Reconfiguring seascapes in the Anthropocene: Assessing how connectivity pathways maintain biodiversity


To apply please use the online application form. Simply search for PhD Marine Science (and select the entry point of October 2023), then clearly state that you are applying for a PhD studentship and name the project at the top of your personal statement.

Online application

Before applying, please ensure you have read the Doctoral College’s general information on applying for a research degree.

For more information on the admissions process please contact

Director of Studies: Dr Antony Knights
2nd Supervisor: Dr Louise Firth
3rd Supervisor: Professor David Bilton
4th Supervisor: Professor Kerry Howell 
Applications are invited for a 3.5 years PhD studentship. The studentship will start on 01 October 2023.
Project description

Scientific background
Anthropogenic activities are changing ecosystems worldwide - manifested as mass extinctions, loss of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. These impacts are driven, in part, by replacement of natural habitats with man-made structures, resulting in lost/reduced coherence of ecological networks as landscapes become increasingly fragmented and reconfigured. Several international policies (e.g. Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD); UN Decade of Action) call for solutions to reverse biodiversity decline and promote sustainable development, but our understanding of how habitat reconfiguration/fragmentation disrupts the dispersive networks that are fundamental to the maintenance and persistence of existing biodiversity/marine communities remains a largely unexplored topic and a NERC research priority.
This studentship will explore ecological connectivity in marine systems and significantly advance understanding of the role of multi-species dispersal in biodiversity maintenance and functioning across seascapes. Expected outcomes include a better theoretical understanding of the drivers of change in biodiversity and community structure, in turn informing applied conservation practices. To address this challenge, the student will draw on remote-sensed data to undertake habitat modelling, have the opportunity to undertake field surveys to describe the distribution of contemporary marine communities, and develop highly sought-after numerical/analytical skills in ecological/hydrodynamic modelling to predict dispersal and construct ecological networks in European coastal seas. 
Based in the School of Biological and Marine Sciences at the University of Plymouth (recently ranked global #1 in Sustainable Development Goal 14 'Life Below Water'; Times Higher Impact Rankings 2021), you'll join an established and vibrant research group of undergraduate and postgraduate students associated with the supervisors, and a wider welcoming community of staff and students. During the project, you will build independence and expertise through research leadership including project management and scientific communication (i.e. publications, conference presentations) and receive project-specific bespoke training in field sampling, marine taxonomy, numerical methods, experimental design/statistics, ecological/hydrodynamic modelling from all of the supervisory team, the host (UoP) and collaborative (Met Office) institutions, and wider training from the ARIES DTP training schemes. 
Person specification
Applicants should have a first degree in marine biology/ecology, oceanography or related discipline. Desirable skills include numeracy, programming, statistics (e.g. R/Matlab). 
Funding notes
This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC DTP and will start on 1 October 2023.
Successful candidates who meet UKRI’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship for 3.5 years, covering fees, stipend (£17,668 p.a. for 2022-23 rate) 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
Please clearly state the name of the studentship project code KNIGHTS_P23ARIES that you are applying for on your personal statement.
If you wish to discuss this project further informally, please contact the Director of Studies Dr Antony Knights.
Please see our 'how to apply for a research degree' page for a list of supporting documents to upload with your application.
For more information on the admissions process generally, please contact
The closing date for applications is 23:59 (UK Time) 11 January 2023. 

Some relevant literature

1 Firth L.B. et al. including AM Knights (2021) Specific niche requirements underpin multidecadal range edge stability but introduce barriers for climate change adaptation. Diversity and Distributions 27(4): 668-683.

2 David C.L., Marzloff M., Knights A.M., Cugier P., Nunes F.L.D., Cordier C.,Firth L., and S. Dubois (2022) Connectivity modelling informs metapopulation structure and conservation priorities for an intertidal reef-forming species. Diversity and Distributions.

3 James M., Polton J., Brereton A., Howell K., Nimmo-Smith A. and A.M. Knights (2019) Reverse engineering field-derived vertical distribution profiles to infer larval swimming behaviors. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 116 (24): 11818-11823.

4 Jupe L.L., Bilton D.T. and A.M. Knights (2020) Do differences in developmental mode shape the potential for local adaptation? Ecology 101(3): e02942.

5 Muir A.P., Dubois S.F., Ross R.E., Firth L.B., Knights A.M., Lima F., Seabra R.Corre E., Le Corguillé G. and F.L.D. Nunes (2020) Seascape genomics reveals population isolation due to ocean circulation patterns in the reef-building honeycomb worm, Sabellaria alveolata. BMC Evolutionary Biology 20.