Do complex signals help structure intertidal communities? Chemical ecology of patellid limpet mucus


Chemical communication is one of the major drivers in community structuring, but its role in intertidal systems is poorly understood. Limpets are key species on rocky shores and their grazing activity plays a critical structuring function. The drivers behind species-specific limpet spatial structuring remain poorly understood. Mucus is very important in limpet ecology and is used for adhesion, navigation, feeding and undoubtedly chemical communication. 
Some research has been conducted on the physiological importance of mucus in the common limpet Patella vulgata, but almost nothing is known about the mucus’ chemical composition and its role in intra- and interspecific interactions with congeners P. ulyssiponensis and P. depressa. In the UK, these three species recruit into rockpools, but as adults they have disjunct distributions on the shore. P. vulgata and P. depressa migrate out of their nursery rockpools and establish homescars on emergent rock, but P. ulyssiponensis typically remains in rockpool and wet low-shore habitats throughout its lifetime.

The project

This project will study the drivers of intra/interspecific interactions in UK limpets, which are central in ecosystem structure and functioning. Understanding how hidden chemical cues may structure this critical ecosystem is vital in deciphering how intertidal communities function, and how they may be impacted by impending environmental change. This will be achieved by: 
  1. Characterisation of limpet ecological and biological traits: substrate preference, spatial distribution, site fidelity, diet, territoriality and mucus production patterns.
  2. Chemical characterisation of limpet mucus: measurement of protein, lipid and carbohydrate content and study of chemical fingerprints through novel ‘omics’ approaches (i.e. metabolomics).
  3. Studying the ecological (chemical) activities of limpet mucus through a series of field and aquaria experiments.

Student training and opportunities

The student will be supported by an experienced supervisory team and have access to excellent laboratory and aquarium facilities along with a huge range of outstanding fieldwork sites throughout the South-West. Training will be provided in field survey techniques, manipulative field experiments, animal husbandry and biochemical analyses including metabolomics. The student will also have the opportunity to participate in national or international training courses and conferences. 
We welcome applicants with a degree in a relevant discipline (biological, environmental or marine sciences) with an interest in field work and novel 'omics' approaches. 

Other collaborators

Professor Stephen J. Hawkins, National Oceanography Centre, University of Southampton and the Marine Biological Association of the UK.