ecological time-series via random forest modelling and machine learning. Results will form an indicator of benthic-pelagic connectivity for policy assessment, which is a current gap in policy biodiversity assessments and reporting. 

Student training and opportunity

We are looking for a candidate with a degree in Marine Science (or similar) and an interest in understanding and communicating marine biodiversity change. Working within the Marine Research Plymouth (MRP) framework, the student will have full mobility across the three MRP institutes (University of Plymouth, Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Marine Biological Association) thus tapping into their complementary strengths, datasets, personnel, research infrastructure at the interface of plankton, policy, and communication. The student will receive training in science-policy communication, spatial-temporal analysis of large datasets, plankton sampling, analysis, and taxonomy, and statistical techniques. They will collaborate closely with UK and European Pelagic Habitat Expert Groups, which will support technical and ecological aspects of indicator development and policy application. 

Key papers by supervisory team

  1. McQuatters-Gollop, A., et al. (2022). Ecological Indicators 
  2. McQuatters-Gollop, A., Atkinson, A., Johns, D. G., et al. (2019). Ecological Indicators, 
  3. McQuatters-Gollop, A., et al. (2019). Frontiers in Marine Science 
  4.  Mieszkowska, N., et al. (2014). Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences
Should you have any questions regarding the position, please contact Abigail McQuatters-Gollop

Supervisory team