The future of shelf ecosystems (PhD position)

Supervisors: Dr Daniela Schmidt, Dr Emily Rayfield and Prof Juliet Brodie (NHM London)

The ocean serves us in many ways, from regulating climate to providing food, livelihood and recreation. These services are increasingly impacted by a growing number of environmental stressors such as warming, acidification, and deoxygenation, and more locally fishing, trawling, eutrophication, and pollution (Turley et al., 2010). While previous work was able show that species can calcify even in a warmer more acidic ocean (Ragazzola et al., 2012) few have addressed the question if thinner, less dense skeletal structure will allow these organisms to fulfil their role in the marine ecosystem, provide habitats for other organisms and livelihoods for people.

Shallow water, shelf ecosystems strongly depend on a few keystone species which provide nursery grounds and habitats for other species. The project will focus on economically important (Cooley et al., 2012) species: abalone, bivalves and coralline algae from regions highly susceptible to environmental change (Wootton et al., 2008). The project will combine historical specimens collected before major changes in the ocean’s environment happened, specimen from experiments simulating future oceans, and samples from environments with naturally different drivers to address the question will these organisms lose the ability to build a strong three dimensional structure? Will a thinner shell/skeleton be more susceptible to boring by other organisms and hence make them more vulnerable? Will a weaker structure shorten life span and alter reproductive output?

The student will perform high resolution chemical and structural mapping using Electron Microprobe Analysis (EMPA) and Electron Backscatter Diffraction (EBSD). The student will determine material properties, generate 3D models using tomography (Ragazzola et al., 2012) and use finite element modelling (Rayfield, 2007) to assess if warming/OA makes these organisms structurally weaker and hence more prone to boring, wave destruction etc or if a change in structure will affect the functioning of the organism in its ecosystem. This unique set of skills and novel approach will allow testing if a future warmer, more acidic and less oxygen rich ocean will still have habitat for invertebrates, nursery grounds for fish along the coast, provide livelihoods and protection for our shorelines.

The student will be training ecology and biology of the model organisms and cutting edge analytical techniques such as EBSD, EMPA and FAE. The involved analytical and modelling skills are highly transferable to a wide range of jobs. Furthermore the student will get a solid overview of marine ecology and physiology including biomineralisation. The student will be part of the vibrant Palaeobiology group and linked to the Bridge climate modelling group. The supervisors are part of the UK Ocean acidification research program which will enable to student to participate in any additional training offered via the program.

  • Cooley, S.R., Lucey, N., Kite-Powell, H., Doney, S.C., 2012. Nutrition and income from molluscs today imply vulnerability to ocean acidification tomorrow. Fish and Fisheries 13, 182-215.
  • Ragazzola, F., Foster, L.C., Form, A., Anderson, P.S.L., Hansteen, T.H., Fietzke, J., 2012. Ocean acidification weakens the structural integrity of coralline algae. Global Change Biology 18, 2804-2812.Rayfield, E.J., 2007. Finite element analysis and understanding the biomechanics and evolution of living and fossil organisms, Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, pp. 541-576.
  • Turley, C., Eby, M., Ridgwell, A.J., Schmidt, D.N., Findlay, H.S., Brownlee, C., Riebesell, U., Fabry, V.J., Feely, R.A., Gattuso, J.P., 2010. The societal challenge of ocean acidification. Marine Pollution Bulletin 60, 787-792.
  • Wootton, J.T., Pfister, C.A., Forester, J.D., 2008. Dynamic patterns and ecological impacts of declining ocean pH in a high-resolution multi-year dataset. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 105, 18848-18853.

Bristol University. Web site.

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