Scale dependency of benthic biodiversity and ecosystem functioning

Prof Martin Solan, Dr Jasmin Godbold, Assoc Prof Julian Leyland, Dr Clement Garcia (CEFAS), Dr John Pinnegar (CEFAS)

Marine ecosystems and the societal services they support are currently experiencing dramatic alterations due to direct and indirect human impacts such as overfishing, pollution, habitat modification and anthropogenic climate change. Recent research has yielded a wealth of evidence to understand the consequences of biodiversity loss for ecosystem functioning, but our knowledge of the ecosystem responses that occur at larger temporal and spatial scales remains poor. Recent work has suggested that the gap between simplified small-scale experiments and the need to quantify complex large spatial and temporal scale processes could be bridged by using surrogates of ecosystem function, such as biological traits. Biological traits have been associated with multiple ecosystem functions, including carbon and nutrient cycling/storage, seafloor oxygen, primary and secondary production, sediment erodibility and prey access to higher trophic levels such as demersal fishes. This studentship will focus on using trait-based analyses of benthic communities to assess the contribution of species composition and diversity (richness, evenness) to wider ecosystem properties and, further, determine how species-environment interactions in the North Sea may respond to the long term effects of interacting human pressures and climatic forcing.


This studentship will combine relevant biological community data from the Cefas archive and online databases (e.g. OBIS) with historical records not yet available in electronic format  to document changes in ecosystem function over the past 70 years, with a specific focus on the North Sea and UK shelf. The student will use hindcasts from existing hydrodynamic models together with information on bathymetry and sediment characteristics, alongside historical and current biological records to ‘predict’ where species existed >70 years ago using a habitat suitability model developed at Cefas (Couce et al. Global Change Biology, 2013) and, where possible, georeferencing using museum specimens and fishery records. Projections forward in time will allow this ‘simulated’ habitat suitabilities to be compared with recent data to explore how ecological functions might have shifted in response to climate change and fishing pressure. In addition, the student will link the predicted shift in trait distribution with actual response from ecosystem functioning, such as the prey use by higher trophic level, using stomach content data as well as available field geochemical measurements. A series of mesocosm experiments with functionally important species will be performed for various climate change (warming and ocean acidification) scenarios to inform the relative weighting of traits under anticipated future conditions.


University of Southampton

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 National Oceanography Centre in Ocean and Earth Science. Specific training will include:

  • marine ecology, specifically biological trait determination
  • habitat suitability model, as well as Bayesian approaches in R
  • working with long-term, large spatial scale data
  • laboratory-based experimental skills in marine ecology, including experimental design and spatio-temporal data analysis techniques


The student will also gain important research skills such as scientific writing and oral presentation by presenting their research at international conferences/workshops as well as writing up their results in peer-reviewed journals. Through our partners at CEFAS, we also anticipate opportunity for outreach to decision-making and policy development fora, as well as having the opportunity to participate to the Cefas yearly “student-day” event which provide a platform for all Cefas-affiliated students to meet-and-greet with their fellow PhD students and Cefas senior scientists. We also anticipate opportunity to undertake a placement at Cefas for a short period of time.


Eligibility & Funding Details: 

Please check for details.  


Background Reading: 

Garcia, C., Solan, M., Bolam, S., Sivyer, D., Parker, R., Godbold, J.A. (2021) Exploration of multiple post-extinction compensatory scenarios improves the likelihood of determining the most realistic ecosystem future. Environmental Research Communications 3 (2021) 045001 (doi:10.1088/2515-7620/abf468)


Godbold JA, Hale R, Wood CL, Solan M. (2017) Vulnerability of macronutrients to the concurrent effects of enhanced temperature and atmospheric pCO2 in representative shelf sea sediment habitats. Biogeochemistry 135, 89-102. doi: 10.1007/s10533-017-0340-y.


Townhill BL, Tinker J, Jones M, Pitois S, Creach V, Simpson SD, Dye S, Bear E, Pinnegar, JK Harmful algal blooms and climate change: exploring future distribution changes. (2018) ICES Journal of Marine Science, doi:10.1093/icesjms/fsy113.