Disturbance and recovery of benthic habitats in submarine canyon settings

Dr Veerle Huvenne, Dr Jon Copley, Dr Andrew Gates, Tabitha Pearman, National Oceanography Centre

Project Overview 

This PhD investigates how submarine canyon benthic habitats and fauna cope with natural disturbance, and how this can be applied for conservation. The research aims to determine (1) the natural rate of change of canyon communities, (2) how they recover from disturbance, and (3) if active restoration can support conservation.

Project Description 

Submarine canyons are considered major biodiversity hotspots. Their complex terrain, oceanography and sediment transport processes, result in higher levels of natural disturbance than found in other deep-sea environments. Recent decades have also seen human disturbances, particularly from bottom trawling, much increased. A better understanding of ecosystem resilience and recovery is needed to support UK and international marine conservation and management efforts.


This PhD will focus on the Whittard Canyon system, including “The Canyons” UK Marine Conservation Zone, where extensive data are available from remotely operated vehicle (ROV) video and photography, and autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) bathymetry, including repeat observations at several locations. Key project aims include:

[1] Assess community composition change over time. Quantitative analysis of image data from several locations, surveyed in 2015 and 2022, will be interpreted against new knowledge about sediment transport and internal wave patterns in this canyon system.


[2] Quantify changes in small-scale habitat and individual species distribution patterns. Habitat maps will be created from repeat high-resolution mapping and photogrammetry data, to quantify change in habitat distribution and extent. Novel point pattern analysis from photogrammetry mosaics will quantify change in small-scale species distributions, and enable comparisons of individual specimens / colonies to inform on the health status of key ecosystem engineers.

[3] Analysis of colonisation experiments. There is increasing policy debate about the role of habitat restoration in marine conservation. This PhD will assess settlement experiments currently deployed in The Canyons MCZ, and new deployments planned under the new European project ‘REDRESS’. These will be photographed and/or recovered, to study colonisation, habitat recovery, and the potential role of restoration to support conservation objectives.




University of Southampton/National Oceanography Centre

The INSPIRE DTP programme provides comprehensive personal and professional development training alongside extensive opportunities for students to expand their multi-disciplinary outlook through interactions with a wide network of academic, research and industrial/policy partners. The student will be registered at the University of Southampton and hosted at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton. Specific training will include:

i) Quantitative image analysis and species identification; ii) GIS; iii) Habitat mapping, including using autonomous and robotic systems; iv) Numerical ecology and multivariate statistics; v) geological, sedimentological, and oceanographic processes of the continental margin; vi) working with in situ experiments (e.g., colonisation). The PhD will be linked to the CLASS programme, (https://projects.noc.ac.uk/class-project/) and its successor AtlantiS, and will provide networking opportunities with the wider submarine canyons research community (INCISE, www.incisenet.org), and international colleagues studying the Whittard Canyon system. The concept of the PhD is inherently multidisciplinary, and the candidate will have the opportunity to join offshore research campaigns or to spend time at a collaborating research institute. The student will gain policy experience through working closely with the CASE partner, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), the UK Government’s statutory nature conservation advisor. There will be opportunities to present scientific findings at a range of relevant scientific and policy forums.


Eligibility & Funding Details: 
Background Reading: 
  1. Amaro, T., Huvenne, V.A.I., Allcock, A.L., Aslam, T., Davies, J.S., Danovaro, R., De Stigter, H.C., Duineveld, G.C.A., Gambi, C., Gooday, A.J., Gunton, L.M., Hall, R., Howell, K.L., Ingels, J., Kiriakoulakis, K., Kershaw, C.E., Lavaleye, M.S.S., Robert, K., Stewart, H., Van Rooij, D., White, M., Wilson, A.M., (2016). The Whittard Canyon - a case study of submarine canyon processes. Progress in Oceanography, 146, 38-57. Doi:10.1016/j.pocean.2016.06.003
  2. Fernandez-Arcaya, U., Ramirez-Llodra, E., Aguzzi, J., Allcock, A.L., Davies, J.S., Dissanayake, A., Harris, P., Howell, K., Huvenne, V.A., Ismail, K., Macmillan-Lawler, M., Martin, J., Menot, L., Nizinski, M., Puig, P., Rowden, A., Sanchez, F., Van den Beld, I., (2017). Ecological role of submarine canyons and need for canyon conservation: a review. Frontiers in Marine Science, 4, 5 doi:10.3389/fmars.2017.00005
  3. Zelada Leon, A., Huvenne, V.A.I., Benoist, N.M.A., Ferguson, M., Bett, B.J., Wynn, R.B. (2020). Assessing the repeatability of automated seafloor classification algorithms, with application in Marine Protected Area monitoring. Remote Sensing, 12, 1572. Doi:10.3390/rs12101572