Quantifying the role of deep-sea animal forests in the blue carbon budget

For any generic questions on ARIES, studentships and selection processes, prospective applicants should contact Professor Dave Bilton for projects in School of Biological and Marine Sciences and Professor Gregory Price for School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences.

For specific details on individual projects, please contact the project's primary supervisor.


Professor Kerry Howell

Dr David Barnes (British Antarctic Survey)

Professor Martin Attrill

Professor Louise Allcock (National University of Ireland Galway)

To apply please use the online application form, simply search for PhD Marine Science and clearly state that you are applying for an ARIES PhD studentship and name the project SOBMS-1022-S1-P3 (ARIES, Howell), at the top of your personal statement.

Online application

Whilst you can apply for up to three ARIES projects, you must submit a separate application for each.

Take a look at the Doctoral College information on applying for a research degree.


Professor Kerry Howell

Dr David Barnes (British Antarctic Survey)

Professor Martin Attrill

Professor Louise Allcock (National University of Ireland Galway)

Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)


Project details

The role of marine ecosystems in global carbon storage and burial is a topic of considerable interest given the urgent need to address the climate crisis. The ‘Blue Carbon’ concept considers all the biological carbon captured by marine living organisms, and represents over half of all biologically captured carbon. While much research has been focused on coastal angiosperm and algal dominated systems, the importance of animals in mediating biogeochemical processes and their effects on carbon storage and exchange have been noted. Recently the role of coastal marine animal forests as potential carbon sinks has been highlighted. The coastal environment represents only a fraction of the ocean. Most of the ocean (~90%) is considered deep sea. Within the deep-sea biome the presence of various animal forests is well documented. These animal forests tend to be dominated by long-lived black, bamboo, and gorgonian corals, or large structure forming sponges. The potential role of deep-sea animal forests in the carbon budget is largely unknown, but the vast size of the deep-sea ecosystem suggests that role may be significant.


Project aim

This studentship will focus on providing the first estimates of the role of deep-sea animals in the carbon budget using a range of lab, deep-learning, and modelling techniques. The student will quantify the organic carbon content of selected deep-sea species, apply deep-learning techniques to deep-sea image and video analysis to generate species density datasets, model the density of species at the Atlantic basin scale, and map the spatial distribution of carbon sinks assessing MPA importance. Depending on their background the student may receive training in lab based skills, ecology and taxonomy, computer vision, machine learning, R and / or Python programming, habitat suitability modelling and ArcGIS. A degree in either an ecological field or highly numerate field e.g. mathematics is required.


Person specification

We are looking for someone with a strong mathematical background and a demonstrable capacity to learn new skills and adapt their knowledge to new situations. Skills in use of statistical and / or computational models (for example one or more of the following - GLMS, GAMS, machine learning, convolutional neural networks) are essential.


Funding notes

This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC DTP and will start on 1 October 2022.

Successful candidates who meet UKRI’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship for 3.5 years, covering fees, stipend (£15,609 p.a. for 2021-22) and research funding. International applicants (EU and non-EU) are eligible for fully-funded UKRI studentships.

ARIES students benefit from bespoke graduate training and £2,500 for external training, travel and conferences.

ARIES is committed to equality, diversity, widening participation and inclusion. Academic qualifications are considered alongside non-academic experience. Our recruitment process considers potential with the same weighting as past experience.

For information and full eligibility visit https://www.aries-dtp.ac.uk/


Barnes DKA, Sands CJ (2017) Functional group diversity is keyto Southern Ocean benthic carbon pathways. PLoS One, 12(6), 1–14.https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0179735

Barnes DKA, Sands CJ, Richardson A, Smith N, (2019)Extremes in Benthic Ecosystem Services; Blue Carbon Natural Capital ShallowerThan 1000 m in Isolated, Small, and Young Ascension Island’s EEZ. Front. Mar.Sci. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2019.00663

Piechaud N, Culverhouse PF, Hunt C, Howell KL. (2019)Automated Identification of benthic epifauna from images using computer vision.Marine Ecology Progress Series. 615, 15-30.

Howell, K.L., Piechaud, N., Downie, A.L. and Kenny,A., (2016). The distribution of deep-sea sponge aggregations in the NorthAtlantic and implications for their effective spatial management. Deep SeaResearch Part I: Oceanographic Research Papers, 115, pp.309-320.

Coppari, M,Zanella, C, Rossi, S. (2019) The importance of coastal gorgonians in the bluecarbon budget. Nature Scientific Reports 9, 13550