Unravelling novel species interactions in human-impacted temperate marine communities

Primary supervisor: Dr Dan Smale, (Marine Biological Association). Email: dansma@mba.ac.uk

Secondary supervisor: Dr Andy Foggo (University of Plymouth)

Additional supervisors:

Dr Michael Cunliffe (University of Plymouth, Marine Biological Association).

Scientific background

Climate change and invasive species present two of the greatest threats to biodiversity, each has the potential to cause irreversible ecological damage. Global economic impacts of invasive species are estimated at US $1.4 trillion annually (5% of the global economy). 

There is rapidly growing evidence of how climate change is altering the distributions of species in the oceans;, as species move into new habitats they form novel interactions with other species and unique new communities. 

Understanding how species, communities and habitats are changing, and predicting how they will work in the future, is vital for ensuring the sustainable management of our coastal marine ecosystems. 

Kelps form extensive forests that provide food and shelter for a range of marine life, including commercially important stocks of crabs, lobsters and fish and provide fuel for inshore foodwebs. 

The distribution and structure of kelp forest habitats have been altered by climate change and the spread of invasive species, yet very little is known about the indirect effects these changes, particularly with regards to ecological interactions within these critical marine habitats.

Research methodology

This project will examine species interactions (both trophic and non-trophic) within novel kelp-dominated communities within a Special Area of Conservation (Plymouth Sound) and the wider region. 

Targeted surveys and manipulative field and laboratory-based experiments will be conducted to determine the strength and direction of ecological interactions within kelp forests. 

For example, the identity and density of kelp species will be manipulated and controlled, to examine competitive and facilitative interactions. It is currently unknown whether these species are in direct competition for resources (such as light and nutrients) or whether the presence of one species may be beneficial to another, by reducing stress caused by high temperatures and desiccation during spring low tides, for example. 

Similarly, trophic interactions will be examined by quantifying rates of direct grazing, detritivory and microbial decomposition on different kelp species. 

The co-existence of climate change ‘winners’, climate change ‘losers’ and non-native invasive species within this system provides an opportunity to experimentally test how observed and predicted changes in the abundance of kelp species will influence the nature and strength of ecological interactions within kelp forest habitats.


The successful applicant will receive broad training in ecological research techniques. They will be trained in experimental design, survey techniques, taxonomy, univariate and multivariate statistics, natural history and biochemical analysis. They will develop a thorough understanding of the ecology of temperate marine ecosystems and the impacts of global environmental change factors.

Person specification

Candidates must have an undergraduate degree in Marine Biology or Marine Ecology (minimum 2:1). Demonstrable experience of working in temperate marine ecosystems, undertaking scientific diving activities and handling ecological datasets would be desirable. 


This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC Doctoral Training Partnership. Undertaking a PhD with ARIES will involve attendance at training events.

ARIES is committed to equality & diversity, and inclusion of students of any and all backgrounds. All ARIES Universities have Athena Swan Bronze status as a minimum. 

Applicants from quantitative disciplines who may have limited environmental science experience may be considered for an additional three-month stipend to take appropriate advanced-level courses. 

Usually, only UK and EU nationals who have been resident in the UK for three years are eligible for a stipend. Shortlisted applicants will be interviewed on 26/27 February 2019. 

For further information please see www.aries-dtp.ac.uk or contact us at aries.dtp@uea.ac.uk.