NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship - Marine connectivity in sea fans and soft corals - implications for conservation and the designation of Marine Protected Areas

University of Exeter - College of Life and Environmental Science

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). 

At least 4 fully-funded studentships that encompass the breadth of earth and environmental sciences are being offered to start in September 2017 at Exeter

The studentships will provide funding for a stipend which is currently £14,296 per annum for 2016-2017, research costs and UK/EU tuition fees at Research Council UK rates for 42 months (3.5 years) for full-time students, pro rata for part-time students.

We have previously studied two species of soft coral, the pink sea fan Eunicella verrucosa and dead man’s fingers Alcyonium digitatum (Fig. 1), from across the northeast Atlantic and developed novel genetic markers (microsatellites) for these species (Holland & Stevens, 2014).

Fig 1. Alcyonium digitatum and Eunicella verrucosa, Isles of Scilly (© J. Stevens)

We have demonstrated that populations of E. verrucosa around Britain and western Europe showed marked regional genetic structure (Fig. 2A). In contrast, samples of A. digitatum inhabiting approximately the same geographic area appeared to be in panmixia and exhibited no significant genetic population structure. However, while both species inhabit the waters of southwest Britain and Ireland, distribution maps indicate this area to be the northern limit for E. verrucosa, whilst it is the southern limit for A. digitatum. Genetic investigation of the possible drivers of population structure in E. verucosa identified two loci as being under selection; no evidence of selection was detected in A. digitatum. Critically, removal of the loci under selection resulted in disappearance of structure from the E. verucosa data set (Fig. 2B); this highlights the potential importance of local selection in driving apparent population structure. Whether the patterns of genetic structure observed are driven by connectivity/barriers to connectivity or by selection has major importance for the placement and spacing of marine protected areas (MPAs). This is especially true for the pink sea fan, and other IUCN listed species. Both species are thought to broadcast spawn, with larvae reliant on oceanic currents for dispersal, yet our findings suggest very different patterns of connectivity across the same geographical area. To date, very little is known about the basic biology of these creatures, with little or no knowledge of their ability to deal with thermal stress.

Fig 2. Principal coordinate analysis (PCA) and Bayesian clustering results (STRUCTURE) for Eunicella verrucosa based on microsatellite data. The PCA and STRUCTURE plots are shown (A) for all 13 loci (K=3) and (B) the 11 putatively neutral loci excluding loci under selection: Ever013 and Ever014 (K=2).

The proposed project will investigate the extent of selection driving genetic differences between populations of the two species, E. verucosa at the northern limit of its range, A. digitatum at its southern limit. We will explore fundamental differences in their basic biology to elucidate biological factors that might be contributing to the markedly different patterns of genetic structure observed, whether due to differences in connectivity or to selection. In the absence of published octocoral genomes, we will use RADseq to identify loci specific to geographical regions and/or under selection (at Exeter). The molecular analysis will be complemented by common garden experiments and heat stress exposures in a controllable marine mesocosm at PML.

The closing date for applications is midnight on 6 January 2017.  

Please see for further detail on how to apply

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South West England