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PhD Studentship: High-resolution Monitoring of Marine Vertebrates in Changing Polar Oceans with eDNA, NERC GW4+ DTP PhD Studentship for 2022 Entry, PhD in Discipline

University of Exeter - Living Systems Institute

Qualification Type: PhD
Location: Exeter
Funding for: UK Students, EU Students
Funding amount: Tuition fees and stipend for 3.5 years (currently £15,609 p.a. for 2021/22)
Hours: Full Time
Placed On: 21st October 2021
Closes: 10th January 2022
Reference: 4237

Funding: Also entitled to a research budget of £11,000 for an international conference, lab, field and research expenses and a training budget of £3,250 for specialist training courses and expenses.

Location: Streatham Campus, University of Exeter, Exeter, Devon

Lead Supervisor

Dr Adam Monier, Biosciences, Living Systems Institute, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisors

Dr Kirsten Thompson, Biosciences, University of Exeter

Dr Jennifer Jackson, British Antarctic Survey

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science http://nercgw4plus.ac.uk/

Project background

Climate changes are particularly pronounced in the polar regions, precipitating widespread range shifts, invasions of new species and losses of others. These changes present significant challenges for managers responsible for implementing conservation measures for marine vertebrates; a suite of biomonitoring strategies is required to help manage marine resources and monitor biodiversity. Furthermore, polar regions provide extreme and expensive field conditions for researchers with many understudied species and a dearth of knowledge on ecosystem functioning.

Environmental DNA (eDNA) monitoring is one strategy that could provide a rapid, non-invasive tool to characterise polar vertebrate biodiversity. Routinely used in, for example, freshwater ecology, eDNA is currently an underdeveloped method for monitoring marine animals and represents a powerful resource for unveiling the biogeography of vertebrates in changing polar seas. Other monitoring methods (e.g., visual survey, bioacoustics, biologging) are spatially limited and expensive because they often require extensive ship time and expert knowledge. In many cases, traditional methods do not provide high-resolution taxonomic classification and are not effective in evaluating taxonomically cryptic, elusive or undescribed species. eDNA monitoring could prove to be an effective tool to fill these data needs; however, the large volume of sequence data that it provides is challenging to analyse at the community level.

The demand for practical tools that can provide marine biomonitoring in remote regions is increasing and eDNA monitoring could be a key part of marine protected area designation and evaluation. Current eDNA-based methods focus on providing a catalogue of taxa, but rarely generate information on intraspecific community diversity or resilience, nor are they developed to permit systematic monitoring. There is a need for a suite of processing tools that help bridge the gap between academia and policymakers.

Recent expeditions by Greenpeace, in collaboration with SPYGEN (www.spygen.com) and the University of Montpellier (France), collected 100+ samples from polar regions and an additional 40 from temperate and tropical waters (Sargasso Sea, Southeast Atlantic, Indian Ocean) generating mitochondrial 12S sequence datasets for mammals, teleost and elasmobranch (Figure 1A).

Project aims and methods

We will use bioinformatic procedures based on sequence-level classification to maximise the utility of eDNA datasets for biomonitoring to inform the future implementation of eDNA biomonitoring in relation to marine biodiversity management (Figure 1B).

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